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June 24, 2011
Rating the Draft
Ranking Team Performance

by Kevin Pelton

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Rating a draft the night it is completed is a relatively pointless exercise. It's not necessarily that only time will determine whether picks are successes or failures, though this is certainly the case. The larger issue is that, though it makes sense to evaluate picks based only on the information known at the time they were made, this is inherently a subjective exercise. This is especially true with the 2011 Draft because of the lack of consensus about the top prospects. Ask five different experts and you're likely to get five different opinions about several polarizing players.

My draft metrics offer the ability to analyze the draft with some degree of objectivity. Statistics have their biases as well, and one of the notable things reading through John Hollinger's Draft Rater, analysis by Draft Express and more was that even the numbers couldn't agree this year. Still, it's an interesting measuring stick that doesn't require time (and luck) for application.

Specifically, the number I'm using is projected WARP, as introduced prior to the 2009 Draft. Projected WARP combines a player's translated college winning percentage and his age to give an estimate of the average WARP he'll provide over his first five seasons, adjusted for the value of immediate returns. This was designed for use with NCAA prospects, but I've also approximated it for international players with reliable translated statistics, so many of them are included. Overall, I have ratings for 51 of the 60 players who were drafted Thursday and all of the first-round picks save Enes Kanter.

At the team level, it doesn't necessarily make sense to look just at total value added. It's no surprise that the Cleveland Cavaliers come out tops by this method, with 5.6 pWARP between Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson. (Their second-round pick, Milan Macvan, was one of the European players without a projection.) With two of the top four picks, however, the Cavaliers better have come away with more value than anyone else.

To instead compare performance to the expectation for each pick, I combined the historical distribution of pWARP by pick (smoothed using a natural-log curve) with the total pWARP available in this year's draft. That produced, for example, an expectation of 2.9 pWARP for Cleveland's No. 1 overall pick. Irving's actual pWARP of 3.9 put the Cavaliers somewhat ahead of the game.

Here are the top five teams by value over what was expected based on their picks, in all cases post-trades.

1. Chicago Bulls (2.1 expected, 5.2 actual)
By this method, the single best pick of the draft was Real Madrid forward Nikola Mirotic. The Bulls traded up to pick 23 to swoop in and get Mirotic ahead of other teams interested in stashing him in Europe while awaiting his buyout becoming reasonable. We would have expected the 23rd pick in this year's draft to have a WARP projection of 1.1; Mirotic was actually at 4.0, which put him second in the draft. I'm inclined to be a little skeptical of the European numbers, but Mirotic was a very effective player in the Euroleague at age 20, which suggests a bright future ahead of him. Adjusting for the fact that Mirotic is unlikely to come over for at least two seasons, he's not quite as valuable as he looks here, but he was still a terrific pick for a team that had another first-round choice to fill out its roster. In Marquette forward Jimmy Butler, Chicago got solid value for the last pick of the round.

2. Toronto Raptors (2.0 expected, 4.4 actual)
The other European youngster who shines statistically is Jonas Valanciunas, taken No. 5 overall by the Raptors. Valanciunas has the best WARP projection of any player in the draft. Similar caveats apply, but Valanciunas' potential is obvious. At 19, he appears capable of being a rotation player next season if not for buyout issues of his own. If Valanciunas can add strength and improve as a defender, he's got the potential to be an All-Star center in the NBA. Not many players in this draft have the same kind of upside.

3. Denver Nuggets (2.2 expected, 4.0 actual)
Kenneth Faried has long been a statistical darling. Even after we account for the level of competition he faced in the Ohio Valley Conference, Faried is the best rebounder in this class. No skill has translated more consistently to the NBA than prowess on the glass. Faried compares favorably to undersized power forwards who have overachieved in the NBA, like top statistical comp Paul Millsap. Getting him at pick 22 is a coup for the Nuggets. Denver also got good value in Jordan Hamilton, acquired as part of a three-way trade with the Portland Trail Blazers and Denver Nuggets. Hamilton could easily have gone in the teens but instead lasted until the 26th pick.

