While researching the draft through a variety of resources, it became clear that different sources defined the older drafts by different means. Territorial picks, which existed through 1965, were the big variable. To quote from the 76ers' media guide: "To enable teams to take advantage of the regional popularity of college stars, they were given the option of forfeiting their first-round picks and instead selecting, before the start of the draft, a player from the franchise's immediate geographical area. These 'territorial picks' are not factored into the overall selection count of the draft."
This makes draft history a bit confusing. For instance, John Havlicek has been referred to as both the seventh and ninth pick of the 1962 draft because of two territorial picks that year. I didn't use territorial picks for this list and thus put Havlicek at No. 7 below.
1. Magic Johnson, Lakers, 1979: A difficult choice among other top picks -- including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O'Neal and Tim Duncan (Oscar Robertson was a territorial pick and LeBron James has a lot more time to improve his body of work and win titles) -- but Magic not only won five championships but also rescued the NBA through his West-East rivalry with Larry Bird. He recast the league as an entertainment company led by likable stars. Would the NBA ever have become so popular without him?
2. Bill Russell, Celtics, 1956: In my book, Russell is the most important draft pick in league history because he instituted the team-first leadership skills that defined success in the NBA and were emulated by Michael Jordan and many other stars thereafter. Because of this pick -- acquired by Red Auerbach in a bold trade that sent All-Star Ed Macauley and future All-Star Cliff Hagan to the St. Louis Hawks -- the Celtics became the most dominant team in sports history, winning 11 of 13 championships around Russell's unprecedented defensive dominance.
3. Michael Jordan, Bulls, 1984: It continues to defy reason that the Trail Blazers passed on Jordan to take center Sam Bowie with the No. 2 pick. (The Rockets used the No. 1 pick on Hakeem Olajuwon, an acceptable decision as he would deliver two championships to Houston.) Jordan became the greatest player of the modern era, and the only basketball player ever to be acknowledged as the most popular athlete in the world.
4. Dave Cowens, Celtics, 1970: The 6-foot-9 Hall of Famer was an undersized center who won all of the meaningful awards (co-Rookie of the Year, MVP, All-NBA and All-Defensive first team) as well as leading Boston to two championships as Russell's unlikely successor.
5. Kevin Garnett, Timberwolves, 1995: Minnesota took an enormous risk in picking Garnett so high -- players without college experience being unproven products in '95 -- and he turned into one of the most influential big men of his era. Scottie Pippen, Dwyane Wade, Walt Frazier, Charles Barkley and Ray Allen were also No. 5 picks, but Garnett's dominance in virtually all phases of the game sets the standard here.
6. Larry Bird, Celtics, 1978: So valuable was Bird that Auerbach drafted him before his final season at Indiana State, exploiting a loophole that has since been closed. When Bird showed up in Boston one year later, he proved that he was worth the wait.
7. John Havlicek, Celtics, 1962:Manu Ginobili is his era's version of Hondo -- a versatile, high-energy swingman so selfless that he doesn't care whether he starts or comes off the bench. Havlicek retired in 1978 with eight championships and he remains the leading scorer in Celtics history.
8. Sam Jones, Celtics, 1957: Originally chosen by the Minneapolis Lakers a year earlier, the 6-4 Jones reentered the draft after military service and became the Celtics' version of Mr. Clutch, hitting huge playoff shots in a 12-year career that included 10 championships. Nineteen years after Jones' selection, the Warriors turned the No. 8 pick into Robert Parish, who also helped deliver championships to Boston.
9. Dirk Nowitzki, Bucks, 1998: In a prearranged draft-night trade that turned into one of the most lopsided deals in history, the Mavericks sent No. 6 pick Robert Traylor to the Bucks for Nowitzki and No. 19 pick Pat Garrity, whom Dallas dealt to Phoenix for Steve Nash. Nowitzki's three-point shooting as a 7-footer transformed the NBA's view of the power forward position. He led the Mavericks to the 2006 NBA Finals and was named league MVP a year later.
10. Paul Pierce, Celtics, 1998: Viewed as a potential top-three pick, Pierce slid to No. 10. He was on the verge of requesting a trade when the Celtics acquired Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to help Pierce win the 2008 championship. Within two seasons, he should surpass Bird as Boston's No. 2 all-time scorer.
11. Reggie Miller, Pacers, 1987: This has been a good slot in which to acquire shooting: Allan Houston, Robert Horry and Kiki Vandeweghe were all No. 11 picks, as was Jamaal Wilkes. But none made a bigger impact on the team that drafted him than Miller, a clutch scorer who matured to set a standard of leadership for the Pacers.
12. Julius Erving, Bucks, 1972: Had Erving signed with Milwaukee, he would have been teammates with Abdul-Jabbar and Robertson; instead, he moved to the ABA, where he won three MVPs and two championships in five seasons before a merger with the NBA shifted him to the 76ers at age 26. More than a creator of highlights, Erving won an MVP award and a championship in 11 years with Philadelphia. But his majestic finishing around the basket set a standard for athletic elegance that remains unmatched.
13. Kobe Bryant, Charlotte Hornets, 1996: The Hornets took him for the Lakers, who traded Vlade Divac to Charlotte in a cap-clearing move that enabled them to sign Shaq that summer. Consider this to be a lucky place to find talent: In 1985, the Jazz drafted "undersized'' power forward Karl Malone at No. 13.
