We are just a few weeks away from the 2016 NBA Draft and draft hype is developing nicely. You will find no shortage of talking heads debating who should go number one between Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram, nor will you lack for NBA nerds gushing over the promise of Dragan Bender or arguing over how Buddy Hield and Jamal Murray will fare at the next level. Realistically, we won’t know any of these answers for years to come, but lest you think it is all an exercise in futility, a team’s draft performance carries unmistakable consequences down the road.
Find the right guy and you could be well on your way to championship glory. The Cleveland Cavaliers head into the Finals anchored by two of their own number one picks in LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, set to face the homegrown superstar trio of Golden State’s Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. But celebrating the draft success of these two clubs also means recognizing the many others who failed, with five teams passing on Curry, 10 missing the mark on Thompson and a whole round’s worth of teams whiffing on Green.
Indeed, just as clubs can be defined by who they select in the draft, they can also be forever haunted by critical misses. In fact, the very shape of the NBA’s current power balance can be directly connected to draft performance. Basically, if you aren’t the Cleveland Cavaliers or Golden State Warriors, you probably have good reason to look back ruefully on a couple of draft decisions that could well have turned things around.
In order to break down the 12 teams who have inflicted the most self-damage through poor draft decisions, I’ve decided to only examine this generation of players, operating solely on drafts from 2000 on. So, in other words, you can find plenty written on Bowie over Jordan in the 1984 draft elsewhere. Here are 12 different teams, each of whom made fateful decisions on draft day that cost them a potentially crucial piece that could have reshaped the current NBA landscape as we know it.
12. Mavs Take Jordan Hamilton Over Jimmy Butler
One of the enduring storylines of the past few summers has been the inability of owner Mark Cuban and his Dallas Mavericks to land a marquee name to give Dirk Nowitzki one last crack at another NBA title. Free agency swings and misses by the Mavs have included Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony and, most famously, DeAndre Jordan in recent years. For a club that has picked in the lottery exactly once since 2000, the NBA Draft isn’t seen as a viable tool for landing that Superstar. However, the draft could have proven quite fruitful in 2011 had the Mavs passed on Texas forward Jordan Hamilton in favor of Jimmy Butler, who was taken four picks later.
11. Kings Take Thomas Robinson Over Damian Lillard
Now that he’s bounced around five NBA teams in just four seasons, it’s easy to forget that Thomas Robinson was a highly intriguing prospect coming out of Kansas in 2012. The long and athletic two-way power forward was projected by some to go as high as number two after Anthony Davis, so the Sacramento Kings were understandably thrilled to have a chance to take him at number five. Robinson, however, lasted all of 51 games in Sacramento before the Kings opted to flip him to Houston for underwhelming spare parts. Meanwhile, as they continue to search for a franchise point guard – they reportedly aren’t rushing to re-sign Rajon Rondo – Portland took their floor general of the future with the next pick, nabbing Damian Lillard.
10. Rockets Take Marcus Morris Over Kawhi Leonard
Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey is renown for focusing on asset-collecting and worrying about fit later. It’s how he managed to build his Rockets around James Harden and Dwight Howard in an era where star players rarely ever change teams. But it has also led to the club’s current awkward, ill-fitting conundrum, with Harden and Howard reportedly at odds and Howard looking unlikely to return next season. Turns out, if they wanted a future star who could help the team gel together and wouldn’t demand the ball, all they had to do was take Kawhi Leonard with the 14th pick in 2011 instead of Marcus Morris, who lasted just 71 games in Houston.
9. Bucks Take Jimmer Fredette Over Klay Thompson
It seems laughable now, but the Milwaukee Bucks were determined to enter ‘win now’ mode with a flurry of activity during the 2011 draft. Bucks GM John Hammond moved back from the 10th pick to the 19th selection so that he could add guards Stephen Jackson, Shaun Livingston and Beno Udrih to offer an offensive spark. But you know who could’ve also juiced the offense? The No. 11 pick, Klay Thompson, who was snapped up by Golden State after Sacramento took Jimmer Fredette with the Bucks’ original pick.
8. Clippers Take Al-Farouq Aminu Over Paul George
The 2010 draft marked the last time that the Los Angeles Clippers could truly be called hapless, with 2009 number one pick Blake Griffin still recovering from a broken left kneecap and having yet embarked on his Rookie of the Year campaign and Chris Paul still a couple of years away from arriving. They were looking for a small forward to pair alongside Griffin, a role that they still haven’t filled to this day. Had they taken Fresno State sophomore Paul George, who went two picks after the Clips selected Al-Farouq Aminu, they would have landed their small forward of the future. Imagine a core of Griffin, George, Paul and DeAndre Jordan. Or, if you’re a Clippers fan, don’t.
