The Timberwolves were 36-25 on Feb. 23, good for the fifth-best record in the NBA. FiveThirtyEight.com’s statistical model projected Minnesota to finish 48-34, sixth-best in the NBA. If that’s how it turned out, the Hawks’ pick from the Timberwolves via trade would be No. 25 overall.
But the next night, Timberwolves All-Star Jimmy Butler suffered a knee injury that required surgery. Minnesota staggered down the stretch before squeaking into the playoffs with a victory over the Nuggets on the final night of the regular season. The Timberwolves finished 47-35, tied for the 12th-best record in the league, and the pick the Hawks acquired is No. 19 overall (the T-Wolves lost a tiebreaker with the Spurs).
That six-pick improvement could be worth a lot to the Hawks.
Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight.com studied NBA drafts from 1985-2014 and calculated the Basketball Reference Win Shares accumulated for players selected at each slot over their first five seasons. His found that No. 19 picks during that time produced, on average, about 10 Win Shares over their first five seasons compared to about five for No. 25 picks.
Silver also assigned dollar values to each pick based on the market rate for non-rookie contracts compared to Win Shares. He found that No. 19 picks over that time produced about $19 million in value compared to about $15 million for the 24th pick. (Silver’s study also shows why the No. 1 pick is worth so much, even in comparison to No. 2, and how advantageous it is to pick in the top five).
As you can see by the relatively low Win Shares produced on average by No. 19 picks, the Hawks are unlikely to select a franchise player at that slot if they keep the pick. But a big part of building a championship team is assembling a roster around a superstar with players who are underpaid for their production. The best way to acquire such players is through the draft, because of the salary restrictions in rookie-scale contracts, and it’s theoretically easier to find those players at No. 19 instead of No. 25.
The Hawks recently have had good luck with the No. 19 pick.
Their No. 19 overall pick in 2009, Jeff Teague, went on to become an All-Star point guard (once he finally got his chance to shine) and has produced 46.1 win shares over nine seasons. John Collins, the No. 19 overall pick in 2017, had a promising rookie season in which he produced 5.4 Win Shares.