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 Pick||Average 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 Pick||Median 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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