1996 is easily on the short list for the greatest NBA Draft of all time. Besides 1984, none stands out as being clearly better. Let’s take a look at how it would go in retrospect, now that each player’s entire career has played out.
10. Indiana Pacers – Shareef Abdur-Rahim
As a result of this re-draft, the Pacers most likely don’t end up with Jermaine O’Neal down the road from the Blazers, so Abdur-Rahim will do. He was also better at an earlier age than O’Neal, so he would have helped a lot with those Reggie Miller/Mark Jackson/Jalen Rose teams of the late 1990s and early 2000s that pushed the MJ-era Bulls to the limit.
9. Dallas Mavericks – Stephon Marbury
Stephon Marbury could do whatever he wanted on a basketball court. He could have been a Chris Paul/Steph Curry blend had he so chosen. Unfortunately, he only cared about putting up stats, didn’t take care of his body, and as far as we can tell, never contributed to a winning atmosphere (this was proven out when Jason Kidd replaced him in New Jersey and the Nets immediately went to two straight NBA Finals). He also had his last good NBA season at the age of 27.
However, he also originally left Minnesota (his original sin) because of the weather and the fact that KG was already the guy there. Dallas has nice weather, low taxes, and Dirk wouldn’t have been drafted for two more years, allowing Marbury to establish himself. We bet his career turns out better beginning in Dallas than it did in Minnesota. And if not, the Mavs would at least know the warning signs of his impending demise and be able to trade him preemptively if they had to.
8. New Jersey Nets – Peja Stojakovic
Despite being drafted by Minnesota, Stephon Marbury ended up in New Jersey before the age of 22. He put up good numbers there, but playing close to home wasn’t a great fit and the Nets dealt him for Jason Kidd within two and a half years. Remembering that experience, the Nets end up with the safer choice here in Peja, an upgrade on their actual choice of Kerry Kittles. Marbury had more natural talent, but Stojakovic’s career has aged much better, especially when you include advanced stats. Peja’s 2003-04 season was also (probably) better than any single campaign that Starbury put together.
7. Los Angeles Clippers – Antoine Walker
The Clippers pull a very Clipper-y move here and decide to remember Walker as better than he actually was. It feels like something they would do, doesn’t it? Walker was a brutally inefficient scorer who compounded the ugliness with turnovers. He also should have carried 20 less pounds.
Despite that, he was an extremely versatile player who made an impact immediately in the NBA and stayed at a near-All-Star level for close to a decade with the Celtics. The flaws were real, but it also isn’t fair to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
6. Boston Celtics – Jermaine O’Neal
O’Neal could have played well with Paul Pierce. He was a six-time consecutive All-Star from 2002 to 2007, exactly the years of Pierce’s rise into superstardom. He could have been a strong number two to The Truth for nearly a decade, and then a number three or four for another five years after that. He was never electrifying, but his game fit the times, and it’s hard to argue with his production out of the #6 spot in the draft. O’Neal also would have been a better partner for Pierce during the Celtics’ quasi-contending years (2003-ish) than Walker was.
5. Minnesota Timberwolves – Marcus Camby
It’s really, really tough to find a good pick for Minnesota here. Marbury left them in the lurch, has never expressed any regret over it, and would again. Antoine Walker was good right away and a good positional complement to Garnett, but he was also Antoine Walker, with all that that entails.
Jermaine O’Neal could possibly play with Garnett, but he wasn’t good until 2002, well into his second contract – and team. Shareef Abdur-Rahim literally played the same exact position as KG. It comes down to Peja, who would have been a good complement to KG, but didn’t come to the US until ’98 or become good until ’00-01, and (the underrated) Marcus Camby, who was good right away, played for over 15 years, and could have conceivably played center to KG’s power forward. He would have gotten pushed around by the Shaqs of the world, but he and KG would have also formed a terrifying interior defensive combo. Therefore, he gets the (ambivalent) nod here as the #5 pick.
4. Milwaukee Bucks – Ray Allen
Ray Allen ends up with the same team, just one pick earlier (he was taken fifth and traded for Stephon Marbury, who was taken fourth). All things being equal, we would rather have him for his entire career than Allen Iverson. He was far more efficient, could play with all different types of teammates, was easier to build around, didn’t need the ball all the time, didn’t have a shitty attitude, etc. He also had a longer career, a longer prime, and fewer problems off the court.
The case for Iverson is that he carried similar talent further. That was mostly due to the way he played, but he was also more of a put-the-team-on-my-back leader than Ray Allen. However, his efficiency as a shooter and longevity, along with the fact that if you could go back in time, you could tell him to take way more three-pointers earlier in his career, give Allen the slight edge. That being said…
3. Vancouver Grizzlies – Allen Iverson
There is no way the VANCOUVER Grizzlies pass up on Allen Iverson, knowing the marketing sensation that he became. Vancouver is a gem of a city and should be a prime location for future expansion. It wasn’t like it was a dump. If AI didn’t force his way out of town à la Steve Francis, chances are the Grizzlies would still be in Canada if he’d ended up there with this pick back in 1996.
2. Toronto Raptors – Steve Nash
Too perfect! The Canadian kid makes it good in the biggest city in the country. The only thing that would be more special would be if Nash slipped to Vancouver, because he grew up in British Columbia, but knowing how good he turned out to be – and how long he did it for – Toronto doesn’t let the two-time MVP slip by the #2 spot. Iverson would be tempting – and certainly sell more shoes – but Nash would also have been marketing gold, and being an uber-efficient scorer who gets your whole team involved is more valuable than Iverson’s high-volume/poor-efficiency one-man show.
1. Philadelphia 76ers – Kobe Bryant
There really isn’t an argument here. Kobe clearly had the best career of this draft. Plus, he’s from just outside of Philly. We know they booed him later on in his career after an All-Star Game MVP presentation, but had he ended up there right out of high school as the #1 pick, the Philly fans would have had his back.
Everything Iverson brought from a scoring/leadership/marketing perspective, Kobe had. He may have lacked street cred by comparison, but when you’re trying to win an NBA title, being 6’6, efficient, and good at defense are more desirable traits than “keeping it real.” He was a better player, a better winner, and did it for way longer than just about anyone.