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What would it mean historically for the Knicks to move up in the NBA Draft Lottery?

It would be big...but how big?

2017 NBA Draft Lottery Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Some time ago, with a good bunch of regular-season games still to be played, there was a chance for the Knicks to snatch a top-8 draft pick without having to rely on lottery luck. That was when the fanbase, but definitely not the front office nor Tom Thibodeau, were trying to sell the “gotta bring the tank” narrative. It was good for everybody, in my honest opinion, that the end of the season brought a much-needed closure to all of that silly talk, and things are what they are now.

In other words, the New York Knicks are the team with the 11th-best odds of jumping up the draft order when the lottery takes place on Wednesday, May 18. The chances of that happening are slim, mind you. The Knicks have a 9.4 percent probability of landing inside the top-4, and a measly 2.0 percent one of getting the absolute no. 1 pick.

For context: your 65-year-old grandfather has more chances at using Snapchat (3%) than the Knicks have at landing on the No. 1 slot come lottery time. If you’re into that wonderful group of grandchildren, congratulations. You can give the Knicks a call so they made you the team representative at the lottery party. I’m convinced it’d work in favor of New York.

Now, back to the real world. Even jumping into the top-4 feels like a chore. The near-10% chance isn’t as low as the shot at landing first, but it’s still quite a long shot. The most probable result here is for New York to stay put, or just move one or two places up or down the board. To which I ask: should the Knicks—or, perhaps better said, their fans—care that much about the lottery and that two-position up-or-down swing in draft position?

Meh. The surface answer is obvious, and just in case, the correct answer is yes, they should worry. The sooner you have the right to select a player, the larger the pool of players available is, and therefore the more chances a franchise has at picking the player it likes the most and/or thinks fits the team best. But this whole drama got me thinking if there is an actual gain as far down the board as the 10th-pick vicinity the Knicks will occupy in the next draft, so I went digging through some historic data.

Whether the lottery benefits teams or not and how often it does one or the other thing is of no importance for this quick analysis. What I wanted to check is the level of player each draft slot has produced historically. For that, I’m looking at the last 15 years of draft data (from 2007 on, that year included), and only at first-round picks. That span includes every draft after the NBA instituted the one-and-done rule.

These are the results, plotting draft position against the average number of games per season the players picked at each slot have disputed.

The results are obvious. A higher draft capital equals a higher number of games played. Whether that aligns with actual production or not is a completely different topic of discussion. We all know how it goes: if a franchise drafts a bust with a top-10 pick, it will most probably take them more than a reasonable amount of time to just accept it and move on. The capital they spent on him would keep affording the player more chances than those he should really get, if only because of the typical “How you dare say we were wrong!? You’re the one who doesn’t get it!” approach to these type of thing.

So, here is a similar plot, now with the average career-PER of those players/positions.

Compare this last chart to the one above, and the difference is clear. There is a 0.50 r-squared correlation between PER and draft position while the correlation between G/Sn and draft position is way higher at a 0.73 r-squared value.

Don’t worry too much about the finer details. You can just take a quick look at both charts, and you’ll quickly see the difference. There is a steady decline in games played per season as we get further down the draft board, while only the top-3 picks yield the best PER averages—Haseem Thabeet is the main reason the no. 2 picks tank as a group as there are just 15 players per draft position and that’s most definitely a small sample.

To soften the Thabeet Effect, I calculated a rolling average taking three draft positions into account: position X, position X-1, and position X+1. This is how the results change (vertical axis starting at 10 instead of zero).

Now, things look more realistic—or at least, more suited to our average preconceptions and assumed knowledge about how the draft works or should work. There is a strong top-4, a sudden drop in rolling average PER at the 5th pick, and a steadily tamed drop from that point toward the end of the lottery picks until around the 16th or 17th pick when things get wild and not very good.

I have plotted the same data, only on a five-position (X-2, X-1, X, X+1, X+2) rolling average instead of three. The curve gets smoothed and three groups of prospects clearly emerge.

It can be said that the lottery produces two levels of players (top-tier talents from picks 1 through 5, mid-level guys from pick 6 to pick 14).

What I hope is surfacing is the fact that outside of the top-3 picks, top-5 at most, the level of player NBA teams are drafting, on average, is pretty much the same. The Knicks are slotted to draft 11th if every franchise stays put where they are. Both on a three- or five-position rolling average they’re expected to get a 13.5-Career PER player. That compares to a 14-PER prospect at the 6th-overall pick, or nearly a 13-PER player at the 15th.

In other words, the difference between drafting sixth and drafting 15th, on average, amounts to the career-PER difference between LeBron James (26.5) and Kevin Durant (25.5), Metta World Peace (14.3) and Richard Jefferson (13.2), or Dwight Howard (20.1) and Pau Gasol (21.0).

None of this means that it’s the same picking sixth than picking 15th, of course, as it’s not the same picking first and having the whole pool of players available than doing second having to “conform” with whoever is the next-best player after the likes of Anthony Davis or Derrick Rose are off the board.

It’s actually funny how the data aligns with the 2022 draft projections. There seems to be a clear top-4 comprised of Jabari, Chet, Banchero, and Ivey; a middle-of-the-pack from the top-5 to around the top-15 pick (including Keegan Murray, Shaedon Sharpe, Jalen Duren, Benn Mathurin, and Ty Ty Washington); and a best-of-the-rest from that point on till the end of the draft.

I think we can all agree about the fact that outside of that top-4, there is a wide range of potential outcomes, of which the player that ends landing in New York you might like or you might not. It’s definitely going to be a selection that will generate discussion because it’s definitely not going to please everyone in the Knicks fanbase.

So... should the Knicks—or you—worry about the draft lottery and that most-probable small position swing? No, not really. Not unless New York cracks the top-3, that is.