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.
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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.
After a trade sent him to Sacramento, Webber enjoyed the best years of his career as a member of the Kings. With Webber’s interior passing a focal point of the Sacramento offense, the Kings were a persistent contender in a Western Conference, highlighted by five seasons in which the team topped 50 wins. Though the Kings were a legitimate contender for a sustained period of time, they never reached the NBA Finals and were eliminated from the playoffs by the Lakers in three consecutive seasons.
13 Brad Daugherty
Daugherty, a five-time All-Star with the Cleveland Cavaliers during an NBA career cut short due to injury, is one of the more underrated players of the 80s and 90s because of the wealth of dominant big men to roam the paint during his career. Though the Cavs had a memorable battle in the Eastern Conference Finals with the Chicago Bulls in 1992, Daugherty’s teams were able to advance past the first round of the playoffs just one other time during his 10-year NBA career. Playing during the peak of the Jordan era certainly didn’t help and it wasn’t because of a lack of production on Daugherty's part either: The former top overall pick posted career averages of 19 points and 9.5 rebounds while playing against some of the best centers to ever play the game.
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.
In 1984-85, King led the league in scoring with an average of 32.9 points per game and was the focal point of a Knicks team that took the eventual champion Celtics to seven games in 1984, scoring 29.1 points per game in the series and 34.8 points per game over the course of the playoffs. A serious knee injury limited King throughout the rest of his career, but he was still able to score close to 20,000 points over parts of 14 NBA seasons.
11 Carmelo Anthony
After failing to advance past the first round of the playoffs in six of his first seven seasons with the Nuggets, Anthony made it abundantly clear that he wanted out of Denver. Easily one of the best players in the league at the time, Anthony had averaged 24.7 points and 6.2 rebounds per game in seven full seasons in Denver, leading the Knicks to trade picks and players to Denver in exchange for the disgruntled small forward. Melo’s time in New York has not exactly gone much better, as he has only taken the Knicks past the first round of the playoffs once and has missed the postseason entirely in each of the past two seasons.
10 Alonzo Mourning
Playing alongside Larry Johnson, Mourning quickly became one of the best centers in the NBA and had the Charlotte Hornets poised for what should have been an extended period of team success. After contentious contract negotiations, the Hornets were forced to trade Mourning away after just three years, unable to meet his demands for a deal worth $13 million per season (the Hornets reportedly offered $11.3 per season over seven years). While the Hornets won a playoff series with Mourning and had won 50 games in the center’s third season, a huge chunk of Morning's career was spent on Heat teams that couldn't progress past the Eastern Conference Finals (thanks to MJ) with Mourning as their star player. As a bench player in 2006, he'd finally achieve the postseason success he craved behind Shaw and D-Wade.
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.
Over the next two seasons, Boston averaged less than 29 wins per year with a roster filled with developing young players still in the early stages of their careers, and it appeared Pierce was going to be a casualty of the rebuild until the Cs added Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett via trade. It wasn't until Pierce's 10th season in the league that he finally found himself surrounded by a great roster good enough to bring a title to Boston.
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.
Although the Bullets did make it to the NBA Finals with Monroe during the 1971 NBA Playoffs (they were swept by the Bucks), “Pearl” would have to find success elsewhere. After being traded to the Knicks, Monroe willingly took on a lesser role while playing alongside Walt "Clyde" Frazier, winning the title with New York in 1973.
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.
Since his trade to the Clippers, Paul has fared better in the postseason with a stronger roster built around Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, but the point guard has still yet to make it past the second round of the playoffs in a strong Western Conference. Despite this, Paul’s Clippers are still regarded as a title threat during the upcoming NBA season.
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.
Once Barkley was traded to Phoenix, he led the Suns to the NBA Finals in his first season with the franchise, losing to the Bulls in six games. Though he never won a title, Barkley’s post-Sixers career included a trip to the playoffs each year and several legitimate chances at a championship with both Phoenix and Houston.
5 Elvin Hayes
Elvin Hayes, a Hall of Famer who made 12 All-Star teams and retired with career averages of 21 points and 12.5 rebounds per game, spent his first four seasons playing for the Rockets and during those years his teams made the playoffs just once and were never able to manage a winning record. After a trade in 1972 sent him to the Bullets, Hayes continued to excel on both offense and defense and he ultimately won a title with the franchise in 1978 when Washington topped the Sonics in seven games.
4 Dominique Wilkins
An explosive and physically gifted scorer, Wilkins frequently went toe-to-toe with Larry Bird in some of the most memorable playoff battles in NBA history. Despite racking up over 26,000 points during a Hall of Fame career, Wilkins and the Hawks were never able to make it past the second round of the playoffs. Of course, one of those second-round losses came in 1988, when Wilkins and Bird put on a scoring display for the ages in Game 7. Wilkins scored 47 in the loss while Bird put up 34, 20 of which came in the final quarter of the game.
3 Allen Iverson
An 11-time All-Star who will always be best known for his time in Philadelphia, Iverson was one the most talented players to enter the league after being selected as the top overall pick in 1996. In addition to his MVP season in 2001, Iverson led the league in scoring four times and in steals three times, but he very rarely played on competitive teams with the Sixers, as Philadelphia had a losing record during five seasons out of Iverson’s 10 seasons with the franchise. Even when the Sixers made the NBA Finals during Iverson’s MVP season, the team’s success was widely recognized as a singular act of will on the part of Iverson, as the Sixers rolled out a starting lineup of Aaron McKie, Dikembe Mutombo, Tyrone Hill and Jumaine Jones.
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.
It was not much different in 2010, when the Cavs started Mo Williams, Anthony Parker, Antawn Jamison and a 37-year-old Shaquille O’Neal in the final game of LeBron’s first stint in Cleveland, and his move to Miami resulted in a serious upgrade in talent and a pair of NBA titles. So while LeBron’s relative lack of success in the playoffs and in the NBA Finals is often referenced as a mark against his status as an all-time great, it’s not exactly a stretch to say that many of those early Cleveland teams actually overachieved because of LeBron’s presence.
1 Grant Hill
While with the Pistons, Grant Hill looked every bit like a player destined to become one of the all-time greats, as his outstanding all-around game allowed him to post averages of 21.6 points, 7.9 rebounds, 6.3 assists during his first six NBA seasons, earning him a place on five All-Star teams. The best years of Hill’s career were wasted in Detroit, however, as the Pistons never made it out of the first round despite having one of the best players in the league on their roster. Of course, Hill’s injuries derailed his career and, even though he played until 40 years of age, he was never quite the player he had been with Detroit.
1. Oscar Robertson
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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