While no one knew exactly what to expect from the Pelicans this season, their playoff intentions were made clear the moment they dealt Nerlens Noel and a top-five protected first-round pick to the Sixers in exchange for Jrue Holiday. They were supposed to be the up-and-coming Western Conference team. Anthony Davis would man the paint and Holiday would run the point, teaming up with Tyreke Evans, Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson to make one of the most dynamic lineups in the NBA.
But little of that blueprint came to fruition, and thanks to some questionable offseason decisions and poor injury luck,1 the Sixers hit the jackpot; the Pelicans won 34 games and ended up surrendering the 10th overall pick. Given the pick’s top-5 protection, New Orleans’ season couldn’t have played out much better for Philadelphia.
Exactly how much did the Sixers benefit from the Pelicans’ poor season — or, what’s the difference, value-wise, between a top-10 pick and the high-teens/low-20s pick that New Orleans hoped it would give up? Based on Aaron Barzilai’s study on Relative Value of Draft Position, which analyzes drafts from 1980-2006, the returns for the No. 10 slot have nearly doubled the returns for the 20th. The Wages of Wins model has similar findings; the average wins produced (over four years) for the 10th slot is 12.7 compared to 7.2 for No. 20. But that doesn’t even account for the exceptionally talented 2014 rookie prospects.
A draft class that entered 2013 as highly heralded foremost for the quality of its top five has become revered instead for its depth. While Wiggins and Julius Randle have not fulfilled their loftiest projections, other freshmen have exceeded preseason expectations. Joel Embiid, barring his back health, has emerged as a contender for the first overall pick; he was previously viewed by some as a multi-year project. Jabari Parker and Dante Exum may very well be the best rookies to come out of this draft. Noah Vonleh, Tyler Ennis, and Zach LaVine’s movement into the mid to late-lottery discussion, along with Nick Stauskas and Doug McDermott’s combine athletic testing results, have provided more viable options in that range. Not to mention Aaron Gordon, Gary Harris, Dario Saric, and Marcus Smart. Options are aplenty.
More subjectively, a 10-pick gain is huge in the hands of any general manager, but holds even more value in the hands of a savvy GM. Trading up, trading down, trading for a star; with Sam Hinkie, nothing is out of the question.
We’ll never know what the injury-plagued Pelicans were truly capable of, but their pick would have fallen had they been healthy, maybe even outside of the lottery. That New Orleans didn’t live up to expectations made this trade not just a win for the Sixers, but a landslide victory.
1. Injuries to Ryan Anderson and Holiday meant that the Holiday-Gordon-Evans-Anderson-Davis combination, which tied for the highest plus/minus of any New Orleans lineup with at least 10 total season appearances, saw the floor together only 12 times all year. For context, comparable lineups for playoff participants Dallas and Portland each made 69 appearances together.