After 18 NBA seasons, Paul Pierce laced the sneakers up for the final time in the regular season on Wednesday. After the playoffs, he will end one of the all-time great pro careers, one in which he was ten-time All-Star and four-time All-NBA team selection. Not to mention he led the Boston Celtics to the 2008 NBA Championship, earning an NBA Finals MVP nod while doing so. As for that time with the Celtics, he retires as the historic franchise’s all-time leader in three-point field goals made and steals while also ranking third in games played, second in points scored, seventh in total rebounds, and fifth in total assists.
Long story short, Pierce is the ideal that NBA teams strive for when they consider who to select in the NBA Draft. That makes it all the more confusing to look back at the 1998 Draft and see that Pierce wasn’t actually selected until the 10th pick overall by the Celtics.
In fact, the 1998 Draft is full of historically-bad decisions in hindsight. While the Los Angeles Clippers wasted the top pick on Michael Olowokandi and the Vancouver Grizzlies used the No. 2 pick on Mike Bibby, some guy named Dirk Nowitzki didn’t go until the ninth pick (to the Milwaukee Bucks, who then traded him to the Dallas Mavericks) right before Pierce.
Making things look that much worse, Pierce wasn’t even the first Kansas Jayhawks player taken that year. That honor went to Raef LaFrentz, who was selected No. 3 overall by the Denver Nuggets. Considering LaFrentz would suffer a torn ACL in his rookie year and end up playing just four seasons in Denver, it makes the pick pretty bad in retrospect. Making it even worse is the knowledge that the Nuggets were torn between taking LaFrentz and Pierce before ultimately making their selection.
So what turned them towards LaFrentz?
In an Associated Press article written on June 25, 1998, the day after the NBA Draft, we find out why the Nuggets surprised a lot of experts and fans by selecting the other Kansas player. Turns out, Nuggets fans can blame then-Colorado Buffaloes head coach Ricardo Patton.
6/1998: Seems it's @coachrpatton's fault the #Nuggets picked Raef Lafrentz > Paul Pierce #ColdTakeNBADraft (via @AP) pic.twitter.com/d8gcuj2Ydn
— Freezing Cold Takes (@OldTakesExposed) June 4, 2016
Patton spent eleven seasons at Colorado, making the NCAA Tournament just twice, before coaching Northern Illinois to a 26-61 record in four seasons. That was followed by assistant coaching stints at University of Maryland Eastern Shore and the University of Denver. As for why Dan Issel put the fate of his franchise (and job) in Patton’s hands based on a handful of college basketball games, well, you’ll have to ask him.
It’s even more confusing when you realize even LaFrentz, Pierce and Kansas coach Roy Williams were shocked by the picks.
“Those teams that let him slip through weren’t too bright,” LaFrentz said.
Said an obviously disappointed Pierce, “We never had a chance to mention the Celtics. We never talked about it. It’s a big surprise to me to be wearing this hat today. If you had told me this a week ago, I wouldn’t have believed a word you said.
Williams, who coached the two at Kansas, had seemed as confident as anybody that Pierce would be among the top five.
“I’m really surprised, but nothing in the NBA should surprise me now,” he said. “Years from now everybody’s going to look back and say how smart Rick Pitino was.”
If you’re looking for a reason the Denver Nuggets never posted a winning season in Dan Issel’s stint as president and general manager between 1998 and 2001, you can start right here.