The Top 10 NBA Draft Lottery Steals of All Time
Nostalgia is always a bittersweet thing in the NBA, but it's doubly complicated and liable to trigger a greater variety of emotions when looking at the biggest draft lottery steals of all time.
Lottery steals are a great thing at their core. They refer to teams landing stars who shouldn't have even dropped to them. Yay, that team.
But this also means there are certain, sometimes many, teams that passed on a golden opportunity and future super-stud. And for fans of those franchises, this trip down memory lane is going to hurt.
Singling out lottery steals cannot be an overly complicated exercise. The lottery itself was implemented in 1985 and, thus, spans multiple generations. What you see here rests largely on subjective interpretations of the concept of draft-day steals and superstardom in general.
What we can control, however, is the process by which an eligible field is established. Aside from players having to be lottery selections, it's important to note we're not looking at the first 14 picks of every draft.
Only seven teams were included in the first lottery. That number gradually increased to nine, 11 and 13, before ending up at the 14 we have now.
Karl Malone, for instance, cannot be placed here. He was drafted at No. 13 in 1985, six spots outside the seven-pick lottery. Likewise, a player such as Peja Stojakovic isn't included, either. He went 14th overall in 1996, one slot outside the 13-pick lottery.
To preserve integrity of the term "steal," those selected in the top five of their respective drafts will not be considered. Here's the twist: We will allow one exception, an occurrence so noteworthy it has to crack this list.
Top picks will never be considered, even as an exception. Anthony Davis and LeBron James are steals, we get it. But they were drafted as high as humanly possible.
Career stats, individual and team accomplishments, draft position and the quality of talent selected ahead of these players will all play a role in plucking the best candidates from the created field and ranking them.
Our goal, remember, is not to harp on those excluded. It's to celebrate the careers of those who made the cut.
10. Paul George
Year Drafted: 2010
Draft Position: No. 10
Drafted By: Indiana Pacers
Career Stats: 15.2 points, 6.0 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.6 steals, 36.1 percent three-point shooting, 17.2 player efficiency rating
Paul George suffered a compound fracture in his right leg while in a Team USA scrimmage last summer, an injury that may one day threaten to remove him from this list.
For now, we must think of George as he was. As he still is.
Having only just turned 25, there is room enough for the two-time All-Star to make a full recovery and return to previous form. And his previous form was damn good.
Prior to his injury, George became just the second player in league history to average 15.0 points, 6.0 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.5 steals while shooting 36 percent or better from deep through the first four years of his career. The other: Paul Pierce.
Last season in particular saw George explode. He earned a starting nod at the 2014 All-Star Game and joined James as the only two players to average at least 20.0 points, 6.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.5 steals.
No one else rivals the two-way impact George has when healthy. He is the only top-10 pick from that class to make a conference finals appearance and ranks second in total win shares, despite logging 2,634 fewer minutes than the leader (Greg Monroe).
Much about George's future admittedly remains unknown. Promising though his outlook seems, he may never be the same after suffering such a gruesome leg injury.
Or he could end up being exactly the same: a fast-rising star who contends with James as one of the Eastern Conference's two most versatile swingmen.
9. Klay Thompson
Year Drafted: 2011
Draft Position: No. 11
Drafted By: Golden State Warriors
Career Stats: 17.5 points, 3.1 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.0 steals, 41.8 percent three-point shooting, 15.5 PER
Not four years ago, the Warriors selected Klay Thompson, adding the latter half of a backcourt that's already on course to be one of the greatest ever.
Thompson has come a long way from the three-and-D classification that became something of an unwanted stigma by the end of his third season. Three years under head coach Mark Jackson turned him into a volume-scoring offensive phantom—someone who relied heavily, if not exclusively, on Stephen Curry's dribble penetration to get open looks.
Steve Kerr came in prior to the 2014-15 season and changed everything. The Warriors play with more pace and champion a free-flowing, highly reactive offense, and their new head honcho relies on Thompson for more than just spot-up assassinations.
