When it comes to the NBA Draft, and projecting what a player was versus previously versus what a player could be in the future, at the risk of using even more sports clichés, it really is all about beauty being in the eye of the beholder, and the process being much more of an art than a science.
Sometimes, that player you selected can completely alter the trajectory of an NBA franchise, turning them from one of the league’s also-ran teams into a perennial contender. And other times, “missing” on an early selection in the NBA Draft can almost certainly promise your team another multi-year stay in the NBA’s version of purgatory.
To further examine that dichotomy, let’s look at the best selection ever made in the NBA Draft by each NBA team, as well as the worst pick (made in the first round) by those teams as well.
Atlanta Hawks: Bill Russell (BEST)
Even though Bill Russell never played a minute of basketball for the Hawks’ organization (in St. Louis or Atlanta), he still has to be mentioned here because of historical greatness. There is no greater winner in American team sports than Bill Russell. None.
No player has more NBA championships than Russell, who won 11 titles in a 13-year span with the Boston Celtics.
What’s even more impressive is that Russell won his last two titles as a player-coach, in the years after Red Auerbach retired from coaching the team. Russell and the Celtics won eight straight titles from 1959 to 1966, and Russell was named the league’s MVP five times along the way. Simply put, he was the leader of the winningest team in major U.S. sports history. When he retired from the NBA in 1969, he did so as the undisputed GOAT.
Atlanta Hawks: Jon Koncak (WORST)
There was a familiar maxim among NBA scouts: a guy who stood 7-feet tall and could run 100 feet in a straight line was almost certainly going to be a top 10 pick in the NBA Draft. Case in point? Jon Koncak, whom the Atlanta Hawks took with the 5th overall pick in the 1985 NBA Draft.
Koncak’s only claim to fame in Atlanta was being derisively nicknamed “Jon Contract,” for how much money his contract eventually cost the team. But here’s the real kicker: four players taken among the next eight picks were among the greatest players of the 1980’s and 1990’s: Chris Mullin, Detlef Schrempf, Charles Oakley, and Karl Malone.
Boston Celtics: Larry Bird (BEST)
Make no mistake: behind the the low-key, aw-shucks persona which Larry Bird created to play up his “hick from French Lick” nickname, there was a raging fire within Bird to absolutely vanquish any opponent whom he played against.
Along with being one of the most relentless workers off the court in NBA history, Bird played the game like Bobby Fischer played tennis or Beethoven composed symphonies: with a level of knowledge and execution that seemingly surpassed even mastery. In a city with a hallowed history of professional athletes like Boston, and a team with so many Hall of Famers like the Celtics there probably isn’t a player more revered than Bird himself.
Boston Celtics: Joseph Forte (WORST)
After leaving school after completing his sophomore year in Chapel Hill, Joe Forte was the 21st overall pick in the 2001 NBA Draft, selected by the Boston Celtics (ahead of guys like Tony Parker and Gilbert Arenas).
Forte spent his first two seasons on two different NBA teams (after the Celtics gave up on him after just one year), struggling to transition from shooting guard (his natural position) to point guard, averaging 1.2 points and 0.7 assists per game. Seattle released him after Forte’s second season in the NBA, and the rest of his career was spent in the NBA’s Developmental League and/or playing hoops overseas.
Brooklyn Nets: Buck Williams (BEST)
Charles Linwood “Buck” Williams was the 3rd overall pick in the 1981 NBA Draft, and is one of only three players from that draft to be named to at last one All-Star game and one All-NBA Team.
Williams’ 17-year NBA career was highlighted by three All-Star Game appearances, a Rookie of the Year award, an All-Rookie team selection, an All-NBA second team selection and four selections to the first and second NBA All-Defensive teams. He remains near the top of all Nets’ franchise records for points, total rebounds, games played, minutes played, rebounds per game, and free throws made.
Brooklyn Nets: Dennis Hopson (WORST)
The New Jersey Nets owned the number three pick in the 1987 draft and used it on Ohio State wing Dennis Hopson. Hopson never quite found his footing, improving gradually over three seasons before being offloaded unceremoniously in a trade.
Maybe the Nets should have taken the Central Arkansas wing that went two picks after Hopson, one Scottie Pippen. If not Pippen, they might have picked up Reggie Miller, Kevin Johnson, or Horace Grant, all among the next ten picks. It was a huge miss for the Nets.
