“Hindsight is 20/20...” is the phrase that most applies when we look at previous NBA Drafts. Teams often get their picks totally wrong and rightly draw the ire of their fans. “What were they thinking?!”, every lounge room analyst with a doctorate in ESPN Mock Drafts and Jay Bilas’ tweets will say.
Sometimes there’s the obvious number one though… think Lew Alcindor in 1969, LeBron James in 2003 and Tim Duncan in 1997. These are the great drafts, as while the number one is a sure thing, gems tend to often emerge amongst the later picks.
Fans conveniently forget also, when reflecting on past drafts, that teams usually draft players based on their most obvious needs (unless you’re the 76ers and have a “process”). A franchise has to/should draft based on their needs - it’s not like the NFL where you have 7 rounds and a 52-man roster to work with. ANd don’t get me started on baseball’s draft! So when teams get it wrong, the mistake is magnified and can ruin a franchise for many years to come. We’ve seen this over the years with teams like the Los Angeles Clippers and the Philadelphia 76ers. Technically speaking this scenario applies to Cleveland also, but they got out of jail when LeBron James decided enough was enough in Miami and the bright lights of Cleveland were more appealing.
What follows is a list of 15 previous drafts where the number one pick shouldn’t have been. With the benefit of 20/20 vision and the ability to totally ignore the situation of teams at the time, we can totally denounce those who run our teams as idiots.
15 2016 - Brandon Ingram (or anyone else?)
Original Pick: Ben Simmons
Call me a pessimist, but it clearly looks like the “process” in Philadelphia is a failure. Sam Hinkie was justly fired for his appalling drafting, pick stockpiling and inability to attract free agents (or even bother with them) during his tenure. In 2013, 2014 and 2015 consecutively they drafted centers (Nerlens Noel, Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor) and a player who stayed in Europe for a while before deciding to wander across the Atlantic (Dario Saric). This year they drafted Ben Simmons, and somewhat unluckily, he injured his foot on the last days of training camp and hasn’t played yet this season.
Given that little tidbit, I’d argue that basically any pick other than the Aussie would have been better for the 76ers. Their fans deserve something to at least look forward to when going to games. An HBO documentary on Simmons will not satiate the fans.
Granted Brandon Ingram, Dragan Bender, Marquese Chriss, Thon Maker and Domantas Sabonis would not have been the solution to the 76ers needs, but perhaps a guard maybe. You know what I mean Philly? The smaller guys who bring up the ball and run around screens and stuff?
14 1964 - Willis Reed
Original Pick: Walt Hazzard
Walt Hazzard was 6’2” guard from UCLA and was selected by the Los Angeles Lakers with the first pick in the 1964 Draft. A ‘territorial pick’ by the Lakers, he certainly didn’t go on to have the career of one of the greatest New York Knicks players of all time. Hazzard bounced around the league, including stints with the Seattle SuperSonics, Atlanta Hawks, Buffalo Braves and Golden State Warriors. He won a Gold Medal in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and even averaged 24 points per game in his first season in Seattle. So he wasn’t exactly a dud by any means, but his career pales into comparison with Reed.
Reed was named one of the 50 greatest players to play the game and won two championships with the New York Knicks. An integral part of each winning team, he embodied sheer grit and determination, as embodied in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals where Reed hobbled around the court with a badly torn thigh muscle. Reed was Finals MVP on both Knicks teams, a seven time All-Star, Rookie of the Year and the MVP in 1970. Reed is arguably the most important Knick of all time and a beloved figure in New York basketball history… Like ‘Clyde Frazier suit’ level loved.
13 1967 - Earl Monroe
Original Pick: Jimmy Walker
Jimmy Walker was a 6’3” guard out of Providence and was drafted by the Detroit Pistons. In five seasons with the Pistons he made two All-Star appearances, averaging over 20 points per game in those two seasons. A decent shooter, Walker was however not exactly known for his crisp passing and ability to read the game, which is in stark contrast to the two guards who could have (and let’s face it, definitely should have) been taken ahead of him in 1967. He did however give us Jalen Rose, who apparently plays a rather similar game to his father.
Walt ‘Clyde’ Frazier was silky smooth on the court and was potentially the most important cog in the championship winning machine of early 1970s New York Knicks basketball. The 6’4’’ guard out of Southern Illinois won two titles with the Knicks, was a seven time All-Star and was named one of the 50 greatest players of all time.
