It's a simple question but a dangerous one. It begs us to consider counterfactuals in a serious light, to use hindsight to judge a situation based on hypotheticals, to which there are no definitive answers.
It's a question that's particularly prevalent when evaluating the NBA draft. The 2013 edition will be no exception, even if its supposed dearth of talent turns out to be as troubling years from now as so many gurus have long predicted it will.
To hear them tell it, you won't find a superstar emerging from this latest selection of 60 studs plucked from the collegiate, international and D-League ranks. You won't see an Anthony Davis, a Kyrie Irving, a Blake Griffin or even a Damian Lillard take the Association by storm this time around.
Instead, we'll be waiting to see how a number of flawed prospects react to the pro game and what they do to adjust and develop going forward.
What position will Anthony Bennett play for the Cleveland Cavaliers?
Does Ben McLemore have the proper mindset to put his prodigious gifts to good use with the Sacramento Kings?
What will Trey Burke do to counteract his lack of size in Utah?
Has Victor Oladipo hit his ceiling yet, or will he blossom into an All-Star in Orlando?
How will Cody Zeller handle bigger, stronger opponents while wearing a Charlotte Bobcats jersey?
What about Nerlens Noel's knee? His rail-thin frame? His almost complete lack of an offensive game? How will all of that come into play once he joins the Philadelphia 76ers?
From that angle, the class of 2013 abounds with busts. There will be at least a handful of talented prospects in this draft who fall far short of the expectations set according to the spots in which they're selected and/or by the teams that bring them aboard.
But that's the case almost every year. You don't have to be Chad Ford to figure that out.
The greater mystery lays in trying to determine why players "fail" and/or why they come to be perceived as "failures." Are their failures more the fault of nature, of limitations with which certain players are "born?"
Or do players tend to wash out more because they're not nurtured properly? Because they were drafted into toxic situations? Because they weren't given the proper support from their respective coaching staffs and the player development people charged with turning them into top-notch pros?
With that being said, there's a strong case to be made that, more often than not, circumstantial factors (i.e. organizational stability, coaching, the quality of a team's player development department, etc.) have at least as much to do with a player's success or failure in maximizing his abilities in the NBA as do any considerations within that player's control.
When injuries don't render the point moot in a particular case, anyway. (Hi, Greg Oden! Same to you, Sam Bowie!)
Wrong Place, Wrong Time
To start, the way we define and designate "busts" has as much to do with that player's own accomplishments (or lack thereof) as it does with his position within a given draft and the quality of prospects for whom he was passed over.
For instance, Darko Milicic's infamy as one of the biggest busts of all time has less to do with his own paltry productivity (6.0 points, 4.2 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in 18.5 minutes across 468 games) than it does with the fact that he was selected by the Detroit Pistons with the No. 2 pick in the 2003 draft, right after LeBron James and just ahead of Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade.
Those four are all likely ticketed for the Hall of Fame. Milicic, on the other hand, has already washed out of the league.
A similar fate of timing and reputation might eventually befall Hasheem Thabeet—assuming it hasn't already. The Memphis Grizzlies took the tree-like Tanzanian with the No. 2 pick in the 2009 draft, in which Blake Griffin went first to the Los Angeles Clippers.
Thabeet went ahead of a handful of All-Stars (James Harden at No. 3, Jrue Holiday at No. 17) and budding franchise faces (Ricky Rubio at No. 5, Stephen Curry at No. 7, Ty Lawson at No. 18), among others.
To Thabeet's credit, though, the UConn product showed some promise as a big body on the defensive end, albeit in limited minutes, this past season with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
After wandering through the developmental desert between the Grizzlies, Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers, Thabeet will finally have an opportunity to spend time on a team with a strong track record of growing its talent, thanks to a cheap contract that will keep him in OKC through the 2014-15 season.
Of course, that deal hardly guarantees that Thabeet won't be back out on the market in short order if the Thunder's thinking changes. Nor does his residence in OKC ensure that the good fortunes of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka will simply rub off on him. Chances are, he'll hop around more before his NBA days are done.
Milicic did just that after making his way out of the Motor City. He stopped off in Orlando, Memphis, New York, Minnesota and Boston before returning home to Serbia to attend to personal matters.
But the damage was already done in Detroit, under the auspices of Larry Brown, whose own career has been marked by nomadism, ironically enough. Brown did well to lead the Pistons to back-to-back NBA Finals appearances, including their surprising triumph over the Los Angeles Lakers in 2004.
