Dirk Nowitzki, the 1998 Draft, and the Sad Story of Robert Traylor

If things had worked out differently, Dirk Nowitzki may be living in Milwaukee right about now. It was the Bucks who drafted Nowitzki with the 9th pick in the summer of 1998. That was the infamous Michael Olowokandi to the Clippers draft. Notable players selected ahead of Dirk were Mike Bibby, Antawn Jamison, and of course Robert Traylor. It was Traylor who unintentionally made the Dallas career of Dirk Nowitzki possible.

Traylor, a star at Michigan, was part of the replacement talent after the Fab Five departed for the NBA. Born in Detroit, playing at Michigan was a dream come true. His teammate of one year, Dugan Fife, explained it this way. “He loved putting on that Michigan jersey.”

Traylor was a roly-poly 300+ pound forward who smiled and laughed and rebounded the ball and scored in the post. His size was an illusion. He had soft hands and a great touch around the basket. He could also defend. Gentle hearted, Traylor was a McDonald’s All-American and teammates with the more competitive by nature Kevin Garnett, Vince Carter and Paul Pierce. He was in talented company as a high schooler. He once broke a backboard. His sophomore year he led the Wolverines to the NIT title and was excellent enough to be awarded the MVP. His next year, his last at Michigan, he was a 16 and 10 player.

So when the Bucks traded Dirk Nowitzki for Robert “Tractor” Traylor, they thought they were getting a forward who could do some things in the paint. Nowitzki was a German product who had never played a lick on U.S. soil. He was a thin seven footer with range but no one knew how that would translate. Up to that point, European players had difficulty with the adjustment. Amercian players athleticism and explosiveness. not to mention strength, often confused them.

And so the Mavs got Dirk and the Bucks got Traylor. Except Traylor wasn’t what he was in college. In a twist of irony, he was the one who had difficulty adjusting to the NBA game. He struggled with weight issues. He was a sweet man with a willing smile and a kind heart but he could never stay in the type of shape needed for a long career, and because of his size, he always struggled with injuries. He lasted in Milwaukee for two seasons, then was traded to Cleveland, and then made the rounds of the NBA before playing in Puerto Rico where he died of a heart attack. He had been talking to his wife at the time.

“He was the leader of the team. He was very, very friendly. He got along very well with everyone. The fans loved him, idolized him.” (Carlos Perez, Bayamon Cowboys manager).

The Bucks were shocked at his death. “Robert was a fierce competitor on the court who helped the Bucks reach the playoffs in each of his two seasons. Off the court he was a gentle giant, displaying his smile and care, especially toward young people through his work with the Special Olympics clinic.”

Traylor’s 7 year NBA career pales in comparison with Dirk Nowitzki, the NBA’s 5th all-time leading scorer. Thank Don Nelson for what he did preceding the draft.

Nelson, the offensive guru and think outside the box moving chess pieces here and there GM, had his eye on Nowitzki. He could see the offensive skill set. Nelson knew no one in front of him wanted Nowitzki. He could save a million dollars if he traded down and grabbed Nowitzki later than 6. So he talked to the Bucks. The Bucks wanted Traylor and weren’t sure if he would be available at the 9 slot. Nelson said he’d draft Traylor at 6 if he got the number 9 pick and the 19th pick.

But Nelson had to sweat it out after drafting Traylor. The Celtics had shown interest in Dirk. Would they find a partner to jump ahead of Dallas? No. They stayed at 10 and chose Paul Pierce. The 19th pick was Pat Garrity. Nellie acquired Garrity then traded him to the Suns for Steve Nash.

“He was the best young player I had ever seen.” (Don Nelson on Nowitzki)

The draft is always a beauty pageant mixed in with a lot of luck. The three year college player Traylor ended up playing for 4 NBA teams while Nowitzki has been the loyal centerpiece for the Mavericks for nearly two decades. The only players who have played longer for a single franchise are Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan. Nowitzki, a 13 time All-Star, Finals MVP, Regular Season MVP, member of the 50-40-90 club, has made Nelson’s gamble seem obvious. It wasn’t.

The Bucks were trying to make a push into the playoffs in the 1998-99 season. They had a young Ray Allen, Glen Robinson and Ricky Pierce. They needed a forward who had skill inside. They drafted for need, not potential. They didn’t want to wait.

It was a strike shortened year and Traylor made the playoffs in his rookie year, coached by George Karl. He only played 15 minutes and averaged 5.3 points and 4.0 rebounds. The next year he wasn’t a playoff factor, averaging four minutes, not scoring.

It wouldn’t be until Nowitki’s third year in the league that he tasted the playoffs. By then Traylor was a journeyman, trying to hold his NBA career together. If it proved one thing, it’s that you can’t compare players on draft day. No one can predict the future. Except, maybe, Don Nelson.


photo via llananba