The luck of the draw has saved the Cleveland Cavaliers yet again. Despite another season of bumbling mediocrity, the Cavs won the NBA draft lottery on Tuesday night, earning the first pick in the NBA draft on June 26. As well all know, this is the surest method of ensuring an immediate rise to the NBA’s championship elite. Just ask the … Cleveland Cavaliers?
It’s certainly amusing to make jokes about Anthony Bennett, the first pick in last year’s NBA draft, and suggest that the Cavs should have taken Nerlens Noel, knee injury or no. However, drafting NBA players, essentially projecting what unformed 18- to 22-year-olds will do with their basketball lives over the next decade or more, is a perilous activity. Injuries, off-the-court issues, poor work ethic, clashes with coaches, organizational turnover, rule changes affecting strategies and simply not being as good as originally thought all can contribute to a “can’t miss” prospect washing out of the league after his rookie contract, being traded several times or simply developing into a solid to very good player who years later might get described as “just a guy.”
In fact, looking back at the draft classes from 1995 (the first draft in which Vancouver — now Memphis — and Toronto participated) to 2010 (the draft in which the first-rounders have just completed their rookie-scale contracts), most players — even very high lottery selections — fall short of becoming perennial all-stars:
The categories were assigned only semi-scientifically from a starting point of a player’s Win Shares, with an adjustment for length of peak performance and a heavy emphasis on performance in the first “act” of a player’s career. P.J. Tucker and Patrick Beverley may be solid rotation pieces in Phoenix and Houston, respectively, but because they never had more than a cup of coffee with their original teams (Toronto and Miami, respectively), it’s hard to say that those teams gained any benefit from identifying a player who later became good. By necessity, players such as Brandon Roy, Yao Ming and sadly Derrick Rose have been down-rated by injuries.
Stars – players whose play is all-star or all-NBA level year after year.
Good Rotation – players who range from above-average starter to occasional and/or borderline all-stars.
Rotation – players who can be counted on to contribute at non-embarrassing levels at 20-plus minutes per night over several years.
Busts – guys who never really sustain even competent rotation level play.
All categories are irrespective of initial draft position, and for many players I placed them in between two categories. Assuming the league more or less turns over every 10 years, the percentages in the chart above work out to about 35 stars, 50 good rotation players and 110 regular rotation players in the league via the draft at any one time. Add in the players who come from outside the draft, or after they’ve been left for dead by their original team (Tucker or Beverley, for example), and that describes the makeup of the NBA reasonably well. In a way, this should give comfort to the league’s general managers, because there simply aren’t enough spots for all 60 guys drafted every year to stick.
You might ask why there is no separate category for “superstars”? This is intentional. For the purposes of draft discussion, especially when it addresses issues of “tanking” or “bottoming out” to secure a top pick, a mere all-star isn’t enough for the exercise to be worth it. Since 1995 , there have been between six and 10 of these truly transformative players picked. (In order: Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, LeBron James and Kevin Durant are locks, and you could talk me into one or more of Steve Nash, Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard or Chris Paul. Anthony Davis certainly seems a good candidate to get there, but isn’t yet.)
To put it another way, a team guts its roster, divesting itself of useful NBA-level talent (as many urged the Orlando Magic to do this year by selling Arron Afflalo for pennies on the dollar) in order to increase the likelihood of lottery “success.” They are fortunate enough to win the lottery and select a player who turns out to be Carmelo Anthony. But with all due respect to Melo’s talent and impact, such teams are usually more than a little disappointing and still several years and other moves from true relevance.
So while the Cleveland, Milwaukee and Philadelphia are rightly excited to be able to draft one of the top 3 prospects in Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid and Jabari Parker, history tells us that maybe Wiggins’s passivity and inability to finish at the rim in college will be a problem, or that Embiid’s lack of experience or possible chronic back injuries will prevent him from delivering on his Olajuwon-like promise, or that Parker may indeed be a tweener, not big enough to play down low and not quick enough to roam the perimeter at the NBA level. Are all these things true? Almost certainly not, but don’t be surprised if in three years one or more might just be.
It’s obviously better to be drafting at the top of the first round than the bottom of the second. But even with this year’s much-hyped draft class, some players simply won’t make it.
Seth Partnow lives in Anchorage, Alaska, with his wife, daughter and dog. He blogs about the NBA and related topics at WhereOffenseHappens.com. His work can also be found at Hickory-High.com and ESPN’s ClipperBlog.com, where he is a regular contributor. Seth can be reached on twitter @WhrOffnsHppns.