Quick Take: Why Winning the NBA Draft Lottery Matters

Andres Alvarez (@NerdNumbers) tweeted the other day: “Opinion question. Does getting the #1 Pick in the Draft Lottery really up your odds at a title?”  To which I responded, “Yes, and it’s not close.”

If you’ve read my “How to Win a Championship in Any Sport,” you can probably guess why I would say that.  The reasoning is pretty simple:

  1. In any salary-capped sport, the key to building a championship contender is to maximize surplus value by underpaying your team as much as possible.
  2. The NBA is dominated by a handful of super-star players who get paid the same amount as regular-star players.
  3. Thus, the easiest way to get massive surplus value in the NBA is to get one or more of those players on your team, by any means necessary.
  4. Not only is the draft a great place to find potentially great players, but because of the ridiculously low rookie pay scale, your benefit to finding one is even greater.
  5. Superstars don’t grown on trees, and drafting #1 ensures you will get the player that you believe is most likely to become one.

I could leave it at that, as it’s almost necessarily true that drafting #1 will improve your chances.  But I suppose what people really want to know is how much does it “up your odds”?  To answer that, we also need to look at the empirical question of how valuable the “most likely to be a superstar” actually is.

Yes, #1 picks often bust out.  Yes, many great players are found in the other 59+ picks.  But it utterly confounds me why so many people seem to think that proving variance in outcomes means we shouldn’t pay attention to distribution of outcomes. [Side-note: It also bugs me that people think that because teams “get it wrong” so often, it must mean that NBA front offices are terrible at evaluating talent. This is logically false: maybe basketball talent is just extremely hard to evaluate!  If so, an incredible scouting department might be one that estimates an individual player’s value with slightly smaller error margins than everyone else—just as a roulette player who could guess the next number just 5% of the time could easily get rich. But I digress.]

So, on average, how much better are #1 draft picks than other high draft picks?  Let’s take a look at some data going back to 1969:


Ok, so #1 picks are, on average, a lot better than #2 picks, and it flattens out a bit from there.  For these purposes, I don’t think it’s necessary, but you can mess around with all the advanced stats and you’ll find pretty much the same thing (see, e.g., this old Arturo post). [Also, I won’t get into it here, but the flattening is important in its own right, as it tends to imply a non-linear talent distribution, which is consistent with my hypothesis that, unlike many other sports, basketball is dominated by extreme forces rather than small accumulated edges.]

So, a few extra points (or WPA’s, or WoW’s, or whatevers) here or there, what about championships?  And, specifically, what about championships a player wins for his drafting team?


Actually, this even surprised me: Knowing that Michael Jordan won 6 championships for his drafting team, I thought for sure the spike on pick 3 would be an issue.  But it turns out that the top picks still come out easily on top (and, again, the distribution among the rest is comparatively flat).  Also, it may not be obvious from that graph, but a higher proportion of their championships have gone to the teams that draft them as well.  So to recap (and add a little):


The bottom line is, at least over the last 40ish years, having the #1 pick in the draft was worth approximately four times as many championships as having a 2 through 8.  I would say that qualifies as “upping your odds.”

17 Responses to “Quick Take: Why Winning the NBA Draft Lottery Matters”

  1. DSMok1 says:

    Excellent work once again, Benjamin!

    You have touched on some of the same draft-pick-value related topics here that I worked with extensively over on the old APBRmetrics board. Recently, Crow reposted all of the research here: Recovered thread

    I think you’ll enjoy all of the charts and graphs I put up there!

  2. EvanZ says:

    I completely agree. And I think you could even break it down further (in theory, at least) into years where there was a truly consensus elite player – a franchise player like LeBron, Duncan, and Shaq – that to get the #1 pick in those years essentially guarantees your team a decade or more of dominance (assuming you can keep that player). The other years (Bargnani, etc) tend to make the overall trend a little noisier, simply because there is not a consensus.

    I guess if I were to model it, it would essentially be a Poisson process. Where there are different talent levels or tiers that each occur with a certain frequency. The tier 1 players occur most infrequently obviously.

    • Interesting. I can def see the poisson distribution for particular profiles which will make the value of the #1 pick fluctuate (possibly a lot) from season to season. Though there are still underlying distributions for the true value of each player (which I assume are somewhat normal). I.e., a known known isn’t necessarily any better than an known unknown.