Charlotte Hornets: Kemba Walker (BEST)
In the current iteration of the Charlotte professional sports franchise, this designation has to go to Kemba Walker. Walker has played his entire eight year career for Charlotte, and he is still getting just a little bit better each season.
He’s a three-time All Star and hosted All Star Weekend in Charlotte. Now, the question for him will be whether he’ll re-sign a “supermax” extension to remain with the team that drafted him, or test the waters in the 2019 free agency period.
Charlotte Hornets: Adam Morrison (WORST)
As bad as the drafting history of the Charlotte basketball organization (in its most recent iteration) has been, it’s hard to fault them for drafting Adam Morrison. The All-American was the co-national player of the year, and helped make Gonzaga University a college basketball powerhouse.
But Morrison’s reasons for failure in the NBA were two-fold: for one, he simply lacked the pure athleticism needed to really be a star at the professional level; teams — like Charlotte — overlooked that fact, because of his production in college. Then, Morrison tore his ACL in his second season, taking even more away from his already-limited athletic ability.
While you can mock the fact that Morrison was taken ahead of Brandon Roy, Kyle Lowry, J.J. Redick, and Paul Millsap, none of them won a championship ring; meanwhile, Morrison has two of them, as a reserve player on the Los Angeles Lakers in 2009 and 2010.
Chicago Bulls: Michael Jordan (BEST)
Michael Jordan finished with a career scoring average over 30 points a game and once scored 30 a game for seven consecutive seasons. Jordan led the NBA in scoring 10 times, with several of the greatest offensive seasons in league history. Oh and he was also elite defensively. Jordan was named to nine All Defense teams and once won Defensive Player of the Year.
He won five MVP awards. And then there was all the Bulls dominance. In Michael’s final six full seasons with the Bulls, Chicago won the championship in all of them. Jordan was 24–11 in NBA Finals games. He was six-for-six in the Finals and six-for-six winning Finals MVP. There was nothing Michael Jordan could not do on a basketball court. He was the Greatest Of All Time.
Chicago Bulls: Eddy Curry (WORST)
Back in 2000, when NBA scouts saw a precocious kid from just outside of Chicago standing 7’0, with the strength of a bull and the feet of a ballerina, they all thought they found the next Shaq.
That’s why the Chicago Bulls made Eddy Curry the 2nd overall pick of the 2001 NBA Draft, straight out of high school. Curry flashed a lot of promise early in his career, but a combination of immaturity, bloated contracts, and future health problems, killed that promise.
Cleveland Cavaliers: LeBron James (BEST)
When we all come to our senses and acknowledge that LeBron James has ascended to the rank of the 2nd-greatest NBA player of all time, we’ll finally be able to truly appreciate his greatness. James fulfilled the prophecies foretold about him when he was still in high school, winning three NBA Championships — including the 2016 title which he brought back to his home region of Cleveland, Ohio.
James was selected as the league’s MVP four times, although there are arguments that could easily be made about him being shortchanged in that area more than once. Perhaps most impressive is his streak of playing in nine consecutive NBA Finals between 2010 and 2018.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Anthony Bennett (WORST)
It looks like Anthony Bennett will go down as one of the biggest number one pick busts in NBA draft history. Bennett was unplayable as a rookie, averaging under 13 terrible minutes a game.
He was so bad the Cavs gave up on him after just one season, lumping him in with Andrew Wiggins in a trade for Kevin Love once LeBron James came back into town.
Bennett played on four teams in four years before heading to Europe for a stint. He’s currently plying his trade in the G-League at the tender age of 25.
Dallas Mavericks: Dirk Nowitzki (BEST)
Dirk Nowitzki has almost three times as many win shares as his next closest Mavericks competitor. He has scored over 31,000 points in his career, all of them for Dallas, which ranks him seventh all time and should see him pass Wilt Chamberlain by the end of the season when he presumably heads into retirement.
Nowitzki was the league MVP in 2007, but his playoff run in 2011 cemented his legacy as he led the Mavericks to their only NBA championship, knocking off LeBron James and his vaunted Miami Heat teammates in their first season together. Nowitzki is one of the greatest international players in NBA history.
Dallas Mavericks: Randy White (WORST)
A lot of memorable names were drafted in 1989, including Shawn Kemp, Vlade Divac, Glen Rice, Tim Hardaway, Mookie Blaylock, Clifford Robinson, Nick Anderson, Sean Elliott, and others. One name you won’t often see on that list?