Earl ‘The Pearl’ Monroe played with in a similar style to Frazier and together they formed one of the most famous backcourts in the game’s history dubbed the ‘Rolls Royce Backcourt’. Monroe was a four time All-Star, Rookie of the Year and was also named one of the 50 greatest players ever.
You could go with either guy here in Jimmy Walker's place and you've got yourself a worthy no.1 pick, but we'll give the edge to Monroe.
12 1977 - Bernard King
Original Pick: Kent Benson
Bernard King was one of those players whose game was essentially the foundation of such modern stars like Carmelo Anthony and Rudy Gay (I'm using the term “star” here rather loosely with Rudy Gay I will concede). A basketball aficionado friend of mine remarked how Bernard King was a bit like a watered down Kevin Durant also, “Kevin Durant Light” if you like.
King was a prolific scorer for some very unremarkable Knicks teams prior to the capture of Patrick Ewing which revolutionized the franchise in the 1980s. King was a four time All-Star and led the league in scoring in 1985. While he was a Hall of Famer, King was one of those “what might have been” players too, as he suffered an horrific leg injury in 1985 and never really made it back to his former self despite his best efforts.
Kent Benson was a prolific college player at Indiana but never made it in the NBA, an all too familiar story about white players coming out of Indiana. Quite possibly his most memorable moment in the league was getting punched in the face by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in his rookie season. I suppose that it at least makes for a great story when he’s out drinking with the boys.
11 1972 - Julius Erving
Original Pick: LaRue Martin
LaRue Martin was selected first by the Portland Trail Blazers in 1972. The Chicagoan was drafted largely due to one impressive performance against then basketball powerhouse UCLA who had Bill Walton at center. Martin came out of Loyola in Chicago and was hyped as being the best player no one knew about. Portland, as they are historically want to do with drafting poorly, bought into the hype. Martin would go on to play four seasons and average just over 5 points per game and 4 rebounds. Bleh, what a mess.
Bob McAdoo was taken second by the Buffalo Braves and would become a Hall of Famer. He was a league MVP, won two titles, was Rookie of the Year and a five time All-Star. He would have been a worthy first overall pick, but we're giving the edge to Dr. J.
Julius Erving was taken 12th by the Bucks and despite some messy circumstances with his contract after the ABA merger, he would go on to revolutionize the game. All basketball fans know that Erving was Michael Jordan before Jordan. His aerial prowess wowed crowds and our imagery of the slam dunk, and the slam dunk contest even, is attributed to Erving.
Portland could have had this. Surely they wouldn't do it again… Then 1984 happened. Geez.
10 2013 - Giannis Antetokounmpo
Original Pick: Anthony Bennett
In case you been stuck in a cave or you've been living in North Korea and the only basketball highlights you get involve Dennis Rodman and whichever one of the Un’s that lords over the country, “The Greek Freak” is quite a good player.
The long limbed kid seems to have silenced the doubters about his weak frame and become an absolute monster on the court. Earlier this week he was leading his team in the top five statistical categories. He also made LeBron James’ life hell in the Bucks' overtime loss to the Cavaliers. Antetokounmpo is at the forefront of the new influx of European players littered around the league and given his emergence, who knows how different things may have been for the Cavs with him and Irving on the same team? If we assume LeBron still wanted to come back to Cleveland, would Miami be in possession of “The Greek Freak” now? Their immediate future would look much brighter with him there than what they have now that's for sure.
Anthony Bennett on the other hand… Well I think he's in Minnesota now? Possibly their D-League side? No wait! He plays in Brooklyn! Even in that hot mess of a team he can't make the bench! Geez.
9 2009 - Steph Curry
Original Pick: Blake Griffin
Hear me out with this one as I can already hear the spittakes...Griffin, if you'll recall, missed his rookie season due to injury and despite being a focal point of the Clippers offense, he's nowhere near the package you could have gotten with drafting Stephen Curry or even James Harden.
Curry at the time of the 2009 Draft was not exactly highly coveted it must be acknowledged. Executives and fans saw him as a point guard who was rather one dimensional and too skinny. Harden would go on to be drafted by the Thunder and be the first of their big three to move on. Harden has certainly thrived since that move to Houston and Curry, well… You know what happened with him!
Griffin is a good player. No question. Great even. But you're kidding yourself if you think now, given hindsight, you'd still take him over Curry or Harden. Griffin now seems to be getting injured far too much and in my opinion, is going down the same career path as Amare Stoudemire. As a young player they were both capable of absolutely outstanding athleticism. But later in their career they changed their game and essentially became high post/mid range players.