  3. Little Boots says:

    by the way found this blog via wsj, and gotta say love the rodman but this study isnt as detailed…pre 1969 is highly flawed considering russell won 11 as #2 (number 2 is up 14-1 pre 69) however, i understand why its used because of the territorial pick rule, and i agree that having the #1 is important but it is closer then you mention. heres if you go every year

    number 1 picks: 38 titles, 16 players
    number 2 picks: 28 titles, 15 players
    territorial pick: 26 titles, 14 players

    if i get cute and remove outliers (russell 11, 1980s lakers 4 players 15 titles, tommy heinsohn 8 titles)
    number 1: 23 titles, 12 players
    number 2: 15 titles, 14 players
    territorial: 18 titles, 13 players

    if dallas wins the title this year, #2 gets even better (kidd, chandler), your right but i wouldn’t characterize it as not even close

    • Interesting, thanks for the info. But I don’t think going back even further improves the sample: it makes it slightly larger, but much less representative. E.g., Bill Russell won most of his “championships” when the NBA had only 8 teams.

  4. Little Boots says:

    good point….so what ur saying is because the nba was very concentrated so it was easier to win titles. agreed.

    ..but i could also say shaq and duncan won all those titles when the nba was at its most dilutive, after jordan…1999-2005…30 teams would make far easier for a star player to dominate…

    from 1950-1999…picks #1-3, from a title perspective are virtually the same. (just off hand, cousy 6, jordan 6, mchale, 3, cartwright 3, two other celtics were picked at 3 as well)

    • It’s a topic that I haven’t looked into extensively, but currently I don’t really believe in “talent dilution.” It can obv have a short-term impact in periods of aggressive expansion, but overall I think the size and quality of the talent pool has grown faster (probably much faster) than the number of teams in the NBA.

  5. David Myers says:

    Is there any particular reason to believe that Bill James’s old argument about talent distribution in professional sports has been superceeded, that what you’re looking at is the “high end” tail of a normal distribution when you look at pro talent? More simply put, that NFL/MLB/NBA talent is a “wedge shaped” curve because you’re so far out into the tail of the distribution?

    Isn’t that the first place to look, as opposed to a uniform talent distribution?


    • Well, obviously NBA talent is going to be on the far end of a normal tail, but what I was talking about in my previous comment isn’t the distribution of talent but the distribution of error. E.g., your scouting tells you the person is worth +5 wins per season, what is the distribution of actual outcomes relative to that predicted value? I would guess that this is somewhat normally approximated (though I can imagine alternatives), but the exact distribution doesn’t matter. The point is that you’re not drafting a known quantity, you’re drafting a range. Good picks don’t all have to be Tim Duncan — indeed, your average value is probably less important than your odds of getting extreme value, so the standard deviations on good top picks should be very high.

      • David Myers says:


        Per player, the distribution pretty much has to be unique. I’m saying this just from observations of the NFL draft. Some players attract an immediate and very narrow range of value estimates. Others attract two camps, a bimodal curve. Still others get ignored by whole fractions of the draft, and taken seriously by others. For high draft choices, it’s the small number of teams that have those choices and what they think that matters.

        I’ll use as an example Kris Jenkins, the NFL DT, in 2001. He was unheralded by any pundits, performed well enough in the Senior Bowl (though no announcer spoke of him) that draft fans were asking each other, “Who is this guy?” He blew out the Combine — amazing performance all round — and was first picked up by Mel Kiper as a possible first rounder. After that, scouting services that fed fans had him rated all over the place, from possible first rounder to seventh rounder by Russ Lande of the War Room. And that’s one player, from one draft back in 2001.

        I’m sure basketball fans can do plenty enough case studies to find out how the distributions go in the NBA. Fewer players, probably tighter value distributions, probably much bigger incentives not to fail.


  6. […] Ben for writing a nice piece in response (see here ,seriously, go read […]

  7. […] for writing a nice piece in respbuonse (see here ,seriously, go read […]

  8. […] there’s the draft pick.  Arturo has broken down the draft before. Benjamin Morris has also written great stuff.  The upshot is that if it isn’t the overall #1 pick, it’s a bit of a crapshoot.   […]

  9. […] for writing a nice piece in respbuonse (see here ,seriously, go read […]

  10. […] for writing a nice piece in response (see here, seriously, go read […]

  11. […] franchise coule dans le classement pour la prochaine Draft. Mais pour avoir un franchise player, mieux vaut viser le joueur numéro un. Et malgré toute l’ardeur placée à couler au classement, rien ne garantit d’avoir […]

  12. […] franchise coule dans le classement pour la prochaine Draft. Mais pour avoir un franchise player, mieux vaut viser le joueur numéro un. Et malgré toute l’ardeur placée à couler au classement, rien ne garantit d’avoir […]

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