In an ideal world, every general manager would love to spearhead a team that competes in the playoffs every single year, but realistically, that simply does not happen very often unless you're the San Antonio Spurs. Ironically, all of that came to fruition because they had a down year in 1996-97 (20-62) when David Robinson was only healthy enough to suit up for six games, gifting the Spurs a chance at landing a transcendent piece with their lottery pick.
The ping pong balls just happened to bounce their way, severely devastating our beloved Celtics as we cried waterfalls of green tears when the prize of Tim Duncan was snatched away right in front of our faces. That wasn't just any lottery pick, it was the lottery pick. Truth be told (see what I did here?), the Celtics made out pretty well in the draft a year later, but that's not the point.
Most people believe that if you want to turn your franchise around in the draft, you better secure a lottery pick in order to land an elite talent. However, that's not always the case, so stop begging me to take your side and support tanking. Every single year, high impact players slip out of the lottery and are hijacked by lucky organizations selecting in the mid-to-late first round, sometimes even in the second round. Hell, four-time Defensive Player of the Year Ben Wallace - formerly cut by the Boston Celtics in training camp - went undrafted.
You never know. Some players are misjudged by executives and scouts, others are late-bloomers and every now and then a guy will come along and surprise the heck out of everybody.
Let's take a look at just how often quality ballplayers have slipped out of the top 14 picks in the draft over the last 20 years.
15TH OVERALL PICK
Accumulative Stats (Last 20 #15 Overall Picks): 10.2 PPG - 4.3 RPG - 2.6 APG
All-Stars: 1 - Steve Nash (8)
Back in 1996, there weren't too many people who envisioned that Santa Clara's Steve Nash would ever develop into a perennial NBA All-Star, let alone a two-time MVP of the league. Don't get me wrong, he wasn't universally considered a scrub by any means, as Phoenix took him 15th overall in arguably the greatest NBA draft class of all-time. Even so, a floor general of Nash's caliber would never slip out of the lottery in any draft had everyone known the kind of difference maker he would become.
Nash stands as the only 15th overall pick to earn an All-Star selection since 1995, but he is far from the only impact player to fall to that position in the draft. As Celtics fans, we got a taste of that in 2004 when Danny Ainge made Al Jefferson one of the biggest draft night steals in recent memory. Of course, Big Al's breakout 2006-07 campaign would mark his last days in a green uniform, but as difficult as it was to say goodbye to a compelling post presence on the rise, it is safe to say it worked out well.
Kawhi Leonard hasn't seen his name on a Western Conference All-Star roster just yet, but barring some kind of catastrophic injury, I'd put money on him breaking that barrier sooner rather than later. Even if the apocalypse transpires before he gets a chance, I think his 2014 NBA Finals MVP trophy more than certifies his presence on the court. Hindsight is 20/20, but a two-way star like Leonard falling out of the lottery is an absolute crime.
Giannis Antentokounmpo is quite the intriguing young talent in his own right. In his case, you can at least understand the rationale behind him falling out of the top 14 based on how raw he was coming into the league in 2013, but Milwaukee certainly doesn't have any regrets. The Bucks were sold on 2010 15th overall pick Larry Sanders making their executives and scouts look good, as well, but apparently he was just blowing smoke.
Brent Barry, Matt Harpring, Robin Lopez and Rodney Stuckey also make number 15 look pretty good, but there have naturally been plenty of disappointments along the way. Austin Daye, Reece Gaines, Steven Hunter, Cedric Simmons and Antoine Wright failed to live up to expectations, and Vince Carter may have single-handedly obliterated Frederic Weis' NBA dreams into submission, as the 7'2" poster victim never even made his way over to play in the NBA after this.
16TH OVERALL PICK
Accumulative Stats (Last 20 #16 Overall Picks): 9.0 PPG - 3.6 RPG - 2.1 APG
All-Stars: 1 - Ron Artest (1)
Similar to number 15, the 16th pick in the draft has birthed just one All-Star over the last 20 years. However, the 16th spot has not proven to be quite as deep with impact players over the course of that time frame, as the talent pool is headlined by a short list of quality rotation players but stands relatively mediocre overall.
Then again, if you can land somebody you can plug into your regular rotation in the middle of the first round, you can't really complain. Ron Artest, whom I will never refer to as Metta World Peace or Panda's Friend, is the star of the group as a one-time All-Star and Defensive Player of the Year. Say whatever you want about Artest as a person, he was a heck of a two-way player once upon a time and aside from all of his outrageous antics, he truly played as hard as anyone when he took the floor.
