What is the success rate of a typical NBA Draft?

Jennifer Pottheiser/NBAE/Getty Images

Jennifer Pottheiser/NBAE/Getty Images

In less than 24 hours, the NBA Draft will commence and we will learn who will join the ranks in one of the most important lists in sports. Yes, the NBA is infamous for being a sport full of pompous royalty (it really doesn’t help that a Kobe Bryant can make close to three times as much salary playing basketball than Alex Ovechkin can playing hockey) and if your team does not have one franchise saving superstar, there is absolutely no point in watching them suffer defeat after defeat. You are certainly not at fault for thinking about this, but once your team has that superstar, the next step is how your team smartly develops a style and builds a supporting cast around him. With the NBA imposing harder salary cap rules in the latest collective bargaining agreement, finding cheap young key pieces in a teams rotation is huge in terms of building a title contender in the long term.

For the likes of Cleveland, Orlando and Washington hoping to find a superstar to finally lift their downtrodden franchises to NBA titles will be very hard to pull off. Players like Nerlens Noel, Alex Len and Ben McLemore either have limited potential or have major character flaws that will prevent them from hitting the heights that a Kevin Durant, LeBron James or Tim Duncan have. So like the NFL Draft last April when there was no standout quarterback, the NBA Draft is expected to be full of role players and above average starters. However, that doesn’t excuse general managers to take a nap on this draft class.

In recent years, the way basketball is played has changed so dramatically that teams without superstars but the right amount of chemistry and coaching can find a way to have really strong seasons (see this years Denver Nuggets and Indiana Pacers). The shooting guard has become such a diluted position that a soon to be 35-year old Kobe Bryant and 32-year old Dwyane Wade can find a way to be among the five best, injuries and all. Nowadays, all “2-guards” need to do is make the three point shot every single night, ala Stephen Curry. If that can’t happen (since shooting from three is one of the hardest skills in basketball), teams can find someone that is on a hot streak (hello Mike Miller) and ride him out for a stretch of the season.

Centers have also become expendable as ones that only need to defend the paint from fast driving guards and forwards and grab rebounds. That’s why players like Tyson Chandler and Marc Gasol have become very valuable over the years. If that center can’t do that, at least he can be one that will commit as many fouls as possible to frustrate an opponent from controlling the paint.

So what should we expect out of a typical draft class. Let’ have a look with this chart. Like always, the best way to observe the history of anything in sports is by looking at all the seasons during my lifetime.

Draft Class TOTAL PLAYERS 1 game 410 games 4100 points 1000 games 10000 points 50+ Win Shares
2012 60 49 0 0 0 0 0
2011 60 51 0 0 0 0 0
2010 60 49 0 0 0 0 0
2009 60 49 0 6 0 0 0
2008 60 50 0 9 0 0 0
2007 60 48 8 12 0 1 1
2006 60 52 11 8 0 0 1
2005 60 55 24 18 0 3 3
2004 59 46 23 15 0 5 5
2003 58 47 32 6 0 5 5
2002 57 48 21 15 0 4 5
2001 57 49 25 16 0 7 12
2000 58 50 21 14 0 4 3
1999 58 46 21 15 3 11 14
1998 58 56 26 20 5 9 7
1997 57 47 23 18 2 4 3
1996 58 47 25 20 4 11 12
1995 58 50 22 18 6 7 9
1994 54 45 19 14 3 7 7
1993 54 43 19 16 0 7 5
1992 54 48 26 21 3 6 8
1991 54 44 20 14 3 4 6
1990 54 52 24 17 2 4 6
1989 54 48 21 19 4 8 8
1988 75 58 28 24 2 7 8
1987 161 55 22 18 5 8 9

First things first, how messed up is it that the 1987 draft had seven rounds with 161 players taken? Of those 161 players, only 55 played one game in the NBA! No wonder the draft is only two rounds!!! Now let’s move on to more important points.

So no matter what happens from this draft class, it is clear from past drafts that it will be a horrible draft if less than 20 players do not find a way to have a sustainable career. In fact, the average number of players that have played the equivalent of five seasons in the NBA (410 games) from 1987 to 2005 is 23 and has never gotten lower than 19. In terms of how many turn out to be among the greatest or most valuable of all-time, it takes 13 seasons (1066 games) or to figure out how many of those guys come out every year. From 1987 to 2000, about three of those players reach 1000 games every year with plenty of variation every draft class. So we have to wait either eight years to see who can make it in the NBA or thirteen years to see who have a shot at being among the greatest of all-time to determine the success of an NBA draft class.

The next thing to observe is where the best players from the NBA draft come from. If we assume that about 20 players have a meaningful career per draft class, here is where those players are drafted from. The twenty best players from each draft class is based on career win shares on basketball-reference.com.

 Draft Class Top 14 picks 1st Round 2nd Round
2012 8 7 5
2011 10 7 3
2010 11 6 3
2009 7 6 7
2008 6 9 5
2007 8 9 3
2006 10 5 5
2005 9 5 6
2004 8 9 3
2003 7 6 7
2002 8 5 7
2001 10 6 4
2000 7 8 5
1999 10 9 1
1998 10 5 5
1997 11 6 3
1996 11 5 4
1995 10 7 3
1994 10 5 5
1993 11 5 4
1992 11 7 2
1991 11 5 4
1990 8 6 6
1989 10 6 4
1988 11 2 7
1987 11 4 5

From 1987 to 1999, the top 14 picks (known as the current lottery picks (first round picks that were initially given to teams that did not make the playoffs)) is the easiest way to get a top tier player in the draft. However, since 2000 the average amount of lottery picks that were among the twenty best in that draft class have dropped to 10.3 to 8.4 per year. Meanwhile, the number of late first round picks that were among the top-20 increased from 5.5 per year from 1987 to 1999 to 6.8 per year from 2000 to 2012. The amount of second round picks who made the top-20 also has increased from 4.1 per year to 4.8 per year during those same two eras.

So why has this been happening. Let’s start with the 2000 draft class that only had seven lottery picks among the top-20 in the draft class and only three players having over 50 career win shares (Hedo Turkoglo, Mike Miller and Michael Redd everyone!!!). Sure, the 1997 draft had the same small amount of players with 50 career win shares, but those three were Tim Duncan, Chauncey Billups and Tracy McGrady (sure, Antonio Daniels was the fourth best player in the draft class, but that’s beside the point).

Afterwards, was one of the most important drafts occured in 2001. All you need to know about that draft and how it affected the NBA as a whole is to look at the top four picks. On one end, you had Kwame Brown become the first high school player taken with number one overall pick, along with Eddie Curry and Tyson Chandler. On the other end, you have Pau Gasol taken with 3rd overall pick and Tony Parker taken with the last pick in the first round at 28th overall. What occurred on that night was the beginning of the end of high school players becoming eligible for the draft as Curry and Brown never came close to living up to their potential while we had the rise of finding hidden gems in the international market as Gasol and Parker won multiple championships and All-Star appearances. Since then, the well of international talent has slightly dried up and American players are only allowed to enter the league after one year of high school since 2006. But since the way of basketball has changed, role playing sharp shooters and big men can still be found in the later stages of the draft.

It is information such as this that proves that no matter how bad an NBA draft class is, no pick should ever be considered unimportant.

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