In 1969, the second-year Milwaukee Bucks had the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft by virtue of having an expected horrendous year in their freshmen campaign in the league. Their selection was obvious: three-time all-American Lew Alcindor of UCLA.
Alcindor promptly turned a team that had won a mere 27 games in its first season to 56 wins the next. By Alcindor's second season -- Milwaukee's third in the pros -- the Bucks had won the NBA title.
The NBA was different then. Fewer teams, fewer players and more draft picks for each team. As a result, a hall-of-famer like Alcindor, nee Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, could jump into the pros and make an instant impact. Today there are more teams, more players and fewer chances to be a No. 1 pick and take your team to the NBA title in two years.
Even as the league added teams, the likelihood that a player like Abdul-Jabbar would cause such a radical transformation in team's fortunes grew less each year. First of all, it usually took a tall, dominating center to turn a team around -- Jabbar, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Hakeem (known as Akeem) Olajuwon or even Shaquille O'Neal. Even Michael Jordan, now arguably the best player ever, had three straight losing seasons before his Chicago Bulls got over the .500 mark and it wasn't until Jordan's sixth season did they start their remarkable run of six NBA titles in the 1990s. (footnote: Jordan wasn't a No. 1 pick in the draft, Olajuwon was in 1984). Houston fans haven't grumbled much because Olajuwon gave the Rockets two NBA titles.
The all-time second guessing in the draft belongs to Portland which took a center, Ralph Sampson, with the No. 2 pick in that 1984 draft, bypassing Jordan. Trail Blazer fans continue to wonder how many NBA titles would have come to the Great Northwest had Jordan been their selection. Jordan's selection helped ease the Bulls' pain of losing a coin flip with the Lakers in 1979 and having to settle for the No. 2 pick, David Greenwood, instead of the No. 1 pick, Magic Johnson. Had the Bulls won that coin flip, Johnson would have become a Bull and Chicago would never have been in a position to draft Jordan five years later.
So as the NBA holds its annual collegiate draft this week, the Los Angeles Clippers who seemingly have the No. 1 pick each year can only glance back fondly of what happened nearly 30 years ago with Milwaukee. They know that the odds are decidedly stacked against them that having the No. 1 pick in the draft will take them from the NBA's outhouse to the league's penthouse overnight.
No. 1 picks are a crapshoot. Most times they succeed, have long careers but rarely win titles the way Jabbar did so quickly in Milwaukee and later so consistently with the Los Angeles Lakers. Some times they are complete busts, so collectors should pause before they invest money in lining up behind the league's top pick.
In 1967, the Pistons selected Jimmy Walker out of Providence with the No. 1 selection. They might have been better taking Jimmy "J.J." Walker (the actor out of "Good Times") because Walker the player was no kid "dyno-mite.
Portland never does seem to get it right in the draft. IN 1972, they went conservative by taking the best big man available, LaRue Martin, out of Chicago Loyola. He had a short-lived career and is considered one of the worst top picks in history. Making matters worse were the players Portland could have taken that year: Paul Westphal, Bob McAdoo and a relatively unknown player out of the University of Massachusetts by the name of Julius "Dr. J" Erving.
Trying to duplicate their success with Jabbar, the Bucks had the No. 1 pick in 1977 and selected Kent Benson, the burly center who helped Indiana dominate the college landscape for two straight seasons. Benson must have missed the screams of Bobby Knight because he never was a factor in the NBA.
Neither was Joe Barry Carroll, the No. 1 overall pick three years later by Golden State. The Purdue center was moody and oft-injured and faded quickly in the pros. A similar situation occurred nine years later with the Sacramento Kings when they took Pervis Ellison out of Louisville. Ellison had similar stats to Carroll as a center with the Cardinals but also was never a serious impact player in the NBA.
O'Neal was the top pick in 1992 with Orlando, but the jury remains out on the next four year's worth of picks. Chris Webber was originally selected by the Magic the next year but he is accumulating more frequent flyer than NBA points as he travels from team to team in the league. Glenn Robinson received a huge contract to sign with the Bucks the following year after threatening to sit out after becoming the No. 1 pick in the draft. Robinson remains the subject of constant trade rumors. Joe Smith of Maryland was the first player taken in 1995 but he has yet to do much in his brief career. Allan Iverson, 1996's top selection, has shown flashes of brilliance with the 76ers but they remain a distant play-off contender.
Yes, the Clippers have to at least hope they do as well as San Antonio did last year with Tim Duncan. The Wake Forest star became rookie-of-the-year, made the NBA first team and guided the Spurs to the playoffs. Of course, had David Robinson not been hurt the previous year San Antonio wouldn't have won the draft lottery and had the chance to take Duncan. And had Robinson been hurt again this year, chances are Duncan wouldn't have been able to transform a team that missed the playoffs the previous year into a championship contender this season.