Re-Drafting Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone and the 1985 'Frozen Envelope' Draft
The NBA was officially founded in 1946, but the league we know today didn't truly begin until the 1985 draft.
That was the first year a lottery determined the selection order, which set up the win-loss incentive structure that still stokes controversy today.
More importantly, that lottery provided proof that fans of the league were just as interested in what happened off the court as on it. The fascination with exactly how the woeful New York Knicks bucked the one-in-seven odds to win the top pick and select mega-prospect Patrick Ewing remains a point of massive intrigue.
It's not a stretch to say our modern fascination with free agency, sneaker culture and every other non-basketball aspect of the NBA has its roots in a single (possibly frozen, possibly creased) envelope 35 years ago. This lottery signaled to the league that fans could obsess over the NBA for reasons that had nothing to do with basketball.
We'll keep the original draft order from 1985 but re-distribute players in an order that reflects their career performance.
We'll ignore team needs and focus on the best player available—with the important acknowledgment that there are no alternate realities in which key injuries or other career-altering outside forces vanish. If someone got hurt in real life, cutting his career short, we're acting as if the same thing would have happened in our do-over. It's the only way to keep things fair.
Ironically, the shenanigans that some allege got Ewing to the Knicks weren't even necessary. He came off the board first in 1985, but that'll change in our re-draft.
1. New York Knicks: Karl Malone
The only possible argument against Karl Malone going first overall, ahead of Ewing, is that we can't be sure how great Malone would have been without John Stockton, perhaps the greatest pure facilitator in NBA history.
Malone spent his first 18 seasons with Stockton, a player who missed just 22 games over his 19-year career. Other than Malone's final go-round with the Los Angeles Lakers at age 40, we simply don't have any reliable sample to suggest what his production would have looked like without the NBA's all-time assist leader hitting him with thousands and thousands of perfect pick-and-roll pocket passes.
One educated guess: Malone still would have been worthy of the top pick. His statistical advantages over the 1985 field are that pronounced.
The Mailman is second on the NBA's all-time scoring list, sixth in games played and eighth in rebounds. He was exceptionally durable, missing no more than two games per season until the last year of his career. A two-time MVP, 14-time All-Star, 14-time All-NBA honoree (11 first teams) and four-time All-Defensive team member, Malone would be a justifiable top pick in almost any year's draft.
His 234.6 win shares are more than double that of any other non-Ewing 1985 selection. He has over 11,000 more career points, 2,000 more rebounds and 14,000 more minutes played than anybody else picked in 1985. That the hulking power forward also sits second in career assists among players picked this year almost registers as an afterthought.
If the NBA rigged the lottery, it did it for the wrong guy.
Actual Pick: Patrick Ewing
Malone's Actual Draft Slot: No. 13, Utah Jazz
2. Indiana Pacers: Patrick Ewing
Ewing doesn't fall far from his original position, landing at No. 2 on the strength of a career that featured 11 All-Star games, seven All-NBA nods and averages of 21.0 points, 9.8 rebounds and 2.4 blocks over 1,183 games.
Note, too, that those figures took hits during Ewing's final two forgettable seasons with the Seattle SuperSonics and Orlando Magic. Seeing him in those jerseys will always feel wrong—almost as wrong as imagining him in Indiana Pacers gear.
Some of the most enduring memories of Ewing's Hall of Fame career feature him battling against Indy. Those seven-game series against Reggie Miller and the Pacers in the 1994 and 1995 playoffs are gone now.
So, too, is Ewing's blown game-tying layup in the waning seconds of Game 7 of the 1995 East semifinals. That's a decent tradeoff from his perspective.
Though he's not typically viewed as a true top-tier center on the level of contemporaries Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson, Ewing joins those two (plus Anthony Davis and Elvin Hayes) as one of just five players in league history to average at least 20.0 points, 2.0 blocks and 1.0 steals for his career.
He was everything you could want in a franchise center and could easily have been the best player on a title-winner if Miller's Pacers and Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls hadn't always been in his way.
Actual Pick: Wayman Tisdale
Ewing's Actual Draft Slot: No. 1, New York Knicks
3. Los Angeles Clippers: Chris Mullin
Malone easily leads the 1985 class with a dozen seasons averaging over 25.0 points per game, but Chris Mullin comes in second with five such campaigns—all of them consecutive from 1988-89 to 1992-93.
