clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

NBA Redraftables Reevaluations: How the Suns Sidetracked a Revolution

The best, worst, and Knicksiest moves from the 2004 NBA draft class

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 2004 draft played out.)

Best Move

Dwight Howard to the Magic, no. 1

While selecting the top pick for “Best Move” might seem too obvious, Howard’s case fits for a few reasons. First, Howard is the only likely Hall of Famer from the 2004 draft; Basketball-Reference’s model predicts a 99.4 percent chance for Howard’s induction, versus 6.1 percent for Andre Iguodala, the second-best player from this draft. He’s also the best player in Magic franchise history—and, thanks to his combination of high ceiling and relative longevity in Orlando compared to the likes of Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway, it’s not close. By win shares, Howard is so far ahead of the Magic’s no. 2 player, Nick Anderson, that Anderson is closer to 18th place than he is to Howard.

And finally, grabbing the best player at no. 1 is no certainty, especially in a draft with a real debate—in this case, Howard vs. Emeka Okafor. Howard was the nation’s top high school player, tallying absurd statistics (25 points, 18 rebounds, and eight blocks per game as a senior) in Atlanta; Okafor was a three-year starter at UConn who had just won the Most Outstanding Player award while leading his school to the national title, with junior-year averages of 18 points, 12 rebounds, and four blocks per game.

Both projected as All-Star centers, but plenty of analysts advocated for Okafor given his track record against higher-caliber competition and the recency of his title run. The boss wrote in his draft diary that year, “The Magic are on the clock with the first pick. If they’re smart, they take Emeka Okafor. If they’re dumb, they take Howard. It’s that simple.”

It wasn’t that simple, though, because even though Okafor won the Rookie of the Year award in 2005, Howard soon bounded past his class rival. Okafor suffered from injuries and an inferior offensive game—his scoring average declined every year of his career except one—while Howard fulfilled Orlando’s faith in him and more. The no. 1 pick became the best center of his generation, with eight All-NBA honors—including five in a row on the first team—plus five All-Defense selections and three Defensive Player of the Year awards. He also led the Magic to a Finals appearance, complete with an upset over the best Cavaliers team of LeBron James’s first tenure, before leaving for L.A. and sending his career on a new, and much more winding, path.

Worst Move

Luke Jackson to the Cavaliers, no . 10

No true bust appeared at the top of this draft: The top five picks all lasted double-digit seasons in the NBA, and the worst statistical career for that quintet belonged to Shaun Livingston, who overcame a horrific injury with the Clippers to play a key bench role for three championship Warriors teams.

But later on in the top 10, two more unfortunate careers emerged. Rafael Araújo is the rare lottery pick with negative career win shares, after going eighth to Toronto, but given the broader team context, Luke Jackson edges out the Brazilian big man for most underwhelming high pick.

Jackson was an all-around star at Oregon, earning All-American honors as a senior after averaging 21 points, seven rebounds, and five assists per game, and shooting a scorching 44 percent from 3-point range. He seemed to be a perfect fit on a Cavaliers squad that was the NBA’s worst from distance in 2003-04 and needed to start building a competitive roster around its 2003 first-rounder, LeBron James.

Unfortunately for Jackson, James, and the Cavs, the lefty wing lasted just 73 career games as injuries and poor performance conspired to kick him out of the league early. And Jackson’s busting set the tone for the rest of the Cavaliers’ efforts to surround their singular star with appropriate talent.

In 2005, the Cavs didn’t have a first-rounder, due to a trade from all the way back in 1998. That trade had initially included a lottery protection, meaning Cleveland would keep the pick if it missed the playoffs, but those protections were removed in a trade for Jiri Welsch midway through the 2004-05 season. The Cavs also included another future first-rounder in the Welsch trade—and then got rid of him after just 16 games, during which he averaged 2.9 points and shot 24 percent from the field.

