Sconnie Sports Talk

Opinion: Drafting strategy is stifling struggling professional franchises


Professional sports is an ever cyclical turnover of bad teams becoming good, and good teams becoming bad. Star players get old and new styles of play leave a team’s schemes outdated, while new players arrive to take over the league. But what about the anomalies, especially those on the losing end of the spectrum? At what point are bad teams just bad?

We’ve recently seen certain franchises who seemingly are stuck at the bottom. Take the NBA for example. Aside from the lockout-shortened 2011-2012 season, the Philadelphia 76ers have not had a winning record for the past 10 years, with the past two not exceeding a 25% percent winning percentage. To add insult to injury, their fanbase has also had to endure several questionable drafting decisions following lottery seasons. Draft picks with potential career ending injuries, tripling up star players on a single position, and trading away developmental projects are just some of the sins of late.

Nothing is more important to success in sports than drafting and I would argue that poor draft habits are what keep these consistently bad teams irrelevant. Not every team is able to magically acquire top-notch free agents (looking at you, LeBron and Cleveland) after floundering in mediocrity. Look at the Houston Astros, who rebuilt their team on their farm system and reached the playoffs this season. Not only were their farm systems able to impact the team right away, but they were able to trade prospects to get valuable players on their roster such as Carlos Gomez, Michael Fiers, Scott Kazmir, and Evan Gattis.

It’s easy to notice a pattern to successful teams draft picks over time. These GMs operate under the guidance of certain statistical ideas, the most prevalent being the range of probable outcomes. Players that have an incredibly high ceiling but are also coming off of a serious injury, such as Todd Gurley or Joel Embiid, have many ways their tenures in professional sports could go, and therefore large ranges of potential outcomes. Conversely, it is easy to predict how a player’s career will go if they have a small range of potential outcomes.

What seems to be the key for drafting has been to focus early round draft picks on players who have a small range of probable outcomes, and using later round picks on the aforementioned high risk/reward players. Using this formula, bad teams become and good teams stay good. A team wants to be certain that their first round prospect will deliver above average play for an extended period of time, therefore having the security to take fliers on players like Tom Brady; a late round pick who developed into a incredibly talented star.

The temptation to draft players based purely on raw talent and not history of problems with high picks has often been the issue for the teams stuck at the bottom. The thought process seems logical: if they draft a player and he defies the odds to become an all-time great, then they get out of the basement that much sooner. But so often this is not the case, and it becomes hard to validate choosing players with enormous ceilings when issues they’ve had might never let them see playing time. A certain coach of a certain very good professional football team wisely once said “the best ability is availability.”

It’s hard to consider any option that would potentially prolong the rebuilding process, but these franchises can regain legitimacy sooner overall by sticking to principle when drafting. Patience is a virtue, and owners must stick to these principles even in the face of enormous pressure from hungry fan bases. The process is the most important piece to a successful franchise. It may be easy for ownership to flaunt high draft picks and exciting young prospects while they are mired in the midst of terrible seasons, but at some point the wins need to stop being theoretical. Until these franchises get it together with a clear path to success with low-variance, your guess is as good as mine as to when they rejoin the cycle of success.