The Great Draft Swindle of '75
How the ABA's Denver Nuggets wound up with the NBA's #1 and #3 overall draft picks in the summer of 1975
Several days ago I was watching a Nuggets-Hawks game that was fairly entertaining. Ultimately, the Nuggets pulled out an eight-point win behind Nikola Jokic’s 47 points. As the Nuggets drove the final stake into the Hawks, I acerbically noted this was the biggest defeat for Atlanta at the hands of Denver since 1975.
Jokes aside, man did the Nuggets really screw over the Hawks in 1975! Denver’s triumph and Atlanta’s misery couldn’t have happened without New Orleans’s incompetence.
The Jazz were eager – some might say desperate – to acquire bayou legend Pete Maravich from the Hawks. Getting “Pistol Pete” was bound to make the expansion Jazz winners on the court and garner sellout crowds.
At least that was the theory.
So in May 1974, Atlanta traded Maravich to New Orleans for two players and FIVE draft picks including a 1975 first rounder. Yep, NOLA was DESPERATE.
They also stunk.
The Jazz started the 1974-75 NBA season 0-11. By the All-Star break they were a ghastly 4-34. The team went on a “hot streak” to finish the season 23-59, easily the worst record in the NBA. For all their on-court troubles, the Jazz got themselves the #1 pick in the draft.
Oh wait, that’s right. They traded their 1975 first round pick to the Hawks. WHOOPS!
(By the end of the decade, the Jazz were packing their bags for Utah).
As for Atlanta, they looked pretty bright for having shipped off Maravich for the draft pick bounty. With Maravich in the 1973-74 season, the Hawks had a 35-47 record. Without him in 1974-75 they rummaged a 31-51 mark despite perennial All-Star Lou Hudson missing almost the entire season. The big story for the Hawks in ’75 was rookie forward John Drew averaging nearly 19 points and 11 rebounds per game.
Hudson had just entered his 30s, so was on the downside of his prime years, but was still a very effective player. Drew was a scoring machine and a terror on the offensive glass. Now Atlanta could add the #1 overall draft pick courtesy of the Jazz in addition to their own draft pick slotted at #3.
With the #1 pick Atlanta took college superstar David Thompson. With the #3 pick they snagged promising center Marvin Webster.
Thompson and Webster with Hudson and Drew? Not too shabby.
Of course it never happened, beaming optimism be damned…
That’s a mighty fine hat
MEANWHILE IN THE ABA…
The Denver Nuggets were a powerhouse. Under the coaching of Larry Brown – yes, that Larry Brown – and with a talented seven-man rotation including Ralph Simpson, Mack Calvin and Bobby Jones, the Nuggets finished the 1974-75 season with a 65-19 record. Best regular season record in the ABA and NBA for that season.
Although they were upset in seven games in the Western Division Finals by the Indiana Pacers, the Nuggets were clearly going to be a force for years to come.
But instead of resting on their laurels, the Nuggets decided to hustle the NBA’s Hawks.
Immediately following the NBA’s draft in late May, George Cunningham of the Atlanta Constitution wondered, “Can the Hawks sign Thompson and Webster, the two first-round picks who are expected to ask for a total of four million dollars and eventually wind up getting about three million?”
Nearly a month later (June 17), the situation wasn’t resolved and signs were growing worse for the Hawks.
The Virginia Squires technically held Thompson’s ABA rights, but the Associated Press was sure that “he will be traded to Denver if the Nuggets can sign him.” Basically, the Virginia Squires - in true Squires fashion if you know their history of offloading young, expensive talent - were keeping the car running outside, ready to speed away as Denver was sticking up the Hawks.
Thompson’s agent, Larry Fleisher had practically gassed up the getaway car.
He was giving strong hints that Atlanta was a longshot choice by mid-June. After having just one meeting with the Hawks since the NBA draft, Fleisher assessed the situation: “I indicated [to Atlanta] what it would take to sign him, and I am still waiting for a response.”
A major hitch in Atlanta’s plans to nab Thompson and Webster was a $400,000 fine the NBA slapped on the franchise “over the Julius Erving-signing violation of three years ago.” [Definitely a story for another day]. As the AP dryly noted, “There now is doubt whether the Hawks can bid for both Webster and Thompson.”
(That $400k fine was no joke. That was the annual salary of the NBA and ABA’s top-flight players at the time. Imagine a team being slapped with a $35 million fine today? That might make it hard to sign a player.)
Indeed, on June 20 it was reported that Webster had inked a $1.5 million dollar contract with the Nuggets. Webster reportedly “didn’t like the way the NBA Atlanta Hawks handled their negotiations.”
The bungling was complete by July 9, when the AP reported that Thompson had signed a $3 million, 6-year deal with the Nuggets. The $500,000 annual salary made him the richest rookie in the history of pro sports.
(FWIW, Denver’s hot streak of talent acquisition continued in October 1975 when the financially-distressed Baltimore Claws sent them Dan Issel for relative peanuts. No disrespect to Dave Robisch, but you trade him for Issel 100 times out of 100.)
Denver paid off Virginia for its complicity by sending Mack Calvin their way for Thompson’s ABA rights and officially signed the guard in mid-July.
Obviously loaded, the Nuggets again tore through the ABA with a league-best 60 wins. Again, though, they were upset in the playoffs as the New York Nets bested them in the ABA Finals in six ridiculously hard-fought games.
Denver had the better team, but the Nets had Dr. J at the peak of his powers.
AS FOR ATLANTA…
"We’re extremely disappointed, but life goes on.”
- Atlanta Hawks President and General Manager, Bud Seretean.
For the Hawks, losing Webster was a sting. After all that was a #3 pick down the drain. And Webster certainly had his moments during a 10-year ABA/NBA career, most notably bringing Seattle to within one game of the 1978 NBA title. But he was more of a loss in opportunity. Albeit a big one. The two players picked right after Webster were centers Alvan Adams and Darryl Dawkins.
Atlanta definitely could have used either center in their lineup.
Losing Thompson was the real kick in the pants. After having lucked their way into the #1 overall pick through the ineptitude of the New Orleans Jazz, Atlanta lost a generational talent for absolutely nothing. Even considering Thompson’s battles with drug addiction in the late 70s and early 80s, he was a bona fide superstar and was ultimately inducted to the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Luckily for Atlanta, they did recover from the ’75 fiasco by drafting slow Tree Rollins and fast Eddie Johnson in 1977; trading for defensive stalwart Dan Roundfield in 1978; and watching John Drew grow into a certified bucket-getter. So the franchise wasn’t totally left for dead.
But 45 years later, the team still hasn’t had another #1 overall pick and losing out on David Thompson was a bitter pill to swallow.
This jam’s for you, New Orleans Jazz…
“Hawks Vow to Sign Thompson, Webster,” Atlanta Constitution, May 30, 1975
"David Thompson inks with Denver Nuggets,” Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer, July 15, 1975
“Nuggets or the Hawks? Webster hasn’t decided,” Louisville Courier-Journal, June 17, 1975
The Record (Hackensack, NJ), June 20, 1975
“Atlanta loses battle for David Thompson,” July 9, 1975
How else did that $400,000 fine impact the Hawks?
What was brouhaha around Atlanta signing Julius Erving?
How did the Jazz fail despite having Pistol Pete?
The Baltimore Claws?! That’s the whole question.
What other talented young players did the Squires give away over the years?