5 Biggest Draft Steals: Chicago Bulls Edition
Coming up with the five biggest “steals” in Chicago Bulls history may sound easy, but let me tell you, it was quite a difficult task. If you think it’s because there are too many of them, you’re wrong. There are too few. Because of that, there was no choice but to pick some players who were drafted high and were even highly touted coming into the NBA. Don’t freak out though – you and I both know that my picks will be justified, and you probably won’t even think twice about disagreeing (except for the order, maybe). So, let’s get started.
5) Clifford Ray, 5th pick (40th overall) of 3rd round in 1971, PF/C, University of Oklahoma: Clifford Ray was a rebounding machine while playing for the Bulls in the early ’70s. He was named to the 1972 NBA All-Rookie Team and led the NBA in rebounds per minutes played in each of his first two seasons. His third and final season with the Bulls was his best, as he averaged 9.3 points and 12.2 rebounds per game and helped lead the Bulls to the Western Conference (yes, Western Conference) finals for the first time ever.
After the 1973-74 season, Ray was traded to the Golden State Warriors for Hall of Famer Nate Thurmond. Although Thurmond was pretty washed up and nearing the end of his career, his debut with the Bulls was one for the ages, as he became the first player in NBA history (at the time) to record a quadruple-double (22 points, 14 rebounds, 13 assists and 12 blocks). He ended up averaging 8 points, 11.3 rebounds and 2.4 blocks in one season with the Bulls before being traded. Still, that’s pretty solid value that the Bulls got for Ray.
Ray eventually ended his career in Golden State and became one of a handful of players to have played at least ten seasons in the NBA and record more rebounds than points for his career. In 784 games, he swallowed up 6,953 boards for an 8.9 average and scored 5,821 points for a 7.4 average. Pretty fascinating if you ask me.
4) Horace Grant, 10th overall pick in 1987, Power Forward, University of Clemson: It wasn’t until his second season in Chicago that Horace Grant became one of the better players ever to put on the red, white and black. Enforcer Charles Oakley was traded to the Knicks during the summer of 1988, thus paving the way for Grant to show what he was really capable of doing.
In six seasons as the starting power forward for the Bulls (obviously not counting his rookie season playing behind Oakley), Grant shot 53.2% from the field and averaged 13.4 points, 9.2 rebounds, 1.2 steals, and 1.1 blocks in over 35 minutes per game. He became the Bulls’ main rebounder and established himself as their third scoring option after MJ and Pippen to form one of the league’s best trios. He was a phenomenal defensive player and was selected four times (two with the Bulls) to the NBA All-Defensive Second Team. Three championships and Jordan’s first retirement later, Grant became Pippen’s right-hand man, and the two of them led the Bulls to a 55 win season and pushed Patrick Ewing’s Knicks to a seven-game series in the second round of the playoffs before being eliminated. Grant then left the Bulls as a free agent to join the Orlando Magic in the summer of 1994 and ended up playing in the NBA for 17 seasons.
Although Grant was drafted tenth overall in 1987, guys like Dennis Hopson and Reggie Williams, who ended up becoming huge busts, were drafted ahead of him. In fact, only three players selected ahead of him would be considered on his level or better, and those players are David Robinson, Scottie Pippen and Kevin Johnson. They were decent. Most importantly, the Bulls would not have won their first three championships without Grant. Period. He qualifies as a steal.
3) Toni Kukoc, 2nd pick (29th overall) of 2nd round in 1990, SF/PF, Croatia: Toni Kukoc is a legend in Europe. That’s for damn sure. He was a three-time Euroleague Final Four MVP, nine-time European Basketball Player of the Year, and he became one of FIBA’s 50 greatest players ever. But it was because of his contributions to the Bulls during the mid-to-late 90’s that earns him the 3 spot on this list.
Although Kukoc was drafted in 1990, he didn’t actually report to the Bulls until 1993, right after they had finished up the Phoenix Suns for a three-peat and Jordan had retired for the first time. During his rookie season, Kukoc made the All-Rookie Second Team and hit a game-winning buzzer beater against the Knicks in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. The next season, he took over the starting power forward position after Horace Grant bolted for Orlando in the offseason, but he became the NBA Sixth Man of the Year during his third season (1995-96) after Dennis Rodman was acquired (of course, Jordan had been back since the middle of the 1994-95 season by then).
As the sixth man that year, Kukoc was the Bulls third-leading scorer and helped catapult them to the best record in league history at 72-10, as well as their fourth championship in six years. He remained the Bulls’ sixth man and third-leading scorer for the next two seasons as they won two more championships to finish off their second three-peat. During the 1999-00 season, Kukoc was traded to Philadelphia and eventually found a home for a few years in Milwaukee. Before that, though, he provided some great excitement for Bulls fans and was always a fan favorite in Chicago. And yes, I had his #7 jersey, and it was absolutely a part of my weekly outfit cycle (along with a combination of six other basketball/football jerseys and “And One” shirts). No shame in admitting that. Here is a look at Kukoc’s career numbers as a Bull:
436 games, 29.5 minutes, 14.1 points, 4.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.8 three-pointers made, 45.8% FG
Rarely ever do second-round draft picks develop into anything more than a role player in the NBA, much less become an extremely valuable piece to a team that wins three consecutive championships. But Kukoc did exactly that, thus solidifying his position on this list.
