Sports Reference Blog

Three Ways to Mess Up the #1 Pick in the NBA Draft

Posted by Jonah Gardner on June 16, 2016

It's tough to remember, since we're in the middle of the wild, entertaining, and cheap shot filled 2016 NBA Finals, but in just around a week, it'll be time for the 2016 NBA Draft. That's right, we only have to wait until next Thursday to find out if Brandon Ingram or Ben Simmons will be the newest member of the Philadelphia 76ers.

Simply obtaining the number one pick is a huge moment for the 76ers. It'll be the third time in franchise history that the team has selected first overall and the first major decision of the team's new regime, led by GM Bryan Colangelo.

Unfortunately, a dark truth lingers in the background of the NBA Draft, the Lottery, and the debate over the process that brought Philly here: It's very, very easy to screw up the #1 pick. There are the famous busts, of course, but more than that, there's just not that many times that the team with the number one pick in the NBA Draft can look back at what happened and say to themselves "Yup, we'd do that again if we had the chance."

For the purposes of this article, I'm looking at three ways the team picking first can make a mistake. All three involves Win Shares, a metric on that measures a player's overall contributions to his team's success. Here are the three questions I asked for every draft in the lottery era:

  1. Did the player who was taken 1st overall end up being worth under 0.1 Win Shares per 48 Minutes, putting him roughly in the bottom quarter of #1 picks?
  2. Did the player who was taken 2nd overall end up being worth more WS than the player who was drafted first?
  3. Was there another player in the draft, taken at any point, who finished his career with over 100 Win Shares, when the #1 pick didn't?

Number one and two seem pretty clear cut but, as you'll see, number three is a very cruel and unreasonable standard to hold these teams to. But that's the point: the Draft is cruel and unreasonable. If the idea of obtaining a number one pick is to draft a franchise-altering star, then it's fair to consider years where such a player was in the draft, and the team failed to take him, as failures.

By these standards, in 14 out of the 31 drafts since the lottery was instated, the team drafting first overall failed by at least one of these criteria. That's leaving aside two more, which we'll come to at the end, where the jury is still out.

1986 NBA Draft - #1 overall pick: Brad Daugherty (Cleveland Cavaliers). Which Way Did They Screw It Up: 3.

At 65.2 WS, Brad Daugherty had an excellent career, shy of the 71.3 average career WS by a Lottery-era #1 pick but well over the median of 55.1. The tragic story of second overall pick Len Bias looms large over any consideration of 1986, but Daugherty had more win shares for his career than the players drafted 3-5 combined.

But Daugherty is still here, because of a player that nearly every team had at least two chances to draft. Jeff Hornacek, taken 46th, finished his career with 108.9 Win Shares. And he might not even have been the best player taken in the 2nd round that year, as both Mark Price and Dennis Rodman went ahead of Hornacek in Round 2.

Also, an interesting footnote to this pick is that it actually belonged to Philadelphia, who traded it away the day before the draft for the immortal Roy Hinson. It was Philly's to trade because of a deal they made seven years earlier sending Joe Bryant (along with his then 1-year-old son Kobe) to San Diego. The same day Philly traded away this pick, they also traded away Moses Malone. So Philly fans can take some solace in knowing that no matter how things work out this year, it could be much worse.

Anyway, in order to not look back on this draft with disappointment, Cleveland would have had to reach 45 picks down and take a player that, at the time, probably would have made them a laughing stock. Like I said, the Draft is not fair.

1988 NBA Draft - #1 overall pick: Danny Manning (Los Angeles Clippers). Which Way Did They Screw It Up: 2.

Here's a pick that makes this list by the tiniest of margins. While Manning was worth 55.1 Win Shares in his career, the player who went off the board after him, Rik Smits, was worth 56.6, thanks mainly to injuries keeping Danny Manning from meeting his full potential. Classic Clippers, right?

But this illustrates one of the drawbacks to having the number one pick. While the LeBrons and Duncans loom large in our mind, there's not one of those players per year, evenly distributed and waiting to reward the franchise that won the lottery with a decade-plus of championship contention. In fact, Danny Manning's career WS are the median for a number one pick; he's what you can assume you're getting, and anything over that is gravy.

1989 NBA Draft - #1 overall pick: Pervis Ellison (Sacramento Kings). Which Way Did They Screw It Up: 1, 2.

Due to the injuries that kept Pervis Ellison largely out of commission, he retired with 21.8 Win Shares for his career. If J.J. Hickson retired today, he'd have 21.9. In fact, every other player who went in the Top 5 - Danny Ferry, Sean Elliott, Glen Rice, and J.R. Reid - had a better career by WS than Ellison.

