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NBA Draft Busts vs. Worst NBA Draft Picks

SAM BOWIE MAY HAVE BEEN ONE OF THE WORST NBA DRAFT PICKS, BUT HE WASN’T A BUST

Synopsis:  If you’re simply looking for a list of well-known NBA underachievers, this post is the one you’ll want to read. Specifically, I have ranked the ten worst NBA draft picks in history as follows:

#10. Greg Oden (Center) – 105 games / 8.0 ppg / 6.2 rpg / 7.3 win shares

#9.  LaRue Martin (Center) – 271 games / 5.3 ppg / 4.6 rpg / 1.9 win shares

#8.  Dennis Hopson (Shooting Guard) – 334 games / 10.9 ppg / 2.8 rpg / 7.1 win shares

#7.  Hasheem Thabeet (Center) – 224 games / 2.4 ppg / 2.7 rpg / 4.8 win shares

#6.  Kwame Brown (Center) – 607 games / 6.6 ppg / 5.5 rpg / 20.0 win shares

#5.  Todd Fuller (Center) – 225 games / 3.7 ppg / 3.0 rpg / 2.2 win shares

#4.  Jon Koncak  (Center) – 784 games / 4.5 ppg / 4.9 rpg / 29.2 win shares

 Joe Kleine (Center) – 965 games / 4.8 ppg / 4.1 rpg / 19.1 win shares

#3.  Michael Olowokandi (Center) – 500 games / 8.3 ppg / 6.8 rpg / 2.5 win shares

#2.  Darko Milicic (Center) – 468 games / 6.0 ppg / 4.2 rpg / 7.1 win shares

#1.  Sam Bowie (Center) – 511 games / 10.9 ppg / 7.5 rpg / 26.9 win shares

In subsequent posts, I’ll analyze each of these picks and describe why most of them aren’t all-time busts despite their disappointing careers. Hint: the media might have something to do with it.


WORST NBA DRAFT PICKS

As mentioned in several earlier posts, the NBA’s marketing strategy revolves around promoting its best players instead of its best teams. Arguably, that strategy is understandable because basketball can be dominated by one player more than any other team sport. Regardless, even Michael Jordan was unable to win a championship until the Bulls put a decent team around him. While the feel-good NBA story of the year is probably LeBron James’ return to Cleveland, the hype surrounding him has overshadowed other compelling stories, such as the incredible starts to the 2014-15 season for the Warriors (21-3) and Grizzlies (20-4).

When thinking about the media’s coverage of the NBA, I’m reminded of the question, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one’s around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Initially, I scoffed when I heard the question thinking that the obvious answer was, “Yes.” As someone who is older and presumably wiser, I now appreciate the question much more due to the nuances of perception versus reality, as well as the influence that the simple act of measurement can have on the object being measured (perhaps even felicide). There’s no need to spend more time on the discussion here, but hopefully the digression seems more relevant after a couple more questions.

  1. If a tree grows in the forest and someone reports that it fell, did it make a sound?
  2. If an NBA player gets outplayed during his career and the media determines that he’s a bust, should we automatically agree?

Just like Ryan Leaf is often regarded as the biggest draft bust in NFL history, Sam Bowie is often regarded as the biggest draft bust in NBA history. While I agree with that assessment of Leaf, I disagree with the same assessment of Bowie. In particular, Leaf truly had a pathetic NFL career while Bowie had a disappointing, but not a horrendous, NBA career. Still, Bowie presumably earned the distinction simply because he was drafted before Michael Jordan.

WORST NBA DRAFT PICKS – SAM BOWIE

WORST NBA DRAFT PICKS - BOWIE

By that logic, I would have to change the name of this site to something like Top400Busts.com based on the number of “busts” drafted ahead of the following all-time football greats:

HYPOTHETICAL ALL-TIME NFL DRAFT BUSTS / WORST NFL DRAFT PICKS

Player / Draft Pick (Year)

Excluded Hall-of-Famers (Draft Pick)

# of “Busts”

Joe Montana / #82 (1979)

Dan Hampton (#4), Kellen Winslow (#14) 79
Jerry Rice / #16 (1985) Bruce Smith (#1), Chris Doleman (#4)

13

Emmitt Smith / #17 (1990)

Cortez Kennedy (#3) / Junior Seau* (#5) 14
Brett Favre / #32 (1991) None

31

Tom Brady / #199 (2000)

Brian Urlacher* (#9) 197
Aaron Rodgers / #24 (2005) DeMarcus Ware* (#11)

22

* Projected

By simply using the draft picks taken ahead of these all-time greats as the criterion to select all-time busts, I would already have over 350 names. Clearly, that criterion by itself shouldn’t be valid. For some reason, however, it seems to be acceptable for determining NBA draft busts.

HYPOTHETICAL ALL-TIME NBA DRAFT BUSTS / WORST NBA DRAFT PICKS
Rank Player Draft Pick Team
#10 Greg Oden 2007 – 1 POR
#9 LaRue Martin 1972 – 1 POR
#8 Dennis Hopson 1987 – 3 NJN
#7 Hasheem Thabeet 2009 – 2 MEM
#6 Kwame Brown 2001 – 1 WAS
#5 Todd Fuller 1996 – 11 GSW
#4 Jon Koncak / Joe Kleine 1985 – 5/6 ATL / SAC
#3 Michael Olowokandi 1998 – 1 LAC
#2 Darko Milicic 2003 – 2 DET
#1 Sam Bowie 1984 – 2 POR

 

Before beginning my research, I would have guessed that six of these names would make my list of Top 10 Busts. Surprisingly, only one name actually made the cut. They all were disappointments to varying degrees, but only one was worthy of being called a Top 10 Bust. I won’t reveal the lucky winner at this point, so you’ll just have to wait for a future post.

