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.

The 1986 Celtics had the most tragic misfortune when they used the No. 2 pick on Len Bias, a promising forward out of Maryland who died of a cocaine overdose 2 days after the draft.

Detroit thought it had found gold when it traded Otis Thorpe to the Grizzlies in 1997 for a first-round pick in 2003. The Pistons were sitting even prettier when the lottery moved that pick from No. 6 to No. 2. But then the Pistons fouled themselves up by taking Darko Milicic instead of Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh or Dwyane Wade.

Greg Oden and Kevin Durant sat atop the 2007 wish list, but Memphis caught an unlucky break and slipped to third. The Grizzlies ended up with guard Mike Conley instead.

The only team to trade the No. 1 overall pick is the Sixers, who sent the rights to the 1986 top overall selection to Cleveland in exchange for Roy Hinson and cash.

The deal came on the same day of an unpopular trade of Moses Malone for Jeff Ruland. Neither move paid off, and the Cavaliers ended up with Brad Daugherty, who averaged 19.0 points over an 8-year career that ended prematurely because of back injuries.

Two years later, Philadelphia did get better value from a draft deal when it chose Pittsburgh forward Charles Smith at No. 3 and immediately shipped him to the Clippers in exchange for Hersey Hawkins and a first-round pick in 1989. Unfortunately, the pick ended up being Kenny Payne, of Louisville. The 2,500 fans at the Spectrum to watch a telecast of the event booed the pick lustily.

"They did the same thing to Dan Majerle last year in Phoenix, and he turned into a very good player," Sixers owner Harold Katz said afterward. "I expect Kenny Payne to start and play for us right away and not take 30 or 40 games.

"I think you're going to be very surprised about this kid. He can flat-out shoot. He can rebound. He can run. He was the best player available."

Payne started 13 games and averaged 3.5 points before calling it a career after 4 years.

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In 1993, the Sixers rolled the dice on Shawn Bradley, a 7-6 curiosity out of BYU. Bradley had played only one season of college ball, but his height made him an intriguing gamble. Alas, Bradley was too thin to be dominant, much less effective, as an NBA big man, and he was shipped to New Jersey a month into his third season in a deal that netted the Sixers Derrick Coleman.

In 1996, Pat Croce's good luck and a fortuitous bounce of the ping-pong balls brought the Sixers Allen Iverson. While Iverson's tenure in Philadelphia, particularly the ending, was harrowing, he did breathe life into a club floundering in darkness. His disdain for practice might be one part of his legacy, but so too should the 19,583 points he scored as a Sixer.

It's a pity Croce didn't have similar luck the following year. The Sixers did improve three spots thanks to the lottery, but picked second. The Spurs took Tim Duncan with the No. 1 pick and became a dynasty. The Sixers settled for Keith Van Horn, who was quickly dealt to the Nets.

Oh, well. That's the way the balls bounce.