1990 NBA Draft - #1 overall pick: Derrick Coleman (New Jersey Nets). Which Way Did They Screw It Up: 2, 3.

Coleman is another example of a player who was a fine pick (64.3 Win Shares). The problem isn't Coleman, it's that the Nets had a shot at Gary Payton and passed on the opportunity. Only four number one picks (Tim Duncan, LeBron James, David Robinson, and Shaquille O'Neal) accumulated more Win Shares in their careers than GP.

1991 NBA Draft - #1 overall pick: Larry Johnson (Charlotte Hornets). Which Way Did They Screw It Up: 3.

Larry Johnson is fondly remembered by fans of both the Hornets and the Knicks, but his injuries cost him the longevity that could have gotten him up to the 100 WS mark. Unfortunately, while LJ fell short (at 69.7 WS), the man taken fourth overall, Dikembe Mutombo, surpassed the mark with room to spare. In contrast to LJ, who was forced to retire at age-31, Mutombo stayed on an NBA roster until he was 42 years old.

While teams subject prospects to an extended battery of medical tests, the fact remains that no one can truly project a player's long-term health. In fact, considering some of the other #1 overall picks who've had their careers shortened by injury, LJ is actually one of the better possible outcomes.

1994 NBA Draft - #1 overall pick: Glenn Robinson (Milwaukee Bucks). Which Way Did They Screw It Up: 2, 3.

This one is, pretty objectively, a disaster for the Bucks. Not only did they end up with a below average #1 pick in Glenn Robinson (39.8 WS), but the next two players who went off the board, Jason Kidd and Grant Hill, were both all-timers. While Kidd was the only one to clear 100 WS, it's clear you'd rather have either man (or, for that matter, number 10 pick Eddie Jones, who finished with 100.6 WS) over Robinson.

1995 NBA Draft - #1 overall pick: Joe Smith (Golden State Warriors). Which Way Did They Screw It Up: 2, 3.

The colorfully named Smith was a safe pick with a solid enough NBA career. He had 60.3 WS, although that was largely a product of his longevity, as his career WS/48 of .107 are on the low end for a #1 pick. But it was a bit less solid than the fellow drafted next, Antonio McDyess, who ended up besting Smith's career by 9 WS. And it was decidedly less solid than the riskier players drafted fourth and fifth that year. Rasheed Wallace and Kevin Garnett combined for almost 300 Win Shares in their career, not to mention a title apiece. The Warriors did OK in a year where there was a lot more to be gained (it worked out for them eventually, though).

1996 NBA Draft - #1 overall pick: Allen Iverson (Philadelphia 76ers). Which Way Did They Screw It Up: 3.

It really feels like a betrayal that my own rules are forcing me to consider this a mistake. He passed the first two tests with flying colors. At .126 WS/48, he was well out of the bottom quarter, even though that mark is somewhat middle-of-the-pack. And despite the fact that the player who went second overall that year, Marcus Camby, had an excellent career in his own right, AI still outpaced him on WS.

The main reason Iverson is here is that 100 Win Shares is kind of an arbitrary number. AI finished with 99 and it feels like splitting hairs to get hung up on that last WS. He also happened to be drafted the same year as three other guards you may have heard of: Kobe Bryant, Ray Allen, and Steve Nash. But it's reasonable to ask whether, say, Kobe would have had the same sort of success on his own in Philly as Iverson or whether Nash would have become Nash removed from the Seven Seconds or Less teams that made him an MVP.

Then there's this: AI's 79.7 WS in Philly were far more than what Kobe and Ray accumulated with the teams that drafted them (Charlotte and Milwaukee) and just a touch under what Nash earned in Phoenix. So, all in all, I think Philly's OK with the choice they made.

1998 NBA Draft - #1 overall pick: Michael Olowokandi (Los Angeles Clippers). Which Way Did They Screw It Up: 1, 2, 3.

The Clippers, on the other hand, are most definitely not OK with the choice they made. They could have had Mike Bibby, the 2nd overall pick, who accumulated a whopping 70.7 more Win Shares (basically Stephen Curry's entire career total thus far) than the man taken before him. They could have had Vince Carter, who went 5th, Dirk Nowitzki, who went 9th, or Paul Pierce, who went 10th, all of whom broke 100 WS. They could have won the lottery the year before, when the top pick was Tim Duncan. Or they could have just reached all the way down and taken the last player drafted, Maceo Baston, and ended up with an almost identical result (2.3 WS).

