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The Value of an NBA Draft Pick: Part III

Posted by Justin Kubatko on June 24, 2009

On Monday I assigned expected values to the top 60 picks in the NBA draft, both in terms of career value and value in their first four seasons, and on Tuesday I looked at some of the biggest draft busts since the merger. Today I am going to turn that around and look at some of the best draft picks in history.

Based on our career expected values, here are the players since the merger who exceeded their expectation by the most Win Shares (active players excluded):

+-----------------+------+------+------+-------+------+-------+
| Player          | Year | Team | Pick | WS    | EV   | Diff  |
+-----------------+------+------+------+-------+------+-------+
| Karl Malone     | 1985 | UTA  |   13 | 231.6 | 28.7 | 202.9 | 
| John Stockton   | 1984 | UTA  |   16 | 205.3 | 24.8 | 180.5 | 
| Michael Jordan  | 1984 | CHI  |    3 | 208.5 | 56.2 | 152.3 | 
| Reggie Miller   | 1987 | IND  |   11 | 172.4 | 31.8 | 140.6 | 
| Charles Barkley | 1984 | PHI  |    5 | 176.0 | 46.6 | 129.4 | 
| Clyde Drexler   | 1983 | POR  |   14 | 139.1 | 27.3 | 111.8 | 
| Jeff Hornacek   | 1986 | PHO  |   46 | 109.5 |  4.9 | 104.6 | 
| Larry Bird      | 1978 | BOS  |    6 | 144.8 | 43.2 | 101.6 | 
| David Robinson  | 1987 | SAS  |    1 | 177.1 | 76.9 | 100.2 | 
| Terry Porter    | 1985 | POR  |   24 | 112.7 | 17.2 |  95.5 | 
+-----------------+------+------+------+-------+------+-------+

As you can see, the dynamic duo of Malone and Stockton top the list. It's hard to believe that in back-to-back years the Jazz picked the players ranked 3rd and 5th, respectively, on the career Win Shares leader board without picking in the top twelve of the draft either year.

Seven of the players on this list would be considered superstars or near-superstars by most people, so let's take a closer look at the three players who are not:

  • Coming out of UCLA, Reggie Miller was more famous for being the brother of Cheryl Miller than anything else. However, over his 18-year career Miller made a name for himself by being one of the most efficient -- and clutch -- offensive players in NBA history. A four-time All-Star and three-time All-NBA Third Team selection, Miller finished his career with 172.4 WS, 87.5 more than the next-best 11th overall pick (Derek Harper).
  • A former walk-on at Iowa State, Jeff Hornacek was drafted in the 2nd round of the 1986 NBA Draft. Hornacek was a regular contributor coming off the bench in his rookie season, an occasional starter in his second season, and a regular starter by his third season. In the off-season following his first (and only) All-Star selection in 1992, Hornacek was dealt by the Sun to the 76ers. After a disappointing season and two-thirds in Philadelphia, Hornacek was traded to the Utah Jazz, where he finished his NBA career. Like Miller, Hornacek was a deadly shooter and an incredibly efficient offensive player,
  • Terry Porter was drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers out of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, which at the time was an NAIA school. By his second season Porter was the starting point guard for the Blazers, finishing fifth in the NBA in assists and 10th in steals. Porter helped lead the Blazers to two NBA Finals appearances (in 1990 and 1992) and was a two-time NBA All-Star (1991 and 1993). After spending ten years in Portland, Porter finished his career playing for the Timberwolves, Heat, and Spurs.

Now that we've examined the best picks in terms of career value, let's take a look at the best picks using just the first four years of a player's career:

+-----------------+------+------+------+------+------+------+
| Player          | Year | Team | Pick | WS   | EV   | Diff |
+-----------------+------+------+------+------+------+------+
| Chris Paul      | 2005 | NOH  |    4 | 53.7 | 17.8 | 35.9 | 
| Larry Bird      | 1978 | BOS  |    6 | 48.5 | 15.2 | 33.3 | 
| David Robinson  | 1987 | SAS  |    1 | 59.0 | 26.5 | 32.5 | 
| Michael Jordan  | 1984 | CHI  |    3 | 51.5 | 19.6 | 31.9 | 
| Manu Ginobili   | 1999 | SAS  |   57 | 32.5 |  1.0 | 31.5 | 
| Charles Barkley | 1984 | PHI  |    5 | 45.8 | 16.4 | 29.4 | 
| Cedric Maxwell  | 1977 | BOS  |   12 | 38.9 | 10.8 | 28.1 | 
| Kevin Johnson   | 1987 | CLE  |    7 | 41.7 | 14.2 | 27.5 | 
| Shawn Marion    | 1999 | PHO  |    9 | 39.1 | 12.7 | 26.4 | 
| Marques Johnson | 1977 | MIL  |    3 | 46.0 | 19.6 | 26.4 | 
+-----------------+------+------+------+------+------+------+

