Thursday, February 01, 2007

Numero Uno

What do the Sixers, Grizzlies, Celtics and maybe Atlanta or Charlotte have in common? Well, they're the worst five teams in the league, so we know they're terrible. There's more to the story, though, because as we reach the all-star break (one of my favorite times of the year), talk will begin in earnest over the 'race' to get the number one pick. Of course, thanks to the suckass 1983 Rockets team that deliberately threw their games and made a mockery of the sport, it's not as easy as just being terrible. (That cheating move is the reason they obtained Hakeem [and could have had Jordan], which led to them winning a championship ten years later. Direct correlation? No, not really. But still, a douche-bird move that has been forgiven by history, unfairly.)

I digress. The point is, over the next couple of months, there will be some suggestion that teams will try to be the worst in the league in order to raise their chances in the draft lottery, the system that was imposed to keep no good money-grubbing businessmen like the aforementioned Rockets executives from screwing up the sport.

The lottery works as follows: There are a thousand balls put into one of those goofy pressurized lottery machines. If you're the worst team, 250 of those thousand have your name on it [a 25% chance]. If you're the second worst, 199 have your name written on them [a 19.9% chance]. Third is 156, fourth is 119, fifth is 88, sixth is 63, and so it goes. The best of the worst teams to make the lottery gets five balls, giving them a .5% chance.

This year's draft is interesting, because conventional knowledge holds that the number one pick, Greg Oden, the man who is pictured at the top of this column, is a sure thing, a savior, the kind of guy you build your team around, blah, blah, blah.

[Note: I want to try to be focused here, so I'm going to leave out Kevin Durant, which may or may not be fair. I do recognize that he is gaining on Greg Oden in the popularity race for #1.]

All this brings to mind three questions:

1. Is Greg Oden a sure thing?
2. Historically, is the number one pick in the draft truly better than the numbers 2-5 (or even 10) picks?
3. Is the 5.1% benefit of finishing dead last, rather than second to last, worth the concomitant loss in fanship and prestige that goes with tanking a season?

Let's start with this talk about Greg Oden being a sure thing. The definition I am going by of such a "sure thing" is someone who will make their team at worst a playoff team, and at best a contender for the championship. Furthermore, there has to be a definite perception that they will be able to do this before they ever bounce an NBA ball.

Here is a list, in chronological order, of people I can think of who, in the last fifteen years, have been "sure things".

1. Shaquille O'Neal
2. Chris Webber
3. Glenn Robinson
4. Jason Kidd
5. Grant Hill
6. Allen Iverson
7. Tim Duncan
8. Yao Ming
9. LeBron James

Of those players, two have legitimately won rings. (No way is Glenn Robinson eligible; the sure thing must be the star of the team.) However, all of those players have done quite well for themselves. Let's look, statistically, at what made these players sure things before they were drafted:

1. Shaq, in his last two seasons at LSU, averaged 27.6 and 24.1 ppg, respectively, 14.7 and 14 rebounds, and around 5.0 blocks each season. He shot 63% and 62% from the field.

2. Chris Webber, in his two seasons at Michigan, averaged 15.5 and 19.2 ppg, respectively, 10.0 and 10.0 rebounds, 2.2 and 2.5 assists, and shot 56% and 62% from the field, 26% and 35% from behind the arc. (He went to two consecutive national championships.)

3. Glenn Robinson averaged 24.1 and 30.3 ppg in his last two seasons at Purdue, 9.2 and 10.1 rebounds, and shot 47% and 48%, as well as 40% and 38% from behind the arc (making 2 per game his senior year.)

4. Jason Kidd averaged 13.0 and 16.7 ppg, 7.7 and 9.1 assists per game, 4.9 and and 6.9 rebounds, shooting 46% and 47%, as well as 29% and 36% from beyond the arc, with 3.8 and 3.2 steals per game. He made almost five threes a game his senior year.

