Some drafts are loaded with talent, and some drafts are loaded with busts. Some drafts scouts recognize the sure fire superstars and teams scoop them up in order, while in others everything is a long shot and teams gamble on potential. The 1999 draft appeared at the time to be loaded.
All you have to do is to take a quick glance at the top three picks of the 4 drafts from 1998 through 2001 to see that 1999 had some good, known quality players:
|1st||Michael Olowokandi||Elton Brand||Kenyon Martin||Kwame Brown|
|2nd||Mike Bibby||Steve Francis||Stromile Swift||Tyson Chandler|
|3rd||Raef LaFrentz||Baron Davis||Darius Miles||Pau Gasol|
Of the twelve names on that list, only five of them have ever made an NBA All Star game - Gasol from 2001 (twice selected, though he should have made it more), Martin from 2000 (one appearance, though he didn't deserve that) - and all three of the top picks in 1999, with seven all star game appearances between them. Davis and Brand also happen to be the only two players of the twelve to have earned All-NBA honors - Brand being named to the 2nd team in 2006, Davis to the third team in 2004.
Of course I realize that there were other good players in these drafts. 1998 for instance turned out in retrospect to be a very good draft, featuring All Stars in 4 of the next 6 picks (Antawn Jamison, Vince Carter, Dirk Nowitzki and Paul Pierce). But guys like Nowitzki and Michael Redd (drafted in the second round in 2000) were unknowns. The 1999 draft looked good from the start.
The quality of the 1999 draft didn't end with the top three either. There were three more all stars taken in the top 10 (Wally Szczerbiak at 6, Rip Hamilton at 7, Shawn Marion at 9) and two more in the first round (16th pick Ron Artest and 24th pick Andrei Kirilenko). That total of eight all stars in a single draft is impressive. The vaunted 2003 draft of LeBron features only six all stars from the first round. In addition to the eight all stars, 1999 featured four more solid pros in Lamar Odom, Andre Miller, Jason Terry and Corey Maggette.
So what the hell happened to these guys?
Wally Szczerbiak was to some extent a victim of his own success. In 2002 he averaged almost 18 points a game and made 46% of his three pointers. He was selected to the All Star team that year, partly because he was the second best player on a solid Minnesota team. His timing couldn't have been better from a financial standpoint, and he signed a 6/$65M extension prior to the next season. That contract has been an albatross around his neck ever since. He's been traded to Boston, to Seattle and to Cleveland since Jan. 2006, each time more or less as salary cap filler.
If Szczerbiak never really was that great, Steve Francis was. A fixture in the All Star game from 2002 to 2004 with Houston, Stevie Franchise's career took a turn for the worse when he was traded to Orlando in the off season of 2004. His numbers were still stellar in his first season in Orlando, but he quickly became a locker room problem and was traded to the Knicks for cap relief in the form of Penny Hardaway's expiring contract. From that point on, his career disintegrated. And although he has had problems with tendinitis in his knee, there was no major injury that can be blamed for his deterioration. One day he was an All Star, and the next he couldn't play. He has been traded for finanacial reasons three times and waived twice in the last three years. He is currently out of the league, having been waived by the Grizzlies in January after they made a little cash in acquirng him from the Rockets. That's what it has come to - Steve Francis, former rookie of the year and three time all star - has become Hasson Adams.
Francis' co-rookie of the year in 2000, Elton Brand would seem to have the best excuse among the fallen stars of 1999. He had the best year of his career in 05-06, when he made the All Star team and was selected 2nd team All NBA. In 06-07 his numbers regressed somewhat, but were still impressive at 20.5 points, 9.3 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game. Then during the following off season he blew out his Achilles tendon and missed all but 8 games of the 07-08 season. But although he was injured, he still had his reputation as one of the classiest players in the NBA - until he reneged on his verbal agreement to sign with the Clippers and left for Philadelphia in July 08. Returning from his Achilles injury, and playing in a new system not particularly suited to his skills, he averaged a career low 13.8 points per game. To add injury to insult, he dislocated his shoulder and after an aborted comeback attempt was forced to undergo season-ending surgery. He played 29 games this season after playing only 8 last season and will turn 30 next week. It remains to be seen if he can regain his all star form at his age after two major surgeries in two years.
