I know that this blog is supposed to be about economics, so let me start off by pretending to discuss economics, before getting to the interesting stuff, tonight’s NBA draft.
No, the draft is not unfair. No, it doesn’t violate antitrust rules. Although NBA teams compete in an athetic sense, they don’t compete in an economic sense—they cooperate. The economic competitors to the Chicago Bulls are not the San Antonio Spurs, the competitors are the Chicago Blackhawks, Chicago area movie theaters and nightclubs, and Chicago area TV programming. It helps to think of the NBA as a single firm, with lots of franchises, which collaborate to produce the most entertaining product possible–in a vastly larger entertainment “industry”. I’ve never heard anyone complain that Cirque du Soleil is violating antitrust laws if they assign acrobats to one of their 19 stylish circuses.
For NBA fans, the draft is very interesting precisely because a single player can make a much bigger difference in basketball than in the other major team sports. No quarterback or pitcher, no matter how good, could take a bunch of misfits to the championship series the way Lebron did this year. And now that the best players come out early, there’s a lot of uncertainty as to how good they’ll end up being once they get to the NBA.
Today I’d like to point to a possible inefficiency or bias in the drafting process. Teams picking at the top (say the first or second pick) seem to overrate the importance of big men. Non-basketball fans might be wondering what I mean, aren’t all basketball players “big men?” It’s relative, I’m talking mostly about centers, or very big power forwards. I looked back over the drafts since 1965, and didn’t find a single example where a team picked a small guy at one or two over a big guy, and strongly regretted it. In contrast, there are 9 cases of where a team picked a big guy over a small guy, and clearly regretted it. (And there probably would have been 10 if Len Bias hadn’t died.) I looked at picks one and two over picks two or three—obviously if you look at the entire draft you can find hidden gems, I’m looking at a choice between the top few prospects.
Even worse, the NBA is rapidly evolving in the direction of centers being unimportant. In the recent playoffs, teams would often go without any center at the end of games, when it mattered most. The team that won the championship was able to do this for long periods, without the big men on the other team being able to take advantage. So this is an even stronger argument to draft small. And yet once again, the top pick and probably the top two picks are expected to be big men.
Here are some botched draft picks, big over small:
1966: Bill Buntin (2) over Gail Goodrich (3)
1984: Sam Bowie (2) over Jordan (3)
1990: Derrick Coleman (1) over Gary Payton (2)
1998: Michael Olowokandi (1) over Mike Bibby (2)
2001: Kwame Brown (1) over anybody
2003: Darko Milicic (2) over Carmelo (3) Bosh (4) and Wade (5)
2005: Andrew Bogut (1) over Deron Williams (3) and Chris Paul (4)
2007: Greg Oden (1) over Kevin Durant (2)
2009: Hasheem Thabeet (2) over James Harden (3)
If you define “bigs” more generously, you have one possible error in 2011, when Evan Turner (2) went ahead of Derrick Favors (3). Favors has finally emerged as arguably the better player. But then what about 2013, where the semi-big Anthony Bennett (1) went ahead of Oladipo (2)?
If the Lakers take Russell over Okafor and it doesn’t pan out, it would be the first time in at least 50 years that this happened.
BTW, I vote for OKC having the best string of drafts ever, getting Durant (2) Westbrook (4) and Harden (3) in three consecutive drafts, arguably three of the top 6 players in the league right now. (The others are obviously Lebron, Curry and AD.) Too bad OKC traded Harden.
Because I’m a Wisconsin fan you might be wondering what I think of our two prospects. The most notable aspect of Kaminsky is how bad he was in his first couple years, and how rapidly he improved in his final two. He started out as a guard in high school, and can do a lot of things pretty well. Fits well in the new NBA, which emphasizes the 3 over traditional centers. Dekker has a higher ceiling than Kaminsky but a lower floor. It all depends whether he can consistently hit the three. Don’t pay attention to lazy pundits who always compare people to other players of the same race; Dekker’s closest comp may be Richard Jefferson. He’s surprisingly effective in the open floor, especially when driving to the basket.
PS. Think drafting is easy? Take a look at picks 11 through 16 in 2008, and then picks 21 through 26 from the same draft:
11-16: Jerryd Bayless, Jason Thompson, Brandon Rush, Anthony Randolph, Robin Lopez, Marreese Speights
21-26: Ryan Anderson, Courtney Lee, Kosta Koufos, Serge Ibaka, Nicolas Batum, George Hill
Which 6 would you rather have?
PPS. I’m opposed to the current draft lottery for obvious tanking reasons. I favor all of the non-playoff teams having an equal chance for any of the first 14 slots. Philadelphia is a disgrace to professional sports.
PPPS. I don’t like the 3 point shot—makes games too one dimensional. Reminds me of the way tennis was ruined when changes in technology made it impossible to employ the wide variety of shots that McEnroe used to use.