Friday, January 09, 2009

"Nobody Knows Anything," Part II

The quote in the title is from famed screenwriter William Goldman (The Princess Bride, Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid), commenting about the process of making movies. His point was that, no matter how scrupulously studio heads read scripts and make decisions, the reality is that everyone is pretty much guessing what movies are going to be huge successes and what ones are going to flop. I can rail against studios for ignoring artsy projects that get picked up by indie studios and turned into hits (a few years ago, all five Best Picture nominees had, at one time, been rejected by the same studio), but it's an impossible gig. No one really knows, for sure, what projects will be huge and what will tank. Having the Wachovski brothers, makers of the Matrix films direct a kid's film starring one of the best young actors out there, based off a very popular cartoon seems like a great idea to me, but Speed Racer was a disaster and bombed at the box office. So I can't point fingers.

The argument is, though, if the same holds true for an NBA draft. Is it really just all potluck? Were the Hawks misguided in choosing Shelden Williams over Brandon Roy? Or just unlucky? Can I really fault them for not picking Chris Paul? Or Tony Parker? Were Priest Lauderdale, and Royal Ivey bad selections - or just bad luck?

We can't know for certain, but a good test would be to see if the opposite is consistently true. If the Hawks are the worst drafting team in the NBA, what's the best drafting team? And has their organization consistently drafted well - or just occasionally gotten luck?

Well, here's the first argument that it's all luck: there aren't that many teams that draft that well in the NBA. A lot of the teams have made it through by filling their rosters through trades and free agency - with the occasional home run. Still, there are teams that have shown consistent foresight in the past ten years: Boston (Paul Pierce, Joe Johnson, Al Jefferson) has shown a real ability to spot top-tier talent in the middle of the first round, but they've also spent much of that time trying to amass mid-round picks, hoping to get lucky, and they've made a few mistakes along the way (Tony Allen over Kevin Martin, for example). Phoenix has also shown a propensity for making strong picks in the first round, whether early (Amar'e Stoudamire #4, Luol Deng #7, Shawn Marion #9) or late (Michael Finley #21, Steve Nash #16, Rajon Rondo #21). No one team, though, has drafted as consistently well in the middle of the first round as the Hornets, even late in the first round. 1996: Kobe Bryant (#13), 1998: Ricky Davis (#21), 1999: Baron Davis (#3), 2000: Jamaal Magloire (#19), 2003: David West (#16), 2004: J.R. Smith (#18), 2005: Chris Paul (#4). Wow.

Other teams have picked well despite never making the draft a priority. San Antonio has shown a propensity to trade their draft pick away at the slightest provocation, and because of their consistent winning ways, tend to pick at the very end of the first round anyway - something like 27th or 28th, usually. Even with this exceedingly large handicap, they've shown that they make every pick count - either finding All-Stars (1999: Manu Ginóbili at #57, 2001: Tony Parker at #29, ) or very solid role players (2002: John Salmons #26, Luis Scola #55, 2003: Leandro Barbosa #28, 2004: Beno Udrih #28). One of reasons the Spurs have remained a solid team, year after year, is that they continue to complement their stars with extremely well-selected draft picks.

Now we have both sides. The teams incapable of making good choices and the teams that never seem to go wrong. And everyone else is hit or miss. So, either:
a. It's all luck and some people get consistently lucky
b. It's not luck and some organizations are just impossibly terrible at it.
c. It's part luck, part skill, and the part that's skill is something the Hawks don't have any of.

I'm going for (c). But the major thing we've uncovered is this - if it's all luck, or mostly luck, then no team could have the sort of string that the Spurs, or the Hornets, or the Suns had - or the Hawks either, for that matter. It's just not possible.

So the people who excuse themselves for bad drafts as "there was no way we could know" are fooling themselves. Good drafting teams draft well - consistently. Bad drafting teams draft poorly - consistently. Luck absolutely plays a part in it, but there's a difference between Len Bias and Darko Miličić.

And unfortunately for the Hawks, there's a difference between Shelden Williams and Brandon Roy.

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At January 11, 2009 4:49 PM, Blogger Assistant Village Idiot said...

Those Spurs picks are foreign players, suggesting that they scout or project those players better than others. That's a considerable edge for later draft picks, doubling the pool you draw from.

You might be able to pick up a few news stories about what various teams' - especially those you listed - drafting philosophies are. The Moneyball philosophy in baseball is not infallible, but does have consistently better success than other methods. Maybe there is something similar that a few NBA teams are onto. If you've discovered that steals or rebounding in a young player is consistently undervalued by other teams but are good predictors, you have an edge.


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