Since the advent of the draft lottery in 1985, 19 different teams have had the opportunity to pick first on draft night. Here’s a list of all of them, with a short recap of draftees, and better alternatives on the table, if there were any.
Golden State Warriors (’95)
The Warriors took Joe Smith number one in the 1995 NBA draft, a move which from today’s perspective looks absurd, especially when you know that none other than Kevin Garnett was up for the taking. Smith had a long NBA career but hasn’t left any significant mark in the league, being a good NBA player at the peak of his powers.
Houston Rockets (’02)
Yao Ming was selected first overall by the Rockets in the 2002 NBA draft. The Great Wall had a Hall of Fame-worthy NBA career; as he made the All-Star Team in each season, he saw the court. Ming averaged 19 points and 9.2 in eight years he spent in the league but unfortunately made the list of NBA stars who couldn’t stay healthy long enough to maximize his talents on the court.
Minnesota Timberwolves (’15)
So far, it seems that the T-Wolves weren’t wrong when they picked Karl-Anthony Towns first overall in the 2015 NBA draft. KAT won the Rookie of the Year and is already a 2x All-Star. The trajectory his on, it seems he’s going to have a great professional career. The question is, how long before his team starts winning?
New York Knicks (’85)
The New York Knicks were awarded the first pick in 1985, the first time the lottery was used to determine the draft order. They selected Patrick Ewing from Georgetown University, with theories about NBA commissioner David Stern conspiring to rig the lottery to ensure the Knicks land Big Pat. They could’ve picked Karl Malone and stopped the whole thing from developing. However, it’s hard to argue against the pick of Ewing. You can’t go wrong with a Hall of Famer.
Phoenix Suns (’18)
It’s been two years since the Phoenix Suns drafted Arizona’s Deandre Ayton. And while big-man is having a good NBA campaign, it’s almost certain that the best player of the draft crown will go to Slovenian Luka Dončić. Not saying that Ayton will be called a bust, but it surely seems they were better options to go for. Even Trae Young seems like is going to have a better NBA run. We’ll have to wait and see. Suns’ fans are hoping that their only number one selection didn’t go to waste.
Portland Trail Blazers (’07)
The Trailblazers may be the unluckiest franchise in the NBA. After missing out on Michael Jordan in 1984 draft due to fit, they also passed on another all-time great in Kevin Durant. Instead, they took Greg Oden, who had one of the shortest NBA campaigns among all number one picks ever. Oden missed his entire rookie season and played in only 82 games for the next two years in Portland. He then retired but tried to make a comeback with the Heat. However, it was short-lived, with Oden never returning to the NBA again.
Sacramento Kings (’89)
The Kings had their only chance of picking number one in 1989 and messed it up, taking Pervis Ellison out of the University of Louisville. Here are some of the guys they could’ve taken: Shawn Kemp, Tim Hardaway, Glen Rice. Any one of them would’ve been a better choice than a 6’9″ power forward. Ellison did make a jump in the ’92 season while being with the Bullets, as he became NBA’s most improved player. However, that year was an anomaly, as he proceeded to have an average NBA career.
Toronto Raptors (’06)
Raptors’ number one pick ended up being Andrea Bargnani. The Italian joined the league in 2006, with the likes of LaMarcus Aldridge, Rajon Rondo, and Kyle Lowry dropping lower on the board. Bargnani played ten years in the NBA but was never able to get away from being above average stretch-four scorer, not worthy of going number one.
Charlotte Hornets (’91)
The Hornets picked first once back in 1991 when they selected Larry Johnson from Nevada-Las Vegas. Johnson became NBA’s Rookie of the Year and was a 2x All-Star throughout his career, but is another player with limited NBA career due to back problem, as he retired in 2001. Larry was on the trajectory of having an incredible NBA career, but his body couldn’t hold on. The Hornets would’ve been better taking Dikembe Mutombo, who went 4th overall, as he became one of the best defensive bigs ever, playing 18 seasons in the league.
Brooklyn Nets (’90, ’00)
Before relocating to Brooklyn, the New Jersey Nets had the honor of picking first twice. First, it was in 1990, when they selected Derrick Coleman from Cincinnati. Coleman became Rookie of the year and had stayed with the Nets for five seasons, averaging 19.9 PPG and 10.6 RPG. He then got traded to the Sixers, but had his career overshadowed by numerous injuries, as he was never able to fully realize his potential. Coleman didn’t live up to the expectations of the first picks, and the Nets may have been better taking perhaps the most excellent defensive point guard in NBA history in Gary Payton.