Here’s the full list of the Cavs’ first-round picks with LeBron in Cleveland, the first time around:

2004: Luke Jackson (no. 10)
2005: No pick, traded in 1998 (with lottery protections removed in the Jiri Welsch trade)
2006: Shannon Brown (no. 25)
2007: No pick, traded for Welsch
2008: J.J. Hickson (no. 19)
2009: Christian Eyenga (no. 30)

As the team improved with James maturing into his prime, the Jackson pick represented their last chance to nab an impact player in the lottery. That effort failed, though, and even worse is the realization of the player Cleveland missed by one pick. As LeBron remembered in 2018, he wanted the team to take the player who went ninth in the 2004 draft: a future Finals MVP named Andre Iguodala. At least Jackson had a sweet shooting stroke on NBA Live.

Most Underrated Move

Andre Iguodala to the 76ers, no. 9

Sandwiched in the draft between Araújo and Jackson, much to LeBron’s chagrin, Iguodala turned in the second-best career for any player in the draft. The 2004 class wasn’t short on relevant—and often beloved—players picked later on: Al Jefferson, Josh Smith, J.R. Smith, Jameer Nelson, Tony Allen, and Kevin Martin all went after the lottery in the first round, while Trevor Ariza (more on him in a bit) emerged from the second.

Yet Iguodala stands out from the group for the various stages of his career. In eight seasons in Philadelphia, Iguodala started every game he ever played, averaged 15.3 points per game, and made an All-Star team. In eight seasons after leaving the 76ers, he started less than a third of his games, averaged 8.1 points per game, and won three championships and a Finals MVP.

While Iguodala is now better known for helping to unlock the Warriors’ switchable Lineup of Death, he was a darn useful player for the team that drafted him, effectively defining an entire era of 76ers basketball. Iguodala’s first two seasons saw him serve as a sidekick for the other prominent Sixer with the initials “A.I.,” and he led the team in scoring in five consecutive seasons upon Allen Iverson’s departure. In 2011-12, he helped engineer an 8-over-1 upset in the first round of the playoffs after Derrick Rose tore his ACL, and after Iguodala left Philly in the four-team Howard trade that summer, the 76ers hired Sam Hinkie within a year to begin the Process.

Best What-if

What if the Suns hadn’t traded Luol Deng?

Just a week after the 2004 draft, in which Phoenix held the no. 7 pick, the Suns signed Steve Nash in free agency. The team knew that upcoming rule changes to reemphasize hand-checking foul calls would allow for a more open offensive game, so they pounced early by adding the point guard most suited to taking advantage of that freedom. In 2004-05, Nash won the MVP award as the Suns improved from 29 to 62 wins and reached the conference finals; in 2005-06, he won another MVP trophy as the Suns reached the conference finals again; and in 2006-07, he finished as the runner-up in MVP voting as the Suns lost to the eventual champion Spurs in a wild second round. (See: Nash’s bloody face and Robert Horry’s hip check.) And Nash and the Suns did it all without their no. 7 pick from the 2004 draft.

On draft night, the Suns picked future All-Star Luol Deng, only to trade him to Chicago in exchange for the no. 31 pick (Jackson Vroman) and a future first-rounder. Vroman flopped, scoring a grand total of 16 points in 10 games with Phoenix; really, this trade was about securing additional cap space for the free-agent summer to come. With that extra money, the Suns signed wing Quentin Richardson to a hefty six-year, $48 million deal.

Except then the Suns traded Richardson after just one season, which meant they also needed to trade the first-rounder they acquired from the Bulls the previous year as incentive to take on Richardson’s contract. In the meantime, Deng was immediately a good player as a rookie and a great one by Year 3. So to summarize, the Suns effectively traded the no. 7 pick in a strong draft for one season of a worse and more expensive player at the exact same position as the player who went no. 7.

Unfortunately for Nash and the Suns, like with LeBron, Luke Jackson, and the Cavaliers, this 2004 maneuver initiated a pattern for the team’s treatment of draft picks. The Deng/Richardson debacle was merely an appetizer. But while Cleveland at least tried to find complementary players for James and couldn’t identify the right ones, in Phoenix’s case, owner Robert Sarver was seemingly more concerned with adding money to his books than any basketball players to his roster.

