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NBA Redraftables Reevaluations: Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson, and the Stacked 1996 Class

The best, worst, and Knicksiest moves of a draft that would shape the league for decades

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Draft season is here, even if the NBA season isn’t, so we’re taking a look back at some of the most interesting lotteries of the past 24 years. On the Book of Basketball 2.0 feed, Bill Simmons and a rotating cast are redrafting every pick 1-13/14, starting with 1996. Here, we’re going deep on what actually did happen by choosing the best, worst, and Knicksiest move of each class with the gift of hindsight, and also looking at how the numbers would re-rank the lottery board today. (For reference, here’s how the 1996 draft played out.)

Best Move

Kobe Bryant to the Lakers (via Hornets), no. 13

Getting one of the best players in history one pick after Vitaly Potapenko is pretty good value. But the genius behind the Lakers’ move to get Bryant goes far beyond talent evaluation. Several other lottery teams saw how special Kobe could be; they just didn’t want to take the risk. Bryant got the approval of Red Auerbach, but the Celtics didn’t want to wait for the 18-year-old to develop. The Clippers passed, allegedly, to spare Bryant of Donald Sterling. Jerry West not only spotted Bryant’s talent, but he had the conviction to move hell and Vlade Divac to get him, and most importantly, the market muscle to strong-arm any other suitors into passing. The legend of West’s mafioso draft-day maneuverings has been told thousands of times, but the story still manages to get rewritten every couple of months or years. In the past year alone, Bryant claimed the Hornets told him they had no use for him, and former Lakers assistant GM, now-Hornets GM Mitch Kupchak said the trade almost didn’t go through because Divac threatened to retire.

Worst Move

Todd Fuller to the Warriors, no. 11

Scouting blind spots led to a few memorable oversights of high schoolers (Bryant and Jermaine O’Neal) and foreign players (Peja Stojakovic and, to a lesser extent, Steve Nash), but there were few full-on whiffs in the first two-thirds of the draft. Marcus Camby, the pride of Hartford and the no. 2 overall pick, most likely wouldn’t go in the top five again, but he still managed to play 17 seasons and win one Defensive Player of the Year award. In fact, every player picked in the top 20 went on to play at least a decade in the NBA … except for three: Kerry Kittles (whose career was derailed by injuries), John Wallace (whom we’ll get to later), and Fuller.

Fuller’s failure is a classic ’90s draft tale: a big ol’ lug who was taken high because you “can’t teach size,” but who didn’t have enough skill to do much besides take up space. He lasted two seasons in Golden State, and three more between three NBA teams before heading overseas. Former Warriors GM Dave Twardzik described Fuller’s flameout to The Mercury News in 2016, ahead of Bryant’s last game in the Bay, as follows: “Todd was more of a high-post player and had a very good basketball IQ,” Twardzik said. “But he probably wasn’t quick enough or physical enough to play the position, and the system at the time was probably more suited to a low-post player.”

After Fuller, the Cavs picked Potapenko, and then came Bryant, Stojakovic, and Nash, in order. Regarding Bryant, Twardzik, in 2016, said, “We did our due diligence, but ultimately we kind of felt like he was not going to get to us anyway. But you know, if he had, I don’t know that we would have taken him. There was that unknown.” Huh.

Most Underrated Move

Peja Stojakovic to the Kings, no. 14

Nash to the Suns is the obvious pick here, but it’s hard to credit the foresight of an organization that traded the eventual two-time MVP two years after they drafted him. Sacramento, meanwhile, took a chance on a 19-year-old Yugoslavian playing in Greece who was coming off a broken leg the year before, at a time when the few drafted overseas players were hulking big men. It took Peja (or Predrag, as he was called then) two years to sign and come over, another two years to get acclimated to the NBA game, and just as he was ready to give up, he became a 20-point scorer and a driving force for the only good era in Kings history. For what it’s worth, Hubie Brown said on the draft-night broadcast that Sacramento might’ve gone with Kobe had he still been there. Hubie also said he was a bit surprised the Kings didn’t take John Wallace, fresh off a Final Four run, over Stojakovic, so who the hell knows.

