There are two things that are going to go down in this article, so don’t say we didn’t warn you. First, since we’re talking about draft picks, there’s going to be a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking, or whatever the equivalent term in basketball is. Drafting players is as far from an exact science as anything in sports, and no GM, manager, or owner has a crystal ball to protect them from disappointment.
The second questionable action were going to take part in, is associating a team’s success or failure with a single player. Of course this is a bit unfair, as there are a lot of factors that go into a team’s performance over the course of a season or multiple seasons. However, basketball has a pretty limited roster size when compared to baseball or football, and one dominant player can potentially make a big difference on a game-to-game basis. Also, solid franchise players can bring in additional talent via free agency and trades in the following seasons, so the value of a good draft pick (especially when a team is picking early) should not be understated either.
Although we have no way of knowing how a future star would have fared had they been drafted to a different team, in the following cases, it’s easy to see the difference in status between what could have been and what actually was. What it comes down to is this: Whether it looked like it at the time, the following 15 teams heaved an airball at the draft, and they all paid for it with at least a few years of brutal basketball that either temporarily or permanently devastated the franchise.
15 Philadelphia 76ers - Evan Turner
After the Washington Wizards drafted Kentucky point guard John Wall with the first pick of the 2010 draft, Philadelphia could have used their second overall selection on a guy like DeMarcus Cousins, Greg Monroe, Gordon Hayward or Paul George. Unfortunately, they went with Evan Turner out of Ohio State. Turner has had a few good seasons overall and some flashes of brilliance, but he’s also had some disappointments, and, if you’ve been paying attention to the NBA lately, you know Philly hasn’t been doing so well the past few years. In fact, since their heydey in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, they’ve only made the conference finals once and NBA finals once (both in 2000-01, when they lost to the Lakers).
The 76ers really could have used a difference-maker in 2010, and unfortunately they missed their opportunity. They’re currently riding a streak of four consecutive seasons without advancing to the playoffs.
14 Sacramento Kings - Pervis Ellison
For ten years in a row, the first overall pick in the NBA Draft was a solid one, with each player eventually proving themselves to be worthy of the spot - including guys like David Robinson, Brad Daugherty, Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon, Ralph Sampson, and Magic Johnson. In the eleventh year, 1989, the Sacramento Kings (who were probably really digging their odds) took ol’ “Never Nervous Pervis” Ellison out of Louisville, and the streak came to an end. He wasn’t terrible on the court, he just didn’t spend too much time there. Ellison missed 48 of the Kings’ 82 games in 1989-90, and earned the nickname “Out of Service Pervis” from teammate Danny Ainge.
In fact, over 12 seasons, he only managed 474 games while shooting a double-digit PPG average only three times. He never made an All-Star game, and the only award he did earn was a Most Improved Player nod in 1991-92. Of course, Sacramento couldn’t possibly predict this bad luck, but picking a guy like Tim Hardaway, Glen Rice or Shawn Kemp certainly would have helped.
13 Milwaukee Bucks - Yi Jianlian, Joe Alexander
Looking for the next Yao Ming, the Milwaukee Bucks rolled the dice on Yao’s fellow countryman Yi Jianlian with the sixth pick of the 2007 NBA Draft, and he only lasted one lousy season with the team, and only five in America overall. In fact, his NBA career was so bad that even the first pick of that year’s draft - mega-disappointment Greg Oden - had a higher PPG and RPG average than Jianlian. A much better pick that year? Joakim Noah, who eventually went ninth when the Chicago Bulls traded up (thanks to the New York Knicks) to nab him.
It’s okay, Milwaukee, you’ll make up for it during the next draft (2008) when you pick...Joe Alexander? Over Roy Hibbert, the Lopez Bros, and JaVale McGee? Well, in Milwaukee’s defense, Alexander was a twice as good of a pick as Jianlian. And by that we mean he lasted for two disappointing seasons as opposed to one.
12 Philadelphia 76ers - Shawn Bradley
Poor Philadelphia, they’re the only team that made this list twice. And for good reason, as a look at their team history will show. With the second pick in the 1993 draft - and Penny Hardaway, Jamal Mashburn, and Vin Baker still available - the Philadelphia 76ers took 7-foot-6-inch German novelty Shawn Bradley. Interesting selection, considering Bradley only had a single year of college experience, and that was followed by a two-year hiatus as a missionary in Australia.
Somewhat expectedly, Bradley’s performance with the Sixers was a mixed bag of inconsistent results, and he was shipped to the Nets after only two seasons (and only compiled a couple of good years in his 12-season NBA career). Philly’s record in the five years after the 1993 draft? 25-57, 24-58, 18-64, 22-60, and 31-51. It would take a lockout-shortened season and a kid named Allen Iverson to make the team respectable again. Unfortunately for Philadelphia, it was short-lived.
