Back in April, the NBA's most famous commentator (Charles Barkley) said he was "leery" that the league would rig the NBA Lottery to give the Brooklyn Nets the first pick. Back then I responded, saying, "First of all, the obvious: Between protecting the NBA's interests in New Olreans and validating his trade veto in December, the Hornets are definitely the leading candidates to benefit from a David Stern conspiracy."
And... sure enough!
The Hornets won the lottery Wednesday night, Anthony Davis gives them the perfect superstar to keep New Orleans relevant on the NBA landscape, and David Stern's trade veto looks wiser than ever. The lottery's the best, isn't it? It almost definitely wasn't fixed, but still. It's the joke that keeps getting funnier. The legend that grows every year. You can't even be mad.
Believe me, I tried. I'm a Wizards fan, and the lottery's been the biggest day of our year for what feels like forever. Take 2009, the year the Wizards had the second best odds in the draft, and somehow wound up with the fifth pick. Instead of Blake Griffin, they got... Well, they traded the fifth pick instead of taking Ricky Rubio. That's probably part of why the Wizards found themselves at the top of the lottery again this year. But yeah. For any lottery team, the difference between a franchise superstar and a complete waste of a pick comes down to five minutes of suspense on ESPN in May.
No team proves this better than the Spurs--they're the best team on the planet right now, and also the team that's inspired pundits to fall all over themselves praising them for building "the right way." All the building was only possible because they got lucky and won the lottery the year Tim Duncan came out of Wake Forest. If the foundation of San Antonio's four titles is bigger than just one person, then Tim Duncan's at least the keystone that held it together. "The right way" needed a lot of luck.
On the other hand, the Celtics had the best chance at the no. 1 that year, lost out to San Antonio, and spent the next decade hovering around the middle of the pack. As it turns out, there's a big difference between Tim Duncan and Chauncey Billups.
It's an extreme example, but as a veteran of the proceedings (thanks, Wizards!) that's how the lottery feels every year. You have one or two guys who could change everything and make you a contender for the next 15 years, or you get screwed because the league is rigged and oh my God we're gonna be mediocre forever. Even when there's no clear superstar, we trick ourselves into looking at the lottery like an all-in game of roulette.
This year's delusion was more convincing than most. With ping pong balls bouncing in some back room somewhere, you knew Anthony Davis was sitting there, the most impressive prospect since Kevin Durant or maybe even LeBron, just waiting to become the linchpin to some team's decade of good fortune. I mean you never really KNOW, but we knew as much as you ever can.
One superstar can change everything in basketball, and with the NBA more top-heavy than ever, Anthony Davis was the guy who could tip the scales for any of these teams:
The Nets. If they'd won, they'd have traded the pick to Orlando for Dwight Howard, brought back Deron Williams and Gerald Wallace, and opened the Barclays Center in Brooklyn with an instant title contender. Instead they fell to no. 6, lost their top-3 protected lottery pick, lose Deron Williams, lose Dwight Howard, and open the Barclays Center with a team that could be as bad as this year's Bobcats. Speaking of which...
The Bobcats. If they'd won, all this year's losing was worth it. The team that's bounced between mediocre and horrible would suddenly have endless cap space and the brightest future in the league. They'd have time, too, since fans would be willing to wait on Anthony Davis for a few years. Instead, they pick second, and have to choose someone who can help immediately, because if they don't get better soon, they could straight up lose the franchise. Speaking of which ...
The Kings. With DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, and Tyreke Evans, the Kings would have had the best young core in the league. Fans would come out in droves, and the Kings would have new life in Sacramento. Instead, they're looking at Harrison Barnes, and the future in Sacramento is as uncertain today as it's ever been. The Maloof's have been holding the fans hostage for two years now, but Anthony Davis was their get-out-of-jail free card.
The Cavs. Can you imagine a duo more exciting than Kyrie Irving and Anthony Davis?