2001 NBA Draft - #1 overall pick: Kwame Brown (Washington Wizards). Which Way Did They Screw It Up: 1, 2, 3.

Kwame and Olowokandi are the only players who check all three boxes for the list. Unlike Olowokandi, however, Brown did go on to become a decent NBA journeyman, accumulating 20.8 WS, even though most just remember him now for the different ways he alienated MJ and Kobe. Still, Kwame's career pales in comparison the two bigs who went immediately after him: Tyson Chandler and Pau Gasol. In fact, every other member of the Top 6 in 2001 had more WS for their career than Brown.

2005 NBA Draft - #1 overall pick: Andrew Bogut (Milwaukee Bucks). Which Way Did They Screw It Up: 3.

Bogut could end up having the last laugh here since he's one win away from securing his second ring while the man who the Bucks should have taken instead of him, Chris Paul, has famously never escaped the second round. But while Bogut is hardly the bust that Brown/Olowokandi were, he never really developed the sort of offensive game to justify taking him this high. His 49.2 WS just barely edge out the second pick that year, Marvin Williams (48.9), and both players are well below the average production you'd expect from someone taken in those spots.

2006 NBA Draft - #1 overall pick: Andrea Bargnani (Toronto Raptors). Which Way Did They Screw It Up: 1, 2.

As you may have heard, this was what Bryan Colangelo did the last time he had the number one overall pick. At 18.9, Bargnani's career was just a little behind the man taken after him, LaMarcus Aldridge. LMA, now with the Spurs, is well on his way to 100 WS, which would make this another one that hits all three of our criteria.

And yet, the Raptors may not have made the biggest mistake in this draft. Instead, that would go to the Bulls, who drafted Aldridge at 2 and traded him to Portland for Tyrus Thomas, who had a worse career than either LMA or Bargs.

2007 NBA Draft - #1 overall pick: Greg Oden (Portland Trail Blazers). Which Way Did They Screw It Up: 2, 3.

There's no need to relitigate this one. Given the buzz from the time, it seemed like nearly every GM in the league would have taken Oden over Kevin Durant, despite Durant's talent as a scorer and unique frame.

Unfortunately, injuries kept Oden vs Durant from being a debate that could really be settled on the floor, but what if he had stayed healthy? While we can't really project Oden's hypothetical improvement, we do know that when he played, he was worth a surprisingly robust .174 WS/48. At that rate, he would have needed a little over 27,500 MP in order to surpass the 100 WS mark, which is roughly where CP3 is for his career. Of course, Kevin Durant's WS/48 were 0.214 and he's cleared 100 WS while playing 24,208 minutes. Still, this could have turned out really well for Blazers.

2013 NBA Draft - #1 overall pick: Anthony Bennett (Cleveland Cavaliers). Which Way Did They Screw It Up: 1, 2.

It all worked out in the end for Cleveland, thanks to their cunning strategy of being the hometown of the best player in world, but this is one they'd like to have back. Perhaps the more interesting question, as we head into Game 6 of the Finals, is who would have given them a better shot against the Warriors? Given that Cleveland has been better in the series with two bigs, maybe they should have gone with a defensive anchor like Rudy Gobert, who could push Tristan Thompson down to power forward and protect the paint. Or maybe they should have gone the other way, taken Giannis Antetokounmpo and have him and LeBron switching every Stephen Curry/Draymond Green pick and roll.

Question Marks:

2008 NBA Draft - #1 overall pick: Derrick Rose (Chicago Bulls). Which Way Did They Screw It Up: 3?.

In addition to the fourteen players discussed, there are two more who haven't yet met the criteria to make this list, but are worth keeping an eye on. First, there's D-Rose. His .106 WS/48 were slightly above the cutoff, and he had the good fortune of being followed by Michael Beasley, one of the worst #2 picks in the Lottery Era. However, both Chicago and Miami would probably rather have the player who went 4th overall: Russell Westbrook. Given that Westbrook is already at 67 WS, it's likely only a matter of time (barring catastrophe) that he clears the 100 mark.

2014 NBA Draft - #1 overall pick: Andrew Wiggins (Cleveland Cavaliers). Which Way Did They Screw It Up: 1?.

When I first sorted #1 picks by WS/48, I was surprised to see Wiggins third from the bottom, ahead of only Olowokandi and Bennett. There are good reasons for that, like the fact that the team around him was positively woeful his rookie year and still firmly lottery-quality in year two. However, if you look at players with similar WS/48 in their first two seasons, the best case scenario seems to be Metta World Peace or Antoine Walker and, otherwise, there's a lot of names like Thabo Sefolosha or Rudy Gay.

In order to make the most of a lottery win, it takes more than a smart front office, a robust scouting operation, and a meticulously thought-out long-term plan. It takes a giant heap of luck. After what Philly's been through the last few years, let's hope they find some.

Comments are closed.