Every NBA team has draft picks they wish they could take back, but some missteps are more atrocious than others, especially when the next player chosen goes on to be great. With that in mind, we scoured the draft histories of all 30 NBA franchises and picked the most glaring “one that got away” for each team. To qualify for this exercise, teams either needed to trade an eventual standout player before he appeared in a game, or had to make their regrettable selection one pick before another team drafted a future star. Let the debate begin:
Blazers: Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan (1984)
For most teams, picking Greg Oden one spot before Kevin Durant would be the worst draft slip-up in team history. The same could also be said of drafting Wally Walker immediately before Adrian Dantley or LaRue Martin one spot ahead of Bob McAdoo. But when you pass on Michael Jordan and don’t at least take another Hall of Famer in the GOAT’s place, something Portland failed to do when it took Sam Bowie with the No. 2 pick in 1984, it not only becomes the worst “one that got away” in franchise history, but the worst one in the history of the league.
Warriors: Purvis Short over Larry Bird (1978)
Golden State has no shortage of options when it comes to off-by-one picks the franchise wishes it could have back, from Hal Lear over K.C. Jones (1965) to Chris Washburn over Chuck Person (1986) to Adonal Foyle over Tracy McGrady (1997). But there’s little argument that the biggest fish that got away was Larry Bird, a draft-eligible junior from Indiana State who went sixth overall in 1978, one pick after the Warriors took Purvis Short at No. 5. Short went on to have a successful NBA career, most of which was spent in the Bay Area, but he was by no means Bird, who proved to be worth the wait (and more) after he finally joined the Boston Celtics in 1979.
Kings: Si Green over Bill Russell (1956)
Over the course of franchise history, Sacramento has seen everyone from Clyde Drexler to Chris Mullin to Vin Baker to Damian Lillard go on to stardom after being passed on by the Kings. However, the club’s most regrettable call came when the club was neither the Kings nor in Sacramento. In 1956, the Rochester Royals took Si Green out of Duquesne with the No. 1 overall pick. Green went on to play 33 total games for the Royals franchise before he was traded. The guy who went No. 2? Bill Russell.
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Hawks: Trading Bill Russell (1956)
Speaking of Russell, the Hawks’ worst misfire didn’t get away so much as he was given away in arguably the worst trade of a draft pick in NBA history. When in St. Louis, the franchise used that No. 2 overall pick in 1956 to choose Russell out of the University of San Francisco. The Hawks then sent Russell to the Celtics for Easy Ed Macauley and Cliff Hagan. With the benefit of hindsight, one now has to wonder if the Hawks might still be in St. Louis had they held on to Russell.
Pistons: Darko Milicic over Carmelo Anthony (2003)
The 2003 draft is considered to be one of the best in NBA history, as likely Hall of Famers LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade went Nos. 1, 3, 4 and 5 overall, respectively. Unfortunately, the No. 2 pick, Serbian big man Darko Milicic, did not come close to meeting expectations during his tenure in the league, a selection that still haunts Detroit to this day.
Clippers: Reggie Williams over Scottie Pippen (1987)
The Clippers have certainly used top-10 picks on worse players than Reggie Williams, including Michael Olowokandi (No. 1 in 1998, one spot ahead of Mike Bibby) and Lancaster Gordon (No. 8 in 1984, one ahead of Otis Thorpe). However, Williams, a 10-year journeyman who appeared in 103 games with L.A., was taken immediately ahead of Scottie Pippen, who was picked fifth in 1987. And when you consider that Reggie Miller, Horace Grant, Kevin Johnson, Mark Jackson, Derrick McKey, Muggsy Bogues and Kenny Smith were also still on the board when Williams’ name was called, it’s an especially bad look.
Thunder: Trading Scottie Pippen (1987)
Since moving to Oklahoma City, the Thunder have drafted fairly well, but that wasn’t always the case during the franchise’s tenure as the Seattle SuperSonics. In its latter years, Seattle slipped up taking Mouhamed Sene over J.J. Redick in 2006, and Robert Swift, the 12th pick in the 2004 draft, has certainly turned into a cautionary tale. But trading Pippen on draft night is a hard thing to reconcile, and that’s exactly what the Sonics did in 1987. On the plus side, though, at least the Clippers aren’t alone in regretting how the No. 5 pick that year worked out. (And both teams have company from the Nets, who whiffed on Dennis Hopson at No. 3.)