The number eight pick, Randy White. Dallas took White out of Louisiana Tech and he barely cleared 40% shooting for his career and never averaged double-digit points in any season.
Denver Nuggets: Dikembe Mutombo (BEST)
Yes, Dikembe Mutombo gets this nod over Carmelo Anthony, because “Mount Mutombo” never demanded to be traded out of one of the most beautiful cities in the nation (especially because of a spouse who demanded to be in one of the major media markets). While on the Nuggets, Mutombo was a 3-time All-Star and Defensive Player of the Year.
On top of his signature finger wag after making blocks, Mutombo will always be remembered for laying on the court and letting out his scream of job when his 8th-seeded Nuggets beat the #1-seeded Seattle SuperSonics in the 1994 NBA Playoffs.
Denver Nuggets: Nikoloz Tskitishvili (WORST)
The Nuggets rolled the dice with the number five pick in the 2002 draft, selecting Georgian (the country, not the state) prospect Nikoloz Tskitishvili, and Skita was one of the biggest busts in recent memory.
He never even averaged four points a game, and he didn’t even play double digit minutes any year after his rookie season. Tskitishvili shot 30% for his career — not a typo — and was out of the league entirely in four years.
Detroit Pistons: Isiah Thomas (BEST)
Isiah Thomas leads the Pistons all time in points, assists, and steals, and he’s a Hall of Famer who made 12 All Star Games. The Baby Faced Assassin was the point guard of the Bad Boy Pistons and helped them win two championships, and he was named Finals MVP for one of them.
He got a lot of help from teammates like Bill Laimbeer, Joe Dumars, and Dennis Rodman, but Thomas is still the greatest player in Detroit history.
Detroit Pistons: Darko Milicic (WORST)
The Pistons made the Conference Finals in 2003 and then had the number two pick in the draft a few weeks later thanks to a savvy trade years before. They wouldn’t get the chance to pick high school phenom LeBron James, but in a draft with Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade, it was hard to go wrong. Enter Darko.
Milicic could barely get on the floor his rookie season as the Pistons won the championship, and it didn’t get much better from there. He bounced around the league for a decade before retiring to kickboxing and owns an apple orchard in Serbia today, but he’ll always be remembered as one of the biggest busts in NBA history.
Golden State Warriors: Stephen Curry (BEST)
Stephen Curry is the greatest basketball shooter in human history. That much is not up for debate. He’s already third all time in three pointers and will be first in a little more than a season. And despite all the difficult shots, Curry ranks top five in career three point percentage and number one all time in free throw percentage. The advanced metrics are even better.
Curry ranks 4th all time with 62% true shooting on a leaderboard populated by seven foot dudes shooting two feet from the rim, and he’s #2 all time in OBPM. He won back to back MVPs in 2015 and 2016, and the latter season was perhaps the greatest offensive season in NBA history with 30/5/7 on 50/45/91 shooting. He’s been the best player on three champions — yeah, you heard me — and might add another ring to his resume soon.
Golden State Warriors: Joe Barry Carroll (WORST)
Philadelphia 76ers fans may cringe reading this one. The Warriors made a big move prior to the 1980 draft, trading up from number three to number one for a Purdue player named Joe Barry Carroll that they just couldn’t pass. Though they moved up only two spots, the trade cost the Warriors dearly as they also lost talented young center Robert Parish.
The Boston Celtics dropped from one to three and got the best player in the draft, Kevin McHale, and the two were the spine of the Celtics dynasty in the 80s. Carroll averaged at least 17 points a game all six Warriors seasons, but he had a knack for not playing with enough heart, earning the nickname Joe Barely Cares, and most importantly, he just wasn’t Kevin McHale or Robet Parish.
Houston Rockets: Hakeem Olajuwon (BEST)
While Hakeem Olajuwon cemented his status as one of the greatest centers, if not greatest basketball players of all time after winning back-to-back NBA Championships in the mid-1990’s with the Houston Rockets, the truth was that he was already that dominant a player for a long time prior.
Along with his two NBA Finals MVP’s and 12 All-Star game selections, Olajuwon was named to the All-NBA team 10 times, and the All-NBA Defensive team nine times. Unsurprisingly, Olajuwon leads the Rockets all time in blocks and steals, along with points and rebounds of course, and he was a true ambassador for the game.
