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NBA Redraftables Reevaluations: Dirk, the Kandi Man, and the 1998 Draft Class

The best, worst, and Knicksiest moves from a draft that produced multiple Hall of Famers … and one of the worst no. 1 picks of all time

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Draft season is here, even if the NBA season isn’t, so we’re taking a look back at every lottery 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 examining 1998 and 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 1998 draft played out.)


Best Move

Dirk Nowitzki to the Mavericks (via Bucks), no. 9

Don Nelson had a feeling that Dirk Nowitzki was going to be special, so he did his best to keep other NBA teams from falling in love with the German teenager in the lead-up to the 1998 draft. “We tried to hide him,” Nelson told Sports Illustrated. “I didn’t do a lot of scouting of high school players, but I’d never seen a young player with more skill than he had.” Nellie’s efforts—and initial hunch—paid off. Not only did the Mavericks pull off one of the all-time heists, but they actually traded down to get him, taking Robert “Tractor” Traylor at no. 6 and shipping him to Milwaukee for Nowitzki and the no. 19 pick, Pat Garrity. If that type of Danny Ocean sleight-of-hand wasn’t impressive enough, the Mavs then shipped Garrity and spare parts to Phoenix for a young point guard named Steve Nash. Not a bad draft-day haul.

Traylor lasted two seasons in Milwaukee before being traded. Nowitzki would go on to play 21 seasons in Dallas, the longest tenure of any player with a single franchise in NBA history. He scored the sixth-most points in league history, won MVP in 2007 and a championship in 2011, and helped globalize the game along the way. He’s likely one of the 30 greatest players of all time, and he’s unquestionably the greatest European player to ever play in the league. The Mavericks’ theft of Nowitzki at no. 9 wasn’t just the best move of this draft—it’s arguably the greatest move of any draft.

Worst Move

Michael Olowokandi to the Clippers, no. 1

Olowokandi is probably not the worst no. 1 pick of all time, but the fact that I had to start the sentence like this doesn’t bode well for his place in history. In a draft where Nowitzki, Vince Carter, and Paul Pierce all went in the top 10, the Clippers decided to take a massive, little-known center out of Pacific (that probably should have been their first red flag). To his credit, the Kandi Man belonged in the NBA. In five seasons with the Clippers, he averaged 8.3 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 1.4 blocks in 26.3 minutes per game. He just had no business being the top pick. Olowokandi didn’t start playing basketball until he was 18 and somehow parlayed one dominant season in the Big West into the draft’s highest honor. He left Los Angeles in free agency in 2003 and joined the Wolves, where he would play three of his remaining four seasons before injuries cut his disappointing career short. But it was obvious well before then that the 7-footer wasn’t going to live up to his potential. In fact, after two seasons of Olowokandi, the Clippers traded the no. 2 pick for another center (Elton Brand). For all of the Clippers’ draft mistakes, Olowokandi looms largest. He finished no. 35 of 58 players in win shares in the ’98 draft, leaving him behind the likes of Ryan Bowen, Vladimir Stepania, and Jerome James.

Most Underrated Move

Paul Pierce to the Celtics, no. 10

For 18 years, Pierce has told anyone who would listen that falling to no. 10 was one of the biggest motivators of his storied career. While those nine teams put a permanent chip on Pierce’s shoulder, it’s hard to blame the three that drafted All-Stars (Antawn Jamison to the Warriors, Vince Carter to the Raptors, and Nowitzki to the Mavs). The other six? Much easier to blame. Most notably the Sixers, who could have paired Pierce with an in-his-prime Allen Iverson, but instead took Larry Hughes ahead of two future Hall of Famers. That handed Pierce to the Celtics on a platter, giving them one of the greatest players in franchise history, and a player who won Finals MVP in 2008 and helped bring them a championship. The Celtics, famously, have so few championships and Hall of Fame players that it was nice to see something good happen to them for a change.