14. Clyde Drexler, Trail Blazers, 1983: He turned out to be the best player in his draft. He lasted to this spot because his Phi Slamma Jamma years in college created the mistaken impression that he was a one-dimensional dunker, but he turned into a skilled and versatile Hall of Fame scorer who helped his former University of Houston teammate Olajuwon win a championship with the Rockets in 1995.
15. Steve Nash, Suns, 1996: A self-made Canadian point guard with one NCAA scholarship offer (from Santa Clara), Nash began his pro career as the Suns' third-string point guard behind Jason Kidd and Kevin Johnson. Phoenix traded him in 1998 to Dallas, where he overcame a rough start to emerge as a star in his fifth NBA season. He then further surprised the Mavericks by blooming into a two-time league MVP after returning to the Suns as a free agent.
16. John Stockton, Jazz, 1984: Picking up Stockton at No. 16 is like the 49ers discovering Joe Montana in Round 3 of the NFL draft. Ron Artest has been the next-best player from this slot.
17. Shawn Kemp, Seattle SuperSonics, 1989: Entering the NBA as the youngest player in the league, the 6-10 Kemp turned into a six-time All-Star who joined with guard Gary Payton to lead Seattle to the 1996 Finals. He averaged 16.8 points and 9.5 rebounds over his 11-year career. He may be challenged in this slot someday by Danny Granger, a 2005 pick of the Pacers who was named the NBA's Most Improved Player while averaging 25.8 points as an All-Star in 2008-09.
18. Joe Dumars, Pistons, 1985: A complement to Isiah Thomas, the Hall of Fame guard helped the Pistons earn two championships (as well as another one two decades later as the team president). Calvin Murphy, Mark Jackson and David West were other surprisingly outstanding picks here.
19. Nate Archibald, Cincinnati Royals, 1970: A small guard who could weave his way through any defense, the Hall of Famer led the NBA in scoring (34.0) and assists (11.4) in 1972-73, the only player to win both categories in the same season in league history. Rod Strickland (No. 8 on all-time assists list) and Bulls champion John Paxson also were picked here.
20. Gus Williams, Warriors, 1975: The two-time All-NBA guard and second-round pick (the NBA had fewer teams then) averaged 17.1 points in 12 seasons, including six defining years with the Sonics, whom he led to the 1979 championship while averaging 28.6 points in the Finals. More recently in this slot, the Magic are benefiting from the development of Jameer Nelson, a first-time All-Star in 2008-09.
21. Michael Finley, Suns, 1995:Rajon Rondo, drafted 21st in 2006, may be viewed as the best pick at this spot someday. For now, the choice is Finley, who turned into one of the league's elite scorers after being traded to Dallas, and later became a champion with the Spurs.
22. Reggie Lewis, Celtics, 1987:George McGinnis and Norm Nixon were fine choices here as well, but Lewis -- a sixth man on his high school team -- would have made multiple All-Star teams if not for the heart condition that killed him at age 27. He averaged 20.8 points in each of his final two seasons.
23. Alex English, 1976, Bucks: After three-plus middling seasons with Milwaukee and Indiana, the second-round pick found his niche with the score-first Nuggets. When he retired in 1991, the future Hall of Famer was the NBA's No. 6 all-time scorer.
24. Sam Cassell, 1993, Rockets: Talk about a steal: As a late-pick rookie, Cassell helped lead the Rockets to their first NBA championship. It was no fluke, as his 16-year career would attest. A lot of long-term value has been unearthed at No. 24, including Arvydas Sabonis, Andrei Kirilenko and Latrell Sprewell, as well as Lakers champions Rick Fox, Brian Shaw and Derek Fisher.
25. Mark Price, 1986, Mavericks: He was the face of the Cavaliers for a decade as well as a surprisingly effective shooter for his size. Price edges out John Drew, Gerald Wallace and Bob Gross, the small forward on Portland's 1977 championship team.
26. Vlade Divac, 1989, Lakers: How often do you get a 16-year center this late in the draft? Divac was one of the best passing big men in the modern era. Kevin Martin, who was also taken at this spot, needs several more years of excellence to surpass Divac.
27. Dennis Rodman, Pistons, 1986: He became so much more than anyone could have predicted -- in all kinds of ways. Rodman contributed to five championship teams in Detroit (two) and Chicago (three), exemplifying the kind of high-effort defender and rebounder teams are often seeking with a late pick.
28. Tony Parker, Spurs, 2001: Yes, the Spurs were lucky to win the lottery twice when David Robinson and Duncan were the No. 1 picks. But they also discovered Ginobili at No. 57 and their elite point guard and future NBA Finals MVP at this slot.
29. Dennis Johnson, 1976, Seattle SuperSonics: Johnson, a second-round pick, was never viewed as a great shooter; he nonetheless helped lead Seattle and Boston to three championships combined while playing the kind of defense that should posthumously earn him a place in the Hall of Fame.
30. Gilbert Arenas, 2001, Warriors: Another second-round pick, Arenas drew laughs at his introductory Golden State news conference when he predicted he would be a starter in his rookie year. Not only did he prove to be correct in that assessment, but he also turned into an All-NBA point guard with the Wizards.