5 Best Drafts in NBA History

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How good was the 1984 draft? Someone (Hakeem Olajuwon) was drafted ahead of MJ and it's never been called a bad pick.It doesn’t look like the 2011 NBA Draft is going to offer much in the way of superstars. Kyrie Irving is the favorite to be the top pick, but he only played in 11 games for Duke last season. Enes Kanter, the other supposed stud in this draft, didn’t suit up for Kentucky at all due to eligibility issues, the result of which is that he hasn’t played any competitive games in over a year. 2010 wasn’t a strong year either, but all indications are that 2012 is going to be a very good draft.

These yearly oscillations in draft quality come about because, at its core, the draft is a random event. The lottery picks are assigned on a random (albeit weighted) basis, and the available talent in each draft is largely dependent on a million little decisions that each prospect faces: whether to go to prep school for a year, which school to enroll in, how many years to stay overseas, etc. Over time, things usually even out, as it only takes one or two good drafts to repopulate the league’s talent pool. What follows is a look at the top five drafts in NBA history—the years when the stars aligned to produce multiple Hall of Famers in a single year.

#5: 1970

Hall of Famers: Bob Lanier (#1), Pete Maravich (#3), Dave Cowens (#4), Calvin Murphy (#18), Nate Archibald (#19), Dan Issel (#122)

Other All-Stars: Rudy Tomjanovich (#2), Sam Lacey (#5), John Johnson (#7), Geoff Petrie (#8), Charlie Scott (#106)

Other notables: Jim McMillian (#13, starter for one champ and one other Finals team, averaged 19 PPG, 6 RPG, 3 APG, 48% FG during three-year stretch from ’71-’72 to ’73-’74)

The teams at the top of this draft really knew their stuff in 1970: three of the top four picks ended up in the Hall of Fame, and seven of the top eight appeared in at least one All-Star Game. The main strength of this draft was its incredible depth—no draft produced more Hall of Famers (6). Yet for all the great players drafted in 1970, there was no guy that went on to become The Man and dominate the entire league for a couple years. In ranking these drafts, I tried to use quality over quantity. Most of these drafts have one or two guys that would guarantee you a title (or darn close to one) if you surrounded them with the right pieces. You can’t say that about anyone in 1970.

A few interesting sidenotes about this draft:

-Pete Maravich, the greatest NCAA player ever, he of the 44.2 PPG scoring average, was only the third selection. Lanier and Tomjanovich went 1-2.

-This was the first year international players were allowed to enter the draft. The Hawks drafted Manuel Raga in the 10th round to make him the first international player ever selected, but he never played a game in the NBA.

#4: 1985

Hall of Famers: Patrick Ewing (#1), Chris Mullin (#7), Karl Malone (#13), Joe Dumars (#18)

Other All-Stars: Xavier McDaniel (#4), Detlef Schrempf (#8), Charles Oakley (#9), AC Green (#23), Terry Porter (#24), Michael Adams (#66)

Other notables: Wayman Tisdale (#2, career averages: 15 PPG, 6 RPG, 50% FG; 1989-90 averages (79 games): 22 PPG, 8 PRG, 53% FG), Bill Wennington (#16, started at least 19 games for two champs, including the ’95-’96 Bulls, who went 72-10; backup on one other champ), Manute Bol (#31, ranks second all-time in blocks per game with an average of 3.3; led league in BPG twice in career, with a high of 5.0 in 1985-86, also second all-time), Tyrone Corbin (#35, 16 seasons, 1990-91 numbers (82 games): 18 PPG, 7 RPG, 4 APG, 2.0 steals per game, 80% FT), Hot Rod Williams (#45, 13 seasons, 1989-90 numbers (82 games): 17 PPG, 8 RPG, 2.0 blocks per game, 49% FG)

On the heels of the super-talented 1984 draft, 1985 also saw a great influx of talent to the league, setting up the ultra-competitive stretch of basketball in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Ewing and Malone were clearly the top talents in ’85, and it’s because of their excellence that I ranked 1985 above 1970. The two combined for 36 seasons, almost all of them at a high level (Malone averaged below 20 PPG just twice, in his first and last seasons), and also combined to tally 21 All-Star appearances, 2 MVP awards, and 5 Finals appearances (all losses). Those two were better than anyone from the ’70 draft, and coupled with guys like Joe Dumars (key player on two championships, 1989 Finals MVP, one other Finals appearance) and Chris Mullin (four All-NBA teams (one first, two second, one third), career averages of 18 PPG and 51% FG), the talent at the top of the ’85 draft gets the nod over the superior depth of 1970. But as good as those two years were, the next three are in a league of their own.

