Less than 10 years after he was picked No. 1 overall in the 2007 NBA Draft, Greg Oden has retired from basketball and reenrolled at Ohio State. The twists and turns of his rough-and-tumble career—his multiple season-ending knee injuries, his release by the Blazers, his brief stint with the Heat, his sidetrip to China, his alcohol abuse, his domestic violence arrest—are well-known and they stand in direct contrast to Kevin Durant’s rise to superstardom. Durant, selected one spot behind Oden, has taken a more traditional route, establishing himself as a perennial All-Star, scoring champ, league MVP and Olympic gold medalist and is now seeking the first title of his career with his new Golden State teammates.
The divergent history between Oden and Durant, which began when Oden missed his rookie season due to injury and Durant won 2008 Rookie of the Year honors, led the former Buckeye star to offer a blunt self-assessment to ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” this week.
"I'll be remembered as the biggest bust in NBA history," Oden said. "But I can't do nothing about that."
Durant, citing the injury issues that limited Oden to just 105 career appearances, called that appraisal “nonsense” in an interview with ESPN.com.
"In order for you to be a bust, you have to actually play and show people that you progressed as a player,” Durant said. “He didn't get a chance to."
Durant has a point: Oden was a productive player when he was on the court, showing brief flashes of All-Star potential that other recent high draft choices, like Hasheem Thabeet and Anthony Bennett, have never mustered. At the same time, Durant surely understands that the comparisons will dog Oden forever.
Is Oden correct? Will NBA history actually treat him as the “biggest bust ever”? Let’s dig in to the numbers dating back to 1966, when the modern draft structure was finalized.
The Least Productive No. 1 Picks
There’s a good reason why NBA teams give tanking a shot year after year: Number one picks have a long track record of domination. According to Win Shares, an advanced statistic that measures a player’s overall contributions, seven of the top 12 performers of all time were No. 1 picks. Those seven: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Tim Duncan, LeBron James, Oscar Robertson, Shaquille O’Neal and David Robinson.
There have also been plenty of misses at the top of the board to counterbalance that deep pool of Hall of Fame talent. Here’s a look at the least productive top overall picks from 1966 through 2007 as measured by career Win Shares. Note that all top picks from 2008–2016 are still on NBA rosters and therefore still accumulating Win Shares.
As it turns out, Oden isn’t the least productive No. 1 pick of all time. He’s not even Portland’s least productive No. 1 pick of all time. Despite suiting up for just 82 games during his five-year tenure in Portland and another 23 games in Miami, Oden actually tallied nearly three times as many Win Shares as Olowokandi, a 7-foot center who shot just 43.5% and averaged 8.3 PPG and 6.8 RPG over 500 games for the Clippers, Timberwolves and Celtics.
The “Least Productive No. 1 pick ever” title goes to Martin, a 6’11” center who hung around for four uneventful seasons with the Blazers before retiring at the age of 26. He left basketball with career averages of 5.3 PPG and 4.6 RPG and never appeared in a postseason game.
It’s also worth noting that Bennett, 2013’s surprising No. 1 pick by Cleveland, has a shot at unseating Martin in this discussion. At 23, Bennett is already on his fourth franchise in four seasons. He’s accumulated just 0.1 Win Shares in 134 games and his contract for next season is not guaranteed.
The Most Regrettable No. 1 vs. No. 2 Decisions
Even worse than an empty pick is one that comes bundled with a passed-over superstar who serves as a constant reminder of the mistake. There’s no Sam Bowie without Michael Jordan, right? As Oden himself noted in a 2014 interview with Grantland.com, his reputation is at the mercy of Durant’s performance. “I know that it’ll only get worse as Kevin Durant continues doing big things,” he said.
Back in 2007, the Blazers commissioned a roadside billboard urging drivers to “Honk once” for Oden or “Honk twice” for Durant as they weighed their lottery decision. It quickly became clear that an extra honk would have had major ramifications for the Blazers, the Sonics/Thunder and the entire NBA.
Turning again to Win Shares, selecting Oden over Durant already stands as the most regrettable No. 1 versus No. 2 pick decision, even though the 28-year-old Durant might have a decade or more left in his career.
The following chart shows the biggest gaps in Win Shares between the No. 1 and No. 2 picks throughout history. Note that italicized players are still active and accumulating Win Shares.
In the case of Robinson and Coleman, the Bucks and Nets selected players who became All-Stars but missed out on Hall of Famers (Kidd and Payton). With Martin, Portland missed on McAdoo, a Hall of Famer, five-time All-Star and two-time NBA champion. Dulling the blow, somewhat, is the fact that McAdoo did play for seven franchises during his 14-year career and that Portland managed to win the 1977 title, just three years after Martin’s retirement, thanks to 1974 No. 1 pick Bill Walton.