During that remarkable half-decade stretch of his prime, Mullin amassed 9,504 points, which ranked sixth in the entire NBA, topping Olajuwon, Miller, Clyde Drexler, teammate Mitch Richmond and loads of other huge names in the process.
The sweet-shooting lefty is also the NBA's undisputed buzzcut champion.
Often misremembered as a one-dimensional spot-up shooter (probably because he shot over 40.0 percent from distance in six of his final nine seasons), Mullin's 3.5 assists per game rank seventh in the class. And though this will be true for every player from this era who had three-point range in a league that didn't yet understand the long-ball's full value, Mullin would have been an even more dangerous scorer today.
His 38.4 percent career hit rate from deep is second only to Terry Porter's 38.6 percent in this class.
Part of the Golden State Warriors' short-lived but legendary Run TMC trio, Mullin made five All-Star teams and four All-NBA teams, and he's the third straight Hall of Famer at the top of our re-draft.
The Los Angeles Clippers would probably have been happier with him than Benoit Benjamin, their real-life selection.
Actual Pick: Benoit Benjamin
Mullin's Actual Draft Slot: No. 7, Golden State Warriors
4. Seattle SuperSonics: Joe Dumars
Joe Dumars wasn't as prolific a scorer as Mullin was, and he trails the bucket-getting small forward in career win shares, box plus/minus and value over replacement player (VORP). But he was in consideration for the No. 3 spot and lands here on the strength of elite backcourt defense that earned five All-Defensive nods.
His battle-tested value to the two-time champion Detroit Pistons can't be overstated.
In 1988-89, the first of Detroit's back-to-back title seasons, Dumars tied higher-profile teammate Isiah Thomas with 7.0 win shares while topping him in true shooting percentage. The following year, Dumars was again more efficient than Thomas, racking up two more win shares (8.7 to 6.7) despite playing six fewer games than the Pistons point guard.
That's not to say Dumars deserves to be regarded as a better player than Thomas, but it suggests we should view Detroit's backcourt tandem as almost equally valuable during those defining championship seasons.
Dumars stacks up well against his 1985 draftmates, ranking first among guards with 16,401 career points and third overall with 4,612 assists. He's this class' fourth Hall of Famer.
Actual Pick: Xavier McDaniel
Dumars' Actual Draft Slot: No. 18, Detroit Pistons
5. Atlanta Hawks: Terry Porter
Terry Porter—this class' leader in career assists, made threes and three-point percentage (among players with at least five career attempts; sorry, Georgi Glouchkov)—has fallen far enough.
The 17-year veteran point guard never averaged more than 18.2 points per game in a season, but he's one of only six players picked in 1985 to make more than one All-Star game in his career. Porter spent his 20s putting up stellar across-the-board stats for some legitimately good Portland Trail Blazers teams, reaching the Finals in 1990 and 1992.
During Porter's seven seasons as a full-time starter from 1986-87 to 1992-93, he was one of five guys in the league to average at least 16.0 points and 8.0 assists per game.
He crushed that five-player field (which includes Magic Johnson, Kevin Johnson, Isiah Thomas and Tim Hardaway) in made threes and three-point percentage. As measured by true shooting percentage during that stretch, only Magic was a more efficient scorer.
Perhaps remembered as a steady player, Porter also had a knack for elevating his play in games that mattered. He scored over 30 points 17 times in 1,274 regular-season games, but he cracked 30 six times in only 124 playoff contests.
Actual Pick: Jon Koncak
Porter's Actual Draft Slot: No. 24, Portland Trail Blazers
6. Sacramento Kings: Detlef Schrempf
His career ended in 2001, but Detlef Schrempf was on the vanguard of several trends that defined the NBA of the last two decades.
At 6'10", the German import owned a deft outside touch, plus the ability to take his man off the dribble from the perimeter or post up smaller matchups inside. Schrempf often functioned as a mid-post hub, utilizing his passing skill to find cutters and feed spot-up threats. He not only foreshadowed the modern obsession with the combo forward, but he also helped pave the way for European players to thrive in the NBA.
His 1992-93 All-Star season was the first by a European player, and he was also the first non-American to win Sixth Man of the Year.
