Number stuff: Why drafting Smart, a sophomore, is a smart investment

As you might recall, we had plenty of posts and comments about whether the Celtics should tank or not in the beginning of the season. Of course, that debate became stale as expected by All-Star break, yet one important point that was raised (at least by me) was the difficulty of holding onto the stars if you cannot become competitive soon enough. Rebuilding from scratch is a great idea in theory, but if you cannot win, if your prospects don't pan out, if you cannot attract quality veterans etc. that plan might go to waste. It is a risk worth taking, but nonetheless, it is a risk.

Why does it matter? Well, thanks to the statistics wizard Nate Silver, now I know how to quantify this gut feeling of mine. That's his explanation following a bunch of graphs, if you don't care about numbers:

In basketball terms, the problem with drafting a guy like Andrew Wiggins is that he might get really expensive right when he gets really good. Or he might take his talents to Los Angeles or Manhattan or South Beach. Teams should probably assume that any surplus value from a draft pick comes from his first four or five seasons and draft on that basis.

There’s a flip-side for sophomores like Marcus Smart. They might get really expensive right when they start to stink — unlike freshmen, sophomores typically begin to decline after about five seasons in the league. An incautious team might sign such a player to a massive extension when he isn’t worth one, as in the case of Rudy Gay and the Memphis Grizzlies. A rational team, however, should be able to resist that temptation — or even exploit other teams’ failure to appreciate the aging curve by trading a player like Smart right when he’s at his peak.

If you enjoy statistical explanations and number stuff like I do, you should really read the whole post; but the explanation presents one argument as to why teams who try to rebuild from scratch mostly fail. Since 1983, only nine teams, I repeat, nine has won a championship. Chasing a dream is nice, but one should really have a Plan B, and C, and D. Tanking, and then picking up talent is an obvious path. So is attracting talent, chasing blockbuster trades etc. Yet there are so many teams who realize they won't be able to win, and then try to break the bank and end up overpaying mediocre role players/borderline All-Stars. Now every team is as lucky as the Trail Blazers are, and even how long they will hold up is debatable.

What makes the difference sometimes is the small things. That's why I think drafting Smart, who is statistically the most promising player to come out of this draft (comparisons are drawn to Dwyane Wade even), who is more NBA ready than the others are and who will probably peak at the right time, as Silver explains, was a really smart decision. People understandably get carried away in the short term excitement, but it always, always takes the superstars a few years to win, and a team shall be built with that in mind.

Well, what is the moral of this story? Don't count the chicken before they hatch. Do you hate the Celtics' picks, and think team X did a much better job? Well, just wait a couple of years. Maybe you'll be right. Maybe you'll be wrong. For me, well, I'm happy to support a team whose management makes smart decisions. Even if they fail, they will definitely not fail miserably.