The Knicks have challenged the NBA for the “worst draft picks” crown since 2000. Let’s see if we can evaluate whether the players were truly bad, or if there’s another force at work.
Knicks faithful have suffered through almost two decades of drudgery and non-contention. Management is historically inept, and MSG has been a circus act for as long as I can remember.
How does one actually turn around an organization so mired in BS? The primary way is by building through the draft, with free agency or trades as a second resort. The Knicks have traditionally looked to free agency and trading away their assets to build immediate contenders, with nary a look toward the future.
Due to some combination of poor player development, shipping away first-rounders for Eddy Curry and Andrea Bargnani, and what I perceived to be bad drafting, the Knicks have not signed one of their draft picks to a multi-year deal after their rookie contract since 1995.
That sounds bad, but it’s not all that shocking when considering how few high draft selections they’ve made in that span. Can we measure whether the team made good use of the picks that it did have?
We can look at comparative outcomes for the team’s selections as a whole over the last 30 years, but the current administration’s track record is probably just as important given they’re the ones tasked with making the decisions with our current draft picks.
And while we can look at ultimate outcomes for these players to grade whether they were good selections, player development does contribute to these outcomes. Could Iman Shumpert have been a star if he was drafted by the Spurs? Possibly, but speculation is endless on a question like that. Does that mean he was a bad draft selection? Not necessarily, but he clearly didn’t pan out for us the way we’d have liked. There’s a lot of nuance that’s hard to capture in evaluating the success of draft picks.
For reference, here are all of the Knicks’ draft selections since 1985:
Knicks draft selections since 1985 pic.twitter.com/DJ7vVyFXAL
— TKW Clips (@TKWClips) May 19, 2019
In an overly simplistic way of looking at it, Roland Beech of 82games.com created a draft index from 1989 to 2009 to try to estimate the expected value of each position in the draft. Now, I’m not sure I fully agree with the methodology here as, again, the discussions contain a lot of nuance that isn’t exactly captured in this metric, but he added career points plus rebounds plus assists per game of every player drafted in each slot. The average seventh pick in this 20-year span, for example, has a career rating of 17.8.
He chose a rating of 20+ to mean a star player, 15+ to mean a solid player, 10+ to mean a role player, 5+ to mean deep bench player, and <5 to mean a bust, or non-NBA player. A player’s impact isn’t fully captured by simple box stats, and this rating is based on career averages, so a young or blossoming player may be at a disadvantage—but it’s not a bad way to look at expected outcomes.
The chart looks like this:
Average expected value for first-round picks 1989-2009 pic.twitter.com/Wz4XYGjBzT
— TKW Clips (@TKWClips) May 19, 2019
Looking at the picks during this 20-year time frame for every team, Beech figured out the predicted value each team should have derived from their players based on where their selections fell. Then he calculated the actual value the players that were drafted brought via their career rating to see which teams had the best drafting success over this time frame.
All told, the Knicks’ pick performance over 20 years and 32 draft picks was -1.5 on this rating scale compared to expected pick performance. This was the worst mark in the league, though it must be pointed out that the best mark was only +1.8.
Showing little actual variance, the chart looked like this:
— TKW Clips (@TKWClips) May 21, 2019
By this metric, the Knicks were still the team that drafted the worst between 1989 and 2009. Does that portend negatively to this draft? Not necessarily, because very few in the Knicks organization from 1989 to 2009 remain with the team. But before getting into the Scott Perry regime, let’s further bear out how the Knicks have fared in more recent years.
Taking the same metrics, I graded out all the Knicks’ picks from 2008 to the present (2008 because Gallinari was only a rookie when those first calculations were executed). In order to adjust for pace of play, I multiplied the average performance rating of each draft slot by 1.109. I came to this number by taking the median team in the league’s pace in 1998–99 season (exactly halfway in the 20-year range) and the median team in the league’s pace from 2018–19 to find that pace has increased by ~10.9%.
