The general premise of the NBA Draft is to help maintain some semblance of competitive balance by allowing the poorest teams in any given season to get the first shot at the best young players available. The premise itself is sound, but it also means it is far more likely that potentially great players wind up on teams that are bereft of talent, have inept management or are simply not a good “fit.”
As a result, many great players are expected to shoulder the heavy load of being a franchise savior, a circumstance that can be patently unfair for young players who are also trying to adapt to a new league, a new coach, a new system and new teammates. Some players come into the league and are so dominant that it hardly matters; others, however, need a running mate or two to get them the ball in the right places or to draw the attention of the defense to be effective.
A top overall pick like Tim Duncan is a perfect example of a player immediately finding the right situation and circumstance. Duncan would have improved any team he was on, but he joined a roster that had a superstar big man in David Robinson along with a number of excellent veterans like Avery Johnson and Sean Elliott. Duncan surely would have been an all-time great wherever he landed, but it is fair to wonder if he would have enjoyed such instant team success had the Boston Celtics or Philadelphia 76ers won the lottery in 1997 instead of the San Antonio Spurs.
Compared to Duncan, the 15 players that follow had a very different experience. These players all entered the NBA with teams that would struggle to find the right combination of players to build around their young star and would subsequently enjoy very few playoff victories. While some eventually found success with the team that drafted them, everyone on this list had to at least wait quite some time before making a deep playoff run or enjoying a sustained period of team success, with many of these players having to first demand a trade to another team with the hope of finding a better opportunity.
14 Chris Webber
A versatile big man with a unique skill set for a player his size, Webber's first five seasons in the league were simultaneously tumultuous and productive. During a season in which he won the Rookie of the Year Award and led Golden State to a playoff berth, Webber clashed with Warriors head coach Don Nelson, leading to a trade that sent him to Washington. Despite averaging 20.9 points, 9.7 rebounds and 4.4 assists in Washington, Webber only made one trip to the playoffs during his time with the franchise, getting swept by the Jordan-led Bulls in 1997.
13 Brad Daugherty
12 Bernard King
A brilliant scorer, King averaged 21.9 points per game during his first five NBA seasons spent with the Nets, Jazz and Warriors, but those five seasons included just one playoff berth with the Nets in 1979, a first-round loss to the 76ers. Once he departed Golden State to join the Knicks, King enjoyed the best years of his career from both a team and personal standpoint.
11 Carmelo Anthony
10 Alonzo Mourning
9 Paul Pierce
Drafted by the Boston Celtics in 1998, Pierce didn’t make the playoffs until 2002, when Pierce and Antoine Walker led Boston to a surprising run to the Conference Finals by taking advantage of a weak Eastern Conference. Pierce made the playoffs with the Celtics in each of the next three seasons but only managed to win one series, forcing Boston to go into full rebuilding mode.
8 Earl Monroe
Monroe may have offered the best insight into the efficacy of his flashy, improvisational style of play when he said, "The thing is, I don't know what I'm going to do with the ball, and if I don't know, I'm quite sure the guy guarding me doesn't know either." While Monroe’s skillset ultimately landed him in the Basketball Hall of Fame, the Baltimore Bullets were unable to advance past the first round of the playoffs in Monroe’s first three seasons with the team.
7 Chris Paul
During six seasons in New Orleans (and Oklahoma City following Hurricane Katrina), Chris Paul was a part of just one playoff series victory and missed the playoffs entirely in three seasons. Easily one of the best point guards in the league, Paul twice led the NBA in assists and three times in steals as a member of the Hornets, but his efforts were not quite enough to pull his teammates to a deep playoff run.
6 Charles Barkley
Barkley’s first seasons in Philadelphia were undeniably good from a team perspective, as he was part of an outstanding roster that included Julius Erving, Moses Malone, Andrew Toney and Maurice Cheeks. The Sixers made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals in 1984, but the franchise's win totals would decrease in each of the next three seasons. Even though Philadelphia showed some improvement after missing the playoffs in 1988, a 47-loss season in 1991-92 only increased Barkley’s desire to be a part of a contending team.
5 Elvin Hayes
4 Dominique Wilkins
3 Allen Iverson
2 LeBron James
When looking back at some of the playoff rosters from LeBron’s first run with the Cavaliers, it becomes a lot easier to understand why he chose to defect to Miami to pursue titles with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. The unsavory way he left Cleveland is a whole other story, but it is hard to argue that LeBron could have done much better with the talent that surrounded him, as the Cavs did take the 2008 Celtics to seven games while fielding a roster relying fairly heavily on Daniel “Booby” Gibson and Delonte West.
1 Grant Hill
Recognized as one of the greatest players to ever play in the NBA, Oscar Robertson’s statistical dominance upon entering the league did not translate into immediate team success. In 10 seasons with the Cincinnati Royals, Robertson averaged 29.3 points, 10.3 assists and 8.5 rebounds per game, but he could never take the team past the second round of the playoffs.
After three consecutive seasons in which the Royals missed the playoffs altogether, Robertson was ultimately traded to Milwaukee in one of the most lopsided deals in the history of the NBA. Playing alongside Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Robertson’s first season in Milwaukee culminated in the first and only NBA title of his career, which only served to further enrage the fans in Cincinnati who never wanted to see Robertson leave the Royals in the first place.
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