Hedo Turkoglu put together a terrific career, as well, starting out as a key role player on those electric Sacramento Kings teams of the early 2000's and blossoming into the primary offensive playmaker on the 2009 Eastern Conference champion Orlando Magic. Turkoglu never made All-Star, but he has certainly been involved in the discussion at his best. Fast forward to the post-Turkoglu era in Orlando, the Magic made the most of the 16th pick in 2011 when they acquired Nikola Vucevic. The big fella continues to get better every single year, and his 2014-15 campaign of 19.3 points and 10.9 rebounds per game has him rapidly climbing the list of the top centers currently in the NBA.
The rest of the pack is coated with a few quality role players, particularly in the form of backup bench performers, and the mediocrity I alluded to before. Alan Henderson, Brevin Knight, Marreese Speights, Nick Young and former Celtic Tony Delk highlight the ballplayers that have done well with extended minutes, and last year's number 16 pick Jusuf Nurkic looks promising as well. Outside of that, we're talking about end-of-the-bench forwards Luke Babbitt and James Johnson to go along with a good-sized list of busts like Rodney Carney, Bryce Drew, Kirk Haston, Kirk Snyder, Royce White and former Boston College standout Troy Bell.
My favorite of the bunch is none other than Jiri Welsch. He wasn't necessarily the greatest mid-first round pick you've ever seen, but he actually didn't play half-bad in Boston and I'm still amazed at how Trader Dan squeezed a first round pick out of Cleveland for Jiri (and that pick ended up the building block that was flipped to Phoenix for Rajon Rondo a year later).
There have been a few good players taken at 16 since 1995, but all in all, the success rate is weaker than you would hope for.
17TH OVERALL PICK
Accumulative Stats (Last 20 #17 Overall Picks): 10.1 PPG - 4.8 RPG - 1.9 APG
All-Stars: 4 - Jermaine O'Neal (6), Roy Hibbert (2), Danny Granger (1), Jrue Holiday (1)
Outside of James Young, who hasn't yet received an opportunity to play consistent minutes in Boston, every number 17 overall pick since 2008 has enjoyed success at the NBA level. Roy Hibbert and Jrue Holiday have each been named Eastern Conference All-Stars and Tyler Zeller played solid basketball as Boston's starting center for the better part of this season, while Dennis Schroeder, Kevin Seraphin and Iman Shumpert are all counted on to produce for their teams. Shumpert was the starting two-guard for the majority of his first three years with the Knicks, and has made the most of his opportunity to assume the starting job in the playoffs for Cleveland this postseason.
Looking back a bit further, you'll find two more former Indiana Pacers stars to join Hibbert on the list of All-Stars, as Danny Granger had an excellent run before hurting his knee in 2012 while Jermaine O'Neal is on the list of NBA stars out of high school. O'Neal is the head of the snake at number 17, winning the league's Most Improved Player of the Year award in 2002 along with earning six consecutive All-Star selections from 2001-2007, where he averaged approximately 20 points and 10 rebounds per game through that span.
Bob Sura, Rasho Nesterovic (insert Stephen A. Smith's voice here) and high-flyers Desmond Mason and Josh Smith have all found success in the league, as well.
Sprinkled in over the last 20 years are guys like Sean Williams, the other Shawne Williams, Zarko Caparkapa, Juan Dixon, Cal Bowdler, Johnny Taylor and a couple of others who never made much of an impact in the pros, but the 17th selection in the draft has generally been more successful than draft picks 16, 14, 12 and 11.
18TH OVERALL PICK
Accumulative Stats (Last 20 #18 Overall Picks): 9.5 PPG - 4.2 RPG - 1.7 APG
All-Stars: 1 - David West (2), Theo Ratliff (1)
Thus far, David West is the only number 18 pick to suit up in an All-Star game since 1995, but half of those 20 selections have turned themselves into key contributors as quality starters. Explosive guards Eric Bledsoe and Ty Lawson are currently leading their teams as the primary ball handler and playmaker, and they are only getting better as time goes on. Marco Belinelli has been terrific off the bench for San Antonio while Terrence Jones and J.R. Smith are currently competing at a high level playing big minutes in the conference finals.
Theo Ratliff was one of the best shot blockers of his time, swatting 3.3 shots per game from 1997-2004 on his way to two NBA All-Defensive 2nd Team selections. Ratliff is the only other name in this group to be named to an All-Star squad (2001), but he was unable to participate due to injury as he would go on to miss 32 games that season.
