Barring a shocking departure from expectations, the New Orleans Pelicans will select Zion Williamson with the first pick in Thursday’s NBA draft.
All indications are that he’ll provide the Pels with a franchise cornerstone to replace their last top overall selection, Anthony Davis.
Recent history suggests the No. 1 pick isn’t as sure a bet as it seems. While some organizations have set themselves up for years of contention by choosing the right player, others have set themselves back by picking the wrong one.
Here, we’ll look at the last 30 players to go first in the draft, ranking them on the basis of their prime years, longevity, statistical production and overall impact on the league. The tricky part is weighing a top draftee’s peak against the duration of his career. While staying power has value, teams with the top pick are probably hoping to get someone with a transcendent prime.
The higher up the list we go, the less we have to compare those two factors. The very best top picks offer both.
The efficiency stans will be out in force to protest Allen Iverson’s position here. He shot 42.5 percent from the field and 31.3 percent from deep for his career, which is hardly worth celebrating-especially for a player whose value was almost entirely wrapped up in his offense.
Maybe we’re stretching here and looking for rationalizations. But Iverson has to get credit for the extreme degree of difficulty that defined his career.
At 165 pounds, he threw himself into traffic on a nightly basis. He averaged 41.1 minutes per game for his career, leading the league in that stat seven times. His four scoring titles were a testament to his otherworldly competitive spirit, and that mentality helped define Sixers teams that reached the playoffs six times in Iverson’s first nine seasons, peaking with a trip to the Finals in 2001.
A cultural icon, an 11-time All-Star, a seven-time All-NBA team member, an MVP and a Hall of Famer, Iverson left a footprint on those Sixers teams (and the league) that is difficult to overstate.
Maybe he could have adjusted his shot profile a bit, but A.I. was never into compromise.
In Dwight Howard, the Magic drafted one of the greatest interior defenders the league has ever seen. Seemingly indestructible, Howard played all 82 games in five of his first six seasons, ultimately missing just seven contests from 2004-05 to 2010-11.
For five straight seasons from 2007-08 to 2011-12, he ranked in the top seven in MVP voting. That’s exactly the kind of prime you want from a top pick.
Don’t let the injuries and locker room reputation distract from what Howard accomplished during his best years. For the better part of a decade, he was a true superstar whose statistics are immune to the “well, actually…” inefficiency gripes that Iverson’s face.
We’ve crossed into new territory here, as Shaquille O’Neal is the kind of unquestioned megastar who hardly needs statistical justification for his placement. Everybody knows how great Shaq was.
Perhaps the most physically overpowering force the league has ever seen, O’Neal was the best player on the Los Angeles Lakers team that won three straight titles from 1999-00 to 2001-02. He collected a fourth ring with the 2005-06 Heat, contributing 18.4 points and 9.8 rebounds per game in the playoffs as a 33-year-old.
O’Neal made 15 All-Star games and 14 All-NBA teams, won a regular-season MVP and three Finals MVPs, collected a pair of scoring titles and, obviously, entered the Hall of Fame on the first ballot.
Tenth all-time in total points, 16th in rebounds, ninth in blocks and fourth in PER, O’Neal deserves mention in the conversation about the greatest centers to ever play.
These next two guys must be pretty good…
With Tim Duncan, we don’t have to weigh the value of a sterling prime against a prolonged stretch of solid play because he melded the two together like few others.
The 19-year pro made the All-NBA team 15 times. His 15 years as an All-Defensive honoree are the most in NBA history; nobody else has more than 12.
Two MVPs, five rings (three Finals MVPs in the process) and 15 All-Star appearances give Duncan an incomparable resume, and that’s before trying to figure out how much extra credit he deserves for serving as the rock of the Spurs’ two-decade run of playoff appearances. Unlike O’Neal, Howard and the guy in the upcoming top overall spot, Duncan never agitated for a trade or created controversy of any sort. Conversely, he was a steadying force as supporting players came and went around him, as the Spurs re-tooled and changed styles several times over the years.
What’s that kind of stability worth? Can it even be measured? And how about the fact that the tone he set still endures, years after his retirement?
Depending on how you evaluate his total commitment to winning (and allergy to self-interest and ego), you could make the case Duncan deserves to rank higher. Drafting him got the Spurs 20 years of a no-nonsense, distraction-free environment, which can hardly be said of other players with similar on-court value.
Some might argue head coach Gregg Popovich or the Spurs’ culture deserves as much credit for the franchise’s nonstop winning, but it’s telling that Popovich has always tiedhis team’s success to the quiet leader in the middle.
For all of Duncan’s inarguable greatness, and despite the fact he generated far less turmoil (trades and “will he, won’t he?” free-agent controversy have followed James at every stop), LeBron had to come out on top.
Forget the 30-player field we’re studying here. James is fourth all-time in total points, 10th in assists and second in PER. He’s a four-time MVP who could easily have three or four more, a 15-time All-Star and a three-time champion.
James will get a chance to set a new record (and pass Duncan) with his 16th All-NBA selection next year, and you can expect more all-time marks to fall as he continues a prime that has lasted longer than just about anyone else’s.
The only argument against James, who may already be the greatest player to ever suit up, is that the team that drafted him didn’t get anything close to the prolonged reliability Duncan’s did. Sure, the Cavs got their only ring when James triumphantly returned for his second stint with the organization, but they didn’t get the sustained contributions Duncan gave the Spurs.
Maybe we’re overthinking things, but there’s a way to frame Duncan’s value to the team that drafted him as greater than James’.
In the end, it was just too hard to deny James this position. Especially since he, unlike Duncan, O’Neal or anyone else in the top five, still has a chance to add to his legacy.
Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference, NBA.com unless otherwise indicated.