We have every reason to expect that the Cavs will improve over the next few years, especially since team is stocked with young, talented lottery packs. But given its draft position the last few years, how good could we have expected the Cavs to get? And how much of the improvement that any high-lottery team shows is simply because it's hard to stay bad forever in the NBA?

The NBA At Large

To get at how much high draft picks improve bad teams, different types of shitty teams were compared. We decided to focus on point differential, since that brings us a bit closer to a team's true strength, especially very bad teams. We looked at four groups: teams that had the No. 1 overall pick, teams that had two top-8 picks in three years, teams in the bottom eight in the league in point differential who did not have a draft pick, and all teams in the bottom eight in point differential. (We selected top-8 picks as a cutoff because, speaking broadly, that is about where you see a leveling off of expected production, with the another coming near the end of the lottery; the last two groups serve as our controls.) Starting from 2000, points per game differentials were tracked for the year prior to the draft and the four years following.

Teams with the top pick had a -5.1 point differential the year prior to drafting number one. Those with multiple top eight draft picks in a three-year span had a -4.8 point differential. These teams are quite comparable to the worst teams in the NBA as averaging the point differentials for the eight worst NBA teams in each season from the collective years of 2000-2010 gives you a -5.4 point differential.

The bad teams without a draft pick had a -5.1 point differential. Among these four groups there is only about half a point variance, meaning that at these teams are similarly terrible. To give some scope of point differentials, last season there was an 18.1 ppg differential difference between the best (Spurs) and worst (76ers) NBA teams. A half-point variance is about the difference between this year's Celtics and Magic—not much at all.


The chart shows off the bat, all these awful teams improved considerably. For the first year following the draft, each group improved at least 1.8 points and the average improvement was 2.7 points. Almost counterintuitively, bad teams without a first-round pick actually improved most the first year lowering their point differential from -5.1 all the way down to -1.8.

However, this rate of improvement drops quickly especially for teams without a first-round pick. In fact, while other bad squads continue to improve, teams without a first-round choice actually begin to de-improve by the third year following the draft. This makes some sense when you begin to take it apart. One explanation is that bad teams that do not draft have probably traded their pick for a veteran player or players, who can help win soon, but absent new talent, the gains are short-lived—especially for a team that stunk to begin with.

For years three and four following the draft, teams with a number one pick and those with multiple top picks improve most. But they do not improve much more than do the worst teams in the NBA.


The only year where teams with the number one pick teams improve considerably more than these other bad teams is in the fourth year following the draft. Largely because of this fourth year jump, teams with the number one pick see more improvement than all other bad teams. But their cumulative rate of improvement after four seasons is still only 1.8 points (7.3-5.5) better than the NBA's worst teams. Which isn't even half a point a season.

How Have The Cavs Done?

So with that in mind, how should the Cavs look going forward? And more importantly, how have they looked so far?


We didn't bother comparing them to other teams' first year with two No. 1 overall picks in three years, because that peer group is ridiculously small. We all understand that Anthony Bennett looks like a pretty bad whiff, and that the Cavs are going to have to live with that. But if we compare the Cavs with other teams who get any No. 1 overall picks, and teams with clusters of pretty good draft picks, they actually aren't complete disasters.

BeforeDraftYear1Year2Year3Year4Cavs (Total)NBA Average
No. 1 -5.1-2.3-
2011-9-7.2-4.7-3.3 5.75.81
2013-4.7-3.3 1.42.86
2010-2012-7.2-4.7-3.3 3.93.01
2011-2013-4.7-3.3 1.41.83

Since we only have three years of data post 2011, we used the NBA average for three years out after a team drafts number one—for the 2013 streak we used the data for one year.


By these measures, you can see that the Cavs are a bit behind schedule against teams with a No. 1 pick, and similarly a bit behind versus teams with clumps of high lottery picks. Given that our peer group is working with worse raw materials (lower draft picks) than what the Cavs got, this looks bad. It's especially glaring next to the early LeBron years, when Cleveland rocketed through the league. But the team has shown improvement that's more or less in line with a team stocked with lottery picks.

It's important to remember, though, that this movement can come in fits and starts. For example, after drafting Dwight Howard in 2004, the Magic improved nearly five points, from a -7.1 ppg differential to -2.3 in one year. They didn't make huge strides again until the fourth year, when they jumped from +0.8 to +5.5—a difference that would take this year's Wizards and thrust them up above Miami and Golden State into third place in the league, just behind Oklahoma City.

Incidentally, this will be Kyrie Irving's fourth year in the league. If we discount Anthony Bennett as a failed No. 1 pick and just look at the bumps you'd expect from a first and fourth year No. 1 on the same team, the Cavs could be fighting for home court advantage in the playoffs next year.


So what does this all tell us, really? If a team is really bad, it should improve regardless of whether or not they even have a draft pick. But for teams who land the top pick or have a streak of high draft choices, they see slightly more improvement three and four years after the draft than do other poor teams whose improvements tail off quicker. Getting the top pick produces the most improvement, but it takes a while for it to take hold.

Chart by Reuben Fischer-Baum