NBA Draft and Effects on Playing Time


I recently came across a study on the NBA and effects on playing time. The study conducted by Berkeley professors Barry Staw and Ha Hoang, analyzed playing time in the 1980’s over a five year span following the NBA draft. Professor Staw analyzed factors including on court performance, trades, injuries and draft position. What did he find?

“…teams granted more playing time to their most highly DRAFTED players and retained them longer, even after controlling for players’ on court performance, injuries, trade status, and positions played.”

Where a player was selected in the draft was a “significant predictor” in minutes played over the entire five year span that was studied. In addition the draft position effect was “above and beyond” any effects on player’s performance, injury, or trade status. Put simply, players were given more minutes based on where they were drafted.

How significant was the effect on minutes played?

Based on a 24 team league (average used in the study) being picked in the second round resulted in 552 fewer minutes in the following year. That is equivalent to sitting on the bench for 47 extra quarters, or almost 12 games!

One might argue that increased playing time makes sense in the season immediately following the draft, but draft order continued to influence playing time up to and including a player’s fifth year in the NBA. Not only did draft order effect playing time, but the higher a player was drafted the less likely he was to be traded and the longer his career lasted.

Pyschological influences

While the study focuses on escalation of commitment and sunk costs, the psychological phenomenon known as irrational escalation is in play as well.  Irrational escalation occurs when people justify increased investment, based on prior investment, despite new evidence showing that decision was probably wrong.  The NBA study illustrates this principle as players were given more playing time based on their draft order (and contract) even when their performance might not have justified such an action.

So what does this all mean?

We often hear management and coaches talking about playing their best five players, or looking at roster changes objectively, but based on this study that isn’t necessarily the case. Whether we realize it or not, management decisions in sports are subject to psychological pulls just like decisions in our own daily lives. Further research and education on the topic can help sports organizations overcome these type of decisions.

What do you think about draft status impacting playing time? Would you have guessed it influences minutes played even five years later? Does this surprise you?