The NBA Draft is, in many ways, a microcosm of a larger problem: man cannot understand the construct of time.
As such, there's a natural tendency to demarcate its torrential flow into points or moments of great import: birthdays, graduations, weddings, buzzer beaters, etc. In the NBA, the draft is one of these events. Several dozen players ranging in age and backstory are made to stand as a generation, their collective success or failure used as an arbiter on the state of basketball. They're chosen together and then scatter into careers whose arcs stretch in every direction and duration.
It's a devilishly hard impulse to resist, especially when considering a draft like 1984's, when four Hall of Famers (Hakeem – then "Akeem" – Olajuwon, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and John Stockton) were selected and proceeded to dictate most of the league's storylines for the next decade and – in Jordan's case – well beyond. It is commonly referred to as "the Greatest Draft of All Time," and rightfully so, though that label also comes with inadvertent consequences: the '84 draft is the litmus test, the bar against which all others shall be measured.
So, while today marks the 30th anniversary of that esteemed draft, 2014 also marks the 20th anniversary of the 1994 draft and the 10th anniversary of the 2004 draft. And as such, we cannot help but compare them, either because of our desire to subdivide time, or our search for some larger meaning. Both appear to be relatively fruitless endeavors.
Why? Well, not to get all Rust Cohle on you, but time is a flat circle. The names (and number of buttons on the suitjackets) may change, but the "can't miss prospects" and "project players" do not. Is there any more significance to the 10th or 20th anniversary of something than the 9th or 21st, or are they all arbitrary milemarkers, mere constructs of our mortal minds? Let's take a look at the drafts that followed the epochal '84 class to find out, and, since we can't help ourselves, let's peer ahead to the 2014 draft while we're at it.
The 1994 NBA Draft
Ten years removed from the 1984 draft, the league had been thoroughly re-shaped by the players taken that year. Of course, not all of that was on them. Larry Bird, at the age of 38 – Tim Duncan's age right now – had been retired for two years due to health problems and Magic Johnson, at the age of 35 – Kobe Bryant's age – had been retired for three after announcing that he had tested positive for HIV. In fact, even Michael Jordan had retired, having won the third of his eventual six championships in 1993. Barkley was the MVP in '94, and in Jordan's absence, Olajuwon rose to prominence as the regular season MVP, the Defensive Player of the Year and Finals MVP as he led his Houston Rockets to the first of back-to-back championships.
In short, the members of the class of '84 were still doing pretty well for themselves.
The class of '94 would end up considerably more star-crossed. Before even setting foot on an NBA court, #1 overall pick Glenn Robinson made waves by reportedly holding out for a 13-year, $100 million contract from the team that selected him, the Milwaukee Bucks. Although he eventually signed a 10-year, $68 million contract, the controversy led to the institution of a rookie salary scale the next season, capping both the length and size of rookie contracts.
Second and third overall picks Jason Kidd and Grant Hill were the league's first co-Rookie of the Year winners since Dave Cowens and Geoff Petrie in 1971. Given the lingering ankle problems that derailed Hill's career in Orlando before he managed a resurgence as a defensive-minded veteran leader in Phoenix, it can be easy to forget just how good Hill looked in Detroit, but man he looked good (especially when accompanied by some of-the-era Pharcyde):
Although he proved to be more of a facilitator than a flashy scorer (he led the league in triple doubles in 1995-96 and 1996-97), Hill was the first player to encounter a rising tide of "Next Jordan" buzz in the NBA, though, in hindsight, with his even-handed blend of skills and his lack of alpha dog tendencies, he looks more than anything like the beta for LeBron James; call him LeBron version 0.8.
Kidd was no slouch when it came to all-around play, landing third on the all-time list for triple doubles in the regular season and tied for second in the playoffs. He also overcame early doubts about his shooting (he was nicknamed Ason Kidd – no "J") to become a solid shooter, especially from 3-point range during his time in Dallas.
In the big picture, Kidd was probably the most impactful member of the '94 class (though Juwan Howard hung around long enough to make himself part of the conversation): Was this draft better than '84? No, but neither was the league.
