Posted by Neil Paine on July 8, 2009
Let me ask you a question: Would you rather have Blake Griffin for the next 3 years, or 3 years of one of the 5 best players in basketball last year? How about one of the Top 10? One of the Top 20? In other words, how does the #1 pick typically fare during his 1st contract when compared to one of the league's best players from the year before he was drafted?
To answer this question, I'm going to use our old favorite SPM, since it's a rate stat and isn't so dependent on team performance as something like Win Shares (so as not to give the #1 pick, who often ends up on a bad team, an unfair disadvantage). We want to look at the cumulative SPM for each #1 pick in the lottery era vs. the top players from the year before, minimum 2,000 minutes (normalized to an 82-game schedule), over the following 3 seasons. Here are the results:
As fans, we like to think holding the #1 pick in the draft is the key to an instant turnaround, pointing to examples like the Spurs in '98 with Tim Duncan, the Cavs with LeBron James, and even the Magic last year with Dwight Howard. However, recent history shows that if given the choice between a proven veteran and a talented rookie for the next 3 years, the vet will give you better production, and it's not really a close contest. 67% of the time during the lottery era, you'd actually be better off with a veteran who had ranked between #26 & #30 in the league the previous season than you would with the #1 overall pick over the next 3 years. Only in the case of a select few first picks (LeBron James, Tim Duncan, Chris Webber, Shaquille O'Neal) would it have been a good idea to trade their first 3 seasons straight-up for the next 3 seasons of a player who ranked between 6-10 the year before, and for zero #1 picks would it have been advisable to trade a Top-5 talent from the prior season.
Meanwhile, the bust rate for #1s has been high, given expectations. It's not unfair to expect the top player in the draft to be at least an average player during his first 3 NBA campaigns, but almost as many of them (5) were below average as were worthy of swapping with the thirtieth-best player in the league from the year before. Some, like 1998 #1 Michael Olowokandi, even rank among the worst players in the game during their 1st 3 pro seasons. What this means is that when picking #1, your odds of ending up with a disappointment are actually better than your odds of grabbing a superstar!
This isn't to say that Blake Griffin, the Clippers' prize #1 pick this summer, is going to be a bust or a disappointment. But the point is that all too often fans expect a highly-touted rookie to be the catayst in a franchise-changing turnaround, when in reality very few high draft picks -- even those identified as the cream of the crop, the absolute most talented prospects going into the draft -- end up being significant impact players in their first three professional seasons. Griffin could always buck this trend like a Duncan or an LBJ, but if history is any indicator, the odds are definitely not in his favor.