This is no secret, but the NBA Draft is an inexact science at best. Each year we see big boards and scouting reports and mock selections, with the likelihood of each and every one of them actually playing out as planned about as dependable as a coin flip. Projecting and developing basketball talent is a cruel profession with no guarantees.
It’s the reason why even a selection at or close to the top of the board is far from a sure fire success. It’s a superior advantage, obviously, but still one that has to be leveraged in the correct manner. Very few drafts have a LeBron or Zion slam dunk waiting at the top, and the further you go down the selection order the greater the likelihood that the best laid plans go awry.
Unfortunately for the Magic, their recent lack of lottery luck — remember, the team hasn’t moved up in the draft order since they selected Penny! — has seen them constantly picking at slots lower than their season finish would have suggested. As such, the chances of the team hitting a home run have decreased as the variability of any given selection has accordingly increased.
What’s obvious to all is that in the years spanning the post-Dwight rebuild the Magic haven’t been able to find the star they so desperately crave. But does that necessarily mean the front office has done a poor job at the annual event? How does Orlando’s track record at the draft compare to the value they should have reasonably expected to extract? Is it something we can measure? Let’s find out.
The idea of expected value relative to draft position is an ingrained part of some sports (such as the NFL), but it hasn’t totally caught on in the same way in the world of basketball. That being said, there has still been some interesting evaluative work done in this regard by a few different keen minds. Perhaps most famously, in writing for Basketball Reference back in 2009, Justin Kubatko used almost 30 years worth of data to determine an average measure of the win shares provided by a particular draft slot in the first four years of those players’ careers.
Despite being more than a decade old, Kubatko’s evaluation has held up pretty well as more data has been added to the evaluation pool. Washington University’s Tyler Brand took a shot at updating the numbers in 2016 for their sports analytics group, displaying his final figures as a measure of win shares above what would be provided by the average replacement level player. Interestingly, the two sets of data are pretty closely aligned in their conclusions once one accounts for the slight differences in approach, allowing for their meaningful application still today.
For the purposes of our evaluation of Orlando’s recent draft record we’re going to rely on Kubatko’s original model. The numbers he proposed still sit comfortably within the ranges of current perspectives, plus his figures require one less step because we’re not subtracting the win shares of a replacement level player (a figure which can be variable year to year itself, although it usually lands around the 1.2 mark). For interest’s sake, however, the totals for both Kubatko and Brand have been provided below.
Expected win shares per draft slot (first four years)
* WS = Win Shares (Kubatko)
* WSAR = Win Shares Above Replacement (Brand)
Let’s get started!
The Rob Hennigan Era
2013 - Victor Oladipo (2)
As the number two overall selection in 2013, Kubatko’s research suggests that the Magic could have expected to benefit from 22.1 win shares as a direct result of Oladipo’s contributions while on his rookie contract. However, even accounting for the fact that he was moved to the Thunder prior to the start of his fourth season, it’s pretty clear that the young guard didn’t rise to those predicted heights.
Oladipo churned out 9.7 win shares while in pinstripes, a figure that obviously put him well short of the pace required to hit 22.1. He added 4.0 more during that first season in Oklahoma City, and even if we generously assume he would have played a bigger role had he remained in Orlando, he still would have needed an MVP-level campaign in that fourth year to actually hit the total averaged by fellow second overall selections throughout the years.
2013 was a notoriously weak draft, although that fact shouldn’t let the Magic’s front office off the hook. There are currently 11 players from the class that have put up a greater number of win shares to this point of their career than Oladipo. The numbers are actually even more grim if one accounts for opportunity; damningly, he tumbles all the way to 24th if we instead look at win shares per-48 minutes, a ranking which further reinforces the fact that better selections were there to be had.
Despite kicking their rebuild off with a number two pick, the Magic only returned value closer to the output of the average eighth pick. In retrospect the foundation was flimsy from the outset.
2014 - Aaron Gordon (4) and Elfrid Payton (10)
AG and EP constituted the Magic’s haul in 2014, a pair of lottery picks whose arrival resonates right now because of similarities with the team’s current circumstances (picks 5 and 8). From the 4 and 10 slot, the Magic should have been able to count on a combined 29.8 win shares from the pair across their first four years, the average return for those selected at their positions (17.8 and 12.0, respectively). Instead the return fizzled out at 24.7, a figure that again demonstrates a failure by Orlando to rise even to the distinction of average.
The main culprit was actually AG, who fell short of his average projection by 4.8 win shares. Making matters worse is the fact that he never actually improved upon the 5.2 win shares he generated in his sophomore season, a worry considering the franchise stuck with him for the better part of seven years. Gordon’s draft class is another that in retrospect is notoriously thin on talent at the top, but that doesn’t soften the blow for a Magic side that again failed to net even an average return.
2015 - Mario Hezonja (5)
Super Mario was so obviously a super bust that the Magic actually declined his fourth year option, the start of a slippery slope that saw him out of the league after just five nondescript seasons. As the fifth overall selection, an average contribution would have been 16.4 win shares across the length of his rookie deal. Instead, Hezonja missed this mark by a whopping margin of 13.9. Hindsight reveals this selection as so egregious that there’s not really much to be gained by dwelling on it. Instead, let’s just let the nightmare die.