Schrempf finished with three All-Star trips, two Sixth Man honors and an All-NBA third team nod in 1994-95. It's possible the NBA would have become a global game regardless, but Schrempf was among the very first to validate Europeans' place in the league. The line connecting him to future non-American stars like fellow German Dirk Nowitzki is quite clear.
Fourth in win shares and fifth in VORP among players selected in 1985, Schrempf's career numbers would be even more impressive if it hadn't taken until his age-30 season for him to become a full-time starter.
Finally, he cannot be blamed for Entertainment 720's failure to turn a profit. That business was doomed from the start.
Actual Pick: Joe Kleine
Schrempf's Actual Draft Slot: No. 8, Dallas Mavericks
7. Golden State Warriors: Charles Oakley
Charles Oakley's legendary toughness would have been helpful for the Golden State Warriors, but Chris Mullin was largely responsible for their five playoff trips between 1986-87 and 1993-94. This is a painful hit for the Dubs, who only made the postseason seven times from 1977-78 to 2012-13. With Oakley instead of Mullin, that already embarrassing total might be cut in half.
That's no knock on Oakley, a tenacious rebounder and an intimidating anchor on some excellent defenses with the Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks. The bruising 6'8" forward averaged double-digit rebounds in six separate seasons and was a viable starter late into his 30s. His 63.3 defensive win shares rank third among 1985 draftees.
Enforcers like Oakley aren't franchise cornerstones; they support top-line stars with grit and a willingness to do the dirty work. This is as high as a player with a career scoring average of 9.7 points per game can go.
And with that, we're through the lottery. If that's surprising, it's probably because you forgot there were only 23 teams in the NBA during the 1984-85 season, and 16 of them made the playoffs. Remarkably, just one of the clubs who picked in the top seven of this draft has won a title in the ensuing 35 years: these Warriors.
Actual Pick: Chris Mullin
Oakley's Actual Draft Slot: No. 9, Cleveland Cavaliers (traded to Chicago Bulls)
8. Dallas Mavericks: Arvydas Sabonis
For several reasons, it's impossible to know what to do with Arvydas Sabonis in this draft.
First of all, he wasn't even legally selected when the Atlanta Hawks took him at No. 77 in 1985 because he was under 21. That pick was voided, and the Portland Trail Blazers grabbed him in 1986 after he'd torn his Achilles. But he wouldn't come to play for them until the 1995-96 campaign—at age 30.
Secondly, the Blazers version of Sabonis was obviously skilled but almost totally immobile and nothing like the mythically gifted 7'3" superstar those who saw him play in Europe swore he was.
Bill Walton saw a 19-year-old Sabonis in person and told Grantland's Jonathan Abrams the following in 2011:
"He probably had a quadruple-double at halftime, and his coach, Alexander Gomelsky, didn't even start him in the second half. We looked at each other, our jaws just dropping, and I said, 'You might as well just rewrite the rules of basketball after watching him play for just the first half.' ... He could do everything. He had the skills of Larry Bird and Pete Maravich. He had the athleticism of Kareem, and he could shoot the 3-point shot. He could pass and run the floor, dribble."
Despite playing just seven seasons at diminished physical capacity, Sabonis still ranks 13th in total win shares among 1985 selections. His 0.200 win shares per 48 minutes trail only Malone (among those with at least five games played), which hints at the immense value a practically washed Sabonis still provided.
9. Cleveland Cavaliers: A.C. Green
Best known for the remarkable durability that allowed him to play 1,192 consecutive games, A.C. Green played in one All-Star game and was a member of the 1988-89 All-Defensive second team.
He's one of just four 1985 selections to amass at least 1,000 steals and 500 blocks in his career, and he was a full-time starter on three championship teams with the Los Angeles Lakers, collecting his third ring in 2000, a dozen years after his second.
Nothing spectacular here. Just a power forward who never missed time and played an integral defensive role on title contenders for many of his 16 seasons. That's worth a top-10 pick in a draft that's rapidly running out of reliable producers.
10. Phoenix Suns: Hot Rod Williams
A 6'11" frontcourt scorer and shot-blocker whose 9,784 career points rank 12th in the class, Hot Rod Williams is probably best known for off-court activities.
