Yeah, the guy who has two regular-season MVPs and now one Finals MVP after delivering the Nuggets their first championship in franchise history, the guy who just finished the most statistically dominant postseason in NBA history, was so inconsequential on draft night in 2014 that he was reportedly sleeping when his family woke him up to let him know that he had been selected 41st overall. As the story goes, his name had popped up on the bottom of the screen as something of a footnote to Taco Bell's latest product, the Quesarito -- half quesadilla, half burrito.
With this in mind, and with the 2023 NBA Draft approaching, I'm inclined to ask: Is Nikola Jokic the greatest draft pick in NBA history? There's obviously no definitive answer here. Everyone will have their own criteria. I think the only thing on which reasonable minds can agree is that Jokic is somewhere near the top of any best-draft-pick list.
For my money, he's number one for one very simple reason: He is the best player on a team that brought an NBA title to a medium-market franchise that has never won a single championship without him. Manu Ginobili, for instance, was picked almost 20 spots lower than Jokic, at No. 57, the second-to-last pick, in 1999, but he was never the best player, or arguably even the second-best player, on a championship team.
Ginobili, in terms of value to the team that drafted him (San Antonio Spurs), was a monster pick, as was his teammate Tony Parker, who went No. 28 overall in 2001. But they were the Jamal Murray and Aaron Gordon of those San Antonio teams. Jokic is the Tim Duncan.
Another consideration: Draymond Green, who went 35th overall to the Golden State Warriors in 2012 and became a four-time champion as one of the centerpieces of a dynasty and arguably the greatest defensive player of his generation. I have Green at No. 2, just behind Jokic.
Green's teammate, Stephen Curry, is worth a mention in this conversation. He was no slam-dunk pick at No. 7 overall in 2009. The Timberwolves picked not one, but two point guards (Ricky Rubio and Jonny Flynn) ahead of a guy who has a strong case for being one of the 10 greatest players in history. But ultimately, going No. 7 is a little too high a pick to land at the top of a draft-value list.
Similar to Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo was a foreign draft pick that nobody gave a second thought only to develop into a two-time MVP who brought a title to a small-market franchise. But Giannis went 15th. It's huge value for what he's brought to the Milwaukee Bucks, don't get me wrong. But it's not 41st-overall value. Jokic is in another league.
Kawhi Leonard was picked in the exact same spot as Giannis, 15th overall, but he was technically drafted by the Indiana Pacers and then traded to the Spurs, with whom he won two titles. But not as the best guy on the team, even though he won Finals MVP in 2014. Leonard brought a title to a non-marquee team in Toronto, but personally, I'm grading on value provided to the team that did the actually drafting. So Kawhi goes below Giannis.
What about Kobe Bryant? Great pick. Absolutely enormous value at No. 13 overall in 1996 to the Lakers. (Yes, I'm aware that he was technically drafted by the Hornets, but it was Jerry West and the Lakers who had what nobody else saw and made the move to get Kobe.)
Jokic is clearly No. 1 in my book, but arguing Kobe as the greatest pick ever, all things considered, is not unreasonable. Find me another player who won five championships as either the best or second-best player who was drafted outside the top 10. Go ahead, I'll wait.
As long as we're talking about Kobe, we have to talk about his inspiration: Michael Jordan, who went No. 3 overall in 1984. Great pick. Surely the Rockets, and more blatantly the Blazers, wish they would've drafted him. But MJ was a pretty obvious pick at No. 3. It didn't take a genius to make that call.
At this point, since I've bounced around a bit here, I'm going to leave you with my personal top 10 drafts picks in NBA history, factoring in all the elements of value -- draft position, value to the drafting franchise, championships, hierarchal standing on those championship or near-championship rosters, MVPs, Finals MVPs, etc. -- to which I've alluded along the way.
- Nikola Jokic (41st, 2014)
- Draymond Green (35th, 2012)
- Kobe Bryant (13th, 1996)
- Manu Ginobili (57th, 1999)
- Giannis Antetokounmpo (15th, 2013)
- Tony Parker (28th, 2001)
- Kawhi Leonard (15th, 2011)
- Marc Gasol (48th, 2007)
- Karl Malone (13th, 1985)
- Steve Nash (15th, 1996)
A few names you might notice missing from this list: Dirk Nowitzki, Larry Bird and Jimmy Butler. Nowitzki went No. 9 overall to the Mavericks in 1998. Yes, that's a high slot, but for what Dirk provided to the Dallas Mavericks, an absolute nothing franchise before him, it's an all-time great pick. No question about it. That said, it's a top-10 pick. A certain amount of greatness should at least be within the realm of reasonable expectations.
It's the same reason that the aforementioned Jordan and Curry miss the cut, and the same gored for Bird, who, much to the retroactive chagrin of five other franchises, went No. 6 to the Celtics in 1978.
As for Butler, whose Miami Heat just came within three wins of an NBA championship as a No. 8 seed, it's another good argument. Butler has led Miami to two NBA Finals during his four-year Florida tenure. He went 30th overall, the last pick of the first round, in 2011, but a couple things keep him (barely) off this list.
For one, very little of Butler's Hall of Fame resume was built with the Bulls, the team that drafted him. Second, no championships, no MVPs, no scoring titles, no first-team All-NBA selections, etc. It's a hard line to draw but this is a hard list to narrow down. I've done my best. I'm sure you'll have arguments.
And speaking of arguments -- to the dismay of their fans -- Taco Bell discontinued the Quesarito in mid-April, just as the playoffs were getting underway. Perhaps It would've been fitting for this news to have appeared in the crawl while Jokic was owning the screen Monday night.