Tyrese Haliburton is the talk of the NBA right now, but that wasn't always the case. The Wisconsin native was only a three-star prospect in high school, according to 247Sports, and even after two stellar seasons at Iowa State, he was hardly a slam dunk prospect entering the 2020 NBA Draft. Analytics models may have loved him, but the scouts, apparently, did not. Haliburton fell all the way to No. 12 in the 2020 NBA Draft.
Looking back on that now, several teams surely view their selections as mistakes. In a full 2020 redraft, Haliburton may well go No. 1 overall. But of all the teams that passed on the breakout star of the NBA's inaugural In-Season Tournament, who regrets it the most? Let's rank all 11 teams that didn't pick Haliburton by how poorly that decision has gone for them.
No harm, no foul. The Timberwolves got the one player in this draft that might even be better than Haliburton in Anthony Edwards. The two perfectly represent the kind of teams their front offices want to build. Minnesota's No. 1-ranked defense needs Edwards at the point of attack. Indiana's No. 1-ranked offense revolves around Haliburton. There are no regrets here. The Timberwolves would be a great albeit very different team with Haliburton, but they're perfectly happy with Edwards.
Haliburton is definitely a better player than Devin Vassell, though Vassell is quite good in his own right. The real reason the Spurs aren't losing sleep over Haliburton is the trickle-down effect. Haliburton would have made the Spurs too good to properly tank last season, which therefore would have cost them Victor Wembanyama. The Spurs wouldn't trade Wembanyama for anyone, so all things considered, this turned out pretty well for San Antonio.
Haliburton is better than LaMelo Ball. How big is that gap? That's subjective. Ball was an All-Star before Haliburton. He's having his best season, and while he's a poor defender, most metrics rank him as something like the 20th-best offensive player in the NBA. He's bigger than Haliburton, and he's largely played for a dysfunctional Hornets team that hasn't yet reached the playoffs in his career. There's an unexplored upside for Ball. That doesn't mean he'll catch Haliburton, but at the time of that draft, nobody would have taken him over Ball. All things considered, Charlotte has far bigger problems than that minor draft mistake.
This one has a lot of moving parts. In the grand scheme of things, Cleveland feels pretty good about where it is. Even if Donovan Mitchell's future is a bit precarious, they have a competitive team for the time being, and without drafting Isaac Okoro in 2020, they might not have been bad enough to land Evan Mobley in 2021. There's not much "regret" here, but man, the possibilities for Cleveland with Haliburton are enticing.
At this point, Cleveland already had two recent lottery picks at guard in Collin Sexton and Darius Garland. They also traded a pick for Jarrett Allen early in the 2020-21 season, which they still likely would have done. Here's where things start to deviate. Even if Haliburton hadn't started as a rookie, he likely would have been an impactful reserve. In reality, the Cavaliers were tied for the fourth-best lottery odds in 2021. Let's say Haliburton pushes them from 22 wins to 25.
Suddenly, they're in sixth. That would have netted them the No. 7 overall pick instead of the No. 3 pick they used on Mobley. Franz Wagner, Jonathan Kuminga and Josh Giddey were all on the board at that point. Who would they have taken? That's a tough call. Kuminga's defensive upside probably made the most sense, but with so much ball-handling, they might have preferred Wagner as the best shooter of the trio. Kuminga is the likeliest choice, though, because later in the 2021 offseason, they traded for Lauri Markkanen, a move they likely would have been even more motivated to make in this scenario without Mobley. With Haliburton and Garland, the Cavs would feel no great need to deal for Mitchell, so we'd instead be looking at a long-term starting lineup of Haliburton, Garland, Kuminga, Markkanen and Allen. Great offensively. Bad defensively. Cleveland would still have the first-round picks it traded for Mitchell in this scenario. They had plenty of flexibility to tweak as needed.
It's a fun hypothetical. The Haliburton scenario has more upside. The Cavaliers are probably perfectly happy with how things have played out.
In many ways, Haliburton-to-Atlanta would have been similar to the situation he found in Sacramento. Trae Young, like De'Aaron Fox, was a pre-established young star who needed the ball in his hands. The two would have been fine together, but neither would have been optimized. We'd either be watching the two of them languish on a .500 team, or one of them would have been traded. Even if Haliburton is better than Young, he probably would have been the one that got dealt just because Young, like Fox, was older and had less value on the open market. The Hawks would look drastically different had they taken Haliburton over Onyeka Okongwu, but it's hard to imagine them maximizing the Haliburton pick.
