Looking Back At The 1987 Draft

Deep draft included Robinson, Pippen, and Miller

June 25, 2007

By Steve Aschburner

Special to CSTV.com from The Sports Xchange


It was three years earlier, in the 1984 NBA Draft, that the Chicago Bulls -- with eternal gratitude to the Portland Trail Blazers for selecting Sam Bowie at No. 2 -- acquired the player almost universally regarded as the best in league history.


But it was in the 1987 draft that the seeds of what would become six Bulls' NBA championships were sown.


The players who would become Chicago's second- and third-most valuable contributors to the start of its semi-dynasty of the 1990s arrived within five picks of each other in the first round of 1987. Scottie Pippen, a sleeper back in the days when sleepers still were possible, was taken by Seattle with the No. 5 pick, then traded to the Bulls for No. 8 pick Olden Polynice and future draft considerations. Then, with their own pick at No. 10, the Bulls took Clemson forward Horace Grant.


Forget about the moves Jerry Krause made later in his tenure as Chicago's general manager, the brief Elton Brand era or the Tyson Chandler-Eddy Curry miscalculation that followed. Adding Pippen and Grant as no-nonsense help and running mates for Michael Jordan transformed the Bulls into legitimate contenders and eventual champs.


Gone were the days of players such as Gene Banks, Orlando Woolridge, David Greenwood, Sidney Green and, eventually, Brad Sellers. Pippen served as a bookend yip dog for Jordan defensively as well as an athletic, versatile, open-court player to thrive in what, a few years later, would become Phil Jackson's and Tex Winter's triangle offense.


Grant quickly showed he was able to handle rebounding and defense well enough that Charles Oakley, the man who initially had Jordan's back, could be moved for center Bill Cartwright. That enabled Chicago to match up more effectively with New York (Patrick Ewing), Boston (Robert Parish) and Detroit (Bill Laimbeer) in building toward its first three-peat of titles from 1991-93.


Pippen, cast not always happily as Jordan's sidekick or younger brother figure, stuck around long enough to win three more rings from 1996-98. After Jordan's second retirement, Pippen tried to find success in a leading role, first in Houston, then in Portland, but never got to the championship round again. He wrapped up in a Yoda role back in Chicago in 2003-04, then flirted briefly with the idea of a comeback in 2007 at age 41.


The 1987 draft was notable for several other reasons, including the depth of quality, looking back at the careers of players such as Pippen, Kenny Smith, Kevin Johnson, Derrick McKey, Reggie Miller and Mark Jackson.


Also, in the drop-off from David Robinson to Armon Gilliam, the step down from No. 1 to No. 2 probably as big as any in the previous decade, including 1985 (Patrick Ewing-Wayman Tisdale), 1984 (Hakeem Olajuwon-Bowie) or 1979 (Magic Johnson-Greenwood). (The biggest ever? The vote here gets cast for 1969, when the Phoenix Suns called heads, the coin flip came up tails and the Milwaukee Bucks grabbed a fellow named Lew Alcindor. The Suns' consolation prize? Neal Walk.)


Finally, it's worth noting that the 1987 draft was the NBA's last with seven rounds. In new collective bargaining deals, the 1988 draft was chopped to three rounds and by 1989, the current two-round format was in place.


These days, that means 60 players get selected. But in 1987, the league's 23 teams stuck with it through 161 picks. Among the names popping up late: almost-not-but-still Florida head coach Billy Donovan, the Providence guard picked in the third round, No. 68 overall.


Here are the 1987 draft's "hits" and "misses":





David Robinson, C (No. 1, San Antonio)

San Antonio knew it would have to wait for The Admiral's help but, like Red Auerbach patiently waiting for Larry Bird after grabbing him as a junior eligible in 1978, the Spurs were content to let Robinson's military obligation tick off the clock. The 7-foot-1 center, at age 24, arrived in 1989-90 as a fully formed dominator, averaging 24.3 points and 12.0 rebounds as a rookie, playing in his first of 10 All-Star games and boosting San Antonio from 21 to 56 victories. He would go on to win one MVP award, two NBA titles, status as one of the league's Top 50 players (chosen in 1996) and a lock for Hall of Fame enshrinement as soon as he's eligible.


Scottie Pippen, F/G (No. 5, Seattle)

With second bananas like this guy, most teams wouldn't need a first. Pippen was named eight times to the all-NBA first, second or third teams and 10 times to the league's first or second all-defensive teams. He never grabbed control of the talented but troubled Portland teams on which he played from 1999-2003, and there still are plenty of critics who believe that, without Jordan, Pippen might not have been nearly as successful. Then again, how many NBA titles did His Airness win without Pippen?


Kenny Smith, G (No. 6, Sacramento)

Smith sometimes seems like the poor relation among TNT's studio analysts when he's wedged in between Hall of Fame talents Charles Barkley and Reggie Miller. But Smith was an outstanding NBA point guard, first with the Kings and then with the Houston Rockets. He also holds a 2-0 edge over Barkley and Miller, combined, in NBA rings won, helping Houston to consecutive titles in 1994 and 1995 while splitting time with Sam Cassell. And now he's the best X&O guy among those talking heads, a coach in waiting should a needy team ever get tired of the familiar re-treads.


