The NBA Lottery is 29 years old. It had a stirring debut in 1985 when Patrick Ewing was the first player selected by the New York Knicks. But the hype fell flat when Ewing missed the playoffs his first year. It took him nine years to get to the NBA Finals. He lost to the Houston Rockets. It took Ewing another five years for him to reach the Finals again. He lost again. In the lottery’s second year, the Cleveland Cavaliers chose Brad Daugherty. Brad was an All-American who played at North Carolina, one of the best big men in their history. As a Cleveland Cavalier he averaged 19 points and was an All Star but could not get past Michael Jordan and the Bulls. His career ended because of back issues. In 1988, the Los Angeles Clippers selected Danny Manning from Kansas. 26 games into his rookie year he tore his ACL. His fifth and six years were his best and he was an All Star. But knee injuries continued to plague him. He left the Clippers in 1994 and played for the Hawks, Bucks, Jazz, Mavericks and Pistons.
Since the lottery began only one team has won title(s) with a #1 pick they drafted. The San Antonio Spurs drafted David Robinson in 1987. He did not play until 1989 as he was fulfilling his responsibilities to the U.S. Navy. It would take him 10 years to reach the NBA Finals and to win a title. The Spurs drafted Tim Duncan in 1997 as the #1 pick. That season they had the third worst record in the NBA (20-62) after David Robinson broke his foot and was out for the year. Tim Duncan had been in the NBA two years before winning his first title, the first of four. Tim Duncan is what fans and front office executives point to as the lottery paying for itself. But Tim Duncan and David Robinson were the exception, not the rule.
29 players have been drafted #1 since the lottery began. Only four players have won titles. David Robinson, Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan and Lebron James. Three players drafted #1 appeared in the Finals but lost: Patrick Ewing, Allen Iverson and Dwight Howard. Two players drafted #1 averaged over 25 points a game: Allen Iverson and Lebron James. The rest of the #1 picks have had mediocre careers or careers as role players or were injured.
You can’t get any more ordinary than Kwame Brown. He was selected by the Washington Wizards in 2001. He had intended to go to the University of Florida but changed his mind. The Wizards had the third worst record and Michael Jordan was the team president. Jordan had a choice between Kwame and Tyson Chandler. He based a good part of his decision on a pre-draft workout between the two players. Kwame outperformed Chandler and thus was drafted. His rookie year was abysmal, 4 rebounds for a seven footer, 5 points. The rest of his career would stay true to his rookie form, 6 points, 6 rebounds, 1 assist, 22 minutes a game. He was with the Wizards four years. His last year he went to the playoffs and shot 38%, averaged 5 points and 5 rebounds. Kwame was never an All-Star. He joined the Lakers and then the Grizzlies, Pistons, Bobcats, Warriors and 76ers. For most of his career he was a sorrowful player but for the Wizards he was a wasted pick. They could have chosen Pau Gasol.
Kwame Brown is the extreme, a #1 draft pick who had a woeful career. 65% of the #1 lottery picks become All-Stars. But it never leads their teams anywhere. Part of the difficulty is living up to the pressure of their draft status, created by the media and fans. Fans expect the #1 pick to deliver them somewhere different, to make a difference. Fans often get frustrated when the #1 pick does not live up to what they think he should be. The #1 lottery pick is a 17 point, 8 rebound, 3 assist player- hardly dominant. The thing is fans have it backwards. They expect excellence when excellence is rare. The #1 pick often is overvalued in the first place. Or the draft is weak. The #1 pick in 1998 (Michael Olowokandi) was not the same talent as the #1 pick in 2002 (Yao Ming).
Consider these recent selections. Andrew Bogut was the #1 pick in 2004. He was drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks. He made the playoffs his first year, never made it back to the playoffs with the Bucks, was perpetually injured and traded to the Warriors. Two years later Greg Oden was chosen by the Portland Trailblazers over scoring sensation Kevin Durant. Greg Oden has played in 96 games. He has averaged 9 points and 7 rebounds. Kevin Durant has played in 521 games. He has averaged 27 points and 7 rebounds. Oden, frequently injured, has never played in the playoffs and was not re-signed by the Trailblazers when his rookie contract ended. He signed with the Miami Heat as a free agent but rarely plays. Kevin Durant has been to the NBA Finals.
