The “Best” Draft Class Since the NBA/ABA Merger

photo by Nebraska Farm Boy via Flickr

This wonderful, glorious and super fantastic analysis was inspired, as usual, by that great water cooler in the cyber sky, Twitter. Like any enjoyable conversation, you’re not entirely sure how it got started or how you encountered the subject. Well, on Friday afternoon, someone said something. Then someone else chirped. Then another person dropped a nugget of wisdom. And this went on for hours or maybe minutes, I don’t remember… but finally this tweet popped up.

And hard to argue with that. The popular opinion is that the 1984 draft class is indeed the best ever. Hard to argue considering that Hakeem Olajuwon, Michael Jordan, John Stockton and Charles Barkley were the highlight members and guys like Kevin Willis, Alvin Robertson, Michael Cage, Otis Thorpe and Sam Perkins are afterthoughts.

However, we here at Pro Hoops History are not in the business of kowtowing to popular opinion. Instead we look at the cold hard facts and then shrug shoulders as to what they mean. So the task at hand is to discover with Cold Hard Facts, which draft class is the best ever… or at least the best since the ABA and NBA merged prior to the 1976 draft.

So, why the merger cutoff?

Because the best, singular analysis I could think of to judge the draft classes was win shares. The dual existence of the NBA and ABA wreaks havoc with a universal look at the stat between 1967 and 1976. Perhaps in the future I will separately look at those classes. As for the drafts prior to the ABA/NBA dual, they too deserve a specialized look in the future. Hooray, sequels!

Also, in the interest of fairness, there was a second cutoff with the 2002 draft class. I deemed that classes thereafter haven’t had the time to fully blossom and let history be a Cold Hard Judge of their merit via win shares.

The win share totals for each draft class were calculated by adding up the 25 highest totals from each class.

Historical Timeline

10 Lowest Win Shares

10 Highest Win Shares

Notes of Interest

Well, well, well. Turns out the 1984 Draft class may not be the best ever!

OK, I still think it is, but looking at the Cold Hard Facts does show that the subsequent 1985 Draft was bloated with talent and the 1987 Draft not that far behind as well. Some of the members of the 1985 class include Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, Terry Porter, Detlef Schrempf, Charles Oakley, Chris Mullin and Joe Dumars. 1987 churned out David Robinson, Reggie Miller, Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant, Kevin Johnson, Mark Jackson, Muggsy Bogues and Reggie Lewis.

So in a four year span, the NBA was injected with tremendous talent from the blockbuster 1984, 1985 and 1987 draft classes and also added Jeff Hornacek, Dennis Rodman, Mark Price, Ron Harper and Brad Daugherty from the below-average 1986 draft (which suffered from the loss of Len Bias, Arvydas Sabonis waiting a decade to join the league, the drug addiction of Roy Tarpley and the injuries to Daugherty).

So if you’re wondering why the mid-80s to mid-90s NBA was spectacular, there’s your reason and it could have been even more awesome if the 1986 Draft had held together better.

The 2nd Wave

You’ll notice a second node of talent injection to the NBA: 1995-1999.

The ’96 Draft is often cited as the 2nd best following the ’84 class. By win shares, it’s third overall, which means it’s certainly no joke with playes like Kobe Bryant, Ray Allen, Steve Nash, Allen Iverson, Jermaine O’Neal, Marcus Camby, Stephon Marbury, Peja Stojakovic and Shareef Abdur-Rahim. The 1995, ’98 and ’99 Drafts further fueled the league by adding Rasheed Wallace, Kevin Garnett, Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce, Vince Carter, Shawn Marion, Elton Brand, Manu Ginobili, Lamar Odom and Rip Hamilton.

Mirroring the mid-80s injection, there was a slight dud year in 1997, but even then the league still got Tim Duncan, Tracy McGrady and  Chauncey Billups.

The Doldrums

You’ve seen the good, now it’s time for the bad: the late 80s/early 90s and the early 2000s. To make this eyesore digestible, check out the following table!

Draft Span Average Win Shares
2000-02 767.4
1995-99 1170.4
1988-94 956.5
1984-87 1349.1

Admittedly, the 2000-02 range will continue to add win shares over the coming years, but not enough to remove its putrid stench. It’ll be a miracle for them catch the mediocre stretch from 1988-94. This is to be expected though when Kwame Brown (bust), Kenyon Martin (middling) and Yao Ming (bless his oft-injured heart), are the #1 picks. Even with his bad legs, Yao is still the 2nd-highest win shares contributor to the 2002 draft class. Only Amar’e is higher. Just a disappointing draft all around.

1988-94 suffered from the bust syndrome (Pervis Ellison) and bad luck injuries (Larry Johnson, Grant Hill, Alonzo Mourning, Penny Hardaway, Danny Manning), but even the successes weren’t all that successful, relatively speaking (Chris Webber, Glenn Robinson, Shawn Kemp). Only Shaquille O’Neal, Gary Payton and Jason Kidd really were able to shirk the bad vibes and reach all-time status. Just a generally depressing time for basketball. So many promising stars that never quite reached their full potential.

Rollercoaster Ride

Lastly, there’s the curious late 70s and early 80s period where the drafts alternated between boom and bust. See for yourself:

Draft Win Shares
1976 844.9
1977 1173.6
1978 933
1979 1071.5
1980 775.4
1981 1134.4
1982 944.1
1983 1034

What should be noted here is that the 1980 draft was historically awful. When Joe Barry Carroll is the #1 pick, bad things are bound to happen. Kevin McHale is the only draftee of the class to gain over 100 win shares for a career and Kiki Vandeweghe was 2nd with 75.6. I love Mike Gminski, but when he ends up having the 3rd best career for a draft class, that class stunk.

But let’s end this bad boy on a high note: the hidden gems of the 1981 and 1977 drafts. The 1981 draft featured five players who are really, really good but juuust a smidgen below Hall of Fame caliber but I love them so I think they should be in anyway: Buck Williams, Larry Nance, Tom Chambers, Rolando Blackman, and Mark Aguirre.

Add in Isiah Thomas on the Hall of Fame side and Danny Ainge, Eddie Johnson, Kelly Tripucka and Orlando Woolridge on the excellent role player side and you got yourself a helluva draft… and a stew.

Finally, the colossal 1977 draft. Defying the odds and truculence of Kent Benson being the #1 pick, this class was a sight to behold with Jack Sikma, Marques Johnson, Cedric Maxwell, Walter Davis, Tree Rollins, James Edwards, Otis Birdsong, Norm Nixon, Robert Reid, (that other) Eddie Johnson, Greg Ballard and Brad Davis.

And the cherry on top of that class? None other than Bernard King.

Nice. Very Nice.

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