This has been a polarizing issue among Clipper fans, and ultimately it all comes down to whether the value that was sent out is greater or less than the value that was brought back. As Lucas pointed out, the Clippers’ draft pick that was traded away is most likely going to be a first-round pick in 2019. And, if the Clippers have a top 5 record in the NBA in 2019 as they’ve had for the past 3 years (currently 6th overall), that pick figures to be in the mid-to-high 20’s range.
So then, what does a mid-to-high 20’s pick look like?
Attempt #1: Raw Totals
To begin, I compiled data from www.basketball-reference.com for all draft picks from 2000 to 2015 (16 seasons) and created a scatterplot showing total points, rebounds, and assists for each draft position, 1 through 60, for that 15-year period. The graph includes a trend-line as well (I can share the equation if you’re really nerdy and care about that stuff).
Note: Remember, these are raw totals, so any time there was a player who didn’t play an NBA minute, they registered zeroes across the board. Naturally, the draft position will be penalized, as that player wasn’t good enough to even step on the court. So for example, despite having Isaiah Thomas in the 60th pick group, that group scores very low because there’s not much besides him there.
As expected, regardless of the statistic there’s a consistent, downward trend. The later the pick, the less likely that pick is to score, rebound, or assist (or even play). But this isn’t exactly rocket science, and I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. We know early picks are more likely to turn into Blake Griffin and Stephen Curry, and late picks are more likely to turn into players whose names I can't even remember—but where's the midpoint? Where do players go from above-average to below-average?
See, none of this really means much without some kind of a benchmark. After all, the purpose of all this is to determine the value of a mid-to-late-20’s pick, and in order to determine high, medium, or low value, you have to come up with some kind of an average. I can’t just take an average of the total data because that’s just going to be the very middle of each of those trend-lines. There’s really no good way to determine what an "average draft pick" looks like.
Attempt #2: Per-game Averages
Instead of trying to figure out what an average draft looks like, I took a step sideways and used the data to calculate cumulative per-game averages for each draft position (e.g. total points scored divided by total games played). This illustrates what an average player looks like at each draft position. I then added a dotted "league-average" line, for the 2014-15 league average points, rebounds, and assists per game. This illustrates what an average player looks like, regardless of draft position (and is very consistent year-over-year).
Note: While the first graph penalized draft positions for having players that didn’t ever step on the court, this second graph calculates averages instead of raw totals, and doesn't have the same effect. Raw data is still being used to calculate the averages, but in later picks, we are hit with the problem of small sample sizes and end up with a lot of random noise in the 2nd round. So for example, despite having only 6 players who actually got on the court at the 60th pick, Isaiah Thomas brings the averages way up. That being said, this issue is negligible in the first-round, which is what we’re focusing on.
So once again, there’s a downward trend. We can see that after the first 10 picks, the trend line begins to drop below the league-average. Regardless of whether we’re looking at raw totals or cumulative per-game averages, the first 10 picks are the only place that solid-to-great NBA players are consistently found.
The pick that the Clippers traded away is most likely going to be between 20th and 30th, and if they continue to be successful into 2019, it’ll be closer to 30th. History tells us that these picks are typically unlikely to become productive NBA players. After the 10th pick, it’s basically a crap shoot, with decreasing odds the later in the draft you get. It’s not out of the realm of possibility, as the Clippers’ own DeAndre Jordan shows us first-hand, but for every Jordan, you have a Reggie Bullock, Trey Thompkins, Paul Davis, or Daniel freaking Ewing.
Was this a good trade for the Clippers?
So if the pick is probably not going to become anyone useful, and Lance Stephenson wasn’t exactly killing it, then the numbers tell us this was a good trade, right? Not necessarily.
Internally, there’s really no big problem with the trade. Based on historical data, the player the Clippers would have selected with the pick wasn’t likely to be very good, and Lance Stephenson’s highly improvisational style didn’t always seem to mesh with the rest of the Clippers—so perhaps swapping him out for Jeff Green and his more conventional style of play might be worth the gamble. After a dozen games or so, we should be able to determine whether Jeff Green is a good fit, at least.
But externally, measuring value of both Lance Stephenson's expiring contract and the future first-round pick, one could argue that more could have been had for such a package. Despite the fact that history tells us only the first third of first-round picks are actually likely to be solid players, first-round picks (somewhat inexplicably) continue to carry a ton of value in the league. Of course, today we can only speculate on what else the Clippers would have gotten for the pick, but this summer, if more talented players are traded for as little as a late first round pick and an expiring contract, the Clippers might regret pulling the trigger so soon.
Ultimately, with the information we have right now, it’s not possible to definitively determine whether the trade was a good one for the Clippers. But with the historical information we do have, we can at least say that it’s unlikely the Clippers lost anything they were likely to use themselves, in this trade, aside from perhaps Lance Stephenson—and that’s pretty important.