When you think about it, the NBA Draft Lottery is a lot like the entire NBA draft process. It's a complete and utter crapshoot, and you should never let anyone tell you differently.
"Oh, but look! There are probabilities governing the whole process!"
No. It's beyond any statistics or probabilities. There are larger forces at work, and they make no sense. Since the lottery's inception, the team with the worst record in the NBA (and best lottery odds) has won the top pick just four times. FOUR! Out of 25 years!
So which number do you trust going into tonight's NBA Draft lottery: the one that gives the New Jersey Nets a 25 percent chance at the No. 1 pick (New Jersey's actual odds), or the historical odds, which has the worst team in the league winning just 16 percent of the time? With this stuff, you just never know.
And that's why the lottery is such a perfect analog for the draft process, in general.
Tonight, teams are at the whims of a mystifying NBA lottery process, and a month later, they'll be at the whims of scouting process that's really not that different. In either case, teams only have so much control over their future. Lottery odds give us some sort of idea what the top five will look like, the same way we have a good idea which players should become superstars, but there's still an very real element of mystery to all this.
Even if you land a top 3 pick and take the right guy, how do you predict something like Jay Williams' motorcycle crash?
In the end, it's all the same confusing, hilarious, and sometimes tragic game. Governed by lucky charms and sentimental "lottery representatives" tonight, and next month, by general managers and scouting "experts" who really have no idea what's going to happen when an NBA team hands DeMarcus Cousins more than $6 million guaranteed. Control and logic is an illusion here.
Anyway, as I try to look at the lottery objectively, it's something to keep in mind as tonight's events unfold. Take it seriously, but not that seriously. This quote from late Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin has been running through my head all morning:
"Calls have been coming in from my brother and friends. We all had our fingers crossed. I think it's a sign. With Doug Collins as our new coach, and the No. 1 draft choice, maybe it's a sign that finally our luck has turned around and we're going to do well, be competitive for our fans."
That came after the Wizards won the NBA Lottery in 2001. And who did they wind up with? Kwame Brown. Not a lot of luck turned around with that one. The examples are endless of teams that supposedly "hit the jackpot!" only to get stuck paying a bunch of money to a top pick who never lived up to the hype.
Imagine how the Toronto Raptors felt in 2006, choosing between LaMarcus Aldridge, Andrea Bargnani, and Adam Morrison at the top of the draft. Geesh. These days, even thinking about drafting Morrison No.1 might give you tetanus or something. But back then, he was a legitimate Top 5 NBA Draft prospect. Sometimes, it's better to be the Boston Celtics, who had everything lined up for Kevin Durant in 2007, struck out at the lottery, and instead wound up with two future Hall of Fame players and the 2008 NBA championship.
But hey, it's no fun to point out the problems with the NBA Lottery. Who am I kidding? As a Wizards fan, I've been looking forward to the NBA Lottery since December. For a handful of the NBA's truly horrific franchises, it's all we've got. The hope that something—anything—positive might be on the horizon.
With that, let's get into a few stray thoughts on tonight's Lottery:
SAVING UTAH (AND JAMARCUS) I don't mean to pick on Cousins as the textbook "red flag" prospect, but between his fouling, his temper, his reported mood disorders, potential weight issues ... there's a lot to wonder about with the guy I coined Basketball JaMarcus a while back. Could he turn into an NBA superstar? Maybe, but it'll take the right people to make it work.
Enter the Utah Jazz and Jerry Sloan. He's really the perfect person to coach DeMarcus Cousins, and for the Utah Jazz, Cousins is the perfect player. Add a competent Cousins to the mix, and there's a good chance that the Jazz are contending for titles within three years. Suddenly, size isn't a weakness, Deron Williams has a legitimate low-post option, and Utah can match up with teams like the Lakers.
As for the Cousins-Sloan side of the equation, Jerry Sloan is exactly the sort of joyless hard-ass that could squeeze the best out of Cousins. Put him on a team like Washington and Philadelphia, and suddenly Cousins is The Man, and he'll act accordingly, enjoying all the fruits of his newfound fame and fortune. In Utah, Sloan's The Man, and any way you cut it, the fruits of fame and fortune ain't that spectacular.