Brown will be remembered for his disappointing play and the fact that Jordan selected him while serving as Wizards GM. Although Chandler is a champion, an All-Star and a Defensive Player of the Year award winner, he never quite reached legend status, which should save Brown some grief as time passes.
While Oden/Durant only narrowly surpasses Robinson/Kidd for the most regrettable decision right now, according to Win Shares, Durant’s ongoing excellence will eventually carry this into blowout territory. For perspective, Durant currently ranks fourth all-time in career Win Shares among No. 2 overall picks, trailing only Payton (145.5), Kidd (138.6) and Unseld (110.1), all three of whom played through their age-34 season, at minimum. The Bill James projection system suggests that Durant is currently on track to accumulate 202 career Win Shares. Here’s a chart that depicts how the “Regrettable Decision” looks at present versus what it will look like if Durant continues to produce as projected.
Put simply: While Oden isn’t the least productive No. 1 pick ever, Durant will almost certainly retire as the most productive No. 2 pick in league history. Unfortunately for Oden, basketball fans might not draw a clear distinction between those two facts when it comes to assessing Oden’s place in history.
The Most Regrettable No. 1 Picks
Misses come in all sorts of flavors, so let’s take this one step further. If the Clippers could rewind the tape to 1998, they would surely opt against taking Olowokandi knowing what they know now. But who would they rather have: No. 2 pick Mike Bibby, a solid pro, or No. 9 pick Dirk Nowitzki, a first-ballot Hall of Famer? In the hindsight draft, Nowitzki is definitely headed to Hollywood.
With that in mind, let’s gauge the “regretability” of every No. 1 pick compared to the best player taken in his class regardless of draft position. In some cases, like Nowitzki’s, a Hall of Fame future might have been hard to see coming when they were teenagers. In others, maybe not. Again, note that italicized players are still active and accumulating Win Shares.
By this measure, Olowokandi/Nowitzki was the most regrettable No. 1 pick decision by a mile. As of now, Oden/Durant ranks seventh in terms of most regrettable No. 1 decisions, although that could climb as high as fourth by the end of this season. Eventually, Oden/Durant has a strong chance to eclipse it for the top spot on this list. Note that the other active members of this list—Gasol and Paul—will likely move up from their respective spots on this list but are unlikely to surpass Olowokandi/Nowitzki.
Smith wasn’t a bust, given that he lasted 16 seasons as a serviceable big man, but he also paled in comparison to Garnett, one of the most successful preps-to-pros players in league history. After a dominant college career and a bright pro start that saw four All-Star appearances in his first four seasons, Sampson fizzled out due to injury issues, leaving Drexler as 1983’s lasting gem.
One final note: Jordan and John Stockton rank fourth and fifth all-time in career Win Shares, but neither appears on this chart. That’s because they were both selected in the 1984 draft, which was headlined by No. 1 pick Hakeem Olajuwon, who went on to a long and storied Hall of Fame career of his own.
The Most Regrettable Draft Picks
Finally, let’s look at the biggest misses in NBA draft history, regardless of positioning. Since 1966, here are the 15 biggest misses by career Win Shares within a single draft class. This group isn’t limited only to No. 1 picks, nor is it limited to consecutive selections (like taking Sam Bowie at No. 2 immediately before Jordan at No. 3). Instead, this group is made up of players who were the worst relative to any player selected after them in that year’s draft.
Remember, this table includes just one measure: Career Win Shares, which is subject to gaps in a player’s career, such as when Jordan retired (twice) and when Bryant missed significant time due to multiple season-ending injuries. Taking both individual success and postseason accomplishments into account, Bowie/Jordan and Fuller/Bryant have strong cases as the top two draft decisions since 1966.
However, don’t discount the Malone/Stockton picks by the Jazz. What are the odds that a single franchise would select two of the top five players (by career Win Shares) in back-to-back drafts without picking in the top 12? In case you were wondering, Green only lasted 60 games and two seasons in the NBA, while Gordon was waived midway through his fourth season with the Clippers after posting career averages of 5.6 PPG and 1.5 APG.
It’s also worth noting here that more recent muffed decisions, like Darko Milicic over Dwyane Wade in 2003 and Jonny Flynn over Stephen Curry in 2009, might creep onto this list as the active players continue accumulating Win Shares before they retire.
To bring this full circle, though, the Oden/Durant pick is not yet among the 20 worst draft pick decisions overall by this measure. However, Oden/Durant will reach No. 4 on this list if Durant retires with his current Bill James projection of 202 Career Win Shares.
That would make Oden/Durant worse, by Win Shares, than both Bowie/Jordan and Fuller/Bryant. If Durant remains productive deep into his 30s, he may even push Nowitzki, Stockton and Malone in the Win Shares department, pushing the Oden/Durant decision even higher. In other words, it’s probably a good thing that Oden has decided to get out in front of the “Biggest Bust” talk instead of running from it.