NBA Draft Lottery Results May Dictate Length of Cavaliers Rebuilding Process

Tonight is the night for Cavalier fans. The last two seasons around this time, we’ve been on pins and needles over a big elimination game that we felt would potentially dictate the future of the franchise. This year, the stakes may feel the same, but the methodology of determining the fate is no longer in the team’s hands, but in the hands of the gods of fate and destiny and a handful of magical ping pong balls.

The drama won’t take place on the court, but behind the scenes in a locked room where a series of four ping-pong balls with numbers on them will be drawn three separate times. If one of the Cavaliers’ 199 combinations or, even better, one of the Los Angeles Clippers’ 28 combinations matches the four numbers drawn, then tonight will be a night of celebration. Should both teams miss, though, it will be another night of feeling left behind and being kicked while still down.

So is there reason to feel a little nervous and on edge today? Sure there is. No matter what, the Cavaliers are going to get a couple talented young players to bolster the roster and hopefully be role players for years to come. But unless the Cavaliers are picking at least once in the top 2 or else twice in the top 5, the odds of this draft significantly improving the team over the long run are slim.

We’ve already discussed how hard it seems to be to get things to play out the way we want them to tonight, but I thought it might be interesting to look into why picking in the top 3 is so important. So I decided to do some research on how much of a difference it makes where a team drafts. I decided to look back at the last 11 drafts, going back to 2000, and seeing how significant the change in wins was for each of the teams with a top 10 draft pick.

A fair warning ahead of time: I realize that the draft position is perhaps a secondary variable in terms of impact behind the quality of talent in the draft pool. So obviously there are other factors that play into the relative success of a draft pick beyond just what number the pick was in the draft. So, basically, what I’m saying is to just take this data with a grain of salt.

Also, all draft picks that were traded have been adjusted to show the results of the team the player actually played for, not the team who drafted him. For example, even though Jamal Crawford was drafted by the Cavaliers, he was traded on draft night to the Bulls. So I used the wins gained by the Bulls for that pick, not the Cavaliers. This avoided having Jeff Green get credit for the radical increase in wins the Celtics got, since they traded the rights to his pick to Seattle for Ray Allen.

So anyway, here are the draft picks and their resulting average change in wins from 2000-2010:

Draft PickAverage Wins

As you can see, in recent history, picking in the top three is essential if you want to have the best chance of making a significant improvement the next season. By the time you get to pick No. 5, it has become a complete crapshoot at that point. In fact, picks 5 and 6 are probably the biggest losers in this because those are the teams in the worst shape who miss out on the elite talent. By the time you get to picks 7-10, those are teams that, generally speaking, aren’t quite as bad and might be there because of injuries or other circumstances. That could explain why some of the later picks actually perform better than those 5 and 6 picks.

There are some other interesting facts about the top 10 picks since 2000. In every season, at least one team who picked in the top 10 made the playoffs the following season and in nine of the 11 seasons two or more teams made the playoffs the following year. The only draft position to never make the playoffs in any of the last 11 seasons is the 7th pick. The 9th pick has made the playoffs the next year more than any other pick, doing so six times. The team with the first-overall pick made the playoffs that season just three times.

I realize some might (correctly) assume that some serious outliers are probably weighing these averages pretty far in either direction, particularly since we’re taking the averages of just 11 seasons. So I also ran the data with the median values rather than the average values to see how much of a difference that would make. The results stayed pretty much the same:

Draft PickMedian Wins

We see the same drop-off after the top three and the same recovery toward the end of the top 10. Both methods seem to be saying the same thing, that in the last 11 years, there is generally a loss of immediate impact players outside the top three.

Again, there are other factors at work here. For example, John Wall was clearly the more significant pick over Evan Turner. Yet, the Wizards actually won three fewer games than the previous year while the 76ers actually gained 14 wins over the previous year. Neither of those numbers had anything to do with Wall or Turner, but rather, factors unique to both of those franchises and the circumstances they found themselves in.

So even though we can’t speak in specifics as to what any of these numbers mean, we can still try to take the big picture away from this data. Generally speaking, it is extremely difficult to win the draft lottery (or even get one of the top-3 picks), yet if you want a player who will make an immediate impact on your team, you better hope to do just that.

