Luck Is Probably Not Enough to Save the Cavs

Cleveland Cavaliers General Manager David Griffin (left) and minority owner Jeff Cohen celebrate after the Cavaliers won the top pick in the the NBA basketball draft lottery in New York on May 20 Photograph by Kathy Willens/AP Photo

Cleveland sports fans have very little to cheer about for approximately 364 days of the year. The one exception, of course, is the evening of the NBA Draft Lottery, the league’s attempt to excite the fans of losing teams by raffling off the rights to draft top college players and revealing the results via oversize envelopes on ESPN.

This is the one aspect of basketball that the Cavaliers organization excels at. It has won the top spot in three of the past four years. It also won the rights to draft LeBron James in 2003, arguably the biggest draft boon in NBA history (although it ended in the sort of abject humiliation that could happen only to Cleveland sports fans). In those four years, the chances that the Cavs would win the lottery ranged from 22.7 percent in 2011, when the team had both its own pick and the pick of the Los Angeles Clippers, to just 1.7 percent this year. The chances that they would have won all four of those lotteries? A vanishing 0.0135 percent.

So the Cavs are ridiculously lucky. They now have an exclusive chance to reach an employment agreement with a 19-year-old of their choosing. Selecting among college prospects isn’t a perfect science, though, as the Cavs showed when they picked Anthony Bennett with the first overall pick last year. Of all the players drafted in the lottery since 2003, Bennett was the worst as measured by a stat kept by called Win Shares Per 48 minutes. The stat takes various things into account to determine how many wins a player contributes over the full length of a game.

Busts are bound to happen from time to time, given the age of the players involved. So while it’s obvious that the Cavs got lucky, you can’t tell how lucky without knowing how much better the players who get picked first end up being than those who get picked after them. Nate Silver, whose ESPN website is called, estimates that the first overall pick in the draft is worth $30 million to a team, while the second pick is worth $23 million, and all the way down to $12 million for pick No. 14, the last one in the lottery.

Below is a chart that looks at the performance of all the lottery picks since the LeBron lottery, giving the average of the players taken at each lottery slot.

Performance more or less drops off as the picks get lower, which makes sense, given that the best players should be taken first. (The exception is the ninth pick, a result of a small sample size skewed by the disproportionate success of Andrew Drummond, Joakim Noah, and Andre Iguodala.) But it’s not a smooth curve; the best player in any draft is likely to be a whole lot better than anyone else.

This may not be the case this year. Three prospects are deemed elite: Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid of Kansas and Jabari Parker of Duke. This should give some consolation to the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers, who seemed to spend most of the year losing on purpose to get a chance at the top players. Overall, this is seen as the best draft since the 2003 version, and there tends to be considerable variation between generations of players.

So the Cavs will get a star who will transform it into a champion by the time he’s 23? Unlikely. While players selected at the top of the draft are more likely to succeed than those drafted lower, the teams that employ them don’t necessarily rise with them. The last team to have the first pick and then win a championship at any point was the San Antonio Spurs in 1997, and teams that pick in the top three are nearly twice as likely to miss the playoffs for the succeeding four years as they are to make it past the first round, according to David Berri, author of The Wages of Wins: Taking Measure of the Many Myths in Modern Sport. “Tanking simply does not work,” he told Derek Thompson of the Atlantic in March.

If the lottery and the draft don’t help bad teams get better, why bother with them? For the NBA, it gives a chance to offer some drama for the also-rans, at a time when it is running out of games to show on television. And for Clevelanders, it gives a few months of hope before the games start back up in the fall and crush it.

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