The National Basketball Association is in an interesting place as of the winter of 2018. Television ratings for regular season ratings are up, and the league is filled with Superstars who play for franchises located throughout North America. With that said, it’s known every October that only a few teams, at most, can realistically win the NBA Finals for a given season. Barring some unforeseen catastrophe that involves multiple noteworthy players being lost to injury, it’s the worst-kept secret in the league that the Golden State Warriors are going to retain their championship come June 2018. Truth be told, it seems more likely a club such as the Cleveland Cavaliers will take steps to ruin that franchise than it will dethrone the Warriors so long as Golden State features four All-Stars in its starting lineup.
The New York Knicks have repeatedly gotten things wrong throughout the 2000s, so much so that some may fear that the team drafting Kristaps Porzingis somehow still won’t turn the franchise around because recent history suggests the team that calls Madison Square Garden home can’t get anything right. Meanwhile, the previously mentioned Cavs wasted LeBron James’ first tenure with the team, and it’s possible the franchise is on the cusp of repeating that mistake a second, and final, time. As will be discussed so long as the league exists, the most embarrassing mistake that ruined a franchise involves passing on the greatest player in history during an NBA Draft. Odds are you Portland fans and basketball historians out there don’t even need to guess to know the top mistake mentioned in this piece.
15 Knicks Re-Sign Carmelo Anthony
Just about everybody who follows the New York Knicks and the NBA knew the franchise re-signing Carmelo Anthony in the summer of 2014 was a mistake that would set the club back years, but the Knicks just couldn’t help themselves because the rest of free agency didn’t go the team’s way.
Granted, signing Anthony, alone, wasn’t a complete disaster, but it was the final nail in the coffin that buried the Knicks for years to come. In fact, the Knicks are just now getting over that decision, and the only reason the franchise is able to move forward in January 2018 is because the team traded Anthony to the Oklahoma City Thunder in September 2017. Imagine how much better the Knicks could be today had they “trusted the process” four years ago.
14 Cavs Fail to Build Around LeBron The First Time
The Cleveland Cavaliers never should’ve lost LeBron James to the Miami Heat in the first place. James did all he could to carry lousy teams to a championship, and he even took a roster that had no business contending for a title to the 2007 NBA Finals. Years of poor roster-building resulted in James taking his talents to South Beach in 2010, where he won a pair of championships before he returned to the Cavs and helped the club win the 2016 NBA Finals.
Don’t look now, but the Cavs are close to wasting James’ second run with the franchise. If James leaves the Cavs in free agency in the summer of 2018, Cleveland will almost certainly become the worst team in the league for the next few years, at least.
13 SuperSonics Trade Scottie Pippen
Back in 1987, the Seattle SuperSonics had the rights to Scottie Pippen. Seattle traded Pippen to the Chicago Bulls for Olden Polynice and future draft picks, and the rest, as the saying goes, is history.
Pippen became a championship cornerstone of the famous Bulls dynasty that dominated the NBA throughout the 1990s, and he is widely regarded as one of the best defensive players of his time and in league history. It took years for the Sonics to get past this decision, but the basketball fates failed to smile upon them when they made the 1996 NBA Finals. Of course, Seattle faced none other than Pippen and the Bulls, and Chicago won that series 4-2. The Sonics never returned to the Finals before the franchise moved to Oklahoma City.
12 OKC Trades James Harden
We can only begin to wonder what could have been had the Oklahoma City Thunder been able to keep James Harden. Per Harden, he wanted to remain with the Thunder, but the club did not give him adequate time to consider the offer on the table during the 2012 free agency table.
OKC ultimately traded Harden to the Houston Rockets, and that transaction set into motion the sequence of events that led to Kevin Durant taking his talents out west to the Golden State Warriors and cementing the Warriors as the league’s current unstoppable force. Had OKC managed to do right by Harden and keep the trio of he, Durant and Russell Westbrook together long-term, it’s possible the Thunder and not the Warriors would be the league’s best franchise in 2018.
