What If: NBA Team With Worst Record Had #1 Draft Pick

The NBA famously uses a lottery system to determine the draft order of non-playoff teams. It’s a system that has been used since 1984.

But what if they didn’t?

What if the team with the worst record held the #1 pick?

2007

Blazers (5.3%) won the lottery and drafted Greg Oden #1. Grizzlies (22-60) had the worst record and fell to #4 and drafted Mike Conley.

Conley was a big part of the Grizzlies for many years, helping lead them to the playoffs for 7 consecutive seasons from 2011-2017, including a trip to the Western Conference Finals in 2013.

What if Grizzlies had the #1 pick?

What if the Grizzlies drafted Oden #1? Oden didn’t play his rookie season and then played 82 games the next two seasons, before sitting out 3 straight years. His career lasted just 105 games due to injuries. With Mike Conley, the Grizzlies were bad for a couple of seasons. With an injured Oden? Imagine how much worse they’d be.

Is it possible Oden could have been healthier in Memphis than he was in Portland?

The best player in this draft was Kevin Durant, who was drafted #2 by the Seattle Sonics. What if the Grizzlies drafted Durant? 2007-08 Grizzlies finished 22-60, slightly better than Durant’s Sonics. Would they have been that bad with Durant, pairing him with reigning Rookie of the Year Mike Miller, a young Kyle Lowry and Rudy Gay?

Would Durant still have evolved into the league’s best player over time? Seattle (later OKC) added Russell Westbrook (2008) and James Harden (2009) in future drafts. During those same drafts, Grizzlies drafted OJ Mayo (2008) and Hasheem Thabeet (2009). Hard to know if Durant’s development would have been totally derailed being in Memphis.

2008

Bulls (1.7%) won the lottery and drafted Derrick Rose #1. Heat (15-67) had the worst record and picked 2nd, drafting Michael Beasley.

What if Miami Heat had #1 pick?

It doesn’t really matter. Two years later, it all worked out just fine when the Heat signed Lebron James and Chris Bosh, to pair with Dwayne Wade. Four straight Finals appearances and two championships between 2011-2014 renders the results of this draft meaningless.

But what if the Heat did draft Derrick Rose or Russell Westbrook? They had to trade away Michael Beasley for draft picks in order to open cap space for the James/Bosh/Wade trio. Would Miami have traded Rose or Westbrook? Could they have gotten multiple first round picks for either of them? Would their presence derail the “big three” plans? Or could they have found a way to make it work, maybe they could have sacrificed Mike Miller, who was signed to a big contract along with the trio?

2009

Clippers (17.7%) won the lottery and drafted Blake Griffin #1. Kings (17-65) had the worst record and drafted Tyreke Evans #4.

What if the Sacramento Kings had #1 pick?

Evans won Rookie of the Year in 2010, so clearly this worked out, right? Well it did not. Kings would have been fine with Griffin #1. Or James Harden (who went 3). Or Steph Curry (who went 7).

Kings haven’t made the playoffs since 2006 and have a miserable track record of drafting. I feel really confident that if the Kings had the #1 pick and drafted one of Griffin, Harden, or Curry that their playoff drought would have ended somewhere along the way. Especially since they drafted Demarcus Cousins one year later.

Unless, of course, they traded the player for nothing of value, which is entirely possible given their history.

2010

Wizards (10.3%) won the lottery and drafted John Wall #1. Nets (12-70) had worst record and drafted Derrick Favors #3.

What if the NJ Nets had the #1 pick?

To be honest, in either scenario, the Nets come out as winners.

56 games into his rookie season, Nets traded Favors as the centerpiece in a trade to Jazz for Deron Williams. Would they have been better off with John Wall? Hard to know for sure. The one thing that is certain is at the time of the trade, Williams was an established All-Star, something that Wall would not accomplish until 3 years into his career.

Shortly after acquiring Williams, Nets traded for Joe Johnson and later traded 4 years worth of first round picks (which became Jason Tatum and Jaylen Brown) for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. Would they have not made that historic trade if they had Wall? Would they have won more than 1 playoff series during this stretch?

2011

In their first season post-Lebron, Cavs (19.9%) won the lottery and drafted Kyrie Irving #1. Wolves (17-65) had the worst record and drafted Derrick Williams #2.

What if Minnesota Timberwolves had #1 pick?

