The 2011 NBA Draft Lottery will be held tonight in Seacaucus, New Jersey. Each of the 14 lottery teams will have a shot at landing one of the first three picks (After the first three picks are determined, picks 4-14 are determined based on regular-season record).
With a 17-65 record, the Minnesota Timberwolves hold the top odds of the first pick. Like many of the teams in this position before them, there will be questions about how Minnesota lost that many games. On March 13, the T-Wolves held a 17-51 record. They weren’t anywhere near the playoffs, so the question became: to tank or not to tank?
While most of these teams don’t need help losing, you can usually tell who’s tanking by looking for a few simple things during games. Do players let 10-point leads become blowouts? Tanking. Does the coach continually play younger players and claim they’re out there to gain experience? Tanking. Do injured players suddenly take much longer to get back on the court? Most definitely tanking. Minnesota closed the season on a 15-game losing streak. Many of those losses were defensible (including a brutal three-game home stand against Boston, Chicago, and Miami), but a 32-point blowout at home to the Kings? Really, Minnesota? Now, whether they wanted it or not, Minnesota’s league-worst record gives them the top odds at the number one pick.
But is tanking really worth it? The team with the league’s worst record still only gets a 25 percent chance at landing the top pick, though they are guaranteed a top-four pick. And then there’s the problem of who to choose. Let’s suppose that your team wins the lottery and gets the top pick. Some years, it might be blindingly obvious who to pick, and that player develops into a Hall-of-Famer (LeBron in 2003, Tim Duncan in 1997). Some years, it comes down to a choice between two players, and the club either makes the right choice (the Magic selecting Dwight Howard over Emeka Okafor in 2004) or the wrong one (the Blazers selecting Greg Oden over Kevin Durant in 2007). And some years, for whatever reason, the top pick simply never fulfills all that potential.
What do Elgin Baylor, Oscar Robertson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, and Hakeem Olajuwon all have in common? Aside from being Hall-of-Famers, they were all former number one draft picks. In all, 13 of the 64 number one picks have gone on to be enshrined in Springfield, with four more certain to join them when they become eligible (Duncan, James, Allen Iverson, and Shaquille O’Neal). Most of the time, these players were unanimous collegiate players of the year, and both scouts and media alike christened them as "can’t miss" players.
James was such a sure thing in 2003 that even though Carmelo Anthony was dominant in leading Syracuse to the national championship that spring as a freshman, it was still considered madness for the Cavs to take anyone but James. Abdul-Jabbar (then known as Lew Alcindor) was perhaps the surest of sure things when the Bucks picked him number one out of UCLA in 1969. His Bruins went 88-2 during his career, winning three national championships, with Abdul-Jabbar being named the NCAA tournament’s Most Outstanding Player all three years. He also captured two Player Of The Year awards and was a three-time All-American at Westwood. Abdul-Jabbar really couldn’t have accomplished anything else, and he rewarded Milwaukee’s faith with three NBA MVP awards and a championship in 1971.
In the end, that’s what it’s all about for a number one pick: winning a championship for your team. And while becoming a Hall of Famer certainly helps your chances in that department, of the 17 current or future Hall of Famers selected at number one, just seven have gone on to win a title with the team that drafted them. That tells you that having the number one pick, even if you strike gold on a Hall of Fame player, really isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
All Stars, but Nothing More
Most NBA teams have done well in this department; 40 of 64 number one picks (63%) have gone on to play in at least one All-Star Game. Most of the players in this category (All-Stars, but not Hall of Famers) have careers similar to those of Glenn Robinson (number one pick in 1994) or Larry Johnson (1991). They were among the league’s top 20 players in their primes, were one of the top two players on their team, but rarely played a major role on a championship team.
For the most part, prior to the draft, these guys were clear-cut number ones choices with the potential to explode at the NBA level. But for one reason or another, the players in this category never quite realized the full potential they showed in college. Ralph Sampson, the Rockets’ number one pick in 1983, is probably the most famous of these examples. Sampson, a center at the University of Virginia, put together the most impressive college career since Abdul-Jabbar. Three times he was named Player Of The Year, and he led Virginia to two Elite Eights, including a Final Four appearance in 1981. Standing 7-foot-4 and averaging 11 boards and 3.5 blocks per game in college, scouts thought there was no way Sampson could miss. But Sampson suffered through injuries in his nine-year career, and unlike Abdul-Jabbar, his dominance never extended to the NBA.
Everything went according to plan in Sampson’s first three seasons in Houston. He missed three games total, and averaged 21 PPG and 11 RPG. Behind the “Twin Towers” of Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon, Houston upset the defending-champion Lakers in his third season to make the Finals before losing to a fantastic Boston team in six games. The trouble began the next year, 1986-87, when Sampson missed 39 games and his numbers dropped across the board.
