Who is your team’s best pick in the lottery? How about its worst mistake? ESPN Insider’s Chad Ford and Kevin Pelton share their lists of the best and worst lottery picks by team in the 32 years since the NBA instituted the draft lottery in 1985.
Pelton’s list is based off how players rated in terms of his wins above replacement player (WARP) metric compared to their expected value based on where they were drafted and the overall strength of the draft lottery.
Worst:Jon Koncak, No. 5, 1985
Terry has had a very long and productive career, but Horford has been a bigger impact player. We can both agree that the Hawks drafting Koncak in front of Hall of Famers Chris Mullin, Karl Malone and Joe Dumars was a major mistake.
Best:Paul Pierce, No. 10, 1998
Worst:Ron Mercer, No. 6, 1997
Landing Pierce was lucky for the Celtics. He was widely regarded as a top-three pick before an inexplicable draft-day slide that saw players like Robert Traylor and Larry Hughes go ahead of him.
Kentucky’s Ron Mercer went three spots ahead of Tracy McGrady during the era when picking players straight out of high school (such as McGrady) was considered a big risk. (Note: The most tragic lottery pick in Celtics history is Len Bias, the No. 2 pick in the 1986 draft. His death of a drug overdose the next day shocked the sports world and devastated the franchise.)
Best:Brook Lopez, No. 10, 2008
Worst: Dennis Hopson, No. 3, 1987 (KP), Kerry Kittles, No. 8, 1996 (CF)
He has had a solid NBA career when he has been healthy, but Lopez being the best lottery pick in franchise history tells you something about the Nets’ woes in the draft.
Case in point: The Nets loved Kobe Bryant before the draft, but were worried he wouldn’t play for them and took Kittles instead. That misstep changed the entire course of the franchise. Hopson went two spots ahead of Scottie Pippen in 1987.
Best: Alonzo Mourning, No. 2, 1992 (CF), Kemba Walker, No. 9, 2011 (KP)
Worst: Adam Morrison, No. 3, 2006
Mourning was the first great player in Hornets history, the first rookie to average 20 points and 10 rebounds since David Robinson. However, he spent just three seasons in Charlotte. Walker is coming off his first All-Star appearance and has had a longer impact on the team (the second version of the Hornets).
Morrison? He finished with negative career win shares. While the 2006 draft wasn’t great, Brandon Roy or Rudy Gay would’ve been a significant upgrade.
Best: Scottie Pippen, No. 5, 1987
Worst: Eddy Curry, No. 4, 2001
Would Michael Jordan have won six rings had the Bulls not drafted Pippen in 1987? Jordan’s enormous shadow really has eclipsed what a special and essential player Pippen was in Chicago.
Curry was solid for several seasons, but players such as Shane Battier and Joe Johnson would’ve been much better selections. (It’s worth noting here that ESPN’s Jay Williams was a very talented No. 2 pick who had his Bulls career cut short by a motorcycle accident.)
Best:LeBron James, No. 1, 2003
Worst: Anthony Bennett, No. 1, 2013 (CF)/Vitaly Potapenko, No. 12, 1996 (KP)
Not only is James the best all-time lottery pick for the Cavs, Kevin wrote this week that he’s the best No. 1 pick ever based on his championships added metric.
Bennett, on the other hand? He’s in the running for the worst No. 1 pick ever, albeit in a weak lottery. Potapenko went one spot ahead of Bryant in a loaded 1996 draft.
Best:Dirk Nowitzki, No. 9, 1998
This June will mark 19 years since the Mavericks traded back from No. 6 to No. 9 with the Bucks to draft Nowitzki, and they’re still reaping the benefits.
Walker went just ahead of Hall of Famers Bryant (taken 13th) and Steve Nash (15th), while Jackson represented a drop-off from a top three of Shaquille O’Neal, Mourning and Christian Laettner.
Best:Dikembe Mutombo, No. 4, 1991
Worst:Tony Battie, No. 5, 1997 (KP)/Nikoloz Tskitishvili, No. 5, 2002 (CF)
A four-time Defensive Player of the Year (albeit only one of those four awards coming before he left the Nuggets for the Hawks), Mutombo was inducted in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2015.
Battie had a 14-year career as a journeyman but was taken four picks ahead of Tracy McGrady. Tskitishvili, drafted at the height of the NBA’s infatuation with finding the “next Dirk,” lasted just four years stateside and went four picks ahead of Amar’e Stoudemire.
Best:Andre Drummond, No. 9, 2012
Worst: Darko Milicic, No. 2, 2003
Drummond is still a work in progress, but he’s a freaky athlete who dominates the boards.
Darko was supposed to be the next great international player, but he could never live up to the hype. Had the Pistons taken Chris Bosh (he was their next choice after Darko), they might have extended their title contention for a while.
Best:Stephen Curry, No. 7, 2009
Much to the dismay of ESPN’s Amin Elhassan, the Warriors passed on a trade with the Phoenix Suns when Curry was still on the board. Eight years, two MVPs and one title (and counting) since, Golden State hasn’t looked back.
