There is no revisionist history quite like going back and reviewing a draft class for a league such as the National Basketball Association. Every NBA general manager hopes that he has landed a future star regardless of where his team is positioned during any particular draft. This is especially true for a general manager of a team that is capable of winning the NBA Lottery and a first overall pick. With great power comes great responsibility, teaches the famous adage from the comic book world, and there is a long history of NBA teams that have squandered the power that comes with having a first overall pick.
Plenty of NBA players drafted first overall have proven themselves deserving of that honor. LeBron James was, of course, always going to be a first overall draft pick and James has left no doubt that he is one of the greatest players in the history of the NBA. Derrick Rose showed that he could be a Most Valuable Player when healthy. Fate and the Basketball Gods have, however, had other plans for Rose. Shaquille O'Neal, Patrick Ewing, Bill Walton, Ralph Sampson and so many other players have shown that first overall draft picks can go on to become legends of the sport.
Just as with any league that utilizes a draft system, though, there is a long list of NBA players that absolutely should have been drafted first overall. Some of the greatest men to ever play in the NBA were acquired with selections other than first overall picks. The most famous of those, as even casual basketball fans could probably guess, was none other than a product from the University of North Carolina. That player fell to third in his draft class, and he only went on to have as good a career on and off of the court as has been had by any basketball player before or after him.
15 Bill Russell
We can hear groups of Boston Celtics fans and also basketball purists scoffing at the fact that Bill Russell is kicking off this list. What has to be remembered is that Russell was selected by the Celtics at a time when regional/territorial picks were parts of draft classes. Thus, Boston technically picked Tom Heinsohn ahead of Russell in the 1956 NBA Draft. One really cannot criticize that decision, as Heinsohn was inducted into the Hall of Fame. Russell, of course, went on to have maybe the greatest career of any NBA player. Anybody out there remember the career of Sihugo Green, who was picked ahead of Russell?
14 Bernard King
As great as Bernard King was during a career that landed him a spot in the Hall of Fame, he could have had an even better resume if not for a serious knee injury that would define the latter days of his career. King suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament at a time when torn ACLs were not as commonplace as they are in 2015. It would not have been all that surprising had King never made a return to pro basketball following that injury. King completed the necessary rehabilitation and made it back to the court, and it is King and not Kent Benson who should have been the first overall pick of the 1977 NBA Draft.
13 Robert Parish
They don't make players like Robert Parish in modern-day basketball. Parish was, in his prime, an imposing defensive presence underneath the hoop who was a stand-out athlete for a man of his massive size. More than just a big man from a prior era, Parish was able to drill shots when away from the paint. The Houston Rockets could not have known about the seriousness of the personal problems had by John Lucas when the club used the first overall pick of the 1976 NBA Draft on Lucas. Houston thus missed out on a player who would be inducted into the Hall of Fame.
12 Gary Payton
There is something to be said for a team drafting for need rather than taking who became the best overall player of a certain class. Derrick Coleman was a fine and even a great player when he was healthy and fully motivated to give it his all on the court. Coleman was not, however, on the same level of Gary Payton. Payton, known as “The Glove” because of his defensive skills, was a tremendous asset in all aspects of the game and he helped the Miami Heat win a NBA Championship in the final years of his Hall-of-Fame career. Would the New Jersey Nets have been better off taking Payton ahead of Coleman? Most probably.
11 Pau Gasol
The 2001 NBA Draft will largely be remembered for the Washington Wizards taking Kwame Brown, a candidate for the league's All-Bust team. Washington instead could have gone a different route and selected, among other, worthier candidates, Pau Gasol, who went third overall. Gasol, relatively unknown at the time to those of us who do not routinely following European basketball, won two NBA Championships as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers. The big man who was, during his best days, a force underneath at both ends of the court has also been named to five All-Star teams.
10 Shawn Kemp
Make all of the jokes and comments you want about Shawn Kemp's reputation for, well, creating new life. There is an argument to be made for Kemp being the best No. 17 draft pick in the history of the NBA. The 1989 NBA Draft class was not filled with Hall-of-Fame talent, but Kemp was perhaps the best of the bunch when you consider how great he was when in his prime. Kemp was named to six All-Star teams during his career. Pervis Ellison, selected first by the Sacramento Kings that year, was largely known for being sidelined because of injuries. “Out of Service Pervis” was no Kemp.
9 Dirk Nowitzki
We as sports fans and observers have a habit of handing a little too much praise to a player who is in the twilight of his career. That will not be the case as it pertains to discussing the life and times of Dirk Nowitzki. Nowitzki has not yet played his final minute of meaningful NBA basketball, but he is already one of the greatest power forwards and one of the greatest European talents to have ever played in the league. While Antawn Jamison, Vince Carter and even the previously mentioned Pierce were fine NBA Draft picks for teams, Nowitzki has eclipsed them all.
