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NBA Redraftables Reevaluations: Tim Duncan and the Barren Wasteland of the 1997 Draft

The best, worst, and Knicksiest moves from one of the bleakest classes in recent history

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 1997 draft played out.)

Best Move

Tim Duncan to the Spurs, no. 1

Let’s not complicate things: The Spurs made the obvious choice, taking Duncan first overall, and were rewarded with a Hall of Famer and five-time champion who reached the playoffs every season of his career.

The best way to win a title is to nab a superstar, and the best place to nab a superstar is at the top of the draft—except strangely, those two axioms don’t often mix. Only four no. 1 picks since the advent of the lottery have won a championship with the team that drafted them:

  • Kyrie Irving, Cavaliers, picked first in 2011
  • LeBron James, Cavaliers, 2003
  • Tim Duncan, Spurs, 1997
  • David Robinson, Spurs, 1987

James didn’t win until he left Cleveland and returned, teaming up with Irving. And Robinson, of course, didn’t win a championship until Duncan arrived. Maybe it takes two no. 1 picks to build a title team.

Yet even beyond the rarity of the Spurs’ team success with their top selection in 1997, Duncan stands head and shoulders above the rest of his peers; he made more All-Star teams than the rest of his draft class combined. He also spent his entire career with the Spurs, while the other two future All-Stars picked in 1997 didn’t flourish until they left their initial teams. Tracy McGrady, picked ninth out of high school, played second fiddle to cousin Vince Carter in Toronto before blossoming in Orlando, and no. 3 pick Chauncey Billups spent just 51 games in Boston before he was traded. Speaking of Billups in Boston …

Worst Move

All of the Celtics’ decisions

Boston’s problems in the 1997 draft began on lottery night, when the team missed out on the no. 1 pick despite the best odds—and thus missed out on Duncan despite a hard tank in the second half of the season. In 1996-97, the Celtics finished 15-67, which remains the worst record in franchise history by nine games; they started 11-33 before finishing an even more woeful 4-34.

1998 NBA All-Star Rookie Challenge Portraits
Chauncey Billups and Ron Mercer during NBA All-Star Weekend in 1998
Photo by Andy Hayt/NBAE via Getty Images

Still, even without the Duncan pick, Boston could have made something from its first draft with a new brain trust, with the nos. 3, 6, and 30 selections. (The league had only 29 teams and the Wizards forfeited their first-rounder, so the no. 30 pick was the second pick of the second round.) But the Celtics traded their no. 30 pick to Miami for the right to sign Chris Wallace, then the Heat’s director of player personnel, as their new general manager. And in the first round, they used those prime lottery picks on Colorado guard Chauncey Billups and Kentucky guard Ron Mercer.

Wait, you’re thinking, Billups was one of the best players from this draft! How did the Celtics err by taking him? Indeed, the Celtics seem thrilled on draft night; new coach and team president Rick Pitino called Billups and Mercer, the latter of whom he’d coached at Kentucky, a “dream backcourt.”

Fast-forward half a season: Pitino traded Billups, plus three other players, to Toronto for the immortal trio of Kenny Anderson, Popeye Jones, and Zan Tabak. In August 1999, they traded Mercer too. That dream dissolved rather quickly—and in January 2001, Pitino resigned, sacrificing the remaining $27 million on his NBA contract to return to the college game.

Most Underrated Move

Seattle trades its first-round pick (no. 23) to Denver for two second-rounders

I wanted to leave this section blank, but I suspected my editor might protest. [Editor’s note: Yup!] Truly, finding a team other than the Spurs to praise is a challenge; the draft was incredibly top-heavy, and the few lesser picks that shone did so for teams other than their drafters. For instance, Stephen Jackson, picked 42nd overall by the Suns, enjoyed one of the five best careers for any player in this draft. What a steal for Phoenix, right?

Wrong. The Suns waived Jackson before his rookie season started.

Rashard Lewis dribbles past Andrei Kirilenko
Rashard Lewis drives on Andrei Kirilenko

Grudgingly, then, I bestow the honor upon the SuperSonics, who took point guard Bobby Jackson 23rd overall and flipped him to Denver on draft night in exchange for two second-rounders. Normally a first-rounder is more valuable by itself than two second-round selections, and Jackson was a fine value himself, ultimately developing into a spark plug for the early-aughts Kings.

But even if the process was somewhat faulty, it paid off for Seattle in the long run. The first of those second-rounders was James Cotton, who played 19 total NBA games. The second, though, was Rashard Lewis, picked 32nd in 1998. So from this derelict draft, Seattle eventually emerged with an All-Star and 20-points-per-game scorer.

Best What-if

Scottie Pippen traded to the Celtics for the rights to Tracy McGrady

The Bulls won the championship in 1996 and 1997, then prepared for a chance at their second threepeat of the decade by … trying to trade Scottie Pippen.

There were some logical reasons for this exploration, even if the very prospect of trading a player with his track record helped create strife between the players and coach Phil Jackson on one side, and ownership and the front office on the other. Pippen was aging—he’d turn 32 that offseason—and his body was reacting accordingly; in the 1997 playoffs, he’d hurt his foot in the conference finals against the Heat, and he’d require surgery before the next season. Pippen was set to reach free agency in a year. And the Bulls were also beginning to look beyond the 1997-98 campaign, to a post–Michael Jordan future, and trying to stave off a complete bottoming-out period.