Cuttino Mobley shows off his bobble head doll.
Cuttino Mobley and his bobblehead
Getty Images

The other most underrated moves of this draft: Al Harrington to the Pacers at no. 25 (almost making up for Jonathan Bender at no. 5 the following year), Rashard Lewis’s stunning free fall to the Sonics at no. 32, and Cuttino Mobley to the Rockets at no. 41 (providing the perfect companion to Steve Francis, next year’s no. 2 pick). And let’s not forget Brad Miller, who went on to make two All-Star appearances in a respectable 14-year career after going undrafted.

Best What-if

The Bucks keep Dirk

“What if Raef LaFrentz had turned into 6-foot-11 Larry Bird?” was the first question that popped into my mind, but let’s not overthink this one. Milwaukee’s trade of Nowitzki to the Mavericks for “Tractor” Traylor is one of the most lopsided deals in sports history. After drafting Nowitzki at no. 9 in ’98, the Bucks made 11 more first-round selections before drafting Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2013. Those 11 players combined for zero career All-Star appearances. Nowitzki made 14.

Would Milwaukee have had the same extended success Dallas experienced if Dirk had posted up there for 21 seasons? Would they have won a title? And what would Giannis and Dirk have looked like on the floor together for their overlapping seasons? These are likely the questions that have kept Bucks fans up at night for the past two-plus decades. Luckily, they have good beer in Wisconsin.

1999 Eastern Conference Finals, Game 6: Indiana Pacers vs. New York Knicks
Chris Dudley skies over the Indiana Pacers during the 1999 Eastern Conference finals
Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

How the Knicks Fucked Up

On the surface, this Knicks draft wasn’t so bad. But then you start to peel back the layers and it feels all too familiar. New York traded away its first-round pick before the season in a three-team deal that netted them 32-year-old Chris Dudley and the Raptors’ 2000 first-round pick. That pick ended up being Quentin Richardson, but New York dealt the rights to it to Philadelphia in ’99 for a guy named Mirsad Turkcan, who would play all of 25 minutes for the Knicks. But it’s like the old NBA saying goes: If you get a chance to trade for 32-year-old Chris Dudley, you gotta trade for 32-year-old Chris Dudley.

New York’s ’98 pick ended up being the 16th selection, which the Rockets used to draft Bryce Drew. No FOMO there. Nor were there any players taken immediately after Drew who would have changed the trajectory of the franchise. New York used its two second-round picks that summer on DeMarco Johnson and future Nets GM Sean Marks. Shortly after the draft, the Knicks sent Marks and veteran Charles Oakley to the Raptors for Marcus Camby.

If we’re going to dock the Knicks for something else, and we probably are given the name of this category, it’s going to be for taking Johnson at no. 38—one spot ahead of Queens native and New York streetball legend Rafer Alston. Skip 2 My Lou never became an All-Star, but he carved out a solid 11-year career and would have been an icon playing at Madison Square Garden. OK, maybe not “icon.” But fan favorite. (It’s not like Chris Childs and Charlie Ward were doing anything special.) Alston on the Knicks would have been fun to watch, and he almost certainly would have lasted longer than the five career games Johnson played. See, I told you this draft was pretty Knicks-y.

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. —Zach Kram

The New Lottery Order

Player Pick Career Rank Peak Rank Blended Rank
Player Pick Career Rank Peak Rank Blended Rank
Dirk Nowitzki 9 1 1 1
Paul Pierce 10 2 2 2
Vince Carter 5 3 3 3
Rashard Lewis 32 4 4 4
Brad Miller Undrafted 6 5 5
Antawn Jamison 4 5 7 6
Mike Bibby 2 7 6 7
Cuttino Mobley 41 8 8 8
Rafer Alston 39 9 9 9
Raef LaFrentz 3 11 10 10
Jason Williams 7 10 14 11
Ruben Patterson 31 13 11 12
Matt Harpring 15 15 12 13

The Lotto Picks Left Behind

Player Pick Career Rank Peak Rank Blended Rank
Player Pick Career Rank Peak Rank Blended Rank
Michael Olowokandi 1 75 48 75
Robert Traylor 6 27 28 27
Larry Hughes 8 14 16 14
Bonzi Wells 11 18 15 18
Michael Doleac 12 34 34 34
Keon Clark 13 24 22 23

Thanks to Graeme Abernethy for the name suggestion.