In those two seasons, though, Milicic featured in less than half of Detroit's games and totaled just 448 minutes combined between regular-season and playoff appearances. In 2005-06, after Brown left town, Milicic saw his playing time skyrocket (in relative terms) to 767 minutes.
Truth be told, that had less to do with Brown departing and Flip Saunders taking over in Detroit than it did with the Pistons sending Milicic to the Magic at the trade deadline, to essentially serve as Dwight Howard's backup.
Milicic proved to be more productive from that point forward, though, he never so much as sniffed the heights of a transformational, Euro-style, inside-out player to which so many experts had held him on draft day.
Too Much, Too Soon?
We'll never know if things would've turned out differently for Milicic had the Pistons not left him to rot on the bench for two of the most important and formative years of his basketball life. But a bit more playing time to allow Milicic to boost his confidence and work his craft couldn't have hurt...right?
That depends. The Washington Wizards didn't exactly throw Kwame Brown into the fire right away. Brown played in a steady 57 games for the Wizards as a rookie, averaging 4.5 points and 3.5 rebounds in 14.3 minutes therein.
That would be fine for a number of prospects who'd need to be brought along slowly, except Brown's circumstances left him well askew of the norm. He was the first high school kid ever drafted No. 1 overall, by a franchise that hadn't won a playoff series in two decades.
If that weren't enough, his boss was Michael frickin' Jordan, only the greatest basketball player who ever lived. Sure, Brown was blessed with a stout, 6'11" frame, but the kid had tiny stone hands, a decided lack of basketball skill and a quiet demeanor that didn't take too well to the pressure to which he'd be subjected.
In other words, he was as raw as they came.
If anything, he'd need ample time and plenty of skill-based coaching to actualize his full potential. Instead, he was dogged by constant concerns about his development—and by having to share the floor with a late-30's MJ—during his basketball gestation period. As Michael Leahy recounts in "When Nothing Else Matters," Brown was slapped with the "bust" label almost from day one and did little to shake it.
With more patience, acceptance and proper guidance, perhaps Brown could've blossomed into more than just a big body. Perhaps he could've followed a path like the one that led Tyson Chandler, who was taken by Jordan's old team (the Chicago Bulls) right after Brown came off the board in 2001, to become an NBA champion and a sought-after defensive anchor.
To be sure, Chandler's journey from bust to All-Star was anything but linear. He spent five years in Chicago, where the Bulls had hoped he'd become the next Kevin Garnett or Jermaine O'Neal, alongside the bigger, more bruising Eddy Curry.
The two towers of the "Baby Bulls" endured years of post-Jordan malaise and mediocrity, as Chicago cycled through head coach after head coach.
As Grantland's Jonathan Abrams noted in May 2012, Chandler was fortunate to find a niche more befitting his gifts—as a screener, finisher and shot-blocker—when the Bulls traded him to the New Orleans Hornets in 2006. He was the perfect pick-and-roll partner for a young Chris Paul on the offensive end and established himself as the team's anchor on the defensive end.
Curry wasn't so fortunate. He wound up with the New York Knicks—of the Isiah Thomas vintage—prior to the 2005-06 season. The Knicks' toxic work environment, combined with Curry's own health concerns, acted to submarine the once-promising career of the burly big man.
But not before Curry cobbled together his finest statistical season in 2006-07, with career highs of 19.5 points and 7.0 rebounds in 35.2 minutes across 81 games.
The point being, not all busts stay that way forever. Or, to put it another way, not all busts are fated to stay that way forever.
A New Start
Chandler and Curry both peaked after leaving Chi-town behind. Likewise, a change of scenery might do some good for Sacramento Kings studs Tyreke Evans and DeMarcus Cousins.
In a way, these two appear to have the opposite problem that plagued the Baby Bulls' late bloomers: They've produced plenty from the outset but appear to already be on the decline. It's a troubling turn of events given how gifted Evans and Cousins clearly are.
The former was named the Rookie of the Year for the 2009-10 season after the Kings selected him with the No. 4 pick in the 2009 draft. Evans became just the fourth first-year player in NBA history to average better than 20 points, five rebounds and five assists per game.
The other three? Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan and LeBron James.
As for the Cousins, who was taken fifth in 2010, he averaged a double-double in his second year and came within one-tenth of a rebound per game of doing the same in his third. Along the way, "Boogie" flashed a complete offensive game that included a strong repertoire in the low post, a somewhat reliable mid-range jumper, a soft set of hands, a deft touch on the pass and an uncanny understanding of how to throw around his 6'11", 270-pound body to useful effect.