It'd be a dream scenario for Utah, and for Basketball JaMarcus, it could be his saving grace. So there's a lot on the line tonight for Utah. Because of cap constraints and the vacuum of Utah nightlife, they're not attracting many big names to Utah via free agency. So how do they hold onto Deron Williams now that he's staked claim to point guard supremacy? DeMarcus Cousins would be an awesome start.
THE REST OF THE FIELD So here's how the NBA Lottery works, in case you haven't heard 1,000 other variations of this explanation. The 14 teams that miss the NBA playoffs every year are ranked in reverse order based on their record, and assigned probabalitity relative to each slot. Here's what this year's numbers looks like:
- New Jersey Nets 25.0% chance
- Minnesota Timberwolves 19.9% chance
- Sacramento Kings, 15.6% chance
- Golden State Warriors, 10.4% chance
- Washington Wizards, 10.3% chance
- Philadelphia 76ers, 5.3% chance
- Detroit Pistons, 5.2% chance
- L.A. Clippers, 2.3% chance
- Utah Jazz, 2.2% chance
- Indiana Pacers, 1.1% chance
- New Orleans Hornets, 0.8% chance
- Memphis Grizzlies, 0.7% chance
- Toronto Raptors, 0.6% chance
- Houston Rockets, 0.5% chance
Those are just the percentages for the top pick, of course. The Nets have 21% chance at the second pick, if they miss out on John Wall, and so on and so on. What would be the most amusing scenario in all this? Imagine David Kahn and the Minnesota Timberwolves getting the top pick.
PLEASE LET DAVID KAHN—GENIUS—WIN THE LOTTERY. Would it be possible for Kahn, having drafted two point guards in the 2009 draft—seemingly the only two rookie point guards that weren't spectacular last year—to go ahead and draft another in 2010? If the T'Wolves get the top pick, we'll find out!
Will he take Wall? Will he trade the pick? Master Kahn will dazzle us all over again with his elaborate bluffs and grizzled negotiating skills, the way he did with Ricky Rubi... Oh, wait.
Whatever happens tonight, just know that there's exactly 19.9% it could end in professional crisis for David Kahn in Minnesota. If Minnesota wins the lottery, suddenly, his seat gets very, very hot. The safe, easy play in this scenario would be to draft John Wall, giving yourself leverage in talks with Ricky Rubio, and a potential rookie of the year next season. But does David Kahn like to play it safe?
HELL NO. Look at that wry little grin. This is a man who's
clearly overcompensating for insecurity ready to run laps around his peers and turn Ricky Rubio and the Timerwolves into NBA elite. "Safe" and "easy"? HA! Maybe for a p—sy like Presti.
THE SOON-TO-BE BROOKLYN NETS The truth is, while the Nets have the best chance at John Wall, whoever they land will probably be an attractive piece of the LeBron puzzle for them. And no matter who they land, Mikhail Prokhorov and Brooklyn will still be the biggest selling points for LeBron this summer. You're going to hear a bunch of people saying that LeBron-to-Brooklyn hinges on what goes down tonight, but ultimately, John Wall's not that amazing. As long as New Jersey lands one of the top 3 picks, they'll have a building block to sell LeBron.
Put it this way: While Mikhail Prokhorov is flying LeBron around to islands you've never heard of, feeding him a buffet of food you're too poor to know about, surrounded by women more perfect than you've ever imagined, LeBron won't be too concerned whether the Nets have John Wall or Evan Turner or Derrick Favors. And if LeBron is skeptical...
"Tell me, Misterrr King James. Have you ever seen an AK-47?"
THE WASHINGTON WIZARDS AND FOOD POISONING As I said earlier, I've been waiting for this night since December. Once it became clear the Wizards were going to miss the playoffs—and a few weeks before the season descended into full-on, unprecedented levels of anarchy—the NBA Draft Lottery was all Wizards fans could look forward to with any real hope.
