Congratulations, your team has the #1 pick in the draft. You’re on top of the world. You’re giving strangers nicknames, wearing sunglasses indoors, ordering guac when you know it costs extra. You have it all. After a season (or likely many) seasons of futility, the clouds have parted, the rain has stopped and there’s a bright future ahead.
At least that’s what you want (have) to believe, right?
So, what are fans to do when their team is about to be on the clock first? It’s important to recognize three tiers of how this can go:
- Best of the Best – the players taken #1 you hope your team’s pick will become
- Worst in Show – the players you dread your top pick ends up like
- Mean Men – the players who represent the average performance of top picks
It’s these Mean Men who are the most interesting as they represent the floor for fans’ hopes with the #1 pick. If your team’s top pick performs at that level, then you really can’t complain too much.
Sure, you want the transcendent talent, but it’s still a positive if your top pick doesn’t appear in articles listing the biggest bust #1’s of all-time.
We have covered NFL QBs taken #1 and MLB #1 picks, but now we shift focus to the NBA Draft. For this, we’ll be using Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) stat from Basketball-Reference. And we’re looking at drafts from 1980 (when the NBA Draft was first televised) to 2010.
Best of the Best
- LeBron James (2003 #1 pick, 136.1 VORP, 4 MVPs, 16x All-NBA, 4 Championship Rings)
- Tim Duncan (1997 #1 pick, 91.1 VORP, 2 MVPs, 15x All-NBA, 5 Championship Rings)
To confirm, LeBron James still plays in the NBA so these numbers are all likely to go up (and probably will this season). And LeBron is the prototypical dream #1 pick. The guy who changes everything for your franchise and makes anything seem possible. Duncan being behind James 40+ in VORP also makes LeBron’s career look even more ridiculous considering Timmy is also an all-time top 10 player.
The tier of players right after these two is also crazy impressive with David Robinson (1987 #1 pick, 82 VORP, 1 MVP, 10x All-NBA, 2 Championship Rings), Shaquille O’Neal (1992 #1 pick, 75.5 VORP, 1 MVP, 14x All-NBA, 4 Championship Rings) and Hakeem Olajuwon (1984 #1 pick, 74.4 VORP, 1 MVP, 12x All-NBA, 2 Championship Rings).
Worst in Show
- Michael Olowokandi (1998 #1 pick, -8.5 VORP, 500 career games)
- Kwame Brown (2001 #1 pick, -1.3 VORP, 607 career games)
Olowokandi certainly wasn’t what Clippers fans hoped for from the top pick. However, he did take advantage of playing for an LA-based team and appeared as “Leron” in National Lampoon’s feature film “Van Wilder”. Brown was apparently Michael Jordan’s #1 choice for who he wanted the Wizards to pick, and the main positive from Kwame’s Wizards run is MJ never made him cry.
The average VORP for a #1 pick from 1980-2010 = 31. And the Mean Men are…
- Blake Griffin (2009 #1 pick, 31.7 VORP, 5x All-NBA)
- James Worthy (1982 #1 pick, 29.2 VORP, Hall of Famer, 2x All-NBA, 3 Championship Rings)
What makes this more difficult to swallow than other sports is how important one player can be to your Championship hopes. Griffin was very good (he is still active, but nowhere near the player he was) and yet was not close to the level of leading his team to a Championship. Griffin’s Clippers never even made it to the Western Conference Finals despite having Chris Paul as well. Worthy did win multiple rings, but he had two all-time top ~5 teammates in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson.
The point is even if your NBA team gets that #1 pick, your hopes for a Championship need to focus on who else can be added to the roster vs. expecting franchise savior ready to do it by himself.
While the #1 pick is exciting and promising, it’s very far from a guaranteed step on the path to a championship, or even winning seasons. The top pick might be a generational Hall of Famer, and it could be a guy who’s out of the league in a few years and appears on “Biggest Busts Ever” lists forever. Join us for the final installment of this series when we look into the top picks in recent NHL Drafts.
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