The problem for both came from achieving too much too soon, and doing so within a Kings organization fraught with dysfunction. Coaches came and went, ball-hogging gunners shuffled onto and off of the roster, and the team continued to lose, first games and then fans, all while the Maloofs largely neglected their duties as full-time owners.
Amid that chaos, Evans ran afoul of the law and suffered through a series of foot injuries.
Cousins, meanwhile, established himself as the second coming of Zach Randolph, in more ways than one. His obvious talents were overshadowed only by his lackadaisical defense, his constant clashes with coaches and opponents and his all-around reputation as a moody malcontent.
Not surprisingly, both appeared to regress as the situation in Sacramento continued to sour. In 2012-13, Evans played a career-low 31 minutes per game and, as a result, saw the rest of his productivity slide, though he did set new career highs for field-goal percentage (.478) and three-point percentage (.338).
Cousins saw a similar increase in accuracy but was plagued by infractions of all sorts, from personal fouls (5.6 per 48 minutes) and technical fouls (a league-leading 17), to flagrant fouls (three), ejections (four) and suspensions.
There may yet be hope for the Kings' star-crossed youngsters, though. A new ownership group, led by Silicon Valley billionaire Vivek Ranadive, has swept into town to save the Kings from the Maloofs and a move to Seattle that, at one time, seemed imminent.
Long-time GM Geoff Petrie and head coach Keith Smart are out, replaced by Pete D'Alessandro and Mike Malone, respectively. For the first time since Rick Adelman was last in town, there's hope for hoops in Sacramento and, in turn, for a more nurturing work environment in which Evans and Cousins can thrive.
Or not. Evans will be a restricted free agent come July 1, whereupon he could seek greener pastures elsewhere. As far as Cousins is concerned, D'Alessandro insists that he wants to keep the gifted big man around as a building block, though you can bet Boogie's name will pop up in the trade rumor mill more than once during the next few months anyway.
In any case, both Evans and Cousins have a long way to fall before they're officially labeled as "busts." Evans is 23 and Cousins just 22, meaning that each has ample time left on the proverbial clock in which to convert potential to productivity.
Still, the futures of Evans, Cousins and the Kings are all essentially contingent on crapshoots at this point. If anything, the entire ordeal of drafting and developing talent is a crapshoot. The odds of success are slim, try as the participants might to improve them through practice, careful study and whatever other techniques Kevin Spacey and his MIT compatriots might employ.
But unlike gambling, drafting players is practically compulsory for NBA teams, lest they trade away and sell off their picks like Ted Stepien's Cleveland Cavaliers. Unlike serial gamblers, front-office folks have means of tilting the odds in their favor beyond simply doing their homework.
They can hire development coaches to work with their young players, run seminars to teach their newest employees about handling life in the NBA and even foster mentor-mentee relationships between neophytes and more seasoned members of the organization.
The key is to provide young guys with the tools and the training to allow them to flourish. There's the case of Dwight Howard, whose superstar potential made him the No. 1 pick in the 2004 draft but was helped along in that endeavor by Hall of Famer and former Magic assistant Patrick Ewing.
In the same vein, there's the case of Andrew Bynum, who grew from a raw 17-year-old in 2005 to a key member of two championship teams after working closely with Lakers legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to hone his offensive skills.
Would these two All-Stars—and the countless others left unnamed—have achieved the same measure of success without such support? Again, we'll never know because there's no way to turn back the hands of time, try as R. Kelly might.
What we do know, though, is what worked in their cases. Perhaps a similar commitment to player development will allow the likes of Bennett, Noel, McLemore, Oladipo and all the other most buzzed-about names from the draft class of 2013 to reach their respective ceilings in the years to come.
Some will pan out while others won't. That's just how these things work.
But teams aren't helpless in all of this. They can do what teams like the Thunder, Spurs, Pacers and numerous others have done: do everything within their power to shore up the development process.
In the end, the teams choose which players they want to bring in and who they want as tutors. They set the tone and create the circumstances in which those fresh, young prospects are molded into fully functional mainstays.
Those that properly nurture their prospects aren't going to "win" 100 percent of the time, but the more time, effort and money that teams invest in their players early on, the more likely they'll be to see those players blossom—and to see those regretful refrains of "What if?" eschewed in favor of "What's next?"