On Kevin O’Connor’s Luck

May 21st, 2013 | by Andy Larsen


Kevin O’Connor’s probably wearing his lucky green today. But will he be so sad tonight?

Kevin O’Connor has reason to complain. Just 14 months ago on March 21, 2012, the Jazz seemed to have their 2012 pick perfectly positioned. After acquiring a 2012 Golden State (top-7 protected) first round pick in the Deron Williams trade, the Warriors seemed to be doing their part with a record (19-25) just 6 games below .500, good for the 9th worst record in the league. Even better, they had amassed a 4 game “lead” on the 7th worst spot, making it probable that they didn’t slip back down to keep their pick. Unfortunately for Jazz fans, the Warriors went just 4-18 for the rest of the season, and ended up in a tie for the 7th lottery position.

(Just how likely was Golden State’s collapse? Treating each game as an independent outcome, and using a chi-squared test, the probability of a team that had started the season with a 19-25 record to finish it with a 4-18 streak is just 4.4%. Of course, each game in an NBA season is not independent: injuries can (and did) happen, a team’s schedule can become more difficult, and fatigue can begin to set in. Those factors do increase the odds of a team’s collapse many times over, but even given the compounding nature of these losses, the odds were very slim.)

However, the draft pick was still within reach. While no lottery balls were exchanged, on April 27th, the NBA flipped a coin to determine who would keep the 7th spot if no draft order changes took place between the Warriors and Raptors. The Jazz had a 50/50 chance of keeping their pick, but lost that chance when the coin flip came up heads for the Warriors.

Opportunity #3 for the Jazz to keep their pick came on lottery night. The Jazz still had one final possibility: if a team in the 8th-14th slots of the lottery had their lottery combination called, it would move themselves up to the top 3 slots and bump all the other teams down, creating a domino effect that would see Utah keep its pick. The odds of this: 27.34%.  Indeed, there was a lot of discussion that the Warriors would give up an asset to hedge away that chance they could lose the pick. Utah’s asking price, however, was too steep, and no hedge-away trade occurred. This again was to the Warriors benefit, as the bottom half of the lottery held. They had cleared the final hurdle, and in the process, broke Utah’s hearts. There would be no addition to Utah’s young core.

Even worse, the Warriors surprised the NBA in the 2012-2013 season, moving up to the 10th best record in the league. The Jazz are now stuck drafting 21st, rather than the top 10 pick they could have so reasonably expected less than a year ago. Given the sequence of events of last season, it’s clear why O’Connor feels he’s unlucky.

But it’s worth remembering that he attended the draft lottery in 2011 as well, and on that night (captured in this grainy Youtube video) the Jazz moved up from the 6th slot to number 3, despite having just a 25.23% chance at doing so. With the 3rd pick, the Jazz drafted Enes Kanter, who looks like a good NBA player. The 6th pick? Jan Vesely, the hero of the entertainingly sparse @JanVeselyStats Twitter account. That’s a massive break for the Jazz.

Indeed, even ignoring the specific players involved, the luck “tradeoff” seems to make come out favorably for the Jazz. Check out this study done by 82games.com in 2008:



The rating system used is primitive at best: it’s simply career PPG + RPG + APG. That being said, it nevertheless illustrates the point quite nicely: the graph of the expected output of any draft pick is non-linear. The drop off from the 3rd pick to the 6th pick is about 7.3 rating points, whereas the dropoff from the 8th pick all the way down to the 21st is just 2.1 rating points! Even after applying a smoothing function to help balance out the influence of luck (for example, the fact that the 21st pick is a better bet than the 15th pick), it’s clear: the expected output difference between the 3rd and 6th pick is greater than or equal to the difference between the 8th and 21st. KOC may have better luck than he thinks.

Of course, going into tonight’s lottery, the Jazz have just a 1.82% chance of moving up into the top 3. Both Kevin O’Connor and Randy Rigby are going to need an exceptional bit of luck (or some general managing skill) to see the Jazz draft anywhere but 14th come June 27th.

Andy Larsen

Andy Larsen

Andy Larsen is the Managing Editor of Salt City Hoops, the ESPN TrueHoop affiliate for the Utah Jazz. He also hosts a radio show and podcast every week on ESPN700 AM in Salt Lake City.
Andy Larsen

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