A Quick Primer on the Tier Drafting System

NEW YORK - JUNE 24: Ekpe Udoh stands with NBA Commisioner David Stern after being drafted sixth by The Golden State warriors at Madison Square Garden on June 24, 2010 in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

Ok, folks, one week to go before the rapture draft day. There's already been a flurry of draft FanPosts and FanShots on GSOM. Should we take Biyombo? Jimmer? How do we figure out who to take? Is it best player available or according to our greatest need? One strategy that you'll hear about quite often these days is the "tier system", which I like to think of as a hybrid between choosing the best player and need. This quicky post is just to get you up to speed on how this strategy works. I should also add that this post was inspired by Chad Ford's post today (an Insider article, which I know not everyone has access to).

So, how does the tier system work? It's actually very simple. The first step is determine what a player's "true" talent level is and predict how productive he will be. For example, one way to do this might be to estimate what his impact will be in terms of +/-. Just to throw out some numbers, let's say a Tier 1 player would eventually have a +/- greater than 7 or 8, while a Tier 2 player would be in the range 4-7, a Tier 3 player 2-4, and so on. Each team obviously has to decide for itself what those tiers should be. The tiers, however, should be small enough or big enough that they are useful. Obviously, a tier size having 30 players isn't going to be very helpful, nor is a tier size of 1 (except, however, in those rare years where you have truly great franchise players like Shaq, Duncan, or LeBron). 

Once a team decides who belongs in each tier, the next step is very easy. When it's your turn to pick, you select the player in the highest tier that fits your need. To put this another way, even if there is only one player left in a higher tier, and that player doesn't fit a team need, you still take that player over another player in a lower tier that fits a need. If all the players still available are in the same tier, then you select the player that fits the greatest need. Stephen Curry is a good example of a player that could have been selected using this approach. In all likelihood, Jordan Hill was the player that fit more of a need (size), but when Curry was still available and arguably in a higher tier, he became the clear choice. If Kyrie Irving falls to 11, the tier system would have us taking him, even though he does not fit an immediate need. The logic being twofold: 1) That player may actually be better than the player you currently have at that position; and 2) The trade value of that player is an asset that can help you fill a need later, perhaps, with more talent than you would have drafted with a "need" pick at that slot. (Again, think about the trade value of Curry vs. Hill now.)

Because I generally agree with how Chad Ford has tiered this year's class, I'll list it here (it's actually very close to my internet consensus mock draft tiers):

Tier 1

According to Ford, there are not "Tier 1" players this year (think Rose, Wall, Shaq, etc). I would agree with that.

Tier 2

  • Irving
  • Willams

Tier 3

  • Kanter
  • Knight
  • Leonard
  • Valanciunas
  • Vesely
  • Walker

Tier 4

  • Biyombo
  • Burks
  • Fredette
  • Marcus Morris
  • Singleton
  • K. Thompson
  • T. Thompson

Tier 5

  • Bertans
  • Brooks
  • Faried
  • Hamilton
  • Harris
  • Honeycutt
  • Jackson
  • Mirotic
  • D. Morris
  • Markieff Morris
  • Montiejunas
  • Selby
  • Vucevic

So, when the Warriors are up to bat with the 11th pick, if anyone (ANYONE) from Tier 2 or 3 happened to still be on the board, the tier system would have us take him (and not think twice about it). Yes, that means even if it were Kemba Walker. But if none of those players are available, we then draft the player from Tier 4 that fits the greatest need. I would argue that would exclude us from taking Jimmer, but every other player on that list could arguably fit a need. Assuming you agree with Ford's tiers, it also means we should *not* pick Hamilton, Tyler, Vucevic, etc. Of course, you may disagree with these tiers.

Which player in Tier 4 fits the greatest need? That's debatable. In fact, if you want to have that debate, please do so in the comments section! Oh, I should note that last year's Tier 4 according to Ford included: Aldrich, Babbitt, Bledsoe, Bradley, Hayward, Henry, George, Patterson, and Udoh.

If you disagree with Ford's tiers, create your own tiers, and let's have that discussion. 

If you think the tier system is bogus, let's have that discussion, too.

That's the tier system in a nutshell. I hope I made it easy enough to understand.

Tier Definitions

Let me know if you agree/disagree with these, and I will update if necessary.

  • Tier 0 - Clear first ballot HOFer
  • Tier 1 - All-NBA first or second team, multiple All-Star games, serious MVP candidate at some point during career, HOF likely, but second or third ballot
  • Tier 2 - All-Star potential, may make All-Star once or twice during career, never serious HOF candidate
  • Tier 3 - Starter for a playoff team
  • Tier 4 - Starter, good 6th man
  • Tier 5 - Rotation player who gets heavy minutes (6-8 off the bench)
  • Tier 6 - Role player, deep bench
  • Tier 7 - Struggles to stay in the league, 10-day contracts, D-leaguer, etc.

Expected Tier (Warning: Advanced Stat Geeks only!)

You might break down things further into an "expected tier" rating, and then use that to make the tiers. I'll make up an example using Bismack Biyombo (but you can try this at home!).

Probability of Reaching Tier (note the values must add up to 100%):


  1. 10%
  2. 30%
  3. 30%
  4. 20%
  5. 10%


With those probabilities, Bismack's expected Tier would be:


  • 0.1*1+0.3*2+0.3*3+0.2*4+0.1*5 = 2.9

You could do a similar calculation for each player, and then create your tiers by using a statistical technique like k-means clustering.

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