Knicks: Frederic Weis over Ron Artest (1999)
The Knicks went overseas in 1999, when they chose French 7-footer Frederic Weis with their top pick, No. 15 overall. Next, at No. 16, the Chicago Bulls selected Ron Artest, a New York City native who played college ball at St. John's. Weis' most memorable moment, sadly, was when he was a human prop for a Vince Carter dunk in the Olympics. Artest, on the other hand, went on to become an All-Star in 2004, and an NBA champion in 2010, but was long past his prime when he finally joined his hometown team as Metta World Peace in 2013.
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Grizzlies: Hasheem Thabeet over James Harden (2009)
Considering that the franchise has been around only since the mid-'90s, the Grizzlies don’t have a ton of past draft picks to lament. But of the 43 selections they have made between Vancouver and Memphis, the decision to take UConn 7-footer Hasheem Thabeet No. 2 overall in 2009 is easily the most wince-worthy, in part because Thabeet was never good, but mostly because James Harden went to Oklahoma City one pick later, at No. 3.
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Wizards: Kenny Green over Karl Malone (1985)
It would have been appropriate had the Mailman delivered in our nation’s capital rather than Utah during his 19-year Hall of Fame career. However, rather than draft Malone with the No. 12 pick in the 1985 draft, Washington, then known as the Bullets, went with Wake Forest small forward Kenny Green, who played only 60 NBA games in his career, with just 20 coming in a Washington uniform.
76ers: Larry Hughes over Dirk Nowitzki (1998)
While it’s true the Sixers once picked Shawn Bradley immediately ahead of Penny Hardaway, the worst missed opportunity came in 1998, when Philadelphia took Larry Hughes with the No. 8 pick, only to trade him to the Golden State Warriors less than two years later. While that drama played out, the No. 9 pick, Dirk Nowitzki, was in the early stages of a Hall of Fame career, and for Sixers fans looking to rub a little more salt in the wound, consider this: Paul Pierce was drafted No. 10 overall, as well.
Bucks: Trading Dirk Nowitzki (1998)
There’s a strong case to be made that Nowitzki might be the second-best player Milwaukee has drafted, behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Unfortunately, Nowitzki never played a single second in a Bucks uniform, as he was shipped to Dallas immediately after being picked No. 9 overall in 1998, along with No. 19 pick Pat Garrity (who was then flipped for Steve Nash). Milwaukee’s return in the deal was No. 6 pick Robert Traylor, who never amounted to much as an NBA player, while Nowitzki, a sure-fire Hall of Famer, is expected to suit up for his 20th season in a Mavs uniform this fall.
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Suns: Heads over Tails (1969)
In March 1969, NBA commissioner J. Walter Kennedy flipped a coin to determine who would pick first between the Phoenix Suns and the Milwaukee Bucks in the 1969 draft. The Suns, at the time led by general manager Jerry Colangelo, called heads. The half-dollar landed on tails, and Milwaukee went on to use the No. 1 pick to draft Lew Alcindor — better known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Phoenix had to settle for Florida center Neal Walk at No. 2. It’s not exactly the same as picking Walk over Alcindor, but when it changes the course of a franchise forever, it’s hard to tell the difference. (If you’re set on pointing to an actual Suns player selection, though, Zarko Cabarkapa over David West in 2003 is a good place to start.)
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Hornets: Trading Kobe Bryant (1996)
With all due respect to Alonzo Mourning, Kobe Bryant is the best player the Charlotte Hornets have drafted. Unfortunately, like Nowitzki in Dallas, Bryant never played for Charlotte after going No. 13 overall, as he was traded to L.A. in exchange for Vlade Divac just a few weeks after the draft. And we all know how that worked out for the Lakers.
Cavs: Vitaly Potapenko over Kobe Bryant (1996)
The Hornets would have never had the chance to trade Bryant to Los Angeles had Cleveland stepped in and taken Bryant with the No. 12 pick in 1996. Instead, the Cavs settled on Vitaly Potapenko out of Wright State, a Ukranian center who averaged 6.7 points in 177 career games with Cleveland before being traded for Andrew DeClerq. Sad!
