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The Sweet Spot in the Draft 2005-2020

The NBA Draft is a high stakes endeavor with millions riding on it. Teams have purposely tried to tank for decades now to get into that top 5 for a chance at this “elite” talent. My question would be unless there is an obvious once a generation can’t miss prospect like Shaq, Duncan, and Lebron with all the hype that surrounded their draft years should they really?

Roughly 50% of the top 100 players this year came from picks outside of the Top 10. The last 4 league MVP’s have went to two players drafted 15th and 41st. Eight of the last 10 Defensive Player of the Years have come from 15th+ with Gobert accounting for only 3 of those. Let’s take a look back at some of the top 5 picks in the NBA draft for the 15 years between 2006-2020.

1 Bargnani1 Greg Oden2 MIchael Beasley
3 Adam Morrison5 Jeff Green3 OJ Mayo
4 Tyrus Thomas6 Yi Jilian
5 Sheldon Williams
2 Hasheem Thabeet2 Evan Turner2 Derek Williams
4 Tyreke Evans4 Wes Johnson3 Enes Kanter
5 Ricky Rubio6 Ekpe Udoh4 Tristian Thompson
6 Johnny Flynn6 Jan Vessley
2 Michael Kidd-Gilchrest1 Anthony Bennett2 Jabarri Parker
4 Deon Waiters4 Cody Zeller5 Dante Exum
5 Thomas Robinson5 Alex Len
6 Nerlens Noel
3 Jahlil Okafor4 Dragan Bender1 Markel Fultz
5 Mario Herzonia5 Kriss Dunn2 Lonzo Ball
6 Willy Cauley Stein6 Buddy Heild4 Josh Jackson
2 Marvin Bagley3 RJ Barrett2 James Wiseman
4 De’Andre Hunter4 Patrick Williams
5 Issac Okoro

The story is not done on a couple of the recent draft classes, but I think we have a pretty good idea already of what the likely outcome is. I think it’s pretty reasonable to say these players were all underwhelming if not complete bust.

That’s not even including players like Andrew Wiggins or D’Angelo Russell who weakly made All Star games and are solid enough starters to avoid this list. That said I doubt anyone would really draft them in the top 2 again either knowing the career trajectory and be excited to over paying them like their draft pedigree has ultimately demanded.

That’s 50% of the top 6 draft picks at least that are pretty much misses. To spend the entire year losing just to have a 50% chance of picking a player that doesn’t suck seems like pretty poor odds to me to trust that process. You need to do it years to come up with one meaningful player in most cases if you ever do. Luck still dictates a lot even at that level. Contrast that to some of the top players in the NBA this year and certainly the last 5 years and where they were all drafted outside of the top 10.

41st Nikola Jokic12th Miles Bridges
15th Giannis Antetokounmpo16th Terry Rozier
30th Jimmy Butler35th Draymond Green
15th Kawhi Leonard36th Malcolm Brogdon
14th Bam Adebayo21st Tyrese Maxey
13th Donavan Mitchell39th Jerami Grant
13th Devin Booker19th Tobias Harris
11th Domantas Sabonis22nd Bobby Portis
27th Rudy Gobert11th Klay Thompson
UD Fred VanVleet28th Jordan Poole
17th Jrue Holiday25th Clint Capela
27th Pascal Siakam31st Bogdan Bogdanovic
39th Khris Middleton46th Norman Powell
13th Zach LaVine27th Kyle Kuzma
37th Gary Trent22 Jarrett Allen
19th John CollinsUD Christian Wood
23rd O.G. Anunoby29th Derrick White
29th Dejounte Murray30th Josh Hart
24th Kyle Lowry13th Tyler Herro
27th Robert WilliamsUD Seth Curry
16th Nikola Vucevic16th Jusuf Nurkic
11th Shae Gilgeous-Alexander33rd Jalen Brunson
12th Tyrese Haliburton19th Saddiq Bey
11th Myles Turner29th Keldon Johnson
30th Desmond Bane40th Will Barton
45th Dillon Brooks32nd Montrezl Harrell
UD Luguentz Dort46th Jordan Clarkson
27th Bojan Bogdanovic20th Evan Fournier

The picture starts to emerge to me that the sweet spot is in the late lottery, starting about 12th. You can actually try to win, and the stakes aren’t nearly as all or nothing as the top 5 in the lottery, where you purposely have to try to lose to get to. If you miss at 11th+ it’s not the end of the world like it is for the tankers who miss about 50% of the time anyway and waste the entire year. Even at 11th to 14th you still have a chance to move up too in the lottery. It’s the lottery for a reason.

For all the crap the teams chasing the 8th seed get, I see value in trying to win and then letting your draft scouting do the rest of the work because there are players to be had after the lottery, clearly. As a fan you don’t have to endure years of a full tank chasing players either. Milwaukee, Miami, the Spurs, Indiana, there are plenty examples of teams that built top 4 teams having never bottom out and through good drafting with mostly non lottery picks.

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