NBA Draft Rewind -- 1986, The Worst Draft Ever
As much as those who construct teams in sports would like to think that they have a formula and a blueprint that they can go execute with any team in any market and be successful, the fact of the matter is that even for the best personnel men in the best-run organizations, an element of luck is heavily involved in achieving success.
Plus the shorts sucked
With one superstar player sometimes able to change the entire fate of a franchise, the NBA is probably the league/sport where a little bit of luck can alter years, sometimes decades of gloom (or cause it, depending on which team you root for).
When your league's methodology of dispersing new talent is a weighted lottery system, then luck isn't just one of several factors affecting franchise futures; it's actually woven into the league's fabric. The facts in the NBA are as such: In order to get your next superstar in a star-driven league, you have to:
Some of your 1986 draft class for the ages
1. Have the cachet as a market and the cash under the salary cap to lure a big-time free agent (think Shaq to Los Angeles, LeBron to South Beach). This methodology works for and applies to about a fifth of the league (LA, New York, Miami, Boston, Chicago and maybe one other revolving door with a different team behind it every few years -- in the late '90's, the Rockets were this team).
2. Catch a break in the draft (or in a trade) on getting an unknown or devalued stock (this would include trading for first round draft picks years before a draft). For example, it's crazy to go back now and see that Kobe Bryant was the 13th overall pick in 1996. Dirk was a mystery in the trade that brought him to Dallas in 1998 (go back and watch that draft, the announcers talk about him like he's a UFO or something). John Stockton and Karl Malone selected in back-to-back seasons by the Jazz is the ultimate "sleeper exacta" for one franchise. By the way, this method happens for teams practically never.
3. Bottom out to the brink of catastrophe and then hope that a bunch of ping pong balls come out of a hopper true to form for your team. Going back even before the advent of the lottery in 1985, most good teams wound up with their foundation player by being really, really terrible the year before they drafted him. Jordan, Isiah, Hakeem, Ewing, Duncan/Robinson, Wade, LeBron (in Cleveland), Shaq (in Orlando), Dwight Howard, Rose, to name a few.
Unfortunately, the third method is the one most often employed and the one that is the least fair. "Hey, let's reward complete ineptitude by virtually guaranteeing teams that are poorly run the pick of the most impactful players in a sport where one or two players can completely change things."
The one very underplayed element of NBA lottery luck, though, is a team "choosing" (and I use that word tongue in cheek) the right year to be terrible, the right year to land in the top spot or in the top five. Imagine how the fate of the Rockets might have changed if they won the lottery in 2003 (LeBron) instead of 2002 (Yao). And yet we all breathe a sigh of relief that they didn't win it in 2001 (Kwame Brown was the top pick, and before you say the Rockets wouldn't have messed up that draft by taking Brown, remember by 2001 the Rockets were dishing out long-term deals to Kelvin Cato and other stiffs like they were Skittles).
Point being, picking the right year to be among the worst matters, or else you're destined to be there again the following year.
In 2011, the lament of nearly every NBA city (pretty much everyone except Cleveland and Minnesota) is that the talent level is at record lows. It's Kyrie Irving and Derrick Williams (mid-lottery picks, at best, in most years) and a bunch of guys who will be "off the bench" guys to start with, and most of them will be just that forever.
For the Rockets, picking 14th and 23rd (for now) in the first round, this is a terrible year to have extra picks. Even moving up in the draft into the top five gets you a guy who maybe cracks your seven man rotation. Maybe.
In other words, if you're a lottery team in 2011, you picked a bad year to be a lottery team.
I'll go ahead and just say it -- talent-wise, the 2011 draft class sucks. (And this is on the heels of a 2010 draft class that was very underwhelming.)
But before we wear down the dermis on our hands from wringing them together, before we Rocket fans cry ourselves to sleep at night on Thursday after coming away with two obscure Euro players, a dose of perspective -- as bad as this year's first round draft class will be, it will never come close to the on-court ineptitude and the off-court tragedy and dysfunction of the 1986 NBA Draft first rounders.
Bad players in this draft will just eat up roster spots for a few years. In 1986, bad draft picks and bad decisions were submarining franchises for decades to come.