The NBA Playoffs are in full swing, but for some the NBA Lottery is more important. Those of us unfortunate enough to have a favorite team headed to the lottery are already looking to the NBA Draft Lottery and what player could change our franchise’s future. Most experts believe there are only two real options as the #1 pick: Duke’s Freshman Brandon Ingram and LSU’s Freshman Ben Simmons. The 76ers have been tanking for three seasons to put themselves in the position to land the first pick. The Lakers tanked in the form of Kobe’s farewell tour. The Nets looked like they were tanking (though they may have been trying and just been really bad). The Suns looked promising, but the wheels fell off before they cashed it in on the season. Every season there are teams banking on winning the Lottery and saving their franchise, but what are the odds of landing that franchise changing #1 pick? Here’s the breakdown.
In the last 36 NBA Drafts (1980-2015), the #1 pick has the same chance of making the Hall of Fame (8 in 36) as they are of never making an All-Star Team (giving Wiggins and Towns the benefit of the doubt). The eight number one picks that never panned out with even a single All-Star appearance were Anthony Bennett, Greg Oden, Andrea Bargnani, Andrew Bogut, Kwame Brown, Michael Olowokandi, Joe Smith, and Pervis Ellison. While Bargnani and Bogut have had decent careers, all of these players have to rank among the worst picks in NBA history. Now the number of Hall of Famers picked #1 is sure to go up because of Tim Duncan and Lebron James, and it may be a little early to tell on Dwight Howard, Blake Griffin, Anthony Davis, Kyrie Irving, Wiggins, and Towns. Regardless, the chances of drafting a player never to make a single All-Star Team is double the chance of a team landing a player that will win a championship in your uniform. Only Tim Duncan, David Robinson, Hakeem Olajuwon, and James Worthy were drafted by the team they won a championship with. Obviously Lebron and Shaq both won multiple titles, but not for the teams that drafted them. Glenn Robinson also won a title sitting on the bench for the Spurs. 17 of 36, almost half of all #1 picks, made two or fewer All-Star Teams and more #1’s never made an All-Star Team (8) than won an MVP (7).
Interestingly, if your team is going to make a mistake on a #1 pick, it seems more likely it will be on a big man. Outside of the last 3 NBA drafts (where it is unfair to count Bennett, Wiggins, and Towns among those never make an All-Star Team), the only players not to make an All-Star Team are Greg Oden (7’0″), Andrea Bargnani (7’0″), Andrew Bogut (7’0″), Kwame Brown (6’11”), Michael Olowokandi (7’0″), Joe Smith (6’10”), and Pervis Ellison (6’9″). In fact, when a team does like a Guard well enough to draft him #1 overall, it tends to work out well. Kyrie Irving, John Wall, Derrick Rose, and Allen Iverson are the only four Guards drafted #1 overall since 1980. All of them have made multiple All-Star appearances, Iverson is now in the Hall of Fame, and Rose became the league’s youngest ever MVP. Not a lot of wings get taken #1 overall with only Lebron James, Andrew Wiggins, Glenn Robinson, and Mark Aguirre.
Without a doubt, the Spurs have been the winner of the NBA Draft. With their only two #1’s they landed David Robinson and Tim Duncan. Both stayed with the Spurs for their entire careers and won MVPs and multiple championships. The Rockets also landed two Hall of Famers in Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon in back-to-back drafts. Had injuries not derailed Sampson’s career that could have been quite the duo for more than just the couple of seasons they had. The Cavs have picked first more than any other team and with mixed results: Brad Daugherty, Lebron James, Kyrie Irving, Anthony Bennett, and Andrew Wiggins. Bennett flopped and Wiggins never played a game for Cleveland. The Clippers have been the worst at drafting #1. With their three top picks, they chose Danny Manning, Michael Olowokandi, and Blake Griffin. Two of those three flopped hard (Manning at least partially due to injuries) and even though Griffin has been excellent he has not been able to make it past the 2nd round of the Playoffs.
Several years ago, NBA scouts stopped picking players based on college careers and based it more on NBA upside. Danny Manning, Pervis Ellison, Glenn Robinson, Joe Smith, Kenyon Martin, Andrew Bogut, and Greg Oden all had All-American or Player of the Year performances in college, but it did not translate into a dominant pro career. If you go beyond #1 picks you will find players like Jimmer Fredette, Adam Morrison, Michael Beasley, Don McLean, Danny Ferry, Bo Kimble, and Ed O’Bannon that lit up the college game, but never really panned out in the NBA. On the other hand, #1’s Karl-Anthony Towns, Kyrie Irving, Lebron James, and Dwight Howard played little or no college basketball and all have fared much better in the NBA than those highly accomplished collegiate players.
And then there is Anthony Bennett, Without a doubt the worst #1 Draft Pick in NBA history. He was not a high achieving one-and-done All-American like Derrick Rose or John Wall, He was not a freakish athlete with extreme upside like Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Davis, or Blake Griffin, and he was not a seven-footer worth gambling on that at a minimum would clog-up the middle on defense like Andrew Bogut or Yao Ming. Bennett was an undersized Power Forward who wasn’t good enough to stay on the floor for terrible teams. After getting traded to his third team in three seasons, he and his grand total of 543 points (on 38.8% shooting) were waived by Toronto. He is currently not on an NBA roster, after less than 3 seasons in the league. In the Cavs’ defense, that may have been one of the worst draft classes ever. No player in that draft has made an All-Star Team in his first three seasons and only Michael Carter-Williams, Victor Oladipo, C.J. McCollum, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Rudy Gobert have experienced even a decent degree of success.
The Draft Lottery is an exciting time, but if your team doesn’t land the top spot, don’t worry. The key to the NBA Draft is not where you pick, but who you pick. Jordan fell to #3, KG to #5, Curry to #7, Dirk to #9, Paul George to #10, Kobe and the Mailman fell to #13, Kawhi Leonard and Steve Nash to #15, Stockton to #16, Tony Parker to #28, Draymond Green and Paul Millsap were 2nd rounders. There is plenty of talent to find to help your team. The tough part is determining if Brandon Ingram is the next Kevin Durant or the next Stacey Augmon and whether Ben Simmons is the next Lebron James or the next Billy Owens.