Every NBA Team's Most Important Draft Pick Since 2010, for Better or Worse
'Tis the season for NBA draft retrospectives. And this one's a doozy.
Most exercises seek to relitigate past selections with the benefit of hindsight. This is a little of that, and a little of not that. Teams were not necessarily slammed or ballyhooed for their decisions. This was merely an attempt to identify the most important draft pick of the past decade for each squad.
Rules were bent to account for selections that were actually acquisitions—and to ensure focus was not often monopolized by what-if dilemmas.
Players must have finished their respective draft night on a team's roster to be eligible for consideration, either officially or as part of a deal that was agreed upon and pushed through after the start of free agency. Ergo, Kawhi Leonard was a member of the San Antonio Spurs' draft catalogue rather than that of the Indiana Pacers.
Flagrant misses were part of the discussion but, in most cases, not actual selections. Busts have ramifications, and they are important. Yet those whiffs place a heavier burden on the hits, whether they came prior or thereafter, who end up shouldering greater expectations by virtue of their successes—or just absences of failure.
Rest assured, that doesn't render this one giant hug for every franchise. Meaning takes all forms, and it ends in all sorts of ways: for better, worse or, at times, somewhere in between.
Atlanta Hawks: Trae Young (2018)
Trae Young's significance to the Atlanta Hawks' draft-day record is at once unparalleled and bittersweet.
They didn't actually select him. They traded for him. The player they flipped to complete the deal? Luka Doncic.
That is, in hindsight, close to unforgivable. It was questionable in the moment. Doncic is already jockeying for top-five status and, through two years, has the look of a generational talent, someone who might one day become the face of the league. Atlanta will only save face, entirely, if it wins a title before him or Cam Reddish, who was selected with the other pick that exchanged hands in this swap, can make up the talent gap.
Young himself is good enough for either scenario to register as a remote possibility. That's good news. His defensive effort verges on fictive, but he's a freewheeling scorer and playmaking wizard—potential best-player-on-a-title-team material.
With all due respect to Al Horford and Paul Millsap, Atlanta hasn't employed that caliber of star since...Dominique Wilkins. Young is already sixth for the franchise in value over replacement player since 2010, and he hasn't even started his third year. His acquisition is very much about who the Hawks passed on, but it's also, luckily for them, about who they got.
Boston Celtics: Jayson Tatum (2017)
Jayson Tatum's superstardom is no longer theoretical. It is actual.
Injuries and limited availability throughout the league diluted his All-NBA selection, but closing the year as a player with fringe top-10 value is not a feat that can be diminished by circumstance. His escape-dribble shot-making and budding aggression downhill renders him the idealistic building block: a 6'8" wing who can power the offense and defend and who has hinted at offering leveling-up as a playmaker.
Nobody is more integral to the Celtics' open-ended title contention. Even the deepest teams need at least one player cut from the megastar mold, that franchise cornerstone who can, unequivocally, headline a championship push. If Tatum isn't already that guy, he's well on his way.
Like many others, though, his arrival is peppered with alternative scenarios. What if the Celtics hadn't struck a trade with the Philadelphia 76ers to move down in the draft, from No. 1 to No. 3, in 2017? Would they really have selected him with the first overall pick? When Markelle Fultz had a monopoly on the consensus?
And what would have happened if Gordon Hayward never suffered a devastating leg injury on opening night of Tatum's rookie campaign? Would his role have been as large out of the gate? What if Kyrie Irving himself didn't miss Boston's 2018 playoff push? Would Tatum's rise have been so instant, his ceiling so clear?
Hypotheticals, schmypotheticals. It doesn't matter now. The Celtics have him, he became mission critical from the jump, and their future, together, is much better for it.
Brooklyn Nets: Derrick Favors (2010)
For a team that frittered away many of its own meaningfully placed draft picks, the Brooklyn Nets actually had a pleasant number of options from which to choose.
Rolling the dice on Caris LeVert in 2016, via a trade with the Pacers, is paying major dividends. He delivers the primary shot-making and secondary orchestration of someone who can be the third-best player on a title contender. Mining that kind of value outside the lottery is a huge deal.
Getting Jarrett Allen at No. 22 in 2017 looms as another notable victory. His shine has dulled a little bit since it's clear his three-point shot isn't going to become a thing, but bagging quality starters so late in the first round never ceases to impress. He might even be the pick, if not for the Nets having prioritized DeAndre Jordan over him this side of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.
Derrick Favors earned the nod by virtue of the domino effect. He was the centerpiece in the Deron Williams trade midway through his rookie season—and in most Carmelo Anthony hypotheticals—after getting picked at No. 3. The Nets were always expected to be aggressive under then-governor Mikhail Prokhorov, but that move thrust them into an entirely different timeline.
They made trades—Joe Johnson, Gerald Wallace, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett—and spent money under the pretext Williams could anchor a title contender. They bet wrong. And while they may have short-circuited their future no matter what, the first gargantuan swing they took was made possible, at least in part, by Favors.
Charlotte Hornets: Kemba Walker (2011)
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the No. 2 pick in 2012, has a case here. And it rests entirely on what he wasn't: Anthony Davis, who was selected one spot before him; Bradley Beal, who was selected one spot after him; and someone worthy, in hindsight, of being selected second overall.
Going that route without viable alternatives is fine. Harping on what MKG never became when Kemba Walker exists is flat-out masochism.