In 2009 the Los Angeles Clippers selected University of Oklahoma power forward Blake Griffin with the #1 pick. He promptly suffered a knee injury that kept him out of his first season. He has been an All Star and the last two years has made the playoffs. He lost in the first round last year, he lost in the second round two years earlier. You think John Wall would have a more compelling fate? Uh, no. He was selected by the Wizards in 2010. That draft has produced 2 All-Stars. John Wall has never made the playoffs. Kyrie Irving and Anthony Davis, the #1 picks in the years following John Wall have never made the playoffs either, though all three have been All-Stars.
From Mitch Kuphcak to Kobe Bryant to everyone in between, the Lakers repeatedly talk about winning championships, that is their goal. Or that is their identity. You can hardly blame them. In their 66 year history they have missed the playoffs six times. They have been in the lottery twice, in 1994 and in 2005. Here they are again. But the lottery is where teams go to die. The myth is that the lottery makes teams better. But really, many teams are worse. How else do you explain the Sacramento Kings? They have been in the lottery eight years in a row. These are their picks. Spencer Hawes: traded twice, in the playoffs twice. Jason Thompson: never in the playoffs. Tyreke Evans: traded once, never in the playoffs. Demarcus Cousins: never in the playoffs. Bismack Biyambo: traded on draft day, never in the playoffs. Thomas Robinson: traded twice, never in the playoffs. Ben McLemore: drafted this year, future unknown.
But Lakers fans will say, Mitch Kupchak is a quality general manager. We are different than Sacramento. We trust Mitch. Okay then but look at his record in the draft. Since he has taken over Jerry West’s job Mitch has made these picks. Mark Madsen. Brian Cook. Sasha Vujacic. Andrew Bynum. Jordan Farmar. Javaris Crittendon. With the exception of Bynum who the Lakers squeezed out all they could, the rest are adequate role players and an alleged murderer (Crittendon). Only Jordan Farmar is an active player. Only Bynum was an All-Star.
The draft is like driving in the dark. You may get where you want to go. Or you may crash. The best players have been in the weakest drafts. The 1997 draft produced three All-Stars. Tim Duncan was the #1 pick. The 1992 draft produced 5 All-Stars. Shaquille O’Neal was the #1 pick. Conversely, the 1999 draft produced 9 All-Stars. Elton Brand was the #1 pick. There is no such thing as destiny. Projections are just what they say they are but they are not predictions. No one can do that.
Of the 26 #1 lottery picks who have played past their rookie contract, only 7 remained with the team that drafted them. Brad Daugherty. David Robinson. Tim Duncan. Yao Ming. Derrick Rose. Blake Griffin. John Wall. Most #1 draft picks are traded. Most never mark their mark on the league, they are not good enough. Most are plagued by injuries. Thus it is a wasted investment with a huge debt, a disaster of economics. Look at it this way. The last four teams to get the #1 pick, the Wizards, Cavaliers, Hornets, Cavaliers have produced three All-Stars but no playoff appearances.
The greatest draft in NBA History was the 1996 draft. It was the 50th anniversary of the NBA. It produced 10 All-Stars, 4 MVP awards, 13 NBA titles, six scoring champions, one Defensive Player of the Year, two 25+ point scorers. It had the most All-NBA selections than any other draft. It was the Kobe Bryant Draft. The Steve Nash Draft. The Ray Allen Draft. The Derek Fisher Draft. The Stephon Marbury Draft. There were 13 lottery picks in that draft. They averaged 14 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists over their career. The #1 pick in that draft was Allen Iverson, future Hall of Famer. As fitting almost every #1 lottery pick before and after him, Allen’s career arc came to an end with the team that drafted him. He was traded. He was devalued. And of course. He never won a title.