4. Charlotte Bobcats (3.4 expected, 4.4 actual)
After a draft-day trade with Milwaukee and Sacramento, Charlotte entered the evening with two of the top nine picks. The Bobcats made good use of both of them, getting Congolese center Bismack Biyombo at No. 7 and UConn guard Kemba Walker at No. 9. Biyombo's exact value is difficult to ascertain because of his limited playing time in Spain and his uncertain age. Suffice it to say that as long as Biyombo is younger than about 22, he made sense as a top-10 pick. Biyombo's numbers in the ACB were similar to those put up by Serge Ibaka in his last season before coming to the NBA, with the exception of a superior block rate that will make Biyombo one of the league's best rim protectors. Walker was rated sixth among the college prospects in the draft, but fell behind Thompson and Kentucky's Brandon Knight.

5. Oklahoma City Thunder (1.1 expected, 2.0 actual)
The Thunder made good use of its lone pick, taking Boston College point guard Reggie Jackson with the 24th selection. An efficient scorer with the ability to make plays for teammates, Jackson rated as the third-best offensive player in the draft behind Irving and Derrick Williams. As a third point guard, Jackson gives Oklahoma City the luxury of moving backup Eric Maynor for value before he hits free agency in two years.

At the other end of the spectrum, two teams in particular failed to get good value for their picks. The Detroit Pistons were far and away the worst team in the league by this measure, ending up with negative projected WARP (-2.1) for three picks that figured to yield 3.3 pWARP. Knight's numbers during his lone season at Kentucky failed to measure up to his potential, but the Pistons truly misfired in the second round. Florida's Vernon Macklin has the weakest statistical resume of any college player drafted in recent memory. Not only are Macklin's translated statistics far below replacement level, he's already 24. It would be essentially unprecedented for Macklin to succeed in the NBA. Duke's Kyle Singler was also among the seven players taken with negative projected WARP, and the highest selection of the group. Singler's calling card is his shooting ability, but his efficiency stagnated over the course of his college career and he does not project as a good NBA scorer.

Like Singler, Nolan Smith appears to have been overdrafted on the strength of his four-year career with the Blue Devils. Smith's projection of 0.1 WARP was the lowest of any first-round pick, a full 1.1 pWARP below what would be expected with the 21st pick. Making matters worse for the Portland Trail Blazers, Faried and Jackson, two of the draft's better values, went off the board during the following three picks.

APPENDIX: COMPLETE TEAM RANKINGS

Team            pWARP   Exp   Diff
----------------------------------
Chicago          5.2    2.1    3.1
Toronto          4.4    2.0    2.4
Denver           4.0    2.2    1.8
Charlotte        4.4    3.4    1.0
Oklahoma City    2.0    1.1    0.9
Milwaukee        2.8    2.0    0.7
New York         2.7    2.0    0.7
San Antonio      2.9    2.3    0.6
Cleveland        5.6    5.0    0.5
Phoenix          1.9    1.4    0.4

Team            pWARP   Exp   Diff
----------------------------------
Houston          3.0    2.6    0.4
Utah             1.9    1.5    0.4
L.A. Clippers    1.9    1.5    0.3
Boston           1.4    1.6   -0.2
Golden State     2.0    2.3   -0.3
L.A. Lakers      1.1    1.5   -0.4
New Jersey       2.4    2.8   -0.5
Philadelphia     1.5    2.0   -0.5
Minnesota        2.8    3.3   -0.5
Atlanta          0.2    0.7   -0.5

Team            pWARP   Exp   Diff
----------------------------------
Miami            0.5    1.0   -0.5
Sacramento       2.4    3.0   -0.6
Washington       3.1    4.0   -0.9
Memphis         -0.2    0.7   -0.9
Portland         0.7    1.8   -1.1
Orlando          0.3    1.5   -1.3
Detroit         -2.1    3.3   -5.3

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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