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Larry Bird In 1979, the Bulls had the No. 2 overall pick, but missed out on Larry Bird because Boston took advantage of a then league rule by selecting Bird in June of 1978, a full year before he left Indiana State University.
(Photo Illustration by Jon Shoemaker)
With a Little Luck…
NBA Draft often proves to be a gamble

Bulls Draft Central

Posted June 26, 2006

How does watching Magic Johnson lead a Bulls fastbreak sound? Or seeing Larry Bird unleash twine-tickling threes for the beloved red, white and black in the old Chicago Stadium? Or, better yet, how about Karl Malone delivering the mail night after night in Chicago’s famed triangle offense?

All of those could have happened if a little break had gone the Bulls way in years past. And that's exactly the kind of fortune that seems to always be involved come Draft time.

Fresh off leading Michigan State to the 1979 NCAA National Championship, Earvin “Magic” Johnson was the top prize of that summer’s NBA Draft. Where the charismatic playmaker would call home as a pro came down to who would win a simple coin flip for the right to pick first—the Chicago Bulls, who had posted the worst record in the Western Conference during the 1978-79 season, or the Los Angeles Lakers, who, by virtue of a trade, held the first pick of the New Orleans Jazz, who stumbled their way to the worst record in the East.

Chicago requested the honor of calling the flip and the Lakers agreed; so, after Commissioner Larry O’Brien tossed a coin in the air, then Bulls General Manager Rod Thorn immediately woofed “heads,” to go along with the final results of a fan poll. Unfortunately for broken-hearted Bulls fans, the coin landed tails up, and the Lakers were suddenly on their way to capturing five NBA titles in the ’80s.

Pair that misfortune with Boston taking advantage of a then league rule by selecting and signing, before the 1979 Draft commenced, Larry Bird as a junior eligible player in June, 1978—a full year before Bird actually left Indiana State University. Bird’s inking with Boston meant the Bulls didn’t have a shot at grabbing him either. Instead, with the No. 2 pick, Chicago chose UCLA All-American forward David Greenwood, who turned out to be a decent pro but was far from the player that Johnson or Bird were.

Six years later, future Hall of Famer Karl Malone also could have been a Bull after he left Louisiana Tech in 1985. He was ripe for the picking on Draft day, but Chicago opted instead to grab Memphis State’s All-American Keith Lee at No. 11. Everything worked out all right in the end, as the Bulls ended up exchanging Lee’s draft rights to Cleveland for the rights to strongman Charles Oakley, but hindsight being 20/20, selecting Malone would certainly have been Chicago’s best move.

It’s easy to look back and question what in the world were team executives thinking (Norm Van Lier a third-round pick? Artis Gilmore a seventh-round selection?); but, unless you’re blessed with the mystical skills of the Amazing Kreskin, it’s almost impossible to predict the future. For evidence, all one needs to do is look at some of the most recent NBA Drafts. Players like Seattle’s Rashard Lewis, Washington’s Gilbert Arenas and Detroit’s Ben Wallace went from being chosen in the second-round (or in Wallace’s case, not being drafted at all) to starring in the 2005 All-Star Game. This goes to show that when a player is drafted doesn’t always tell the story of just how good he’ll be. The Bulls understand this fact, especially so with second-year standout Chris Duhon—the 38th overall selection from the 2004 Draft. The 6’2” point guard out of Duke took full advantage of an opportunity to break into Chicago’s starting lineup his rookie season, and, through guts and determination, worked his way to being an important component of Chicago’s run to the postseason the past two years.

Magic Johnson A lost coin flip in 1979 was the only reason Magic Johnson didn’t pack his bags for Chicago. (Photo Illustration by Jon Shoemaker)
But with each passing season it’s getting much more difficult to predict how a player will pan out, especially with the influx of so many foreign imports and prep phenoms entering the waters of the NBA Draft. GMs now have to decide whether they can afford to gamble by selecting someone that will be at least a one, two or even three-year project, or should play it safe by picking someone more established, with less upside, who might be capable of helping right away.

“Especially with the high school kids and the 18- and 19-year-old international players, there is a lot of uncertainty as to what you’re getting with your pick,” says Bulls Executive Vice President John Paxson. “The potential and athleticism that these young players bring to the table is monumental, but there isn’t much work experience on which to base decisions. We see the high school player against high school competition and know that playing in our league is an entirely different story. So, with the exception of a few special individuals, such as LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Amare Stoudemire, we take the view that it’s probably going to take three or four years before their potential is realized, if at all. But nobody wants to miss out on the next Kobe or Amare or the next Tracy McGrady or Kevin Garnett, so sometimes we opt to take the risk.”

Chicago took a risk in 2001, selecting local high school star Eddy Curry and trading fan favorite Elton Brand for the rights to California prepster Tyson Chandler. Neither Curry nor Chandler has shown himself to be an All-Star yet, but both have taken steps forward as they’ve learned on the job.

But not many teams can afford to wait, which makes it extremely difficult to spend a pick on a player that might not immediately contribute. However, a veteran team, such as San Antonio, is able to select a player that will take time to develop, or even show up in the NBA. For example, the Spurs picked Argentina’s Manu Ginobili with the next-to-last pick of the 1999 Draft. Ginobili didn't arrive in the NBA until the beginning of the 2002-03 season, but, when he did, he jumped right into the Spurs rotation. Today, he’s a key piece to a San Antonio team that is a perennial title contender; and, for the last two seasons, he’s been named an NBA All-Star.

