Looking Back At the 1991 Draft

This summer I have been looking back at the outcome of past NBA drafts. Today I want to discuss the draft from 1991 (you can look at the NBA Draft page for other drafts I have examined).

The Importance of Winning

We can talk about Wins Produced, Player Efficiency Rating, NBA Efficiency, Plus-Minus, or any other statistical measure people can dream up, but really let’s be honest, at the end of the day all that matters is winning. If a player wins, he’s a great player. And losers are not great players.

Once upon a time the Minnesota Timberwolves understood this argument. In 1991 the Timberwolves found themselves with the seventh pick in the NBA draft (not unlike this year). And with that selection the T-Wolves selected a player who simply knew how to win championships.

Of all the players taken that year, no one went on to win as many titles (Rick Fox won the same number). So from the 1991 class, this man was clearly the best – at least if you focus on who was a “winner.”

Of course the player I am talking about is Luc Longley. Longley played for ten NBA seasons and was the starting center for the NBA champion in 1996, 1997, and 1998. Unfortunately, for Minnesota, these championship teams were in Chicago. Minnesota foolishly traded Longley to Chicago during his third NBA season, losing out on a chance to bring three titles to Minneapolis.

I know what you‘re thinking. Weren’t there other players responsible for the Bulls winning titles from 1996-1998? People have brought up Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, or even Dennis Rodman (can you believe that, Rodman?). But let’s face it, championships are won in the middle. After all, the great Celtics teams from the 1960s were led by Bill Russell, not their shooting guard. And the starting center for the Bulls was indeed Luc Longley. Hence, Longley must have been the prize of the 1991 class.

The Importance of Efficiency

Okay, we all know – at least those reading this forum should know – that we don’t evaluate players in terms of championships won. Players don’t win titles. Teams win titles.

The “correct” measure is Wins Produced per 48 minutes [WP48]. And by this metric, the prize of the 1991 class was Chad Gallagher. Gallagher was selected by the Jazz with the 32nd pick. When his career ended, his WP48 stood at 0.751. This was his career average, and it easily trumps the very best season of Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson. So obviously, Gallagher was the prize of the 1991 draft, and perhaps the greatest player to ever play in the NBA.

Now some of you might ask: who the hell is Chad Gallagher? Well, before you scurry to Basketball-Reference.com to look him up, let me note that Gallagher was a center who never captured a single rebound in his career. Yes, he achieved a WP48 of 0.751 without ever grabbing one rebound. And he was a center.

The key to his productivity was an amazing ability to make every shot he ever took. In his career he took three shots and made all three. He did all this in three minutes, spaced out over two games. He did commit two fouls in his career, so apparently this was an issue. But his scoring ability – measured on a per-minute basis and a per-shot basis – is unmatched in NBA history (I didn’t check this, I am just guessing).

If you are unimpressed by Gallagher’s three minutes, perhaps I can suggest Myron Brown. Brown was selected with the 34th pick by the very same Timberwolves who took Luc Longley. In a career that lasted four games and 23 minutes, Brown hit four of six shots (including a three-pointer), grabbed three rebounds, and accumulated six assists. He did turn the ball over four times, but his career WP48 of 0.259 was still outstanding. And with 0.1 Wins Produced, he actually produced more wins in his career than either Gallagher or Longley. Yes, despite winning three championships, Longley’s career productivity was in the negative range.

The Importance of Wins Production

Okay, time to be a bit more serious. Let’s move away from team outcomes or WP48 and focus on the player’s production of wins. To produce wins you not only have to play well, you also have to actually play.

Table One: Re-Living the 1991 NBA Draft

And when we focus on wins production – which we do in the above table — we see that the prize of the 1991 draft choice was Dikembe Mutombo. In sixteen seasons, Mount Mutombo has produced 223.4 wins in 36,077 minutes, a mark that rivals the career output of Shaquille O’Neal (247.7 wins in 35,925 minutes) and Jason Kidd (222.6 wins in 35,368 minutes). As noted previously, Shaq and Kidd were the most productive players from the 1992 and 1994 NBA drafts, respectively.

The team that selected Mutombo – the Denver Nuggets — also had the 8th choice in 1991. With that choice, Denver selected Mark Macon. Macon attended Temple, and during his freshman season in 1987-88 posted a Win Score per-minute of 0.215. To provide some perspective on what that number means, only two guards selected in 2007 – Rodney Stuckey and Mike Conley – posted a better mark.

Macon’s Win Score per-minute declined his sophomore season to 0.180. And then it declined again his junior season to 0.132. Macon rebounded his senior season to 0.173, but nevertheless, his college numbers did have an odd pattern where his junior and senior seasons were less productive than his first two years in college.

As a professional, Macon was much more consistent. In six NBA seasons he was below average every single year. When his career finally ended, only Anthony Avent (the 15th choice) and Doug Smith (the 6th choice) were less productive.

Despite the performance of Macon, the 1991 draft was one where NBA decision-makers did pretty well. Of the top 10 players in career wins, six were chosen with the top ten picks. Overall, the first round choices posted a career WP48 of 0.121. This is comparable to what we saw in 1994, and bests what we saw in 1992 and 1993.

By the way, if Mutombo and Dale Davis do not come back in 2007-08, the story on this draft will be complete. Every other player has stopped playing in the NBA. Given that Davis cannot catch Mutombo in overall productivity, we can close the book on the final ranking of this draft class.

And if career wins is your measure, Mutombo is the top player from the 1991 draft. Of course if we look at championships won, it looks like a tie between Longley and Fox. Oh, and if career WP48 is your preferred metric, no one will ever catch the immortal Chad Gallagher.

– DJ