Would Haliburton have been a transformative pick for the Wizards? Absolutely. He likely would have spent his rookie season behind Russell Westbrook (or John Wall, if that trade doesn't happen in this scenario), but he eventually would have grown into a star alongside Bradley Beal. If their 2022 Kristaps Porzingis trade was still on the table in this scenario, they might have been able to build a pretty competitive team before the end of Haliburton's rookie deal. There's genuine regret here. This pick is the difference between having a franchise player and not having one.
The silver lining for Washington, though, is that passing on Haliburton ultimately led to the full rebuild this franchise needed. Would Haliburton have wasted his prime languishing on 45-win teams like Wall and Beal did if the Wizards had picked him? It's hard to say. A lot of that would have depended on how healthy Beal and (possibly) Porzingis stayed. Ultimately, the basketball world is better off having Haliburton on a team that isn't the Wizards.
Shocker: a 2-19 team wishes it had drafted a superstar instead of Killian Hayes. The regret here runs far deeper. Detroit won 20 games in the 2020-21 season. That got them the No. 1 overall pick, which they used on Cade Cunningham. Haliburton would have made them better, but if they just could have managed to stay in the top four, they could have paired Haliburton with either Mobley or Scottie Barnes. Even if they improve significantly, that draft was so stocked with forwards that the Pistons easily could have found another cornerstone to pair with Haliburton. Giddey, Wagner and Kuminga would all thrive next to him. It's impossible to know where they would have gone from there, but it's reasonably safe to say it would have been better than 2-19.
Yes, Haliburton would have been absolutely electric playing for the Madison Square Garden crowd. Yes, he is the A-list superstar they've spent the past several years preparing to trade for. Yes, having him on a rookie deal likely would have opened recruiting doors that have otherwise, thus far, been closed. All of that is valid. It is somewhere between "possible" and "likely" that the Knicks would be a bonafide championship contender today if they'd drafted Tyrese Haliburton instead of Obi Toppin. Frankly, it was probably the biggest draft-night mistake that involved Haliburton. The Knicks spent the majority of the 2020-21 season with Elfrid Payton starting at point guard. This was a bad pick.
But we're not exclusively measuring how bad the raw decision to pass on Haliburton was. We're measuring regret. All things considered, the Knicks are in a relatively enviable position. They have a fairly young roster and an All-Star at Haliburton's position in Jalen Brunson who is on a very team-friendly contract. Would the Knicks have pursued Brunson if they had Haliburton? It's hard to say. The two would have been an utter disaster together defensively, but Brunson fit just fine next to Luka Doncic in Dallas, and the Brunson family's ties to Leon Rose extend beyond basketball. It's not as though Haliburton's rookie deal interfered with their plans to create significant cap space.
This was a miss for the Knicks. Considering where they were at the time, it was a bad one. But the Knicks have done just about everything else right since, and they could plausibly be competing with Haliburton for Eastern Conference titles in the next year or two, so they just barely miss out on the top three in terms of regret.
This one stings. Haliburton wanted to be a Bull. "I think I fit well in Chicago," Haliburton said in 2020. "Obviously, with two guards in Coby [White] and Zach [LaVine] who can score at a high level, I think I can come in right away and be somebody who can take the burden off them and facilitate. But also, with them wanting the ball in their hands at the same time, I can be a guy that plays off the ball and knocks down shots. So whatever is needed in Chicago — or any organization, for that matter — I'm ready to do." The fit was obvious. The midwestern kid stays put. LaVine, an ascending scorer, gets paired with a playmaker and shooter to make his life easier.
Instead, the Bulls drafted Patrick Williams, which set off the cascade of bad decisions that has the Bulls trapped in the "our owner is too cheap to let us tank" purgatory they find themselves in today. Would Chicago have traded Wendell Carter Jr. and the picks that became Franz Wagner and Jett Howard for Nikola Vucevic if they'd just drafted Haliburton? Possibly, but at the very least, they might have been able to save an asset by including White, whose services would no longer be required. Perhaps without Williams, the Bulls would have instead targeted a forward. Denver got Aaron Gordon on the same day Chicago got Vucevic, and the Nuggets paid far less for him.
They certainly don't pay out the disastrous Lonzo Ball contract with Haliburton in place. They signed Ball largely to push the pace, which Haliburton is better at. Alex Caruso's defense would have been sorely needed, so he is likely still acquired. DeMar DeRozan's fate is less clear, but if Haliburton had shown enough promise as a rookie, the Bulls may not have seen the need to add another high-end perimeter scorer.
All of this is hypothetical. We don't know for sure that the Bulls would have made better moves with Haliburton in place. What we do know is that the moves they actually made torpedoed the franchise for years to come. Even if Haliburton hadn't prevented those moves, just having him on the roster would provide a glimmer of hope this franchise has otherwise lacked for the better part of the past decade.