It is my personal opinion that the outcome of the draft lottery tonight can swing the turnaround time for the Cavaliers by three years in either direction. If the best case scenario happens, I believe it can shave three years off the time before the Cavaliers can contend again. But if the nightmare situation occurs and the Cavaliers find themselves picking 5th and 11th, then I believe it will add three years to that time. The odds of that happening may be slim, but they are certainly significant enough to make tonight’s lottery something worth being nervous about and worth caring about. The rebuilding plan truly begins tonight. Good luck Cavaliers and good luck Cavs fans!


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  • Roosevelt

    Hmmm. Best case 1 and 2, worst case 5 and 11. I can agree with the three year swing there. With all the hype and vacillating draft stock, there’s nothing that interesting after Irving and Williams.

  • 5KMD

    Couple of things. The year the Bulls won the lottery and got Rose shouldn’t count. That was a good Bulls team that were going to win more games anyway and then were given a gift. You should really do the study without the “good” teams that moved up significantly because I’d rather see the stats for the teams in the Cavs position.

    Also, maybe if the Cavs do get 5 and 11 they will turnaround faster because they will be in the high lottery again next year but with a couple young (though not superstar) players on the team already.

  • Scott

    I’m not of the camp that there is “nothing interesting” after the top two picks, but I do think that the potential for error greatly increases as the picks get lower. Let’s hope all of those airmiles racked up by Grant and Co. get put to good use come June.

  • Roosevelt

    Even if they get a high pick again next year, it’s not a good thing to be at 5 and 11. Who knows if Kanter and Vesely et al will even be solid rotation players? And who knows if the 3rd worst record next year will have better luck in the lottery? Obviously Irving/Williams is a stretch, but I think the best scenario that is also possible is something like Irving/Biyombo, Williams/Walker, Williams/Knight, etc. They won’t be good enough in their rookie year to get us out of the high lottery.

  • Andrew

    The Bulls only won 8 more games after drafting Rose. In this study, that was actually a somewhat mild win increase and if anything, made the #1 pick appear less valuable, not more valuable. Things like that didn’t skew the results in the way you are assuming they did.

  • Andrew

    I guess what I’m saying is, the numbers are what they are. I don’t want to mess with them to try to show something they don’t. I get what you’re saying, but that’s why I said you have to take these numbers with a grain of salt. You can’t get too specific, but in general, these numbers show an 11 year trend.

  • christopher

    For some reason or another i could honestly care less about the draft lottery tonight…..

    oh wait, I remember the reason —> GO TRIBE.

    I really am in just the “wake up and see what happened” mode with this thing tonight.

    Anyone else in that mode or am I just crazy?

  • Andrew

    Why does it have to be either/or? Why can’t we be excited for the draft lottery and excited for the Indians? Seems like so many Cleveland fans are trying to pit the teams against each other.

  • B-bo

    I don’t think this draft class is quite as bad as the ’06 group (check out the top 10 in that train wreck), but I don’t know if it will be much better. There just isnt any one guy I saw of this group during the college season and thought, “Wow, that is a centerpiece player at the next level”. I don’t think we’ll have a problem finding our way back into the lottery, regardless what picks we end up with tonight.

    We making predictions on what picks we get? I’m thinking 3 and 10.

  • B-bo

    Because it’s “Highlander”, Cleveland-style. “There can be only one!” MY ATTENTION SPAN WILL ONLY TOLERATE ONE TEAM AT ANY GIVEN TIME.

  • Andrew

    Someone asked for my prediction on Twitter and I went with 3 and 9, so we’re pretty close.

    And I don’t know much, but every single time I saw Kyrie Irving play before he got hurt, I thought he 1000% passed the eye test and just looked like an impact NBA PG. I think this draft is Irving and then everyone else.

  • Roosevelt

    Yeah, we should have some sort of spreadsheet set up where we can predict each pick at each particular placement. Like this
    Pick 1 Pick 2
    Irving Williams

    Williams Leonard

    Leonard Walker

    Walker Jones

    Etc. This way, when the actual lottery is held, we’ll have the whole thing mapped out. (Or we could just list the prospects in order, but what fun is that?)

  • Sam B

    Actually, I think it is economics that pits these teams against each other. Only so many Cleveland dollars to go around, we have to choose what is more important to us to spend our money on…

    @ Chris – I am right with you on that. Maybe not check in the morning, but pop in after it is, or is mostly, over.

  • Harv 21

    My superpowers have proven virtually in lottery situations, so I shall not tune in.

  • Harv 21

    “My superpowers have proven virtually USELESS in lottery situations, so I shall not tune in.”

