Monday, May 15, 2006

Weak Draft?

The prevailing buzz says that this year's draft class will be pretty weak. Of course it's hard to tell because we haven't seen any camps or individual workouts yet. Even after those have passed, however, experts still disagree on the relative merits of the candidates. In general the collective stock of draftees tends to rise as the big day approaches because of our human tendency to want to be optimistic about the future. It's nearly guaranteed that draft-day coverage will include multiple uses of the phrase "He has a chance to become the next ________." At the same time there are experts who predict a "weak draft" every year. Internet records don't go back as far as 1984, but I bet there was a pundit somewhere that said, "After Olajuwon it's a pretty spotty group..." It's hard to sort through the mess of opinions. In the end, only time reveals the true answers.

I've noticed that in the absence of hard evidence of how good or bad a class is actually going to be, most folks default to rating the strength of a given draft by the star potential of its best player. If there's a Duncan or LeBron available, it's a good year to be drafting. If, like this year, nobody sticks out, the draft is "weak". I wanted to see if this held up, so I went through some recent drafts.

I started arbitrarily in 1990 because you have to start somewhere. I ended with 2003 because this was the year in which determining whether a player had "panned out" starting getting really fuzzy to the point of being purely speculative. For each draft I divided the players picked in the first round into the following categories:

"Star", defined by scoring in the high teens or above, being a league leader in another major statistical category, or being a significant part of a team that had great success. These range from your KG's to guys like Antawn Jamison.

"Decent", defined by having a long career, playing as a starter or significant bench guy, but not quite reaching the level of stardom. This could range anywhere from Bobby and Jim Jackson to Joel Przybilla and Uncle Cliffy. They're guys you wouldn't mind having on your team.

"Flop", which are the guys that never truly made the league or spent their years as 9th-12th men. You don't remember most of them.

I also divided the draft years into two categories: years with a consensus superstar on top ('92 with Shaq, '97 with Duncan, '03 with LeBron, and even '94 with "Big Dog" Glenn Robinson, who was considered huge stuff that year) and years without ('95 Joe Smith, '98 Michael Olowakandi, and even '99 with Elton brand, who was said to be a fall-back position "safe pick" for Chicago).

Of necessity the criteria in both categories are somewhat subjective, but for what it's worth, here's how it came out:

Years with a Superstar
Stars 19%
Decent 37%
Flops 44%

Years without
Stars 20%
Decent 49%
Flops 31%

Immediately you can see that the presence of a superstar doesn't guarantee anything about the rest of his compatriots. In fact there have been far more outright misses in years with a consensus #1 pick, while the level of star talent has remained basically the same.

If I had further divided the stars to differentiate the basically untradeable franchise players from just really good ones, we would find that 12 franchise players came from the eight "superstar" drafts, while only seven came from the "non-superstar" years. But even with that, many of those players (e.g. KG, Amare, Nash) were drafted with picks beyond the first.

Teams with the top four picks have fared even better than the average. At least 88% of top four picks either turn out to be stars or go on to have productive careers. Maybe they're not exactly what the drafting teams envisioned, but they still contribute.

What does this show us? That even in a year with no clear superstars, there's still a decent possibility of getting someone who makes a difference, possibly even a franchise-level guy. Yes, there have been drafts without those franchise players, but there have also been drafts when they were hidden. Just because the draft is classified as "weak" doesn't mean your star-in-waiting isn't there. And even if he's not, you can still get a good, career-long contributor. Like any other year, good scouting and high picks are the name of the game.

--Dave

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