Top 5 NBA Draft Mistakes
There is a certain level of buzz coming out of Charlotte right now that the Bobcats might be considering selecting Harrison Barnes with the second overall pick in next Thursday’s draft, partly because he’s a top-five talent, but mostly because he’s marketable as an in-state college star that could, in theory, help to rejuvenate a franchise.
That, of course, would be an egregious mistake for the Bobcats from a basketball standpoint, particularly because Thomas Robinson looks like the biggest potential star available to them at #2, and even Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Bradley Beal appear primed for a higher level of NBA stardom than Barnes.
In any event, I saw Barnes listed at #2 in a mock draft online, and all I could think was, “Man, that just isn’t the right choice.” From there, I naturally started thinking about some of the other poor drafting decisions in league history, and that’s where the idea for this Top 5 was birthed. The following list examines the most notorious incidents of passing up on future superstars for players who just never lived up to their draft positions.
For the purpose of this list, I’d like to note that I only listed players who might have realistically been selected in that position instead of the guy who actually got picked. For example, if Jared Sullinger ends up an All-Star six years from now and Harrison Barnes flames out in Charlotte, I won’t be complaining that the Bobcats didn’t take Sullinger, because he was never in the conversation. If Robinson or Beal or Kidd-Gilchrist blow up and Barnes busts, however, that’s a different story.
All that said, here they are, in descending order—the five biggest draft mistakes in NBA history:
In 1981, Dallas selects Mark Aguirre (#1) over Isiah Thomas (#2) – The funny thing here is that these two ended up teammates just in time to win two championships together in the late ‘80s, but even though Aguirre was a three-time All-Star, he was no Isiah Thomas. The Mavericks could’ve built a franchise around him; they obviously couldn’t with Aguirre.
In 2008, Minnesota selects O.J. Mayo (#3, traded to Memphis) over Russell Westbrook (#4) and Kevin Love (#5) – Not completely unforgiveable because Mayo is no slouch. But he’s also nowhere near the superstar Westbrook and Love have become so quickly in their own careers.
In 2001, Washington selects Kwame Brown (#1) over Tyson Chandler (#2) and Pau Gasol (#3) – It took Tyson Chandler a while to come into his own as a pro, so it’s not like there were even immediate NBA results to show he was the better pick. Gasol, however, was a good pro right away. That obviously would’ve been the smarter pick for Michael Jordan and the Wizards.
In 1998, L.A. Clippers select Michael Olowokandi (#1) over Mike Bibby (#2), Antawn Jamison (#4), and Vince Carter (#5) – At the time, Bibby was probably the only guy who could’ve seriously warranted the #1 pick, but considering what a bust the Kandi-Man was, Bibby would’ve easily been a more helpful selection for the Clippers.
In 1985, Sacramento selects Joe Kleine (#6) over Chris Mullin (#7), Detlef Schrempf (#8), and Charles Oakley (#9) – Unlike those situations where several teams pass up on one good player, here we have an instance of several teams getting good players after a painfully average one was selected. Mullin could’ve easily been a King, but Schrempf or Oakley wouldn’t have been so bad, either.
In 1997, five teams pick players before Toronto selected Tracy McGrady (#9), including Antonio Daniels (Vancouver, #4), Tony Battie (Denver, #5), Ron Mercer (Boston, #6), Tim Thomas (New Jersey, #7), and Adonal Foyle (Golden State, #8) – McGrady showed enough promise leading up to the draft to warrant a higher pick than #9, and clearly several teams regretted not taking the gamble on the prep star.
In 1991, Sacramento selects Billy Owens (#3) over Dikembe Mutombo (#4) – One of the greatest defensive players in league history, or a guy who averaged 11.7 points and 6.7 rebounds for his career? Seems like an obvious choice in retrospect, but that’s sort of the theme with this article, isn’t it?
In 1987, New Jersey selects Dennis Hopson (#3) over Scottie Pippen (#5) and Kevin Johnson (#7) – Hopson averaged 29 points as a senior at Ohio State, but Pippen obviously proved to be a much better NBA player. Not that they would’ve been selected third, but Reggie Miller, Mark Jackson and Horace Grant were all available for the third pick in that draft, as well.
In 1983, Kansas City selects Ennis Whatley (#13) over Clyde Drexler (#14) – The Kings must have thought they were doing the right thing taking Whatley at #13, but instead of getting a Hall of Famer in Drexler, they ended up with a journeyman who played for seven different teams (and the Kings were never one of them, by the way). Wheatley even spent some of his “prime” years playing in the Philippines. That late in the draft, it’s obviously going to be hit or miss, but that’s a miss that stings pretty badly.