Best:Yao Ming, No. 1, 2002
Worst: Eddie Griffin, No. 7, 2001
Despite having his career cut short by injuries, Yao still rates as easily the Rockets’ best lottery pick.
On the other end of the spectrum, Houston traded three first-rounders to the New Jersey Nets — one of which was used on Richard Jefferson — to take Griffin in 2001. Alcoholism helped prevent Griffin from taking advantage of his prodigious skills, and more tragically led to Griffin’s death in 2007 when his SUV was struck by a train.
Best: Paul George, No. 10, 2010
Worst:Jonathan Bender, No. 5, 1999
Reggie Miller might be the greatest draft pick the Pacers ever made, but he wasn’t a lottery pick. Back in 1987, the lottery only went seven teams deep. George has always flashed the potential to pass Miller, but a major injury and the possibility that he may leave via free agency have tarnished his legacy a bit.
Bender, a talented player riddled by injuries, went ahead of Shawn Marion, Andre Miller and Rip Hamilton.
Best:Blake Griffin, No. 1, 2009
Worst:Michael Olowokandi, No. 1, 1998
Of the 22 lottery picks the Clippers have made, just one beat expectations based on the pick and draft quality: Griffin, who has overcome injuries to become a cornerstone in L.A.
The Clippers reached to take Olowokandi No. 1 in a lottery that will likely produce three Hall of Famers (Nowitzki, Pierce and Vince Carter).
Best: Kobe Bryant, No. 13, 1996
Worst: No one
The Lakers benefited from Bryant’s desire to play in L.A., which led the Nets to pass on him and allowed the Lakers to trade Vlade Divac for the pick necessary to draft the Hall of Famer.
Since the Lakers have had just six lottery picks and the first three (Bryant, Andrew Bynum and Eddie Jones) all became All-Stars, there is no obvious choice here. We considered Bynum, whose career was cut short by injury, and Brandon Ingram, who posted a highly inefficient rookie season after being picked second overall in 2016, but it’s too early to say for sure about Ingram.
Best:Pau Gasol, No. 3, 2001
Worst: Hasheem Thabeet, No. 2, 2009
The Grizzlies sent Shareef Abdur-Rahim and a pick to the Hawks in exchange for a package headlined by Gasol, who became Memphis’ first All-Star after the team moved from Vancouver.
The 2009 lottery was filled with winning tickets including Curry and James Harden, but the Grizzlies found a losing one in Thabeet, who lasted just 2,357 minutes in the NBA.
Best:Dwyane Wade, No. 5, 2003
Worst:Michael Beasley, No. 2, 2008
Pat Riley spent the day before the draft debating between Maciej Lampe, Kirk Hinrich and Wade before finally deciding to “reach” for Wade at No. 5 — perhaps his best decision ever.
Beasley, on the other hand? He went two spots ahead of Russell Westbrook.
Best: Ray Allen, No. 5, 1996
Worst: Robert Traylor, No. 6, 1998
The Bucks swapped picks with the Timberwolves on draft night in 1996 and got the much better end of the Allen-Stephon Marbury swap. Who knew they were drafting perhaps the greatest shooter of his generation?
Two years later, they blew their chance of being perennial Finals contenders when they traded the draft rights to Nowitzki to the Mavericks for Traylor.
Best: Kevin Garnett, No. 5, 1995
Worst:Wally Szczerbiak, No. 6, 1999 (KP)/Jonny Flynn, No. 6, 2009 (CF)
When the Timberwolves took Garnett out of Chicago’s Farragut Academy, he was the first player drafted directly out of high school in two decades. That choice looks genius after Garnett developed into an MVP.
Flynn was infamously taken a pick ahead of Curry. He was a disastrous fit in Kurt Rambis’ triangle offense and hip surgery hastened his exit from the NBA. Szczerbiak comes out as a worse pick in my analysis solely because of the strength of the 1999 lottery; the next four picks (Hamilton, Miller, Marion and Terry) were all outstanding NBA players.
Best:Chris Paul, No. 4, 2005
Worst: Hilton Armstrong, No. 12, 2006
Paul wasn’t even the first point guard drafted in 2005, going a pick after Deron Williams, and that debate has long since been decided in Paul’s favor.
The 2006 draft was exceptionally weak because it was the first year with the NBA’s new age limit, and Armstrong was one of several nonentities chosen in the lottery.
Best: Patrick Ewing, No. 1, 1985
Worst: Mike Sweetney, No. 9, 2003
The first No. 1 pick of the lottery era was shrouded in conspiracy theories of a frozen or bent envelope and New York bias. He never quite lived up to the hype surrounding him in college, but Ewing was a Knicks superstar for more than a decade.
Sweetney’s potential was overwhelmed by his struggles in keeping his weight under control.
