Is a top four pick really worth more than the fifth pick?

Editor
September 3, 2013 - 11:13am
Sancho Lyttle, the No. 5 pick of the 2005 WNBA draft, has proven to be a more valuable player than the top four picks that year. (File photo by Andrew Snook)

Sancho Lyttle, the No. 5 pick of the 2005 WNBA draft, has proven to be a more valuable player than the top four picks that year. (File photo by Andrew Snook)

So, really, what’s the difference between being in the WNBA lottery, and finishing with the worst record among the playoff-bound teams? Or, to put it another way, what is that fifth pick really worth?

To answer that, we looked at WNBA drafts from 2001 to 2010 to see whether it makes sense to tank for a shot at the lottery or to be the worst team in postseason -- and we’ll let you be the judge. In terms of our analysis, though, we also looked at any player picked in the top 12 of the draft because she might have been an option at No. 5 instead of the player actually chosen. And if the player fell out of the top 12, she probably wasn’t in the discussion for No. 5 at the time (no matter how well she might have done down the road) and thus doesn’t really factor into the draft options for the fifth-worst team.

2001

First four: Lauren Jackson, Kelly Miller, Tamika Catchings, Jackie Stiles

Two all-time greats, a very solid point guard and a great talent derailed by injuries. Clearly a good overall draft.

No. 5: Ruth Riley

You can’t argue with the pick, as a 6-5 center coming off a national title is pretty hard to pass up in the fifth spot. Riley was never a great player, but she has a couple championship rings and started 260 games. She’s faded drastically in the last few years, but still, there was clearly value here.

The best of the rest: Deanna Nolan (6), Svetlana Abrosimova (7), Katie Douglas (10), Penny Taylor (11)

My first reaction is that 2001 was one heck of a year, and there were lots of very good players to be had in the top 12. As far as the topic of this article, then, missing out on the top four choices wasn’t that big a deal, given available talent, so tanking (which wasn’t applicable) would have made little sense. (Remember that playoff games generate income, and that income can make a substantial difference to ownership.)

2002

First four: Sue Bird, Swin Cash, Asjha Jones, Stacey Dales-Schuman

The first three worked out pretty well, I’d say.

No. 5: Nikki Teasley

Teasley’s talent was never fully developed, but she did get a WNBA title, and was a better player than Dales-Schuman. She also was significantly better than the players taken below her, though Snow is still in the league and Teasley is long gone.

Best of the rest: Michelle Snow (10)

Though Snow has been labeled an underachiever throughout her career, she has started 306 games, scored in double figures four seasons, and averaged more than seven rebounds three times. But in this draft, the gap between the top three and everyone else was huge.

2003

First four: LaToya Thomas, Chantelle Anderson, Cheryl Ford, Plenette Pierson

Pierson is still performing at a reasonably high level, and Ford had her moments before her knees betrayed her. The other two? Well, let’s just call them living proof that assessing talent is at best an inexact science.

No. 5: Kara Lawson

A hard worker who simply got better and better as her career went on. The difference between her and Pierson is slight, as both have had solid careers.

Best of the rest: No one

What a terrible draft. It pretty much didn’t matter where you picked, you weren’t going to find a franchise-type player --or even a player.

2004

First four: Diana Taurasi, Alana Beard, Nicole Powell, Lindsay Whalen

More evidence that the top picks are crucially important.

No. 5: Shameka Christon

A solid career, but again, not a franchise-changer. Christon might have had more value had she not hurt her knee, as it seems she’s never quite recovered.

Best of the rest: Rebekkah Brunson (10)

A marvelous athlete who worked hard to become one of the most feared offensive rebounders in the game, but at the time, the Georgetown grad wasn’t seen as a sure thing.

2005

First four: Janel McCarville, Tan White, Sandora Irvin, Kendra Wecker

Some years, even the proceeds from one playoff game offset a dip into the lottery, and 2005 was one of those years. McCarville is a decent WNBA player, White is at best a rotation player, and Irvin and Wecker remain two of the worst top four picks in the last decade.