Shawn Marion was the most decorated of the 1999 draft class. A four time All Star and two time 3rd team All NBA selection, his numbers fell off the table in February 2008. Marion's PER was consistently among the league leaders, at the superstar level of 20 and above, for seven consecutive seasons in Phoenix, but has been around the league average of 15 since then. So what happened? Did he get injured? Did he lose a step? No, he lost a Nash. When Marion was traded from Phoenix, we found out the extent to which playing next to a great point guard made him look better than he was. He's still a solid player - but a 25% drop in productivity is no accident.
And then there's Baron Davis. Never as consistent as his draft classmates Brand and Marion, Baron nonethess managed to post PERs of 20.7, 20.8, 18.3, 21 and 19.8 over the last five seasons. This season, like Marion, he has dropped to the dreaded 15 - the rating for an average player. And he's really only achieving that through a very high usage rate, since his shooting has been decidedly below average. And although Baron has had many injuries in his career dating all the way back to a torn ACL as a college freshman, there's really no specific injury to point to that would explain what appears to be a significant decline in athleticism this season.
Five former all stars from the 1999 draft, whose careers all went into a major decline in the last couple of years. And the other three first round all stars (Hamilton, Artest and Kirilenko) are also unlikely to ever return to that stage for various reasons. (Rip has remained more consistent, but even he has seen a decline in his PER this season, and with the turmoil in the Pistons it seems unlikely he'll find as good a situation for his skills in the future.)
The obvious answer is that these guys all got old. Brand and Baron are both 29, turning 30 in the coming months. The others (with the exception of Kirilenko) are all over 30 already. But many players are certainly able to be effective into their 30s. All of the stars from the prior draft (Jamison, Carter, Nowitzki and Pierce) remain highly productive. Moreover, the effects of age are usually more gradual. These 1999 draftees appear to have hit a wall. They were good, and then they were bad.
Certainly the Clippers and Sixers expected Davis and Brand to have a few more years in them, based on the contracts they signed them to. I'm sure that those organizations had some concerns about signing 29 year olds to 5 year deals - how productive would they be at 33? They probably thought, even if they weren't really earning $15M+ at the end of the contract, it would still probably be worth it because of the terrific productivity at the beginning of the contract. So much for that theory.
How shrewd do both Brand and Davis now look for having opted out of the final year of their prior contracts? Given the nature of the collective bargaining agreement which stipulates the length of rookie contracts and maximum durations, it makes sense that all of these players who came into the league together had contract decisions last year and this. Francis' maximum deal was long ago bought out by the Blazers, and comes off their books this offseason. Marion and Odom and Szczerbiak and Miller are all in the final year of their current contracts. Brand and Davis would also be coming up on free agency had they not opted out.
What would Baron Davis or Elton Brand be worth in the free agency market this summer, had they NOT exercised their opt outs last June 30th? About as much as Shawn Marion is going to be worth. Maybe less.
One of the ironies here is Odom, the former Clipper. In the strike shortened 98-99 season, the Clippers finished 9-41, the second worst record in the league after Vancouver's 8-42. But the ping pong balls didn't bounce LA's way, and they fell to fourth in the draft, leap frogged by Chicago and Charlotte (who missed the playoffs despite having a winning record and defied long odds to move from 13th to 3rd). When the Clippers got Odom with the fourth pick, it at first seemed to all work out OK. He was at least as talented as the three guys picked ahead of him, and appeared to have a bright future. But injuries and immaturity scuttled his early promise, and after a few seasons in the league, it appeared that his career would lag far behind those of the players drafted ahead of him. Now, 10 seasons in, it looks like he may be the best of the bunch - and he's playing for the Lakers!
And then there's this final Clipperian twist to this tale: the second round of the 1999 draft. With the second worst record in the league, the Clippers had the second pick in the second round, 31st overall. They drafted Rico Hill - a forward from Illinois State who had been playing in Europe for a year. It remains one of the most bizarre Clipper draft picks in a long history of bizarre Clipper draft picks and Hill never signed an NBA contract. With the second best record in the league, picking second from the last, 57th overall, the San Antonio Spurs also decided to look to the European leagues for talent - and drafted Manu Ginobili, arguably the best player in the 1999 draft.