By 1987-88, the Rockets had had enough of Sampson’s injury troubles (he missed another 34 games that season) and they sent him to Golden State for Joe Barry Carroll, Sleepy Floyd, and cash. From that point, Sampson rapidly declined, playing more than 26 games just once in the four years after the trade. After 10 uninspiring games with the Washington Bullets in 1991-92, Sampson called it a career, a sad ending to a career that began with so much promise. While some might attribute the difference between Abdul-Jabbar and Sampson to those extra two inches (Abdul-Jabbar stood 7-foot-2, Sampson 7-foot-4), that is oversimplifying things. Players 7-foot-4 and taller have always struggled to stay on the court (see: Yao Ming), but the main reason that Abdul-Jabbar thrived while Sampson flopped is that Abdul-Jabbar was a genetic freak. Combining the regular season and playoffs, Abdul-Jabbar is the NBA career leader in games (1797) and minutes played (66,297). In 20 seasons, he played under 74 games just once, and even in his final season, at age 41, he started 74 regular season games for a team that would make the NBA Finals. Abdul-Jabbar wasn’t just more durable than Sampson; he was more durable than everyone.
Overall, guys in this category often had somewhat productive careers, but like Sampson, there was usually an issue that prevented them from realizing their full potential. Sometimes it was something quantifiable (Sampson’s knees), but a lot of the time, players had trouble adapting to the rigors of the NBA, where it was much harder to dominate than in college.
Useful Players, But Never an All-Star
By my count, there are only five players who fit this category: John Lucas, Mychal Thompson, Joe Smith, Andrew Bogut, and Andrea Bargnani. Obviously Bogut and Bargnani still have a chance to make an All-Star team, but both have been in the league for at least five seasons; by this point, an All-Star nod from either of them would be fairly surprising. All five of these guys helped their teams, but none of them deserved to have the burden of carrying a team fall on their shoulders. Thompson and Bargnani were defensible picks—both the 1978 and 2006 drafts were very weak talent-wise (though Larry Bird was selected in 1978 as a junior-eligible). Unfortunately, few remember the surrounding talent in a draft, instead choosing to focus on whether the top pick panned out or not. While you can look back on each of these players and agree that they all had productive careers, none met the expectations of a number one pick, which is why history will remember them neither as superstars nor busts.
Of the remaining 20 players, 19 have to go down as busts (I’ll give John Wall an incomplete for now). These guys range from Clifton McNeely in 1947 (who chose to become a high school coach instead of playing pro ball) to Greg Oden in 2007 (who has played in just 82 games over four NBA seasons). Others include Kwame Brown in 2001 (career line: 10 seasons, five teams, 7 PPG, 6 RPG) and Michael Olowokandi in 1998 (nine seasons, three teams, 8 PPG, 7 RPG). Brown and Olowokandi are examples of guys that were drafted solely based on “upside” potential , a trend that overtook the NBA around the turn of the century. Guys like Darius Miles, Jonathan Bender, and Darko Milicic were all top three picks between 1999 and 2003 that never made anything of themselves despite outlandish projections based on their limited experience.
Olowokandi had one good season in college, his junior year of 1997-98 where he averaged 22 PPG, 11 RPG, and 2.9 blocks per game on 61% shooting. But the Clippers, who selected him first overall, overlooked the fact that Olowokandi put up all those numbers in a weak conference, the WCC, for a team, Pacific, that faced just two BCS conference teams and was bounced in the first round of the NIT. Not only that, Olowokandi was 23 years old when he was drafted. After mistakes like Olowokandi, teams are far less likely to take risks on guys like him, and his weak points are all major red flags (too old, poor competition, only one good season).
While injury problems have plagued some other picks, causing them to be labeled busts, the other main reason for failure is the inability for a player to handle the outsized expectations heaped upon a top pick. But the reason why busts happen, in the NBA as in other sports, is the fact that it’s so damn hard to tell who will adapt to the pros and who won’t. Even though most of the top players in the NBA are selected within the first few picks (the top three MVP vote-getters this season were all former number one picks), knowing which guy to take can always present problems. Just look at the top of the 2005 Draft. The picks were as follows:
1. Andrew Bogut, Milwaukee
2. Marvin Williams, Atlanta
3. Deron Williams, Utah
4. Chris Paul, New Orleans
5. Raymond Felton, Charlotte
No one saw Paul as the transcendent point guard that he is; one could easily have made a case at the time for either of the PG’s taken before or after him. Bogut hasn’t exactly been a bust, but Paul and D. Williams are clearly the top two guys, knowing what we now know. Of the five, only Marvin Williams has grossly underperformed, but there were questions about him at the time (he didn’t start for UNC). Any of the other four would be a nice addition, but only two knocked it out of the park. And that’s the problem Minnesota and the other lottery teams will face on draft night: how to tell the Deron Williamses from the Marvin Williamses and how to tell the Chris Pauls from the Raymond Feltons. It’s an inexact science, and always will be, but that’s what makes the NBA Draft (and the draftees’ ensuing careers) so fun to watch.