8 LaMarcus Aldridge
Andrea Bargnani, the first overall pick of the 2006 NBA Draft, has been a decent offensive option, but not a player worthy of being a top pick in a draft. LaMarcus Aldridge, taken second right behind Bargnani, has simply been better as far it comes to production. Aldridge spent what he hopes will be only the first half of a successful NBA career playing for some Portland Trail Blazers teams that, if we're being honest about it, had little chance of winning championships. The San Antonio Spurs are hoping to change that for Aldridge, as the club acquired him via free agency in the summer of 2015.
7 Kevin Durant
Here is a memo to the Portland Trail Blazers for future consideration: Just trade down if you ever again land a first overall NBA Draft pick. While Greg Oden will go down as one of the biggest busts in the history of the NBA and a player who is struggling to stay healthy while attempting to continue his career in China, Kevin Durant currently serves as the face of the Oklahoma City franchise and a man who will, sooner than later, be paid and in a big way. Durant has the goods to be a Most Valuable Player regardless of who is around him. He could soon win a NBA Championship if put in the right situation.
6 Kevin Garnett
You have to consider more than just talent when thinking about where Kevin Garnett should rank on a list of the top NBA players who should have been drafted first overall. Garnett has obviously shown throughout his Hall-of-Fame career that he had the goods to be a first overall NBA Draft pick. His resume is more-so bolstered by his longevity in the league. Garnett, who has seemingly been a household name among NBA fans since the day before forever, was drafted all the way back in 1995. The Golden State Warriors could have had an all-time great in Garnett, but instead they took Joe Smith, who was an average player at his best.
5 Larry Bird
The Portland Trail Blazers thought it wise to use the first pick of the 1978 NBA Draft on Mychal Thompson out of Minnesota. Portland instead could have had a lengthy and somewhat odd-looking shooter named Larry Bird. Bird could, as those who watched him play know, do more than just hit three-pointers. He was a great defensive player and a man who left it all on the court, particularly when it mattered most for the Boston Celtics. Bird was, in his younger days, the type of player who had the goods to turn a franchise around. Portland making an error in judgment with a high draft pick? Who could imagine such a thing?
4 Stephen Curry
There is no question that Blake Griffin has been a fun and exciting player to watch since he first entered the NBA. While the Los Angeles Clippers have overtaken the Los Angeles Lakers as kings of the city as it pertains to the basketball world, the Golden State Warriors are the reigning world champions thanks largely to what Stephen Curry has contributed to the club. There is not a team in the NBA – not the Clippers, Lakers, Cleveland Cavaliers or any other side – that would not happily take Curry on its roster immediately. No disrespect meant to Mr. Griffin, but Curry is just on another level.
3 Kobe Bryant
Allen Iverson was a gem for the Philadelphia 76ers and one of the best handlers of the basketball that you will ever see. As good as Iverson was despite the fact that he was famously not always fond of practicing, he was not Kobe Bryant. Bryant was a young pup coming out of high school back in 1996, but there was hype that he could prove himself to be the next Michael Jordan. While there may never come a time when anybody matches all that “His Airness” achieved during his career, Bryant was one of the best players of his generation. Just imagine what could have been had Philadelphia and Bryant come together for an early homecoming way back when.
2 Julius Erving
Perhaps you have heard of the gentleman who went on to cement his legacy as “Dr. J.” and, in the eyes of more than a few analysts, as the greatest overall basketball talent to ever play the sport. It is not just that the Portland Trail Blazers went with LaRue Martin instead of Erving and others. Erving dropped all the way down to 12th at a time when the NBA and American Basketball Association were fighting it out for supremacy and for players such as Erving. You may, if building a fantasy dream team, want to take Erving first overall among all of the men who have ever played.
1 Michael Jordan
Drafting big man Hakeem Olajuwon worked out rather well for the Houston Rockets all things considered. With that said, one cannot help what would have been had the Rockets instead drafted Michael Jordan first overall. Widely considered to be the greatest single player in NBA history, Jordan was, in his prime, a once-in-a-lifetime talent at both ends of the court, and there is little reason to believe that he would not have been just as great had he linked up with Houston instead of the Chicago Bulls. Would the Rockets have been a dynasty had the team drafted Jordan instead of Olajuwon? Chicago is grateful that the world will never know the answer to that question.
On top of that, Jordan didn't even go second overall, as the Trail Blazers went with Sam Bowie over MJ. You never fail to amaze us Portland.