Kevin Johnson, G (No. 7, Cleveland)

One reason you don't hear more about Smith is that this guy was picked immediately after him. Traded halfway through his rookie season to Phoenix, Johnson averaged 21.2 points and 11.1 assists over the next four seasons combined. He didn't mesh well with Barkley after the big man's arrival from Philadelphia and took hits for his alleged lack of durability later in his career, but Johnson was a five-time all-NBA pick, played in 105 postseason games and still holds the Finals record for most minutes in a single game (62).


Horace Grant, F (No. 10, Chicago)

Grant, after the Bulls' first three titles, sought his fortunes elsewhere. In a career that far surpassed his twin brother Harvey's, Horace helped Orlando to the Finals in 1995 as a key piece alongside Shaquille O'Neal and Penny Hardaway, then won a fourth ring with the Lakers (and O'Neal and Phil Jackson) in 2001.


Reggie Miller, G (No. 11, Indiana)

Miller made it to the Finals only once (2000), his club losing to the Lakers. But he was a playoff hero all the same, making 15 postseason appearances and turning the Pacers-Knicks' rivalry in the Eastern Conference into a clash as memorable as many Celtics-Lakers championship rounds. The NBA's all-time leader in three-pointers made and taken, Miller was the guy rival coaches least wanted to see with the ball in his hands, Indiana down two or three with time running out. He spent his entire career with the Pacers, a feat rarer these days than winning (and chasing) rings.


Mark Jackson, G (No. 18, New York)

The playmaker who ranks second on the NBA's all-time assists board (10,334, 193 more than Magic Johnson) still was on the 1987 draft board after such big names as Tellis Frank, Jose Ortiz and Ronnie Murphy. Fresh out of St. John's, Jackson handled the pressure of staying home well enough to win the NBA's top rookie award and wound up playing 17 seasons with seven different teams.


Reggie Lewis, F (No. 22, Boston)

The year before, Boston selected Len Bias with the No. 2 pick overall, then mourned when Bias died a day later. The tragedy of Reggie Lewis played out over a longer time frame; he averaged 17.6 points over six seasons, took over as team captain from Larry Bird and was hitting his prime when he suffered a fatal heart attack after the 1992-93 season.


Sarunas Marciulionis, G (No. 127, Golden State)

In 1986, the Portland Trail Blazers selected Arvydas Sabonis at the end of the first round, then waited years for the big man to join them. With this pick, 13 deep into the sixth round, the Warriors got a powerfully built Lithuanian guard who joined them by 1989. Marciulionis shot better than 50 percent in each of his first four seasons, averaging 18.9 points in 1991-92 and 17.4 the following year. He played with Seattle, Sacramento and Denver to close out a seven-year NBA stay.




Armon Gilliam, F (No. 2, Phoenix)

Through his first five seasons, Gilliam posted respectable numbers: 16.3 points and 7.3 rebounds. But he kept moving, or being moved, to teams that had duplication or better players on their front lines, and he slipped into a reserve role over the second half of his career. An NBA blue-collar guy who shouldn't have been taken so high.


Dennis Hopson, F/G (No. 3, New Jersey Nets)

This Ohio State product may be best remembered for being reduced to tears in practice by Michael Jordan once Hopson joined the Bulls. He averaged more than 15 points in his third season with the Nets but was done with the NBA after 1991-92, finishing up with teams overseas in Israel, Spain and the Philippines.


Olden Polynice, C (No. 8, Chicago)

It's hard to say what people remember most about Polynice: his trade on draft day for Scottie Pippen, his stops with five teams over 15 seasons (7.8 ppg, 6.7 rpg) or his inspired decision to impersonate a police officer after a traffic accident in 2000. Yep, just your average 6-foot-11, Haitian plainclothes cop.


Joe Wolf, F (No. 13, LA Clippers)

Wolf's NBA achievements never measured up to his amateur ones, including his status as the best high school player ever from the state of Wisconsin (according to one poll of fans). Wolf averaged 4.2 points and 3.3 rebounds as an NBA deep reserve but was a popular teammate -- at least after becoming owner of a Dairy Queen and providing frozen novelties on occasion. Wolf also has coached in the CBA and the NBA Development League.


Christian Welp (No. 16, Philadelphia 76ers)

A 7-footer from Germany who might have been trying to find success similar to countryman Detlef Schrempf by attending the University of Washington, Welp had a marginal NBA career. Within three years of being drafted, he was traded for the equally disappointing Uwe Blab in one of those deals that helps neither team. Welp did fare better after returning to Euroleague competition with Olympiakos and ALBA Berlin.


Greg Anderson. F/C, (No. 23, San Antonio)

Anderson switched teams eight times in 10 NBA seasons, but his first stop was his best; he averaged 11.7 points and 6.3 rebounds as a rookie, then bumped those to 13.7 ppg and 8.2 rpg in his second season with the Spurs. In 1991-92, the 6-foot-11 big man nicknamed "Cadillac" averaged 11.5 points and 11.5 rebounds for Denver, then finished up in Italy. Later, he served time on a cocaine charge in Mississippi.


Steve Aschburner is a senior NBA reporter and columnist, covering the Minnesota Timberwolves for the Minneapolis Star Tribune for 13 seasons and serving as president of the Professional Basketball Writers Association from 2005-07.

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