Whiffing on MKG—and so many other lottery picks thereafter—only stung the Charlotte Hornets so hard because of Walker. Granted, stardom wasn't a given. The four-year, $48 million extension he signed in 2014 went from "Did Charlotte just overspend on an undersized, inefficient-shooting point guard?" to "Oh, wow, this is one of the best value contracts in recent history."
That lack of obviousness and rapidity behind Kemba's ascent doesn't make the Hornets' stick-in-the-mud peformance any easier to stomach. He improved his outside touch and turned into one of the most lethal pull-up artisans in the league. And he was firmly entrenched among the Association's top 20 to 25 players for most of his second contract, culminating with an All-NBA third team selection for the 2018-19 campaign, during which he joined James Harden and D'Angelo Russell as the only players to clear 25 points, six assists and three made triples per 36 minutes.
Asserting that Charlotte squandered the timeline of a star who would headline a title squad goes a length too far. Kemba is more of a No. 2 or 1B in that situation. That, too, isn't an excuse. He eventually became an offense unto himself. Had the Hornets made more of their top-10 picks in 2012 (MKG), 2013 (Cody Zeller), 2014 (Noah Vonleh) and 2015 (Frank Kaminksky) or resisted the urge to double down on their 48-win team from 2015-16, Kemba's tenure in Charlotte probably would've included more meaningful games—and, potentially, lasted longer.
Chicago Bulls: Jimmy Butler (2011)
Jimmy Butler's nod goes entirely unchallenged.
Wendell Carter Jr. (No. 7 in 2018) and Coby White (No. 7 in 2019) haven't played or done enough to define the next era of Chicago Bulls basketball. The cash considerations jokes are still funny, but giving Jordan Bell (No. 38 in 2017) to the Golden State Warriors for $3.5 million in 2017 has avoided damning seller's remorse.
Focusing on Lauri Markkanen, the seventh pick in 2017 and a centerpiece in the trade that landed Butler with the Minnesota Timberwolves, doesn't compute. He hasn't turned into a fringe star, but Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn were equal, if not greater, highlights of that package. LaVine specifically has ferried more of Chicago's direction post-Jimmy than anyone.
(Fun aside: The Bulls really have the past three No. 7 picks. They must now find a way to trade down ahead of the 2020 draft.)
Really, it would take one helluva home run—or miss—for another option to rival Butler. Teams don't close out the first round expecting to snag a future Most Improved Player. Butler didn't reach his peak until Chicago moved him, but he still made three All-Star appearances and three All-Defense squads before leaving town, all while offering a clear segue into an era that didn't include a healthy Derrick Rose. That the Bulls opted to cut said transition short does nothing to diminish his importance.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Kyrie Irving (2011)
Draft-day misses struggled to earn more than honorable mentions during this process. Their existence merely amplified the importance of the hits, by way of the extra pressure put on them.
Every rule has its exceptions, and the Cleveland Cavaliers flirted with being one.
Selecting Anthony Bennett with the No. 1 choice in 2013 was among the most egregious misses in league history. He was a consensus not-top-pick in a class that had zero consensus top picks. That decision could be the most significant mark, in the form of a blot, if the Cavs didn't end up moving him, along with another No. 1 miss in Andrew Wiggins, for Kevin Love.
Kyrie Irving's arrival probably would have overshadowed the Bennett pick even if the latter wasn't promptly rerouted. First overall picks aren't guaranteed to develop into players with top-10 potential. Irving gave Cleveland a starting point for its rebuild. That the team parlayed other high-end draft choices into sub-stars is outside his control.
Beyond that, even though Kyrie's apex with the Cavaliers was optimized by LeBron James' 2014 return, having him at all made the reunion between franchise and star more palatable for the latter. Perhaps LeBron would have come back without Kyrie already in place. Fine. Kyrie still hit one of the biggest shots in NBA history—a clutch three that ensured a championship. It doesn't get more important than that.
Dallas Mavericks: Luka Doncic (2018)
Here is every NBA player who has finished in the top five of MVP voting before their age-21 season:
- Luka Doncic
So many different factors come into play here. Chief among them are the age at which players enter the league and the opportunities bestowed upon them. Doncic's first two seasons with the Dallas Mavericks are a perfect meld of both. They handed him the keys at the age of 19, and he never gave them back. (Of note: LeBron James finished sixth on the MVP ballot during his age-20 season.)
Envisioning how this would play out for the Mavs had they not traded for Doncic does more to stimulate the mind. That's the extent to which this is a non-decision.
Trae Young is the default option, assuming they would've still taken and kept him at No. 5 in 2018, if only because the Mavericks haven't made a habit of keeping or acquiring draft picks during this time span. (And also because he's really good.)
Dennis Smith Jr., the No. 9 pick in 2017, would enter the fray, as well—both because he hasn't yet panned out and because Dallas used him to acquire Kristaps Porzingis. (Thought exercise: Do the Mavs still make that deal if they have Young instead of Doncic?)
Denver Nuggets: Nikola Jokic (2014)
Imagine trying to make a case for someone else.
Nikola Jokic has a real chance to finish as the biggest late-draft steal in history. His primary competition since the league switched to a two-round format in 1989 are those with lower peaks (Marc Gasol, Draymond Green) and shorter apexes (Gilbert Arenas, Isaiah Thomas).
Manu Ginobili (No. 57 in 1999) has him beat—for now. His status is rooted in its longevity over its peak. Jokic has an opportunity to juggle both if he continues along his current pace as an established top-10 player. As I wrote when having this exact discussion...with myself:
"Catch-all metrics are an imperfect means of gauging a player's entire value, but they tell at least part of the story. Since entering the league, Jokic ranks 11th in win shares, sixth in VORP and ninth in regularized adjusted plus-minus. That is an accurate snapshot of where he currently stands relative to the rest of the Association's stars, and it suggests an arc that could eventually, if inevitably, render him the single biggest draft steal of the lottery era."