11 Washington Wizards Draft Kwame Brown
The Washington Wizards got a lot wrong during the first decade of the 2000s, and those who follow the franchise may say that the team’s biggest mistake occurred in the 2001 NBA Draft when it selected Kwame Brown straight out of high school. Brown seemed to lack the maturity, both physically and emotionally, to handle the pressure that came with being the top selection of that draft, and he was never worth the value placed upon him by the Wizards.
Washington passed on the likes of Tyson Chandler, Pau Gasol, Joe Johnson, Zach Randolph and Tony Parker, among others, in favor of Brown. It’s been 17 years, and the Wizards are just now in a place to possibly compete for a conference title, and that’s only because the Cavs are a mess as of January 2018.
10 Timberwolves Pass on Stephen Curry
The Minnesota Timberwolves check in on the next two spots for embarrassing mistakes that ruined NBA franchises. Those who would defend Minnesota for not selecting Stephen Curry in the 2009 NBA Draft may point out that other clubs also passed on the future MVP and two-time champion who seems on his way to winning at least one more title this decade, alone.
That’s fair, but the Wolves drafting Jonny Flynn over Curry has to be seen as one of the worst draft mistakes in recent memory. Only now, in January 2018, does Minnesota have such a promising young core that this miscue is finally forgotten among those who follow the club. Looking back, however, Minnesota could’ve legitimately been the conference’s best team of the past five years or so had the team taken Curry when he fell to the sixth pick.
9 Timberwolves Trade Kevin Garnett
One can’t, and probably shouldn’t, mention the fact that the Timberwolves passed on Stephen Curry without discussing the trade that was meant to help the franchise rebuild. In the summer of 2007, the Wolves traded Superstar Kevin Garnett to the Boston Celtics in what was essentially a 7-for-1 transaction.
The Celtics, as you likely know, won a championship with Garnett on the roster, while Minnesota essentially did nothing of note with the assets earned in the deal. The trade, on its own, didn’t ruin the Timberwolves, but it played a role in the team becoming a laughingstock and a complete afterthought among Western Conference sides for about a decade until the franchise acquired talents such as Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Jimmy Butler. At least Garnett ultimately retired a member of the Wolves, though, right?
8 Indiana Pacers Pass on Larry Bird
History tells us that Larry Bird remained in college a final year even after the Boston Celtics acquired his rights in the 1978 NBA Draft, and that decision led to a change in rules regarding club’s selecting players before they’re ready to sign for a league franchise. The Indiana product and Indiana State player was on the board when the Indiana Pacers were called to use the third pick of that draft. Instead, the Pacers select Rick Robey, who, somewhat ironically, ended up with the Boston Celtics the same season Bird officially joined the roster.
Indiana made multiple draft mistakes in the decade that followed, but it all begins with the team passing on Bird. As the Cavs proved, there’s something to be said with keeping the hometown hero in-state where he belongs.
7 Washington Wizards Pay Gilbert Arenas
You almost have to admire Gilbert Arenas for managing to con the Washington Wizards into offering him a contract worth a reported $111 million back in 2008. Arenas became more known for storing firearms in the locker room and for being a “team killer,” in the words of ESPN personality Tony Kornheiser, than for winning titles.
To this day, the Arenas contract is perceived as one of the worst in the history of the NBA and of North American pro sports, in general. We suppose we will give him credit for continuing to get paid by the Wizards long after he and the club parted ways, but this remains an embarrassing mistake that ruined the franchise for years. He last played professionally overseas for the Shanghai Sharks.
6 Charlotte Hornets Trade Kobe Bryant Pick
It doesn’t matter if Kobe Bryant, his parents and those in his camp didn’t want him to play for the Charlotte Hornets. You’ve got to get more for his rights than Vlade Divac, a beloved figure among Los Angeles fans but a player those of us with no ties to the Lakers largely remember for being known as “Floppy Divac.”
