Why NBA Teams Get Stuck on the Draft Lottery Treadmill

The Philadelphia 76ers and the Los Angeles Lakers won the 2016 NBA Draft Lottery, but can they escape return trips? League history and player evaluation mistakes suggest it won't be easy.

by David Berri
May 18 2016, 6:25pm

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Last night, the Philadelphia 76ers and the Los Angeles Lakers saw their tankiest dreams come true, coming out of the NBA Draft Lottery with the first and second respective selections in this summer's draft. After a season in which these two franchises combined for 137 process-oriented losses, the lottery has given fans of both teams a reason to hope. Ben Simmons, come on down! Brandon Ingram, your time is now!

At least, that's the dream being offered through the lottery. Each and every year, the NBA teams that don't make the playoffs—and that didn't trade away their draft picks to the Boston Celtics—gather to watch a sequestered, top-secret drawing of numbered ping pong balls that is never, ever tipped to Dikembe Mutombo ahead of time, all crossing their fingers that they'll land a transcendent talent who will turn their losing fortunes around.

Certainly that was the dream of the Lakers and the Sixers when they selected second and third, respectively, in the 2015 Draft. And when they selected in the lottery in 2014.

Read More: Who Is Thon Maker, the NBA Draft's Gangly Mystery Man?

Indeed, in recent years a lottery-sparked revival has been the dream of the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Sacramento Kings, the Phoenix Suns, the Orlando Magic, the Utah Jazz, the New York Knicks, and the Denver Nuggets, all of which have missed the playoffs each season since 2014. Three of those teams—the Jazz, the Magic, and the Sixers—also missed in 2013. And while that sounds rough, the Kings haven't reached the postseason for a decade; Minnesota hasn't been there since 2005.

For many NBA franchises, the draft lottery has become the defining moment in the lives of their fans. Each year, those fans are promised a better future—and each year, they may as well send Bill Murray to the lottery drawing. These teams just can't seem to escape what I've dubbed the lottery treadmill, which, for the uninitiated, basically works like this:

● Team takes a player in the lottery.

● As economic research indicates, high draft picks tend to get more minutes than their productivity justifies. In addition, rookies tend to be below-average NBA players.

● Giving extended minutes to a below-average player makes it likely a team will end up back in the lottery.

● With the return-trip lottery pick, the team selects another player who, as a rookie, gets more minutes than his below-average production would indicate.

● Giving that player more minutes increases the odds the team will once again be back in the lottery.

● Back to Step 1.

TFW you're about to join The Process. Photo by Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Laid out like this, the strategy of team-building via the draft lottery—epitomized by the Sixers' much-debated "Process," a multi-year effort to lose as many games and collect as many high draft picks as possible—can seem a bit, well, suboptimal. But in defense of NBA decision-makers, the basic logic makes sense: teams that aren't good enough to contend for a championship gamble that they can rebuild and improve by shedding productive, established players for young players who may become even more productive. Maybe, just maybe, one of those players will even become an ultra-productive, franchise-changing superstar.

When this strategy works, it really works: from 2007-09, the Oklahoma City Thunder selected Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden with consecutive lottery picks, and have been one of the league's best teams ever since.

The thing is, the Thunder are a rare, best-case scenario. Far more often, teams get stuck in neutral. Since the draft lottery was instituted in 1984, 21 of the NBA's 30 teams have found themselves out of the playoffs for five or more consecutive seasons. That's more than two-thirds of the league! So what gives? Well, super-productive, game-changing players like Durant and Westbrook don't come along very often. Landing one takes a lot of luck.

At the same time, teams whiff on the opportunity when it presents itself—for example, Hasheem Thabeet was selected ahead of Harden. More important, those same teams often do a poor job of picking productive players, the good if not great contributors who are vital to contending squads.

Evidence suggests that the latter issue has little to do with luck, and a lot to do with misguided scouting priorities.

Hasheem Thabeet played for the Thunder? Photo by Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

NBA teams often tell their fans that they look at "everything" in making their draft selections. And academic research indicates they look at quite a bit. In a working paper I co-authored with economists Jennifer VanGilder and Steve Walters, we found that a college player's draft position was enhanced by his ability to score, accumulate assists, block shots, and avoid personal fouls. Physical attributes measured at the NBA Draft Combine, like being taller and having a longer vertical reach, also helped. Finally, playing for a winning team, especially a team that reached the NCAA Final Four, was really important.

From this list, the factors that have the largest impact are a player's age, his scoring totals, and his team's winning percentage.

Tiffany Greer, Joshua Price, and I also have asked a related research question: What gets a player in the draft pool in the first place? Theoretically, thousands of college players could be drafted each year by NBA teams, but in the end only a few dozen hear their name called. What determines if you are in or out? Again, it appears teams consider a variety of factors. Among them, the most important were—you guessed it—a player's age, his scoring totals, and his team's winning percentage.

In short, if you're a young scorer on a winning team, NBA decision-makers will notice. In fact, Greer, Price, and I note that a college player whose team wins fewer than 40 percent of his contests has essentially a zero percent chance of being drafted. This means that an entire population of potential players is ignored by league scouts, simply because their teammates weren't good enough to win many games.

This selection bias may even affect the two players the Sixers are likely to consider for the first choice in the 2016 Draft, Simmons and Ingram. Simmons is a 6-foot-10 freshman who averaged 19.2 points and 11.8 rebounds per game for LSU while shooting 56.1 percent from two-point range. Based on his box score stats, we can calculate that he was worth 0.332 wins per 40 minutes for the Tigers—more than three times greater than the average college player.

By contrast, Ingram, a 6-foot-9 freshman, tallied 17.3 points and 6.8 rebounds per game while shooting 46.4 percent on two-pointers and 41.0 percent on three-pointers for Duke. Primarily because Ingram doesn't shoot very well from two-point range, he only produced about 0.144 wins per 40 minutes. In other words, he was less than half as productive as Simmons.

Like a sharp suit, Brandon Ingram's talented teammates helped him look good. Photo by Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Just looking at on-court production, Simmons appears to be the obvious first overall pick. But because league decision-makers give undue weight to college team performance—and because Duke won 25 games and made the NCAA Tournament while LSU won 19 games and did not—Philadelphia's decision between the two may be closer than it ought to be. Our research indicates that playing on a winning college team isn't related to superior NBA production; moreover, none of the factors most prized in the draft—youth, college scoring, and combine measurables—seems to predict professional productivity.

And this, at least in part, explains why lottery teams make draft mistakes.

So what does matter when it comes to predicting future NBA performance? From our research, two things stand out: shooting efficiency and rebounds. Yet shooting efficiency doesn't have a big impact on where a player is drafted. Ingram had problems hitting two-point shots, and he is still considered by many to be the best talent in the draft. Meanwhile, rebounds don't seem to affect draft position at all.

Look, divining NBA productivity from college performance is difficult. After all, college prospects play in a limited number of games against inferior opponents. But the job becomes harder when you overvalue information that isn't predictive, and undervalue information that is. Right now, college stats do a better job of forecasting professional performance than where a player was selected in the draft. Given how much time and effort franchises put into scouting, that shouldn't be the case.

The draft is a gamble—one in which NBA teams consistently undercut their own odds of success. As such, fans should feel free to dream about how the lottery is going to transform their losing franchise, but also be aware of the terrible truth: so long as teams focus on young scorers from winning college teams and undervalue efficient scorers who can rebound, the lottery treadmill will keep on spinning.

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