If you’ve been following the NBA Draft this year at all, you’ve heard countless times that this is a weak one outside of the top two, or maybe three, guys – depending on which expert you happen to be reading at the time. This prevailing thought is true, however, most NBA fans don’t seem to be realizing the ramifications of just how weak it is.
The BBall Index’s Jacob Goldstein creates draft projections that find the average wins added across the first five years of a prospect’s career. Last year, there were four prospects who were projected to average at least four wins added per year: Luka Doncic, DeAndre Ayton, Jaren Jackson, and Wendell Carter. This year, only Zion Williamson is projected at that level. Last year, there were ten prospects who would have hit the three wins added per year threshold; this year just four players reach that mark.
In a vacuum, this would be a large problem for any team drafting in spots. However, we don’t live in a vacuum, and it may actually be even worse than it seems for those teams. In 2019, the rookie scale contracts will be going up 19% across the board in an effort from the NBA to both increase the payment to the youngest players in the league, and to also decrease the incentive for tanking. This decision, in turn, makes these players less valuable due to their higher contracts.
For example, when Zion Williamson signs his new rookie contract, his deal will be for 4 years and $44M – worth almost as much as the full mid-level exception, a tool that teams have used to obtain playoff-level rotation players. Of course, for Zion, that contract is still a massive value. Goldstein projects a win to be worth about $3 million, so over the course of the four years of his contract, Zion would have to create 14.66 wins to be worth the contract that he is getting. Of course, Zion is projected to be well above that, generating 24.62 wins over that timespan, and “creating” $29M of value above his contract amount.
Zion Williamson figures to create far more value in his 1st 4 NBA seasons than old teammate R.J. Barrett.
The problems for the rest of the teams start at pick number 3, and with the New York Knicks. If the Memphis Grizzlies select Ja Morant as expected at the 2nd pick, per the draft projections of Goldstein, it would be impossible for the Knicks to select any player whose expected value over the four years of the rookie scale contract (4 years/$35.6 million), would be above the amount of the contract of the #3 pick. If the Knicks were to pick R.J. Barrett, who is the 4th rated prospect in Goldstein’s model, the expected value of his output subtracted by the rookie scale contract would be -$2.5 million.
While some fans enjoy ripping on the Knicks (myself included, if you ask our editor Derek), this is not a Knicks-only situation. Using Jonathan Givony of ESPN and Draft Express’ mock draft, and Goldstein’s player projections, none of the players picked from three to seven will have positive expected value on their rookie scale contracts. Only at pick 8, where the starting salary drops to 4 years and $22 million, a 37% drop from the #3 pick’s salary, do teams start to see positive expected value in their picks. Below is a graphical display of this frankly insane phenomenon.
The “J” shape comes back up around 8 and 9 then starts to go up more as salaries continue to drop. The most valuable picks in this draft, outside of Zion, seem to sit in the mid to late first round, with salaries that equate out to about 3 to 4 million per year, for players who are roughly in the same talent tier per NBA Draft projections folks, and scouts alike, as the players who are being selected at 4 or 5.
For teams like the Knicks, now-Pelicans, and Cavaliers, that pick in the range of 3 to 5, these picks will never be more valuable than they are in the next two days before the draft. If a team can swing one of these picks for a reasonably priced veteran, other player on a older and less expensive rookie scale contract, or simply trade for more picks, it seems clear that for the 2019 draft, this would be even more so than usual the correct move.
by RJ Garcia, Northwestern University