The 25-year-old has quickly morphed into a do-everything wing. He defends every perimeter position imaginable, wages rim assaults of his own and has parlayed his size advantage into a crafty post-up repository.
Don't be entirely fooled, though. Shooting is still a big part of Thompson's success. More than 30 percent of his field-goal attempts came as standstill treys this past season, of which he drilled a blistering 46.5 percent.
That's all part of the draw here. The one-time All-Star is quickly becoming impossible to defend because he can score however, from wherever, almost whenever, and do so efficiently.
Of the 121 players to average at least 17 points per game through their first four seasons, Thompson is just the second to shoot better than 41.6 percent from deep. His company: Stephen Curry.
Much like James Harden—though in different respects—Thompson's ability to thrive in a fast-evolving NBA makes him the ideal shooting guard, one who is worth every penny of his (near-)max contract, as well as one who somehow slipped behind Jimmer Fredette in the 2011 draft.
8. Chris Mullin
Year Drafted: 1985
Draft Position: No. 7
Drafted By: Golden State Warriors
Career Stats: 18.2 points, 4.1 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.6 steals, 50.9 percent shooting, 38.4 percent three-point shooting, 18.8 PER
Chris Mullin's status could be inflated by being the last lottery pick in a draft with very few. The lottery process itself was implemented in 1985, at which time there were only seven actual selections, opening the door for misleading rhetoric.
There is nothing misleading about Mullin's body of work.
Best known for his shooting, he was an understated defender who forced turnovers and blocked a great deal of shots for a 6'6" guard-forward. And yeah, he was a lethal outside marksman before the NBA truly valued death-dealing shooters.
To this day, no other player has ever ended his career averaging 18 or more points while shooting at least 50 percent from the floor overall and 38 percent from long range. Mullin stands alone.
Between 1988 and 1993, he helped redefine the way stars are born. He averaged 25.8 points, 4.1 assists and 1.9 steals per game, statistical benchmarks matched by just Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley during that time. Mullin was the only one of those three to hit more than 34 percent of his deep balls.
More than his five All-Star selections (four appearances) and Hall of Fame cache, Mullin spent nearly two decades as a symbol for actually meaningful times in the Bay Area.
He was part of five playoff squads, many of which were mediocre, barely above-.500 sneak-ins. But as Golden State toiled in obscurity through the mid-90s and first decade of the new millenium, his semi-successful teams represented the pinnacle of Warriors basketball.
Though this season's Warriors are now the organization's poster child for relevance, the impact Mullin had as both a player and franchise emblem still stands.
Even today, when top-seven picks are considered high- to mid-end lottery selections, the No. 7 slot isn't viewed as a hotbed for future Hall of Famers and those who'll help usher in a fresh style of basketball.
7. Shawn Marion
Year Drafted: 1999
Draft Position: No. 9
Drafted By: Phoenix Suns
Career Stats: 15.2 points, 8.7 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.1 blocks, 48.4 percent shooting, 18.8 PER
Talk about your understated superstars and, inevitably, underappreciated first-ballot Hall of Famers.
Shawn Marion will retire following the Cleveland Cavaliers' 2015 postseason push. No matter how his last championship pursuit ends, the 37-year-old jack-of-all-trades (master of some) will go down as one of the greats, even if reluctantly.
Top-heavy 1999 draft class in mind, no one else has replicated his longevity and production. Not Jason Terry, not Elton Brand, not Andre Miller, not Richard Hamilton. What Marion has since accomplished—four All-Star selections, one championship, etc.—is not relative to a No. 9 pick.
In this draft specifically, considering what he's done, he should have gone first—or at least in the top three. As Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal previously explained:
Marion will retire as one of the more effective stoppers the sport has ever seen, but he never made an All-Defensive Team. He was consistently one of the most impactful forwards, thanks to his versatility and two-way prowess, but he only made All-NBA Third Team on two separate occasions and never received a higher honor.
In fact, Dallas head coach Rick Carlisle called his former pupil "the most underrated player in NBA history," per Cleveland.com's Chris Haynes.
