Why the Best NBA Draft Class of All Time Isn’t Michael Jordan’s

Michael Jordan is the all-time greatest NBA player not just because of his remarkable achievements; he was also a key figure during the first real golden era of the league. His generation saw many players who went on to have Hall-of-Fame careers.

A prime example of this is the 1984 NBA Draft, a class remembered for two reasons: Jordan entered the league in this draft and the Portland Trail Blazers picked an oft-injured Sam Bowie over MJ. But the 1984 draft’s impact on the NBA was bigger than these two players.

Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, and John Stockton all became pros in 1984. Lesser-known talents like Alvin Robertson, Otis Thorpe, and Kevin Willis all made it to at least one All-Star game.

The class of ’84 is often referenced as the best NBA draft class of all time. Other classes, however, can lay claim to this title, too. Let’s look at some of the best NBA drafts in league history.

1996 NBA Draft: Stars from surprising places

It’s not that the class of ’96 didn’t have obvious talent. Allen Iverson, Ray Allen, and Marcus Camby were all selected in the top five.

But the rest of the top-10 was filled with players who either underwhelmed or were outright busts. (Or Stephon Marbury, a player known for his excursions in China and his frustrating time in the NBA. It’s just that the best NBA players from this draft were picked later than usual.)

No one expected the first guard drafted directly out of high school or a senior point guard from Santa Clara to become superstars from the middle of the first round. But Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash went on to make a combined 26 All-Star games from the 13th and 15th picks respectively. 

2003 NBA Draft: The player empowerment generation

In 2003, the future stars of the NBA were less of a mystery. The hype surrounding LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, and Chris Bosh was real. And the craziest thing is that all of those players made good on the excitement surrounding them.

But pure statistics won’t fully explain the impact of this class. This group changed the way players manage their careers. Instead of letting owners and GMs dictate their moves, they exerted control by teaming up and forgoing longer contracts in exchange for shorter deals. This forced teams to put the player’s interests first at all times.

This shift in power has reverberated through the generations that followed the class of ’03. Now it’s commonplace for elite players to force their way onto new teams every summer. In the end, this change will be as valuable to NBA history as the on-court achievements of these players.

2009 NBA Draft: Going against the grain

Only four players from the 2009 NBA Draft have made more than one All-Star game. But each of them took a less traditional path to stardom. DeMar DeRozan has been one of the best shooting guards for most of his career without much of a three-point shot.

When Blake Griffin entered the NBA, he seemed to be an athletic freak and not much else, but he’s developed into one of the most skilled big men of his era. James Harden’s style isn’t for everybody, but it’s an undeniable fact that he’s bent the NBA to his will.

The main success story of this class is Steph Curry. He was the third point guard selected in 2009. As soon as he solved his recurring ankle problems, Curry became a superstar. The modern NBA may owe more to the Davidson alum than any other player. His ability to shoot from anywhere past half-court forever changed the way teams think about offense.

The Golden State Warriors had an overwhelming amount of talent during their period of dominance, but Curry was the sun that the team revolved around. He was drafted by the perfect team at the perfect time, forging a legacy that will live on for years to come.

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