2) Scottie Pippen, 5th overall pick in 1987, Small Forward, University of Central Arkansas: I’m going to make this short and sweet. I’m sure some of you are thinking “Scottie Pippen was the 5th overall pick in the 1987 draft. How in the world does that qualify as a steal?” Well, I bet those same people also don’t realize that the Bulls traded the 6’11 Olden Polynice (I repeat: Olden Polynice), whom they drafted three picks later, to the Seattle SuperSonics straight up for Pippen on draft night. Here’s a quick recap of Olden Polynice’s 15-year career:
23.5 minutes, 7.8 points, 6.7 rebounds, 0.5 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.6 blocks, 50.6% FG, and zero career highlights/accomplishments/awards whatsoever
Now, take a look at Pippen’s 12-year career with the Bulls (his career numbers after leaving Chicago are irrelevant):
35.8 minutes, 18.0 points, 6.8 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 2.1 steals, 0.9 blocks, 0.8 three-pointers made, 48.3% FG
Considering the fact that Pippen had played limited minutes backing up Brad Sellers his entire rookie season, I’d say those numbers alone show how big of a steal the Bulls got by trading a role player at best for a hall of famer. As for his career accomplishments and awards… well, now I’m just being mean to Mr. Polynice:
6x NBA Champion, 7x NBA All-Star, NBA All-Star Game MVP, 3x All-NBA First Team, 2x All-NBA Second Team, 2x All-NBA Third Team, 8x NBA All-Defensive First Team, 2x NBA All-Defensive Second Team, #33 jersey retired by the Bulls, 2010 Hall of Fame Inductee, NBA’s 50th Anniversary All-Time Team.
Pippen’s list of accomplishments can go on and on, so I will just say this: without him, the Chicago Bulls would have never become the dynasty that they became. He and Michael Jordan formed one of the greatest 1-2 combinations that the game of basketball will ever see. None of this would not have happened without a little homework done by the Bulls front office before the 1987 draft as well as a little (actually, who am I kidding? A LOT OF) stupidity by the Seattle brass. Pippen became arguably the greatest perimeter defender, and one of the greatest all-around defenders, ever to play the game (Jordan is right up there with him), and he currently holds the record for career steals by a forward (2,307), as well as in the playoffs (395). I’d say that trade worked out quite well, wouldn’t you?
1) Michael Jordan, 3rd overall pick in 1984 draft, Shooting Guard, University of North Carolina: I don’t need to explain to you how great of a career Michael Jordan had and what he accomplished. We all know by now that he is, and will always be, the greatest player to ever live. Anyone who feels differently is clearly arguing just to argue. So with that, I’m briefly going to explain why exactly MJ qualifies as a steal.
Had the Portland Trailblazers selected Jordan over Sam Bowie, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion. But, they didn’t. The 7’1 Bowie played a total of 511 games in the NBA and averaged 10.9 points, 7.5 rebounds and 45.2% field goal. He never managed to stay healthy due to a variety of severe leg injuries, playing in only 63 games total during his final three years in Portland before they shipped him off to New Jersey. Bowie is widely regarded as the biggest draft bust in NBA history.
Portland’s decision to draft Bowie over Jordan is, without a doubt, the single most colossal blunder in the history of basketball. He accomplished next to nothing (besides a NCAA All-America Second Team) while playing at the University of Kentucky, missing two full seasons in a row because of terrible injuries to his shinbone. Jordan, on the other hand, was a two-time NCAA All-America First Teamer, one-time NCAA champion, and a recipient of the Naismith College Player of the Year Award, Oscar Robertson Trophy, John R. Wooden Award and the Adolph Rupp Award (all of which are awards given to the top player in men’s Division I NCAA Basketball). Bowie’s injury history, in itself, should have been a sign to Portland that they should stay away. But with Jordan’s college accomplishments on top of it, no one will ever live down that horrible decision to draft Bowie over him.
The Bulls completely stole Jordan during the 1984 draft, and it truly altered the lives of all Chicago sports fans, and even sports fans worldwide, forever. My entire childhood revolved around the Bulls and trying to impersonate Michael Jordan on the playground, in the gym and even in my basement. It was cool to be like Mike, and it was because of him that I am the way I am when it comes to sports. MJ belongs number one on this list. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Honorable Mentions: Chris Duhon, Point Guard (I told you this list was thin); Trenton Hassell, Shooting Guard (Now I’m just forcing the issue); Norm Van Lier, Point Guard (Even though the Bulls traded him on draft day, they reacquired him three years later, and he was great. Plus, he was a great TV analyst for the Bulls. I’m leaving him on this list.); Taj Gibson, Power Forward