His March 1985 arrest on suspicion of point-shaving while at Tulane University caused him to slip to 45th in the draft. The subsequent trial prevented him from making his NBA debut until the 1986-87 season. The 14.6 points and 7.9 rebounds he averaged in 80 starts during his inaugural campaign were good evidence his draft status and delayed entry had little to do with a lack of talent.
Williams averaged double-figure scoring in the first nine seasons of his 13-year career, and his 1,456 career swats rank fourth among 1985 selections.
11. Chicago Bulls: Xavier McDaniel
Rugged, always ready to scrap and one of only four 1985 selections to post at least four qualified seasons of over 20.0 points per game, Xavier McDaniel made the All-Rookie team in 1985-86 and earned the lone All-Star trip of his career two years later in 1987-88.
That season, he was one of only four players to average at least 21.0 points, 6.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists. The other three were Charles Barkley, Larry Bird and Clyde Drexler.
McDaniel's career scoring average of 15.6 points per game ranks fifth in the class, but the 6'7" forward, picked fourth overall in real life, has a negative career box plus/minus and posted a true shooting percentage below the league average in 10 of his 12 seasons.
12. Washington Bullets: Michael Adams
Michael Adams went 66th to the Sacramento Kings in the real 1985 draft and didn't find much success until landing on the run-and-gun Denver Nuggets in his third season. His best year came in 1990-91 when he got the ultimate green light. That year, he jacked up 21.5 shots per game and averaged 26.5 points on 39.4 percent shooting from the field.
Adams was an All-Star in 1991-92, and though it's impressive that a 5'10" guard could fill it up like he did during his prime, it's clear his legacy benefits from the fact that all his scoring came in an era before efficiency overtook the premium on volume.
13. Utah Jazz: Mario Elie
Without looking it up, it feels safe to claim Mario Elie as the most productive 160th pick in history.
The 6'5" wing sojourned across multiple continents in his professional career before making his NBA debut in 1990-91. He was a short-time sidekick for Run TMC in Golden State before eventually catching on with the two-time champion Houston Rockets. His "kiss of death" corner three sent Houston to the conference finals in 1995.
Elie averaged just 8.6 points per game for his career but was always a reliable defender and spacer, consistently finding himself in demand on winning teams. He ranks 11th in the class in win shares and secured his third ring with the 1998-99 San Antonio Spurs.
14. San Antonio Spurs: Wayman Tisdale
A smooth-scoring lefty forward originally taken second overall out of Oklahoma, Wayman Tisdale got his buckets with surprising efficiency for a player who never dabbled with a three-point shot and created a lot of his own looks with a slick short mid-range game.
His 50.5 career effective field-goal percentage is sixth-best among 1985 selections who took at least 5,000 shots in their careers. And though he was never an All-Star, Tisdale averaged at least 10.0 points per game in each of his first 12 seasons, slipping below that mark during his final campaign with the 1996-97 Phoenix Suns.
He was also (comfortably) the top smooth-jazz artist among former NBA players.
15. Denver Nuggets: Tyrone Corbin
Tisdale cracked the top 15 with his scoring, but Tyrone Corbin lands here on the strength of his defense and less conspicuous contributions.
The 6'6" small forward is fifth in steals, 10th in rebounds and 11th in assists among 1985 draftees, and he's one of only eight players in the class to exceed 1,000 career games.
16. Dallas Mavericks: Spud Webb
Though best known for winning the 1986 Slam Dunk Contest at 5'6", Spud Webb played a dozen seasons in the NBA, finishing with career averages of 9.9 points and 5.3 assists per game. His best year came with the Kings in 1991-92 when he averaged 16.0 points and 7.1 assists in 35.4 minutes per game—all career highs.
He ranks fourth in the class in total assists and ninth in steals, and, perhaps most remarkably, his 111 career blocks are the third-most by a player under six feet. Webb used his bounce to do more than dunk.
17. Dallas Mavericks: Gerald Wilkins
True to the Wilkins name, Gerald (Dominque's brother) could fill it up. Though he never cracked the 20-points-per-game barrier, Wilkins was a regular starter in each of his first nine seasons, averaging between 11.1 and 19.1 points per contest in that span.
The 6'6" wing also tallied at least 200 assists in seven separate seasons and bested Dominque in career assist percentage, 16.1 percent to 12.1 percent. Some trivia: Webb bested both Wilkins brothers in the 1986 dunk contest.