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2. Phoenix Suns
Two teams bungled possible dynasties by passing on Haliburton. Here's one of them. The 2021 Suns came two wins shy of a championship. Games 4 and 5 were both effectively decided by a single possession—Giannis Antetokounmpo's block of Deandre Ayton in Game 4 and Jrue Holiday's steal against Devin Booker in Game 5. Suns backup point guard Cameron Payne had a point-differential of minus-4 in those two games. A couple of extra points could have swung that championship. Might Haliburton have provided them as a rookie? It's hard to say, but the matchup was perfect for him. Milwaukee had such a flawed half-court offense that it likely couldn't have punished him defensively in the ways that current teams do.
The Suns won 64 games a year later. They fell apart against the Dallas Mavericks largely because Chris Paul mysteriously vanished after his 37th birthday. He averaged just 9.4 points per game in the final five games of Phoenix's second-round loss. Maybe an ascending Haliburton gives Phoenix the offensive jolt it needs to survive the Mavericks. The Suns would have been favored against any other opponent they faced in that postseason.
Passing on Haliburton might have directly cost the Suns championships in 2021 and 2022. Even if it didn't, his presence would have perfectly insulated the Suns against Paul's eventual decline. Imagine a long-term starting five of Haliburton, Booker, Ayton, Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson. Even without the 2021 and 2022 titles, that group has dynasty potential.
The one possible hiccup here is Mat Ishbia. Say he buys the team in 2023 and forces the Kevin Durant and Bradley Beal trades across the goal line. Would he have been willing to include Haliburton? Possibly. If nothing else, doing so would have saved the Suns assets that could have been directed elsewhere. But with Haliburton, the Suns may not have even felt the need to trade for Durant, or perhaps could have done so without including Bridges, whose defense would be critical for the modern-day Suns. No matter how you look at it, choosing Jalen Smith over Tyrese Haliburton was a complete and utter disaster. The cherry on top here is that Phoenix didn't even keep Smith. They declined his third-year option and traded him to, you guessed it, Haliburton's Pacers.
A Phoenix dynasty is hypothetical. Golden State's dynasty is quite real, and what makes this even more painful is how perfectly Haliburton would have fit into Steve Kerr's system. He's among the NBA's least selfish players, his basketball IQ is through the roof and he's a great mover off of the ball. Statistically speaking, it's hard to believe he isn't at least distantly related to the Splash Family. Exactly half of his shots this season (161 out of 322) have come from behind the arc. His effective field goal percentage of 63.5% exceeds even Stephen Curry's 2015-16 mark of 63%. Reminder: Curry was the unanimous MVP of that season. Haliburton was built in a lab to be a Warrior.
He wasn't, and the irony of it is that Golden State instead took the player who was arguably the worst-suited of any top prospect in that class to play their brand of basketball. The traditional rim-protector/lob-catcher type has never factored prominently into Golden State's championship equation. James Wiseman played 1,098 minutes as a Warrior. Golden State lost those minutes by 290 points.
At a bare minimum, Haliburton's presence likely minimizes Jordan Poole to some extent. While Poole still would have played in Haliburton's 2020-21 rookie season because of Klay Thompson's absence, his role would have been significantly smaller during the 2021-22 championship campaign. That not only would have saved the Warriors from a disastrous contract extension, but it probably defuses the ugly Poole-Draymond Green dynamic before it exploded with the punch that ruined their championship defense. You could potentially even argue that a successful rookie season for Haliburton would have signaled to the Warriors the importance of taking players that fit in their system over high-upside athletes like Wiseman. While it's somewhat of a stretch, this conceivably could have led them to draft Wagner over Kuminga a year later.
With Haliburton in place, Golden State's two-timeline dream would have remained very possible. His rookie deal would have saved them tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars against the luxury tax. Having him now would give the Warriors a bit more leverage in extension talks with Klay Thompson, or perhaps even the latitude to trade him for immediate help. Simply sub Haliburton in for Chris Paul on the current team and Golden State's offensive woes disappear. The Warriors would be among the 2024 championship favorites. Matching Michael Jordan's six championship rings during the Stephen Curry era would suddenly appear possible.
Is it fair to judge the Warriors this harshly for passing on Haliburton? Probably not. Of course, much of what we just covered also would have applied to LaMelo Ball, who was considered a superior prospect to Wiseman by most draft experts at the time. Golden State's mistake had less to do with Haliburton, specifically than it did with what they were trying to accomplish with that pick. In Wiseman, and to a lesser extent Kuminga, the Warriors drafted for a team they might one day become instead of the one they already had. They ignored their own championship DNA in favor of something more generic and predictable. The end result might well be the loss of multiple championships and another decade of contention.