The Wizards. Oh, right. This would be a more exciting one-two punch. John Wall and Anthony Davis would have been the most athletic pairing since Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp, but better on defense. The Wizards would instantly become one of the two or three most exciting teams in basketball. Instead, they're sitting at no. 3 sifting through projects, looking at one more year of being the Wizards. It sucks.
There's consolation, obviously. Bradley Beal could turn into the next Dwyane Wade, maybe. Andre Drummond could be the next Amare Stoudemire. John Henson could be Lamarcus Aldridge 2.0. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist could be a bigger Gerald Wallace. But Anthony Davis' best-case scenario is Anthony Davis, the alien spawn of Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan, two Hall of Famers who've spent the last 15 years making All-Star teams and anchoring playoff teams.
The difference between other prospects and Davis is the difference between cautious optimism and something like certainty. It's the difference between waking up Friday knowing that your favorite team's going to be good soon, and hoping they might get there eventually.
There's no other time of year when six or seven fanbases sit around waiting for a make-or-break moment, everything on the line. You may prefer the playoffs, but the lottery's as big an event as anything the NBA has. So as it all unfolded last night and the Wizards fell in the top three, I sat on my couch in dead silence, knowing that I was either going to be jumping around my living room in the next five minutes, or just sitting there, wishing I'd never imagined the possibility of jumping around my living room. It makes no sense to anyone who doesn't love the NBA.
There was no living room jumping, obviously. There's no surefire contender for the next 10 years in D.C. The fix was in all along, maybe. But even with Davis, the Hornets are still sort of in no-man's land.
That's why I was so bummed about the NBA Lottery. Next to Wall, or Kyrie, or even all by himself with Rich Cho building around him in Charlotte, watching Anthony Davis would have been so much fun. Putting him in New Orleans, where they'll try to put he and Eric Gordon together to form a contender's foundation... It feels like KG just got sent to Minnesota again. It would've been more fun in D.C. or Cleveland.
But as far as the lottery maybe being fixed, I can't be mad. Even when it's convincing, the lottery's still just a way for crappy teams to trick themselves into celebrating. That's how it must look to outsiders, right? Wizards fans should know better than anyone else--John Wall was as much a sure thing as a point guard as Davis is as a power forward, but he's spent the past two years looking more like a stronger Mike Conley than the faster Derrick Rose we expected all along. You never know.
Best case scenario, the team that wins Tim Duncan still has to get lucky gambling on Manu and Tony Parker, the same way the Thunder got lucky with Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka. Every step of the way, we have no control. Just hope, and maybe some foolish certainty.
It's basically about luck, and when you lose, you get to feel cursed, try to find a little room for optimism, and then spend the rest of the night concocting conspiracy theories. Even when you win, it's just a ploy to hook you into caring even more about something you can't control. The NBA lottery is every sports fan's experience distilled into one half hour.
After Wednesday, there were anonymous league executives openly alleging a conspiracy, Charles Barkley was probably as "leery" as ever, and my worst fears were confirmed, maybe.
But whatever. If David Stern's pulling the strings from some dark office carved into the side of an invisible mountain somewhere, I don't really care. Anyone who's disgusted by the possibility that the NBA would play favorites probably never liked pro basketball in the first place, because none of this is new. To that point... Anyone who says the league definitely didn't fix the lottery need look no further than the Chris Paul trade to see how audacious the NBA can be.
That's part of the fun though, isn't it? The more ridiculous the NBA gets, the better the conspiracy theories, and the more the myth grows. Like Chuck Klosterman once wrote, the NBA is like life. We have no control here, but at least as NBA fans we can commiserate about how little control we have, and make jokes about how badly we all got screwed. I think we like it that way.
Whether it's random ping pong balls deciding things or Adam Silver and the illuminati shaping the future from a dark office carved into an invisible mountain. With David Stern's league, you never really know.
All I know for sure is I spent 12 hours yesterday looking forward to a 30-minute procedural on ESPN where the climax was Adam Silver reading a note card. If the NBA's fixed, clearly, I love this shit regardless.