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The Celtics Are Draft Savants, Part II

In February, I expressed my surprise when 82games.com ranked the Celtics the 8th-smartest drafting team since 1989 using a formula measuring how players performed compared with how players picked in their draft slot perform on average.

Now ESPN has run a similar study using John Hollinger’s Estimated Wins Added  to calculate the actual vs. expected value of each draft pick, and this time the Celtics finished sixth

In February, I argued that the Celtics high ranking on the 82games was less the product of brilliant drafting and more the result of the C’s snapping up star players that fell into their laps (Paul Pierce) and generally avoiding catastrophic mistakes (other than Eric Montross). 

The new ESPN study shows I didn’t give the Celtics enough credit for how well they’ve done in the mid/late first round and the second round. For the first 30 draft slots, ESPN listed the best-ever player (by Estimated Wins Added per season), the worst-ever pick and the player who most closely represents the average production a team should expect from a given draft slot. For the 2nd round draft slots, ESPN listed the ceiling player only. (They also included a “scrub ratio,” which measures, as you can probably guess, the percentage of players who turn out to be scrubs as defined by having an average career Estimated Wins Added of 1.0 or fewer per season). Once you get into the second round, you’re looking at about an 80 to 90 percent chance of drafting a “scrub”). 

Some good findings:

• Paul Pierce is the “best” 10th pick in the post-1989 era (so far)

• Rajon Rondo is the “best” 21st pick (so far).

• Leon Powe is the “best” 49th pick (so far).

• Ryan Gomes is the “best” 50th pick  (so far).

Some bad findings:

• Eric Montross is the “worst” 9th pick ever (so far).

• There is virtually no chance the Celtics will draft a useful player with the 58th pick this season–if they even keep the pick. The ceiling for the 58th pick since ’89, according to Hollinger’s Wins Added, is Don Reid of Georgetown. 

I was surprised Al Jefferson wasn’t the “ceiling” for the 15th pick, but Steve Nash has him trumped there. And I was sure either Jerome Moiso or Kedrick Brown–picked back-to-back at #11 in 2000 and 2001–would be the “floor” player for that pick. But you can’t possibly get worse than Fran Vasquez. I suppose Vasquez, having never played a single minute in the NBA, is the absolute worst draft pick of all-time, right?At least Olowokandi played! At least the Clippers got to see definitive, up-close proof that he was awful. 

What really jumped out to me is how uninspiring the average player is at even very high first-round slots, starting at #2, where Marcus Camby is closest to average. (Gary Payton is the ceiling pick). By the time you get to #6, the average is Tom Gugliotta, at #10 it’s Erick Dampier and at #15 you’re already looking at an expected outcome of Kelvin Cato. And these are the average players. Imagine if you draft a bust? The difference between totally blowing, say, the 14th pick, and hitting a home run there is the difference between drafting Tim Hardaway and Mateen Cleaves. 

In fact, here’s every 14th overall pick since ’89, in chronological order. (Why the 14th pick? I dunno. Random). 

Tim Hardaway, Travis Mays, Rich King, Malik Sealy, Scott Haskin, Yinka Dare, Eric Williams, Peja Stojakovic, Maurice Taylor, Michael Dickerson, William Avery, Mateen Cleaves, Troy Murphy, Fred Jones, Luke Ridnour, Kris Humpries, Rashard McCants, Ronnie Brewer, Al Thornton, Anthony Randolph.

By my count, 11 of those guys are fringe NBA players at best. So, even with the 14th pick, you really have only half a chance of even drafting a useful end-of-the-bench player. 

One way to look at this is to say that screwing up a mid-first round pick isn’t really a big deal. The average player at #14 is Al Thornton, according to ESPN. So if your crazy owner got fooled by the NCAA tournament and demanded you take Mateen Cleaves, well, so what? You were probably only going to get Al Thornton anyway. 

To me, this means a team drafting anywhere outside the top 10 should either a) pick a player who brings one dynamite skill your team needs to contend or continue contending or b) swing for the fences and gamble on someone who, for whatever reason, has a chance to be a franchise-changer–a freakish athlete, a weird skill set, ridiculous speed, whatever. This is why the Warriors nailed the 14th pick last year by nabbing Randolph instead of more established college guys.

Picking a star once you get past the top five picks is literally a franchise-altering thing. Getting Rajon Rondo at #21, when the expected outcome is Jon Barry–that changes the course of a franchise just as much as getting Dwight Howard at #1. 

But not even the C’s can work any magic from the #58 spot.

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