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Pelicans: James Lang over James Jones (2003)
It’s tough to be too critical of New Orleans, which has made only 23 draft picks in franchise history, but most would likely agree that the Pelicans, then known as the Hornets, picked the wrong James with the No. 48 pick in 2003. After all, Lang scored just 11 points in 11 career NBA games, while the No. 49 pick Jones has shot 40 percent from 3 over 14 NBA seasons and has been a role player on seven straight conference championship teams alongside LeBron James, winning three rings along the way.
Timberwolves: Jonny Flynn over Stephen Curry (2009)
The Timberwolves caused many in the basketball world to scratch their heads when they picked Ricky Rubio and Jonny Flynn with the No. 5 and 6 picks in the 2009 draft. But in retrospect, the issue wasn’t so much that Minnesota went with back-to-back point guards. Rather, it’s that they missed out on the best of the bunch, leaving Stephen Curry for Golden State at No. 7.
Raptors: Rafael Araujo over Andre Iguodala (2004)
Using a lottery pick to take Aleksandar Radojevic one spot ahead of Corey Maggette is not good, but it’s hard to make the argument that it’s worse than taking Rafael Araujo at No. 8 overall, allowing Andre Iguodala go to Philadelphia at No. 9. Historically, Toronto has been fairly good when it comes to drafting — in addition to picking Chris Bosh, DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas, the Raptors also used consecutive first-round picks on Damon Stoudamire, Marcus Camby, Tracy McGrady and Antawn Jamison (who was flipped for UNC teammate Vince Carter) in the 1990s. But this was a rare major slip-up.
Magic: Stanley Roberts over Rick Fox (1991)
The Magic are typically golden when their first-round pick falls in the top five, but when they’re outside the lottery or the ping-pong balls don’t bounce in their favor, all bets are off. Fran Vasquez, Reece Gaines, Johnny Taylor, Geert Hammink and Jeryl Sasser are a few of the first-round names that never panned out, but none of those players was immediately followed by a pick that went on to highlight Orlando’s mistake. That wasn’t the case, however, in 1991, when Orlando chose LSU’s Stanley Roberts moments before Boston took North Carolina’s Rick Fox. Fox was by no means a superstar during his 13-year career, but simply playing as long as Fox did is an accomplishment in itself. Winning three rings is just the icing on the cake.
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Heat: Khalid Reeves over Jalen Rose (1994)
It’s borderline criminal that Miami took Michael Beasley ahead of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love after losing the Derrick Rose sweepstakes in 2008, but O.J. Mayo was sandwiched in between Miami’s No. 2 pick and Westbrook and Love at No. 4 and No. 5, thereby eliminating that from consideration in this list. Additionally, picking Dexter Pittman one spot ahead of Hassan Whiteside might have taken the crown had Whiteside not eventually ended up in Miami anyway. With those caveats in mind, we’ll go with the decision to draft Khalid Reeves at No. 12 in 1994. Not only did Reeves last only one season in Miami before he was traded, he was also followed immediately in the draft by a much better point guard in Jalen Rose.
Jazz: Shabazz Muhammad over Giannis Antetokounmpo (2013)
In a vacuum, trading Dominique Wilkins after picking him third overall in 1982 looks like a questionable move, but without that trade, Utah likely doesn’t find itself in a position to select John Stockton and Karl Malone in the following two drafts. It’s also tough to blame them for taking Darrell Griffith ahead of Kevin McHale in 1980, considering Griffith was a perfectly serviceable NBA player and spent a decade playing in Salt Lake City. So we’ll throw a curveball and go with a more recent pick — Shabazz Muhammad, who went No. 14 in 2013 and was then packaged with No. 21 Gorgui Dieng in a trade for No. 9 Trey Burke. Both Muhammad and Burke have become adequate NBA players, as has Dieng, for that matter. But none of them has the star power of “Greek Freak” Giannis Antetokounmpo, whom the Bucks took one pick after Muhammad, at No. 15.
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Spurs: Adam Hanga over Isaiah Thomas (2011)
In fairness, everyone but Sacramento missed the boat on Isaiah Thomas in 2011, when the Washington guard was the last pick in the draft. But it might hurt the worst for San Antonio, which picked Hungarian guard Adam Hanga right before Thomas at No. 59. Hanga has yet to move to the U.S. to pursue an NBA career with the Spurs, and at this point he probably never will. Thomas, meanwhile, has become a bona fide star in Boston and trails only Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler in win shares among 2011 draftees. San Antonio already hit on one future Hall of Famer late in the second round, with Manu Ginobili in 1999, and while it’s far too early to crown Thomas an all-time great, he’s off to a promising start.