11 Minnesota Timberwolves - Ricky Rubio & Jonny Flynn
Although it’s hard to overlook the Memphis Grizzlies using their second overall pick on center Hasheem Thabeet out of UConn when James Harden and Steph Curry were both still on the board, they still didn’t have as bad of a 2009 Draft as the Minnesota Timberwolves - who used back-to-back picks at #5 and #6 to select point guards Ricky Rubio and Jonny Flynn, when Curry (also a PG) was just sitting there waiting (Harden went third).
While Steph would eventually lead his Golden State team to two championship appearances and one win, the Wolves followed up their brutal 24-58 record in 2008-09 season with an even worse 15-67. That of course meant another high pick for the 2010 draft, which Minnesota used on Wesley Johnson (over the aforementioned group of 2010 talent) and finished 17-65. Minnesota fans are still waiting for them to find the playoffs or at least a winning season again.
10 Toronto Raptors - Michael Bradley, Rafael Araújo, Charlie Villanueva & Andrea Bargnani
It’s hard to argue with putting the Raptors in this spot, as they repeatedly swung and missed in a span of only five years. In 2001, with the 17th overall pick, Toronto failed to pick Zach Randolph, instead going with Michael Bradley, who would only last five seasons in the NBA. They had a chance to make up for it in 2004 with a higher pick, but went with Rafael Araújo in the eighth spot with Andre Iguodala and Jameer Nelson still on the board. Moving up to seventh in 2005, Toronto missed out on Andrew Bynum and Danny Granger after they opted for Charlie Villanueva.
In their defense, a couple of the sure-thing players were picked before the Raptors even got a chance each year, but by 2006 they had moved up to the number one pick, which they used on Andrea Bargnani. Not a terrible pick, but also not the best for numero uno. Brandon Roy or Rudy Gay probably would have been better picks, yet they went with a guy who ending up having numerous disappointing seasons and multiple injuries. It would be almost 10 years until the Raptors had a decent playoff appearance, and the 20-year-old team is still looking for its first championship.
9 Washington Wizards- Kwame Brown
When the Washington Wizards had the first pick in the 2001 NBA Draft, they selected a center. But it wasn’t center Pau Gasol, who went third. And it wasn’t center Tyson Chandler, who went second (or even Eddy Curry, Jason Richardson, or Shane Battier, who went fourth, fifth, or sixth, respectively). It was good ol’ Kwame Brown, who reportedly told then-Wizards coach Doug Collins, “If you draft me, you’ll never regret it.” They might have regretted it when Brown failed to meet even the lowest expectations in his rookie season. They might still have regretted it in his second, third, and fourth years, despite improved play. But they definitely regretted it after Brown rejected a five-year, $30 million contract offer, elected for free agency, and signed with the LA Lakers in 2005. In the 15 years since the 2001 draft, the Wizards have only compiled a winning season five times.
8 Denver Nuggets - Nikoloz Tskitishvili
Amar’e Stoudemire went ninth overall in the 2002 draft to the Phoenix Suns, which means every team other than the Houston Rockets (who wisely selected Yao Ming first overall) missed out on a difference-making player. The team who could have used Amar'e the most? The Denver Nuggets, who drafted Nikoloz Tskitishvili (also a power forward/center) with the fifth pick and also traded for Nene, the seventh pick. Whoops.
While Stoudemire has suffered from chronic knee issues, he still managed over 20 PPG in seven seasons (including 26 in only his third season) and routinely grabbed about 9 boards. On the other hand, Tskitishvili only played four seasons in the NBA, and only two of them were with Denver. This resulted in 2002-03 being one of the worst seasons in franchise history, and the Nuggets have only made it past the first round of the playoffs once since this draft.
7 Atlanta Hawks - Marvin Williams
The 2004-05 season was (and still is) the worst in Atlanta Hawks history - and that includes the team’s early years as the Denver Hawks and St. Louis Hawks. They finished that season with only 13 pitiful wins and were very much in need of a big splash at the 2005 draft. After center Andrew Bynum went first to Milwaukee, Atlanta had its pick of two proven point guards (a need they absolutely needed to fill), but instead opted for forward Marvin Williams.
Although Williams was a decent player (he put up at least 10 PPG in every season with Atlanta after his rookie year), Deron Williams would have been a better pick - or better yet, the best member of the 2005 draft, Chris Paul, who went fourth overall to the New Orleans Hornets. Atlanta doubled its win total in 2005, but that still only left them with a 26-52 record, and the team wouldn’t even taste the playoffs for another few years.