7. Wizards Take Kwame Brown Over Tyson Chandler and Pau Gasol
The 2000s appeared poised to bring the emergence of the Washington Wizards into the NBA’s elite, spearheaded by the front office leadership of Michael Jordan and the development of high school phenom and 2001 number one pick Kwame Brown. Ironically, the only success Washington enjoyed in the decade came courtesy of Gilbert Arenas, a second round pick in that same draft, rather than the disappointing Brown. The 2001 draft was, in fact, littered with exceptional big man talent. Washington would have done well to build around defensive anchor Tyson Chandler or low post master Pau Gasol, who were taken second and third, respectively.
6. Raptors Take Andrea Bargnani Over LaMarcus Aldridge
Then-Toronto Raptors GM Bryan Colangelo found himself in a precarious position heading into the 2006 NBA Draft. The team already had Chris Bosh in place as their franchise power forward, so taking the similarly skilled LaMarcus Aldridge would have been largely redundant. Instead, Colangelo rolled the dice on sharp-shooting seven-footer Andrea Bargnani, who failed to make the most of his many opportunities in Toronto. It’s hard to know how Aldridge would have co-existed alongside Bosh, but he’s precisely the type of elite big man that would put the current incarnation of the team into serious contender territory.
5. Grizzlies Take Hasheem Thabeet Over James Harden
Draft mistakes happen every year, but they are made even more glaring in star-studded draft years. The 2009 draft produced Blake Griffin, James Harden and Steph Curry, but plenty of teams were still left without any of those franchise stars. Take the Memphis Grizzlies, for example. They had recently acquired the rights to Marc Gasol and were a month away from trading for Zach Randolph, beginning the formation of a perennial playoff team. You have to figure that the number two pick in 2009 could have helped put them over the top, particularly had it become Harden instead of 7’3″ Hasheem Thabeet.
4. Heat Take Michael Beasley Over Russell Westbrook
Hard as it is to believe, the Miami Heat of the Big Three era could have been even more potent. Few Heat fans should have too many regrets after a stretch in which LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh won back-to-back titles for the franchise, but how dynamic would that team have been with Russell Westbrook at the point instead of Mario Chalmers? Miami had a shot at the explosive point guard with the number two pick in the 2008 draft, instead opting to go with Kansas State power forward Michael Beasley, who had already been shipped out before the Big Three era began.
3. Blazers Take Greg Oden Over Kevin Durant
Portland fans won’t soon forget the 2007 draft, which was supposed to see the start of a new era ushered in by Ohio State man-child Greg Oden. All season, Oden had been the presumptive choice as the first over-all pick, only to be challenged thanks to a stellar NCAA season by a Texas freshman named Kevin Durant. With a choice between the two, the Blazers stuck to their guns and went with the supposed sure thing in Oden. Three years, five surgeries and just 82 games later, Oden was out of both Portland and the league just as Durant was averaging 30 points a game for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
2. Pistons Take Darko Milicic Over Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh And Dwyane Wade
As far as draft busts are concerned, they simply don’t come any bigger or bustier than Darko Milicic, who stuck around for a 10-year NBA career but remains best defined as a flop picked amidst Superstars. Newer NBA fans can recognize the names picked after him – Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. Meanwhile, fans who can remember the top-heavy 2003 draft will recall that the Pistons were fresh off a Conference Finals appearance and would become NBA Champions in that very next season. Still, who knows how much longer Detroit could have extended it’s run by drafting one of the available budding Superstars with the pick acquired from the Grizzlies.
1. Timberwolves Take Ricky Rubio And Jonny Flynn Over Stephen Curry
It takes a special level of ineptitude to engineer a draft that looks equally terrible both in the moment and in hindsight, but that was precisely what then-GM David Kahn brought to the Minnesota Timberwolves. Thanks to a pre-draft trade with Washington, Minnesota held the numbr five and six picks and were poised to make over a club that hadn’t had a winning record in four seasons. Unfortunately, Kahn got bizarrely point guard happy, nabbing back-to-back floor generals in Ricky Rubio and Jonny Flynn to earn league-wide derision. Even worse, neither one of the point guards turned out to be the right one. Rubio has been mediocre through five NBA seasons after coming over from Spain and Flynn was out of the league in three years. Neither one measured up to the next point guard selected, reigning two-time MVP Steph Curry.
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