The 2017 NBA Draft could change the course of professional basketball. Markelle Fultz might prove to be a fundamental building block for the next Celtics superteam. Lonzo Ball might entice Paul George to come home to Los Angeles. Or maybe a second-round sleeper will prove everyone wrong on his way to a Hall of Fame career.
Indeed, some of the most important moves over the years in the Association came on draft day. With the NBA Finals all but wrapped up and this year's draft just around the corner, we're running through the 12 biggest draft picks in the entire history of the NBA — from the days of territorial picks and coin flips to today's modern weighted lottery.
1972: The Milwaukee Bucks draft Julius Erving, who ends up back in the ABA
Erving originally entered the ABA as an undrafted rookie in 1971, signing with the Virginia Squires and averaging 27.3 points per game in his frst season. Once he was draft eligible by NBA standards in 1972, the Milwaukee Bucks selected the former UMass standout.
That ABA-NBA kerfuffle was complicated by a dispute with his former agent, which resulted in Erving trying to join the Atlanta Hawks. The courts ruled he had to play with the Squires in the ABA, however, and Erving's NBA career was put on hold until 1976.
His uncertain draft status, along with the Squires' financial ruin, helped pave the way for the 1976 ABA-NBA merger, and he and the New York Nets joined the NBA for the 1976-77 season.
The Nets owed the Knicks nearly $5 million for joining their NBA "territory," however, and they couldn't afford the payment. They sold Dr. J's rights to the Sixers, with whom Erving won a title in 1983 — a series of events set in motion with that fateful draft pick.
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1975: Darryl Dawkins joins the NBA straight out of high school
We have to give a shoutout to Moses Malone as well, as he became the first high schooler to play professional basketball when he joined the ABA in 1974.
Dawkins and Bill Willoughby followed suit in the NBA the following year, with Dawkins coming off the board first at No. 5 to the Philadelphia 76ers. They were the last two players to play in the NBA the year after they graduated high school until the Minnesota Timberwolves selected Kevin Garnett in 1995, also with the fifth pick.
Guys such as Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, LeBron James and even Kwame Brown owe a great debt to Dawkins and his pioneering ways.
2012: The Golden State Warriors make the best second-round pick of the lottery era
Sorry, Manu Ginobili, but it feels safe to say that Draymond Green has surpassed you as the best second-round pick in the modern era.
Taking Stephen Curry at No. 7 was key, and snagging Klay Thompson with the 11th pick was clutch, too. If the Warriors don't take Green with the 35th overall pick in 2012, however, they don't reach the dynastic heights we see today.
He has unlocked the best of Golden State, and his recruitment of Kevin Durant took this team to a whole other level.
Getty ImagesGetty Images
2003: The King goes No. 1 to his hometown team
Yes, LeBron ending up in Cleveland as a fresh-faced rookie is a great story — and it set the stage for his post-Miami homecoming. Almost everything that's happened over the past decade in the NBA has been a result of LeBron's dominance, which is what makes this draft pick so important.
On the other hand, the King would have been a superstar no matter which team drafted him, and that diminishes this selection ever so slightly. What can we say? It's a tough list, and someone has to come in at No. 9.
(That logic is the same reason you won't find Wilt Chamberlain here, by the way. He was the man, but we didn't want this to be just a list of the best No. 1 picks in NBA history. The selections had to have some sort of additional significance.)
NBAE/Getty ImagesJennifer Pottheiser
1978: The Boston Celtics take a chance on a Hick from French Lick
Five teams had a chance to draft Larry Bird, including the local Indiana Pacers. All five passed on Larry Legend because he had to return to college for one more year.
Red Auerbach had the vision to take Bird and stay patient. Ultimately, that decision jump-started the Celtics, leading to Boston's second golden age in the NBA.
Try to close your eyes and imagine a Lakers-Pacers rivalry in the 80s. Doesn't have quite the same feel, does it?
1992: The Magic take Shaquille O'Neal, only to run him out of town years later
Only Orlando could draft Shaq, watch him dominate for four years, then decide to lowball the Big Aristotle and allow him to walk to the Los Angeles Lakers.