Due to Curry's accolades of MVP and being an NBA Champion, we'll give him the nod here as the rightful no.1 overall pick.
8 1978 - Larry Bird
Original Pick: Mychal Thompson
Another draft where the Blazers messed it up. Thompson was taken first in 1978 and would have a long, and in comparison to many players, very enviable career. He won two titles with the Lakers in 1987 and 1988 and gave us his son Klay who does fairly well for himself these days.
But Larry Legend was taken after him, and pretty much any player drafted before Larry Bird ever is a sin that cannot be forgiven. The ‘Hick from French Lick’ after a stellar college career at Indiana State would, along with Magic Johnson, essentially save the league and usher in a golden age. Bird was possibly the best shooter of all time and was the most important piece in the 1986 Boston Celtics who won the title and are often considered the greatest team in the league’s history.
You could argue that never has there been, nor will there be a player, who stepped into the league and played so well so quickly.
Bird would win three championships, two Finals MVPs, three season MVP awards, be named rookie of the year, be a 12 time All-Star, win a Gold Medal in 1992, have his number retired by the Celtics, become a Hall of Famer, blah blah blah… You know the rest.
7 1981 - Isiah Thomas
Original Pick: Mark Aguirre
Mark Aguirre was taken first by the Dallas Mavericks out of DePaul University. He would go onto win two titles with the Pistons and be a three time All-Star. So you could argue that it all worked out rather perfectly for the Pistons in 1988. Aguirre was an important factor in those “Bad Boys” teams, despite some initial trepidation about him joining the team from the players, including Isiah Thomas. Had Dallas drafted Thomas out of Indiana as they should have, their fledgling years may have been far more fruitful than they were. Younger fans probably don’t realize how bad the Mavericks were up until their drafting of Jason Kidd. Had Zeke been taken in 1981 things would have been much better for the Mavs.
Aguirre obviously was pretty far from a bust pick, but in comparison to Thomas he basically was. Thomas is often forgotten in the mix of 80s stars, but he was an incredible player and should have been the starting point guard at the 1992 Olympics, had he not been on Michael Jordan’s naughty list.
Zeke, on top of his two titles, was a 12 time All-Star and was inducted into both the basketball and college basketball Halls of Fame. Mark Aguirre may be a better GM though.
6 1994 - Jason Kidd
Original Pick: Glenn Robinson
Glenn “Big Dog” Robinson was taken by the Milwaukee Bucks with the first pick in 1994 after an outstanding collegiate career at Purdue. Draft experts saw him as an easy number one pick as some character questions swirled around Jason Kidd, despite his glowing scouting reports. How wrong the experts ended up being. Robinson would be a two time All-Star and even win a title with the San Antonio Spurs, but his career pales in comparison to that of Kidd’s.
Kidd came out of Cal and became one of the premier point guards in the league quickly. He was a 10 time All-Star, a member of the All NBA First Team five times, won a title in 2011 in his second stint with the Dallas Mavericks, won Rookie of the Year, was the league leader in assists five times and won two Gold Medals (2000 and 2008).
For years, Milwaukee struggled with consistency at the point guard position, and in ironic fashion they would eventually sign Kidd, just as their coach. Robinson was by no means a bust during his career but more likely a victim of exceedingly high expectations given his outstanding college career. His professional career was hampered by many injuries, especially with his knees.
5 2006 - LaMarcus Alrdidge
Original Pick: Andrea Bargnani
As an irrational Knicks fan (aren't all Knicks fans irrational? I know you're thinking that, and probably yes), Andrea Bargnani sickens me. Harsh, I know. But that's just how it is. The Italian big man played a game that was almost the antithesis of a big man. He played outside mostly and wasn’t terribly fond of rebounding or frankly anything involving spending time in the paint or low post, like all seven footers. Drafted by Toronto, he was supposed to be Italy’s answer to Dirk Nowitzki. Injuries certainly played their part in the demise of his career, but teammates often would remark how he displayed a lack of ambition or love of the game.
Kyle Lowry is a premier point guard in the game right now, having formed an excellent partnership with DeMar DeRozan, seemingly being able to lock down the second seed in the Eastern Conference for years to come.
LaMarcus Aldridge cemented himself as a premier big man in Portland before earning a dream move to the San Antonio Spurs last summer seemingly with the hopes of replacing Tim Duncan. Both these players became much better options for their teams than Bargnani who now plies his trade with Baskonia in Spain.
