All-time top 30 draft picks by slot
Magic Johnson, the best No. 1 pick, won five titles and helped shape today's NBA
Bill Russell, a prolific champ and leader, is the most important draft pick in history
Celtics players dominate the top of this list -- a nod to Red Auerbach's draft work
Claiming to know the greatest draft pick of all time in each of the top 30 slots is a good way to start an argument. In this case, I leaned toward draft picks who helped create team success. While going through the lists year by year, I was reminded just how difficult it is to find impact players -- even when dealing with a top-three pick. To go through the draft lists over the last six decades is to realize that the likes of Bill Russell and Michael Jordan are rarely discovered.
While researching the draft through a variety of resources, it became clear that different sources defined the older drafts by different means. Territorial picks, which existed through 1965, were the big variable. To quote from the 76ers' media guide: "To enable teams to take advantage of the regional popularity of college stars, they were given the option of forfeiting their first-round picks and instead selecting, before the start of the draft, a player from the franchise's immediate geographical area. These 'territorial picks' are not factored into the overall selection count of the draft."
This makes draft history a bit confusing. For instance, John Havlicek has been referred to as both the seventh and ninth pick of the 1962 draft because of two territorial picks that year. I didn't use territorial picks for this list and thus put Havlicek at No. 7 below.
1. Magic Johnson, Lakers, 1979: A difficult choice among other top picks -- including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O'Neal and Tim Duncan (Oscar Robertson was a territorial pick and LeBron James has a lot more time to improve his body of work and win titles) -- but Magic not only won five championships but also rescued the NBA through his West-East rivalry with Larry Bird. He recast the league as an entertainment company led by likable stars. Would the NBA ever have become so popular without him?
2. Bill Russell, Celtics, 1956: In my book, Russell is the most important draft pick in league history because he instituted the team-first leadership skills that defined success in the NBA and were emulated by Michael Jordan and many other stars thereafter. Because of this pick -- acquired by Red Auerbach in a bold trade that sent All-Star Ed Macauley and future All-Star Cliff Hagan to the St. Louis Hawks -- the Celtics became the most dominant team in sports history, winning 11 of 13 championships around Russell's unprecedented defensive dominance.
3. Michael Jordan, Bulls, 1984: It continues to defy reason that the Trail Blazers passed on Jordan to take center Sam Bowie with the No. 2 pick. (The Rockets used the No. 1 pick on Hakeem Olajuwon, an acceptable decision as he would deliver two championships to Houston.) Jordan became the greatest player of the modern era, and the only basketball player ever to be acknowledged as the most popular athlete in the world.
4. Dave Cowens, Celtics, 1970: The 6-foot-9 Hall of Famer was an undersized center who won all of the meaningful awards (co-Rookie of the Year, MVP, All-NBA and All-Defensive first team) as well as leading Boston to two championships as Russell's unlikely successor.
5. Kevin Garnett, Timberwolves, 1995: Minnesota took an enormous risk in picking Garnett so high -- players without college experience being unproven products in '95 -- and he turned into one of the most influential big men of his era. Scottie Pippen, Dwyane Wade, Walt Frazier, Charles Barkley and Ray Allen were also No. 5 picks, but Garnett's dominance in virtually all phases of the game sets the standard here.
6. Larry Bird, Celtics, 1978: So valuable was Bird that Auerbach drafted him before his final season at Indiana State, exploiting a loophole that has since been closed. When Bird showed up in Boston one year later, he proved that he was worth the wait.
7. John Havlicek, Celtics, 1962: Manu Ginobili is his era's version of Hondo -- a versatile, high-energy swingman so selfless that he doesn't care whether he starts or comes off the bench. Havlicek retired in 1978 with eight championships and he remains the leading scorer in Celtics history.
8. Sam Jones, Celtics, 1957: Originally chosen by the Minneapolis Lakers a year earlier, the 6-4 Jones reentered the draft after military service and became the Celtics' version of Mr. Clutch, hitting huge playoff shots in a 12-year career that included 10 championships. Nineteen years after Jones' selection, the Warriors turned the No. 8 pick into Robert Parish, who also helped deliver championships to Boston.
9. Dirk Nowitzki, Bucks, 1998: In a prearranged draft-night trade that turned into one of the most lopsided deals in history, the Mavericks sent No. 6 pick Robert Traylor to the Bucks for Nowitzki and No. 19 pick Pat Garrity, whom Dallas dealt to Phoenix for Steve Nash. Nowitzki's three-point shooting as a 7-footer transformed the NBA's view of the power forward position. He led the Mavericks to the 2006 NBA Finals and was named league MVP a year later.
10. Paul Pierce, Celtics, 1998: Viewed as a potential top-three pick, Pierce slid to No. 10. He was on the verge of requesting a trade when the Celtics acquired Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to help Pierce win the 2008 championship. Within two seasons, he should surpass Bird as Boston's No. 2 all-time scorer.
11. Reggie Miller, Pacers, 1987: This has been a good slot in which to acquire shooting: Allan Houston, Robert Horry and Kiki Vandeweghe were all No. 11 picks, as was Jamaal Wilkes. But none made a bigger impact on the team that drafted him than Miller, a clutch scorer who matured to set a standard of leadership for the Pacers.
12. Julius Erving, Bucks, 1972: Had Erving signed with Milwaukee, he would have been teammates with Abdul-Jabbar and Robertson; instead, he moved to the ABA, where he won three MVPs and two championships in five seasons before a merger with the NBA shifted him to the 76ers at age 26. More than a creator of highlights, Erving won an MVP award and a championship in 11 years with Philadelphia. But his majestic finishing around the basket set a standard for athletic elegance that remains unmatched.
13. Kobe Bryant, Charlotte Hornets, 1996: The Hornets took him for the Lakers, who traded Vlade Divac to Charlotte in a cap-clearing move that enabled them to sign Shaq that summer. Consider this to be a lucky place to find talent: In 1985, the Jazz drafted "undersized'' power forward Karl Malone at No. 13.
14. Clyde Drexler, Trail Blazers, 1983: He turned out to be the best player in his draft. He lasted to this spot because his Phi Slamma Jamma years in college created the mistaken impression that he was a one-dimensional dunker, but he turned into a skilled and versatile Hall of Fame scorer who helped his former University of Houston teammate Olajuwon win a championship with the Rockets in 1995.
15. Steve Nash, Suns, 1996: A self-made Canadian point guard with one NCAA scholarship offer (from Santa Clara), Nash began his pro career as the Suns' third-string point guard behind Jason Kidd and Kevin Johnson. Phoenix traded him in 1998 to Dallas, where he overcame a rough start to emerge as a star in his fifth NBA season. He then further surprised the Mavericks by blooming into a two-time league MVP after returning to the Suns as a free agent.
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