The end of June marks the annual change from spring to summer, but in the NBA this time of year also represents the period in which optimism among all teams ought to be at its highest. While only one team can take home the Larry O’Brien Trophy each season, once the champion is crowned the remaining 29 teams turn their hopes to the next season, looking to use the impending NBA Draft to acquire young talent and the looming free agency period to attract established players to bolster their rosters in the hopes of claiming a title of their own.
Some teams have reason to be more optimistic than others, as there are those that have a lottery pick in the upcoming draft, plenty of cap space to spend on free agents, or, in relatively rare circumstances, a combination of draft picks and cap space such that it is possible to completely overhaul a roster if the opportunity should arise. While having a lottery pick or significant cap space is certainly good reason for optimism, there is no guarantee that a draft pick or cap space will yield a transformative player, as there are a number of other factors at play, including, perhaps most significantly, opportunity.
It should be plainly evident that some NBA Draft classes are simply more talented than others, and even having the top overall pick does not guarantee anything at all in terms of the level of talent it will yield. For every LeBron James there is a Kwame Brown, and for every Shaquille O’Neal there is a Joe Smith. The same could be said for the overall talent pool in any given draft class, as having a lottery pick in the 1996 NBA Draft gave a team a good chance of landing a future Hall of Famer, while any team with a lottery pick in the 2000 NBA Draft should have felt good about merely landing a solid rotation player.
In determining which classes featured the least amount of talent, a number of factors have to considered. The sheer volume of talent matters, so one or two great players at the top of a draft class will not be enough to keep the class off the list. Each of the 15 worst NBA Draft classes will very likely contain some good and even great players, but the focus of this list is on the overall NBA talent available to teams in any given draft year, with a greater emphasis on players taken in the lottery.
15 1989 NBA Draft
There was plenty of talent available in the 1989 NBA Draft, with Tim Hardaway, Shawn Kemp and Vlade Divac all taken after of the 13th pick of the draft, and nine members of this draft class would ultimately make at least one All-Star team during their careers. The top of this draft, however, was particularly weak, and it is fair to say that at least eight of the first 10 selections did not exactly pan out as planned, with only Sean Elliott and Glen Rice having truly notable careers in the NBA.
Despite the fact that this class yielded nine future All-Stars, only Kemp and Hardaway could be considered franchise-type players, and even Kemp was something of a disappointment following his great run with the Seattle Supersonics. The first two picks of the draft – Pervis Ellison and Danny Ferry – are likely among the most disappointing NBA players to be selected with the first and second pick in the same draft.
14 2001 NBA Draft
Like the 1989 NBA Draft class, the class of 2001 ended up having a number of All-Stars taken but was lacking significantly in talent taken at the top of the draft. Kwame Brown, the first selection, had a solid pro career but fell incredibly short of expectations and is widely considered one of the worst top selections in the history of the draft. The Bulls took Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler with the second and fourth overall picks, respectively, and while Chandler has had an outstanding career, it took some time for him to become established as a defensive standout and Curry never truly lived up to his talent or expectations.
The rest of the lottery featured Pau Gasol and Joe Johnson, but it also included Rodney White, DeSagana Diop, Eddie Griffin and Kedrick Brown, all of whom could easily be considered serious lottery busts. Most of the talent in this draft fell outside of the lottery, as Zach Randolph (19), Gerald Wallace (25), Tony Parker (28), Gilbert Arenas (31) and Mehmet Okur (38) each earned at least one All-Star selection during their NBA careers.
13 1975 NBA Draft
The 1975 NBA Draft was headlined by Hall of Famer David Thompson, and other notable selections include All-Stars Alvan Adams, Gus Williams, World B. Free, Dan Roundfield and Lionel Hollins, along with a fan favorite in Darryl Dawkins. Beyond those players, however, the 1975 Draft class was not particularly deep with talent, and Thompson did not even play in the NBA during the season following the draft. Thompson instead elected to spurn the NBA and sign with the ABA, only joining the NBA following the ABA-NBA merger in 1976.