And sure, the track record for the Wizards in the lottery is one of magnificent failure. Dan Steinberg covered this yesterday:
The franchise has sent John Nash, Irene Pollin, Tom Gugliotta, Chris Webber, Susan O'Malley, Rod Higgins, Juan Dixon, Ernie Grunfeld and Flip Saunders to the NBA set in New Jersey, and it's never worked. They've had their mascot walk all the way to Secaucus in a PR stunt. They've brought the horseshoe of the Kentucky Derby winner.
One employee wore a lucky suit on lottery day. Two carried rabbit's feet. A fourth said he wore lucky underwear. A fifth carried a lucky penny. A sixth carried a lucky coin. A seventh wore a dragon's claw and something called "a ying-yang," The Post reported.
Susan O'Malley once led a cheer of "Lucky!" among team employees. (Really.) She also once packed three duffel bags full of lucky charms to bring to the lottery site, including a speeding ticket and a pen. That year, a Brooks Robinson home run bat wasn't allowed on board her plane, while four horseshoes from the Preakness winner never arrived.
And none of it's worked.
Whatever we do, it's never enough. Last year, the Wizards had a legitimate shot at the number one pick and Blake Griffin, but instead slid to fifth overall, the worst outcome of any team in the lottery. But this year's going to be different. Not only have the Wizards suffered more indignity than just about any franchise in sports (owner passed away, superstar disgraced himself, two stars traded for nothing, one of the worst teams in the NBA, Andray Blatche's failed triple double attempts), but... It just has to happen. Let me explain.
For the past six days, I've been unable to eat solid food, thanks to some sort of food poisoning that landed me in the hospital this past weekend. And really, even as a Wizards fan, you don't know true misery until you're forced to lay in a hospital bed for 72 hours. It began innocently enough, with a trip to the emergency room Thursday night to see if I had appendicitis. But then, the cat scan showed something far worse.
According to the doctors on call, my large intestine had collapsed on itself, and, so they said, "We'll need to do surgery tomorrow morning." Uhh... What? Just like that, they were checking me into a hospital for the first time in a decade, with no idea what's going on with my intestines, while I was facing the first surgery of my life.
All in all, that's about as terrifying as it gets, not to mention the pain from my intestines made more or less impossible to sleep more than 30 minutes-at-a-time. So I waited. All night, imagining what terrible thing was going to happen next. Like I said, misery.
The following morning, the doctors realized they'd made a mistake, and my intestines weren't dying, after all, and there was no surgery necessary. I'll spare the details of the rest of my stay, but the diagnostics they used to make this diagnosis were as miserable as you can imagine, and generally, it was probably one the worst weekends of my life.
The official diagnosis is that I was exposed to some nasty bacteria, and they decided to treat it by putting me on a trio of antibiotics that have proven to be their own kind of curse. Today, I'm still eating mostly yogurt and apple sauce, although I've moved onto chicken, which is a small victory. But here's my point...
After all that, something good has to happen, right? Unlucky things happen to people every day, but the only silver lining is that, generally, good karma follows.
The Washington Wizards didn't do anything to deserve the calamity that enveloped their franchise this year, no more than I deserved to be hooked up to an IV machine for three days, sharing a room with deaf 90-year-old who shouted at all the nurses, had a hacking smoker's cough all night, and watched Jay Leno on full blast Friday night (by far the worst part of the process). Sometimes, though, those things happen.
...And good things follow.
This column was slated for Monday afternoon and supposed to cover a whole different angle of the lottery, but sometimes things happen. Now it's Tuesday afternoon, and in 5 hours, some team's going to land the number one pick and a chance to draft John Wall, a player so perfectly tailored to the modern-day NBA, it's almost unfair.
The Washington Wizards were figuratively poisoned by horrible decision-making and bad luck, and I was poisoned literally by some bad lettuce. Now, it's time for something good to happen.