The Boston Celtics faced a good amount of criticism at the 2015 NBA Trade Deadline. Coming off of a 25-57 season the year before, the team looked to be out of contention and in need of a rebuild. In some ways it was puzzling when the team sent a first-round pick to the Suns for a backup point guard given their circumstances.
That backup point guard was two time All-Star Isaiah Thomas. Two years later any criticism of that trade is laughable. The Celtics acquired a near 30 ppg scorer on a team-friendly deal for Marcus Thornton and a draft pick used on Skal Labissiere. Trades like this beg the question, should more teams be willing to part with draft picks to acquire proven veterans?
Conventional wisdom says building through the draft is the most prudent way to rebuild, and most of the time that is true. In consecutive years, the Sonics/Thunder changed the direction of their franchise when they added Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden. Losing seasons and good ping-pong ball fortunes turned them into one of the West’s better teams.
But what about this year’s rendition of the afore-mentioned Boston Celtics? After the Kevin Love injury in Cleveland, there is a distinct possibility Boston can win its conference and pick first in this year’s draft which is widely considered to be one of the best in recent years—quite the enviable position.
If the ping-pong balls bounce in their favor, just how much value would that first overall pick have?
Figure 1 shows the number of Win Shares generated by each lottery slot in a random sample of 10 drafts since the three point line was introduced. Current players’ rest-of-career totals were estimated based on prior performance and the aging curve, with a five to six year peak in the late 20’s that declines exponentially into the mid 30’s. (Drafts: 1986, 1990, 1995, 1997, 2003, 2006, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2013)
Standard of error is a key factor in evaluating this sample. Though the first overall pick is typically safely around 60 WS, the possibilities in this sample can range from Anthony Bennet’s 1.3 Estimated WS to LeBron James’s 201.4 Estimated WS. The possibility of drafting a transcendent talent like James in enticing, but in this sample the typical first overall had a career trajectory similar to Baron Davis. Figure 2 gives a player comparison for each WS total associated with each pick at 25 percent intervals.
Obviously, this is a very small sample size that has the, but it demonstrates the perils of the draft. There is certainly upside, but the mediocrity—for lack of better word—is troubling. Though the data for the second pick is skewed because it includes the 1986 draft and Len Bias’s death, few GM’s around the league would be excited to land Bismack Biyombo with a lottery pick—no disrespect to the big fella.
Compare that draft data to the future projections for trade candidates Jimmy Butler, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony using the same logic for rest-of-career performance. (Figure 3)
Anthony’s decline is accelerated based on the fact he is 32, compared to 27 and 26 for Butler and George respectively. The other two, however, figure to play at an All-Star level for the next four to five years. This totals to an estimated 40 WS for Butler and 30 WS for George—roughly the total value of the third or fourth pick in next year’s draft based on this study.
Boston’s core of Isaiah Thomas and Al Horford, supported by a strong cast of role players, could be built to win now. And player fit and salary implications notwithstanding, the Celtics could turn into bona fide title contenders if they were to swing a deal for a player like Butler or George.
It is hard to argue with Boston’s desire to hold on to its first round pick. But with only a 25 percent chance of the first overall pick at best, and knowing the player they select is more likely to be Baron Davis than LeBron James, they would do well to at least listen to offers.
Besides, the Thunder’s rebuild could have been very different had they been “lucky” enough to have Greg Oden, Michael Beasley, and Hasheem Thabeet fall to them in those critical drafts.
Written by: Adam Cassidy (@acassidy1015)