Jokic's significance cannot be overstated. Finding anyone of minor consequence at No. 41 is big-time. The Denver Nuggets found someone to be their franchise blueprint.
Semi-related: The Nuggets are fortunate they have Jokic on their draft record, and that they have Jamal Murray on which to fall back. Flipping the picks that became Rudy Gobert (No. 27 in 2013) and Donovan Mitchell (No. 13 in 2017) for what amounted, in sum, to Erick Green, Tyler Lydon, Trey Lyles and cash would receive far more attention otherwise. (Though, to be clear, neither Gobert nor Mitchell would be the subject of this conversation.)
Detroit Pistons: Andre Drummond (2012)
Shoutout to Detroit Bad Boys' Lazarus Jackson for talking yours truly through this one. The Detroit Pistons' draft portfolio since 2010 is blah on so many levels, wanting for both flash and substance whether you're looking to celebrate the good or accentuate the bad.
Greg Monroe (No. 7 in 2010) wasn't Gordon Hayward (No. 9) or Paul George (No. 10). Fact. Brandon Knight (No. 8 in 2011) wasn't Kemba Walker (No. 9) or Klay Thompson (No. 11). Another fact. These would be actionable if those selections were considered foolish in real-time or didn't take so long to progress outside the Pistons' favor.
Bemoaning Kentavious Caldwell-Pope's selection (No. 8 in 2013) is pointless unless you saw CJ McCollum (No. 10) or Giannis Antetokounmpo (No. 15) coming. Giving up on Khris Middleton (No. 39 in 2012) and Spencer Dinwiddie (No. 38 in 2014) so soon doesn't look great, but neither provided a glimpse of the player they became prior to Detroit's decision.
Stanley Johnson (No. 8 in 2015) was a miss, but the 2015 draft turned out to be a minefield near the top. The Pistons could've taken Myles Turner (No. 11) or Devin Booker (No. 13). They also could've selected Frank Kaminsky (No. 9) or Trey Lyles (No. 12). Someone, somewhere, in Detroit is still clamoring for Henry Ellenson to get minutes. But seriously: Players taken 18th overall (2016) can't truly go bust.
Missing out on Donovan Mitchell (No. 13 in 2017) is a tempting alternative. Luke Kennard (No. 12) is good but not Donovan Mitchell good. Just as he enabled the Utah Jazz to stave off a conventional rebuild following Gordon Hayward's departure, he might've helped the Pistons climb outside the middle. Or maybe they would've traded him for Blake Griffin.
Andre Drummond (No. 9 in 2012) is the most sensible option regardless of the slant.
His value continues to seesaw as the league moves away from non-shooting bigs whose best defensive skill is rebounding, but he has two All-Star appearances under his belt and gave the Pistons someone around whom they tried to build their franchise. Was their view of him for the better? Probably not. But recency bias works against him, and the most brutal assessments of his career don't erase his importance to Detroit.
Golden State Warriors: Draymond Green (2012)
Draymond Green (No. 35 in 2012) comfortably edges Klay Thompson (No. 11 in 2011) for the Warriors. Maybe, just maybe, that changes in time.
Thompson is working his way off a torn left ACL, but he's an all-time shooter whose best skills—flamethrowing and wing defense—should age better. His play may prove more pivotal to Golden State reopening its title window and then maintaining it for any meaningful amount of time.
And yet, he has a lot of ground to make up.
Green receives a lot of flak for his jump shot—that 2015-16 season, in which he drained 38.8 percent of his threes, is the outlier of all outliers—but he's a generational defender. His absolute pinnacle included switching onto all five positions without overstretching his functional bandwidth. Watching him off the ball, when he's fully locked in, counts as a form of cardio.
Whether Green offers this same value moving forward remains to be seen. His activity and efficiency dropped off at both ends this past season. This could merely be a gap-year anomaly, but at 30, it could also be a harbinger of decline.
Either way, his resume speaks for itself. The Warriors founded an entire defensive philosophy around him, and it aided the creation of a dynasty.
Houston Rockets: Clint Capela (2014)
Scant few options are on the table for the Houston Rockets. They spent this entire span under hyperactive general manager Daryl Morey and neither kept nor developed enough draft picks for one player to leave a noticeable imprint.
Jeremy Lamb (No. 12 in 2012) has a convincing case. He didn't debut with the Rockets but wasn't traded until a few days before the regular season as part of the package that brought in James Harden. Houston hasn't, incidentally, selected in the lottery since.
Still, the Harden blockbuster didn't include a singular crown jewel. The Oklahoma City Thunder were accepting a hodgepodge of assets that made (some) sense: a large expiring contract (Kevin Martin), a cost-controlled prospect (Lamb), two future firsts and a second-rounder. Lamb did not make that deal on his own.
Montrezl Harrell is a fun name to kick around...for like a millisecond. He didn't take on a larger role until he joined the Los Angeles Clippers. His per-minute output intrigued with the Rockets, particularly as a sophomore, but Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams are the closest the Chris Paul trade came to having a flagship asset.
Clint Capela is the clear choice. He encapsulated everything the Rockets needed from a big playing beside Harden: a screening, rim-running, lob-finishing, hard-rebounding complement whose defensive motor wasn't the least bit tied to his offensive volume.
