Best NBA Draft Classes in the League’s History

For the 2023 NBA draft to produce the best NBA draft class ever, more players than presumed No. 1 pick Victor Wembanyama are going to have to deliver. No one really ranks the 1969 NBA draft that highly just because Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the No. 1 pick. The rest of the class did not match up.

What does a great draft class look like? We are looking back at some of the best NBA draft classes of all time below.

1984: The Best Top 5 Ever?

The college basketball scene was incredible for what it would produce in the NBA draft in the mid-80s. No arguments over Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon going No. 1 to Houston, but one of the all-time draft blunders is Sam Bowie to Portland at No. 2 instead of the generational talent that was Michael Jordan, who won 10 scoring titles and 6 Finals MVPs for the Bulls.

No. 4 pick Sam Perkins at least had a decent career, but to round out this incredible top 5 was Charles Barkley, who is arguably the best player to never win a championship in NBA history. If a trio of Olajuwon, Jordan, and Barkley was not good enough, the No. 16 pick was Utah point guard John Stockton, who led the NBA in assists 9 years in a row on his way to the most assists in NBA history (15,806).

1985: What an Encore

While 1984 was legendary, the 1985 NBA draft still produced a strong group of players who would shine for the next two decades in the league as 10 draft picks became All-Stars. The group was headlined by Patrick Ewing (No. 1 pick) and Karl Malone. But this class was also loaded with Joe Dumars, Chris Mullin, Detlef Schrempf, Terry Porter, Charles Oakley, and A.C. Green.

Dumars was a Finals MVP and won back-to-back titles with the Pistons and is a member of the Hall of Fame. Malone and Ewing never won a championship, but they combined for 25 All-Star teams, 21 All-NBA teams, 2 MVP awards, and both are members of the NBA’s 75th Anniversary Team.

1987: The Admiral and Robin

Yet another pivotal draft from this era happened in 1987. David Robinson came from the Naval Academy to be exactly The Admiral the Spurs were looking for with the No. 1 pick. While no player was statistically stronger in this class than Robinson, there were other significant additions to the league like Reggie Miller, who paved the way for Ray Allen and Steph Curry as the most prolific 3-point shooter in the league.

Then there was No. 5 pick Scottie Pippen, who found his way to Chicago to play the Robin to Michael Jordan’s Batman, leading to six championships for the Bulls, who also picked Horace Grant with the No. 10 pick.

This draft also produced some fun guards in Mark Jackson (ranks No. 6 in assists before he became a TV analyst), Kevin Johnson (a 20-point/10-assist player at his peak), and Muggsy Bogues (the shortest player in NBA history at 5’3”).

1996: The Best NBA Draft Class Ever?

If 1984 was the best top 5 in a draft, then 1996 might just be the best NBA draft class ever. Allen Iverson was a deserving No. 1 pick who won an MVP and had a great Hall of Fame career, but he was arguably the 3rd-best player in the draft.

The No. 13 pick by Charlotte was Kobe Bryant, who found his way to the Lakers where he won 5 rings, 2 Finals MVPs, and 1 MVP, establishing himself as an all-time great. Steve Nash also won 2 MVP awards and is in the Hall of Fame after being a perfect piece in Phoenix to run a faster style of offense that changed the game in the 2000s.

The 1996 class had a record 8 players named to an All-NBA team and 10 All-Stars, including Ray Allen, Jermaine O’Neal, Peja Stojakovic, Stephon Marbury, and Antoine Walker. Marcus Camby also won a Defensive Player of the Year award, and Derek Fisher helped win those 5 rings with Kobe in Los Angeles.

2003: The LeBron Era Delivers

Miami Heat
Icon Sport

With the NBA in some purgatory following the end of the Chicago Bulls’ dynasty, the 2003 draft proved to be a talent refresher. Four of the top five picks were LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade, who should all end up in the Hall of Fame.

Incredibly, James, Bosh, and Wade would join forces in Miami in the 2010-11 season and reach the Finals the next four years, winning two rings together. But Wade was already a Finals MVP in Miam in 2006, LeBron obviously found a way to exceed the unprecedented hype he had coming into the league, and Bosh was also a star first in Toronto. Anthony just retired as a 10-time All-Star with 28,289 points.

These four players do the heavy lifting for this class, but Kyle Korver, Boris Diaw, David West, Mo Williams, Chris Kaman, and Josh Howard were other productive players in a class with 9 All-Star players.

Honorable Mentions

Has any class ever started better than Oscar Robertson and Jerry West at 1-2? Lenny Wilkens (9-time All-Star) and Tom Sanders (8-time champion) round out a first round that saw 4-of-8 players make the Hall of Fame.

1998: Canada Meets Germany

For a draft held in Canada, non-US players were a big deal in 1998. While No. 1 pick, Michael Olowokandi from Nigeria, was a big disappointment, the draft shined with Vince Carter (who was traded to Toronto) and Germany’s Dirk Nowitzki, who played a combined 43 years in the NBA. Paul Pierce also lasted 19 seasons as one of 5 players to score over 15,000 career points.

2009: The Beard and Chef Curry

While No. 1 pick Blake Griffin never quite lived up to the hype, James Harden (No. 3) and Steph Curry (No. 7) would develop into two of the most prolific scorers and MVPs in NBA history.  Both would play for teams that would revolutionize the game with their excessive 3-point shooting in Golden State and Houston. DeMar DeRozan is the third 20,000-point scorer in the class, and Jrue Holiday was a key player to Milwaukee’s 2021 championship.

2011: The Lost Potential

Our last class is 2011, which had the potential to go down as one of the five greatest had it not been for so many injuries or other off-court weirdness like contract disputes or teams simply making the wrong personnel decisions. This class includes No. 1 pick Kyrie Irving, Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler, Kemba Walker, and No. 60 pick Isaiah Thomas – all players who will be remembered more fondly at their healthy peaks.

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