Ranking the Top 10 NBA Draft Classes of All Time
In the process of becoming the best inside-outside duo in NBA history, John Stockton and Karl Malone helped cement 1984 and 1985 as two of the top draft classes ever.
Of course, they weren't the only star players in those drafts. Stockton's class also produced Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and Hakeem Olajuwon, and Malone was one of eight players in his class who ranks in the top 125 in career win shares*.
Both star power and depth were necessary to land in the top 10. As you'll see in the honorable mentions, there were a few instances in which several all-time greats went in the same draft, but they were the only players who amounted to much of anything. At the opposite end of the spectrum, there were some classes that had a ton of good players, but no great ones. Neither of those situations was deemed worthy of a spot on the list.
For the ones that did make the cut, the more star power and depth, the higher they ranked.
Where the players were selected in the draft did not matter for this list, though we will occasionally call out second-round steals and lottery busts for sake of context.
*This is the first of many references to a complex formula that essentially creates value added, similar to wins above replacement (WAR) in Major League Baseball. Here's a link to Basketball Reference's explanation of how it's calculated.
Wilt Chamberlain was an all-time great. Bailey Howell was a six-time All-Star who finally made the Hall of Fame 26 years after retiring. But the rest of this class left a lot to be desired.
Only six players from this draft lasted more than five seasons in the NBA, but three of those six were Oscar Robertson, Jerry West and Lenny Wilkens. Even though those were the only three players to appear in multiple All-Star Games, those Hall of Famers were almost enough to put 1960 in the top 10.
A much deeper class than two years prior, the 1962 draft produced seven players who scored more than 10,000 career points, including John Havlicek, Chet Walker and Jerry Lucas. Zelmo Beaty also had a Hall of Fame career between the NBA and ABA. Had the list gone 11 deep, this would've been No. 11.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Need we say more? Unfortunately, there isn't much more to say, as Jo Jo White and Bob Dandridge are the only other players from this class worth mentioning.
A dozen players from this draft played in at least one All-Star Game, but only one player (George "Iceman" Gervin) reached 100 career win shares in his combined NBA/ABA career.
Similar to 1960, 1976 didn't have much depth, but it did have three greats in Robert Parish, Adrian Dantley and Alex English.
Most drafts in the past four decades were either obvious gold mines or blatant busts. 2008 falls somewhere in between, as it's still too early to put a bow on these careers. But with Russell Westbrook as the headliner of a group of seven players who already have at least 50 win shares, there's a case to be made that this was one of the best.
10. 1950 NBA Draft
Top Players (Career Win Shares): Paul Arizin (108.8), Bob Cousy (91.1), Bill Sharman (82.8), Larry Foust (74.3), George Yardley (58.5), Chuck Share (40.9)
The first 35 years of NBA drafts didn't produce many top-notch classes. That's not because there was a dearth of talent until the 1980s, but rather because that talent was too spread out. Case in point: Wilt Chamberlain (1959) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1969) were two of the greatest players in NBA history, but the third-most successful players in their respective draft classes were Dick Barnett and Steve Mix—each appeared in just one All-Star Game in his career.
1950 was one of the exceptions to that rule, producing four future Hall of Famers—Arizin, Cousy, Sharman and Yardley—and a fifth player (Foust) who fell just shy of averaging a double-double (13.7 PPG, 9.8 RPG) while making eight All-Star Games in his career.
Arizin went to the Philadelphia Warriors before the draft as a territorial selection, so the official first overall pick was Boston's choice of Chuck Share. However, he never appeared in a game for the Celtics, as he was traded to the Pistons for Sharman.
Boston also ended up with one of the other Hall of Famers from this class when Cousy refused to report to the Tri-Cities Blackhawks, who selected him with the third overall pick. Cousy and Sharman became one of the best backcourt duos of all time and laid the groundwork for the juggernaut Celtics who won 11 of 13 NBA titles from 1957 to 1969.
Here's a less successful footnote on this draft class: With Yardley and Sharman still on the board, the New York Knicks selected Irwin Dambrot with the No. 6 overall pick. However, he chose to pursue a career as a dentist and never appeared in an NBA game. That franchise has been torturing its poor fanbase on draft night since 1950!
9. 1970 NBA Draft
Top Players (Career Win Shares): Bob Lanier (117.1), Dave Cowens (86.3), Calvin Murphy (84.1), Tiny Archibald (83.4), Dan Issel (82.3), Rudy Tomjanovich (70.4), Sam Lacey (50.9), Pete Maravich (46.7), Jim McMillian (46.0)
In most years, there's at least one dud in the top five picks. The year before this draft, Terry Driscoll and Larry Cannon went fourth and fifth and combined for 4.8 career win shares. The year after this draft wasn't much better as No. 4 pick Ken Durrett and No. 5 pick George Trapp amounted to 9.0 career win shares.