The manner in which he left Houston changes nothing. The Rockets treated Robert Covington as the best player in that four-team deal, but Capela's value, both internally and externally, would've held steadier if Russell Westbrook's arrival didn't warp the offensive fit.
Indiana Pacers: Paul George (2010)
Dear Anyone Who Skipped The Introduction,
Kawhi Leonard doesn't count.
Please Read The Introduction.
Lance Stephenson would likely vote for Lance Stephenson (No. 40 in 2010), but Paul George (No. 10) makes this a no-brainer. His trek up the star-player ladder was more of a gradual burn. A broken right leg essentially cost him all of 2014-15, but he still cobbled together Most Improved Player honors, three All-NBA appearances, three All-Defensive bids and four All-Star selections before leaving Indiana.
His value may be best framed by a moment in time.
He wasn't quite at the height of his powers when the Pacers were irritating the hell out of the Big Three-era Miami Heat, but the 2013 postseason—and this sledgehammer on Chris Andersen specifically—served to unveil his stardom. Indiana pushed Miami to seven games in 2013, and then six in 2014, on the back of a defense and gritty offense George helped power alongside Stephenson, Roy Hibbert, George Hill and David West.
His messy exit doesn't allow for detours from the beaten path. Myles Turner is the next-best option, which is to say the Pacers have no next-best option. And anyway, the George trade brought back Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, who remain the basis of everything Indiana is doing. For now.
Los Angeles Clippers: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2018)
Just in case anyone's confused: Blake Griffin, the 2010-11 Rookie of the Year, was drafted in 2009. He is not part of this retrospective.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander rescues the Clippers from a thoroughly unflattering reflection.
The 2011 first-round pick they traded away with Baron Davis for, um, Mo Williams and Jamario Moon doesn't technically qualify, but I might've made an exception on the basis of egregious logic without an impactful substitute. Failing that, they also took Al Farouq-Aminu in 2010 (No. 8) juuust before Gordon Hayward (No. 9) and Paul George (No. 10).
Pivoting into pessimism would have, believe it or not, constituted a compliment. The Clippers didn't hold many memorable draft selections after Griffin. Dealing for Chris Paul ahead of the 2011-12 season placed them on a treadmill of title contention with the mix of late first-rounders and indifference to keeping their own picks that came with it.
Acquiring Gilgeous-Alexander in 2018 (No. 11) from the Hornets for Miles Bridges (No. 12) and two second-rounders proved to be a flash-point moment. He made an instant impact on defense and showcased a better-than-expected offensive feel, and in doing so, he gave the Clippers a roadmap to maximizing the post-CP3 era.
As it turns out, that roadmap led to their acquisitions of Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, which only ups the importance of the Gilgeous-Alexander acquisition. The Clippers wouldn't have won the Kawhi sweepstakes without getting George, and though they mortgaged themselves to the hilt in the process, they'd have been harder-pressed to get George without Gilgeous-Alexander.
Los Angeles Lakers: Brandon Ingram (2016)
Feel free to take this in a different direction. The Los Angeles Lakers' decade in drafting offers plenty of options—and not, in many cases, for the right reasons.
Should D'Angelo Russell (No. 2 in 2015) get the nod because he wasn't a James Harden-Manu Ginobili hybrid? Or because he was taken before Kristaps Porzingis? Or because he was used to lop off Timofey Mozgov's bank-breaking deal one year prior to LeBron James' 2018 free agency and eventual arrival?
Does Lonzo Ball (No. 2 in 2017) warrant consideration because he was grabbed one pick in front of Jayson Tatum (No. 3)? And three spots before De'Aaron Fox (No. 5)? And because he was part of the package that landed Anthony Davis?
De'Andre Hunter (No. 4 in 2019) definitely deserves a break-the-rules honorable mention—not because of his individual value but because of his draft spot. The tenor of AD trade talks changed completely when the Lakers jumped to No. 4 in the lottery. But rules are rules, and an alternate universe in which Los Angeles didn't get the fourth overall choice doesn't preclude it from striking a deal.
Settling on Brandon Ingram feels right. He is the highest-end prospect the Lakers drafted and kept and, even with restricted free agency one year out, did more to glitz up their AD package than Lonzo or the No. 4 pick. (The same can probably be said about the 2023 first-round swap and unprotected selection in 2024 or 2025, but not beyond a shadow of a doubt.)
Memphis Grizzlies: Ja Morant (2019)
The Memphis Grizzlies did not glean much value out of the draft from 2010 through 2017. They dealt plenty of selections away because when you can give up a first for Jon Leuer or Jeff Green, you have to do it. Of the ones they kept, they never selected higher than No. 12 (Xavier Henry in 2010).
Limited options come with the Grizzlies' territory (for the most part). They rode the Grit-'n'-Grind core for as long as they could, ingraining themselves into the mid-to-upper echelon of the Western Conference. Draft picks typically amount to trade currency and fliers at that level.
Having only recently leaned into a rebuild, the Grizzlies' past two bites at the apple were always going to jockey for this selection. The smart money would've been on Jaren Jackson Jr. (No. 4 in 2018). But then Ja Morant (No. 2 in 2019) came along.
Rookie of the Year winners are seldom underappreciated. Morant might be. It has virtually nothing to do with the Zion Williamson fanfare and everything to do with his atypical marriage of volume and efficiency.
Only six other first-year players have ever matched his usage rate (25.9) and true shooting percentage (55.6): Terry Cummings, Walter Davis, Tim Duncan, Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal and David Robinson. That Morant is the sole lead guard of the bunch should not be overlooked.
The Grizzlies haven't hitched their wagon to a probable All-Star. They have a potential MVP candidate on their hands.