Wilkins was also an accomplished defender, but you can guess how the purported "Jordan stopper" fared when put to the test against MJ in a postseason setting.
18. Detroit Pistons: Benoit Benjamin
Benoit Benjamin was a gifted 7-footer and one of the league's top shot-blockers the moment he debuted for the Los Angeles Clippers in 1985. He averaged at least 2.6 blocks per game in each of his five full seasons with the Clips, peaking at 3.4 in 1987-88.
When focused, he could produce monstrous stat lines. Benjamin put up 34 points, 23 rebounds and eight blocks in a loss to the Hornets on March 17, 1989, and he posted 25 points, 10 rebounds and 10 blocks in a win over the Spurs two weeks later. Manute Bol has 18 of the 20 double-digit block games produced by 1985 picks, but Benjamin has the other two.
There was never any question about Benjamin's talent, but the phrases "accused of being lazy" and "difficult to coach" show up in a 1993 New York Times article detailing his trade from the Los Angeles Lakers to the New Jersey Nets. From that, you can intuit how the No. 3 pick in the real 1985 draft ends up all the way down at No. 18.
Theoretically a cornerstone, Benjamim played in just 18 postseason games.
19. Houston Rockets: Sam Mitchell
Selected 54th in 1985, Sam Mitchell bounced around the CBA and USBL and spent time playing professionally in France before signing a deal to join the expansion Minnesota Timberwolves in 1989-90. He averaged 12.7 points as a 26-year-old rookie and would play at least 75 games in each of his first nine seasons.
Despite the late start, Mitchell is ninth in games played and 17th in win shares among 1985 selections. Though partly due to the fact that he so infrequently passed the ball, it's still notable that Mitchell almost never coughed it up. He has the lowest turnover rate of any 1985 pick who played at least 12,000 career minutes.
20. Boston Celtics: Manute Bol
We already spoiled it in the Benjamin section, but Bol is this class' most renowned shot-swatter. Yes, Ewing had more rejections in his career, but that's only because he logged nearly four times as many total minutes.
As a rookie with Washington, the 7'7" center averaged a league-leading 5.0 blocks per game and sent back at least 2.1 per contest every year after that until 1992-93, his last relatively healthy season.
Bol was too thin and immobile to do anything besides defend the rim, but Don Nelson, one of the most strategically nonconformist coaches in league history, let him shoot threes, producing some of the more delightful sequences of the last 30 years.
And yes, it's just a coincidence that the team that currently employs 7'5" Tacko Fall lands Bol in this re-draft. Maybe.
21. Philadelphia 76ers: Terry Catledge
Terry Catledge only played eight NBA seasons, the last four of which came in relative obscurity for the expansion Orlando Magic. He might be best remembered as the guy who refused to give up his No. 33 jersey to a rookie named Shaquille O'Neal, forcing the Diesel to sport No. 32 during his Orlando tenure.
That bit of trivia shouldn't overshadow the fact that the 6'8" power forward averaged 12.7 points per game for his career, cresting at 19.4 in 1989-90 with the newly minted Magic. He also hit the Warriors for 49 points on Jan. 13, 1990, the eighth-highest scoring total produced by a member of the 1985 class.
22. Milwaukee Bucks: Ed Pinckney
If this were a re-draft of guys who played within themselves, Ed Pinckney would have been a lottery pick. A reserve forward who averaged 19.8 minutes per game for his career, the journeyman's 53.5 field-goal percentage is tops among 1985 picks who played at least 100 games.
23. Los Angeles Lakers: Jon Koncak
It's exceptionally rare for a player taken as high as Jon Koncak (fifth overall) to disappoint the team that picked him so profoundly and still, somehow, stick with that franchise for several years. Usually, organizations try to rid themselves of their draft whiffs, but the Atlanta Hawks held onto a center for a full decade who never averaged over 8.3 points or 6.8 rebounds.
More than that, Atlanta lavished the backup center with a six-year, $13 million deal in 1989—superstar money (at the time) for a player who'd just averaged 4.7 points in his fourth season. Twenty-first in VORP and win shares but No. 1 in contract negotiations in his class, Koncak closes out the first round of one of the most consequential drafts in history.
Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted.