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The Top 5 Best and Worst Drafts in NBA History
Updated: Nov 5, 2020
By Max Toth
The 2020 NBA draft is set for Wednesday, November 18th. While teams like to think they have it all figured out, the best scout in the world is actually named "hindsight". So, let’s take a look at what makes a great and a bad draft.
P.S: This list only includes post 1984 drafts. After all, it really wouldn’t be fair to compare Micheal Jordan and Charles Barkley to 1940's draftees like Wimpy Quinn and Walt Dropo.
The 1986 draft basically went badly for every team not named the Cleveland Cavaliers, who walked away with 1st overall pick Brad Daugherty and 2nd round steal Mark Price - the duo that turned the Cavs into a consistent Eastern Conference contender. The most notable name, however, is the eccentric rebounding machine Dennis Rodman who was picked two selections after Price by the Detroit Pistons. Arvydas Sabonis and Drăzen Petrović are also Hall of Famers, but more so for their illustrious international careers than their NBA contributions. Unfortunately, the ‘86 draft was also marred by tragedy, as extremely promising Maryland product Len Bias died of a drug overdose on draft night while celebrating being selected 2nd overall by the Boston Celtics. Petrović, meanwhile, passed away in a car accident in 1993, just a month after finishing the most promising season of his career.
Patrick Ewing was one of the hottest prospects ever when he entered the NBA; so much so that there are still rumors that the NBA rigged the draft lottery so the big market New York Knicks could get the Georgetown University star. Ewing became New York’s franchise player and led them to two finals appearances during his 13 year stint with the team. But another title-less legend, two time MVP Karl Malone, actually turned out to be the best player in this draft while Hall of Fame guards Joe Dumars and Chris Mullin were also part of an impressive class.
The 1999 draft isn’t awful by any means and boasts some good players. Top picks Elton Brand, Steve Francis, Baron Davis, Wally Szczerbiak and Shawn Marion were all named NBA All-Stars at various times and Future Hall of Famer Manu Ginobili was a steal with the 57th pick. However, no 1999 draftee averaged more than 18 points for their careers or made more than five All-Star game appearances.
At first glance, the 2011 draft likely won’t jump off the page. Sure, Kyrie Irving and Kemba Walker are two of the league's best players. But a top ten that includes Derrick Williams, Jan Vesleý and Jimmer Fredette doesn’t exactly get you pumped up. But lurking just outside the top ten? A player that a bunch of teams are still kicking themselves over. At eleven, you see, the Golden State Warriors nabbed Klay Thompson, one of the best three point shooters of all-time and a major piece of the Warriors mid-2010's mini-dynasty. Speaking of booting yourself in the butt over lost opportunities, the Indiana Pacers picked up Kawhi Leonard with the 15th overall selection. That was the good news. The bad news? The Pacers immediately traded Leonard to the San Antonio Spurs for George Hill. Sure, the Pacers picked up a solid starting point guard. But the Spurs landed a top three player in the entire league, a two-time finals MVP, and a guy who would turn out to be pretty popular (albeit briefly) in Toronto. With the last pick in the first round, the Chicago Bulls took a chance on a feisty Marquette guard named Jimmy Butler, who would become the only player versatile enough to challenge Kawhi for the title of best two-way player in the league.
The 1988 draft didn't include any true franchise players. But let's not be too hard on the Class of '88. As it turned out, it did produce a number of quality coaches. At the top of the list, Golden State guru Steve Kerr while Keith Smart and Dan Majerle were also ‘88 draftees who went on to coach at a significant level.
To be honest, the 2003 draft could easily be number one on this list. It included Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony, Dwayne Wade and a seventeen year-old small forward named LeBron James. But the reason this draft isn’t ranked a little higher comes down to a lack of depth. Other then 2nd overall pick Darko Milicic, whose only claim to fame is being one of the biggest disappointments in league history, none of the other 2003 draftees are very noteworthy at all.
1989 was the year the NBA shortened the draft and implemented the two-round system that is still used today. Unfortunately, however, the "less is more" theory fell completely flat on its face in ‘89. The top two picks, Pervis Ellison and Danny Ferry, were both huge disappointments and while Shawn Kemp, Tim Hardaway and Glen Rice were all solid enough players, they weren't enough to save this draft from being a bust.
Like the 2003 draft, 1984 could make a case for being number one. Also like 2003, it boasts generational talent in Micheal Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, John Stockton and Charles Barkley and a big-time miss at number 2: Sam Bowie, who went to the Portland Trail Blazers right before Jordan, who went on to have a fairly successful career with the Chicago Bulls.
The turn of the century got off to a rough start for the NBA. With just three combined All-Star game appearances across the 58 players drafted, the “stars” of the 2000 draft might be alien to a lot of fans. (Jamal Magloire anyone? Although, to be fair, the Toronto native has turned out to be a solid assistant coach with the Raptors.). The story of the ‘00 draft is athletic players who just couldn’t put it together in the NBA. 2nd overall pick Stromile Smith was compared to Shawn Kemp and the 3rd overall pick Darius Miles was compared to Tracy Mcgrady. But while being compared to great players is always flattering, the fact is Smith or Miles didn't even come close to living up to all that hype.
Talk about a crowded trophy case.
Four Hall of Famers.
Four combined MVP awards.
64 combined All-Star appearances.
The 1996 draft contains some of the most important players in NBA history. Steve Nash legitimized Canada as a basketball country, while Allen Iverson paved the way for NBA players to strut their stuff and be themselves.
And Kobe Bryant?
Well, he was Kobe Bryant.
But, amazingly enough, there was even more gold to be mined in the ‘96 draft. Ray Allen is in the top two three-point shooters of all time (alongside Steph Curry) and Jermaine O’Neal was a driving force on some great Portland Trail Blazers and Indiana Pacers teams. In addition, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Antoine Walker, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Stephon Marbury were all great players.
And how about this?
The '96 class was so star-studded that Ben Wallace wasn't even drafted, and all he did was go on to capture four defensive player of the year awards.
Now that's what you call a depth of talent.
That brings us to this year's draft, which has been labeled as weaker than usual and lacking a true superstar player. However, one thing we’ve learned over the years is that even the weakest drafts usually have at least one stud while even in the best drafts, the best player isn’t always who you expect.
So, on November 18th we might just discover the next LeBron James or (yikes!) the next Darko Milicic.
Or, who knows?
Maybe the next Wimpy Quinn is out there just waiting to be snapped up.