Detroit was hoping for the same kind of payoff for its top pick of 2003—Euro teen sensation Darko Milicic. Players like Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Kirk Hinrich were still on the board when Detroit’s opportunity to pick at No. 2 came up, but the Pistons, with a solid core already in place, decided to take a chance on the potential of the 7’0” Milicic. Three years of frustration later, the Pistons decided to cut ties and ship Milicic off to Orlando.

Since the two-pronged teen choices of 2001, the Bulls have avoided drafting a player fresh out of high school. Instead, Chicago has opted for top collegians like Hinrich (Kansas), Luol Deng (Duke) and Ben Gordon (Connecticut)—all with impressive college pedigrees.

“We have taken solid college players, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t looked at, evaluated and considered the younger player,” admits Paxson. “We aren’t in the position as a franchise right now to take a chance on a guy that might take two to four years to develop. As our guys mature and we acquire more depth, it makes more sense to look harder at, and possibly select, another young player.

“I can honestly say, though, that I prefer guys who come from good college programs because I know they have been taught, coached and held accountable for things like defensive assignments and for being on time. They tend to have a better understanding of how hard they must work to make it in the NBA, but not everyone fits neatly into that little package.”

The 2003 Draft is starting to look like one of the best in history. So far, LeBron James (Cleveland, No. 1) and Dwyane Wade (Miami, No. 5) have already established themselves as perennial All-Stars, although Carmelo Anthony (Denver, No. 3) seems like a sure bet to join the two very soon. Other first-rate players taken in 2003 include Bosh (Toronto, No. 4), Hinrich (Bulls, No. 7) Luke Ridnour (Seattle, No.14), Josh Howard (Dallas, No. 29) and Kyle Korver (New Jersey, No. 51).

So what’s the best NBA Draft class in history? Many make a case for 1984, when the top five players selected included a trio of sure Hall of Famers: Hakeem Olajuwon (Houston, No. 1), Michael Jordan (Bulls, No. 3), and Charles Barkley (Philadelphia, No. 5). Also taken in the first-round that year were Sam Perkins (Dallas, No. 4) and John Stockton (Utah, No. 16). In the 10th round (yes, 10th round) of that Draft, the Bulls took a flyer on a pretty quick guy out of the University of Houston—U.S. Olympic sprinter and gold medalist Carl Lewis (No. 208).

Karl Malone Karl Malone was available to the Bulls in 1985, but Chicago picked Memphis State’s Kevin Lee, who was later traded for Charles Oakley.
(Photo Illustration by Jon Shoemaker)
Others argue that the 1985 Draft was just as good, if not better, than the ‘84 crop. In 1985, the top pick was Patrick Ewing (New York), and he was joined in the first-round by Chris Mullin (Golden State, No. 7) and the aforementioned Karl Malone (Utah, No. 13), giving that class three members of the original 1992 Dream Team (as did the 1984 Draft). Also selected among the top 24 was versatile swingman Detlef Schrempf (Dallas, No.8), Charles Oakley (Cleveland, No. 9), Joe Dumars (Detroit, No. 18), A.C. Green (LA Lakers, No. 23) and Terry Porter (Portland, No. 24).

And the 1996 Draft has to rank right up there with some of today’s biggest stars, starting with top pick Allen Iverson (Philadelphia, No. 1). Shareef Abdur-Rahim (Vancouver, No.3), Stephon Marbury (Milwaukee, No. 4), Ray Allen (Minnesota, No. 5) and Antoine Walker (Boston, No. 6). All have been All-Stars at least once in their careers. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Lakers got the steal of the ’96 Draft with the 13th overall pick, Kobe Bryant, out of eastern Pennsylvania’s Lower Merion High School. This past season’s league MVP, Steve Nash (Phoenix, No. 15), and All-Star forward Jermaine O'Neal (Portland, No. 17) were also tapped in the first-round that year.

Earlier Drafts had the advantage of including many more players, with 10 rounds being the norm. In 1968, the Bulls selected a total of 22 players. In 2004, with the trade of last year’s top pick for Phoenix’s ’04 No. 1 (No. 7 overall), Chicago had a grand total of three draftees (Ben Gordon, No. 3, Luol Deng, No. 7 and Chris Duhon, No. 38). But give Paxson the opportunity to turn back the clock and get more rounds added this year and in the future, and he won’t take you up on it.

“The guys who aren’t selected in the two rounds available now are players that can try out for a situation that suits them best; and, in turn, we have the opportunity to sign players that interest us,” Paxson says. “I think the system is fine the way it is right now; and, unless someone can come up with a compelling argument to change it, I’m for maintaining the current two-round system.”

With only two rounds, all picks are valuable. Grabbing a player like Duhon as a second-rounder has already paid enormous dividends for Chicago.

“Any chance you get to select a player is important,” adds Paxson. “We’ve had success in the second-round with Chris, but he beat the odds by making our team two years ago. That’s a credit to him and his work ethic.”

Like most years, this summer’s talent pool is sprinkled with a few diamonds in the rough; but, like anything else, there’s plenty of fool’s gold lying in wait. So how does one determine the best course of action to take? There’s not a single GM in the league who can promise 100% that every player he chooses is going to turn out as he hopes. But because some have seemingly come out of nowhere to become shining stars, there’s always an urge to take a chance. It’s like gambling: Some folks just can’t get enough.

By Mark Rich

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