Tonight the fates of many NBA franchises will once again be left up to the chaotic randomness of bouncing ping-pong balls. The NBA Draft Lottery, which has been around in one form or another since 1985, will decide where the best amateur players in the country will be playing next season. The system was put in place to deter teams from tanking, or losing games deliberately down the stretch of a lost season. Although tanking is still very much a problem in the NBA (just ask anyone who watched the Bobcats play all season) the lottery aims to level the playing field when it comes to the top draft choices, and it does just that for the most part.
For any team not located in Miami the way to win in the NBA is to build through the draft, get lucky with a few picks, develop your talent, and instill a winning atmosphere throughout your organization. That’s why the randomness of the lottery seems so out of place with the otherwise cut-and-dry blueprint for winning in the NBA. In other words: a team can do absolutely everything right; hire the right coach, put the best staff available around him, scout players damn near perfectly, but if those ping-pong balls don’t bounce your way there’s nothing you can do about it.
The Boston Celtics tanked the ’96-97′ season, it’s no secret. They saw Tim Duncan sitting there on their draft board and they understood he was the ticket to more championships in Bean Town, so they lost as many games as they could. Had the NBA had a system in place like the NFL, the Celtics would’ve gotten the top pick, gotten Duncan, and won a few more titles. The Spurs finished with the third worst record that year, yet as fate would have it, they ended up with the top pick and ultimately Duncan…Four championships in later (going on five?), the rest is history (the Celtics ended up drafting some kid out of Kansas named Paul Pierce).
The Draft Lottery is the only system in professional sports that takes a major decision for multiple franchises and leaves it entirely up to chance. Franchises have folded and moved, players have been traded, good coaches and GM’s have lost their jobs all because of the way a particular ball decides to bounce.
The Bobcats have a 25% chance at the top pick this season. For those of you who don’t know, the Bobcats are terrible. Quite possibly the worst basketball team ever assembled played in Charlotte last season (that’s not even an exaggeration). If they get the top pick, Anthony Davis, they’ll finally have a bonafide star to build around and the entire organization might actually get the shot in the arm it needs. One franchise has already tried and failed in Charlotte (see: Hornets). The Bobcat organization can’t afford another season like the last. The top pick would change the fortunes of everyone involved with the Bobcats while missing out on the pick would likely end with the inevitable relocation of the franchise…all because one damn ping-pong ball bounced the wrong way.
The Wizards have the second-best odds at securing the top pick with a 19.9% chance. The Wiz won the lottery only two years ago and drafted John Wall out of Kentucky. To think, as a Wizards fan, that they have a chance at getting the often dominant Davis out of Kentucky is exciting (although they’d be one step closer to becoming the Washington Wildcats, tying my beloved franchise to my least favorite college basketball coach for years to come). The Wizards are one of the youngest teams in the league, but they are far from devoid of talent. Getting Davis would fast track the Wizards rebuilding process, give Wall a running mate to go along with the young pieces that started putting it together last season, and ultimately revitalize the great basketball market that is the Washington D.C. metro area…but that ball has to bounce right.
It’s clear that the future of the NBA, in terms of how any front office should look to build their team, is the draft and player development. The Thunder are a prime example of how drafting wisely (‘reaching’ for Westbrook at No. 4), getting lucky (Durrant at No. 2 after Greg Oden), and developing talent to fit their scheme (Harden off the bench) can turn your team into a title contender in only a few seasons.
So, however pointless televising the lottery is, when you’re watching tonight and your favorite team wins, or doesn’t win, just remember it’s all random. If, by some miracle your team gets that pick, count your blessings, watch the Celtics-Heat game, and hope against hope that your team doesn’t fuck it all up.