In 1970, though, all five teams at the top of the draft were pleased with their first picks, as Bob Lanier, Rudy Tomjanovich, Pete Maravich, Dave Cowens and Sam Lacey each played at least 10 seasons, scored over 10,000 points and accounted for at least 46.7 win shares.
However, the best player from this class wasn't taken until the eighth round. Dan Issel was selected 122nd overall by the Pistons, but he instead signed with the ABA's Kentucky Colonels. He dominated that league for six years before it was absorbed by the NBA. Issel's NBA win shares are 82.3, but Sports Reference puts his combined total at 157.8—good for 23rd on the all-time list.
Issel was one of seven Hall of Famers from this draft.
Speaking of which, how about another New York Knicks footnote? They took a guard from Illinois by the name of Mike Price with the No. 17 overall pick. He played just 291 minutes for them and was out of the league by 1973. Hall of Fame guards Calvin Murphy and Tiny Archibald went 18th and 19th, respectively. Ouch.
8. 1998 NBA Draft
The No. 1 pick in the 1998 draft ended up being one of the biggest busts in the history of the league, but even Michael Olowokandi couldn't keep this class from finishing in the top 10.
There are 48 players who have scored at least 20,000 points between the NBA and ABA, and this draft produced four of them.
Dirk Nowitzki (31,187 and counting) is No. 6 on the all-time list. He's going to get leapfrogged by LeBron James next year, but he could be one healthy season away from bypassing Wilt Chamberlain (31,419) and Michael Jordan (32,292). Because the 13-time All-Star has only won one title, he isn't even an afterthought when we debate the greatest players of all time, but Nowitzki will be a no-brainer first-ballot Hall of Famer once he's eligible.
Paul Pierce (26,397 points) and Vince Carter (24,868) will also get into the Hall of Fame sooner rather than later after combining for 18 ASG appearances. Antawn Jamison (20,042 points) isn't quite in the HOF conversation, but 18.5 points per game in a 16-year career is nothing to scoff at.
But Jamison was never selected for an All-NBA team. Neither was two-time All-Star Rashard Lewis. And the sixth-best and seventh-best players in this class (Mike Bibby and Cuttino Mobley) were never named All-Stars. Had there been one more stud or just a bit of depth beyond Nowitzki, Pierce and Carter, there would have been a strong case for 1998 as one of the three best draft classes ever.
7. 2009 NBA Draft
Top Players (Career Win Shares): James Harden (106.7), Stephen Curry (93.3), Blake Griffin (67.3), DeMar DeRozan (54.0), Jeff Teague (46.1), Taj Gibson (44.8), Darren Collison (43.1), Ty Lawson (42.1)
It was tough to put any drafts from the past decade on this list since those players aren't close to finalizing their career win share totals. Even in the "too early to call" department, only 2011—Jimmy Butler, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Isaiah Thomas, Klay Thompson, Kemba Walker, etc.—stands out as a viable candidate from the 2010s.
2009 was an exception to that rule, though, thanks to three of the most valuable players in the game.
Stephen Curry has a career PER of 23.79. James Harden's is 23.68, and Blake Griffin's is 22.43. They rank 17th, 18th and 30th, respectively, on the career PER list. As a result, the 2009 draft is one of just four that has produced multiple players in the top 30. And of those four, only 2009 and 1984 (Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and Hakeem Olajuwon) has three players in the top 30.
However, this class drops off in a hurry from there. At nearly 20 points per game for his career, DeMar DeRozan is a one-man buffer between all-time greatness and marginally above-average production. Jeff Teague, Taj Gibson, Darren Collison and Ty Lawson have combined for just one All-Star appearance, and they are Nos. 5-8 in career win shares from this draft.
That lack of depth kept 2009 from landing in our top five, but it could climb higher a few years from now when we know the full story.
6. 1999 NBA Draft
Top Players (Career Win Shares): Shawn Marion (124.9), Elton Brand (109.6), Manu Ginobili (106.4), Jason Terry (102.0), Andre Miller (100.8), Lamar Odom (77.0), Andrei Kirilenko (75.4), Baron Davis (63.1), Richard Hamilton (62.8), Corey Maggette (62.2), Metta World Peace (61.1), Steve Francis (54.1), Wally Szczerbiak (53.3), James Posey (51.6)
This was, by far, the toughest class to rank. There isn't a first-ballot Hall of Famer in the bunch, but five guys with at least 100 career win shares and a total of 14 players with at least 50 career win shares is ridiculous.