Granted, nobody knew, for sure, at the time that Bryant would go on to become the greatest player of his generation, a legend of the sport and somebody worth consideration for basketball’s Mount Rushmore. This embarrassing mistake nevertheless ruined the Hornets, as the club could do nothing but watch as Bryant helped the Lakers become a dynasty and a franchise that won the NBA Finals five times during his stint with that franchise.
5 Allan Houston and the Knicks
Essentially any list of the worst NBA contracts in NBA history will have this one near or at the very top. Back in 2001, the New York Knicks gave Allan Houston a six-year contract worth $100 million, the richest ever awarded to a player by the franchise and the largest amount ever presented to a shooting guard at the time. In return, the Knicks received a player who gave the team a couple of decent years before knee injuries derailed his career.
In fact, the Houston contract became so notorious that it spawned a rule that provided teams with the option for removing a contract from luxury tax obligations to save that franchise money. Fittingly, it was referred to as the “Allan Houston Rule.” And some say Houston did little good for the Knicks after signing his deal.
4 Brooklyn Nets “Big 3”
The Brooklyn Nets tried to recreate the championship roster once assembled by the Boston Celtics when the franchise traded a boatload of assets to the Celtics to land Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Jason Terry and D.J. White. On paper, the Nets going “all-in” on a title pursuit may have made sense at the time, but this blew up in the franchise’s face not long after the ink dried on the transaction.
Not only did the Nets never even flirt with making it to the NBA Finals, Brooklyn unintentionally set the Celtics up to land Kyrie Irving and become a contender to win the conference crown and play in the NBA Finals later this year. The Nets will have to deal with the Celtics juggernaut for years to come because of this embarrassing mistake. Whoops.
3 The Stepien Rule
Those of you who believe that Jimmy Haslam is the undisputed worst professional sports owner in Cleveland history may want to have a seat. In hindsight, Ted Stepien probably meant well as the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, but he traded away five, yes, five, consecutive first-round picks from 1982 through 1986.
This led to the NBA creating what is known, to this day, as the “Stepien Rule,” which, theoretically, prevents teams from trading first-round selections in consecutive years. Yes, the Cavaliers eventually became a contender soon after Stepien’s reign of terror ended, but only because he sold the franchise to a team that promised to keep the franchise in downtown Cleveland. Dan Gilbert may squander the end of LeBron James’ second run with the team, but he’ll never be Stepien in the eyes of Cleveland fans.
2 Isiah Thomas And the Knicks
Isiah Thomas made so many horrendous mistakes as General Manager/President of basketball operations of the New York Knicks that one could write entire articles and even books about all he got wrong with the club. The trade for Eddy Curry that robbed the Knicks of assets and saddled the franchise with a horrible contract. Giving Jerome James $30 million for reasons that still boggle the mind. Trading for Steve Francis. Cutting Jerome Williams instead of the previously mentioned Allan Houston. There was also the sexual harassment lawsuit that resulted in an $11.5 million settlement.
Thomas is, all things considered, the biggest and most embarrassing mistake made by the Knicks in the 2000s. We’re not sure he wouldn’t have passed on Michael Jordan in the NBA Draft if given the chance.
1 Trail Blazers Draft Sam Bowie Over Michael Jordan
Even you younger NBA fans out there probably know all about this one. The Houston Rockets selected center Hakeem Olajuwon with the first pick of the 1984 NBA Draft, and the Portland Trail Blazers reacted by acquiring Sam Bowie with the second selection. Next up were the Chicago Bulls, who took a flier on a young play-maker named Michael Jordan.
Portland made a couple of trips to the NBA Finals, the second of which resulted in the team losing to none other than Jordan and the Bulls. Jordan, widely regarded as the greatest basketball player to ever live, guided the Bulls to six championships, and he and the franchise likely would’ve won more had he not taken a break to play baseball. Portland will only ever get over this embarrassing mistake once the team wins a title.