NBA AM: Picking First is Never Easy

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With the NBA Draft Combine under two weeks away, really serious and in-depth coverage of this year’s event is about to ramp up considerably, especially now that the NFL Draft is done and out of the way.

The 2016 NBA Draft looks like it’s shaping up to be one of those where the team picking first overall (whoever that may be) will have a difficult decision to make between the season-long favorite in Ben Simmons or the somewhat surprising upstart Brandon Ingram.

The debate about which player should ultimately be the top overall selection has already been written about repeatedly, so there’s no point in rehashing that here. What does matter is that there’s a real debate at all. This isn’t one of those drafts where there’s a clear-cut generational talent ripe for the plucking. For example, 1997 was The Tim Duncan Draft, and 2003 was The LeBron James Draft. Those top overall selections were all sewed up months before David Stern called either guy’s name.

What really makes for an interesting draft season is when there’s a real debate, and there have been plenty of times over the course of the last 25 years in which it wasn’t always clear who would be the top overall selection, oftentimes until the name was actually called on draft night.

Here’s a look at some of the biggest debates for that No. 1 pick from the last 25 years, all of which should do nothing to answer the question of whether Simmons or Ingram should be this year’s top pick. As we’ll see, making the right selection is seldom that easy.

2013 – Anthony Bennett/Nerlens Noel/Alex Len/Victor Oladipo – In one of the muddiest conversations in recent history regarding a top overall selection, Cleveland ended up taking the worst possible player, but as with all of these picks hindsight is 20/20. Still, the Cavaliers came into the draft needing a big guy to go with Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters and actually gave serious consideration to Len with that top pick before ultimately deciding to take a huge risk on Bennett at No. 1. Oladipo reportedly was the top prospect on a lot of teams’ big board, but he didn’t fill a need for the Cavs with so many equally talented big men available at that spot. Noel was thought to be the sure-thing top pick for most of that year until things got more confuseint closer to the draft; without his ACL injury, he very well may have been the guy. Instead, Cleveland made arguably the worst No. 1 overall selection in league history. At least they didn’t pass up on any All-NBA First-Team players to make such an egregious error.

2008 – Derrick Rose/Michael Beasley – When Chicago ended up with the No. 1 overall selection, it became clear pretty quickly that they would be taking the hometown star Rose. But before the lottery (and even for a couple of weeks after), the “Rose or Beasley?” articles were ubiquitous on the internet. Chicago needed help at both spots, needing a competent point guard and more consistent frontcourt scoring, so either player would have made sense. Both guys also left college playing at an elite level, so there was a real debate there for a while. Ultimately, Chicago picked the young man whom they felt like had the stronger character and ties to the city, and it proved the wiser choice. Rose would be an MVP within three years while Beasley would struggle just to find minutes in Miami and subsequently bounce around the NBA.

2007 – Greg Oden/Kevin Durant – While Oden proved to be the most painful incorrect No. 1 draft choice in recent NBA history, Portland really did (understandably) struggle in making this selection. On the one hand, they had a gaping hole at small forward and Durant came into the NBA as one of the most freakishly gifted offensive players the college game had ever seen. But then there was Oden, a defensive Monet they saw as a perfect complement to the emerging LaMarcus Aldridge. Many called Oden the best big man prospect since Tim Duncan and while they weren’t wrong, his health derailed what could have been a massively impressive career as a defender. We know what the right answer would have been here, but Portland erred on the side of size. One would assume they’d learn something from erring on the side of size in drafting Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan in 1984, but not all of history’s wrongs get righted.

2004 – Dwight Howard/Emeka Okafor – This was a classic case of drafting for floor versus drafting for ceiling, and it very likely has served as a blueprint for other executives in the years since this was the epitome of taking a chance on a raw blue-chipper over an established college star. More often than not, it has been those athletic, burgeoning prospects who have formed into the league’s biggest stars – Howard included – but at the time that school of belief hadn’t shifted yet. Okafor had just wrapped up a stellar Final Four tournament, winning Most Outstanding Player to go with all of his other NCAA accolades including First-Team All-American and the Co-National Player of the Year. Howard, meanwhile, had all the athleticism in the world and a still-growing frame (he measured at 6’9 at the combine that year). Unproven? Sure, but Orlando went with the possibility that he’d blossom into a superstar (he would), while Okafor never quite figured out how to dominate in the pros like he did at UConn.

2002 – Yao Ming/Jay Williams – On the one hand, Yao always had an edge as the No. 1 pick in this draft, because 7’5 centers with a skill set like his just don’t come around very often. But there was Williams, easily the best American player in the draft that year, who many thought was just as good and was at least a more known commodity. That presented some considerable debate about the top pick in the weeks leading up to the draft. Chicago, who ended up taking Williams second overall, legitimately planned for the possibility of taking either player, believing that Yao really could fall to them. Houston, though, read the tea leaves not only in terms of Yao’s talent but his marketing potential, and while he didn’t have a particularly long or overly-prosperous career, he still was a smash hit for the Rockets in terms of worldwide popularity. Williams, meanwhile, found himself the victim of an unfortunate motorcycle accident following his rookie year, which forced him out of the NBA forever. However short Yao’s career was, it wasn’t as short as Williams’ time in the league.

2001 – Kwame Brown/Tyson Chandler – According to SI’s Ian Thomsen, Michael Jordan, then in charge of the Wizards’ front office, had Brown and Chandler in for a workout together and let the two face off against one another in a game of one-on-one. Jordan, ever the competitor, told them that whoever won the game would be first in line to be made the top pick in the draft that year. Brown, who had 15 pounds on a rail-thin, younger version of Chandler, apparently won the match handily. Then, he walked over to MJ and said, “If you draft me first, I’ll never disappoint you.” Well, that convinced Jordan, who grew disappointed almost immediately. Chandler (or Pau Gasol or Jason Richardson or Shane Battier or even Eddy Curry) would have been the better choice at No. 1, but Brown’s failure turned teams off to gambling on high school players for some time to follow. In fact, his failure almost certainly played a role in pushing through the one-and-done rule that forces kids to attend at least a year of college before declaring for the NBA Draft.

1998 – Michael Olowokandi/Mike Bibby – For weeks leading up to the 1998 NBA Draft, the general consensus was that standout Arizona guard Mike Bibby would be made the first overall pick by the L.A. Clippers because the team did need a point guard at the time. But they also needed a franchise big man, preferably a seven-footer, which in the ‘90s was a much more in-demand wish-list item than it is today. “True seven-footers” were a lot harder to track down than talented point guards, so L.A. found itself leaning more toward Olowokandi, which may very well have been the crown jewel of the Clippers’ pre-2000s mediocrity. Few No. 1 picks in league history have been quite so disappointing.

Of course, all of this is easy to see in retrospect. We know that Oden and Brown and Olowokandi were the wrong choices, and that Rose and Yao and Howard were the right ones. The point, though, is that at the time these were debates every bit as real as the one we’re currently having about Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram. Who will end up on the right and wrong side of this conversation in five or 10 years? That, as always, is a very good question.