The NBA's draft lottery has solved the problem it was intended to cure. But lottery winners also have found that the luck of the draw rarely brings an immediate payoff.
The lottery started in 1985 with the express purpose of ending the whispers that a team was tanking a season to get a better shot at the No. 1 draft pick, a superstar with the potential to turn a team around. After a few revisions, officials say that goal has been met."The lottery system is as fair as it can be," said Jerry Reynolds of Sacramento, which will participate in its fifth lottery Sunday. "It's served the purpose that it was designed for."
An NBA team on the borderline between making the playoffs and getting into the lottery has only a slim chance of getting the No. 1 pick because of the "weighted" system favoring the weakest teams. A 1-in-66 chance for the No. 1 pick isn't a good tradeoff for the benefits of making the playoffs, even for a first-round loser.
Denver, the team with the best chance of getting the top pick because of its 20-62 record, has only an 11-in-66 opportunity, but a team in the Nuggets' position was so weak that it didn't have to think about trying to lose. It came perfectly natural to them.
The lottery, however, has been worthy of all the hullaballoo only three times, when the No. 1 pick was considered to be a player who would turn around a franchise. That occurred in the first lottery in 1985, when Patrick Ewing was the prize, and again in 1987 with David Robinson and in 1988 with Danny Manning.
Ewing, the prize of the first lottery in 1985, was Rookie of the Year the following season by averaging 20 points and 9.0 rebounds, but he played only 50 games because of injuries, and the Knicks fell from a 24-58 record to 23-59.
The most successful No. 1 pick in the Lottery Era has been Robinson. The San Antonio Spurs were 28-54 in 1987, the year he was selected No. 1 in the draft. They slipped to 21 wins the season before he joined them in 1989 after his naval service.
The Spurs made the greatest single-season turnaround in NBA history in 1989-90, winning 56 games, with Robinson averaging 24.3 points and 12.0 rebounds to win Rookie of the Year honors.
New Jersey's Derrick Coleman is the only other Rookie of the Year among the lottery No. 1 picks.