In 2005, the Suns traded Nate Robinson (the future first they’d acquired from Chicago for Deng), then traded their second-round selection, Marcin Gortat, for cash. In 2006, armed with two first-rounders, they traded the first, Rajon Rondo, to Boston for a future pick, then traded Sergio Rodríguez to Portland for more cash. In 2007, they took Rudy Fernández with the pick they’d acquired for Rondo, only to immediately trade him to Portland for, you guessed it, cash. And before the 2008 draft, they traded their first-rounder, who became Serge Ibaka, along with their 2010 first-rounder just to be able to unload Kurt Thomas’s contract, after they’d acquired the veteran big man in the Richardson trade a few years earlier.

How might Nash’s titleless career or Phoenix’s titleless franchise path unfolded differently had Sarver used the draft for its intended purpose? Counterfactuals are impossible to predict with any certainty, but the Suns reached three conference finals between 2005 and 2010, and in that span, Deng averaged more than 15 points and six rebounds per game in Chicago while playing excellent, indefatigable defense on the wing. Deng was never a top shooter, and he chose to spend more time inside the arc than outside it. Neither was Shawn Marion, and he fit just fine in the Suns’ system. A Nash–Joe Johnson/Raja Bell–Deng–Marion–Amar’e Stoudemire lineup would have combined slick passing with accurate shooting, speed with defensive range, and allowed for even more positional flexibility than those Suns teams actually possessed.

The Suns already came so close to a Finals trip; it’s not hard to imagine Deng’s addition thrusting them over the edge. And to widen the hypothetical even further, if the Seven Seconds or Less squad had won a title, could the pace-and-space revolution have arrived in the NBA even earlier? The Warriors’ dominance in the 2010s spurred that movement once the rest of the league learned that such strategizing could win in the playoffs—so did Sarver’s complete disdain for the draft unwittingly set the NBA’s evolution back a decade?

How the Knicks Screwed Up

Between 1996 and 2005, the Knicks kept just two first-round picks. They used one on Frederic Weis (1999), who never played in the NBA, and one on Mike Sweetney (2003), who lasted just four seasons, two with the Knicks.

This draft was no exception, after New York traded its first-rounder—and a future first, which rolled over all the way until it became Gordon Hayward in 2010—in the Stephon Marbury trade. In 2004’s second round, however, the Knicks struck gold, plucking Trevor Ariza out of UCLA with the 43rd selection. They nabbed a top-five player from this draft in the second round; what a coup!

Except the Knicks traded Ariza after just one and a half seasons, before he turned into a sturdy 3-and-D wing, flipping him to Orlando in the Steve Francis deal as they descended into cap hell. The next season, 2005-06, with Marbury’s and Francis’s contracts bloating the books, the Knicks spent more money on salaries (more than $125 million) than any other team did until 2016-17. Factor in a luxury tax north of $60 million and, in Forbes’s estimation, the club lost more than $50 million from that season.

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 14 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
Dwight Howard 1 1 1 1
Andre Iguodala 9 2 2 2
Luol Deng 7 3 3 3
Josh Smith 17 6 4 4
Trevor Ariza 43 5 6 5
Devin Harris 5 4 8 6
Kevin Martin 26 7 5 7
Al Jefferson 15 9 9 8
J.R. Smith 18 8 10 9
Anderson Varejão 30 11 7 10
Jameer Nelson 20 10 11 11
Tony Allen 25 12 14 12
Emeka Okafor 2 13 12 13
Ben Gordon 3 15 13 14

The Lotto Picks Left Behind

Player Pick Career Rank Peak Rank Blended Rank
Player Pick Career Rank Peak Rank Blended Rank
Shaun Livingston 4 18 22 22
Josh Childress 6 22 17 20
Rafael Araújo 8 58 58 58
Luke Jackson 10 37 36 36
Andris Biedriņš 11 19 16 17
Robert Swift 12 35 35 35
Sebastian Telfair 13 26 25 26