#3: 2003

Future Hall of Famers: LeBron James (#1), Carmelo Anthony (#3), Dwyane Wade (#5) [Editor's Note: I have my doubts about Anthony's legacy standing up over time.]

Other All-Stars: Chris Bosh (#4, could move up a group depending on how his career plays out), Chris Kaman (#6), David West (#18), Josh Howard (#29), Mo Williams (#47)

Other notables: Kendrick Perkins (#27, starter for one champ and one runner-up), Keith Bogans (#43, starter on 62-win Bulls this season), Boris Diaw (#21, starter on ’06-’07 Suns team that won 61 games; 2006 playoff numbers (20 games): 19 PPG, 7 RPG, 5 APG, 1.1 blocks per game, 53% FG, 43% 3FG), Leandro Barbosa (#28, 2006-07 numbers (80 games): 18 PPG, 4 APG, 48% FG, 43% 3FG, 85% FT), Jason Kapono (#31, career 44% 3FG, with a high of 51% in ’06-’07; led league in 3FG% twice; appeared in 51 games for NBA champion)

Yes, aside from all signing with the Miami Heat this summer, LeBron James, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade all shared the distinction of being a top-five pick in the 2003 draft. Wade led the Heat to the title in his third season, LeBron is the best player in the game today, and Carmelo is arguably the best scorer in the league. 2003 laid the groundwork for the NBA’s renaissance over the past few years and finally allowed the league to move past its post-Jordan malaise.

#2: 1996

Future Hall of Famers: Allen Iverson (#1), Ray Allen (#5), Kobe Bryant (#13), Steve Nash (#15)

Other All-Stars: Shareef Abdur-Rahim (#3), Stephon Marbury (#4), Antoine Walker (#6), Peja Stojakovic (#14), Jermaine O’Neal (#17), Zydrunas Ilgauskas (#20)

Other notables: Marcus Camby (#2, 15 seasons, 2006-07 Defensive Player of the Year, 4x NBA All-Defense (two first, two second), 4x NBA blocks leader), Erick Dampier (#10, 15 seasons, started at least 20 games for two Finals teams), Derek Fisher (#24, 15 seasons, 7 NBA Finals, starter for two champs, played for three others, has played 495 consecutive regular-seaosn games, the last 372 as a starter)

Just look at the names on that first line. Iverson, Allen, Bryant, and Nash have been among the league’s most recognizable superstars ever since entering the league together fifteen years ago, and, even more amazingly, three of the four are still going strong today (Iverson says he wants to play in the league again, but who knows where that’s going). Bryant’s one of the best to ever play the game and has five rings, while the other three all carried teams with poor supporting casts for long stretches of their career (Iverson and Nash more so than Allen). Admittedly, the All-Stars in this group are mostly frauds that demonstrate the flaws with All-Star voting (O’Neal had a few very good years with the Pacers, but most of those guys either failed to reach their potential or shouldn’t have been in the All-Star Game to begin with). But the presence of those four Hall of Fame locks, along with a couple other useful players (Camby and Fisher), is good enough to rank 1996 as the second-best draft of all-time.

#1: 1984

Hall of Famers: Hakeem Olajuwon (#1), Michael Jordan (#3), Charles Barkley (#5), John Stockton (#16)

Other All-Stars: Alvin Robertson (#7), Otis Thorpe (#9), Kevin Willis (#11)

Other notables: Sam Perkins (#4, 17 seasons, starter for one Finals team, played for two others)

Even if no one else was selected that year, a draft with Michael Jordan in it is still going to be really good. But then you add to it the likes of Olajuwon, Barkley, and Stockton, all of whom probably rank in the top-35 all-time, and you’ve got yourself the best draft class in NBA history. I’ve always been interested how the top of that draft played out, and not just because of the Jordan-Sam Bowie situation. For the second year in a row, Houston had the top pick. In ’83, they selected Ralph Sampson, and Sampson enjoyed a fine rookie season, starting all 82 games and putting up 21 PPG and 11 RPG on his way to earning Rookie of the Year honors. Yet instead of going for Jordan, the hyper-athletic playmaking guard, they went center again, taking Hakeem, a local product from the University of Houston. The twin towers approach worked when Sampson was healthy (read: not a lot), but it would have been fascinating to see what Jordan could have done in Houston. Of course, Olajuwon delivered two titles to the Rockets, so you can’t fault them for selecting him, but there’s always the wonder of what might have been. I guess the main point to take from this is that the best player ever wasn’t picked first overall, yet no one makes a big deal about it. That’s how good the 1984 draft was.


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