Tuesday, September 27, 2011

1993: The Worst Great Draft in NBA History

I like to think that in some alternate universe, the head of the NBA’s Class of 1993 ranks among the greatest of all time. Though faced with chronic injury, late blooming and disciplinary issues- and there was of plenty of each to go around with this crew- there was not a true bust among the top five. For all of their unfulfilled potential, every one of the first five players selected- to say nothing of Vin Baker (#8), Allan Houston (#11), Sam Cassell (#24) and Nick Van Exel (#37), among others- made significant contributions for at least the better part of a decade, giving us the “worst great draft” of the lottery era.

Headed by a 20 year-old manchild poised to redefine the power forward position, a Magic Johnson-Scottie Pippen hybrid, prototype scoring machines at both the 2 and the 3 and a seven-and-a-half footer with actual basketball skills, there literally was not a need that could not be addressed with a top-five pick.
For the second consecutive year, the Orlando Magic held the first overall pick. Having selected a franchise cornerstone in 1992, the Magic used this top pick, acquired against all odds (Seriously. No team had a lower probability in the lottery) to nab Michigan super-soph Chris Webber, as skilled and versatile a power forward as had ever entered the league. At 6’9”, he could not only score in the paint and crash the boards like a traditional 4, but he ran the floor and possessed the court vision and passing ability of a guard. Webber combined the elite skill set of Derrick Coleman with the speed, agility and athleticism of Shawn Kemp. And he’d be joining Shaquille O’Neal in Orlando, where they’d inevitably anchor a frontcourt for the ages…

For about as long as a DVR’d sitcom. More on this in a minute.

Next, the Philadelphia 76ers, a year removed from trading Charles Barkley and now in full rebuild mode, selected BYU center Shawn Bradley. Though he was more skilled and athletic than the late Manute Bol (the only real comp to that point), even at the time the selection of Bradley- who’d not played college ball in two years because of a Mormon mission- seemed odd given the wealth of available talent on the perimeter. The best players on at least nine of the last ten NBA champions had been Michael Jordan, Isiah Thomas, Magic Johnson or Larry Bird (Kareem was arguably the Lakers’ best in 1984-85), but the prevailing wisdom stated that contenders were built from the inside out. And if you “can’t teach seven feet,” you probably can’t fathom 7’6”.

This left three outstanding perimeter options on the board and the Golden State Warriors on the clock. With Tim Hardaway, Chris Mullin, Billy Owens, Sarunas Marciulionis and 1992-93’s rookie sleeper, Latrell Sprewell, already on the roster, the first two picks could not have played out worse for the perpetually undersized Dubs. In a classic “grab the most talented player and see what happens” move, the Warriors opted for a 21 year-old who was being called the “next Magic Johnson,” Memphis State’s (now University of Memphis) obscenely talented and versatile playmaker, Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway. Before anyone had a chance to speculate about why a team with a young top-five point guard named “Hardaway” would double up at that spot, rumors began to swirl that Penny would not be long for the East Bay.

About 20 minutes after he was announced as the newest member of the Orlando Magic, in what remains one of the NBA’s biggest-ever draft day deals, Webber was traded to Golden State, in exchange for Penny and the Warriors’ first-round picks in 1996, 1998 and 2000. Don Nelson now had the ideal big man for his run-and-gun offense. As for the Magic, they remained a safe bet to dominate the East (remember, Michael Jordan was playing minor league baseball at the time) for the foreseeable future, though instead of using Webber and Shaq to bludgeon their competition, they’d now do so using the evolutionary Magic and Kareem.

Next up were the Dallas Mavericks. With a combined 50 wins in their last two seasons, and an approaching-the-back-nine Derek Harper, the lone holdover from their outstanding core from the 1980s, the Mavs’ recent run at glory was rapidly fading in the rearview. After a season that prominently featured Sean Rooks, Terry Davis, Doug Smith and Randy White- in fairness, Rooks and Davis, who combined for 26.2 points and 16.7 rebounds per game, were solid- Dallas clearly needed help, and plenty of it. There did seem to be hope in the form of Jim Jackson, the team’s lottery prize (also #4 overall) from the previous year, who averaged 16.3 points, 4.7 rebounds (2.7 offensive) and 4.4 assists per game in 1992-93. That Jackson only connected on 39.5% of his field goal attempts as a rookie was a bit concerning, though a protracted holdout that limited him to just 28 games as a rookie was likely to blame.

