The Unimpeachable Guide to Danny Ainge and the NBA Draft (2003-2011)

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The following originally appeared at Krucial Kuts Blog on February 19, 2012.  It has since been revised, mostly to include statistics through the end of the 2011-’12 season.

Earlier this year, Friend of the Kuts Nigel asked for our take on the Celtics’ draft evaluation acumen and strategy under the iron-fisted rule of former Toronto Blue Jays infielder Danny Ainge.  Along with his question, Nigel expressed two ideas.  The first: when it comes to the draft, Ainge has placed an out-sized emphasis on defensive specialists at the expense of capable scorers (Kendrick Perkins, Avery Bradley, and Tony Allen).  The second: Ainge has demonstrated an inability to properly evaluate offensive skill (Gerald Green).

To examine the issue, we first wanted to get a sense of how Ainge’s performance has compared to that of his peers.  We compiled a list of every player selected in the NBA draft since 2003, Ainge’s first year on the job.  Then, using Basketball-Reference’s handy Draft page, we pulled up the Win Shares[1] generated by each player selected.

Our initial analysis was a simple one: tally up all of the Win Shares, divide by the total number of picks, and whichever team showed the most Win Shares per Pick drafted best.  Before we get to the results, there are a few things to note about our thought process:

1.  When compiling the list of drafted players, we defined a team’s “picks” as players who went on to play for the team that chose them before playing for any other NBA team, and players who were drafted and then traded to the team in question before the season started.  For example, in 2008 the Minnesota Timberwolves drafted O.J. Mayo with the third pick and the Memphis Grizzlies drafted Kevin Love with the fifth.  Shortly thereafter, the two players were traded for each other.  For our purposes, Mayo was picked by the Grizzlies and Love was picked by the Timberwolves.

2.  As we are trying to get a sense of how Ainge and his contemporaries have performed as talent evaluators, we are not separating Win Shares that were generated for another team out of the tally.  The Celtics drafted Al Jefferson and later traded him to the Timberwolves for Kevin Garnett.  The Win Shares that Big Al generated for the ah-WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOs and, later, the Utah Jazz, count toward the Celtics’ total.

Apportioning the Win Shares to any trade partners or teams that picked a player up in free agency would not only be painfully time consuming, it would also transform the exercise into an examination of team building.  This would become increasingly convoluted as we factored in Win Shares generated by veteran players received in trade or looked at the effects of player movement on payroll flexibility.  We’re only interested in how teams compare to each other in terms of drafting players who can perform well enough to maintain a place for themselves in the league.

3.  During Danny’s time in the Captain’s chair, several teams have experienced turnover in their front offices, going through one or two or more changes in the General Manager’s seat.  We’re measuring Danny’s performance against the other teams in the league, not the other executives, so we make no distinction between, say, the picks made for the New York Knicks by Scott Layden, Isiah Thomas and Donnie Walsh.

The following table shows the total number of picks and pick-generated Win Shares for each team since the 2003 draft, sorted by Win Shares per Pick.

Ainge has done well in the draft, finishing eighth with 10.0 WS/Pick, well enough above the league average of 8.3.  Other notables:

  • The Chicago Bulls (16.0 WS/Pick) have been the elite, landing high-quality players such as Luol Deng (49.7 WS), Kirk Hinrich (44.0) Ben Gordon (33.9), Joakim Noah (32.2), and Derrick Rose (30.0).  They’ve benefited from six top-10 picks in the last nine years, tied for the second most in that range in that span.
  • Of course, high picks don’t mean much if your management doesn’t know how to use them.  The Minnesota Timberwolves (3.6 WS/Pick) have had a league-leading seven top-10s since 2003, yet finish dead-last in this measurement.
  • The Cleveland Cavaliers rank high on this list (13.1 WS/Pick) thanks entirely to the selection of LeBron James, whose 133.3 Win Shares are by far the most generated by any player drafted in the past nine years.  This number makes up 60% of the Win Shares that the Cavs have put into the league through the draft.  Just for JKs, let’s say that Cleveland drafted Carmelo Anthony (third selection overall, 62.9 WS) instead of LeBron.    Their new average of 8.9 WS/Pick would drop them from fourth in the league to 12th.  For heartier laughs, let’s imagine that they drafted Darko Milicic (second selection, 7.2 WS).  At 5.6 WS/Pick, they would rank 22nd.
  • Some may be surprised to see the San Antonio Spurs, who have a reputation as one of the very best organizations in the league, second to last on this list, slumming alongside perennial cellar-dwellers the Clippers, Nets and Timberwolves.  This is because nine of the Spurs’ 19 picks were mid-to-late-second-rounders who have never played a minute of NBA basketball.  Their no-show percentage of 47.4% leads the league by a fairly wide margin, ahead of second-place Dallas and Denver at 41.7% each.

As we pointed out, the Bulls have had six top-ten picks since 2003.  The Celtics are one of only four teams[2] to have had zero such picks in that time[3], and they are one of seven teams[4] to have had two or fewer top-fifteens.  Despite drafting from a point of disadvantage year after year, Ainge has been able to regularly identify and select players who wind up sticking and contributing to the league.

To further our sense of just how well Ainge has performed with the very best players long off the board, we put together the following graph, which shows win shares per pick by draft spot for the Celtics, the rest of the league as a whole, and the other nine top-10 WS/pick teams.