12 1986 NBA Draft
While Brad Daugherty, the first overall pick of the draft, had a very nice career in the NBA, the rest of the lottery selections failed to ever make much of an impact in the league. The class featured several players whose careers were marred by drug issues, including Len Bias (who tragically died of a drug overdose before ever playing a game in the NBA), Roy Tarpley, Chris Washburn and William Bedford. The 1986 Draft featured a number of excellent late-first and early-second round choices, with Hall of Famers Arvydas Sabonis (24) and Dennis Rodman (27), along with All-Stars Mark Price (25), Kevin Duckworth (33) and Jeff Hornacek (46), taken well outside the lottery.
11 2004 NBA Draft
The 2004 NBA Draft class was loaded with international players and prep-to-pro players, leading many teams to take chances on high-risk/high-reward players. After Dwight Howard, the 2004 NBA Draft is filled with hits and misses, with the notable lottery misses including Josh Childress, Rafael Araujo, Luke Jackson, Andris Biedrins, Robert Swift and Sebastian Telfair. Though the class produced five future All-Stars (Howard, Devin Harris, Luol Deng, Andre Iguodala, and Jameer Nelson), the lottery and the rest of the first round featured a great deal of players who failed to make much of an impact during their NBA careers.
10 2005 NBA Draft
Andrew Bogut was the top pick of the draft, and the biggest storyline of the lottery was which of Chris Paul and Deron Williams would turn out to be the top point guard of the class. Other than those three players, the remainder of the lottery turned out to be quite disappointing, as it includes a group of players that primarily developed into role players rather than franchise cornerstones. Fans of the Orlando Magic undoubtedly recall their team wasting its lottery pick on Fran Vazquez, who never played in an NBA game after electing to continue his pro career in Europe rather than join the NBA.
9 1983 NBA Draft
Perhaps the most notable fact about the 1983 NBA Draft is the number of NBA coaches it ultimately produced, with Doc Rivers, Byron Scott, Randy Wittman and Sidney Lowe all having coached in the NBA. Although Ralph Sampson (1) and Clyde Drexler (14) enjoyed Hall of Fame careers, the remainder of the draft was exceptionally weak, with only Dale Ellis, Jeff Malone and Doc Rivers ever making All-Star teams during their respective NBA careers. Even Sampson was something of a disappointment, as injuries derailed a very promising career and essentially limited him to just four full seasons (he played nine seasons in total, but he only averaged 35 games per season over his last six years in the NBA).
The next season's draft, of course, was perhaps the best of all-time, further underscoring just how drastically the available talent in the draft can change from year to year. The 1984 Draft produced five future Hall of Famers in Hakeem Olajuwon, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, John Stockton and Oscar Schmidt (Schmidt was elected to the Hall of Fame for his international exploits, but was still a part of the '84 class as a sixth-round draftee), and seven of the players taken in the first round accounted for a total of 53 All-Star teams (the '83 draft class had 18 All-Star seasons in total, 10 of which belonged to Drexler). Three different players (Jordan, Barkley and Olajuwon) won a total of seven MVP Awards, while the '83 class produced none.
8 1998 NBA Draft
With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to see how any given draft should have played out, and the 1998 Draft would undoubtedly feature a very different order if teams were given the chance to re-draft. The three best players in the draft were taken 5th (Vince Carter), 9th (Dirk Nowitzki) and 10th (Paul Pierce), and this particular lottery featured some of the most disappointing NBA careers in recent memory, a fact only made worse by the lengthy standout careers of Carter, Nowitzki and Pierce.
The top pick of the draft, Michael Olowokandi, never came close to realizing his immense potential, and while Mike Bibby had some very good pro seasons, Raef LaFrentz, Robert Traylor, Jason Williams, Larry Hughes and Bonzi Wells did not enjoy the type of NBA success expected of high lottery choices. Carter, Nowitzki and Pierce are likely Hall of Famers, and Antawn Jamison was a very good pro, but the exploits of these four players is not enough to offset the sheer volume of first-round disappointment in the 1998 class.
