I know what happens when you assume. But let’s just say the Cavaliers win at least 50 games this year, and then they have a top-five pick in the 2018 NBA Draft.
This kind of thing rarely happens — a 50-win team landing a top-five pick. In fact, a decade or more can easily slide by between these moments when an already-rich team gets such a huge chance to get unfathomably richer. Since the 1979 NBA Draft — the same offseason when the league painted the 3-point line on the floor — it’s only happened six times.*
Some of these picks were crucial dynasty-builders, and some ended in catastrophe.
1980 / Celtics / Kevin McHale
Red Auerbach’s Celtics won the title in 1976 and in 1981, but he completely tore the team down and then built it up again in the middle there. The rebuild happened quickly even by today’s standards. Starting at the 1979 Trade Deadline, Auberbach began manically wheeling and dealing, turning his declining veteran players into three top-13 picks in the 1980 NBA Draft in a sequence of trades.
In the meantime, Larry Bird made his debut in 1979-80, and the team that farted around at 29-53 before Bird’s arrival was jolted into a 61-21 contender. Auerbach then came away from the 1980 NBA Draft with veteran center Robert Parish and the No. 3 pick Kevin McHale. The legendary trio won their first of three championships 12 months later, and this pick is a textbook dynasty builder.
1982 / Lakers / James Worthy
It’s crazy to see how far ahead Auberbach and Jerry West were compared to every other GM of their time. After winning the 1980 and 1982 championships, West had also positioned the Lakers to No. 1 overall in 1982 NBA Draft.
They were at the front of the line because, back in 1980, the Cavaliers evidently really wanted a Lakers rotation player named Don Ford. The incredibly patient West was willing to trade him for a future draft pick, waiting two years until the pick conveyed. Ford averaged 3.8 points per game in 106 contests for the Cavaliers, and West added another Hall of Famer to Showtime. Another dynasty builder.
1984 / Sixers / Charles Barkley
For a long time, it looked like the Sixers lost this trade. They traded World B. Free to the San Diego Clippers for this draft pick in 1978, six years ahead of time. Plus, they dealt Free just before he blossomed into his prime. In two seasons in San Diego, he averaged 29.4 points per game. Philadelphia eventually redeemed themselves by upgrading from the All-Star Free to the Hall of Famer Barkley.
This trade would have really changed league history if the 1983-84 Clippers managed to lose just a few more games. The Clips went 30-52 that year, which meant that their pick — now Philly’s pick — was two slots behind the 27-55 Bulls, who selected one Michael Jeffrey Jordan.
It’s kind of surprising that the Sixers never won a championship once they added Barkley to a nucleus of Moses Malone, Julius Erving and Maurice Cheeks. That means this is categorically not a dynasty builder, but it is a visionary pick.
1986 / Celtics / Len Bias
In June 1986, the Celtics went through probably the craziest-ever month for any NBA team. They won the championship, continued their dominance by picking Bias with the No. 2 overall pick and then saw Bias tragically pass away days later to his infamous cocaine overdose.
After winning exactly half of the championships in the previous 30 years before drafting Bias, the Celtics have won it all just once (2008) in the 31 years since.
2003 / Pistons / Darko Milicic
Everybody’s favorite organic Serbian farmer actually provides today’s Cavaliers with a relevant lesson: don’t roll the dice on a raw, high-ceiling prospect. It sounds nice in theory to let your new young fella take time to develop for tomorrow while your veterans go out and win games today. But after two-and-a-half years of 5.8 minutes per game with Detroit, Darko desperately needed to be freed. His potential to fully grow as a prospect, though, was probably stunted for good under disciplinarian Larry Brown. Poor Darko. This pick was a total bust.
2017 / Celtics / Jayson Tatum
Even though Tatum will be only 19-years-old for most of his rookie season, his prodigious offensive repertoire means he is far from a Milicic-esque project. Still, Worthy and Barkley were 21-year-old rookies, and McHale was an ancient 23. With Boston counting on Tatum to be the type of crucial addition who can push a team into the NBA Finals, this year’s Celtics are venturing into some historically uncharted territory.
Danny Ainge could be pushing Boston into uncharted territory again in the near future. There are a bevy of picks set to convey to the Celtics in 2018 and 2019 — picks that definitely feature the most convoluted protections in league history. When it all shakes out in the next two lotteries, Ainge could join Auerbach as the only executive to land on this list twice, and then he just might pull of the feat three years in a row.
* I’m only counting instances where the 50-win team acquired their top-five pick before the draft. This excludes draft-night or post-draft trades, which happened with Byron Scott (Lakers, 1983), Steve Francis (Rockets, 1999), Jonathan Bender (Pacers, 1999) and Devin Harris (Mavericks, 2004).