How Valuable is the First Overall Section in the NBA Draft?
Every decade or so, a supposedly “can’t miss” prospect out of high school or a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I powerhouse attracts national attention and emerges as the crown jewel of a National Basketball Association (NBA) draft. For instance, in the 2000s, there was LeBron James, who was chosen first overall by Cleveland in the 2003 NBA draft. Likewise, in the 2010s, there is Andrew Wiggins, who was also selected first overall by the Cavaliers in the 2014 NBA draft (before being traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves prior to the 2014 to 2015 NBA season). Franchises that are able to get their hands on these generational talents—dubbed “program changers” by former Toronto Raptors General Manger (GM) Bryan Colangelo—can typically alter their fortunes in a hurry. Case in point, Cleveland, with 17 wins and 65 losses in the 2002 and 2003 season, finished last in the NBA standing (tied with the Denver Nuggets). Yet, even though the Cavaliers were in “full rebuilding mode” at the time, picking James first overall enabled the club to accelerate its progress in a non-linear fashion by rocketing the team from basement dwellers to not only legitimate contenders but a serious threat capable of contending for the title in only a few years. In fact, Cleveland reached the NBA Finals in the 2006-2007 season before bowing out to the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs in four games.
Still, being able to draft first overall is neither a necessary requirement nor a sufficient condition to winning championships as the recipe to a winning formula comes in various forms. Why? On one hand, in the 1980s, the consensus “program changer”—and arguably the best ever basketball player—is Michael Jordan, who guided the Chicago to six NBA titles via two separate three-peats within a span of eight seasons as the Most Valuable Player (MVP) of the NBA Finals: 1991 to 1993 and 1996 to 1998. Nevertheless, Jordan was chosen not first overall but instead third overall by the Bulls in the 1984 NBA draft. On the other hand, looking back, in the 1990s, the consensus “program changer” is Kobe Bryant, who led the Los Angeles Lakers to five NBA titles (a three-peat from 2000 to 2002 and a back-to-back from 2009 to 2010) en route to amassing more career regular season points than Jordan. Bryant was chosen a surprising thirteenth overall by the Charlotte Hornets (before being traded to the Lakers). All things being equal, however, teams prefer picking first simply because the probability of getting their hands on a “program changer” ought to be much better. But is this conclusion necessarily true when it comes to practice? Let us find out!
Rookie of the Year Winners:
Dating back to the inaugural NBA Draft in 1947, which include the three drafts held by the Basketball Association of America (BAA) from 1947 to 1949, there has been a total of sixty-nine first overall selections. To this date, this short list has produced twenty Rookie of the Year winners: (1) Ray Felix, chosen by the Baltimore Bullets in 1953; (2) Elgin Baylor, selected by the Minneapolis Lakers in 1958; (3) Oscar Robertson, picked by the Cincinnati Royals in 1960; (4) Walt Bellamy, drafted by the Chicago Packers in 1961; (5) Lew Alcindor, chosen by the Milwaukee Bucks in 1969; (6) Ralph Sampson, selected by the Houston Rockets in 1983; (7) Patrick Ewing, picked by the New York Knicks in 1985; (8) David Robinson, drafted by the San Antonio Spurs in 1987; (9) Derrick Coleman, chosen by the New Jersey Nets in 1990; (10) Larry Johnson, selected by the Charlotte Hornets in 1991; (11) Shaquille O’Neal, picked by the Orlando Magic in 1992; (12) Chris Webber, drafted by the Orlando Magic in 1993; (13) Allen Iverson, chosen by the Philadelphia 76ers in 1996; (14) Tim Duncan, selected by the San Antonio Spurs in 1997; (15) Elton Brand, picked by the Chicago Bulls in 1999; (16) James; (17) Derrick Rose, drafted by the Chicago Bulls in 2008; (18) Blake Griffin, chosen by the Los Angeles Clippers in 2009; (19) Kyrie Irving, selected by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2011; and (20) Wiggins. Based on this data, this means that the likelihood of getting a brand new NBA player who would go on to become the Rookie of Year after his first season is only 28.98% (20/69) keeping in mind that the 2016 Rookie of Year winner has not been announced at the time of my writing as the regular season does not end until 13 April 2016.