Houston Rockets: Bostjan Nachbar (WORST)
14 picks after taking Yao Ming at the top of the 2002 NBA Draft, the Houston Rockets went back to the international talent pool by drafting forward Boštjan Nachbar with the 15th overall pick. Needless to say, the two players would have very different career trajectories.
Nachbar played for the Rockets for three seasons, but only averaged less than 15 minutes per game, leading to the Rockets trading him away for an uninspiring return of Marc Jackson, Linton Johnson, and cash considerations.
Indiana Pacers: Reggie Miller (BEST)
Reggie Miller is criminally underrated. Miller made only five All Star teams but should have made 10 or 15. He’s one of the greatest shooters and scorers in NBA history. Miller led the league in free throw percentage five times and hit almost 89% of his freebies in his career, and he ranks second all time in three pointers made with a sparkling 40% shooting percentage from deep.
Miller ranks top ten all time with 61% true shooting despite constantly being the fulcrum of pretty much every offense he played on. Miller was the best player on all of his teams and dragged six of them to the Conference Finals anyway. Shooting guards aren’t supposed to do that unless they’re the elitest of the elites.
Indiana Pacers: Rick Robey (WORST)
Unless you’re a longtime Pacers fan, you’ve probably never heard of Rick Robey. Robey was the Pacers’ number three pick in the 1978 draft, a University of Kentucky star the Pacers kept close to home. Robey was a bust, starting only 46 games over eight seasons and averaging 7.6 points per game for his career.
He didn’t last long in Indiana as the Pacers shipped him out in a trade his second season to the Boston Celtics, a team that had picked three spots later in the 1978 draft. They had also taken a player local to the Pacers, a talented Hick from French Lick named Larry Bird. That’s right. Indiana had the opportunity to take the hometown kid and passed him up. For Rick Robey.
L.A. Clippers: Bob McAdoo (BEST)
We’re admittedly fudging here a bit, considering Bob McAdoo was selected by the Buffalo Braves — who would go on to relocate to Los Angeles and become the Clippers — with the 2nd overall pick in the 1972 NBA Draft. But, it’s not exactly like the Clippers have a storied history of draft successes.
So we went with McAdoo, who was a five-time NBA All-Star and named the NBA Most Valuable Player (MVP) in 1975. McAdoo is one of the few players who have won both NBA and the FIBA European Champions Cup (EuroLeague) titles as a player.
L.A. Clippers: Michael Olowokandi (WORST)
The Clippers moved from Buffalo to San Diego to Los Angeles without making the playoffs for 15 years into the 90s, but they hit rock bottom again going 17–65 in 1998 en route to landing the number one pick. They used it on raw Nigerian big man Michael Olowokandi, who abruptly led the team to an even worse record the next two seasons.
The Kandi Man somehow shot under 44% for his career despite standing seven feet tall, and the Clippers had nothing to show for a number one pick in a draft featuring Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce, and Vince Carter.
L.A. Lakers: Magic Johnson (BEST)
Magic Johnson is the greatest point guard of all time. He could do everything. Magic led the league in scoring five times and in assists four times. He was the best player on eight straight Conference Finals Lakers teams and won five NBA championships, named Finals MVP in three of them, one of which was as a rookie when he was the second best player on a 60–win champ and memorably filled in at center in the Finals for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Magic was the heartbeat of the Showtime Lakers with a dazzling array of passes, and elite offense followed him wherever he went. He finished top three in the MVP race nine straight times and won it three times between 1987 and 1990. Magic Johnson is one of the game’s all time greats.
L.A. Lakers: Sam Jacobson (WORST)
How irrelevant was Sam Jacobson in the grand scheme of the history of the Los Angeles Lakers? His career summary on Wikipedia comprises a grand total of 21 words, saying literally nothing more than the fact that the Lakers selected him with the 26th pick in the 1998 NBA Draft.
While he (somehow) lasted three seasons in the NBA, Jacobson played a grand total of 28 minutes with the Lakers in his first two seasons in the NBA — an unfathomably little amount of time that wasn’t as a direct result of injuries.
Memphis Grizzlies: Mike Conley (BEST)
Mike Conley Jr. has been a member of the Memphis Grizzlies since the team drafted him with the fourth overall pick in the 2007 NBA draft. And in March of 2019, Coley passed former teammate Marc Gasol to become the highest scoring player in the history of the franchise.