Best: James Harden, No. 3, 2009 (KP)/Gary Payton, No. 2, 1990 (CF)
Kevin’s analysis considers only the Oklahoma City era of this franchise, which means no Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, much less Payton. Still, getting an MVP candidate at No. 3 was a huge success in its own right.
The Thunder haven’t missed badly on a lottery pick, since Aldrich is at least a rotation player. Swift wasn’t that after a torn ACL stalled his development in Seattle.
Best: Shaquille O’Neal, No. 1, 1992
Worst:Michael Doleac, No. 12, 1998 (KP)/Fran Vazquez, No. 11, 2005 (CF)
O’Neal came in at No. 4 on Kevin’s ranking of the greatest No. 1 picks of all time. Though he abandoned the Magic before he could win them a title, O’Neal still is the most recognizable Orlando player ever.
The Magic drafted Vazquez without assurances that he’d ever come to the NBA. When he told them he preferred to finish his career in Europe, it meant they had essentially thrown away a draft pick. Danny Granger went a few picks later.
Worst: Larry Hughes, No. 8, 1998 (CF)/Evan Turner, No. 2, 2010 (KP)
Iverson was a tough player to build around, but he almost single-handedly led the Sixers to an Eastern Conference title in 2001. Iguodala has always been more of a role player, but emerged as the consummate sixth man in Golden State the past few years.
Hughes was solid, but Larry Brown’s decision to take him one spot ahead of Nowitzki and two spots ahead of Pierce should forever haunt him. Turner went ahead of DeMarcus Cousins, George and Hayward.
Best: Shawn Marion, No. 9, 1999
Worst: Armon Gilliam, No. 2, 1987
Besides Nash, taken outside the lottery, the rest of the core of the Suns’ Mike D’Antoni-era contenders was built with No. 9 picks: Marion in 1999 and Stoudemire in 2002, both great choices.
While Gilliam had a better NBA career than the likes of William Bedford and Earl Clark, the expectations were higher for the No. 2 pick in a draft that featured Hall of Famers Pippen and Miller in the top 11, plus All-Stars Kevin Johnson and Horace Grant.
Best:Damian Lillard, No. 6, 2012
Worst: Greg Oden, No. 1, 2007
The Blazers jump-started their rebuilding efforts by trading Gerald Wallace to the Nets for the No. 6 pick in 2012, which they used on Lillard. Wallace is long out of the league, while Lillard has become a star in Portland.
Oden’s knees couldn’t hold up in the NBA, making him one of the great what-ifs in league history.
Best:DeMarcus Cousins, No. 5, 2010
Whatever your feelings about Cousins’ role in the Kings’ instability, he was a great choice a pick after Wesley Johnson and one ahead of Udoh.
Picking in the same spot a year later, the Kings took Robinson ahead of Lillard and Drummond. Kleine was an example of the league overvaluing 7-footers in the 1980s. The next three picks? Mullin, Detlef Schrempf and Charles Oakley.
Best: Tim Duncan, No. 1, 1997
Worst: No one
The Spurs have made just three lottery picks in the past 33 years, testament to how good two of those three were. No. 1 overall picks Duncan and David Robinson collectively anchored San Antonio for more than a quarter-century.
The top candidate for “worst” pick would be Sean Elliott, the No. 3 pick in 1989. But given the quality of his career, he doesn’t really belong on any list of worst picks.
Best: Tracy McGrady, No. 9, 1997
Worst:Rafael Araujo, No. 8, 2004
You could make a strong argument for either McGrady or Bosh here. Both were All-Stars who had their careers cut short by health difficulties. But if you were doing a draft today, I think McGrady would go ahead of Bosh. When he got it going, he was the most lethal scorer in the NBA.
Araujo? He was already almost 24 and now is a poster child for why teams should not draft for need in the lottery. Iguodala was the next pick.
Best: Deron Williams, No. 3, 2005 (KP)/Gordon Hayward, No. 9, 2010 (CF)
While they haven’t made many lottery picks (nine in 33 years), the Jazz’s track record is surprisingly checkered after All-Stars Hayward and Williams — partially because Hall of Famers Malone and John Stockton were both taken outside the lottery. (Kevin concluded recently that Malone is the greatest non-lottery pick since 1985.)
Utah gave up two first-round picks to move up for Burke, who fell out of the Wizards’ rotation this season. Exum still has plenty of time to move out of this spot, particularly because he lost a season to a knee injury, but so far Marcus Smart and Elfrid Payton have been far more productive.
Best:John Wall, No. 1, 2010 (CF)/Rasheed Wallace, No. 4, 1995 (KP)
Worst: Kwame Brown, No. 1, 2001 (CF)/Calbert Cheaney, No. 6, 1993 (KP)
The Wizards don’t have a great track record in the lottery but Wall has become an elite guard with several peak years ahead of him. Wallace had the better career overall statistically, but spent only one season with the Wizards and was a mercurial figure.
Brown is one of the worst No. 1 picks of all time. Pau Gasol went two spots later. Cheaney went ahead of All-Stars such as Vin Baker and Allan Houston and finished with negative career WARP.