Miami Heat: Bam Adebayo (2017)
In one of the least shocking developments ever, the Miami Heat have more than a couple of players worth mentioning despite keeping only three of their own first-round picks since 2010.
Josh Richardson (No. 40 in 2015) was both a ridiculous steal and the centerpiece that allowed them to complete the sign-and-trade for Jimmy Butler. Tyler Herro (No. 13 in 2019) has a chance to go down as the third-best player from his class, behind only Zion Williamson (No. 1) and Ja Morant (No. 2). Duncan Robinson and Kendrick Nunn—well, they don't count, but still, Miami is ridiculous.
Bam Adebayo (No. 14 in 2017) earned the pole position by a not-insignificant margin. He has gone from an end-of-lottery gamble backing up Hassan Whiteside to an All-Star and the second-best player on a Finals team in a matter of three seasons.
Is this the Heat's secret sauce at work? Was Adebayo always destined to be a switch-everything defender and point center who filled the box score from every imaginable angle? Is there a middle ground between the two?
Does it matter? Not at all. Miami remains unfair, and Adebayo is absurdly good, either way.
Milwaukee Bucks: Giannis Antetokounmpo (2013)
Aaand moving on.
But not really.
Except, sort of really.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is perhaps the most unimpeachable choice of this entire exercise. The Milwaukee Bucks gambled on his long-term upside at No. 15, and he's since paid generational dividends by single-handedly wedging open their title window, bagging back-to-back MVP awards and joining Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon as the only players to win said MVP honors and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season.
Maybe someone's more angry the Bucks took Jabari Parker (No. 2) in 2014 instead of Joel Embiid (No. 3) than they are impressed by Giannis. Or something.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Karl-Anthony Towns (2015)
Minnesota has some less-than-stellar draft decisions to put under the microscope, but let's agree to be above the lowest-hanging fruit. Plus, for all this team's questionable moves, its misses since 2010 aren't massive.
Perhaps you're super salty about the Derrick Williams pick from 2011. Related: Don't be super salty about the Derrick Williams pick from 2011.
He didn't give the Timberwolves an adequate return relative to his No. 2 spot, but that draft was problematic at the top. Even with Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic on the roster, they were more likely to take Enes Kanter (No. 3), Tristan Thompson (No. 4), Jonas Valanciunas (No. 5), Jan Vesely (No. 6) or Bismack Biyombo (No. 7) rather than Kemba Walker (No. 9), Klay Thompson (No. 11) or Kawhi Leonard (No. 15).
No other miss stands out. The Timberwolves don't even really have a miss. They turned three of their more recent lottery picks—Zach LaVine (No. 13 in 2014) and Kris Dunn (No. 5 in 2016) plus Lauri Markkanen (No. 7 in 2017)—into Jimmy Butler. That trade was a certifiable win. The end to Butler's tenure in Minnesota was not.
Fast-forward another five years, and it could be the 2020 pick that commandeers the spotlight from the previous decade. The Timberwolves have the No. 1 overall selection in a draft with no consensus choice at a time when they're itching to win and have traded a loosely protected 2021 first to the Warriors. This will be a pivotal moment whether they keep the selection or deal it.
Karl-Anthony Towns, though, takes precedence—and it's not even sort of close.
Criticize his defensive effort. Note how he hasn't spearheaded a playoff team without Butler. It's all fair game. But he is closer to a top-10 player than top 20, with offensive utility that knows no position. He has the finishing force and post moves of a big and the outside range and comfort facing up off the dribble of a wing or guard.
Even by top pick standards, he's a steal.
New Orleans Pelicans: Anthony Davis (2012)
Props to anyone already arguing in favor of Zion Williamson (No. 1 in 2019). You need otherworldly wingspan to make that kind of reach.
Anthony Davis' tenure with the New Orleans Pelicans ended in a smoldering heap of bad optics, but his arrival put the then-Hornets on the map, as he exceeded even most the ambitious expectations tethered to his No. 1 draft spot. He was more instant star than not, ascending so quickly up the ladder it coaxed New Orleans into a state of what felt like perpetual slapdash urgency.
Some win-now moves made sense. Getting Jrue Holiday for what amounted to Nerlens Noel (No. 6 in 2013) and Elfrid Payton (No. 10 in 2014) remains a victory. The DeMarcus Cousins trade from 2017 was borne from the urgency of previous missteps, but it was hardly considered reckless and only went belly-up once he suffered an Achilles injury.
Less forgivable was dealing a 2015 first for Omer Asik and Omri Casspi. (That pick turned into Sam Dekker.) Inking Asik to a five-year deal was even worse. The sign-and-trade for Tyreke Evans proved costly. Giving four years and $48 million to Solomon Hill was so 2016.
Moral of the story: The Anthony Davis era in New Orleans was marked by could-haves and should-haves. Injuries are part of the calculus, too. But this is only dissected ad nauseam because Davis was—and is—so damn good. And he's not just the player who incited at times ill-conceived urgency. He's also the trade asset they parlayed into the launchpad for one of the league's most promising rebuilds.
New York Knicks: Kristaps Porzingis (2015)
Kristaps Porzingis' importance to the New York Knicks has waned when viewed through the lens of a championship contender. Between his injuries and the premium placed upon from-scratch creators, he's unlikely to ever be the best player on a title hopeful.
This shouldn't come as much consolation to the Knicks or their fans. They didn't dodge disaster by trading him to the Mavericks. The idea behind moving him was defensible; what they received in return is less so.