In an era where the NBA has seen a golden age of point guards, and because Conley plays in an overlooked market overall, Conley has shocking never played in an All-Star game. However, he’s routinely seen as one of the better players at his position in the league, and was named to the NBA’s All-Defensive Second Team in 2013.
Memphis Grizzlies: Hasheem Thabeet (WORST)
There were a lot of questions about Hasheem Thabeet’s motor, heart, and drive coming out of the University of Connecticut, but that didn’t stop the Grizzlies from selecting him second in the 2009 draft, just after Blake Griffin.
Thabeet was supposed to be a block party but turned into a foul machine instead and couldn’t even stay on the court, starting just 20 games in his entire career. Bet Memphis wishes they’d picked the guy that went right after Thabeet, or maybe the guard that went a few picks later.
Can you imagine James Harden and Steph Curry in a Memphis uniform?
Miami Heat: Dwayne Wade (BEST)
Dwayne Wade is finally calling it a career, and what an amazing career it was. Wade finishes top 50 all time in points, assists, steals, free throws, and win shares with a career average of 22 points per game. He played in five NBA Finals, four of them with LeBron and one on his own.
Winning the 2012 and 2013 titles with James pushed Wade up the all time guard rankings, but it was his 2006 championship that really made him a legend. That run made Dwyane Wade the only shooting guard besides Michael Jordan to be the clear best player on a title team. Wade slashed to the rim and finished at an elite level, and he earned every bit of the retirement tour he got.
Miami Heat: Michael Beasley (WORST)
The Heat used the second pick in the 2008 draft on Michael Beasley, who looked like a star out of Kansas State. Two years later the Heat saw LeBron James and Chris Bosh join Dwyane Wade in South Beach, and Beasley might have been the perfect fourth banana.
Instead he was deemed so bad that he was traded in essentially a salary dump. Beasley’s still bouncing around the league
Milwaukee Bucks: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (BEST)
Saying that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was a great basketball player is like saying The Beatles were a good band. It wasn’t just about how good the man formerly known as Lew Alcindor was; it was the consistency and duration in which he was that good. From 1971 to 1980, Abdul-Jabbar won six NBA MVP awards, and some believe he was robbed of one of them.
For the first seven years of his career, he averaged 30 points, 16 rebounds, and five assists per game. He played over 65,000 minutes of basketball. And just as importantly as any of those stats, he won six NBA Championships between 1971 (as a member of the Milwaukee Bucks) and 1988.
Milwaukee Bucks: Yi Jianlian (WORST)
After seeing the potential of guys like Yao Ming, NBA front offices all headed to the Far East to try and unearth more basketball talents. The Milwaukee Bucks clearly thought they might’ve found such a player in Yi Jianlian, a five-time Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) champion and three-time CBA Finals MVP.
But the fact that Jianlian didn’t hold any workouts for any teams leading up to the 2007 NBA Draft, and the fact that his most famous pre-draft workout came with him playing against a folding chair, should’ve been major red flags. One year after drafting him, the Bucks traded him away.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Kevin Garnett (BEST)
Kevin Garnett is the greatest player in Minnesota history to an almost comical degree. He leads the Timberwolves all time in games, minutes, points, steals, assists, rebounds, blocks, and free throws. He’s more than doubled his closest competitor, Kevin Love, in rebounds and almost tripled the next closest scorer, Andrew Wiggins.
Garnett made 10 All Star teams with the Timberwolves. All other Wolves players have combined for eight All Star appearances. Minnesota had never even made the playoffs without Kevin Garnett until last year. No NBA franchise is more encompassed in one single player.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Johnny Flynn (WORST)
Can there really be anyone else in this spot? Johnny Flynn was the crown jewel of then General Manager David Kahn’s raging incompetence. Kahn and the Timberwolves selected Flynn with the 6th-overall pick in the 2009 NBA Draft.
On top of the fact that Flynn was out of the NBA in less than five seasons, this pick really makes Minnesota fans want to take a long walk off a short bridge when they remember the team passed on Stephen Curry.
New Orleans Pelicans: Chris Paul (BEST)
Anthony Davis looked all set to pass Chris Paul for the best New Orleans player mantle, but who knows if he’ll ever get there now given all the trade talk? Paul edges Davis in franchise win shares, and he finished second in the 2008 MVP race, one spot better than the Brow ever attained.
