As discussed in a previous post, Sam Bowie is often highlighted as the biggest bust in NBA history simply because he was drafted ahead of Michael Jordan. While it’s clear that the Trail Blazers made a really bad decision regarding their 2nd overall pick in the 1984 Draft (especially given that Portland also passed up on Hall of Famer Charles Barkley), Bowie was not an all-time bust. In particular, he averaged approximately 11 points and eight rebounds per game during his career. On behalf of all players who achieved at least a minimum threshold of production during their careers and in honor of the most inappropriately maligned player in NBA history, I have created the Sam Bowie Exemption.
Oscar Robertson arguably was one of the top five or ten players in NBA history with extraordinary talent as a scorer, rebounder and passer. As an indication of his all-around ability, he is the only player to have averaged a triple double for an entire season. Less well known, but perhaps even more impressive, was his achievement of averaging double digit points, rebounds and assists over the first five years of his career. As an aside for stat junkies, he was 0.05 rebounds per game away from doing it through his first six seasons. For as incredible as Robertson’s “triple-double season” was, however, it might be overrated. To start, the infrequency of triple doubles today (on average, one occurs every 36 games) skews our perspective of it. Furthermore, the concept didn’t exist until five years after his retirement so the accomplishment was the product of retroactive data mining. If the NBA had recognized the stat in the 1960s, who knows how many triple doubles Robertson would have recorded. Then again, who knows how many other players (e.g. Wilt Chamberlain) would have had as well.
Since quarterbacks are the most important players on a football field, their successes and failures get magnified. In contrast, the performances of players at other positions can get muddled more easily. As the only running back in the countdown, Lawrence Phillips’ failures were too glaring to hide. Unlike most busts who excelled in college but lacked the talent to succeed for the NFL, Phillips had the talent. Unfortunately, his downfall was based completely on an inability to stay on the field because he had severe anger issues off the field. With Ray Rice as a comparison, Phillips was a more talented runner but a much worse person. Depending on what you already know, to the extent you believe that Phillips sabotaged his football career because of some legal problems, then you probably believe that O.J. Simpson sabotaged his broadcasting career because of a disagreement with his ex-wife. In other words, Phillips was one bad dude (and not in a good way). As a talented player who failed miserably in the NFL (and in life), he has been named the #6 NFL Draft Bust.
[Note: Since I first wrote this post in October 2014, Phillips has been charged with first-degree murder for strangling his cellmate while in state prison. So much for thinking he couldn’t sink any lower.]