In 2009, Memphis selects Hasheem Thabeet (#2) over James Harden (#3) and Ricky Rubio (#5) – Until a few weeks before the draft, Rubio had been projected as the #2 pick for almost an entire year. He didn’t want to play in Memphis, but Memphis should have drafted him anyway. Harden, of course, has turned out to be the best player of the three, even though he never really was much of a consideration for the second pick.
In 1978, five teams pass on Larry Bird (#6), including Portland (Mychal Thompson, #1), Kansas City (Phil Ford, #2), Indiana (Rick Robey, #3), New York (Michael Ray Richarson, #4), and Golden State (Purvis Short, #5) – Of all these, Thompson had the most respectable career other than Bird, but nobody else taken before Larry Legend came anywhere near the Hall of Fame career he put together. Indiana at #3, for example, would’ve seemed like an ideal landing spot for the Indiana boy, but the fact that no one knew whether or not Bird would play his senior season turned a few teams off. Turns out he took Indiana State to the NCAA Championship in1979, signed with Boston shortly thereafter and the rest is history.
THE TOP FIVE:
#5 – In 2005, Atlanta selects Marvin Williams (#2) over Deron Williams (#3) and Chris Paul (#4) – This one still stings Hawks fans, particularly because Atlanta made this pick at the time with a gaping hole at point guard. Taking Paul seemed like a no-brainer then, and it’s even more of one now. Williams obviously would’ve been a better pick, as well, but just taking any point guard would’ve been the practical decision. Instead, they took the kid who didn’t even start for his college team, and Marvin has been average at best.
#4 – In 2007, Portland selects Greg Oden (#1) over Kevin Durant (#2) –Durant is one of the two best players in the league right now at 23 years old, and Oden is not only not on an NBA roster at the moment, but he hasn’t played a single game since 2009. Portland never really wavered on who they’d take with that #1 pick, but the media sure debated it in the weeks leading up to the draft. Turns out all those folks who said they should’ve taken Durant were right.
#3 – In 1996, twelve teams pass on Kobe Bryant (Charlotte, #13), including Cleveland (Vitaly Potapenko at #12), Golden State (Todd Fuller at #11), and perhaps most notably, New Jersey (Kerry Kittles, #8) – It’s easy to look at the two picks before Kobe was finally selected and shake your head, but it’s that Kittles pick at #8 that hurts the most because John Calipari, head coach of the Nets at the time, really did want to take Bryant with that eighth pick. Arn Tellum, Kobe’s agent, reportedly told Coach Cal that Kobe would never play in Jersey, that he’d do pro ball in Italy if the Nets drafted him. So he was scared into passing up on one of the ten best NBA players of all time for the guy who wore one sock up and one sock down at Villanova. It doesn’t seem fair, does it?
#2 – In 2003, Detroit selects Darko Milicic (#2) over Carmelo Anthony (#3), Chris Bosh (#4), and Dwyane Wade (#5) – I want to start this by saying that Bosh and Wade were never serious considerations to be selected with the second overall pick, but they still get to be mentioned here because picks 3-5 ended up being so much better than Milicic that it’s comical. Anthony was the second-best prospect in ‘03, but Detroit talked themselves out of it because Tayshaun Prince had come on so strong early in his career. They didn’t want to take another small forward, so they went big. Going big, in this case at least, was the wrong choice.
#1 – In 1984, Portland selects Sam Bowie (#2) over Michael Jordan (#3) – The ’84 Blazers were another team that wanted to go big, particularly because they’d already gotten Clyde Drexler the year before. You really can’t blame them for thinking they were set with a guy who would, in fact, become a Hall of Fame shooting guard someday, but Jordan was so clearly better than Sam Bowie that you’d have thought they’d find a way to make the two mesh. At the very least, they could’ve drafted Jordan and perhaps found a trade for Drexler. However you look at it, Bowie was a huge NBA bust, and MJ was the greatest player ever to lace up. Draft mistakes don’t get much worse than that.
While it’s possible that somebody from the 2012 NBA Draft finds himself on a later iteration of this list, the fact is we just don’t know yet what kind of pro someone like Harrison Barnes will be. Maybe he’ll end up the best player of them all, better even than Anthony Davis. That probably won’t be the case, but the unpredictability of the draft is part of what makes it so fun. It’s a gamble, and every year teams make picks hoping they bet well.
Or, at the very least, they leave hoping they didn’t blow it.
What other teams and players deserve to be mentioned here? Are there other stars who got passed up for lesser talents who deserve a shout-out? If so, add your two cents in the comments section, and stay plugged into HOOPSWORLD for all the latest draft chatter as we close in on June 28th.