The stories of most of these players are well-known, but some people might not realize just how good both Cedric Maxwell and Marques Johnson were in their first four years in the league:

  • A star forward at UNC-Charlotte, where he led the 49ers to their first and only Final Four appearance, Maxwell was a key starter for the Boston Celtics 1981 and 1984 championship teams. After a rookie season in which he played in 72 games and averaged 16.8 minutes per game, Maxwell took a huge step forward in 1978-79, averaging 37.1 minutes, 19.0 points, and 9.9 rebounds per game while leading the NBA in field goal percentage. Despite Maxwell's accomplishments, the Celtics suffered through another dismal campaign, finishing 29-53. (The 1977-78 and 1978-79 seasons were, at the time, the worst in Celtics history.) However, the next season saw the arrival of one Larry Bird, and another Celtics dynasty was born. While Bird was no doubt the key to the Celtics revival, the contributions of players like Maxwell should not be overlooked. In 1979-80, Maxwell had another great season, averaging 34.3 minutes, 16.9 points, and 8.8 rebounds per game and leading the NBA in field goal percentage once again with a career-high of 60.9%. By the end of the 1980-81 season, Maxwell's fourth, the Celtics were NBA champions, and Maxwell had built an impressive resume: he had led the league in field goal percentage twice, finished in the top ten in Win Shares three times, and had been named the Finals MVP in 1981. Maxwell continued to be an important piece in the Celtics machine for four more seasons, but he never had another season that was at the same level as his second through fourth seasons, and prior to the 1985-86 season he was shipped to the Los Angeles Clippers in exchange for Bill Walton. Maxwell played a season and a half with the Clippers, then spent another season and a half with the Rockets before retiring following the 1987-88 campaign.
  • Johnson, a coveted All-America forward from UCLA, was chosen by the Milwaukee Bucks with the third pick in the 1977 NBA Draft. While being the third pick in the draft comes with hefty expectations, Johnson did not disappoint. His was named to the All-Rookie First Team in 1978, then followed that up with three straight All-NBA selections (one First Team, two Second Team). During his time in Milwaukee, Johnson's teams won five division titles, but the Bucks were not able to advance to the NBA Finals. Following the 1983-84 season the Bucks made a blockbuster trade with the Clippers, sending Johnson, Junior Bridgeman, and Harvey Catchings to Los Angeles in exchange for Terry Cummings, Ricky Pierce, and Craig Hodges. Although the Clippers were one of the worst franchises in the NBA (sound familiar?), Johnson was excited about playing in his hometown and looked forward to the opportunity to make the Clippers winners. Unfortunately, things did not go well. Johnson had by far his worst season as a pro in 1984-85, a season that saw the Clippers finish 31-51. Meanwhile, in Milwaukee, Cummings was named to the All-NBA Second Team, and the Bucks won yet another Central Division title. Johnson's play recovered the next season, as he was named to his fifth (and final) All-Star team, but the Clippers lost 50 games and finished with the worst SRS in the NBA. In 1986-87, the news went from bad to worse: ten games into the season, Johnson suffered a devastating neck injury that effectively ended his career, and the Clippers went 12-70, at the time just the second team in NBA history to lose 70 games.

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15 Responses to “The Value of an NBA Draft Pick: Part III”

  1. Mike G Says:

    Great writeup, Justin (though you did omit the 'Diff' column for the 4-year superpicks).

    Somehow, Best picks is a much more satisfying study than Worst. It feels more comprehensive, and in fact your Worst list didn't include guys with Zero WS (never played).

    Both Barkley and Jordan, and likely Stockton, would have been picked higher in a year that's weaker than the alltime-best draft class ('84).

    Why is it common perception that Hornacek's time in Philly was 'disappointing'? He's not a great 1st-option, he's not a point guard, and he's not Barkley.

    Has the scouting gotten much better in recent decades? The latest top 10 'career overachiever' was drafted 22 years ago. On the 4-year list, Chris Paul is the only one in this decade; 7 of 10 were pre-1988.

