Side Stories Top 10 NBA Draft Busts

NBA Draft – Territorial Picks Era

Synopsis: Throughout its history, the NBA has relied on an assortment of gimmicks to determine how teams could select new players. Well before the use of lotteries and coin flips, the league gave teams a preferential right to select local players who presumably offered a built-in following. This type of draft exemption ended by the mid-1960s, but not before the rule was applied inconsistently for one player. Wanna take a guess? 


Professional basketball in the United States during the late 1940s resembled the Wild West. In particular, the following leagues competed for players and fans alike.

  • American Basketball League (founded in 1922).
  • National Basketball League (founded in 1937).
  • Basketball Association of America (founded in 1946).
  • Professional Basketball League of America (founded in 1947).

Out of these four, the BAA proved to be the most successful poaching other teams and attracting college players. As a result, it survived and ultimately became the modern-day NBA. Technically, the NBA resulted from a “merger” of the BAA and NBL in 1949. More accurately, however, the BAA absorbed the remaining pieces of the financially troubled NBL. For this reason, the NBA looks back to the formation of the BAA as its official beginning.

The following table provides a summary of franchises during the NBA’s first 20 years. Before skipping over it too quickly, take a look at some of the great teams names such as the Providence Steamrollers, St. Louis Bombers, and Pittsburgh Ironmen. Each deserves consideration for the league’s next nostalgia night.

(# of Teams)
Additions Subtractions
Original Teams from Basketball Association of America (BAA)
Washington Capitols  
Philadelphia (Golden State) Warriors
New York Knicks
Providence Steamrollers
Boston Celtics
Toronto Huskies
Chicago Stags
St. Louis Bombers
Cleveland Rebels
Detroit Falcons
Pittsburgh Ironmen
1 added from American Basketball League (ABL)
4 folded
Baltimore Bullets Toronto Huskies
Cleveland Rebels
Detroit Falcons 
Pittsburgh Ironmen
4 teams added from National Basketball League
Fort Wayne (Detroit) Pistons  
Indianapolis Jets  
Minneapolis (LA) Lakers  
Rochester Royals (Sacramento Kings)  
Creation of NBA after merger with 7 teams from NBL
2 folded
Anderson Packers  
Denver Nuggets Indianapolis Jets
Sheboygan R-words Providence Steamrollers
Syracuse Nationals (Philadelphia 76ers)  
Tri-Cities Blackhawks (Atlanta Hawks)  
Waterloo Hawks  
Indianapolis Olympians  
5 teams folded
  Anderson Packers
  Chicago Stags
  Denver Nuggets
  St. Louis Bombers
  Sheboygan R-words
  Waterloo Hawks
1 team folded
  Indianapolis Olympians
1 team folded
  Baltimore Stags
1 expansion team
Chicago Packers (Washington Wizards)  

To say the least, the early days of the NBA were tenuous. Mostly through the absorption of existing teams, the league added 12 franchises in its first decade. At the same time, 15 teams folded due to financial difficulties. Given the NBA’s new $2.7 billion/year television contract and former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s $2 billion bid for the Clippers last year, the league’s troubles seem like a lifetime ago. Then again, I guess it was.

In order to make in through those tough times, the NBA initially relied more on supporting its teams than ensuring competitive fairness. For instance, it gave teams a territorial priority to take local players. In particular, any NBA team could forfeit its first-round pick in order to select a player who played college basketball within 50 miles of the team’s location. Arguably, the rule had two benefits.

  1. Local teams could be helped by a player with a built-in following.
  2. The player might be enticed to join the league given the opportunity to stay close to “home.”

During the 20 seasons during which the rule allowing territorial picks existed, teams used it a total of 22 times. Not surprisingly, they relied on this exemption to select players who likely wouldn’t have been available based on the original draft order. As the following table shows, the results from these picks varied greatly. Certain teams selected all-time greats such as Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, and Paul Arizin. Others regrettably missed out on all-time greats such as John Havlicek, Hal Greer, and Willis Reed.


