Lowered Expectations: An NBA Draft Study

Hello again guys! I love sports. I get into dumb sports arguments all the time, both in person and online (I look forward to having some of these memorable moments with you guys soon enough), and sometimes they provide an impetus for further exploration. The piece on Jennings that I did recently came from such an argument. This half-baked NBA draft study is also the product of a similar argument. Enjoy.


The background to the argument: I feel like the Bucks are stuck in the middle of bad and good, and it drives me nuts. Some people call it the "mediocrity treadmill." I call it NBA Hell (a phrase loosely adapted and refined from Boers and Bernstein on 670 The Score). Here is my definition:

    • NBA Hell- Def: Noun, A state of perpetual 7th seed, 8th seed, or late lottery finishes where a team annually lacks the talent to compete for anything meaningful, yet also lacks the ability to obtain potential top-tier talent via the draft, which ultimately convinces the GM to overpay for middling FAs past their primes in an ill-conceived attempt to force an upward move into competitiveness.
  • In my opinion, the Bucks should have tanked harder down the stretch maximize their lottery odds for one of the top-3 picks. They didn't, and it made me mildly upset. I won't cheer the pursuit of mediocrity, which is what I saw in their pathetic push for the low-hanging fruit that was the 8th seed. Nothing is worse than a team being content with toiling in NBA Hell (or fooling themselves into thinking they aren't in NBA Hell). My pro-tank theory is premised on the idea that true difference makers only exist in the top-5 of a draft, and that every effort should be made to maximize your odds to get into this range once you have no hope of competing for anything meaningful in a given season. Even though NBA GMs botch individual picks in the 1-5 range, I have always believed they do a good job approximating the top tier of available talent into this range and rarely let truly special players slip beyond this threshold. I decided to see if this was even remotely true.

What I did: I looked at NBA drafts from 1990-2005 (anything beyond 2005 seems tough to make evaluations on at this point) and tracked players in three categories: Picks 1-5, Picks 6-10, and Picks 11-15. I then used Wikipedia to determine which players from each of these categories had made at least one All-Star appearance during their NBA career and recorded the results for each group.

    • *All-Star appearances is certainly an imperfect measure of true performance, but a guy has to start somewhere. I foresee reasonable objections to the use of All-Star appearances that include, but are not limited to, the following: (1) All-Star awards are merely half season awards so they aren't a great way to measure performance, (2) All-Star awards are sometimes the product of marketing or popularity, not true skill and impact on the court, (3) Plenty of very good players have never been voted to an All-Star game.
  • My responses are as follows:
    • (1) True, but by taking the whole career into account for the study hopefully that makes sure great players don't fall through the cracks. Furthermore, I can't think of a better snapshot measure...All-NBA teams are too exclusive, and being an NBA starter is too broad.
    • (2) Very true. Some bad players have been All-Stars, and some good ones have been overlooked, but that is why I included the name and number of appearances in the data. You can make your own adjustment. In some cases the top-5 picks even get additional chances to prove themselves because the teams are so invested in the process they can't have them fail. Ah well, welcome to the NBA. The good news about using All-Star appearances is that I can't think of great players that have made multiple All-NBA or won an MVP or any other serious award without making a few All-Star games...meaning we catch all the great players using this method anyways.
    • (3) I'm not necessarily looking for role-players and solid starters in this study. Those guys are largely interchangeable to me. I want to know where the stars come from and if GMs trap the star guys in the top 5 picks...I want the guys who get teams out of NBA Hell, not the ones who wrongly convince the team they aren't there anymore.

My hypothesis: Although the NBA draft can often be a crapshoot with regard to each individual pick, NBA GMs and Scouts do a fairly good job of approximating the top talents such that players with star potential are almost always drafted among the top-5 picks, while only a few ever slip past the top-5 and leak into the later lottery (usually unknown entities like high school or foreign talents being projected vastly differently).

Group One: Picks 1-5

Group Two: Picks 6-10

Group Three: Picks 11-15

  • 1990--- Pick #11- Tyrone Hill (1x All-Star).
  • 1991--- Pick #11- Terrell Brandon (2x All-Star), Pick #13- Dale Davis (1x All-Star).
  • 1992--- Fail
  • 1993--- Pick #11- Allan Houston (2x All-Star)
  • 1994--- Fail
  • 1995--- Fail
  • 1996--- Pick #13- Kobe Bryant (13x All-Star), Pick #14- Peja Stojakovic (3x All-Star), Pick #15- Steve Nash (7x All-Star).
  • 1997--- Fail
  • 1998--- Fail
  • 1999--- Fail
  • 2000--- Fail
  • 2001--- Fail
  • 2002--- Fail
  • 2003--- Fail
  • 2004--- Fail?
  • 2005--- Fail?

Condensed Results:

Picks 1-5

  • 42/75 players made at least one All-Star game. 31 of those 42 players have made multiple All-Star games. 
  • At least one All-Star player in every draft year. Multiple All-Star players in 12/15 drafts. Three or more All-Star players in 7/15 drafts.

Picks 6-10

  • 14/75 players made at least one All-Star game. 11 of those 14 players have made multiple All-Star games.
  • 6/15 seasons there were no All-Star players drafted in this range. Multiple All-Star players in only 3 out of the 15 drafts. Three All-Star players only once, in 1999.

Picks 11-15

  • 7/75 players made at least one All-Star game. 5 of those 7 players have made multiple All-Star games.
  • 11/15 seasons there were no All-Star players drafted in this range. Multiple All-Star players in only 2 out of the 15 drafts. Three All-Star players only once, in 1996.


  • I think my hypothesis comes out pretty on the money based on this flawed study :) GMs do a pretty darned good job of identifying the most talented players and taking them within the first five picks of a draft. In my mind, the diminishing returns on those mid to late lottery picks is a byproduct of having all the talent already snatched up...there simply aren't any great players left on the board, and frankly as fans we should want our GM to then look for rotation players, not to try and take a risk on a talented player with serious red flags that made him slip...because the odds suggest those mid to late lottery picks won't be producing stars or true difference makers the vast majority of the time. As we head into draft mode I hope this sparks conversation and tempers expectations about the ceiling of the type of player the Bucks might get if they don't move up via trade or lottery luck. At their current slot they would be fortunate to get a rotation guy, but ultimately where does that get them in the grand scheme of things?
  • I hope the Bucks haven't diluted themselves into thinking they aren't in NBA Hell. I will wait to see what comes in trade rumors and pre-draft talk, but I still think the Bucks need to take some risks at getting a true difference...and as a small market they might need to take risks by trading up and trading away assets to get a shot at guys who might change the trajectory of the franchise. I would not fault them if they tried and failed, but I would fault them if they didn't try. In a draft that has been (prematurely) labeled weak, perhaps those high picks are undervalued by rival GMs and easier to pry away than in previous seasons. I would be fine if Hammond took some risks trying to acquire undervalued draft picks, because the odds say there is at least one All-Star level guy each year coming from the top-5 picks.
  • Some GMs plan to open a championship contention window, some GMs plan to keep the championship contention window open a bit longer, and unfortunately some GMs sit around staring at the wall wondering why everyone else is talking about's to hoping Hammond is thinking about how to get that window open and not staring at the wall.

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