The Nets also had the first pick in 2000, and they selected Kenyon Martin out of Cincinnati. And it’s hard to tell how off they were since there wasn’t a standout player in the pool. Michael Redd probably had the highest peak, but his career was cut short due to injuries. Jamal Crawford was the best combination of quality and longevity, so that he may have been the best option. Martin had a solid NBA career, not worthy of the first selection, however. Then again, no one out of that draft was.
Chicago Bulls (’99, ’08)
Back in 2008, the Bulls selected Derrick Rose, a young athletic point guard with a huge upside. Rose justified going first, as he became the youngest MVP in the history of the league. However, we’ve never got to see the peak of his success, as his career plummeted after tearing his ACL back in 2012. Rose is now a solid player in the league, as we can only daydream about what could’ve been if it wasn’t for his injury. I don’t think Bulls’ fans regret taking Rose no.1 given what he meant for the city of Chicago, so it may be needless to say who the best player out of that draft ended up to be. But just for the sake of consistency, Russell Westbrook, the future MVP, was on the board.
The Bulls’ curse of picking injury-prone players started in 1999 after they selected Elton Brand. The 6’8″ power forward won the Rookie of the Year, giving you 20 and 10 in his first season in the league. However, Brand was traded to the Clippers after two successful seasons in the Windy City. He continued to be a double-double machine, until tearing his Achilles in 2007, never again returning to pre-injury level of play. The Bulls gave up on Brand pretty quickly. Maybe taking Manu Ginobili would’ve been a better option for them.
Milwaukee Bucks (’94, ’05)
Andrew Bogut was meant to be a new cornerstone of the Bucks franchise, being selected first overall in 2005. Bogut had himself a solid run with the Bucks, as a defensive anchor of the team, but couldn’t get any consistent play due to his injuries. He got his ring with the Warriors in 2015 but didn’t have a career expected of a number one pick. I guess the Bucks would’ve been much better taking Chris Paul.
Instead of taking a guy like Jason Kidd, the Bucks chose Glenn Robinson as their number one guy in the 1994 draft. Don’t get me wrong, Robinson was a great player. But he is another one who had his career cut short because of knee problems. He retired as an NBA champ, helping the Spurs win the title in ’05, capping off his 11-year career with a ring.
New Orleans Pelicans (’12, ’19)
The Pelicans pulled one of the greatest upsets in Draft lottery history after landing the first pick with only a 6% chance of doing so. Their pick was a lock – Zion Williamson out of Duke. Zion has only played 19 games in the league but has already shown flashes of a future NBA superstar.
The Pelicans proved to draft well, as they also selected Anthony Davis in 2011. He is now a part of the Lakers but is without the doubt the best player of that draft class. The fact they weren’t able to keep him is another pair of shoes. But the fact is the Pelicans nailed the pick.
San Antonio Spurs (’87, ’97)
It isn’t hard to assume that the Spurs nailed both of their number one selections. First, they selected David Robinson in 1987, as he played his first NBA game two years later due to serving in the Navy. The Admiral went on to become one of the greatest bigs to ever play in the NBA, leading the Spurs to two NBA championships.
Robinson’s partner in crime was Tim Duncan. The power forward out of Wake Forest was their 1997 number one pick, as he and Robinson formed the Twin Towers, leading the Spurs to titles in 1999 and 2003. Duncan is arguably the best power forward to step foot on NBA hardwoods, and one of the biggest no brainers in terms of number one selections.
Washington Wizards (’01, ’10)
We have the Wizards to thank for making a top two worst number one selection in the history of the league. Back in 2001, they picked Kwame Brown. Guys who they could’ve picked? Pau Gasol, Joe Johnson, Tony Parker. It’s safe to say that they butchered their pick. Kwame didn’t do anything memorable while being in the league, other than being the centerpiece of Lakers’ trade package for Pau Gasol.
Their other number one selection was a better one, as the Wizards picked John Wall in 2010. Looking back on it, even that wasn’t the best choice, as guys like Paul George and DeMarcus Cousins were up for the taking. The 5xAll-Star is recovering from Achilles injury, eager to make his comeback the next season.
Orlando Magic (’92, ’93, ’04)
You may say that the Orlando Magic are one of the worst-run organizations, but you got to take your hat off to their drafting ability. They had the number one pick three times since 1985, and you can’t question their selections, as they took the best player in every instance. They first drafted Shaquille O’Neal in 1992, following it up with Chris Webber the year after, trading him right away for Penny Hardaway.