It doesn't matter if he never plays 70 games (or a shortened season's equivalent) again. His trade value exceeded Dennis Smith Jr., two future firsts from what was going to be a really good team and cap space.
Prioritizing the latter hamstrung the Knicks' ability to extract more tangible assets. They'd be lauded if that cap space turned into two superstars. It didn't. So they're not. That's how this works.
And this botched return is only worth rehashing because of what Porzingis represented to the franchise on the court: its best home-grown building block since...Patrick Ewing. That, again, doesn't mean he could have floated championship ambitions on his own. He was romanticized as an idea because he symbolized a more organic path out of the doldrums, one that didn't hinge on unlikely free-agency coups and asset-draining trades.
Porzingis' significance endures now, nearly two years removed from his exit. Part of the Knicks' future remains tied to what he returned. And with the opportunity to turn that cap flexibility into a full-fledged star now gone—the 2019 free-agency class is barren of available star power—their capacity to win this trade rests on what becomes of DSJ and Dallas' first-rounders in 2021 and 2023 (top-10-protected).
Oklahoma City Thunder: Steven Adams (2013)
Oklahoma City's draft-day flexes are inherently limited by its success. San Antonio is the only team with a higher winning percentage since 2010. You're not selecting in primetime positions when churning out so many seasons amply above .500. Splashes tend to come later in the first round, if those picks are kept at all.
The Thunder have not unearthed any smack-you-in-the-face steals while drafting on the margins. Their "misses" are on a similar scale. Taking OG Anunoby (No. 23), Derrick White (No. 29) or Josh Hart (No. 30) in 2017 rather than Terrance Ferguson (No. 21) would've done more to beef up their rotation, but the draft is nothing if not more of a crapshoot as it soldiers on.
Steven Adams (No. 12 in 2013) i by far and away their most impactful selection. It wasn't clear at the time, but he has since gone down as the primary asset in the James Harden trade. (Not-so-fun aside: Leaving the 2014 draft with Mitch McGary (No. 21) and Josh Huestis (No. 29) was brutal.)
He has also survived countless iterations of Thunder. He was in Oklahoma City when they had Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka and Russell Westbrook; when it was the all-Westbrook-all-the-time show; when they brought in Carmelo Anthony and Paul George; when they turned Melo in Dennis Schroder; and when they ushered in the post-PG and -Westbrook era with Danilo Gallinari, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Chris Paul. He'll likely be part of yet another face-lift if he sticks with the team into next season.
All the while, Adams has reveled in the dirty work: boxing out, playing tough defense, finishing out of the pick-and-roll, tossing up floaters, etc. His presence isn't box-score omnipresent, but it's undeniable. And his longevity has mattered. Durant, George and Westbrook are the only Thunder players with a higher VORP since Adams entered the league.
Orlando Magic: Aaron Gordon (2014)
Parsing the Orlando Magic's draft catalogue from the past decade gave me a headache. It is overwhelmingly bland in the aggregate, an inundation of solid-but-unspectacular hits with a couple of annoying-yet-not-crippling misses.
Orlando has selected inside the top seven on five occasions since 2010. Those picks have resulted in Victor Oladipo (No. 2 in 2013), Aaron Gordon (No. 4 in 2014), Mario Hezonja (No. 5 in 2015), Jonathan Isaac (No. 6 in 2017) and Mo Bamba (No. 6 in 2018). There is no obvious choice among them.
Defaulting to Hezonja or Bamba works if you want to magnify the misses. Hezonja in particular looks almost blasphemous. The Magic didn't even bother exercising his fourth-year option. But the four players selected immediately after him—Willie Cauley-Stein (No. 6), Emmanuel Mudiay (No. 7), Stanley Johnson (No. 8), Frank Kaminsky (No. 9)—didn't go on to become success stories, and Orlando could've taken any one of them.
Singling out Bamba feels a little premature. He is just two years into his career and plays the same position as Nikola Vucevic, the Magic's No. 1 option. At the same time, he was plucked from a deep 2018 draft that may have represented Orlando's last chance at capturing a primary building block without hitting the teardown button. Collin Sexton (No. 9), Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (No. 11) and Michael Porter Jr. (No. 14) all appear to have much higher ceilings.
Oladipo made an All-NBA team, but not with the Magic. Isaac might be the player I just said Bamba's draft slot could have been, but a torn left ACL puts his development on hold.
Choosing Gordon just makes sense. He personifies everything about Orlando's last decade of drafting: miles from bad, but not good enough. It helps that he grades out as the highest-impact player among anyone the team picked during this timeframe. And it likewise matters that he's having the third or fourth best career among 2014 lottery picks, definitively behind Joel Embiid (No. 3) and Marcus Smart (No. 6) and probably-but-not-inarguably trailing Zach LaVine (No. 13).
Philadelphia 76ers: Joel Embiid (2014)
Joel Embiid is the Sixers. It's not that he's the best player to come out of Sam Hinkie's Process years. Well, it's partially that. He nicknamed himself The Process for crying out loud.
More than that, though, he is the origin of the Sixers' win-now timeline.
Sure, they were getting itchy before he ever made his debut—which didn't come until two seasons after he was selected third overall. Hinkie resigned from his position as general manager and president of basketball operations following Jerry Colangelo's addition to the front office and the team's dalliance with his eventual replacement, Bryan Colangelo. But they didn't have a cornerstone to ride out of the win-loss abyss before Embiid took the floor.
Ben Simmons (No. 1 in 2016) might've emerged as that guiding light, but he, too, missed his entire rookie season. Embiid invited actual expectations in the 31 appearances he made during 2016-17. He has since developed into a borderline top-10 star and face of the franchise, touch-and-go health and all.