Given that Lowry ended up going to Toronto anyway, we'll insert Aldridge as our new no.1 pick, giving the Raptors a formidable big three.
4 2001 - Pau Gasol
Original Pick: Kwame Brown
Kwame Brown skipped college and became the number one pick in the 2001 NBA draft. The center had along we than expected career in the league, but it was an exceptionally unremarkable one. After being drafted by the Washington Wizards, he moved around the league a lot, failing to establish a home and being a good third choice big man where he landed.
Pau Gasol is… Well Pau Gasol. An exceptionally talented big man who was beloved wherever he played, often winning. He was a crucial part of the post Shaquille O’Neal era Los Angeles Lakers, winning titles and more importantly forming a great partnership with Kobe Bryant and Lamar Odom (remember him?).
Zach Randolph, prior to his tenure with the ‘grit and grind’ Grizzlies, moved around the league and suffered in the early part of his career from some character questions and numerous other legal issues. Since that has all settled down he became one of the great physical players in the league.
Tony Parker suffered from some European stereotyping prior to the draft, but as we know became one of the best point guards of a generation winning titles alongside Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich in San Antonio.
Based on the type of player the Wizards were looking for in 2001, we'll go with Pau Gasol as the rightful no.1 pick.
3 1995 - Kevin Garnett
Original Pick: Joe Smith
Joe Smith, the Maryland product played for 15 different teams during his time in the association. That's mind blowing! The joke with Smith was that his name was as generic as his game. He failed to garner any attention wherever he landed, just as anyone named Joe Smith would be a hard name to remember.
Kevin Garnett on the other hand was more likely not seen as a number one pick because he jumped straight from high school to the draft. Garnett would go onto become, along with Tim Duncan, one the best big men of all time. He had everything in his game. He was a great shooter, had numerous low post moves, could shut down any player on defense, could rebound, pass and even bring the ball up the court, which was remarkable given his height. A ferocious competitor, Garnet won a title in Boston, was an MVP in 2004, was a 15 time All-Star (15!!) and won a Gold Medal in the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
Smith would have career figures of averaging just over 10 points and 6 rebounds a game, which is of course nothing to be dismissive of. But as with many comparisons on this list, it pales in comparison.
2 1998 - Dirk Nowitski
Original Pick: Michael Olowokandi
Michael Olowokandi was a perplexing choice at the time because while Nowitzki and Pierce weren't considered 'number one pick' worthy, Vince Carter out of North Carolina was. Carter was an athletic freak and wowed everyone with his aerial displays, especially in THAT slam dunk contest. Remember when slam dunk contests used to actually be good?! Olowokandi would be a rather boring big man who couldn't really get the ball in the hole, nor rebound or stay fit.
Toronto took Carter and his jersey could be seen all over the globe with kids thinking they were wearing Jordan 2.0’s number on their backs. But saying he was good because of his dunking doesn't do his career any justice. He was and is so much more than just a dunker.
Dirk Nowitzki flourished after some initial teething problems and has become a living legend on the court. That turnaround fadeaway jumper is often imitated, yet never really mastered.
Paul Pierce would become one of the most beloved Celtics of all time. Just think about that for a second. This is the Celtics we are talking about here, and Pierce is on the Mount Rushmore of former Celtic alongside Bill Russell, Larry Bird and Bob Cousy.
With a chance now to compare all three careers, we'll go with Dirk as the rightful no.1 pick of 1998.
1 2007 - Kevin Durant
Original Pick: Greg Oden
What is it with Portland and the draft?! Admittedly at the time they did needed a big man and Oden was regarded as the best option, but his ability to remain on the court was questioned extensively, and would ultimately come to fruition, unfortunately for the Blazer.
Durant wowed at the University of Texas and made the small trip from Austin to Oklahoma City (albeit with a brief stopover in Seattle) and quickly became one of the best young players in the league, winning an MVP and forming a ferocious partnership with Russell Westbrook (and a trio for a while with James Harden). Now he is with the Warriors and will likely finally win a title and possibly another MVP, if he keeps up his current pace.
Durant seems to be incapable of making a poor move of late. The negativity surrounding the Golden State move has died down now that he is rolling in the wins. He seems to just go from strength to strength. About the only questionable decision thus far appears to be that awful Thunderstruck film he made a few years back with that annoying child. Space Jam it was not, shall we say, to those of you who haven't seen it!