So the Bulls set out trying to secure top draft choices, or a younger star, in a potential Pippen trade. The 76ers, with the no. 2 pick and young guard Jerry Stackhouse, were involved. One rumor placed the Bulls in contact with Seattle for an All-Star swap of Pippen for Shawn Kemp. (Philadelphia would end up trading both the no. 2 pick and Stackhouse, in separate deals with New Jersey and Detroit; Seattle would end up trading Kemp later that offseason, in a three-team trade that netted the Sonics Vin Baker.) A Chicago Tribune piece from December 1997 has a fuller rundown of all the outlandish rumored permutations—which could have sent Pippen to Houston for Charles Barkley, or to the Lakers for Eddie Jones or Kobe Bryant (!), or to Sacramento for Mitch Richmond, or more.

But the juiciest and most frequent rumors leading up to the 1997 draft involved the Bulls and Celtics. Pitino wanted Pippen and Bulls center Luc Longley, reports said at the time; Chicago wanted to use Boston’s no. 3 and 6 picks to acquire some combination of Keith Van Horn, Mercer, and McGrady.

Trying to imagine the ripple effects of McGrady as a Bull makes the brain go a little fuzzy, but that scenario almost came to fruition. McGrady held a secret workout with the Bulls (who held the no. 28 pick and couldn’t have taken the talented high-schooler without a trade), and until draft day itself, the two teams were still discussing the particulars.

Determining why Pippen remained a Bull, and why McGrady fell to the Raptors, is just as difficult a chore. At the time, Pitino said he pulled out after Chicago asked for veteran players in addition to the no. 3 and 6 picks. Other contemporary sources place the decision at the Bulls’ hooves; the call might have even come from the Bull himself. “Some outside factors could kill the deal—such as the disapproval of Michael Jordan,” The New York Times noted before the draft. In 2016, McGrady said that Jordan had indeed nixed the idea, so the trade fell through. Another report suggests Jordan simply didn’t return Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf’s calls, leading him to get nervous and back out. And with Jordan gone after his second retirement following the 1998 Finals, the Bulls finally parted with Pippen, signing-and-trading him to the Rockets.

While McGrady might have helped Chicago avoid its post-Jordan swoon, the Bulls benefited from the squashed deal—flags fly forever, after all. In 1997-98, Pippen was named to the All-NBA third team and All-Defensive first team despite playing just 44 games after recovering from his surgery. And in the playoffs, though he ailed from back pain, he averaged 17-7-5 with two steals and a block, playing 40 minutes per night as Chicago outlasted the Pacers (in seven games in the conference finals) and Jazz (in six games in the Finals).

In the middle of those Finals, Jordan said of Pippen, “The harmony between us is incomparable. You can’t compare it to anything. It’s just a rhythm you build with another player. To play without him is like a slap in the face for me.” Perhaps that thought had influenced the rhythm of draft night a year earlier.

(For a separate but equally fascinating tale related to the 1997 draft, check out the wild story about the Wizards’ first-rounder that year, which the team forfeited for the right to re-sign Juwan Howard the previous summer. It didn’t happen on draft night, but the whole arrangement centered on the then-largest contract in American sports history, went to court, and involved an archetypal power play from commissioner David Stern.)

How the Knicks Screwed Up

In January 1994, the Knicks traded a future first-round pick to Dallas as part of a deal for veteran guard Derek Harper. Two years later, that pick went from Dallas to Toronto, and one day after that, Toronto flipped its new pick to a third team: the Knicks, who traded Hubert Davis to get their pick back.

So after a circle of trades, the Knicks’ pick finally ended up back where it began. Then New York used it to select Minnesota big man John Thomas—and then spun around and traded Thomas to Boston a week before the season began. Missing out on Thomas’s career (or that of almost any 1997 draftee, frankly) wasn’t the worst move. Thomas never averaged more than 4.3 points per game in any NBA season.

New York Knicks vs. Vancouver Grizzlies
Chris Mills during his lone season with the Knicks
Photo by Andy Hayt/NBAE via Getty Images

If anything, this series of transactions reflects, once again, the Celtics as the true screw-ups of the summer of 1997. The player New York acquired for Thomas, forward Chris Mills, had signed a lucrative seven-year contract with Boston that summer, only for Pitino to trade him before he’d spent a single regular-season game with the club.

When Mills signed with Boston, the Celtics’ front office explained that he was a target because “he would fit in well with coach Rick Pitino’s uptempo coaching style.” Three months later, The New York Times noted that he was shopped because “he had trouble finding his groove in Pitino’s style.” Oops!

Mills ultimately spent just a single season in New York before the Knicks spun him off to Golden State as part of a deal to acquire Latrell Sprewell, fresh off a 68-game suspension for choking his coach and three-month period of house arrest for a reckless driving incident. Even the ripple effects of the 1997 draft are a bummer.

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.

The New Lottery Order

Player Pick Career Rank Peak Rank Blended Rank
Player Pick Career Rank Peak Rank Blended Rank
Tim Duncan 1 1 1 1
Chauncey Billups 3 2 3 2
Tracy McGrady 9 3 2 3
Derek Anderson 13 4 4 4
Stephen Jackson 42 5 8 5
Brevin Knight 16 6 5 6
Antonio Daniels 4 7 7 7
Keith Van Horn 2 8 9 8
Tim Thomas 7 9 11 9
Anthony Parker 21 11 6 10
Bobby Jackson 23 10 10 11
Damon Jones Undrafted 13 14 12
Tony Battie 5 12 16 13

The Lotto Picks Left Behind

Player Pick Career Rank Peak Rank Blended Rank
Player Pick Career Rank Peak Rank Blended Rank
Ron Mercer 6 27 26 27
Adonal Foyle 8 21 21 21
Danny Fortson 10 20 19 19
Tariq Abdul-Wahad 11 29 29 29
Austin Croshere 12 18 17 18

Thanks to Graeme Abernethy for the name suggestion.