That's the type of payoff every team is hoping to get from its high-end picks: superstardom. Embiid's importance—his connection—to the organization is amplified by the risks incurred and time it took for him to get there. Simmons could've won MVP this season, and Embiid would still be the pick here. His significance transcends measure; it is functional but also iambic.
This reasoning stands the test of any less-flattering alternatives. The Jahlil Okafor (No. 3 in 2015) and Markelle Fultz (No. 1 in 2017) selections are blemishes, but neither miss compares to the level at which Embiid has hit.
Phoenix Suns: Devin Booker (2015)
The Phoenix Suns have enough early lottery clunkers to contemplate going in a harsher direction.
Alex Len at No. 5 in 2013, Dragan Bender at No. 4 in 2016, Marquese Chriss at No. 8 in 2016 (via Sacramento), Josh Jackson at No. 4 in 2016, even Deandre Ayton (No. 1) over Luka Doncic (No. 3) in 2018—take your pick. They're all important misses, albeit on varying scales.
Devin Booker inoculates the Suns against tunnel vision on the negative. He was always a steal at No. 13, just inside the lottery, but he's an even more monumental hit since distancing himself from the empty-calories label he never fully deserved.
Lackluster efficiency might've been a valid sticking point when he was starting out. (Could he plead super-duper young?) It isn't anymore. His three-point clip could be higher, but he's not subsisting on gimme looks. And he's shooting 52 percent inside the arc over the past three seasons, during which time he's averaging 26.1 points and 6.1 assists, capably checking the boxes of primary scorer and facilitator.
This past year was the ultimate manifestation of Booker's growth, a distinct combination of volume and efficiency. Among every player with a usage rate north of 25, only James Harden, Damian Lillard and Khris Middleton turned in higher true shooting percentages.
To what extent the Suns have arrived after their 8-0 bubble performance is debatable. Booker's status as a top-25 player is not.
Portland Trail Blazers: Damian Lillard (2012)
Draft picks outside the top five but inside the top 10 are viewed in murky terms. So much depends on the depth of the rookie class, but these selections are not usually graded on the same curve as those taken slightly ahead of them. On a scale of "rotation player" to "franchise savior," their expectations, on average, probably fall somewhere around high-end starter.
In 2012, just outside the top five, the Portland Trail Blazers landed a franchise savior.
Damian Lillard's status as a draft-day steal is only reinforced when looking at the rest of the lottery. The top 10 had everything from superstars to role players to pitfalls. Most of the trap selections went before Lillard, but no one who went after him has come close to matching his peak. Both Andre Drummond (No. 9) and Khris Middleton (No. 39) fall appreciably short.
The Blazers' good fortune is only inflated by how they came to be on the clock at No. 6. This wasn't their own draft pick. They acquired it from the Nets in exchange for a 29-year-old Gerald Wallace.
Jump ahead eight years, and Lillard is a mainstay in the top-10 discussion and joins Stephen Curry and James Harden as the only NBA players to ever average at least 25 points, five assists and three made triples for an entire season more than once. That's a pretty good return on a 29-year-old Gerald Wallace, wouldn't you say?
Sacramento Kings: De'Aaron Fox (2017)
Marvin Bagley (No. 2 in 2018) is bound to get votes because he's not Luka Doncic (No. 3). That's...fair.
Atlanta and Phoenix also passed on Doncic, but the Sacramento Kings' miss is more nefarious. Bagley has not measured up to Deandre Ayton (No. 1) or Trae Young (No. 5), let alone Doncic, and...well...the Kings are the Kings. They own the league's worst record since 2010 and haven't made the playoffs in 14 years. Failing to take someone who has already staked his claim as a top-five player is not a flub from which they can recover, even if Doncic was a more divisive than consensus prospect.
But again: The path not traveled can hold only so much importance. Who's to say Doncic is still Doncic if he lands in Sacramento instead of Dallas? He at the very least wouldn't have received carte blanche on offense from the get go. De'Aaron Fox was already in place.
In actuality, the Kings' decision not to select Doncic compounds the importance of Fox. He is now a building block without the looming arrival of a co-captain. As currently constructed, Sacramento is no longer close enough to the bottom of the barrel to draft in traditional star territory and doesn't have the ready-made trade package to acquire one—unless Bagley and Buddy Hield at $20-plus million per year are hot commodities.
Assigning so much responsibility to Fox may be unfair. He was the right choice in 2017 (No. 5), but can he pilot a Western Conference postseason team that counts Hield, Harrison Barnes, Bogdan Bogdanovic (restricted free agent) or Richaun Holmes as its second-best player?
Those wishing to indulge the Kings' wrong-footed picks are free to do so—and don't have to stick with Bagley over Doncic. They selected Thomas Robinson (No. 5) in 2012 right before Damian Lillard (No. 6). They took Ben McLemore at No. 7 in 2013 instead of pretty much anyone else.
Nik Stauskas at No. 8 in 2014 didn't pay off, but nabbing, say, Zach LaVine (No. 13) wouldn't have changed the course of the franchise. Willie Cauley-Stein at No. 6 in 2015 is another whiff, but if not him, they might've just taken Emmanuel Mudiay (No. 7) or Stanley Johnson (No. 8).
Isaiah Thomas at No. 60 in 2011 would be a feel-good choice, but the Kings didn't keep him for long enough, and Fox's ceiling is higher. DeMarcus Cousins at No. 5 in 2010 is perhaps their highest-profile pick, but they never came close to ending their postseason drought with him as their centerpiece.