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Lakers: Kenny Carr over Bernard King (1977)
Carr played a decade in the league after going No. 6 overall to L.A. in 1977, but virtually none of his success came with the Lakers. Meanwhile, Hall of Famer Bernard King ended up with New Jersey at No. 7 and would have no doubt made the Showtime teams of the 1980s even more dangerous than they already were. And if you’re wondering how hypothetically drafting King in ‘77 might have impacted L.A.’s chances of drafting Magic Johnson first overall in 1979, wonder no more: The pick the team used on Magic came from the New Orleans Jazz and was not the Lakers’ own selection.
Mavericks: Uwe Blab over Joe Dumars (1985)
Uwe Blab’s name was about the only remarkable thing about him during his five-year NBA career after going 17th in the ‘85 draft, as the center averaged 2.2 points and 1.6 rebounds in 7.6 minutes per game during his four seasons in Dallas. It only adds insult to injury to know that Joe Dumars was still on the board when the Mavs picked Blab, and went to Detroit at No. 18.
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Rockets: Trading Richard Jefferson (2001)
The Rockets had three first-round selections in the 2001 draft, then used all of them, including no. 13 pick Richard Jefferson, to pry No. 7 pick Eddie Griffin away from the New Jersey Nets. Not only did Griffin turn out to be a bust, but Jefferson, most recently of the Cleveland Cavaliers, is still in the league today.
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Nuggets: Raef LaFrentz over Antawn Jamison (1998)
Denver has certainly had better days than the day it picked Mark Macon over Stacey Augmon in the 1991 draft, but a more egregious misstep came in 1998, when the Nuggets used the No. 3 pick on Raef LaFrentz, then watched Toronto take Antawn Jamison at No. 4. The Raptors ultimately ended up swapping Jamison for the No. 5 pick, Vince Carter, but regardless of whether you look at it as the one that got away or the two that got away, the optics are still bad.
Celtics: Michael Smith over Tim Hardaway (1989)
A 6-foot-10 BYU product, Michael Smith appeared in 112 games for the Celtics after he was picked 13th overall in 1989, and blocked a grand total of three shots in that span. Meanwhile, the No. 14 pick, Tim Hardaway, was a five-time All-Star who averaged 18.5 points and 8.6 assists per game over the first 12 years of his career. Generously listed at 6 feet tall, Hardaway also blocked 12 shots in his rookie season, alone. Make of that what you will.
Nets: Chris Morris over Mitch Richmond (1988)
We already mentioned that Dennis Hopson is arguably the worst pick in Nets franchise history, and New Jersey also took JaJuan Johnson when Jimmy Butler was still on the board in 2011. But in order to stay within the confines of this activity, we’ll go with Chris Morris, the fourth pick in the 1988 draft. A 6-8 swingman, Morris was a fine NBA player and spent seven productive seasons with the Nets, but Mitch Richmond, the fifth overall pick by Golden State, grew into a perennial All-Star in Sacramento and was inducted to the Hall of Fame in 2014.
Bulls: Jay Williams over Mike Dunleavy (2002)
The post-Jordan Bulls went through a rough stretch in the early 2000s, drafting Marcus Fizer, Eddy Curry and Jay Williams immediately ahead of Mike Miller, Jason Richardson and Mike Dunleavy in consecutive years from 2000-02. Fizer, Curry and Williams were all top-five picks and none lived up to expectations, but Williams, a No. 2 overall pick, fell shortest of his. The former Duke star appeared in 75 games his rookie year before a 2003 motorcycle accident ended his playing career.
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Pacers: Alexander Johnson over Paul Millsap (2006)
Technically, Alexander Johnson was the No. 45 pick in the 2006 draft, and Paul Millsap was taken 47th. However, both the 46th and 47th picks belonged to the Utah Jazz, and therefore could be perceived as interchangeable. After he was selected, Johnson was immediately packaged in a trade to Portland for No. 31 pick James White. White was then cut by the Pacers before the start of the 2006 regular season, while Millsap developed into a consistent scoring and rebounding threat in Utah before making four straight All-Star teams (and counting) as a member of the Atlanta Hawks.
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