NBA draft : Lottery has added a few wrinkles

By Ed Barkowitz

Philadelphia Daily News

Published: Thursday, June 25 2009 12:00 a.m. MDT

Looking back on previous drafts is rarely fair to the clubs that select, but it's always fun. Hindsight's perfect vision allows even the most casual fan to wonder, "Wow. What if . . . "

The NBA upped the intrigue when it instituted its lottery 25 years ago.

Hatched in the summer of 1984, the system was enacted primarily to dissuade bad teams from tanking games to gain a higher pick in the subsequent draft. It also was brought about to try to dispel any appearance of such tomfoolery, which some would argue was as egregious as anything Tim Donaghy may or may not have pulled.

So while teams theoretically still can lose on purpose, they're not necessarily guaranteeing themselves favorable draft position.

The losingest teams still have the best chance to secure the top overall pick, but they no longer have the only chance. Though the weighting system has varied through the years, all non-playoff teams are given some sort of opportunity to end up with a player that could jumpstart a franchise. The Knicks, Spurs and Cavaliers are shining examples.

An interesting start

Conspiracy theorists have suggested the very first lottery in 1985 was rigged since it allowed the Knicks, who finished with a better record than four other teams during the regular season, to move up and select Patrick Ewing, one of greatest big men in college basketball history. The presumption was that the league always wants a successful team in New York, which would generate fan interest and TV ratings. Each of the seven non-playoff teams had an equal chance for the No. 1 pick, and there was speculation that the envelope containing the Knicks logo in 1985 was tampered with.

"I wish I had as much sway as the conspiracists attribute to me," commissioner David Stern recently told the Associated Press.

When the Spurs hit it big in 1987, they were transformed from also-ran to contender. When they hit it again 10 years later, San Antonio became dominant.

Under the prelottery days, the 1987 Spurs would have picked seventh after finishing 28-54. Instead, they moved up to No. 1, where they were able to grab David Robinson. Ten years later, San Antonio moved from third to first and selected Tim Duncan. The two big men brought two titles to San Antonio, and Duncan has helped bring two more in the wake of Robinson's retirement. Without the lottery, Robinson would have been selected by Cleveland and Duncan would have gone to Vancouver, which doesn't even have an NBA team anymore. "Wow. What if . . . "

Cleveland, though, would find its share of lotto luck several years later.

Woeful Minnesota finished with only 15 wins, but it was Orlando that sneaked in to take Shaquille O'Neal with the first pick in 1992. The Timberwolves actually slipped to third, where they ended up with Christian Laettner, a fine college player but a shabby concession prize, considering Charlotte was able to get Alonzo Mourning with the second pick.

When the Cavaliers won the right to select LeBron James in 2003, owner Gordon Gund said: "I'm very excited for the fans of Cleveland. This is a great day for them and for all of that market, for Akron, for Cleveland, all of northeastern Ohio."

While James has yet to deliver a championship to the hapless city, he has brought the franchise unprecedented success, including a berth in the 2007 NBA Finals. And remember, he's only 24.

Before the lottery, the worst teams in either conference would hold in a coin flip for the right to pick first. In 1985, those teams would have been Indiana and Golden State. Instead, the Knicks won the right to select Ewing.

Indiana wound up with Wayman Tisdale at No. 2 and Golden State dropped to No. 7, where it still got a quality player in Chris Mullin. The Hawks ended up with Jon Koncak at No. 5. Ouch.

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