Anthony Davis and the Draft Lottery Winners' Curse

The NBA Draft Lottery sells hope, but history shows that franchises bad enough to land the No. 1 pick are seldom good enough to surround that player with championship-level talent.

by David Berri
Nov 12 2015, 1:24pm

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

For all their championship trophies and MVP awards, professional sports in America reward their fair share of incompetent teams, too.

Case in point: In 2012, the New Orleans Hornets (as the Pelicans were known at the time) finished with the worst record in the Western Conference. As a reward for their ineptitude, the franchise earned a place in the NBA Draft Lottery. When the drawing was held, New Orleans was awarded the first pick in the 2012 draft, which yielded the consensus budding superstar Anthony Davis.

So far, so good. The system worked, making a bad team better and giving suffering fans hope. The draft lottery sells another all-American fable, the rags-to-riches story. There's just one problem with the narrative: teams bad enough to land in the lottery tend to stay bad, or at least fail to improve to championship level.

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Again, consider Davis. All No. 1 selections are hyped, but unlike some of his top-pick peers, Davis deserved his accolades. As a freshman, he led the Kentucky Wildcats to the NCAA Division I-A men's basketball championship. Along the way, Davis was named the Final Four Outstanding Player, the AP Player of the Year, and won the Naismith and Wooden awards.

Davis didn't just show up and collect a bunch of trophies. He was amazingly productive. Given the data tracked in a standard box score, the wins a basketball player produces can be accurately measured. From 2002-03 to 2014-15, no player has produced more wins in a single season than the 13.0 Davis did for Kentucky in 2011-12.

He was prettay, prettay, prettay good in college, too. —Photo by Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Of course, college performance doesn't always predict professional productivity. In Davis's case, however, what we saw at Kentucky was a very good indicator of what was to come with the Pelicans. Davis started the 2012-13 NBA season as a 19-year-old rookie. NBA player performance tends to peak around age 26; in other words, 19-year-olds tend to be bad.

Not Davis. He produced 8.1 wins for the Pelicans during his rookie campaign. The next season, he was even better. Last year, he produced 15.2 wins for New Orleans.

Over his first three NBA seasons, Davis produced a total 35.0 wins. To put that in perspective, here is what every top pick produced his first three years since the draft lottery began, in 1985 (Wins Produced numbers from BoxScore Geeks):

First Overall PickYear DraftedWP After 3 YearsMinutesWP48Anthony Davis20123566610.252Kyrie Irving20111461020.11John Wall20101465960.102Blake Griffin200926.380990.156Derrick Rose200821.688960.117Greg Oden20077.418160.196Andrea Bargnani2006-7.55943-0.061Andrew Bogut200518.971490.127Dwight Howard200440.384450.229LeBron James200336.396540.18Yao Ming200226.475220.168Kwame Brown20017.648310.076Kenyon Martin20006.474040.041Elton Brand199933.262260.256Michael Olowokandi1998-5.35899-0.043Tim Duncan199735.780420.213Allen Iverson199613.481850.079Joe Smith19955.575520.035Glenn Robinson19946.693210.034Chris Webber199318.850630.178Shaquille O'Neal199249.792180.259Larry Johnson199124.981270.147Derrick Coleman199022.875680.145Pervis Ellison198916.853190.152Danny Manning198811.954160.105David Robinson198720.630020.329Brad Daugherty198620.584450.117Patrick Ewing198515.465230.113AVERAGE19.26893.70.134

Only Dwight Howard, LeBron James, Tim Duncan, and Shaquille O'Neal produced more wins than Davis over their first three years. Pretty good company. Moreover, Davis didn't play as many minutes as the average No. 1 pick. If you consider what Davis did per 48 minutes—his WP48 number—we see that his mark of 0.252 was bested only by O'Neal and David Robinson.

Another way to look at the numbers? Given that the average NBA team wins 0.500 games per 48 minutes, the average NBA player produces 0.100 wins per that same span. Meanwhile, the average No. 1 draft pick has a WP48 of 0.134 in his first three years—only a bit better than average. Davis's mark is nearly double that. So the Pelicans didn't get average. They got one of the best top picks in the past 30 years, most definitely winning the lottery.

Like lottery winners in general, however, they've largely failed to capitalize.

In Davis's first three years, the Pelicans made the playoffs once, and haven't won a postseason game. This isn't Davis's fault; the year before he arrived, New Orleans won 21 games. Subtract the wins Davis has produced from the team's subsequent win totals for each season, and here's what you're left with:

2012-13: 18.9 wins without Davis

2013-14: 22.3 wins without Davis

2014-15: 29.8 wins without Davis

The Pelicans won 21 games without Davis in 2011-12 and didn't do much better without him the three seasons after that, averaging just 23.7 wins from all players not named Anthony Davis. Essentially, New Orleans added Davis to a lottery team, and hasn't done much else since.

TFW you need better players, and more of them. Photo by Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

This is not exactly uncommon. NBA teams build a title contender around their No. 1 pick less often than you might assume. Here's a list of all the franchises to do that since 1985:

1. San Antonio

The Spurs won a title with both Robinson and Tim Duncan in 1999, and followed by titles with just Duncan in 2003, 2005, 2007, and 2014. And that's it. In fact, since 1985, O'Neal and James are the only No. 1 picks to have been the key player on any title team, let alone for the franchises that drafted them. (Andrew Bogut did win a title with Golden State last year, but Stephen Curry was the league MVP and clearly the Warriors' key player.)

So here's the real lesson of winning the No. 1 pick: be good enough avoid it. Currently, fans of lousy teams are taught that if their favorite club just sucks enough, the lottery gods will smile, and happiness will be their future reward. Lottery teams exist for a reason, though. Teams lose because they can't find enough talent to win. Adding one great player to a team with little else won't produce a title contender.

What ends up happening? Those singular talents eventually get tired of mediocrity, and takes said talents elsewhere. Once that happens, lottery teams are back in the lottery.

A Pelican for now, but will he spend his career in New Orleans? Photo by Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Luckily for the New Orleans, Davis signed a five-year contract with the Pelicans this past summer. Unluckily for Davis, the Pelicans also signed three additional players on the same day: Omer Asik, Alexis Ajinca, and Dante Cunningham.

Here's how GM Dell Demps announced these moves:

"We are thrilled to have Anthony commit to the Pelicans as we continue to build our team to have sustained success. The Pelicans are proud to welcome the return of Omer, Alexis and Dante to our team. All three players were key contributors on our team last season. We are happy all three players elected to return and continue our quest to become an elite team in the NBA."

And here is what those three players did in 2014-15:

Omer Asik: 7.3 Wins Produced, 0.176 WP48

Alexis Ajinca: 2.5 Wins Produced, 0.125 WP48

Dante Cunningham: 2.4 Wins Produced, 0.07 WP48

Are these really the key players the Pelicans need? Well, Asik has certainly been an above average player. History tells us that Ajinca and Cunningham are not: Ajinca was never above average in five seasons before last year, and Cunningham has been consistently below average in his career. Demps, the person charged with building this "elite team," should know that. But does he?

New Orleans is struggling this season, having suffered a number of injuries early on; while the team should improve with better health, the larger problem of surrounding Davis with sufficient supporting talent remains unsolved. If the Pelicans can't get that right, their erstwhile savior likely will bolt at the end of his current contract. And New Orleans will be right back where it started in the lottery, failing sideways instead of up, rags to riches to rags.