Assuming the two-guard spot in Big D would belong to Jackson for the next decade, and there was little reason to believe otherwise, and given the talent remaining on the board, the Mavericks further shored up their perimeter offense, selecting Kentucky’s Jamal Mashburn. Fresh off an excellent junior season- the second straight one in which he averaged at least 21 points and 7.8 rebounds and made at least 49% of his shots- in which he led the Wildcats to the Final Four, his versatility on offense made him a top-tier prospect. Though he lacked elite athleticism and struggled on defense, Mashburn could score from anywhere on the floor, rebounded extremely well, was an excellent ballhander and both a willing and capable passer.

Finally, selecting fifth, were the Minnesota Timberwolves. Having just completed a 19-win campaign in 1992-93, and with just 85 wins in their four years of existence, the Wolves were in search of whatever help they could get. Fortunately, the top tier of 1993’s crop of talent went five deep, allowing Minnesota to nab UNLV scoring machine, Isaiah “JR” Rider.

Rider did not come without questions. He had only a passing interest in playing defense, was not an elite ballhandler and struggled with discipline (despite being a blue chip prospect, his first two seasons after high school were spent at junior colleges in Kansas and southern California, and he served an academic suspension while at UNLV)- but was arguably the best pure scorer of the bunch. As a senior at UNLV, Rider averaged 29.1 points per game (as well as 8.5 rebounds), making 51.5% of his shots, 40% of his 3-pointers and 82.6% of his free throws.

He was the two-guard equivalent of Bernard King- strong in the post, an awesome finisher around the basket and an excellent outside shooter. And, for any shortcomings Rider had as a ballhandler, he had little difficulty getting to the hoop. Also, at 6’5” and ~215 lbs, he had a body not only capable of meeting the physical demands of the NBA, but of dishing out some punishment of its own.

Make no mistake, it was evident from Day 1 that Rider, likely a volume scorer against tougher defenses in the pro game, had an abundance of “looter in a riot” potential. However, for a recent expansion team that’s struggled to win more than one out of every four games and generated little in the way of excitement in the process, explosive, NBA-caliber talent is always welcome.

From there it went. 49 more picks, highlighted by the aforementioned lottery selections of Baker and Houston, and the thefts of Cassell, Van Exel and Bryon Russell (#45). We met perhaps the least magical player of his era- a man named Ervin Johnson- who’d go on to suit up in 845 regular season games, while the exquisitely named Spencer Dunkley (selected 51st overall, by Indiana) never sniffed the NBA hardwood.

And that is where we stood as the sun set on June 30, 1993. The Warriors and the Magic, now boasting young, sure-fire superstars seemingly custom made for their existing rosters, seemed poised to break into the top tier s of their respective conferences. The Mavericks and the Timberwolves, neither harboring delusions of contender status just yet, had instilled optimism and hope in their fan bases by infusing their rosters with explosive young talent. And the Sixers? Well, the Sixers were now significantly taller, and, well, significantly less pigmented.

This is merely the first installment of the story of the head of the 1993 draft class. Over the next week, we will take a look at the life and times of C-Webb, Shawn Bradley, Penny Hardaway, Jamal Mashburn and Isaiah Rider. We’ll first recount each man’s journey from top-five pick to quality NBA player, before taking a look at the wobbly wheels that kept the Class of ’93 from being remembered as one of the NBA’s greatest ever.


Dave M said...

This is absolutely awesome - can't wait for more on Isaiah. Plus Shawn Bradley? Most awkward player I've ever seen - would fall down in a moderate breeze.

Anonymous said...

Looks like a great beginning to your series of articles - I love this type of long-form content, keep it up!

Rej DaBoss said...

This is dope!