CP3 led the then-Hornets to the playoffs three of his six years and won at least 37 games every year. Davis’s Pelicans have only hit that number twice. Paul is just the more efficient and better player.
New Orleans Pelicans: Kirk Haston (WORST)
Selected by previous iteration of the Charlotte Hornets (before they packed up and moved to New Orleans), Kirk Haston was a Third-team All-American in college, playing under Bobby Knight at the University of Indiana. Still, the NBA types weren’t that high on him, expecting him to be a late first/early second round pick in the 2001 NBA Draft.
But the (old) Hornets totally disregarded that sentiment, taking him with the 16th overall pick — three spots ahead of future NBA All-Star Zach Randolph. During his two-year NBA career, Haston averaged 1.2 points per game, playing in 27 games. He also averaged one rebound per game while recording no steals.
New York Knicks: Walt Frazier (BEST)
Patrick Ewing beats out Walt Frazier in longevity and career numbers, but Frazier is the more beloved Knick thanks to the two NBA championship he brought to New York in the 70s.
Frazier scored 19 points a game over a decade with the Knickerbockers, and he played in seven All Star Games and was named to the All Defense team seven times, too. Today Clyde is the iconic voice of the Knicks and continues to be beloved for his style and his catchphrases.
New York Knicks: Mike Sweetney (WORST)
A highly-regarded player coming out of the amateur basketball hotbed that is the Washington, D.C. area, Michael Sweetney went to nearby Georgetown University with dreams of being the school’s next legendary big man. But Sweetney was more “big man” than legend, in the sense that his playing weight would once hover around 300 lbs (despite standing only 6’8).
In a 2003 NBA Draft that saw LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, and Carmelo Anthony be selected among the top 5 picks, the New York Knicks too Sweetney with the 9th overall pick. Two years later, they dumped him on Chicago, in the deal that brought Eddy Curry to New York.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Kevin Durant (BEST)
A man who was blessed by the basketball gods with the height of an NBA center, limbs that go on for days, the offensive versatility of a Swiss-Army Knife, and a love for basketball that’s as pure as the first snowfall, Kevin Durant seemed destined for stardom since becoming the second pick of the 2007 NBA Draft. Between 2009 and 2012, Durant led the NBA in scoring three consecutive seasons, averaging 28.7 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 3 assists per game over that span.
Two seasons later, Durant averaged a league-high 32 points per game, along with 7.4 rebounds and 5.5 assists, earning him his first NBA MVP. Even though he left the team to join the Golden State Warriors, virtually zero basketball historians will argue that fellow home-grown MVP Russell Westbrook was (or is) a better player than Durant.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Olden Polynice (WORST)
The Seattle Supersonics (remember them?) traded the fifth pick in the 1987 draft to move down a few slots and select center Olden Polynice. True to his name, Olden was Poly-Nice enough NBA player, a 15-year veteran that bounced around the league, but it’s the guy the Sonics missed out on that hurt.
That’s because Seattle traded away the rights to Scottie Pippen, who might otherwise have played the 90s next to Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp. Can you imagine?
Orlando Magic: Shaquille O’Neal (BEST)
If Shaquille O’Neal truly possessed a basketball “killer instinct,” or truly cared about keeping himself in shape during the offseason (instead of playing himself into shape during the season and in time for the playoffs), there’s no question he would’ve been higher on this list.
From the mid-1990’s through the mid-2000’s, O’Neal was basically a basketball cheat code on the court, and a complete cultural phenomenon off of it.
He was the centerpiece of one of the greatest “ended before it started” dynasties with the Orlando Magic in the mid-1990’s. To this day, O’Neal ranks 8th all-time in points scored, 6th in field goals, 15th in rebounds, and 8th in blocks.
Orlando Magic: Fran Vazquez (WORST)
The Magic have had plenty of busted draft picks this century, but perhaps none as big as Spanish big man Fran Vazquez.
Orlando took Vazquez with the eleventh pick of the 2005 draft but couldn’t ever convince him to come stateside. Vazquez chose to stay in Europe and is the all time Spanish League leader in blocked shots, but that didn’t do the Magic much good.
Philadelphia 76ers: Allen Iverson (BEST)
Allen Iverson was the beneficiary of an epic in 2001 when everything bounced right. He won the MVP scoring 31 points a game with no teammate above 12 ppg, took his team to the Finals, and was the only team to take a game off the Lakers in the playoffs with his iconic Tyronn Lue step over.