Now, he has one of the most non-traditional Hall of Fame resumes the sport has seen in quite some time. When he's up for selection, it will be the perfect chance to rectify the wrongs that Marion has seen levied upon him throughout his decade-and-a-half in the Association.
There is nothing hyperbolic about Marion's all-time standing. He will retire as just the second player in league history to average at least 15.0 points, 8.5 rebounds, 1.5 steals and 1.0 block for the entirety of his career.
Hakeem Olajuwon will be his one and only peer.
6. Tracy McGrady
Year Drafted: 1997
Draft Position: No. 9
Drafted By: Toronto Raptors
Career Stats: 19.6 points, 5.6 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.9 blocks, 43.7 percent shooting, 22.1 PER
Think of where Tracy McGrady would stand if he was never injured during his prime. Not just here, but in the pantheon of NBA legends overall.
As it stands, he'll already be remembered as one of the greats. But now, three seasons removed from retirement, the "what if" factor weighs heavily in every McGrady discussion.
Except this one.
Injuries do nothing to reverse all he actually accomplished. This is a guy who was drafted ninth overall, just before career role players Adonal Foyle (No. 8) and Tim Thomas (No. 7) and miles below Antonio Daniels (No. 4) and Keith Van Horn (No. 2). This was a guy who came out of high school facing more doubt than hype.
He wasn't supposed to end up as the second-best player of the 1997 class, ceding status only to Tim Duncan. And yet he did.
Peak McGrady was Jordan-esque. He averaged 27.6 points, 6.8 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 1.6 steals between 2001 and 2005, per-game yardsticks no other player matched during that span. His combination of defensive intensity—albeit inconsistent intensity—and offensive potency was an extreme example of what happens when athleticism meets savvy.
And while his time among the megastars was cut short, the first 11 years of McGrady's career continue to stand the test of time. Just three other players have ever amassed 16,500 points, 4,500 rebounds, 3,500 assists and 700 blocks through their first 11 campaigns: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kevin Garnett and Jordan.
McGrady, when healthy, kept that sort of company—the same McGrady who was passed on eight times before finding an NBA home.
5. Stephen Curry
Year Drafted: 2009
Draft Position: No. 9
Drafted By: Golden State Warriors
Career Stats: 20.9 points, 4.1 rebounds, 6.9 assists, 1.7 steals, 47.1 percent shooting, 44 percent three-point shooting, 21.7 PER
By the end of his career, Curry is going to climb these ranks. He could be the fourth-best lottery steal in NBA history. He could be the third. He'll probably be the second.
If there was ever a time to start spouting off absurdly adulatory predictions for his trajectory, it's now, six seasons into his Association tenure, on the heels of an MVP award, as he headlines just the 10th team in league history to record 67 victories.
We've come a long way since 2009, when the Minnesota Timberwolves passed on Curry twice and two players who didn't see a minute of action in 2014-15 were selected before him (Jonny Flynn and Hasheem Thabeet). Heck, we've come a long way since 2012, when Curry signed that four-year, $44 million extension while enduring questions about his durability.
Now, he's an MVP, working off an historically significant season. Only three players have averaged at least 23.5 points, 7.5 assists and 2.0 steals while also shooting 45 percent or better from the floor: Dwyane Wade, Jordan and Curry.
This past season saw Curry take his rising star to new heights, expanding his offensive repertoire to include more dribble drives in addition to lights-out shooting. He also established himself as a formidable defender. Golden State, the league's best defensive team, didn't hide him; Kerr let Curry guard against the game's deepest position every single night.
Scarier still, at 27, Curry hasn't yet collided with his ceiling, nor do we know if he even has one.
As Kerr told Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski: "He's still learning. That sounds crazy, because he's the MVP of the league. But he's still learning how to develop that rhythm, how to be patient and just move the ball, makes the easy pass—instead of trying to do it himself."
If Curry is this good while still learning, just imagine how good he'll be a year from now, or two years from now, or three years from now, when his list of things to master is even shorter.