5. Grant Hill averaged 18 and 17.4 ppg his last two years, 6.4 and 6.9 rebounds, 2.8 and 5.2 assists, 2 steals a game, one block a game, and shot 58% and 46% from the field, 29% and 39% from behind the arc. (He also played on the best team in the country.)

6. Allen Iverson, in his last two years, averaged 20.4 and 25.0 ppg, 4.5 and 4.7 assists, 3.3 and 3.8 rebounds, over 3 steals a game, and shot 39% and 48% from the field and 23% and 37% from behind the arc.

7. Tim Duncan averaged 19.1 and 20.8 ppg, 12.3 and 14.7 rebounds, 2.9 and 3.2 assists, almost four blocks a game, and shot 55% and 61% from the field.

8. Yao Ming played in China and averaged ungodly numbers, so I'm not going to include that. (Also, unlike the men's league I play in, the Chinese Basketball Association didn't track statistics.) [Side note: The Japanese basketball league is called the B.J. League.]

9. LeBron's stats are also unfairly blown up, but in his last two years of high school, he averaged 28.0 and 30.0 points per game, 9.5 and 9.6 rebounds per game, about three steals and two blocks per game, and shot 57% and 56% from the field and 34.5% and 37.9% from behind the arc.

Greg Oden's stats in his first year at Ohio State are 15.2 ppg, 9.5 rebounds, 3.5 blocks, all while shooting 63%. (His team is ranked fourth in the country.) In high school, he averaged 20 points, 9.6 rebounds, and 3.7 blocked shots. He shot 71%.

I'm going to say that, purely statistically, it is a bit up in the air, though I acknowledge that he is currently playing with an injured shooting hand and probably suffering poorer statistics than he normally would. I'll give him a pass as a "can't miss", but I also think that, based purely on statistics, there is a chance that he may not be so great.

Which brings me to my next question: Is getting your choice [that is, the number one pick] in a draft, over the years, much better than having to get the next group of guys? To keep this succinct, I will compare the top five picks in the past ten years to the number one pick.

In 1996, when Iverson was drafted number one, the next picks were Marcus Camby, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Stephon Marbury and Ray Allen. I think in this draft, the number one pick had a clear advantage.

In 1997, when Tim Dunan went number one, the next picks were Keith Van Horn, Chauncey Billups, Antonio Daniels, and Tony Battie. (ugh!) Again, the number one pick seems especially advantageous.

In 1998, when Michael Olowokandi was number one, the next picks were Mike Bibby, Raef LaFrentz, Antawn Jamison, and Vince Carter. Here, the number one pick is worse than three of the five picked.

In 1999, when Elton Brand was the first pick, he was followed by Steve Francis, Baron Davis, Lamar Odom, and Jonathan Bender. Here, the number one pick is best, but by a smaller margin than the other drafts.

In 2000, when Kenyon Martin was the number one pick, Stromile Swift, Darius Miles, Marcus Fizer, and Mike Miller followed him. Here, it is a crapshoot due to injury problems. Mike Miller is arguably better but I'll leave it alone.

In 2001, Kwame Brown was the number one pick, followed by Tyson Chandler, Pau Gasol, Eddy Curry, and Jason Richardson. Here, the number one pick is worse than four of the succeeding picks.

In 2002, Yao Ming was the first pick, Jay williams was two, then Mike Dunleavy Jr., Drew Gooden, and Nickoloz Tskitishvili. In this draft, the number one pick is by far the best.

In 2003, you had Lebron James, Darko Milicic, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, and Dwayne Wade. In this draft, the number one pick is equal to two of the other picks, by my estimation.

In 2004, Dwight Howard was followed by Emeka Okafor, Ben Gordon, Shaun Livingston, and Devin Harris. In this draft, the number one is equal to two others, I think.

In 2005, Andrew Bogut was followed by Marvin Williams, Deron Williams, Chris Paul and Raymond Felton. In this draft, the number one pick is worse than at least two, and possibly up to four of its successors.