Since their origination in 1989, Wolves have won just 2 playoff series (2-9 overall), winning both series during the 2004 season. After that, Wolves went 15 years between playoff appearances before finally returning in 2018, and got back again in 2022.

What if the Wolves had drafted Kyrie? Or Kawhi Leonard (#15)? Or Klay Thompson (#11)? Or Kemba Walker (#9)? Or Jimmy Butler (#31)?

If the Wolves did draft any of the aforementioned, what would that have meant for Lebron’s future? Would he have returned to Cleveland in 2014? What would have become of the Spurs dynasty with Kawhi Leonard and would he still have developed into the player he is today outside of their system? If Klay Thompson was drafted #1, there would be no Warriors dynasty during their run of 5 straight Finals appearances.

2012

New Orleans Hornets (13.7%) won the lottery and drafted Anthony Davis #1. Charlotte Bobcats (7-59- lockout-shortened season) had the worst record and drafted Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

What if Charlotte Bobcats had #1 pick?

Bobcats existed between 2004-2014. During that time, they made the playoffs twice, getting swept both times. They made the playoffs once since rebranding to the Hornets (2016) and overall, haven’t won a playoff series since 2002.

What If Bobcats drafted Anthony Davis? He changed the fortunes of New Orleans and clearly could have changed the fortunes for Charlotte too. At #2, Bobcats drafted Kidd-Gilchrist over take Bradley Beal and Damian Lillard. Any of those three at #1, probably would have meant the Bobcats/Hornets would have won at least one playoff series.

2013

Cavs (15.6%) won the lottery and drafted Anthony Bennett #1. Magic (20-62) had the worst record and drafted Victor Oladipo #2.

What if Orlando Magic had #1 pick?

This wasn’t the best draft to have the #1 pick. Bennett would play just 57 games with the Cavs and his career spanned just 4 seasons and 151 total games.

Magic drafted Oladipo, who, 3 years later, was traded to OKC Thunder along with the rights to Domantas Sabonis for Serge Ibaka.

Otto Porter, Cody Zeller, and Alex Len round out the top 5 so Magic made the right pick at the time. But what if they drafted unknown foreigner Giannis Antetokounmpo? Lately, Magic have had an affinity for raw, lengthy talented players, something Giannis certainly had at the time. Would he have still developed into the player he is today in Orlando?

2014

Cavs (1.7%) won lottery (shocking…) and drafted Andrew Wiggins #1. Bucks (15-67) had worst record and drafted Jabari Parker #2.

What if Milwaukee Bucks had #1 pick?

If Bucks picked first, they may have prevented the Cavs from acquiring Kevin Love, who used the hype and potential of Wiggins to acquire the All-Star big man to pair with Irving and James. What if Cavs were forced to draft Jabari Parker? What if they picked 9th, where they would be slotted if the draft was based on worst record (Noah Vonleh was drafted #9)? Would James still have come home?

In hindsight, this draft included the 2021 NBA MVP (Nikola Jokic #41) and MVP runner-up (Joel Embiid (#3). What if Bucks paired either of those guys with Giannis? More reasonably it would have been Embiid, who was considered at #1 but had a difficult injury history which led to his slide to 3.

2015

Wolves (16-66) had the worst record and won the lottery. They drafted Karl-Anthony Towns.

Other notables include D’angelo Russell (2), Kristaps Porzingis (4), and Devin Booker (13). None of these 3 would have likely changed the fortunes of the Wolves (although they now have Russell AND Towns).

2016

76ers (10-72) had the worst record and won the lottery with 25% odds. They drafted Ben Simmons #1.

This was the right move at the time, but in hindsight it’s fun to look back at Brandon Ingram #2 and Jayson Tatum #3 and wonder how different things might have been for Philly. Especially, considering Simmons didn’t play as a rookie and then didn’t play in 2021-22, eventually getting traded to Brooklyn for James Harden.

2017

Nets had the worst record and Celtics (via previous trade) had the #1 pick, which they traded to the 76ers.

Celtics won the lottery, because they owned the rights to the Nets pick courtesy of 2013 trade involving Garnett and Pierce.

What if the Nets had #1 pick? They could have had Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball or Jaylen Brown. But in 2019, they signed Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. So would drafting one of these three impacted those free agency plans? Would they have paired the 2 superstars with a young star? Or would they have kept building off their young core that included D’angelo Russell, Caris Levert, Jarrett Allen.