  2. Ryan Says:

    No, scouting hasn't gotten better - the cutoff for the career list is 1991, because everyone from that draft and before is no longer active. Just a few off the top of my head is Shaq (178.2 - 76.9 = 101.3), Kobe (138.8 - 28.7 = 110.1), and KG (157.7 - 46.6 = 111.1), and that's three of the top 12.

    I do disagree with how you ranked the "surprises", though - it's expected that a once-in-a-lifetime #1 pick will be one of the best players in the league for the next 10 years. I would rank people on a percentage increase: for instance, Malone gets an 8.07 (231.6/28.7), Robinson gets a 2.3, and Hornacek gets 22.35. This would show a bigger surprise and a bigger over-performance than a really good #1 pick.

  3. Craig B Says:

    This was an interesting article. I find it amusing, though, that the "first four years" criterion for evaluating draft picks exactly coincides with the portion of Kareem's career for which the stats required to calculate win shares do not exist.

    However, by comparing the stats that do exist for that part of his career, we find that they include four of his five best scoring years (in both points and ppg) and four of his five best rebounding seasons (again, both total and rpg). His highest remaining WS value was his fifth season, where he scored 18.0.

    Conservatively assigning him 18.0 for each of those four seasons, he would rank as the number one draft pick over his first four years. Adding those 72 WS to his career total, he would be +185 and change, to rank between the mailman and his feeder as the second greatest draft pick of the revised era, and with 262.2 WS the most valuable player overall.

    Of course, Wilt would completely annihilate all the rest if appropriate stats existed, so my whole argument is somewhat muted. But I continue to maintain that KAJ, not MJ, was the greatest basketball player of my lifetime. Now I have numbers to back it up!

  4. Justin Kubatko Says:

    Mike G wrote:

    Great writeup, Justin (though you did omit the ‘Diff’ column for the 4-year superpicks).

    Thanks, and I went back and added the "Diff" column to that table.

    Somehow, Best picks is a much more satisfying study than Worst. It feels more comprehensive, and in fact your Worst list didn’t include guys with Zero WS (never played).

    I mentioned the exclusion of players who never played in the NBA in part II:

    "In some sense the worst picks are the ones that never make it to the NBA, but for this exercise I am going to restrict my attention to players who played in the NBA."

    Why is it common perception that Hornacek’s time in Philly was ‘disappointing’? He’s not a great 1st-option, he’s not a point guard, and he’s not Barkley.

    Hornacek's efficiency took a big hit in Philly, and the 76ers lost 56 and 57 games in those two seasons, so I would call that disappointing.

  5. Justin Kubatko Says:

    Ryan wrote:

    No, scouting hasn’t gotten better - the cutoff for the career list is 1991, because everyone from that draft and before is no longer active. Just a few off the top of my head is Shaq (178.2 - 76.9 = 101.3), Kobe (138.8 - 28.7 = 110.1), and KG (157.7 - 46.6 = 111.1), and that’s three of the top 12.

    Actually, 1991 was the cutoff for building the model, but if someone debuted after 1991 and are no longer active then they were included in the career list. However, you're right that there are several active players who will crack this list when they decide to call it a career.

    I do disagree with how you ranked the “surprises”, though - it’s expected that a once-in-a-lifetime #1 pick will be one of the best players in the league for the next 10 years. I would rank people on a percentage increase: for instance, Malone gets an 8.07 (231.6/28.7), Robinson gets a 2.3, and Hornacek gets 22.35. This would show a bigger surprise and a bigger over-performance than a really good #1 pick.

    I thought about that, but I think there are drawbacks to that method as well. For example, the #56 pick in the draft has an expected value of 1.2 Win Shares. If he earns just 11 career Win Shares, he ends up being a bigger "steal" than Karl Malone. I wouldn't be comfortable saying that.

  6. Johnny Twisto Says:

    Scouting HAS gotten better, if only because more players are scouted more extensively now. There's film of almost every college basketball game now. The draft used to be 8 rounds or whatever because teams didn't know as much about all the players. I'm sure teams drafted some players whom they had never seen play, or had barely seen, but they put up some good numbers for Eastern Washington State so you take a chance and pick them.

    That Win Shares leaderboard should have a large disclaimer that it is only calculated since '73-'74.

  7. Gary C Says:

    Since Shaq is ahead of Robinson in WS and they are both #1's, should he be ahead on this list too?