Former Celtics James Posey (I miss him in Boston so much) and Gerald Green have played well with heavy minutes, along with guys like Quentin Richardson and Jason Collins. John Wallace had a couple of solid years in Toronto from 1997-1999, but generally found himself as an end-of-the-bench journeyman, and JaVale McGee is falling down a similar path.
Chris Anstey, Curtis Borchardt, Oleksiy Pecherov, Chris Singleton and Mirsad Turckan never worked out but while number 18 hasn't produced a whole lot of stars over the last 20 years, a good chunk of them have become viable options that have earned consistent spots in their team's rotation.
19TH OVERALL PICK
Accumulative Stats (Last 20 #19 Overall Picks): 8.6 PPG - 4.4 RPG - 1.3 APG
All-Stars: 3 - Zach Randolph (2), Jeff Teague (1), Jamaal Magloire (1)
There isn't much of a difference between the success rate of number 19 picks versus players who have been taken 18th overall. Two-time All-Star Zach Randolph is naturally the enforcer of the pack, as Z-Bo has been dominating the paint for over a decade. From 2003-2015, the big fella has put up 18.7 points and 10.4 rebounds per game along with being one of the most difficult bigs to deal with when the ball is in his hands.
Remember that time Jamaal Magloire beat out LeBron James for the final spot on the 2004 Eastern Conference All-Star roster? Granted, LeBron was only 19 years old on a losing team at the time and the East squad was in need of a center off the bench, but that's hilarious looking back at it. In Magloire's defense, he put up 13.6 points and 10.3 rebounds per game that season and it was more like 16 and 12 in the second half of the season. Jeff Teague has had a lot of success in his young career, as well, earning his first All-Star appearance this season while he helped lead the Atlanta Hawks to the best record in the Eastern Conference, which nobody expected.
Tobias Harris and Avery Bradley have turned themselves into consistent starters, while J.J. Hickson was a walking double-double and a four-year starter before tearing his ACL at the end of last season. Pat Garrity put together a nice run as a key piece to Orlando's rotation, Hakim Warrick quietly averaged 10 points per game over a six-year span where he played above 20 minutes each contest and Dorell Wright has stuck around for over a decade. Even Sasha Pavlovic did a decent job when he was given a shot in Cleveland a few years back.
Former Celtics Scot "Planet" Pollard and the one and only Walter McCarty were also relied on to produce off the bench once upon a time. In all likelihood, Tommy Heinsohn will never read this but we can't mention Walter and act like we don't want to yell. I'll do it for you, Tommy - I... LOVE... WALTER!
I'm not sure I love how how things turned out for Randolph Childress, Javaris Crittenton, Quincy Douby, Ryan Humphrey or Quincy Lewis, but hey, we're talking about the 19th pick in the draft.
20TH OVERALL PICK
Accumulative Stats (Last 20 #20 Overall Picks): 8.0 PPG - 3.8 RPG - 1.7 APG
All-Stars: 2 - Zydrunas Ilgauskas (2), Jameer Nelson (1)
Once you reach the late-first round, any kind of success with your pick is gravy as it isn't easy finding quality pieces at the end of the draft. Every year, there are diamonds in the rough to be discovered but once you reach this spot in the draft, there's more "rough" to weave through. The 20th position backs that up, as it hasn't been nearly as successful as the rest of the rest of the mid-first round.
Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Jameer Nelson are really the only two number 20 picks to serve as high impact players over the last 20 years, while Speedy Claxton and Brendan Haywood each had their moments to shine as consistent starters. Donatas Motiejunas had an excellent year starting in 62 games for the Rockets this season, where he accumulated 12 points and 5.9 rebounds per contest, and Evan Fournier put up 14.2 points per game in 32 starts for Orlando. After those names, you're looking at a lot of fringe rotation options and a cast of disappointing careers.
Guys like Dion Glover, Dahntay Jones and Jason Smith and have helped their teams in smaller roles, but the rest of the pack is very underwhelming - James Anderson, Renaldo Balkman, Jason Caffey, Paul Grant, Julius Hodge, Roshown McLeod, Kareem Rush and so on.
Number 20 has failed more general managers than it has made look good.
Be on the lookout for Part 4 of this series, where we'll explore the last 20 years of draft selections 21-30 tomorrow afternoon.