It’s Not So Bad to Be an NBA Bust

Even if they never became stars, these disappointments still have a whole lot of money. 

Last September, DarkoMilicic gave up on the game that was supposed to make him a legend. A decade after the Detroit Pistons chose him between LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, the Serbian center moved on to kickboxing, a fitting choice for a guy who spent his entire NBA career taking it on the chin.

Depending on who you ask, Milicic is the biggest bust in NBA draft history, largely because of the players the Pistons passed over to take him (Anthony, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade). His career averages (6 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 1.3 bpg) are those of a guy who should have spent two years in the league, not nine. But size and potential will take you far in the NBA. After nine years though, his potential realized and his size more a liability than an asset, Milicic was cut loose. And now he’s a walking punchline, a cautionary tale against valuing potential over performance.

Every year around draft time Milicic and his fellow busts are trotted out and beaned with virtual tomatoes. They’re ranked and re-ranked, forever battling to avoid the final slide of some “NBA Draft Bust” gallery. Basically, they’re treated like losers, which is funny considering this: Every guy who’s ever appeared on an NBA Draft Busts list made it into the NBA! That’s a big accomplishment. He also made millions of dollars and achieved a level of fame that few people ever know. These guys may be losers in the context of the NBA Draft, but they’re total winners winners in life (except for Greg Oden).

Take Milicic, a 30-year-old retiree who made $52 million playing in the NBA. That’s enough money to pursue whatever childish profession you want, and for Milicic, it’s kickboxing. Video evidence points to him being bad at it, but further video evidence points to him not really caring. Here he is in a video that made the rounds a couple months back, chanting Serbian songs with his pasty European bros and sharing swigs of beer with his tattoos. The guy is living like a rich 17-year-old and it looks glorious.

So Milicic was bad at the job he had in his 20s. That happens to a lot of people. Unlike most though, Milicic is both mercilessly mocked for it and stupidly rich because of it. No a bad trade off, really.

I don’t mean to imply money is the most important thing in this life, I mean to state it flatly. Money is the most important thing in life and all of the worst NBA busts have made tons of it. Kwame Brown made $64 million in the NBA, Michael Olowokandi made $38, and Greg Oden made $24 million. Sam Bowie, the guy forever known as the glass-legged oaf taken ahead of Michael Jordan, made $15 million. How’s he spend his time now that he’s a 54-year-old whose Google Alerts spike at this time of the year? Owning and training horses in Lexington, where he’s Wildcat royalty. There’s not a man reading this who wouldn’t trade his future for Bowie’s present, even if it means getting dissed in a Jay-Z song. I mean, at least he’s getting mentioned in a Jay-Z song.

Along with money, the most ridiculed lottery picks also have age on their side. The aforementioned Oden is only 27. Brown is 33 and Olowokandi, who’s been out of the league for almost a decade, is 40. Not only are the NBA’s biggest busts rich, they’re young—two things we all want to be.

Some of them are even beloved. I know, it’s hard to believe anyone still appreciates losers of this caliber, but for proof, settle your gaze on the unfortunate face of Adam Morrison. Drafted third by the Bobcats in 2006, the 30-year-old Morrison never found his stroke in the Association. In a total of 161 NBA games, he shot 37% from the field, while compiling a career VORP of -2.9. Stated simply, he sucked. But he also made $16 million in the NBA before getting paid significantly less, but still significantly more than most of us, to play in Europe. Last year Morrison returned to Spokane to take a position on the staff of Gonzaga coach Mark Few. When Morrison played for Few, he was unstoppable. He shared the Oscar Robertson Trophy with J.J. Reddick in his junior year, scored 28 points per game and shot 42 percent from three. That’s how Zags fans will remember him. Which is to say, not only is Morrison young and rich, but he’s now living in the one city in the world where he’ll be remembered more for his heroics than his tears. For a guy universally considered a bust, that sounds like a pretty good life. 

Photos by Jake Roth/USA TODAY Sports