A Lottery Lesson from Orlando

Posted on April 6, 2007 by

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The NBA’s worst go to bed each night dreaming of bouncing lottery balls. The hope is with a few good bounces, a top pick can be had and a talent like Greg Oden or Kevin Durant will soon be wearing their jersey. If these players are as good as advertised, a lucky loser could be adding a player who might produce 10 to 20 wins for their new employer.

Right now we don’t know for sure that either Oden or Durant will take the NBA’s millions or spend another year giving revenue to the NCAA. But assuming these players do come out and can truly play like we think, can either Oden or Durant turn a team around by themselves?

For an answer, let’s consider the Orlando Magic. Orlando was the beneficiary of a lucky lottery bounce in 2004. And with the first pick in the draft the Magic selected Dwight Howard. Coming right of high school, Howard still produced 13 wins his rookie season. And his Wins Produced per 48 minutes [WP48] stood at a very respectable 0.234. The Magic, though, only won 36 games.

As often happens, Howard improved in his sophomore campaign. His wins production rose to 17.7 and his WP48 increased to 0.280. But the Magic still only won 36 games.

After 75 games this season it’s clear that Howard has again improved. His WP48 stands at 0.296 and his wins production has already surpassed 17. Orlando’s record, though, is only 34-41. It does seem likely that this team will win more than 36 games this season. But three years after taking Howard with the first pick overall, Orlando is still struggling just to make the playoffs.

The problem is not the selection of Howard. The scouts who saw Howard play in high school were absolutely right. Howard is one of the top big men in the game of basketball.

What the Magic are learning, though, is the lesson the Minnesota Timberwolves have been teaching for years. It takes more than one major talent to win in the NBA.

When we look at the Magic’s wins production this season, we see exactly two above average players in the regular rotation. After Howard all the Magic have is Trevor Ariza, and Ariza doesn’t even start. Once we get past Howard and Ariza all we see is one below average performer after another.

Table One: The Orlando Magic in 2005-06 and after 75 games this season

In defense of Orlando, we should note that some of these players are performing worse than expected. Specifically, Grant Hill, Hedo Turkoglu, and Jameer Nelson were all above average performers last season. This season, all have descended below the 0.100 mark. Had these players maintained their per-minute performance of 2005-06, the Magic would currently have won nine additional games and be contenders in the Eastern Conference.

Okay, that’s not saying much. Even if Hill, Turkoglu, and Nelson played as well as they did last season the Magic would still have trouble reaching 50 wins this season. So the Magic would still not be serious contenders to win an NBA title, which is what people hope happens when a team lands the first pick in the NBA draft (by the way, for more on the recent quality of the first overall pick, see this earlier post on Andrew Bogut).

The story of the Magic does provide a lesson to the teams hoping for Oden or Durant. Yes, a team needs a major talent to contend for a title. But major talents are a necessary, not sufficient condition, for title contention. If you fail to surround that talent with other productive performers, your franchise will flounder like the Magic and Timberwolves.

– DJ