2008: Danilo Gallinari – Pick 6
Career performance rating: 15.9 points + 4.9 rebounds + 2.0 assists = 22.8 Rtg
Average performance rating of pick 6 (pace-adjusted): 18.3 Rtg
Total outcome: +4.5
Even though New York traded away Gallo in the Carmelo Anthony deal, he was still a great draft selection at six. He’s thriving right now in Los Angeles as one of the main offensive options on a team that took two games from the Warriors this postseason. And if we’re talking the value we got out of the pick, some of a conference semifinals appearance has to be attributed to this selection at six being the centerpiece for ‘Melo.
2009: Jordan Hill – Pick 8
Career performance rating: 7.9 points + 5.8 rebounds + 0.8 assists = 14.5 Rtg
Average performance rating of pick 8 (pace-adjusted): 16.9 Rtg
Total outcome: -2.4
Considering the value of other eighth picks, this selection may not be as bad as some in Knicks fandom may lead you to believe. Obviously, you want a star in the top 10, but Jordan Hill didn’t perform that much worse than others drafted at that slot, on average.
I get why this selection is painful though. Knicks brass had its eyes on a guard prospect out of Davidson named Stephen Curry. You may have heard of him. He went one pick before the Knicks drafted. To make matters worse, DeMar DeRozan was selected with the pick immediately after Hill. So while this grades out as a -2.4, it feels like a -500 since Steph and DeRozan were within the Knicks’ grasp.
2010: Andy Rautins – Pick 38
Career performance rating: 1.6 points + 0.2 rebounds + 0.6 assists = 2.4 Rtg
Average performance rating of pick 38 (pace-adjusted): 6.3 Rtg
Total outcome: -3.9
Landry Fields – Pick 39
Career performance rating: 6.8 points + 4.3 rebounds + 1.6 assists = 12.7 Rtg
Average performance rating of pick 39 (pace-adjusted): 6.0 Rtg
Total outcome: +6.7
Let’s ignore Andy Rautins altogether. Bad pick. Landry Fields looked like he was going to be a second-round steal early in his career with the Knicks, but never became the player we envisioned after his rookie year. Chalk it up to player development if you want, but he wasn’t able to stick around the league past 2014–15 and his rookie year was the most efficient of his career.
He’s technically a large plus on the draft index since most guys selected at that stage of the draft end up non-NBA players, but this still somehow manages to feel like a loss for the Knicks because of built up expectations. I won’t say it was a bad selection though.
2011: Iman Shumpert – Pick 17
Career performance rating: 7.3 points + 3.4 rebounds + 1.9 assists = 12.6 Rtg
Average performance rating of pick 17 (pace-adjusted): 14.9 Rtg
Total outcome: -2.3
Shumpert was a relatively disappointing pick, but he turned out almost average compared to others drafted in his slot. He did give us the playoff dunk though.
2012: Kostas Papanikolaou – Pick 48
Career performance rating: 3.6 points + 2.3 rebounds + 1.5 assists = 7.4 Rtg
Average performance rating of pick 48 (pace-adjusted): 6.2 Rtg
Total outcome: +1.2
Kostas was close to average for his draft slot, but when drafting mid-to-late second round, one doesn’t look for average value of that slot. This area is really the hit or miss area of the draft. Average is a miss, and anything other than a complete miss is a little bit of value technically, but doesn’t move the needle much.
A pick like this doesn’t say much about the Knicks’ ability to draft as huge outlier picks like Mitchell Robinson do.
2013: Tim Hardaway Jr. – Pick 24
Career performance rating: 13.1 points + 2.6 rebounds + 1.8 assists = 17.5 Rtg
Average performance rating of pick 24 (pace-adjusted): 14.4 Rtg
Total outcome: +3.1
Tim Hardaway Jr. wasn’t a terrible pick at 24. He grades out as having slightly better counting stats than others selected there and of course, his career isn’t over. He’s a gunner to his core and can get buckets when called upon to do so, but the inefficient nature of his game hurts his overall value and his points per game inflates this simple rating.