All-Star Game or All-NBA Team Selections:
Unlike the Rookie of the Year Award, it appears that the odds of unearthing a first overall pick being named to an All-Star Game or to an All-NBA Team fared better by a fair margin as forty-four players have been bestowed with such honours: (1) Felix; (2) Frank Selvy, drafted by the Baltimore Bullets in 1954; (3) Rod Hundley, chosen by the Cincinnati Royals in 1957; (4) Baylor; (5) Bob Boozer, selected by the Cincinnati Royals in 1959; (6) Robertson; (7) Bellamy; (8) Cazzie Russell, picked by the New York Knicks in 1966; (9) Jimmy Walker, drafted by the Detroit Pistons in 1967; (10) Elvin Hayes, chosen by the San Diego Rockets in 1968; (11) Alcindor; (12) Bob Lanier, selected by the Detroit Pistons in 1970; (13) Austin Carr, picked by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 1971; (14) Doug Collins, drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers in 1973; (15) Bill Walton, chosen by the Portland Trail Blazers in 1974; (16) David Thompson, selected by the Atlanta Hawks in 1975; (17) Earvin Johnson, picked by the Los Angeles Lakers in 1979; (18) Joe Barry Carroll, drafted by the Golden State Warriors in 1980; (19) Mark Aguirre, chosen by the Dallas Mavericks in 1981; (20) James Worthy, selected by the Los Angeles Lakers in 1982; (21) Sampson; (22) Hakeem Olajuwon, picked by the Houston Rockets in 1984; (23) Ewing; (24) Brad Daugherty, drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 1986; (25) Robinson; (26) Danny Manning, chosen by the Los Angeles Clippers in 1988; (27) Coleman; (28) Johnson; (29) O’Neal; (30) Webber; (31) Glenn Robinson, selected by the Milwaukee Bucks in 1994; (32) Iverson; (33) Duncan; (34) Brand; (35) Kenyon Martin, picked by the New Jersey Nets in 2000; (36) Yao Ming, drafted by the Houston Rockets in 2002; (37) James; (38) Dwight Howard, chosen by the Orlando Magic in 2004; (39) Andrew Bogut, selected by the Milwaukee Bucks in 2005; (40) Derrick Rose, picked by the Chicago Bulls in 2008; (41) Griffin; (42) John Wall, drafted by the Washington Wizards in 2010; (43) Irving; and (44) Anthony Davis, chosen by the New Orleans Hornets in 2012. Hence, statistically speaking, the odds of being able to select an NBA All-Star or a member of an All-NBA Team with the first overall pick is actually a generous 63.77% (44/69). One explanation as to why there is a 34.79% difference (63.77% – 28.98%) when we contrast the probability of yielding a Rookie of the Year versus finding a player who would make an All-Star Game or an All-NBA Team is because of the restrictive fact that there is only one player who can be named the Rookie of the Year in every given season whereas multiple players can become an All-Star Game or an All-NBA Team in any given season.
Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame:
Compared to the Rookie of the Year award and selections to All-Star Game or All-NBA Team, the likelihood of unearthing a future Hall of Famer is clearly lower. Among the aforementioned sixty-nine first overall selections, there are only fourteen players who are voted into Springfield and have be named to at least one All-Star Game: (1) Baylor, (2) Robertson, (3) Bellamy, (4) Hayes, (5) Alcindor, (6) Lanier, (7) Walton, (8) Thompson, (9) Johnson, (10) Worthy, (11) Sampson, (12) Olajuwon, (13) Ewing, and (14) Robinson. Thus, mathematically speaking, the success rate of being able to obtain the NBA rights of a future Hall of Famer by way of the first overall selection is a mere 20.29% (14/69).
Focusing on trends while using numbers as supporting evidence, there is at least some resemblance in the patterns that we see between the NBA and the NHL as well as between the NBA and MLB. With respect to the NBA and the NHL, the likelihood of choosing a NBA Rookie of the Year (28.98%) / NHL Calder Memorial Trophy winner (18.87%) is better than the odds of selecting a future NBA Hall of Famer (20.29%) / a future NHL Hall of Famer (13.21%)! As for the NBA and MLB, the chance of picking an NBA All-Star (63.77%) / MLB All-Star (45.10%) is better than the likelihood of drafting a NBA Rookie of the Year (28.98%) / MLB Rookie of the Year (5.88%), which in turn is better than the odds of choosing a future NBA Hall of Famer (20.29%) / a future MLB Hall of Famer (1.96%).
Similar to my earlier analysis with Major League Baseball (MLB) and the National Hockey League (NHL), the probability of being able to locate a “program changer” come across an imperfect science irrespective of how we scrutinize the sixty-nine first overall selections in past NBA drafts. Shall we just do random selections then when it comes to utilizing the first overall pick in the NBA draft?