  8. Dave Says:

    Justin,
    Most of the players on your list have long careers and would've shown up on your list if they had all been #1 picks (hard to do if you are in '84 Draft), I have seen Mike use WS/484 min to get WS as a rate rather than a cumulative total.
    Do you have an opinion on that? and if you agree could you consider adding it to your table of advanced stats :)

    One might ask why Jordan and Barclay weren't picked higher in their own draft ... Stockton I understand he is a short PG, and historically they have always been picked later.

  9. Dan G Says:

    "One might ask why Jordan and Barclay weren’t picked higher in their own draft … Stockton I understand he is a short PG, and historically they have always been picked later."

    Jordan was picked third due to the Blazers already having Clyde Drexler and being in need of a Centre and Barkley was under-sized for the PF position.

  10. Dave Says:

    Yes Dan, you seem to have picked up that those teams were drafting for specific needs, but any way you slice it Jordan was the best player. Essentially by the draft Portland thought Drexler and Bowie would be better than Drexler and Jordan or Jordan and whoever they could've turned Drexler into. And that isn't getting into Houston (who already had a decent young big in Ralph Sampson). My point is that it seems to be a BIG mistake to draft for need over talent at the top of the draft.

    I accept Barkley was undersized, but extremely productive, I can't see what stopped him going before Perkins or Bowie ... oh wait, those teams needed a C, not the best players...

    Actually part of the point in my last post was the fact that Jordan went 3rd and Barkley went 5th - so near the top of the draft, and personally I would've picked Hakeem over both of them every time - I just would be wrong.

  11. Mike G Says:

    Was Jordan really better than Olajuwon? Or did he just have a more consistent lineup? Would Jordan have teamed with Sampson, Reid, Wiggins, et al to reach the Finals in year 2? Would he have won more than 2 titles if he'd then lost his #2 to injury, and 3 of his next 5 to drug suspension?

    In the playoff games he got into, Olajuwon was better than anyone else of his generation. He won titles with a lot less help than Jordan had in either the first or 2nd 3-peat. Not to say MJ was just lucky, but he had better luck than Hakeem had.

  12. Anon Says:

    "Was Jordan really better than Olajuwon? Or did he just have a more consistent lineup?"

    Yes to both questions.

  13. Jason J Says:

    So wait, Michael Jordan missed practically his entire second season and is still top 4 on the list of players w/ the highest win shares above expectations in their first 4 seasons? Love it. Also that David Robinson, a #1 pick, is so high is really something (though coming into the league at his age and maturity probably helped).

  14. MCT Says:

    Interesting series of articles. One minor footnote to add: Larry Bird probably deserves an asterisk because of the unusual circumstances under which he was drafted.

    As many people know, the Celtics drafted Bird when he was a junior and had to wait a year to sign him. He was selected under a now-defunct draft rule called the "junior eligible rule". Under this rule, any college player for whom four years had elapsed since his high school class had graduated was eligible to be drafted. This was true even if he still he had college eligibility remaining and had expressed no interest in turning pro at this point (the player was automatically eligible, whether he wanted to be or not). The way the rule worked in 1978, if the player returned to college, the team only had his draft rights until the following year's draft. If the player hadn't signed by then, he would go back into the draft pool and was eligible to be drafted again. Thus, when the Celtics drafted Bird, not only did they have to wait a year for him, they had no guarantee that they would actually get him the following year. If they hadn't been able to sign him before the day of the 1979 draft, they would have lost their rights to him, with absolutely nothing to show for that #6 pick. (An earlier version of the rule had voided the player's draft rights as soon as he returned to college, but by 1978 the rights lasted until the following year's draft).

    Because of the risk involved in drafting a junior eligible, teams rarely used a high pick on one unless they were pretty sure the player was going to turn pro right away. Consequently, uncommitted junior eligibles were invariably selected at a lower draft position than they otherwise would have been (often much, much lower). From a talent standpoint, Bird was better than a #6 pick, and probably would have gone #1 or #2 overall had he re-entered the draft in 1979. The Celtics deserve credit for getting a player like Bird with a #6 pick, but the considerations that went into that selection (and to the five teams picking ahead of Boston deciding not to take Bird) were different from any other pick in this survey.

  15. Jake @ Jump Higher Says:

    Why Chris Paul is on the list but no Kobe Bryant and Lebron James?

    I think no matter where Jordan ends up, he still gonna win because of his killer instinct, and his character makes everyone around him better. Jordan's competitiveness is unmatched, just like Kobe. Watch the way they play and the intensity of their game.