San Antonio Spurs: Kawhi Leonard (2011)
Kawhi Leonard's run with the Spurs is littered with what-ifs.
What if he doesn't injure his left ankle during the 2017 Western Conference Finals? What if a right quad injury doesn't cost him basically the entire 2017-18 campaign? What if he and San Antonio were on the same page with his recovery from said injury? What if he never requests a trade? What if the Spurs ignore his trade request and offer him a supermax extension anyway? What if he stays?
There is an air of incompleteness to Leonard's time in San Antonio. It is stronger on behalf of the Spurs. Leonard has since won a second title and orchestrated a superstar partnership with Paul George on the Clippers.
Weighing the tumult that surrounded Leonard's exit, along with the potential unfinished business, doesn't open the door for an alternative choice. He left with two Defensive Player of the Year awards; four All-Defense selections; two All-NBA nods; a pair of top-five MVP finishes (2015-16 and 2016-17); two All-Star appearances; and, above all, a Finals MVP.
The Spurs didn't have him as long as intended. They didn't even necessarily have the best version of him. But they still got more than they ever could have expected from the post-lottery pick (No. 15) they acquired in 2011.
Toronto Raptors: Pascal Siakam (2016)
Pascal Siakam's limitations were on full display during the Toronto Raptors' second-round loss to the Celtics. He can only put a finite amount of pressure on the rim when he's not in transition and needs to tighten his handle and decision-making in traffic if he's going to be the jet fuel for a half-court offense.
Talk about one-percenter problems.
Toronto drafted Siakam at No. 27 in 2016, with three other cornerstones—DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, Jonas Valanciunas—already on the roster. The Raptors clearly had grand plans for him given how they handled and experimented with his development, but not even they could've predicted he'd be saddled with preserving a championship defense as their best player less than four years later.
This doesn't quite mean everything he gives them is gravy. His four-year max extension kicks in next season. Superstar money breeds superstar expectations.
That speaks for itself. So does his 2019-20 regular season. He led the East's second-best team in scoring and, among every day rotation players, usage rate while plumbing the depths of his playmaking and off-the-dribble creation. That doesn't happen by chance. The Raptors found someone worth grooming as a lifeline at No. 27.
Utah Jazz: Donovan Mitchell (2017)
Rudy Gobert (No. 27 in 2013) or Donovan Mitchell (No. 13 in 2017)? That is, in fact, the question.
Both were acquired from Denver. Both have an All-Star appearance on their resume. Neither could anchor the Jazz's current place in the West without the other. Deciding between the two is tough.
Prior to the 2020 postseason, Gobert pretty easily ranked as the better player relative to the rest of the league's stars. He is the backbone of a defense that hasn't known mediocrity since he assumed the starting-center slot midway through the 2014-15 campaign. And he, unlike Mitchell, has All-NBA nods and a top-12 MVP finish (2018-19) to his name.
This bolsters Gobert's case only so much. Mitchell's importance is more of a melting pot, a blend of the analytical, anecdotal and metaphysical.
Inquiries into his efficiency will continue to be lodged, but he built up plenty of goodwill during the playoffs, regularly detonating during the Jazz's seven-game first-round loss to the Nuggets. If his take-over gene carries into next year, he'll be in line to leapfrog Gobert on the league's player hierarchy.
The timing and context of Mitchell's arrival also carries a great deal of weight. He fell to the Jazz just before Gordon Hayward left for Boston in free agency, an exit that was supposed to trigger a quasi-rebuild. Mitchell's rookie-year explosion allowed a more immediate transition.
And if that doesn't sway you, the influence Mitchell has on the offense should. Primary scorers and initiators have more control over the fate of their team, and the league at large has ascribed more importance to those archetypes. Gobert is a top-five center and certified star. Mitchell is the player more likely to open the Jazz's championship window.
Washington Wizards: John Wall (2010)
Too much of the Washington Wizards' immediate and long-term livelihood remains tied to John Wall for anyone else to crash this spot.
Others might be inclined to harp on Jan Vesely, the No. 6 pick in 2011 and one of the bigger busts in recent memory. Washington, in theory, missed a chance to partner Wall with a high-end running mate. That presupposes a clear alternative was available and that the Wizards' would've taken him. Too many variables are at play to make that leap.
Washington probably wouldn't have about-faced to Kemba Walker (No. 9) for the same reason it wouldn't have been seduced by Brandon Knight (No. 8): It already had Wall. Maybe the Wizards grab Klay Thompson (No. 11). They also might've gone with Bismack Biyombo (No. 7). In the moment, they were probably eons more likely to take Jimmer Fredette (No. 10) over Kawhi Leonard (No. 15).
Not to be lost: Bradley Beal might've landed somewhere other than Washington if it made out better during the 2011 draft. It took a bottom-two record to secure the third overall pick in 2012. A (much) better rookie could've played the Wizards out of that territory.
Wall's importance is also implicit. He was the first overall pick and taken two years before Beal. The Wizards structured their roster and timeline according to him. Beal has more cachet now, but he was the second wheel before injuries seized control. Wall has always steered the offense, and he has five All-Star selections and one All-NBA nod to back up his status.
Ceding ground to Beal in recent years hasn't done much to hinder his significance. The Wizards signed Wall to a four-year, $171.1 million extension that now, one season into it, looks like an albatross. The team's ability to contend within the Eastern Conference—and elude a brass-tacks rebuild—is contingent upon his recovery from an Achilles injury that has sidelined him since December 2018.