With one exception, every top-10 pick in 1999 panned out well. No. 2 pick Steve Francis flamed out in a hurry after six great seasons to start his career, but he was hardly a bust. The only dud in this top 10 was No. 5 pick Jonathan Bender, who ended up being one of the least successful players to make the leap straight from high school to the NBA.
Well outside the top 10, the 1999 draft also featured one of the greatest second-round picks in NBA history: Manu Ginobili. The combined win shares total of every other second-round pick in this draft was 66.2, but this second-to-last selection ended up playing a key role on four championship teams.
Ginobili was only a two-time All-Star, though. In fact, Shawn Marion was the only player from this class who was named an All-Star more than three times, and even he wasn't a perennial staple with just four ASG selections in his career.
Because of that lack of star power, it was tempting to overlook this draft entirely. But there were so many guys who provided value for more than a decade that the 1999 class grew more attractive with each look.
5. 1987 NBA Draft
Top Players (Career Win Shares): David Robinson (178.7), Reggie Miller (174.4), Scottie Pippen (125.1), Horace Grant (118.2), Kevin Johnson (92.8), Mark Jackson (91.8), Derrick McKey (61.8), Armen Gilliam (58.1), Muggsy Bogues (54.0)
The 1987 NBA draft produced a lot of talented players, and the coaches and general managers at the top of the draft did a great job of evaluating that potential. Ten of the top 12 picks would accumulate at least 46 career win shares. The only ones who fell short of that mark were No. 3 pick Dennis Hopson (7.1) and No. 4 pick Reggie Williams (26.0).
This ended up being the only draft in the 1980s in which the team with the No. 1 pick actually selected the best player. The San Antonio Spurs took "The Admiral" David Robinson, who was named to an All-NBA team in 10 of his 14 seasons and won the 1995 MVP award. One of the best shot-blockers of all time, Robinson helped steer the Spurs to two NBA titles.
Not far behind Robinson in value added, No. 11 pick Reggie Miller also played all of his games for the franchise that drafted him. It's only a matter of time before Stephen Curry moves ahead of Miller on the list of made three-pointers, but he's currently No. 2 with 2,560 of them in his 18-year career with Indiana.
The supporting cast for Michael Jordan's first three championships also came from this draft class. Chicago drafted Horace Grant at No. 10 and acquired Scottie Pippen from Seattle hours after he was selected fifth overall. Within six years, they each had three rings.
Outside the top 12, two other great picks from this draft were No. 18 Mark Jackson and No. 22 Reggie Lewis. The former is one of just five players with at least 10,000 career assists. The latter averaged better than 20 points per game in back-to-back seasons before dying on a practice court at the age of 27.
4. 2003 NBA Draft
Top Players (Career Win Shares): LeBron James (219.4), Dwyane Wade (118.3), Chris Bosh (106.0), Carmelo Anthony (100.7), David West (85.9), Kyle Korver (68.7), Kirk Hinrich (52.5), Boris Diaw (51.6), Zaza Pachulia (50.3)
As far as depth is concerned, 2003 doesn't hold a candle to our top three drafts. In 1985, the seventh-best player drafted was Charles Oakley (89.7 career win shares). In 1984, it was Kevin Willis (81.8). And in 1996, it was Stephon Marbury (77.5). Here it's Kirk Hinrich, who was never named an All-Star and who produced at least 25 fewer win shares than each of Oakley, Willis and Marbury.
It doesn't get much better from there with just 10 players who amassed more than 40 career win shares and just five who were All-Stars multiple times. Moreover, the No. 2 pick from this class (Darko Milicic) turned out to be one of the biggest busts in draft history.
But 2003 made up for that lack of depth by providing NBA fans with four of the best players of the past two decades.
No. 1 pick LeBron James, No. 3 pick Carmelo Anthony, No. 4 pick Chris Bosh and No. 5 pick Dwyane Wade have been selected to a combined 47 All-Star Games and 29 All-NBA teams. Three of the four (James, Wade and Bosh) teamed up to win the 2012 and 2013 titles. All four could/should be first-ballot Hall of Famers when they become eligible.
3. 1985 NBA Draft
Top Players (Career Win Shares): Karl Malone (234.6), Patrick Ewing (126.4), Terry Porter (110.4), Detlef Schrempf (109.5), A.C. Green (99.5), Chris Mullin (93.1), Charles Oakley (89.7), Joe Dumars (86.2), Hot Rod Williams (70.5), Tyrone Corbin (56.5)
We can argue about the order, but it's almost indisputable that the four best draft classes in NBA history were 1984, 1985, 1996 and 2003. Each of those drafts produced at least one all-time great and had a lot of depth.