No. 5: Sancho Lyttle

Her overseas commitments have proven to be a major issue, but clearly she has delivered more value than any player picked above her -- so in this case, any thought of tanking would have worked against a franchise.

Best of the rest: Temeka Johnson (6), Kara Braxton (7)

Johnson was and is tiny, so there were reasons to hold off -- but she’s become a valuable, if peripatetic player. Braxton? She’s still in the league, has won titles and remains an enigmatic bundle of enormous talent.

2006

First four: Seimone Augustus, Cappie Pondexter, Monique Currie, Sophia Young

Pretty good group, though Currie has never quite found the consistency the others have -- and then there’s Young political views, which are troubling but can’t detract from her on-court value.

No. 5: Lisa Willis

Oops.

Best of the rest: Candice Dupree (6)

Though Dupree has turned into a very good player, despite an occasional indifference to defense, this draft, like most of them, did not go very deep, so getting into the top four was definitely worth it.

2007

First four: Lindsey Harding, Jessica Davenport, Armintie (Price) Herrington, Noelle Quinn

Not much here after Harding, as even though Herrington is a starter on a good team, the holes in her game are wide enough for Bill Laimbeer to drive through.

No. 5: Tiffany Jackson (James)

Jackson isn’t great, but her value isn’t that much different than those picked above her. Another year where the lottery picks weren’t worth the loss of playoff revenue.

Best of the rest: Ivory Latta (11)

Looking back, this wasn’t much of a draft.

2008

First four: Candace Parker, Sylvia Fowles, Candice Wiggins, Alexis Hornbuckle

The top two worked out pretty well … the next two, not so much. (L.A.’s late tank job to tie for the worst record, though, deserves credit.)

No. 5: Matee Ajavon

Better than Hornbuckle, probably better than Wiggins, but not much more than a serviceable starter. Still, the difference between three and five was negligible in 2008.

Best of the rest: Crystal Langhorne (6), Essence Carson (7)

After the top two, the next five turned out pretty well -- except for Hornbuckle, though she’s still playing.

2009

First four: Angel McCoughtry, Marissa Coleman, Kristi Toliver, Renee Montgomery

A strange collection, as Coleman and Montgomery are only starters if someone gets hurt, Toliver was traded for a second-round pick and McCoughtry’s emotional fragility has offset her all-world talent.

No. 5: DeWanna Bonner

Again, No. 5 is right there with three of the top four, so the logic for losing just doesn’t hold up.

Best of the rest: Briann January (6), Kia Vaughn (8), Shavonte Zellous (11)

All three of these players have more value than Coleman, and January and Zellous have had better careers than Montgomery. The issue, though, is judging which drafts are deep enough to not worry too much about where a franchise sits in the draft order.

2010

First four: Tina Charles, Monica Wright, Kelsey Griffin, Epiphanny Prince

As is most often the case, the first pick is the best pick -- and this time, the dropoff was immediate. Prince has shown the most, even though she’s struggling as this is written.

No. 5: Jayne Appel

Steadily developing into a solid WNBA player, Appel arguably has as much value as Wright and certainly more than Griffin, so again, the No. 5 pick isn’t that much worse than the non-No. 1 choices above it.

Best of the rest: No one.

Jacinta Monroe and Biana Thomas were first-round picks, which tells you all you need to know.

To summarize, here are the No. 5 picks from 2001-2010:

Ruth Riley

Nikki Teasley

Kara Lawson

Shameka Christon

Sancho Lyttle

Lisa Willis

Tiffany Jackson (James)

Matee Ajavon

DeWanna Bonner

Jayne Appel

Obviously, getting a No. 1 pick is clearly better than any of this group, but not necessarily No. 2.

As for the third and fourth choices, there’s little difference, so it would seem that the only way tanking is worth it is if a franchise is convinced it’s lucky enough to get one of the top two picks.

So, when it comes to losing down the stretch, that’s why fans, coaches and general managers have to answer Clint Eastwood’s famous question: “Do you feel lucky, punk?”


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