But that was his only Conference Finals, and despite all the scoring from The Answer, Iverson’s teams were consistently bottom 10 in offense. Iverson was very inefficient with 42% field goals, 31% threes, and 52% true shooting and never adjusted his game to the modern ways.
Philadelphia 76ers: Markelle Fultz (WORST)
As ESPN’s Zach Lowe quipped: some day, somebody is going to write a book about the tragedy that was the start of Markelle Fultz’ star-crossed NBA career. He was considered a no-brainer, no-way-you-should-think-twice lock to be the #1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, and the league took notice when the Philadelphia 76ers traded up for the #1 pick, seemingly to pair Fultz with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.
But after one of the most mysterious shoulder injuries in the history of professional athletics completely robbed Fultz of his ability (and his confidence) in shooting the basketball, his presence became an ugly blemish on the rising 76ers.
Phoenix Suns: Steve Nash (BEST)
Yes, Steve Nash might’ve risen to prominence as a member of the Dallas Mavericks, but his time in the Metroplex was sandwiched between his first stint with the Phoenix Suns (after being drafted by them in the 1996 NBA Draft) and his return to the desert in 2004.
And we all know how things transpired when he rejoined the Suns, and partnered with Mike D’Antoni to be the quarterback of Phoenix’s celebrated “seven seconds or less” era of basketball. Nash would go on to win back-to-back MVP awards in 2005 and 2006, and to this day, he has more 50–40–90 seasons than any other player in NBA history.
Phoenix Suns: Dragan Bender (WORST)
The guy with the ferocious-sounding name turned out to be the Cowardly Lion-sort in the NBA. Dragan Bender was a 7’1 Croatian big man whom some thought would turn into an Uber-athletic big man, ala Kristaps Porzingis.
Instead, all they got was a guy who personified the stereotype of European players being “soft.” The 2016 draft wasn’t exactly a star-studded one, but the Suns have to be kicking themselves at some level for drafting Bender ahead of someone like Jamal Murray, who was taken three picks later in the same draft.
Portland Trail Blazers: Clyde Drexler (BEST)
Clyde “the Glide” Drexler was an eight time All Star for the Trail Blazers, and he leads the team all time in points, free throws, steals, and offensive rebounds, a well rounded player that averaged 21 points, six boards, six assists, and two steals a game for Portland.
He also led the Blazers to the NBA Finals but faced a common foe there in Michael Jordan, who also blocked him from winning the MVP the same season. Drexler would be part of the gold medal Dream Team that summer, too. It was quite a year for the greatest Blazer ever.
Portland Trail Blazers: Sam Bowie (WORST)
With respect to mega busts Greg Oden and 1972 number one pick LaRue Martin, Sam Bowie will always be the player that makes Portland fans take a long drag on their cigarettes as they stare off wistfully into the distance. Bowie was a super talented big man out of Kentucky whom the Blazers drafted second overall, but he struggled with injuries his whole career with different-sized legs that were never quite right.
It turns out Portland probably should have taken the guy the Chicago Bulls took with the next pick in the draft: Michael Jeffrey Jordan. Heck, Portland would probably have been happy with some of the other guys drafted that year too like Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, and John Stockton.
Sacramento Kings: Peja Stojakovic (BEST)
Predrag “Peja” Stojaković gets the nod for the Sacramento Kings, amidst their highly uninspiring draft history. Though Stojaković was much more of the “third banana” on those incredibly fun Kings’ teams of the early 2000’s (one of which were completely jobbed by the NBA officials in the Western Conference Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers), he remains one of the most beloved players in franchise history.
Stojaković was named to the All-Star team three consecutive seasons in a row between 2002 and 2004, and won the NBA’s three-point shootout contest in both 2002 and 2003.
Sacramento Kings: Pervis Ellison (WORST)
As bad as the Kings have been, they’ve only picked first in the draft once since 1960, and they used the pick on “Never Nervous” Pervis Ellison of Louisville in 1989. Ellison missed over half his rookie season with injuries and would be injury plagued throughout his career.
The Kings dumped Ellison for two no name players and three picks after one year. They probably wish they’d gone with Shawn Kemp, Glen Rice, Tim Hardaway, Vlade Divac, Clifford Robinson, Mookie Blaylock, Sean Elliott, or any number of other options.
