Should you trade Spencer Hawes for two second round draft picks?

The 76ers traded Spencer Hawes to the Cavaliers for two second round draft picks this weeks. The trade caused a bit of a kerfluffle on my twitter feed, as several people seemed to think that the Cavaliers fleeced the 76ers because 2nd round picks have little value. Is that true? Before I get into the analysis, I want to caveat by saying that I think this is a great trade for the 76ers regardless. Hawes is about to become a free agent and has no future in Philly, so getting 2 picks for him is basically getting something for nothing (there was some filler but the Sixers didn’t take back anything damaging). I doubt they could have done better, because first round picks are very highly valued right now (maybe overvalued–I’ll try to explore this in a future post).

I collected data on every draft pick made between 2000 and 2009. For each draft pick, I found the maximum Player Efficiency Rating (PER) that player obtained in the NBA. For the rest of the post, that’s the number I’ll be working with: the maximum PER a draft pick has obtained for a season with more than 200 minutes. This is a very generous measure to use, because some players manage to attain a high PER but can’t maintain that level of production over more than one year. Hawes routinely has a PER above 13 and has hit 18 once, so using maximum PER is biasing my results in favor of the 2nd round draft picks and against Hawes.

First, here’s a graph that shows max PER vs draft pick number. PERs have been jittered1 so that you can visually see how many points there are at 0. A PER of 0 usually indicates that the player never played in the NBA or never had a season with more than 200 minutes.

draft pick graph

The red line is a simple regression line showing the correlation between draft pick number and max PER. Points to the left of the dotted line are 1st round picks (defined here as any pick before 31. Yes, Gil Arenas was a 2nd round pick, but that was when the 1st round was just 28 picks. These days he’d be a 1st round pick). Points to the right of the dotted line are 2nd round picks. I’ve labeled a few points with the name of the player. As you can see, lots of 2nd round draft picks end up being complete busts who never play, but quite a few of them end up being productive players.

For the next step, I throw away all of the first round draft picks. I then conduct a hypothetical draft, drawing two players (because Philly got two picks) from all my 2nd rounders. I run this hypothetical draft 10,000 times. The plot below shows the max PER of the 1st player picked in each of my hypothetical drafts vs. the max PER of the 2nd player picked in each of my hypothetical drafts.

draft pick graph2

The dotted black lines show Spencer Hawes’s career average PER (14.3). Points to the right of the vertical dotted line are points where the first draft pick has a higher max PER than Hawes. Points above the horizontal dotted line are points where the second draft pick has a higher max PER than Hawes. I’ve labeled each sector to show what percent of simulated drafts fall in that sector. So 37% of my simulated drafts yield a player with a max PER at least as high as Hawes’s average PER, and in 4% of them you get two players that good!

What if instead of using Hawes’s average PER we use his max PER, which is 18? This is comparing apples to apples after all. That chart looks like this:

draft pick graph3

Now you only have a 14% chance of getting a player at least as good as Hawes, and less than a 1% of getting two players that good (I rounded up).

Again, I like the trade from Philly’s perspective. Based on this analysis, I think they’re unlikely to get a player at least as good as Hawes out of it, but since the Sixers didn’t really give up anything of value to them, this is a solid trade from their perspective. I also don’t hate it from the Cavaliers’ perspective. They want to win now and sure, Hawes is a rental, but maybe they’ll decide Hawes is a good fit in their system and re-sign him. Then the test-drive pays off.

  1. This means that a small value has been randomly added or subtracted from the points.
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