From 1985, the legendary player was the 13th pick, Karl Malone. Though the Mailman never won a title, this 14-time All-Star trails only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain on the NBA's career win shares leaderboard. Malone is also No. 2 in career points and No. 8 in rebounds. It's hard to fathom why he doesn't get more recognition when we argue about the greatest to ever play the game.
Speaking of great big men who never got a ring, No. 1 pick Patrick Ewing had one heck of a career too. He put up at least 20 points per game in each of his first 13 seasons in the league. And from 1990 to 1997, he averaged at least 22 points and 10 rebounds per game for eight consecutive years.
In the depth department, eight players drafted in 1985 went on to accumulate at least 86 win shares. Considering there have only been 125 such players, eight from one draft class is mighty impressive. In fact, this is the only draft with more than six players who provided at least that much return on investment.
However, along with Malone and Ewing, Terry Porter, Detlef Schrempf, Chris Mullin and Charles Oakley never won a title. While A.C. Green got three rings, he was, at best, the fourth-most important player on those rosters. Though this class is a little deeper than our top two, the collective number of championships among top players was too noteworthy to ignore.
2. 1996 NBA Draft
Top Players (Career Win Shares): Kobe Bryant (172.7), Ray Allen (145.1), Steve Nash (129.7), Allen Iverson (99.0), Peja Stojakovic (82.6), Marcus Camby (81.6), Stephon Marbury (77.5), Shareef Abdur-Rahim (71.2), Zydrunas Ilgauskas (66.3), Jermaine O'Neal (66.0), Derek Fisher (62.3), Erick Dampier (52.7)
How does the all-time three-point leader, three different league MVPs and 10 picks with a combined total of 64 All-Star Games sound for a single draft class?
The perimeter specialist was Ray Allen, aka Jesus Shuttlesworth. The 10-time All-Star and two-time NBA champion made 2,973 triples in his 18-year career. He's probably going to get bypassed by Stephen Curry before all is said and done, but for now, he's more than 400 made three-pointers ahead of every other player.
Allen wasn't one of the three MVPs, though. Well, Ray Allen wasn't. Allen Iverson was the 2001 MVP in the first of his two consecutive seasons leading the NBA in both points and steals. "The Answer" was an 11-time All-Star who averaged 26.7 points per game in his career. The No. 1 pick in this draft was everything Philadelphia could have asked for and then some.
The No. 13 pick was also an MVP, although Kobe Bryant never played a game for the franchise that drafted him. Rather than dominating for the Charlotte Hornets, the 18-time All-Star and 2008 MVP led the Los Angeles Lakers to five titles. The two-time scoring champ is also third n the career points leaderboard.
But the two-time MVP in this bunch was No. 15 pick Steve Nash. Though he never even played in the NBA Finals, Nash won the 2005 and 2006 MVP awards and finished runner-up to Dirk Nowitzki in 2007. The leader of Phoenix's "seven seconds or less" offense led the league in assists five times, finishing his career with 10,335 dimes.
1. 1984 NBA Draft
Top Players (Career Win Shares): Michael Jordan (214.0), John Stockton (207.7), Charles Barkley (177.2), Hakeem Olajuwon (162.8), Otis Thorpe (106.4), Sam Perkins (105.4), Kevin Willis (81.8), Michael Cage (74.4), Jerome Kersey (69.5), Alvin Robertson (52.1)
Similar to the 2003 draft, there's not much depth here. Only seven players from this class made it to an All-Star Game, and two of them—No. 9 pick Otis Thorpe and No. 11 pick Kevin Willis—went to just one each.
But the star power at the top of this class is second to none.
In NBA history, 20 players have accumulated at least 160 win shares, and four of them (20 percent) were drafted in 1984: Michael Jordan, John Stockton, Charles Barkley and Hakeem Olajuwon. Only two other classes (1960 and 1987) produced multiple members of this club, and 1984 is the only one with at least three such legends.
In their collective careers, Jordan, Stockton, Barkley and Olajuwon combined for 47 All-Star Games, 45 All-NBA teams, 23 All-Defensive teams, 10 scoring titles, nine assist titles, five steal titles, three rebound titles, three block titles, eight NBA championships and seven MVPs. Stockton is the career leader in both assists and steals, Olajuwon is the all-time blocks king and MJ is No. 3 in steals and No. 4 in points.
Every draft class has fingerprints throughout the pages of the NBA's history, but 1984 practically authored the record books.
All advanced statistics, including win shares, courtesy of Basketball Reference.
Kerry Miller is a multisport writer for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.