After eleven years of relatively competitive NBA basketball, the Magic were given another opportunity to pick first, drafting Dwight Howard straight out of high-school. Dwight is currently playing for the Lakers but is undoubtedly the best player from the 2004 draft class, making the Magic go 3-for-3 on their first pick selections.
Philadelphia 76ers (’96, ’16, ’17)
The 76ers are another team with multiple number one picks – three to be exact. First, they picked Allen Iverson in 1996 draft, arguably one of the greatest in NBA history. It’s hard to tell that picking AI was the wrong route to take, however, missing out on the opportunity of having Kobe Bryant makes it seem like it may have been a poor choice after all.
It’s hard to tell whether taking Ben Simmons number one back in 2016 was the right move or not. The Fresh Prince did win Rookie of the Year award and is seemingly justifying Sixers’ decision on picking him first, but let’s not jump to any conclusions. Especially after the emergence of a second overall pick Brandon Ingram, who is having an amazing year with the Pelicans. He may become a late bloomer to take the title of the best player of the 2016 NBA draft.
And while Simmons remains the enigma, Markelle Fultz isn’t. The point guard out of Washington has already been traded to the Magic, after inexplicably losing his shooting touch. He may resurrect his NBA career, but is already proved not being worthy of the number one pick. Going with Jayson Tatum would’ve been a better option for the Sixers.
Los Angeles Clippers (’88, ’98, ’09)
The Clippers are leading the charge of LA teams to pick first in the draft with three number one selections since 1985, with the first being Danny Manning out of Kansas in 1988, after the length of the draft was reduced from seven rounds in the previous year to three rounds. Manning had a long, solid NBA career, with two All-Star appearances and a sixth man of the year award to his name. However, choosing a Hall of Famer Mitch Richmond would’ve been a much better choice for the LA team.
They got to pick first again in 1998, with David Stern announcing the selection of Michael Olowokandi from the University of the Pacific. He played until 2007 when he was forced to retire due to severe hernia and knee injuries. Kandi Man is considered one of the biggest busts in NBA history, due to his underwhelming run in the league. Especially considering the fact they had the opportunity to take Dirk Nowitzki, Vince Carter, or Paul Pierce, each of them having an incomparably better career than Olowokandi.
Their 2009 selection turned out better than any of the first two, but not as good as it could’ve been, considering Steph Curry was on the board. The Clippers took Blake Griffin out of Oklahoma, who is having a very good NBA career, just not as the part of the organization that drafted him. Griffin’s run in the LA was underachieving, as the Lob City Clips failed to make even one conference finals in their seven years together.
Cleveland Cavaliers (’86, ’03, ’11, ’13, ’14)
The Cleveland Cavaliers are the team with the most number-one picks since the advent of the draft lottery in 1985. Their latest first selection Andrew Wiggins never got to play in Ohio, as he was dealt to Minnesota in a trade package for Kevin Love. The Cavs also picked first the year before, selecting one of the biggest busts the NBA has ever seen in Anthony Bennett. He was also a part of the deal for Kevin Love, and Cavs’ fans are still getting over the fact that they could’ve picked Giannis Antetokounmpo. Or anyone else for that matter.
However, the Cavs nailed their 2011 and 2003 first picks, selecting Duke’s Kyrie Irving and LeBron James out of Saint Vincent-Saint Mary high school. The two got to play together in 2014, following LeBron’s return from the Miami Heat. The duo gave the franchise their first NBA championship, after a historic 3-1 comeback vs. the Warriors in 2016.
Cavs’ first no.1 pick was Brad Daugherty back in 1986. This 5x All-Star had his career cut short at the age of 28 due to recurrent back troubles, although having a numbers-wise great NBA career. However, just for how short his career was, the Cavs would’ve been better taking someone like Dennis Rodman, probably the best rebounding and defensive undersized PF’s ever.
Teams that didn’t make the list weren’t in a position to draft first since the draft lottery was introduced in 1985. Looking back at the success of players selected number one, they should have no regrets about it, since only seven first overall picks have won an NBA title. What’s even more fascinating is that only David Robinson, Tim Duncan, LeBron James, and Kyrie Irving have won the ring with the team that had drafted them.
It only goes to show you how picking first in the draft isn’t guarantee for success in the NBA. Sometimes, it turns out great, and sometimes you become an object of ridicule for decades to come. That’s why you better think twice before making your selection.