If any one of the other franchises in the NBA lands the No. 1 pick in 1992, O'Neal probably doesn't make it to Los Angeles, at least not when he did.
1997: Tim Duncan creates the San Antonio Spurs as we know them
David Robinson doesn't get enough credit for laying the foundation of one of the greatest organizations in professional sports. With that said, we're going to continue to gloss over his contributions here in order to praise Timmy.
Gregg Popovich insists he would have been nothing without Duncan's coachability, work ethic, and outstanding performance on both ends of the court.
More than anyone else, Duncan is the reason San Antonio has five championships.
1969: A coin flip lands Lew Alcindor in Milwaukee, then Kareem Abdul-Jabbar heads to LA
Prior to 1985, the No. 1 overall pick was determined by a coin flip between the worst team from each conference (called divisions at the time of this draft, since there were just 14 teams in the Association in 1969).
The Bucks won the toss against the Phoenix Suns, and you know how history played out from there. Had Phoenix won, though, everything changes.
For starters, the ABA's Nets also drafted Abdul-Jabbar, so he had Milwaukee and New York submit blind bids for his services. The Bucks offered more; when the Nets tried to up the ante, Abdul-Jabbar turned down a bidding war.
Would the Suns have submitted a sufficient original bid to capture his services, or would Abdul-Jabbar have ended up in the ABA? Either way, does he eventually come to the Lakers? And just how many championships were determined by this pick?
1996: Kobe Bryant helps reignite a dynasty in Los Angeles
There's a pretty good chance you're overlooking just how important the Lakers' draft day trade for Kobe really was for Los Angeles.
Not only did the purple and gold obtain one of the all-time greats, it cleared more than $3 million in cap space by moving Vlade Divac for the Black Mamba's rookie contract.
That extra space was vital in making room to sign Shaquille O'Neal in free agency, which in turn resulted in a three-peat and five total titles for Kobe.
NBAE/Getty ImagesJuan Ocampo
1979: A deal from 1976 means Magic Johnson joins the Lakers
Free agency in the 1970s was weird. Players who wanted to change teams were free to sign elsewhere, but their new squad had to give up compensatory draft picks in return.
So when Gail Goodrich left Los Angeles for the Utah Jazz in the summer of 1976, the Jazz sent two first-rounders and a second-round pick to the Lakers — including the No. 1 overall pick in 1979.
A certain tall point guard from Michigan State was the best player available in that draft. You've probably heard of that "Earvin Johnson" guy.
The Jazz certainly have. They watched as Los Angeles became Showtime and dominated the Western Conference throughout the 80s, which begat the Shaq/Kobe era, which gave rise to the Kobe/Pau squads ... which eventually led to the Lakers' current state.
At least fans of the other 29 teams can take solace in that.
1956: Red Auerbach finds a way to get Bill Russell
But Auerbach didn't have a way to get the University of San Francisco center in the draft. The Celtics were obligated to take Tommy Heinsohn first overall with their territorial pick, a relic of the pre-modern era — so Auerbach needed to get creative.
The St. Louis Hawks selected Russell second overall, but they balked at paying the future Hall of Famer his $25,000 signing bonus. That's when Auerbach swooped in, offering Ed Macauley in exchange for the rights to Russell.
Auerbach knew the Hawks coveted Macauley; he might not have been prepared for St. Louis to counter by demanding the rights to Cliff Hagan, too. After some consideration, Auerbach pulled the trigger and started the most successful run in NBA history.
NBAE/Getty ImagesBrian Babineau
1984: The Portland Trail Blazers select Sam Bowie
The Houston Rockets weren't going to pass on Hakeem Olajuwon at No. 1. He was too good, too big and too much of a sure thing.
The Blazers, though, had reason to skip taking what most considered the second-best big man in the 1984 draft. Bowie already had injury concerns, yet he told Portland he would be just fine.
Spoiler: He wasn't.
Third overall pick Michael Jordan turned out to be a pretty good player in his own right, and any argument that the Blazers passed on MJ because they had Clyde Drexler is hindsight at best; the Glide didn't have a very strong rookie season, and he and Jordan could have played together.
Instead, Jordan built a legendary career in Chicago, while Portland is still looking to follow up on the team's Bill Walton-led championship team of the '70s.