7 2006 NBA Draft
When four of the first six draft picks of a class are already essentially out of the league after less than a decade, it is quite clear the class should be considered a bust on those merits alone. Adam Morrison (3), Tyrus Thomas (4), Shelden Williams (5) and Brandon Roy (6) are all basically out of the NBA, with only Thomas having played in the NBA recently after earning a 10-day contract and playing in two games with the Memphis Grizzlies in the 2014-15 season after sitting out the 2013-14 season. In the first few seasons after this draft, Roy was looking like the best player taken, but injuries forced him into early retirement and left the '06 class even further bereft of lasting NBA contributors due to his shortened career.
6 1990 NBA Draft
The standout of the 1990 NBA Draft class is without question Gary Payton, a Hall of Famer who was one of the best on-the-ball defenders in the NBA throughout his career. Beyond Payton, however, the 1990 class did not exactly overflow with talent. Derrick Coleman, the top pick of the 1990 NBA Draft, was one of the most talented players to enter the league at the time, but that talent never quite translated into the greatness that many expected of him.
Aside from Coleman and Payton, the 1990 class is made up of several solid pros who became reliable contributors on some very good teams, including Dennis Scott, Kendall Gill, Toni Kukoc, Chris Jackson, Antonio Davis and Cedric Ceballos, but Payton was the only player in this class to truly excel in a prominent role while serving as a focal point for each team he played on throughout the bulk of his career.
5 2002 NBA Draft
This class might have been better remembered if not for the injuries that limited the careers of the two players taken with the first two selections. Top pick Yao Ming was one of the best big men in the league before chronic injuries ended his career prematurely, and Jay Williams (2) played just one season before a motorcycle accident effectively ended his pro career. The rest of the draft produced three players in addition to Yao to make at least one All-Star team, with Amar’e Stoudemire (9), Caron Butler (10) and Carlos Boozer (35) combining to earn 10 total selections to go with Yao’s eight.
4 2013 NBA Draft
It is far too early to truly condemn the talent taken in the 2013 NBA Draft, but the early returns have not exactly been promising for a draft that, at the time, was billed as one of the weakest in recent memory. Anthony Bennett, the top pick, has struggled mightily so far, and many of the other members of the class have yet to demonstrate that the weakness of this draft was overstated. There are some bright spots, however, as Victor Oladipo has developed nicely in Orlando and a couple of international players – Giannis Antetokounmpo and Rudy Gobert – are looking like late-round steals.
3 1997 NBA Draft
The availability of Tim Duncan in the 1997 NBA Draft led to some of the most egregious examples of tanking, with the Boston Celtics and several others clearly punting the 1996-97 season with the hope that Duncan would serve as a franchise cornerstone for years to come. The Spurs landed the top pick that year, and the consolation prizes for the other teams in the lottery were not all that great. Keith Van Horn and Chauncey Billups went second and third, respectively, but there was a massive drop in available talent thereafter.
After Duncan, Van Horn and Billups, the next five selections were largely disappointing as pros, and Tracy McGrady (10) is the only other player of note to have any kind of impact from the 1997 class. Only Duncan, Billups and McGrady ever made an All-Star team from the 1997 Draft, while lottery selections like Antonio Daniels, Ron Mercer, Adonal Foyle and Tim Thomas struggled to ever carve out a lasting role in the league.
2 1973 NBA Draft
The 1973 NBA Draft produced just four All-Stars, with top overall pick Doug Collins, Kermit Washington, Larry Kenon and George McGinnis representing the only players from the ’73 class to ever earn an All-Star selection. Collins had his career cut short by injury, and McGinnis did not even join the NBA until the 1975-76 season, favoring the ABA while continuing to play for the Indiana Pacers. Mike D’Antoni was also a member of the 1973 class, but most of his success as a player came in Europe and he is better known for his coaching career than his playing career.
1 2000 NBA Draft
Hedo Turkoglu has had a very nice NBA career and is certainly not deserving of any disparagement or derision, but when he represents the best player to come out of an individual draft class, something has gone terribly wrong. The 2000 NBA Draft turned out to be comically atrocious, with just three players combining for a total of three All-Star appearances (one each for Kenyon Martin, Michael Redd and Jamal Magloire). The Clippers were perhaps the most unfortunate team in this draft, as its three first-rounders yielded Darius Miles (3), Keyon Dooling (10) and Quentin Richardson (18).