6 Los Angeles Clippers - Michael Olowokandi
The Los Angeles Clippers had the top pick in the 1998 NBA Draft and they used it on a real head-scratcher. After all, names like Mike Bibby, Antawn Jamison, and Vince Carter were all available, as were guys like Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce, and Raef LaFrentz - all of whom could have easily slid in as potential number ones. Sure, they wouldn’t have all lived up to the billing of a number one, but they’d at least be better picks. Yet the Clippers went with Michael Olowokandi out of the University of the Pacific, and he only gave them about 10 PPG during his time in Los Angeles (and only 8.3 in his 9-year career).
The team as a whole only managed just nine wins that year (okay, to be fair, it was a strike-shortened season), and in the next 12 seasons, the Clippers only had one winning year and one playoff appearance (both in 2005-06).
5 Brooklyn (New Jersey) Nets - Dennis Hopson
After future Hall of Fame center David Robinson went first overall in the 1987 NBA Draft to the San Antonio Spurs and power forward Armen Gilliam went second to the Phoenix Suns, the New Jersey Nets (who finished the previous season with an abysmal 24-58 record and were in desperate need of a rebuild) had their pick of small forwards, and decided on Dennis Hopson out of Ohio State. Hopson failed to live up to the team’s expectations and was gone after three seasons, and left the NBA entirely after five.
A better pick? Small forward Scottie Pippen, another future Hall of Famer, who went two spots later at no.5. New Jersey paid for it, managing a winning record in only four of their next 14 seasons, including three years with win totals in the teens. The Nets, now based in Brooklyn, are still looking for their first ever NBA Championship.
4 Golden State Warriors - Joe Smith
With the number one pick of the 1995 NBA Draft, the Golden State Warriors selected...power forward Joe Smith out of the University of Maryland, a guy who would eventually play for 12 different teams over 16 pro seasons (and three of them more than once!) If the Warriors could hit re-do, I’m sure they’d rather insert a name like “Kevin Garnett” (he of 15 All-Star selections and a career PPG average of 17.8) or even “Rasheed Wallace” here (both power forwards, by the way), at least if they were looking at the long term.
Although Smith put together two-and-a-half good years with Golden State, he hasn’t had nearly the career of two guys taken after him in the draft. Also, it didn’t do much to help the team, as they wouldn’t see another winning season for 11 years. And it wasn’t even close most of the time. They’re doing okay now though, as you can tell.
3 Indiana Pacers - Rick Robey
The year 1978 was an unlucky year for anyone looking to draft a forward, with the exception of one team. With the first five picks, four teams selected someone who could also play forward, and none of those worked out particularly well. Not that these four players were terrible - in fact, some of them put together decent careers - but, you know, they were no Larry Bird. That’s not just an expression, Larry Bird actually did go sixth in the 1978 Draft, and a lot of teams paid for it by not picking him. Probably none more so than the Indiana Pacers, who instead went with Rick Robey out of the University of Kentucky, and had to settle for nine playoff misses and six pretty bad first-round beatings over the next 15 seasons. Not that it got much better after that either; it’s been a total of 43 years since the Pacers won it all.
2 Phoenix Suns - Heads for Walk, Tails For Kareem
This one is probably the most heartbreaking “miss” on the list, if only because the decision was almost completely out of the Phoenix Suns’ hands. Their costly pick in 1969? Heads. That’s not a player’s name, but rather what Phoenix called during the coin flip that would determine who received the top pick in that year’s draft. The Milwaukee Bucks had tails, won, and predictably drafted highly-touted UCLA center Lew Alcindor, better known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. You know, that guy who was one of the greatest NBA players of all time (and also a co-pilot, according to Airplane). Ending up with center Neal Walk out of the University of Florida was not nearly as good of an outcome (it wasn’t even half as good, as Walk only averaged 12.6 PPG over seven seasons), and the Suns paid for it over the next six years when they would manage only a single playoff appearance.
1 Portland Trail Blazers - Sam Bowie
The first two teams with picks in the 1984 NBA Draft were the Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers. The number one overall selection was future Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon. When the Blazers were up, they could have gone with Charles Barkley, John Stockton, or some dude named Michael Jordan. They didn’t, instead opting for Sam Bowie. Bowie had injury issues during his college career, and this only continued in the NBA. Throughout his 10 years in the pros, Bowie would only see 511 games (and only 139 with Portland over five seasons) and a whopping five leg surgeries.
Although the Trail Blazers would make the playoffs in each of their next 19 seasons since the 1984 Draft, they lost easily in the first round in all but six, and haven’t won a championship since 1977 - their one and only time. In other words, with a team that already had a decent shot at winning it all year after year, just imagine the continued success a guy like Jordan (who won six championships with the Bulls) could have brought to Portland.