The 2004 NBA Draft
Ten years later, the NBA was being defined by the by a clutch of players taken in years following '94: Kevin Garnett in 1995, Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash in 1996 and Tim Duncan and Tracy McGrady in 1997. The class of '04 also followed a year after what was likely the best draft class since '84; LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade were all drafted in 2003 (not to mention current NBA Finals difference-maker Boris Diaw and the newly minted record holder for most consecutive games with a 3-pointer, Kyle Korver.)
Dwight Howard went #1, becoming the third and final high schooler taken with the top pick, after Kwame Brown in 2001 and LeBron James in '03. It's safe to say his career so far is somewhere between those two rather extreme extremes. With Andrew Bynum's career in limbo, Howard is also likely the last significant preps-to-pros pick, although an argument can be made for Al Jefferson. Maybe it's because of his old school, back-to-the-basket game, but we don't tend to lump Jefferson in with high schoolers who went pro like Garnett, James or Howard. But he was taken 15th in '04, although it took him several years to blossom after struggling with injuries early in his career.
Second pick Emeka Okafor earned Rookie of the Year honors for the Charlotte Bobcats while 3rd pick Ben Gordon became the first – and so far only – rookie to win Sixth Man of the Year honors. But if the '04 draft was short on era-defining players, it made up for it with a surprising amount of depth: Luol Deng, Andre Iguodala, Josh Smith and Tony Allen all had their names called.
But hey: Smith won the Slam Dunk Contest in 2005 and Andre Iguodala was violently and criminally robbed a year later in the competition. Tell me this isn't one of the best dunks ever:
But best draft class ever? Not even close. Solid, but not spectacular. A transitory year.
The 2014 NBA Draft
So if the 1984 draft defined the '80s and mid-to-early '90s, the 1996 draft the late '90s and early '00s, and the 2003 draft the late '00s through today, is the 2014 draft class the one that will come to define the next era of the NBA?
It's entirely possible. This year's draft has sparked some of the age-old questions about bigs versus wings, about potential versus immediate impact. While Andrew Wiggins was touted early on as a lock to go first for his rare blend of size (6'8" with a 7'0" wingspan) and athleticism (a non-official but still wildly impressive 44-inch vertical), he was less than overwhelming in his only season at Kansas, and there seems to some concern that he doesn't have that "killer instinct," whatever that means. As a result, Cameroonian 7-footer Joel Embiid has grown to become the consensus number one pick this year...at least until he injured his foot today. They're the projects. Jabari Parker is the prospect, a polished, go-to wing scorer with defensive concerns, but likely able to produce on the offensive end immediately.
Beyond them, the prognostications only get murkier. The depth of this draft class means impact players could be found deep into the lottery. Any combination of Marcus Smart, Noah Vonleh, Nik Stauskas or Aaron Gordon could become this year's Paul George or Stephen Curry – the guy who goes anywhere from 5th to 15th and ends up making a huge impact. And then there are athletic guys with upside like Zach LaVine (who can do this) and stretch fours like Adreian Payne (who can also win dunk contests). And then there's Elfrid Payton's outstanding hair.
So what does it all mean? Well, at the very minimum, these drafts reflect the ever-changing NBA. In the last 30 years, we've seen teams go from emphasizing building around big men – a major reason for 6'10" Hakeem Olajuwon going first to Houston even though they already had 7'4" Ralph Sampson – to prioritizing high schoolers to reconsidering the impact of European players. And now, they're finally inching toward a more thorough understanding of how to analyze young players.
But even with better tools and more video coverage than ever, we're still far away from being able to fully understand or quantify potential, which is to say nothing of the effect that nurture can have on a player's nature. What would Kawhi Leonard and Paul George look like if they switched places? What would Kevin Love have done with the Grizzlies, who drafted him before trading him to the Timberwolves for O.J. Mayo?
And since we cannot comprehend the infinite possibilities, we use the draft to organize a somewhat arbitrary collection of players into a generation, concentrating their meaning around a single point. The 2001 draft becomes the one where we realized high schoolers were a dicey proposition (Kwame Brown, Eddy Curry, DeSagana Diop and the late-blooming Tyson Chandler all went in the top ten). The 2007 draft becomes the one where Portland prioritized size over potential and ended up with Greg Oden instead of Kevin Durant. But this understanding – shorthand though it may be – only crystallizes years later, and often only after a decade.
And then we do it all over again. Time is a flat circle. Someone grab me a Lone Star.