Best and Worst NBA Draft Classes of the Past 25 Years

During my week off from school, I have assembled a large data table with stats for each player taken in the lottery in the past 25 years. I am hoping to use this data for several research projects in the coming month. The first (and easiest) project is to look at which years of the NBA draft produced the best players (lottery only*-I only had a week off from school, not a month).

I looked at win shares (WS) and win shares/48 (WS/48) to measure the overall success of a player. As a reminder, WS attempts to approximate the number of wins that a player is worth to his team. WS/48 divides a player’s WS by every 48 minutes that the player played, thus taking out the effect of playing more minutes. If two players are identical and Player 1 plays twice as many minutes, Player 1 will have twice as many WS as Player 2 but both players will have the same WS/48. WS/48 is critical in this study because we are comparing players that have had varying lengths of careers. Kobe Bryant and James Harden have nearly identical WS/48, but Kobe has 173 WS while Harden only has 41 because Kobe has been in the league for thirteen additional years.

For the above-mentioned reasons, looking at overall WS isn’t terribly helpful. The five draft classes with the fewest combined win shares are the five most recent draft classes. The five draft classes with the most combined win shares are all from the 90’s because they contain players who are retired or nearing the end of their careers. But if we look at WS/48, a much more useful picture emerges. Without further ado, here are the five best and five worst classes.

Five Best Draft Classes

1. 1996-Kobe, Ray Allen, Allen Iverson, Marcus Camby, & Peja Stojakovic anchor the best draft class of the past 25 years.

2. 2003-This class is really top-heavy with Lebron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade. But a lack of depth pushed 2003 to #2.

3. 1997-Tim Duncan, Chauncey Billups, and Tracy Mcgrady are the highlights here.

4. 1998-Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce, Vince Carter, Antwan Jamison, and Mike Bibby are enough to overcome a horrific top pick (I’m looking at you, Olowokandi)

5. 2007-Kevin Durant, Joakim Noah, and Al Horford headline a deep class (and Greg Oden’s WS/48 numbers are actually very good! Who knew?)

Five Worst Draft Classes**

1. 2000-Kenyon Martin was the first overall pick and after looking at the rest of the class, I think that was the right choice. That’s all you need to know.

2. 1990-Gary Payton is the only name in this draft that many younger NBA fans have ever heard of.

3. 2002-Yao Ming, Amar’e Stoudemire, and Nene were solid picks, but this is probably the worst top 5 that you’ll ever see (spoiler alert for future blog posts: Nikoloz Tskitishvili, taken 5th, may very well be the worst pick of the past 25 years)

4. 1993-There’s really nothing notable about this class, and that’s the problem.

5. 1994-After a decent top 5 that included Jason Kidd and Grant Hill, this lottery contains a bunch of players with very short NBA careers.

For those of you who need to see to believe, here’s a PDF chart to show the year-by-year breakdown: Yearly Average WS per 48

*25 years ago, the lottery only consisted of 11 players because there were only 27 teams in the league. As the league has expanded, so has the lottery. I looked at the first 14 players taken every year.

** 2013 and 2011 should be #1 and #3 on this list, respectively, but I didn’t think it was fair to include them. As players from these years reach their primes, their productivity will presumably increase and so will their WS/48.

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