On a really good team, he could be a great role player as a shooter and tertiary creator. He would have been a good pick for a team that needed someone to grow into that role. The Knicks were not that team.
This selection hurts way more than it should have since the Knicks let him walk, then offered him a $74 million deal to come back and stink just as bad as he did the first time. Then we traded what could have been a generational, homegrown superstar to get rid of that shitty contract.
2014: Cleanthony Early – Pick 34
Career performance rating: 4.3 points + 2.2 rebounds + 0.8 assists = 7.3 Rtg
Average performance rating of pick 34 (pace-adjusted): 8.4 Rtg
Total outcome: -1.1
Well, 55% of players drafted at no. 34 became deep bench players. Early is a disappointment even by that standard. This selection looked a little promising until Early suffered a gunshot wound in the knee, probably ending his career in the NBA. This was clearly in the miss category, as the vast majority of these second-rounders are and should be, despite grading out about even.
To further add to the despair, Spencer Dinwiddie, Jerami Grant, and Nikola Jokic all were taken fewer than seven picks after Early.
2015: Kristaps Porzingis – Pick 4
Career performance rating: 17.8 points + 7.1 rebounds + 1.3 assists = 26.2 Rtg
Average performance rating of pick 4 (pace-adjusted): 24.6 Rtg
Total outcome: +1.6
Forgive me for not wanting to go into depth on the merits of public enemy #1 KP, but he was certainly a good draft selection at no. 4, despite being just over the expected value so far in his career. He should get too much further ahead of expected value as his career progresses—just not with the Knicks.
We didn’t have a pick in 2016, and the 2017 draft and onwards is pretty hard to judge, since the jury is still out on most of the players taken since then. We selected Frank Ntilikina with the eighth overall selection in 2017. He has struggled thus far, but the Knicks staff has not exactly put him in the right position to succeed in his first two years, so he could still end up being a good player (though probably not for New York—does that make it a bad pick?). In that draft, we did grab a potentially useful 3-and-D player in Daymean Dotson with the 44th pick, and he’s already eclipsing career averages of others selected that low—though he only fell to 44 due to very serious allegations of sexual assault at Oregon.
In 2018, New York selected Kevin Knox ninth overall and again, jury’s still out, but he looked pretty awful his first year. I’m not worried yet, but I’m also not going to be surprised if he ends up a bad choice.
The Knicks made up for what may end up being a first-round blunder when the picked the steal of the draft in Mitchell Robinson with their second-round pick. Even as a rookie, Robinson is vastly outperforming career averages of others taken in his draft slot. He is arguably a top-five rookie in a very good class and a phenomenal find by the Knicks’ front office.
From 2008 onwards, not including the selections in the 2017 and after category, the Knicks were +7.4 on expected value of draft selections. What this really goes to show is that every pick needs to be taken in context—because the Knicks have netted almost nothing for these selections. Landry Fields, of all people, by this metric is a +6.7. Nine picks is too minuscule of a sample size to stabilize, so not much stock should be put into this number.
In actuality, not much of this has any bearing on what happens with the number three pick this year. Scott Perry is the man in charge now, and his history with the Knicks includes identifying second-round gems in Robinson and Dotson with a dynamo undrafted free agent in Allonzo Trier, despite disappointing early returns from two lotto picks.
His recent history in other draft selections includes spending lottos on Victor Oladipo, Aaron Gordon, Elfrid Payton, Mario Hezonja, and De’Aaron Fox. Who is to say if he’s good at drafting? Some of the picks hit and some haven’t returned value. The draft is really a crapshoot when it comes down to it, and it’s impossible to isolate success in drafting from success in player development and team building.
It is sad the Knicks, over the last 30 years, have traded away their high picks either before they were picked or before we could see their fruit borne out in New York—but the ‘Bockers have a high selection this year and a few in the bank now.
Things are finally looking up at MSG. Maybe Mitch becomes our first homegrown star since Ewing. Maybe that star will be handed a Knicks cap by Adam Silver in July. But identifying high-level talent and actualizing their potential are two very different things. The Knicks just need to follow through.