Best What-if

The Timberwolves hold on to Ray Allen

Bryant going anywhere but Los Angeles rewrites the next two decades of the NBA. Let’s say he plays out his rookie season in Charlotte. He either performs well enough that he agrees to stay, establishing the Hornets as the successors to the Jordan Bulls, or the Hornets are able to get much more for him in a trade the following offseason. Either way, the team is talented enough to keep the Charlotte Coliseum packed and George Shinn never picks up and moves to New Orleans a few years later. The Lakers move forward with Eddie Jones, and Divac is traded elsewhere. Maybe Divac is comfortable with his new franchise and never signs with Sacramento; the “Greatest Show on Court” never assembles, Divac never becomes GM, and the Kings—bad in 2018-19 in any possible timeline—don’t pass on Luka Doncic. And that’s one year with one team! It’d take all of Joann Fabric’s string and cork boards to figure out the ripple effects. Instead, let’s focus on a more manageable alternate reality.

Had he stayed with Milwaukee past draft night, Stephon Marbury probably would’ve eventually ended up in New Jersey anyway, given his desire to be the only star in a big market and his ability to wear out his welcome in fewer than three years. But keeping Allen and that extra first-round pick might’ve gotten Kevin Garnett out of the first round of the playoffs more than once in Minnesota. Allen wasn’t the new age Stockton-type Flip Saunders wanted to pair with KG, but the college junior was clearly a personality fit, and the twosome plus Tom Gugliotta would’ve been enough firepower to put the Wolves in contention long before 2004. Then again, ownership probably would’ve balked at paying for any Big Three and put Garnett in exactly the same predicament.

How the Knicks Fucked Up

The Knicks would build a legacy of squandering draft capital in the years to come, but in ’96, they somehow amassed multiple late first-round picks: no. 18, from Detroit (via San Antonio, for Charles Smith and Monty Williams); no. 19, from Atlanta (via Miami, for the rights to sign Pat Riley), and no. 21. None, however, would prove very useful. Walter McCarty carved out a 10-year career as a reserve, mostly with Boston, much to the delight of Tommy Heinsohn. But John Wallace bounced between five teams in seven seasons, and Dontae’ Jones played 91 minutes in the NBA.

The player picked between the trio, at no. 20? That’d be Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who’d go on to play 13 seasons and make two All-Star teams. Whoops! To be fair, New York already had Patrick Ewing, coming off a 23-and-11 season and his 10th All-Star appearance, but Ewing was 33 at the time, and would play just one more full season before beginning to break down. Derek Fisher also went 24th overall and Jerome “Junkyard Dog” Williams went 26th.

Zach Kram’s In-Hindsight Draft Board

Using a mix of two all-encompassing statistics—Basketball-Reference’s win shares and FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR wins above replacement—we calculated the peak and career value for each player drafted (and undrafted) since 1996. (Peak value comprised the top five seasons of a player’s career.) Then, for each class, we ranked the players in three ways: by peak value, by career value, and by an ultimate blend of the two, using baseball’s JAWS model as an example. The first chart shows the top 13 players according to these rankings, while the second looks at the lottery picks that didn’t make the cut. An important caveat is that all of these rankings address regular-season performance only; feel free to mentally adjust placements based on playoff exploits. —Kram

The New Lottery Order

Player Pick Career Rank Peak Rank Blended Rank
Player Pick Career Rank Peak Rank Blended Rank
Kobe Bryant 13 1 1 1
Ray Allen 5 2 2 2
Steve Nash 15 3 3 3
Allen Iverson 1 4 5 4
Ben Wallace Undrafted 5 4 5
Stephon Marbury 4 6 6 6
Peja Stojaković 14 7 7 7
Marcus Camby 2 8 9 8
Shareef Abdur-Rahim 3 9 10 9
Zydrunas Ilgauskas 20 11 11 10
Derek Fisher 24 10 13 11
Jermaine O'Neal 17 12 12 12
Kerry Kittles 8 13 8 13

The Lotto Picks Left Behind

Player Pick Career Rank Peak Rank Blended Rank
Player Pick Career Rank Peak Rank Blended Rank
Antoine Walker 6 16 14 16
Lorenzen Wright 7 22 24 23
Samaki Walker 9 29 28 28
Erick Dampier 10 15 15 15
Todd Fuller 11 61 61 61
Vitaly Potapenko 12 31 30 31

Thanks to Graeme Abernethy for the name suggestion.