What happens if the Houston Rockets lose their first-round pick?

Houston Rockets

2019 NBA Draft prospects (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

The Houston Rockets, by virtue of having the worst record in the league, have the joint best odds of landing the number one overall pick in the 2021 NBA draft. Their 14-percent chance of claiming the draft’s top prize is tied with the Detroit Pistons and Orlando Magic and they’re the only team guaranteed to land a top-five pick.

Unfortunately, the NBA’s new draft lottery odds, implemented in 2019 in an effort to combat tanking, give the worst team in the league only a 52.1-percent chance of landing a top-four pick and a 47.9-percent chance of getting the fifth pick. While the theory behind the rule change remains solid, it doesn’t solve the problem of tanking and it punishes the teams in most need and has become incredibly problematic for the Rockets.

Why the Houston Rockets draft could be in trouble

In order to relocate Russell Westbrook from Oklahoma City to Houston, the Rockets sent a 2021 top-four protected first-round pick swap to the Thunder to seal the trade. While the Thunder have the fourth-best odds at the number one overall pick, what makes this pick swap so dangerous for the Rockets is that the Thunder also own the Miami Heat’s first-round pick.

The Thunder, if the Rockets’ pick falls to five, won’t swap their pick with the Rockets but rather the Heat’s pick, which is set in stone at 18. The worst-case scenario for the Rockets sees them lose the fifth pick and tumble 13 spots down the draft board to 18th.

While the Rockets have a slightly better chance to keep their pick than lose it, the fact remains that a 47.9-percent likelihood of losing it looms like a dark cloud over the entire franchise. The difference between the first pick and the fifth pick is large, in terms of expected career production, but it pales in comparison between the fifth and eighteenth selection.

Houston Rockets: the difference between the 5th and 18th pick

Since the NBA-ABA merger, the fifth pick in the draft has produced 48.5 career win shares and 59.2 career win shares if you exclude players drafted after 2011. On the other hand, the 18th pick has produced 22.2 career win shares and 27.1 win shares pre-2011.

The player selected with the fifth pick, for all intents and purposes, is twice as good as the player drafted with the 18th pick. However, the news gets even worse when you zoom out and look at the entire history of the draft.

The 18th pick has had a few outliers that buck the general trend of the draft which boosts its overall value compared to the picks that surround it. If you use the line of best fit to determine the value of draft picks then the 18th pick loses a fair amount of value.

Pick:                              16th    17th    18th    19th    20th 

Career Win Shares:  19.5    15.8     22.2    14.9    14.8

As more drafts are conducted and more data points are added, chances are the 18th pick will slowly come back to earth and settle in around 15 career win shares. If that is the case, then the fifth pick leads to a prospect that is nearly three times as valuable as the 18th pick.

To put faces to these outcomes, it’s like going from Juwan Howard to Brian Cardinal. One player spent 19 years in the NBA, made an All-NBA team, and won two championships, while the other’s nicknames were literally the custodian and the janitor.

If the Rockets fall to fifth in the draft they fall to 18th. If history has taught us anything, that’s the difference between an All-Star and a bench player. The Rockets have a 50-50 chance to land a franchise-altering player or find their next custodian.