To generate my list, I simply identified the worst players drafted before the most Hall of Famers. In essence, I focused on the NBA’s all-time greats and worked backwards. Most of the league’s legen . . .  wait for it . . .dary players were selected first overall so they can be eliminated because no one was drafted ahead of them. In particular, top overall draft picks have included: Elgin Baylor in 1958; Wilt Chamberlain in 1959; Oscar Robertson in 1960; Elvin Hayes in 1968; Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1969; Magic Johnson in 1979; Shaquille O’Neil in 1992; Tim Duncan in 1997; and LeBron James in 2003.

Second overall picks who were excluded include Jerry West (drafted behind Oscar Robertson in 1960), Bob Pettit (drafted behind Frank Selvy in 1954), and Bill Russell (drafted behind Sihugo Green in 1956).

West’s elimination was straight-forward (i.e. The Big O was better than The Logo), while the other two were eliminated for the following reasons.

WORST NBA DRAFT PICKS: FRANK SELVY AND SIHUGO GREEN? THANKFULLY NOT

WORST NBA DRAFT PICKS FRANK SELVY

WORST NBA DRAFT PICKS - SIHUGO GREEN

  • Prior to 1966, the NBA draft was much different. Early in its history, the NBA relied heavily on strong regional support so it allowed teams to use an exception to take players with a pre-existing local following regardless of draft order. In addition to being able to call “dibs” on certain players, teams often made selections based on local drawing power instead of talent. As such, draft order was not always the best indicator of a player’s predicted potential. Because of this rule, I only looked at drafts after 1965 when evaluating potential busts.
  • Pettit and Russell are the only members of the Hall of Fame passed over from those drafts. As such, Selvy and Green would have tied for 10th with Greg Oden (who was taken ahead of likely Hall of Famer Kevin Durant). Unlike Oden, however, Selvy and Green actually had reasonably productive careers. For instance, Selvy (who might be best known for being the only Division 1 player to score 100 points in a college basketball game) was a two-time NBA All-Star who scored over 6,000 points during his nine-year career. In addition, Green accumulated over 4,600 points, 2,100 rebounds and 1,600 assists during his nine-year career. As further support for their exclusion from the ranking of the all-time worst NBA draft picks, both Selvy and Green had their NBA careers interrupted in order to serve in the U.S. Army. Times certainly were different back then.

The last excluded all-time great was Larry Bird, who was selected by the Boston Celtics as the 6th overall pick in the 1978 Draft. Having announced that he planned to stay at Indiana State for his senior year, Bird didn’t declare for the draft. Regardless, he was eligible because he sat out for a year after transferring from Indiana (the NBA had a “Four and Done” rule back then). Essentially, the Celtics exploited a loop hole, which was closed soon thereafter. Given that the five teams which passed on Bird likely would have taken him if they thought he was available, their picks were eliminated from contention.

By now, you should have identified some of the all-time greats who slipped in the draft behind players who had much less productive careers. In case you’re stuck, the following table should help.

Bottom 10 / Worst NBA Draft Picks
Rank Worst Draft Pick Hall of Famers Passed Over Other Stars Passed Over
#10 Greg Oden Kevin Durant* Mike Conley / Al Horford / Joakim Noah
#9 LaRue Martin Bob McAdoo / Julius Erving Paul Westphal
#8 Dennis Hopson Scottie Pippen / Reggie Miller Kevin Johnson / Marc Jackson
#7 Hasheem Thabeet James Harden* / Steph Curry* Tyreke Evans / DeMar DeRozan
#6 Kwame Brown Pau Gasol* / Tony Parker* Joe Johnson / Zach Randolph
#5 Todd Fuller Kobe Bryant* / Steve Nash* Peja Stojakovic / Jermaine O’Neal
#4 Jon Koncak / Joe Kleine Karl Malone/ Chris Mullin / Joe Dumars Detlef Schrempf / Charles Oakley / AC Green / Terry Porter
#3 Michael Olowokandi Vince Carter* / Dirk Nowitzki* / Paul Pierce* Rashard Lewis
#2 Darko Milicic Carmelo Anthony* / Dwyane Wade* / Chris Bosh*  David West
#1 Sam Bowie Michael Jordan / Charles Barkley / John Stockton Sam Perkins / Otis Thorpe / Kevin Willis

* Projected

As promised, the prior table was based on only one criterion: the worst player(s) selected before the most Hall of Famers. You should note that ties were broken by the aggregate actual or projected value of the passed-over players. For instance, the accomplishments of Jordan, Barkley and Stockton exceed those of Anthony, Wade and Bosh so Bowie ranks higher than Milicic on my list. While I don’t agree with this ranking with respect to determining Top 10 Busts, it should provide an adequate cheat sheet for anyone interested in being conversant on the players generally considered to be the NBA’s all-time busts.

Going back to the beginning of the post, I asked, “If an NBA player gets outplayed during his career and the media determines that he’s a bust, should we automatically agree?”  As if you couldn’t tell by now, I resoundingly say, “No!”

WORST NBA DRAFT PICKS
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