What are Wolves’ Second-Round Draft Picks Worth?


The Minnesota Timberwolves are certainly not just one player away from a championship-contending team; even if that player is a number-one pick.

If President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders believes he can add an important piece to the long-term puzzle who will be out of reach when the team picks at #31 and #36, he may decide to trade one or both picks to move up.  The question is: What are those picks worth?

In the early 1990s, for Dallas Cowboys head coach Jimmy Johnson created his famous draft value chart.  Despite being problematic in a number of ways, it roughly illustrates how the value of picks decay exponentially from #1 on—the top pick (3000 points) is worth five times as much as the 31st pick (600 points) in the first round, for example.  While there is no similar, generally-accepted value chart for the NBA draft, but several people have made attempts.

Previous Analyses

In 2009, Justin Kubatko of Basketball Reference analyzed draft picks from 1977 to 2005 based on the win shares of players taken at each position that pegged the typical #1 pick at an expected value (EV) of 26.5 and the #60 pick at 0.7.  In his system, the 31 pick (4.9) and 36 pick (3.9) combined have an EV of 8.8, which is between the values of the 16 (9.0) and 17 (8.7) picks.

Also in 2009, using John Hollinger’s estimated wins added (EWA) statistic, ESPN.com’s Tom Haberstroh produced his own version of a pick-value scale.  It put the combined value of the 31 and 36 picks at about 1.5 EWA, roughly comparable to pick 23.

In 2007, Aaron Barzilai of 82games.com created his own pick value chart using an analysis of PER, win shares, salaries, and several other metrics.  Although his chart only runs to pick #30, one can extrapolate and estimate the combined value of the 31 and 36 picks at about the equivalent of the 20th pick.

More recently, in May 2014, a FiveThirtyEight Sports analysis of the 1985-2014 NBA drafts places the value of the two Wolves’ picks at around 6 wins produced (based on win shares) each, the combined value similar to that of the 15 pick.

FiveThirtyEight takes things a step farther in translating the value of picks into “net profit” for teams. Essentially, good rookie-contract players produce more wins per dollar of salary than players do once they hit free agency, allowing teams with these players on their rosters to afford more wins under the salary cap.  So, the number one pick on average earns teams a net profit of over $30 million compared to what the team would have to pay for similar win shares for a non-rookie contract player.

Extrapolating from FiveThirtyEight’s chart, the 31 and 36 picks would bring a combined net profit of around $12,650,000, which is between the net profit of the typical 12 and 13 picks.

As one would expect, then, using advanced stats doesn’t give a clear answer.  But placing a combined value on the 31 and 36 picks as roughly comparable to a first-round pick in the late teens or early twenties seems like a reasonable range.

Theory and Reality

These are attempts to add some degree of objectivity to the valuation process.  Applying them to a single draft, much less to a single spot in a single draft, is difficult.  In reality, each draft is different and the assessments and decisions of individual front office personnel are affected by many variables and quirks.  In any given draft, trades happen when each team believes it’s getting the better end of the deal.

It is hard to find past trades that resemble the trade-up scenario envisioned here that involves only picks in the same draft.  Draft-day trades often involve veteran players, expiring contracts, future picks, and cash, not just picks in the current draft.

More from Free Agency

There are a few recent comparisons that are in the ballpark.  In 2010, the Wolves traded picks #30 and #35—the latter of whom turned out to be Nemanja Bjelica—to Washington for picks #23 and #56.  In the same draft, New Jersey gave up picks #27 and #31 to Atlanta to move up to just #24 to select Damion James.

More recently, in 2014, Miami traded up for pick #24 by giving up picks #26 and #55, a 2019 second-rounder, and cash to Charlotte.  In 2012, Dallas traded the rights to picks #24, #33, and #34 to Cleveland for pick #27 and Kelenna Azubuike. In 2011, Minnesota received picks #28 and #43, plus cash, from Chicago for pick #23.  In the same draft, the Wolves turned around and traded pick #28 to Miami for pick #31, a 2014 second-rounder, and cash.

Taken together, these real-world trades give some evidence that trading up is generally more expensive than models would indicate it should be.  It may be that trading down is often the wiser proposition, as many have argued it is in the NFL.  On the other hand, to the extent real-world examples deviate from what models predict, it could be due to other factors like the NBA being more dominated by stars than the NFL, or roster depth being relatively less valuable than in the NFL.

On Friday, Saunders hinted that moving up higher than the late first round may be tough.  He told KFAN’s Dan Barreiro that the Wolves likely would not be able to trade up to the 18 spot or higher.  (Is it a coincidence that Houston has reportedly promised Duke point guard Tyus Jones that they will take him with its 18th pick?)

This brings us to the idea that the Wolves may involve one or more players in a trade offer.  Power forward Bjelica, the reigning Euroleague Basketball MVP who is reportedly seeking a mid-level exception to move to the NBA, is one possible trade component, as could be a number of other current players.  It is difficult to guess the value other teams put on these players, and those values may vary a great deal from GM-to-GM.

In the end, moving up only makes sense if the value in the trade makes sense for both teams.  Flip and his potential trade partners likely won’t be able to answer that question until they first see who is left on the board when the pick Minnesota is targeting is on the clock.