We see that the Celtics, represented by the green bar, have generated zero WS/Pick from draft spots one through five because they haven’t made any selections in those spots.  On average, the other 29 teams in the league have turned those spots into 27.1 WS/Pick, and the other nine teams on our top-10 list have turned them into 36.5 WS/Pick.

Both the league and the Top 10 follow the same trend line: they make their biggest scores within the first five picks, drop off by roughly half at the six-to-ten range, and then experience gradually diminishing returns as the draft goes on.

The Celtics, on the other hand, have thrived in the middle and back end of the first round and the middle of the second round.  The following table lists the players that the Celtics have taken in these spots, the Win Shares they’ve generated, and their contributions to some of the major statistical categories.  The table is sorted by Win Shares generated, and includes Win Shares per 48 minutes.

The Celtics had their best success in the draft from 2003-2007, a stretch that saw the team go from average to terrible in the standings.  With the onset of the Garnett era, the Celtics won a title, lost out on another in seven games, and made the playoffs four seasons and counting.  They also stopped getting draft picks in remotely promising spots.  From 2003-2007, the Celtics had seven first-round picks and seven second-round picks.  On average, these were the 20th and 45th overall.  Since then, they’ve had three first-rounders and five second-rounders, which averaged out as the 25th and 54th picks overall.

This table shows the players chosen in spots where the Celtics have not fared as well.

It seems fitting that Gerald Green is at the top of this list.  Taken fresh out of high school, Gerald came into the league with little more than an uncanny leaping ability, which translated into some truly spectacular displays of in-game dunking.  Unfortunately, his hops didn’t translate into much else.  At the end of the 2007 season, Green was dealt to the Timberwolves as part of the package that brought back Kevin Garnett.  Two years later, he was out of the league.  You can read all about his time with the Celtics and the years beyond by pulling “The Avery Bradley Chronicles” off the shelf and thumbing your way over to Episode 18.

The selection of Green is often used as a symbol of Danny’s failings as a GM.  Ainge had hoped to select Danny Granger (46.7 WS and counting), but he was chosen by Larry Bird and the Indiana Pacers with the pick immediately preceding the Celtics’.  The following players were still on the board between the selections of Green and Ryan Gomes, who the C’s would take with their next pick (50th overall): David Lee (47.4 WS), Louis Williams (25.2), Jarrett Jack (24.2), Monta Ellis (23.5), Brandon Bass (21.5), Hakim Warrick (20.4), Nate Robinson (19.8), and 13 others who have had more impactful careers than Gerald’s.  Of course, when this is brought up, no one mentions that Lee, Williams and Ellis were chosen 30th, 45th and 40th.  No teams foresaw that they’d turn out to be as good as they have.

Ainge dreamed big on Green’s athleticism and came up with the short end.  It happens.  We don’t have graphs or tables to back this up, but we’re pretty sure that every GM has a Gerald Green, Stromile Swift, Hasheem Thabeet, or Jonathan Bender who they’d like to forget about.  A player taken high in the draft based on the promise of his raw, physical gifts and little else.  A player who didn’t pan out.

The draft is a gamble, with the odds stacking higher and higher against its participants as each selection is made.  Between 2003 and 2007, 25 players, including Gerald Green, were selected in the 16-20 range.  Fourteen of those players have been worth 1.0 or more Win Shares per year since their selection.  Eleven have been worth less.  The space that separates Joey Graham (2005, 16th pick, 1.1 WS/Year) from Danny Granger (17th, 6.7) from Gerald Green (18th, 0.4) from Hakim Warrick (19th, 2.9) from Julius Hodge (20th, 0.0) is the same as with every draft choice, year after year: one pick.

Postscript: the book on Gerald Green hasn’t closed yet.  After putting in a season each with PBC Lokomotiv-Kuban and BC Krasnye Krylia of the Russian Professional Basketball League, Green made his way back to the D-League’s Los Angeles D-Fenders, where he played well enough to earn himself a ticket back to the NBA.  His return was triumphant indeed, as he posted career-high averages in points (12.9), shooting percentage (48.1), three-point percentage (39.1), and rebounds (3.5) over a 31-game stint with the New Jersey Nets.

This brings us back to the two-pronged query that got this ball rolling: when it comes to the draft, does Danny Ainge place an out-sized emphasis on defensive specialists at the expense of capable scorers, or does he simply lack the tools to properly evaluate offensive ability?  It was several months ago that we set out to answer this.  Using a very crude analysis – looking up Offensive and Defensive Win Shares for all of Ainge’s draft picks and then subtracting one from the other – we arrived at some sort of an answer.  Looking back on it now, though, we feel like our approach to answering the question was, quite frankly, kind of bullshit.  It’s probably best if we don’t run it again, but we can’t help ourselves.  You can see those results here around the bottom-fourth of the page, if you like.

In its place, we’ve decided to provide no answer to the question.  Haven’t we done enough for you already?


[1] The Win Share is an all-in-one statistical shorthand that estimates “a player’s contribution [to his team] in terms of wins”.  Essentially, it measures the quality of a player’s performance in a way that normalizes for all different types of players.  Check our www.basketball-reference.com for a detailed description of what Win Shares are and how they’re calculated.

[2] Spurs, Rockets and Suns.

[3] In 2006 they had the seventh pick (Randy Foye) and in 2007 they had the fifth (Jeff Green), but traded both away.

[4] Spurs, Rockets, Mavericks, Lakers, Nuggets and Heat.

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Tags: Boston Celtics Celtics Danny Ainge Gerald Green NBA NBA Draft

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