2021 Draft Theory: How Fast Things Change

I spend a lot of my time reviewing the draft analyzing league trends, previous drafts, projections of previous drafts from myself and others, and just generally trying to ensure that the theory behind the projection matches up with what is going on in the league.

I started doing player projection and did my first theory articles in 2015. I have always noted that one of the difficulties in draft projection is that the league changes so quickly, so what may be true now may not be true a few years in the future when those players are starting to hit their stride. The NBA has now reached a point where it is changing so fast that it has become almost impossible to do quality player projection because the way the game shifts completely changes the value of players.

When I look back at my 2019 board, it looks completely alien. I don’t say that because I missed badly – my rankings are pretty solid, the guys I appear to have been too low/high on have pretty dead-on explanations. It’s too early to make any judgments as to which players are bad, average, good, or great, and I wouldn’t move anybody around based on that. Rather, the value of positions is just way, way off. And the thing is – they may have been accurate in 2019! That’s just how fast things are changing. The biggest change is how refs are calling defensive fouls and how offensive players are adjusting to it. If anybody has watched the Olympics, the difference in how the game is called is stark. Specifically, handchecking is allowed in defending pick and roll and much more bump and run is allowed when defending drives.

And when defenses simply are not allowed to defend the point of attack on the pick and roll, offense becomes very, very easy. Set a pick, use the pick, then take the open option (pull up 3, drive to the rim, kick to the help defender’s man). Pretty much the only other play used often is the straight up iso, when the defensive player is outmatched and not allowed to be physical and the offensive player doesn’t need a pick because they’ll get open or fouled even without the pick.

This has distorted the game very quickly, in a way that fans are generally unhappy about. Teams no longer need well-rounded players with a variety of skills. In fact, well-rounded non-specialists have no real use. You’re either the primary ball handler, the pick setter, or one of three guys standing around the arc. You’re either one of the two defenders against the pick and roll or standing next to a guy around the arc. That’s a bit of a simplification, and any breakdown of the US Olympic Team’s struggles would probably start with a breakdown of all the little things those “standing around” guys do that distinguish them, but a deep dive into creating passing angles by taking two shuffle steps along the perimeter is not the purpose of this article, so let’s move on.

In Naming and Necessity (2016), I did a deep dive into the various skills needed by NBA players and how that translated to NBA position. In 2016, that was an accurate summary. Much of my positional value projection over the following years were evolutions of that article. That article is now completely outdated. None of that exists anymore, nor does it have any relation to it anymore. Players drafted in 2016 are just starting to hit their prime now, and everything they were drafted to do has changed. It’s only been 5 years!

On offense, you need to be able to do one of the following:

  • Handle the ball in pick and roll, shoot the 3 off the bounce, and make kick passes
  • Hit spot up 3s with a decent release speed and accuracy
  • Set strong picks and either roll or pop

That’s it. That’s every good NBA offense. We just watched two straight teams make “surprise” NBA Finals appearances by simply running this very basic offense efficiently and effectively.

On defense, you need to be able to switch on to any player and offer at least a little bit of resistance and you need to be able to help and recover. That’s pretty much it. Because most defense gets whistled, most defense is now help and recover and stopping the ball by simply bringing an extra defender over. Slower players and smaller players are finding it more and more difficult to defend quality offensive teams because they’re hunted and exploited.

The difficult thing is that in 5 years? All this will probably be different. The NBA is already making a lot of noise about cracking down on some of the most common foul drawing techniques. If they take steps to limit the effectiveness of pick and roll, everything here will be wrong and a new paradigm will emerge. What will that game look like? The best projection I can make at this time will be teams putting five 3 point shooters on the floor, spreading the floor even further, and trying to exploit whatever the best individual matchup is. That points to the return of the multi-tool wing, the further rise of the rangeless 3 point shooter, and the continued slow death of the center. But any number of rule changes could make the future look very different.

Projecting the draft includes looking at current positions and positional value, projecting how the NBA will evolve, and what rules and enforcement will change. It adds an extremely difficult layer to the draft projection process. That process is the subject of the next article.