2016 - The Serge Ibaka trade (11 and Oladipo’s fourth year)
This evaluation requires a little more in the way of calculation because of Orlando’s decision to trade out of the first round. On Draft night in 2016 the Magic shipped Oladipo and the 11th overall choice (which was used on Domantas Sabonis) to the Thunder for Serge Ibaka, a move intended to catapult the team into the thick of the playoff race. Instead it backfired disastrously, with the Congolese big man lasting less than one season in Central Florida and his exit signalling the start of yet another soft reset for Orlando.
As mentioned previously, Oladipo produced 4.0 win shares during his first season with the Thunder, so we’ll use that as a starting point for the value Orlando gave up. Remember, this is somewhat generous because we’ve already established that Oladipo was an underperformer, which therefore makes it easier for the Magic’s return to match or exceed that total. In addition, the 11th pick should be relied upon to accumulate some portion of the 11.4 they average over the life of their rookie deal. Sabonis himself put up 0.8 that year, but even as many as 1.5 would be a fair expectation of a rookie taken with that particular selection. In retrospect, the Magic shipped out 4.8 win shares that were ultimately underwhelming relative to expectations at the time, all in service of obtaining a player with All-Defensive pedigree and some All-star buzz. Good move, right?
To put it bluntly, no, because the Magic enjoyed just 3.8 win shares from Ibaka’s play while he was with the team. With it very clear that the arrangement hadn’t worked he was shipped to Toronto at the trade deadline, returning Terrence Ross who went on to add 0.6 more once he arrived. However, even that combined 4.4 win shares still leaves Orlando short of the figure that they gave up (4.8) and well short of the figure that would have represented an average return for the relative draft capital expended in this maneuvering (generously estimated in the range of 8.0 to 9.0). If the whiffed picks weren’t bad enough, they further exacerbated things by then netting a lesser return on the trade market.
The Weltman and Hammond Era
2017 - Jonathan Isaac (6) and Wes Iwundu (33)
Four consecutive draft failures undoubtedly played a huge role in Hennigan’s eventual removal, with the 2017 Draft representing the first step in a new rebuild now led by the team of Jeff Weltman and John Hammond. The duo added Isaac and Iwundu in the first and second round, respectively, both of whom only played three seasons on their rookie deal for the team, albeit for very different reasons.
The average sixth overall selection returns 15.2 win shares in their first four years in the league, a number that Isaac has unfortunately fallen well short of. Across three injury-interrupted campaigns he has totaled just 6.7 win shares, although there is a moral victory to be found with this draft return. If you extrapolate the rate at which JI accumulates win shares over full 82 game programs he would easily be on pace to at least hit and perhaps even comfortably eclipse the average return. It’s a theoretical victory that has been undone by the cruel reality of significant injury.
As the 33rd overall choice the expectations for Iwundu were suitably tempered, but he was pretty clearly a value selection from the slot. On average an early second rounder would churn out 4.5 win shares across their first four years; Iwundu put up 4.4 in only three seasons in Orlando. He ultimately didn’t stick with the team for a variety of reasons, but he was undoubtedly a nice choice at that particular position.
2018 - Mo Bamba (6) and Melvin Frazier (35)
If 2017 was in many ways a solid start for the Weltham duo, the following draft represents a halting of momentum. With one more season still to go on the rookie deals for this particular class there is still obviously some room for the narrative to change, but it seems pretty clear that the Magic will be taking a substantial L on the 2018 Draft.
The data suggests that an average return from Bamba and Frazier would be 19.3 win shares across the first four years. To this point the Magic have enjoyed just 6.0 from the duo. With Frazier already off the team and out of the league, the responsibility now rests solely with Bamba who, for context, would need to post a season in line with Giannis’ first MVP campaign just to nudge the tally ahead of the expected average. That’s right, even if the big man turns into the best player in the league the Magic’s 2018 draft haul will officially be only average. Good grief.
2019 - Chuma Okeke (16) and 2020 - Cole Anthony (15)
At this stage there’s really not enough data to properly evaluate the progress of either Okeke or Anthony relative to expected win shares, but some good signs exist. Okeke is already on pace to at least meet the 9.0 expected of him in his first four seasons, while Anthony’s late season improvement to his win share rate suggested he might yet do the same. The road is still obviously a long and unknown one, but one can at this stage feel pretty good about the team’s chances of extracting reasonable value from these two most recent drafts.
The Magic were major players at the NBA Draft for six long seasons starting in 2013, a stretch during which they never once extracted even average value from the slots at which they picked. It’s a result of disastrous futility for any team, let alone one that was attempting to extricate itself from a prolonged rebuild. That they were doing so with a slew of top ten picks makes the failure all the more difficult to swallow.
When looked at closely the collective numbers are a veritable eyesore. An average return on their draft capital across those six years would have seen the Magic generate approximately 112 win shares; instead, they tallied just 58.4 from the players involved. In that stretch the team had a combined 179 wins, a number buoyed by the 42-40 team that reached the postseason on the back of a Vucevic All-Star campaign. To put this evaluation into context, of those 179 victories — which, remember, is still an ugly sub-30 win pace! — the Magic’s draft returns were responsible for just 32.6% of an already underwhelming total.
Importantly, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that we are only talking about the average output of these draft picks. Orlando haven’t just failed to reach the level of good, they’ve actually fallen disastrously short of mediocre.
If you’re looking to understand why the Magic are where they are now, rebuilding for the third time in the last decade, look no further than this series of botched drafts. Bad luck and bad timing both played their part, sure, but at some point the lead decision makers simply need to be better.
With two bites of the cherry this Thursday let’s hope that we eventually see a significantly sweeter outcome.