Draft Year

Player [1] Win Shares NBA/BAA Team
(Forfeited Pick)
Best Player Available in Original Draft Position (Win Shares) Comparison with Best Player Available
1949 Ed Macauley, HOF 83.4 St. Louis Bombers (#6) Dick McGuire, HOF (50.9)



Vern Mikkelsen, HOF 100.4 Minneapolis Lakers (#11) Jack Coleman (47.7) Very Positive
1950 Paul Arizin, HOF–50 108.8 Philadelphia Warriors (#3) Bob Cousy,  HOF–50 (91.1)



Myer Skoog 14.3 Minneapolis Lakers (#10) George Dempsey  (10.8) Push
1952 Bill Mikvy -1.0 Philadelphia Warriors (#4) Clyde Lovellette (70.6)

Very negative

1953 Ernie Beck 9.0 Philadelphia Warriors (#1) Frank Ramsey (49.2)



Walter Dukes 24.0 New York Knicks (#9) Cliff Hagen, HOF (75.1) Negative
1955 Dick Garmaker 25.6 Minneapolis Lakers (#6) Jack Twyman, HOF (75.0)



Tom Gola, HOF 53.2 Philadelphia Warriors (#3) Jack Twyman, HOF (75.0) Push to slightly negative
1956 Tom Heinsohn, HOF 60.0 Boston Celtics (#7) KC Jones, HOF (38.6)



Guy Rodgers, HOF 33.3 Philadelphia Warriors (#5) Hal Greer, HOF-50 (102.7)


1959 Wilt Chamberlain, HOF-50 247.3 Philadelphia Warriors (#3) Bailey Howell, HOF (114.8)

What do you think?


Bob Ferry 20.2 St. Louis Hawks (#7) Rudy LaRusso (61.4) Negative
1960 Oscar Robertson, HOF–50 189.2 Cincinnati Royals (#1) Oscar Robertson, HOF-50 (189.2)

No difference


Jerry Lucas, HOF-50 98.4 Cincinnati Royals (#6) John Havlicek, HOF-50 (131.7) Push
1962 Dave DeBusschere, HOF–50 60.8 Detroit Pistons (#4) John Havlicek, HOF-50 (131.7)



Tom Thacker -0.6 Cincinnati Royals (#5) Gus Johnson, HOF (35.8) Very negative
1964 Walt Hazzard 0.5 Los Angeles Lakers (#5) Willis Reed, HOF–50 (74.9)

Very negative


George Wilson 30.3 Cincinnati Royals (#8) Willis Reed, HOF-50 (74.9) Negative
1965 Bill Bradley, HOF–50 38.8 New York Knicks (#2) Rich Barry, HOF–50 (93.4)

Slightly negative


Bill Buntin 0.9 Detroit Pistons (#3) Billy Cunningham, HOF (63.2) Very negative
1965 Gail Goodrich, HOF 76.3 Los Angeles Lakers (#8) Dick Van Arsdale (75.2)


[1] HOF implies player elected to Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. HOF-50 implies player also selected as one of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players as part of the league’s 50th Anniversary celebration.

With an average of 57 career win shares, these territorial picks provided twice as much value as could have been expected based on the original draft positions. As such, the net benefit from offering this option to local teams was significant. Not only was the average territorial pick more than twice as productive as the average player taken in the forfeited spot, but also the teams were able to get a player with a built-in following. Whereas the St. Louis Bombers were unable to survive for more than a year after making Ed Macauley one of the first territorial picks, every other team relying on the rule survived. Well, at least they survived long enough to relocate.


Even though Wilt Chamberlain played college basketball at the University of Kansas, the Philadelphia Warriors argued for his territorial rights. In particular, they argued that he attended a nearby high school. For some reason ($$$$), the NBA agreed with the Warriors’ interpretation. If the rule had been applied as written (i.e. only for nearby college players), Chamberlain likely would have ended up with the Cincinnati Royals as the first pick in the 1959 Draft. Then again, Cincinnati took Si Green over Bill Russell as the first overall draft pick in 1956 so who really knows what sort of brain trust made decisions for the team.

Ensuring that they wouldn’t miss out on the third all-time great in five years, the Royals selected University of Cincinnati standout Oscar Robertson as a territorial pick in 1960. Interestingly, the team also had the #1 overall pick so the declaration was redundant. Perhaps, it simply wanted to get the pick out of the way to avoid a creative GM a la Kevin Costner’s character in Draft Day.

I don’t know what was less believable in the movie: the convoluted trades or Costner having a kid with Affleck’s wife. When I saw the promotional pictures, I thought she was playing his daughter.

Imagine if the Cincinnati Royals could have taken Chamberlain in 1959 with their #1 pick and Robertson one year later with a correctly applied territorial pick. The combination of these two all-time greats may have affected the Celtics’ dynasty during the 1960s to the point that Cincinnati might still have a team and both players likely would have had more than three championship titles between them.

Is it possible that the league cared more about creating a contender in Philadelphia instead of Cincinnati? Don’t worry, that was rhetorical.


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