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To Tank or Not To Tank — How Important are Top 5 Picks in a Rebuild?

Short answer: Important. Long answer: Very important

To Tank or Not To Tank.

That is the common question among Utah Jazz fans this season. After trading their 2 best players, the answer seemed pretty obvious. But a surprising start and consistently good play by this rag-tag, ad hoc roster has some in the fanbase questioning what moves should be made at the trade deadline. Move the vets? Or improve?

But before we dig into the meat and potatoes of this article, let’s set the stage on where the Jazz currently stand in the landscape of the NBA.

At 24-25, the Jazz are 9th in the Western Conference and slotted for the play-in tournament. Team Not Tank would point out that the Jazz are just 2 games out of the 5th seed. And with how difficult their schedule was to start the season (hint: BRUTAL), there’s reason to believe they’ll climb these standings simply by standing pat. Perfectly valid point. And a fun outcome in what was seemingly a lost season coming in. This team plays hard and plays connected, something that was missing from last year’s squad. Who doesn’t love some playoff Delta Center basketball!?

Meanwhile, Team Tank would point out that the Jazz are also just 2.5 games out of the 6th worst record in the league. The 6th pick in the draft also comes with a 37.2% chance at jumping into the top 4 of the draft. Wasn’t that the whole point of trading away the stars? To get a high draft pick and kickstart a rebuild?

So that begs the question — just how important are top 5 picks in the NBA draft?

If the goal is to win a championship, then history tells us that an MVP-caliber player is required on the roster. With that in mind, I dug through the last 30 years of NBA basketball to identify the so-called “#1 guys” from the last 3 decades. I came up with 70 players in that timespan. I’m not going to list them in full, because I think everyone would agree on 90+% of the list and that’s not where I want to spend the discussion. But a quick summary of my methods would be the best player on conference finalist teams, a review of MVP voting, All NBA achievements, Hall of Fame status, etc. Then I looked at their draft position from their respective draft years.

These players were drafted all over the board. Like literally from 1st to 60th. That alone tells you that the #1 pick isn’t required to obtain a #1 guy. And recent examples prove that: Giannis Antetokounmpo (15th), Nikola Jokic (41st), Jimmy Butler (30th). Sometimes a guy just needs to land in the right situation and the right development opportunity to flourish.

Let’s take a look at the distribution as a whole:


Draft Position Frequency
Draft Position Frequency
1 17
2 6
3 9
4 3
5 7
6 1
7 1
8 0
9 4
10 2
11 2
12 0
13 4
14 1
15 3
16 1
17 2
18-19 0
20 1
21-27 0
28 1
29 0
30 1
31-40 0
41 1
42-46 0
47 1
48 1
60 1

Looking at that distribution tells you a number of things. I’d like to mention a few specifically. And as a reminder, this is a total of 70 players from the past 30 years of NBA basketball.

  • 24% of the 70 were the #1 pick from their draft
  • 46% of them were drafted in the top 3
  • 60% were drafted in the top 5
  • 31% were late lottery to mid-first rounders (I defined as 6-20)

So the majority of #1 guys were drafted in the top 5 of their draft. With the #1 overall pick being the most fruitful draft position. That shouldn’t come as a surprise. There was a reason they were drafted that high after all. But let’s look at the data in a different perspective by comparing the draft success of each slot over that 30 years. What were the odds that you would land a #1 guy on a championship roster:

  • #1 pick: 57%
  • Picks 2-5: 21%
  • Picks 6-15: 6%
  • Picks 16-30: 1%
  • Picks 31+: 0.4%

Do you have to have the #1 pick, or even a top 5 pick to get an MVP-caliber player. Of course not! The Jazz have pulled that off a few times in their franchise history. But boy does it make it easier the higher up the board you get. Specifically the Top 5. Giannis and Jokic are exceptions, not realistic expectations or even reasonable hope.

And to validate this data, Riley (@Rgiss11 over on Twitter) performed similar research in October and put this graph together in conclusion:

So here we see it again. Want a #1 guy and the best odds at a title? Your best bet is to get into the Top 5 of the draft. OR have so many draft picks that one of them eventually hits a home run. (OR be the Lakers and have free agents sign with you or demand a trade to you even though your front office management is atrocious)

Jazz are currently trending towards door #2. They have 14 1st round draft picks over the next 7 years. That’s a good war chest to work with. So they don’t need to tank at all. Just win as many games as you can and have fun with this cute roster right?

Not so fast! Get an MVP level player. Then the real work begins. How could they nearly guarantee they land that coveted player? Statistically, either get the #1 pick twice (57% with each individual pick), get four to five picks from 2-5 (21% with each pick), or have like 15 picks from 6-15.

If the 2023 draft were today, the Jazz would have picks #14, #15, and #27.

Personally? I’m taking door #1. I’m moving some vets for young players and/or picks and letting Will Hardy develop the youth on the roster. And I’m not looking back. I’d much rather be within striking distance of the top 5 than at the back end or just out of the lottery. That top 5 could come through the flattened lottery odds, or a 2 for 1 trade where you move #8 and #27 for #5 for example. That let’s Danny Ainge’s scouting department nearly take their pick of the litter for the tier below Wembanyama and Scoot. The tier that gives you a 1 in 4 chance at a super star. But if you’re trying to trade up from #14 or #16? That’s going to take significantly more draft capital to make that jump and now your cupboards are thinner for future upgrades.

Let’s not be silly here. The Jazz aren’t going anywhere in the playoffs. The front office hasn’t pivoted towards the true future yet and this could be the first opportunity since tearing it down. This will absolutely be a sellers market at the deadline. The demand for guys like Malik Beasley, Jarred Vanderbilt, Kelly Olynyk, Mike Conley, Jordan Clarkson, etc. will be there.

If your goal is a championship, take the path with the best odds to get there. It’s time to sell.


What should the Utah Jazz do at the trade deadline?

This poll is closed

  • 81%
    Sell, sell, sell
    (504 votes)
  • 14%
    Stand pat or minor move
    (88 votes)
  • 4%
    Buy, buy, buy
    (25 votes)
617 votes total Vote Now