In 2006, Andrea Bargnani was drafted first, LeMarcus Aldridge second, Adam Morrison third, Tyrus Thomas fourth, and Shelden Williams fifth. It's very early to tell, but it seems clear initially that at least Morrison is better than Bargnani as they both get similar playing time.

Tally that all up and there are roughly 11 picks behind number one who, in the last ten years, have proven to be better. I would call about 9 of these guys equal, leaving 25 players who are worse. That means that out of 45 chances, you have about about a 40% chance of getting someone who is equal or better than the number one, and about a 60% chance of getting someone worse.

Frankly, I expected the number of better-than-number ones to be higher, but I think my formula is a bit flawed because it doesn't account for talent-heavy and lean years. I mean, Ray Allen isn't considered better than Iverson in 1996, but he was arguably better than all the players in the year of Olowokandi, 2000. So there are servicable non-#1's being left out here. If I let them in by some manipulation, though, I'd have a hard time calculating relativity because I'm trying to figure out if it's smart to go for number one in any given year, whether it's lean or stacked.

So for the purposes of answering a focused question, these guys losing one more game than the other team will get them a 4.5% better chance that they will get an opportunity with a 60% chance of success.

This brings the third question into view; is this 4.5% chance at the 60% success-rate opportunity worth completely shit-canning a season?

I say it is not. I am tired of math so I will move to metaphor. Let's say there was a girl or guy (the number one pick) who would give you a 60% chance at a date (being a good player). Sounds pretty good. However, you gotta stand in line with 14 other dudes/gals (teams). Being in the front (getting the first pick) is obviously an advantage. However, being such a handsome/babalicious dude/gal yourself (shitty team), there is only a 4.5% chance that standing in the front of the line will matter more than standing second. There's a catch though; you gotta dump your girl/boyfriend (season) to be in the front of the line.

You can hang onto that lamewad you're stuck with and still get a shot at the line, you're just not sure where. It might even be in the front. The trick is, the more you push your way to the front, rather than wait, the more you have to fuck up your relationship (season). Moreover, if your relationship already sucks but you're trying hard, you might actually give your partner a little hope and still get in line! You could still be in front!

I suppose if you're even having this discussion you're not really happy with your relationship to begin with (your team sucks already). But remember, if you commit to pushing to the front, there's a chance that you'll be in the 40% to get rejected, and then you've already lost your girl/boyfriend. I have to admit, if the girl/boyfriend's really bad, I can't fault people for going for the front of the line, but you can keep your girl/boyfriend and still have a 40% chance at another one, remember. So I say, stay together, don't throw the season, show the fans you still care about the thousands they shelled out for season tickets, show your girlfriend you love her, and remember that your options will open whatever you do.

It's better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all. [Okay, that didn't really make sense, but I'm struggling to end this thing and I have a cold.]

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Kodijack said...

I think that you are missing two factors. 1) What the needs of the team are. (This is supposedly why Portland took Bowie instead of Michael). 2) Who the GM is. Jerry West has rarely picked in the top of the draft. 3) Who the team is. Denver is historically bad in the draft (Carmelo fell at our feet).

Otherwise I agree with most of what you said. And considering how Durent is playing right now its very possible that Oden goes second.

JimmyValente said...

kodijack, i left those things out because i figured it would be tough to come up with a general theory; those are so subjective and would throw my metaphors and formula way out of wack.

jimmy v

MattG21 said...

To over-simplify: it's not a perfect science. Though in the case of 2007, Oden does look like the real deal. I know his stats aren't great, but just watching him play you can tell he's something special. He reminds me of a more physical David Robinson with a better knack for shot blocking. I've only seen Durant highlights once, but that was last night and he had 37 and 23. yikes. He's 6'10", handles great, and can shoot.

This year, having the #1 or #2 pick is a lot more valuable than in years past, at least in my opinion.