What if Celtics kept the #1 pick? Celtics would trade the #1 pick to the 76ers for #3 and a 2018 first rounder. Celtics might have taken Tatum #1 and we would have status quo. What if they took Fultz? Fultz was a total bust with Philly, playing just 33 games in a year and a half. Would Fultz have had more luck, developed differently?

What if 76ers did something different? So what if Philly and Boston still made the trade, but instead of Fultz the 76ers drafted Ball at PG? Would Ball have been a good fit with Simmons? If not, maybe Philly could have drafted Jayson Tatum. Tatum, Simmons, Embiid as a big three? Now we’re talking!

2018

Suns had the worst record and won the lottery and drafted Deandre Ayton #1.

This worked out well! Ayton played a huge role for the Suns in 2021 as they made the playoffs for the first time in 10 years and reached the Finals.

But let’s play this out. What if Suns had drafted Luka Doncic or Trae Young? Would either of them have been a good fit with Devin Booker? Obviously, the Chris Paul trade never would have happened as it did in 2020. Igor Kokoškov was the Suns’ coach for one season in 2018-19. Would Suns have had more immediate success (finished 19-63)? Would they still have ended up with Monty Williams as their head coach? Williams and Paul played a major role in the Suns’ run to the Finals.

2019

Pelicans (6%) won the lottery and drafted Zion Williamson. Knicks (17-65) had the worst record and drafted RJ Barrett 3rd.

What if New York Knicks had #1 pick?

Williamson was considered a generational star, but injuries and weight issues have slowed his career as he missed the whole 2021 season. Williamson has played a grand total of 85 games in three seasons.

Ja Morant was the #2 pick, and helped the Grizzlies finish with the West’s second best record and won their first playoff series since 2015.

RJ Barrett averaged 20 ppg in 2021, so this hasn’t exactly worked out poorly for the Knicks. But still…

How would the Knicks’ fortunes and their national perception have changed if they picked Williamson #1? Would Durant and/or Irving, who signed with Brooklyn, have signed with Knicks in 2019 instead? Would Kawhi Leonard or Kemba Walker have been an option at that time?

Knicks wound up signing Julius Randle and a handful of other guys who played a major role in the Knicks’ resurgence in 2021 as they returned to the playoffs for the first time in 8 years. But let’s be honest, if they signed a superstar in 2019 to pair with Williamson, everything would be different.

2020

Wolves (14%) won the lottery and drafted Anthony Edwards. Warriors (15-50) had the worst record and drafted James Wiseman #2.

What if Golden State Warriors had #1 pick?

It doesn’t matter. Warriors won the 2022 NBA Championship.

But anyways, let’s play this out. James Wiseman has had a disappointing couple years to start his career, while LaMelo Ball and Anthony Edwards both have thrived. At the time of the draft, Warriors were expecting Klay Thompson to play so Edwards or Ball may not have been considered strong fits with Klay and Steph Curry. Wiseman is part of a young core that includes 2021 lottery picks Moses Moody and James Kuminga, to go along with the championship core. In the Golden State culture, Wiseman can certainly still grow into a good NBA player, but the more Ball and Edwards improve, the more this is going to sting as time goes on.

2021

Pistons (14%) won lottery and drafted Cade Cunningham #1. Rockets (17-55) had the worst record and drafted Jalen Green #2.

It’s still way too early to tell how this will play out, but both Cunningham and Green showed a lot of promise as rookies and both teams have added more exciting youngsters via the 2022 draft (Jaden Ivey and Jalen Duren to Detroit and Jabari Smith and Tari Eason to Houston).

2022

Magic (14%) won the lottery and drafted Paolo Banchero #1. Rockets (20-62) had the worst record and drafted Jabari Smith #3.

Back-to-back years the Rockets did not have the #1 pick, but in this case it’s alright. Banchero and Smith, along with Chet Holmgren (#2 pick) were all considered the top tier prospects in this draft and almost all mock drafts and experts had Smith going #1. Rockets pair Smith with Green to form a really exciting duo. Meanwhile, the Magic are now subject to judgement pending the development of Holmgren and Smith, in comparison to Banchero.

Mike is an alum of the University of Cincinnati and the ultimate sports nerd.

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