San Antonio Spurs: Tim Duncan (BEST)
Tim Duncan lacked the on-court theatrics, off-court drama, or multi-media presence, and that’s why so many people take his unrelenting, unblemished, and unquestioned dominance for granted. Duncan. He made an incredible 15 All NBA teams and was also recognized as All Defense 15 different times. Duncan’s statistics are the paradigm of consistency and he was called The Big Fundamental for a reason, doing everything right on both ends of the court.
He was the cornerstone of the San Antonio Spurs dynasty that won five NBA championships, and he was Finals MVP for three of them, adding two season MVP awards as well. Tim Duncan never showed much emotion on the court, but maybe that’s because he was just too busy making winning plays.
San Antonio Spurs: Alfredrick Hughes (WORST)
Hughes was the fourteenth pick of the 1985 draft after an excellent career at Loyola Chicago.
He played 12.7 minutes a game for one season before washing out of the league after one season with negative win shares to his name, but he’ll always have those years with Sister Jean and the Ramblers. You have no idea how hard it is to find a bad player in San Antonio’s storied history.
Toronto Raptors: Vince Carter (BEST)
It might’ve ended quite unceremoniously, but more than any other time in franchise history, save for the 2019 NBA Finals, Vince Carter made Toronto the capital of the casual basketball watching universe. The man we once described as “Half Man, Half Amazing” was not only one of the most athletic specimens we’d seen in years, but a heck of a basketball player no less (evidenced by his eight selections to the All-Star game).
But nobody who watched basketball over the past few decades will ever forget his performance in the 2000 NBA Slam Dunk Contest, which remains the greatest singular performance by a player in said contest of all time.
Toronto Raptors: Andrea Bargnani (WORTS)
Just moments after the Toronto Raptors selected the Italian-born Andrea Bargnani with the #1 overall pick of the 2006 NBA Draft, ESPN analyst Jay Bilas offered a rather harrowing assessment of Bargnani’s game: “he does not rebound, he does not post up, he is not physical; he needs to work on his body.”
In other words, Bargnani was a personification of what terrified so many NBA executives from taking players from Europe: he flashed the skill to be a difference-maker when playing on the perimeter, but his overall lack of physicality, and the fact that he was still so young (20 years old) and raw when drafted, made him a rather high-risk roll of the dice.
Utah Jazz: Karl Malone (BEST)
Myopic fans will tell you that Karl Malone never won an NBA title, and probably didn’t really deserve to win the first of his two MVP awards in 1997. But facts are facts: Malone scored 36,928 career points, which is 2nd-most in NBA history, only behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Malone also shares the record for the second-most first team All-NBA selections in the history of the league (tied with Kobe Bryant). “The Mailman” averaged 25 points and 10 rebounds a game over 18 years on the Jazz, and is widely regarded as both one of the greatest power forwards of not just his era, but of any NBA era in general.
Utah Jazz: Trey Burke (WORST)
Alfonso Clark “Trey” Burke III played for two years at the University of Michigan, and was constantly referred to as one of the best — if not the best — players in the nation during his sophomore year in college. In 2013, Burke became the first player to win the college basketball player of the year award and lead his team to the national championship since Ed O’Bannon in 1995.
But college basketball appeared to be the peak of Burke’s career, as he was one of those guys whose game simply couldn’t translate in the NBA. After being dumped by the Utah Jazz (who originally drafted him), Burke has had a couple of forgettable seasons as of late, with the Washington Wizards and New York Knicks.
Washington Wizards: Wes Unseld (BEST)
Wes Unseld played his entire career for the Baltimore/Washington franchise known as the Bullets (at the time). He led the Bullets to the NBA Finals four times in the 70s and helped Washington win its only NBA championship in 1978, in which he was named the Final MVP.
Unseld averaged under 11 points a game for Washington but is their all time leader in rebounds, win shares, and value over replacement player. He loved to get a rebound and make his patented two hand pass to start the fast break and get Washington going.
Washington Wizards: Kwame Brown (WORST)
When Michael Jordan took over the Washington Wizards, fans were inclined to trust his every move, even when he rolled the dice on unproven high schooler Kwame Brown with the number one pick in the 2001 draft.
Brown struggled to catch on in Washington and never found his way in the NBA, going down as one of the biggest draft busts in the history of the NBA. Washington can only hope John Wall’s name doesn’t lead this section in five years with that bloated contract and growing injury list.