    My proofreading while doubletasking similarly useles.

  • B-bo

    @Sam B: maybe in terms of ticket/merch sales, but in thought/attention? Seems a bit of a reach to me.

  • ben

    A+ stats work

  • Right Side

    I think we will have the 2 pick and 7 pick.

  • Right Side

    or we land the top 2 picks and Carrasco throws a No-Hitter.

    Talk about Gilbert being right when he said that our Curse was being taken to South Beach.

  • christopher

    I’m with B-bo…THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE!

    Fire sale the Browns for an MLS team.

    Downgrade the Cavaliers to a D-League team for the Miami Heat.

    Upgrade the Clippers, Aeros and Captains to MLB teams.


  • 5KMD

    Roosevelt: “Obviously Irving/Williams is a stretch, but I think the best scenario that is also possible is something like Irving/Biyombo, Williams/Walker, Williams/Knight, etc. They won’t be good enough in their rookie year to get us out of the high lottery.”

    Fair enough good man. I personally think Irving/Williams would push them out of the lottery altogether but I respect your dissent.

    Andrew @#5: I just want to see the teams similar to the Cavs and I don’t think the Bulls were in the same position and just “won” the lottery. I see your point as well.

  • Sam B

    @B-bo, You are right, it is a little bit of a reach, but tickets and merchandise aren’t the only way they get money from our attention.

    TV ratings, website advertising etc. Not to mention that capturing our attention now means more tickets and merchandise sales later. Just ask the Indians about the awesome “What if?” and memorable moments campaign’s. Just because it isn’t making you buy now, getting you thinking about them makes you more likely to buy.

  • B-bo

    @Sam B: Valid points all. But it still doesn’t explain to me the suggestion that one must focus all of their attention on JUST the Tribe right now. I’m pretty confident that I can come here and talk NBA Draft and still turn on MLB.TV later and watch the Indians without somehow detracting from either. When it comes to something like sports, it just seems to me that attention can be divided without indicating a slight.

  • OmegaKing

    I don’t know that the lottery not being filled with “ZOMG THESE ARE FRANCHISE PLAYERS!!!” is necessarily a bad thing. If the Cavs get two solid pros out of the draft this year, and then maybe get their franchise guy out of the lottery next year, is that really a terrible thing? We’re not going to contend next year regardless – I just want the FO to make the best out of whatever situation they get.

  • Andrew

    I still feel very strongly that Kyrie Irving is a franchise player. But you’re right, Omega, that as long as the Cavs get 2 players who can play a significant role on this team in the future, then it’s a success. They can get a franchise player later. They just cannot afford to whiff on these draft picks this year.

  • mgbode

    OmegaKing wins the prize. That is exactly how to view this draft and if we do end up with someone becoming a franchise player, then all the better (but hopefully with still a high pick in next year’s draft).

  • MattyFos

    There are plenty of quality players outside of Williams and Irving. If our two picks land between 3-9 we should still get two solid players out of that group. PLUS, suck again next season if there is a season.
    Jonas V
    Brandon Knight
    Bismack Biyombo
    Kawhi Leonard
    Jan Vessely (though he’s like 22 and still a project)

  • mgbode

    add Alec Burks, Kemba Walker, and Chris Singleton (if healthy or we think he will be healthy by the time basketball is played again) and you’ve got the full list

  • MattyFos

    I was getting ready to add Alec Burks lol.
    Forgot about Singleton. And I intentionally left Walker out. I’m not a big fan of his.

  • false~cognate

    The only guys I really want out of this draft are Irving, Williams, Kanter, Biyombo and maybe Knight. Those Lithuanians don’t impress me; everyone is always hoping for the next Dirk with those kind of players, but it ain’t happening. Nowitzki is top 50 and that ain’t walking through the door.

  • mgbode

    @MattyFos – understand about Kemba. I’m not a big fan, but I think he’ll be a bench-scorer with a chance to be a little bit more. for this draft, that’s top10 (sadly).

  • DK

    Can’t help but remember when the ping pong night was here when LeQuite was entering the draft and how the Plain Dealer had the “Think LeBron” campaign with cut outs of him and how ecstatic everyone was when it came up in our favor that night… man I wish there could be that much excitement for this year’s.

  • Roosevelt

    I think everyone’s underrating Kemba Walker. I think he’ll be a Brandon Jennings clone. Not sure if it’s a good thing, but it’s more than a few quick points off the bench.

  • james