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Every year, one team has the opportunity to change the course of their franchise using the number one pick. If they get lucky, this player can turn their franchise around and develop a winning culture. Although this may sound like a dream come true, with great power, comes great responsibility. Choosing the right player for your team can be hard. Players can come with lagging injuries or maybe their game just doesn’t translate to the next level. With that said, you can also get a legendary player that leads your team to multiple NBA Championships. You never know how a player is going to turn out. Let’s take a look at the best number one picks of each decade that made a huge impact on their franchise.
50s: Elgin Baylor
Elgin Baylor was drafted in 1958 by the Minneapolis Lakers. The season before Baylor was drafted, the Lakers went 19-53 and were in dire need of a franchise cornerstone. As a 6’5 small forward, Elgin was athletic and had an all around game that was just what the Lakers needed to help their team. Baylor’s rookie year he led the Lakers to a 33-39 record and also took them to the NBA Finals. He finished fourth in the league in scoring (24.9 ppg) and rebounding (15 rpg) while also winning rookie of the year. Although they fell to the Celtics 4-0 in the Finals that year, this was a big step in the right direction and proved to the Lakers fans and front office that they made the right decision drafting Elgin Baylor. He went on to lead the Lakers to the finals 7 more times all while earning 11 All-Star selections and 10 All-NBA first team selections. The Lakers owner at the time, Bob Short, claims that Elgin saved their franchise. In an interview with The LA Times, Short said that “If he had turned me down then, I would have been out of business, and the club would have gone bankrupt.”
60s: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was drafted in 1969 by the Milwaukee Bucks. The Bucks were an expansion team that was started just one year before Kareem was drafted. As you can imagine, the team was without a star and had a record of 27-55 the previous year. Back in the 60s, having a big man who could score and defend was one of the most important components of a championship team. Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and Willis Reed were some of the premier centers of that time and to compete with their teams you needed to have a solid big man of your own. Listed at 7’2, the Bucks saw Kareem as that big man that could come in and compete with the league’s best and that is exactly what he did. Kareem was an instant star in the league ranking second in the league in scoring (28.8 ppg) and third in rebounding (14.5 rpg). He was awarded Rookie of the Year and led the Bucks to 56-26 record. Kareem went on to win 6 MVPs, 2 Finals MVPs, 6 championships, 10 All-NBA First Team selections, and 19 All-Star selections. Kareem is among the best scoring big men ever and is one of the greats that helped his teams win at the highest level.
70s: Earvin “Magic” Johnson
Magic Johnson was drafted in 1979 by the Los Angeles Lakers. The season before Magic was drafted, the Lakers had a record of 47-35 and were not a bad team by any means. They finished third in the Pacific Division and lost in the western conference semifinals to the eventual NBA Champions. The Lakers had acquired a first round draft pick from the New Orleans Jazz in 1976 and that turned out to be the number one pick. Magic seemed to be the missing piece to a championship team that was waiting to be unleashed. With Magic, the Lakers had a record of 60-22 and finished first in the Pacific Division. Magic averaged 18.0 points, 7.7 rebounds, and 7.3 assists and completely transformed the Lakers offense. The Lakers finished first in offensive rating and second in points per game thus beginning the showtime era of uptempo offense the Lakers were known for. The Lakers made it all the way to the finals that year and won 4-2. After Kareem went down in game 5 with a sprained ankle, Magic showed what he was capable of. He had a remarkable game 6 performance to close out the series scoring 42 points and grabbing 15 rebounds. Magic went on to have one of the best NBA careers in history. He won 5 NBA championships, 3 Finals MVPs, 3 MVPs, and is arguably the greatest passer ever.
80s: Hakeem Olajuwon
Hakeem Olajuwon was drafted in 1984 by the Houston Rockets. The year before Hakeem was drafted, Houston had a record of 29-53 and finished 6th in the Midwest Division. With the help of Olajuwon, the Rockets finished with a 48-34 record and ended 2nd in the Midwest Division. Playing alongside the previous year’s number one pick, Ralph Sampson, Olajuwon and Sampson combined to form the original duo called “Twin Towers.” They were the first teammates since Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor to both average over 20 points and 10 rebounds. Olajuwon had a stand out rookie season averaging 20.6 points, 11.9 rebounds, 1.2 steals, and 2.7 blocks. His paint presence helped the Rockets improve their defense as they went from 19th in Opp PPG, to 10th, only allowing 109.5 points. They also had a Def Rtg of 106.3 which was 4th best in the league. Although Hakeem didn’t win Rookie of the Year, which went to Michael Jordan, he was the only other rookie to receive any votes at all. He was named to the NBA All-Rookie Team and the NBA All-Defensive Second Team. In his career, Hakeem went on to win 2 NBA Championships, 2 Finals MVPs, MVP, 2 Defensive Player of the Year awards, and 12 All-Star selections. Hakeem is one of the best defensive players of all time as well as one of the best centers of all time.
90s: Tim Duncan
Tim Duncan was drafted in 1997 by the San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs were coming off an injury ridden season where their best player, David Robinson, was only able to play 6 games. They ended with a 20-62 record and, with that record, they were gifted the number one pick. Pairing Duncan with Robinson created one of the best frontcourts in the NBA at the time. Along with Robinson, Duncan was a huge presence in the paint and was one of the team’s defensive anchors. The Spurs finished 1st in the league in Opp PPG at 88.5 and finished 2nd in the league in Def Rtg at 99.4. Duncan was a force on both the offensive and defensive end of the floor. His rookie year he averaged 21.1 points, 11.9 rebounds, 2.7 assists, and 2.5 blocks earning him All-NBA First Team honors as well as NBA All-Defensive Second Team and Rookie of the Year. In Duncan’s NBA Playoff debut, he was the leading scorer and finished the game with 32 points and 11 rebounds. Although the Spurs lost in the second round to the Utah Jazz, this was just the beginning of the Tim Duncan Spurs era. Duncan went on to win 5 NBA championships, 3 Finals MVPs, 2 MVPs, 15 All-Star selections, and 10 All-NBA First Team selections. Duncan redefined what it means to be a San Antonio Spur and was a great leader for an all time great franchise.
00s: Lebron James
Lebron James was drafted in 2003 by the Cleveland Cavaliers. The previous season, the Cavs had a terrible season going 17-65 and finishing 8th in the NBA Central Division. The Cavs desperately needed someone to turn their franchise around and who better than the hometown kid from Akron. Lebron was the easy first choice and everyone in Ohio wanted the Cavaliers to draft “The Chosen One”. James made an immediate impact on the Cavs, adding 18 wins to their previous season as they finished 35-47. Lebron averaged 20.9 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 5.9 assists earning him the NBA Rookie of the Year Award. He was the first Cavalier to win the award and the third player in NBA history to average 20-5-5 as a rookie. Although the Cavs didn’t make the playoffs his rookie year, things were looking up for the Cavs as they had a future superstar to lead their squad. Lebron eventually took the Cavs to the NBA Finals where they got swept by a clearly superior Spurs squad. In 2010 Lebron left Cleveland for Miami but, in 2014, he eventually returned to his hometown to finish what he started. Defeating arguably the best regular season team in history and coming back from a 3-1 deficit, Lebron fulfilled his promise to Cleveland and delivered the city a championship. In his career, Lebron has won 3 NBA Championships, 3 Finals MVPs, 4 MVPs, 13 All-Star selections, and 11 All-NBA First Team selections. Lebron is easily one of the greatest players of all time and will go down as one of the greatest to ever do it.