4. Paul Pierce
Year Drafted: 1998
Draft Position: No. 10
Drafted By: Boston Celtics
Career Stats: 20.7 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.4 steals, 44.7 percent shooting, 38.9 percent shooting, 20.1 PER
Nine teams passed on Pierce in 1998. Nine.
One of those teams (Milwaukee Bucks) selected Dirk Nowitzki at No. 9 and then traded him. Another one of those teams (Warriors) picked Vince Carter at No. 5. But they traded him to the Toronto Raptors.
So, really, two teams (Mavericks and Raptors) get a pass for passing on Pierce. The other seven, not so much.
There are the obvious talking points when it comes to Pierce: 10 All-Star selections, one NBA championship, modest-yet-oh-my-God stat lines and endless supplies of trash talk. But there's also the notion that maybe, just maybe, he was underrated during his prime.
Paul Flannery advances this conversation for SB Nation:
One player conspicuously absent from that list is Paul Pierce, who never finished higher than seventh in MVP voting. Pierce has always been underappreciated, even in his prime when he averaged 25 points, seven rebounds and four assists while missing only eight games during a six-year stretch. He made 10 All-Star appearances without ever being voted in as a starter and was never a first-team All-NBA player.
All of that is just wow. Pierce joins Malone and Garnett as the only three players to eclipse 25,000 points, 7,000 rebounds, 4,000 assists and 1,500 steals, yet he was never an All-Star starter or truly in contention for an MVP award.
None of which harms his legacy. If anything, it champions intrigue—as does his flawless transition from superstar to glorified role player.
Some household names never make that adjustment. Pierce has managed to thrive in reduced roles with the Brooklyn Nets and Washington Wizards, serving as a steadying locker room presence and playoff-time machine-user, perfectly positioning himself to remain relevant, in the thick of title pursuits, until the day he retires.
3. Dirk Nowitzki
Year Drafted: 1998
Draft Position: No. 9
Drafted By: Milwaukee Bucks (traded to Dallas Mavericks)
Career Stats: 22.2 points, 7.9 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 0.9 blocks, 47.5 percent shooting, 23.3 PER
Most ninth overall picks don't go down as first-ballot Hall of Famers who helped redefine how their position is perceived.
Nowitzki is not most ninth overall picks.
Conventional wisdom has never applied to him, even now, as he pushes 37 still playing at a high level. He ended 2014-15 averaging 17.3 points per game and ranks seventh on the all-time scoring list, having totaled 28,119 for his career.
If he remains healthy for the life on his current contract, which spans through 2016-17, he'll eclipse the 30,000-point plateau, something only Wilt Chamberlain, Kobe Bryant, Abdul-Jabbar, Jordan and Malone have done before—a chase that's left him as the highest-scoring international talent in league history.
Said Nowitzki after surpassing Olajuwon for those point-totaling rights in a Nov. 11 win over the Sacramento Kings, per Mavs.com's Earl K. Sneed: "I think you need a little athleticism for that move...I came up with my own dream shake, I guess. The white version."
Those remarks play into a generations-wide NBA cliche. At the same time, they provide an adequate sketch of Nowitzki's career at large.
The 7-footer was never especially athletic or quick, nor did he block a ton of shots. When most bigs were bruising down low or playing above the rim, Nowitzki polished off a perimeter game, frequently jacking mid-range jumpers and three-pointers, reinventing the way in which big men were viewed.
Other players certainly opened doors for the stretch forwards of today. But if Nowitzki's late-career success is any indication of how outside-oriented bigs can age, the 13-time All-Star and one-time champion will be remembered as the standard from which all bigs, present and future, should model their games.
And to think, he wasn't even the first tower taken in 1998. Michael Olowokandi (No. 1), Raef LaFrentz (No. 3) and Robert Traylor (No. 6) were all selected before him.
2. Kevin Garnett
Year Drafted: 1995
Draft Position: No. 5
Drafted By: Minnesota Timberwolves
Career Stats: 18.2 points, 10.2 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.3 steals, 1.4 blocks, 49.7 percent shooting, 22.8 PER
Meet our exception.
