May 21, 2014, 11:00 AM EDT
OK, so Cleveland won the NBA Draft lottery again, and a couple thoughts come to mind. The first is that it was somewhat fun to see Milwaukee and Philadelphia — two teams that sure seemed to be tanking games last season — not get rewarded. That was a bit like seeing someone who cuts in line at the airport get stopped and sent to the back.
In truth, the lottery has rarely rewarded the worst team. Only three times in 25 lotteries (since the NBA changed the system to weigh the odds) has the worst team won the first pick in the lottery. Even that’s misleading: The 2003 Cavaliers, the year they got LeBron James, were tied with Denver for the worst record.
In 12 of the 25 lotteries — just about half of them — the No. 1 pick went to a team with fifth-worst record or better. The odds are supposed to be STRONGLY against those better teams, but maybe the power of the basketball gods (who loathe tanking — I know, I’ve talked to them) overwhelms the strength of mathematical odds.
Or maybe, you know, it’s could just be randomness. Either way, this trend does not seem to have stopped teams from tanking.
The second thought is that the NBA Draft Lottery is auctioning off the wrong thing. The real luck isn’t in getting the No. 1 pick. The real luck is getting the No. 1 pick in the RIGHT YEAR. That is: to get the No. 1 pick in a year when a franchise-changing basketball player is coming out. In most years, having the No. 1 pick is not necessarily better than having the No. 9 pick. In 1998, for instance, the Los Angeles Clippers had the No. 1 pick. The Dallas Mavericks traded for the No. 9 pick.
The Clippers got Michael Olowokandi.
The Mavs got Dirk Nowitzki.
That Clippers team, with the third-worst record in the NBA, would have been WAY better off not getting the first pick. But even more to the point, they would have been WAY better off getting the first pick in the draft one year earlier, when even Donald Sterling’s traveling circus would have known to take Tim Duncan.
It’s fascinating to look at draft by draft since the lottery went into place. How often has the No. 1 pick changed a franchise?
1990: New Jersey Nets select Derrick Coleman.
Best player available: Gary Payton (No. 2)
Result: Coleman was a good player for the Nets, and the team did get better. But Coleman was not a franchise changer..
1991: Charlotte Hornets select Larry Johnson
Best player available: Dikembe Mutombo (No. 4)
Result: Johnson did put the Hornets on the map somewhat with his whole Grandmama act.
1992: Orlando Magic select Shaquille O’Neal
Best player available: Shaq.
Result: Franchise-changer (until they lost him to the Lakers)
1993: Orlando Magic select Chris Webber
Best player available: Probably Webber
Result: Magic traded Webber to Golden State right away for Penny Hardaway, who was a super fun player until injuries wrecked him. Webber had a fine career but was only in Golden State for a year.
1994: Milwaukee Bucks select Glenn Robinson
Best player available: Jason Kidd (No. 2)
Result: Robinson was a bit of a disappointment, but he and Ray Allen did lead Bucks through an often magical 2000-01 season.
1995: Golden State Warriors select Joe Smith
Best player available: Kevin Garnett (No. 5)
Result: Joe Smith didn’t pan out for Warriors and ended up playing for — this will look like a misprint — 12 different NBA teams.
1996: Philadelphia 76ers select Allen Iverson
Best player available: Kobe Bryant (No. 13)
Result: Bryant, Steve Nash and Ray Allen all might have been better picks. But, for better and worse, Iverson did change the Philadelphia franchise.
1997: San Antonio Spurs select Tim Duncan
Best player available: Duncan
Result: The all-time lottery franchise changer.
1998: Los Angeles Clippers select Michael Olowokandi
Best player available: Anyone else, but Nowitzki (No. 9) and Paul Pierce (No. 10) might have been good places to start.
Result: Biggest bust in lottery history. So far.
1999: Chicago Bulls select Elton Brand
Best player available: Shawn Marion (No. 9)
Result: Good player but little to no impact on the Bulls — they traded him after two years.
2000: New Jersey Nets select Kenyon Martin
Best player available: Maybe Hedo Turkoglu (No. 16). Weak draft.
Result: Martin, when healthy, was a good player. He was a key player in the Nets’ back-to-back finals appearances in 2001 and 2002.
2001: Washington Wizards select Kwame Brown
Result: No that didn’t work out.
2002: Houston Rockets select Yao Ming
Best player available: Yao when healthy; Amar’e Stoudemire (No. 9) has had a good career.
Result: Yao was a wonderful player and a game-changer when healthy.
2003: Cleveland Cavaliers select LeBron James
Best player available: James.
Result: Not just a franchise-changer, he was a franchise-saver. Until he took his talents to South Beach.
2004: Orlando Magic select Dwight Howard
Best player available: Howard
Result: Franchise changer for sure but only once, in 2009, has his team made a serious playoff run.
2005: Milwaukee Bucks select Andrew Bogut
Best player available: Chris Paul (No. 4)
Result: Bogut hasn’t stayed healthy enough to be impactful, though he has been a strong rebounder and defender when on the court.
2006: Toronto Raptors select Andrea Bargnani
Result: Bargnani, now with New York, has played well at times, but his impact on Toronto was almost zero.
2007: Portland Trail Blazers select Greg Oden
Best player available: Kevin Durant (No. 2)
2008: Chicago Bulls select Derrick Rose
Result: My thought is Rose IS the best and most impactful player out of that draft. But you can’t impact games when you’re not on the court.
2009: Los Angeles Clippers select Blake Griffin
Best player available: Griffin, James Harden (No. 3) or Steph Curry (No. 7)
Result: I think everyone is still waiting on the result. The Clippers franchise HAS changed for the better, and Griffin is a huge reason. Still, I think, going forward, I’d rather have Curry.
2010: Washington Wizards select John Wall
Best player available: Paul George (No. 10)
Result: This year was Wall’s first 82-game season. And this year he showed signs of turning around the Wizards fortunes.
2011: Cleveland Cavaliers select Kyrie Irving
Best player available: Maybe Irving. Maybe Kawhi Leonard (No. 15).
Result: Too early to tell. Irving is a very good player but the Cavaliers franchise has not taken a step forward since Lebron’s departure.
2012: New Orleans Hornets/Pelicans select Anthony Davis
Best player available: Probably Davis
Result: Too early to tell. Pelicans do seem to be getting better slowly.
2013: Cleveland Cavaliers select Anthony Bennett
Result: One year isn’t enough to tell much, but Bennett did look badly overmatched.
So, I would say in the 25 years of this lottery, there have been eight or nine franchise-changers taken No. 1 — 10 if Portland had selected Kevin Durant — which means most of the time the No. 1 pick has NOT altered a franchise.
And chances are that this year’s No. 1 pick will not be a franchise-changer. There are probably three choices — Duke’s Jabari Parker, Kansas’ Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins. Three choices suggest that (A) There isn’t a clear-cut choice which is often a bad sign and (B) if there is one franchise-changer in here, the Cavaliers only have a 33 percentchance of picking him. There is new management in place but let’s be honest: The Anthony Bennett selection last year doesn’t inspire confidence that the Cavaliers will get it right.
Maybe the Cavaliers will have a lottery to determine who should be their first pick. If there’s one thing the Cavs are good at it’s winning lotteries.
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