Garnett beat out fellow esteemed colleagues Ray Allen, Scottie Pippen, Carter and Wade to claim this honor. Frankly, though, it wasn't a real contest given all he's done.
Two decades in, Garnett is the closest thing to an Anthony Davis comparison yesteryear touts. He began his career under similar circumstances, an unprecedented novelty, facing fanfare that was equal parts skepticism and awe.
As Bleacher Report's Howard Beck wrote of Garnett's pre-draft impression:
They had come to see a prospect, a teenager who stood nearly seven feet, with the wingspan of a prehistoric bird, who ran like a cheetah and leaped like a gazelle. He looked like a center, but moved like a point guard. Gangly, yet graceful. He could pass and run and shoot. He could guard all five positions.
Until that day, no one had ever seen anything quite like him. Before them stood a basketball player for a new age: Kevin Garnett, The First of His Kind.
The list of NBA players to tally 20,000 points, 10,000 rebounds, 5,000 assists and 2,000 blocks isn't long. It includes Abdul-Jabbar and Garnett. That's it.
Despite spending one-fifth of his career (four seasons) on Timberwolves teams that didn't register above.-500 records, Garnett still ranks eighth all time in win shares, ahead of even the indomitable Shaquille O'Neal.
Indeed, Garnett's individual feats long ago ceased to amaze. They're expected after watching him make 15 All-Star squads (14 appearances), 12 All-Defensive teams and nine All-NBA teams. They're assumed knowing he's been named Defensive Player of the Year, earned league MVP and won an NBA title.
They're commonplace after seeing him seamlessly transition from a superstar in Minnesota, to a supporting star in Boston, to a role player and mentor in Brooklyn and Minnesota.
We must journey back 20 years to really find a time when Garnett was even a slight underdog. He may have been drafted fifth overall, but he wasn't the first selected player at his position. Joe Smith (No. 1), Antonio McDyess (No. 2) and Rasheed Wallace (No. 4) all went before him.
Hardly viewed as a steal then, Garnett is certainly a steal now and more than worthy of being our one and only exception.
1. Kobe Bryant
Year Drafted: 1996
Draft Position: No. 13
Drafted By: Charlotte Hornets (traded to Los Angeles Lakers)
Career Stats: 25.4 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.5 steals, 45.1 percent shooting, 23.2 PER
Almost two decades into his NBA career, Bryant still continues to incite a mixed bag of emotions.
At 36, he has appeared in just 41 games over the last two seasons. He's notorious for a hard-nosed on- and off-court demeanor that's oft-interpreted as a me-first persona, and while his per-game numbers are eye-opening, he's always had an iffy relationship with advanced analytics.
To wit: Bryant never led any one of his five championship teams in regular-season win shares. Pau Gasol and O'Neal always accumulated more.
That's all part of Bryant's mystique, though. His brand is second to none and has kept him relevant even as he struggles to remain healthy and find that balance between superstar inklings and ebbing abilities.
Bryant's reputation will be debated to no end once he does retire. And regardless of where he's placed on all-time ladders, the fact that he foments these conversations says it all.
What would you have done if, at the time, you were told the final lottery pick of 1996 would contend with Duncan for the face of his generation? Laugh? Scoff? Attempt to disprove it through a long, heated soliloquy?
Well, Bryant is at least in that discussion. He has 17 All-Star selections (14 appearances), five NBA titles, two finals MVPs, one league MVP and a surfeit of All-NBA (15) and All-Defensive (12) honors to his name.
Irrespective of how outdated his mid-range-heavy, hero-ball style is now, prime Bryant was a two-way mutant. He played above and below the rim, sank jumpers and, at his peak, defended with unmatched tenacity.
In addition to ranking third on the all-time scoring list, Bryant is the only player to ever post 25,000 points, 6,000 rebounds, 6,000 assists and 1,500 steals for his career. More so than his sometimes-uncontrollable ego, his individual achievements are all part of his mystique, too.
Not bad for a guy who, out of high school, was selected behind 12 other players, including Marcus Camby, Lorenzen Wright, Kerry Kittles, Samaki Walker and Erick Dampier.
Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @danfavale.