There's always a playoff game after the NBA Draft Lottery, and said game is almost always overshadowed by the bounce of the balls in the hopper. This is entirely appropriate considering the stakes. In Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals, either the Cavaliers will do what is expected of them or the Raptors will stun Cleveland into panic. Whichever the case, a Game 2 on Thursday and a Game 3 on Saturday will further refine the story that comes out of the series. Teams lose Game 1 and come back to win the series all the time. (This postseason, the Raptors do it all the time!)
Meanwhile, what happens backstage at the lottery will reverberate around the league for the next 7-9 years and perhaps beyond.
Whichever teams win the top two picks will bring Ben Simmons or Brandon Ingram to their cities, if all goes according to plan in the final month leading up to the draft. Neither is considered a Karl-Anthony Towns level franchise-maker, but one is preternatural passer at 6'10 and the other is a Durantian spool of fine silk. These dudes have a high likelihood of being real damn good in the NBA. The teams that win their rights will be determined by the same contraption that determines who wins Powerball.
The odds are indeed skewed in favor of the NBA's worst. The Sixers and Lakers have the best chances of nabbing Simmons and Ingram, though there's also a reasonably high likelihood neither stays in the top two. Philadelphia knows that all too well: The Sixers have been spurned by the Basketball Gods repeatedly in the lottery, missing chances to draft Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Towns in the past two years. You could argue GM Sam Hinkie lost his power and by extension his job in Philly because these mischievous ping-pong balls didn't bounce his way.
How very ironic would it be if the Sixers finally won the derby this year with a pick earned by virtue of Hinkie purposefully building the worst team in the NBA?
In fact, how ironic would it be if the Sixers didn't win, but still ended up with the Nos. 1 and 4 picks thanks to Hinkie! That could happen. Hinkie negotiated a pick-swap option with the Kings last July as a part of a salary cap dump. Hinkie also traded Michael Carter-Williams for a protected Lakers pick at the 2015 deadline. The Sixers could fall to No. 3 in the lottery drawing but still end up with No. 1 if Sacramento wins it all (of which there's a 2.8 percent chance) and grab No. 4 if the Lakers slide out due to two teams jumping into the top three. Hinkie really rigged this day to be of maximal favor to the Sixers. It'd be only fitting for it to come to fruition after his exile.
What of the Lakers, who stand to add a foundational talent or stand to get shut out of the first round of the June draft completely? There's essentially no middle ground: There's a 39 percent probability the Lakers get into the top-two and a 44 percent probability the Lakers lose their pick. In the middle there are substantial odds L.A. gets pick No. 3, which -- due to the shallowness of the draft pool -- could be trade bait.
Why? Because there's a huge disincentive to be bad in the future if L.A. keeps its pick. Why? Because in 2018, if it hasn't been transferred, the pick owed to the Sixers becomes fully unprotected. In that case, consecutive losing seasons would be especially painful with no pot of gold waiting at the end.
Other teams come into Tuesday will lower downside stakes. It's all hope for the Timberwolves, who would love to add a third star-potential piece to their roster. The Pelicans have a shot at striking lightning as they did in 2012 with Anthony Davis. The Celtics are playing with house money: They are on the rise with a trunk full of assets and players, and they have the Nets' pick in hand. After the Sixers and Lakers, it's the Celtics, who have made two straight postseasons with a young roster, who have the best odds at nabbing Nos. 1 or 2.
The Suns have a good shot and a good base, too. The Nuggets basically have two shots at the top-two: their own small chance and that of the Knicks. And the Knicks' pick belongs to the Raptors in any case -- more house money -- though Denver has a pick-swap option on it. The likelihood of Toronto winning a top-three pick and then winning Game 1 is mighty low because of the swap option. But as with Boston, this is house money, a fortune bestowed by smart moves negotiated in the past.
In these cases -- Philly, Boston and Toronto -- the lottery is where those deals come to roost. The Raptors' Tuesday opponent, Cleveland, knows all about that. Back in 2011 the Cavaliers had traded Mo Williams for Baron Davis' tough contract at the deadline. The price was the Clippers' unprotected first-rounder. The Cavaliers had the best chance at winning the No. 1 pick -- Kyrie Irving, by consensus -- but ended up claiming it when the Clippers won the lottery. Cleveland actually slipped to fourth with its own pick, a worst-case scenario.
Imagine the Clippers hadn't made that trade on that February day in 2011. Cleveland would have come away from 2011 only with Tristan Thompson. L.A. would have had Kyrie Irving to pair with Blake Griffin, which prevents the Chris Paul trade months later. Perhaps that results in CP3 actually getting to the Lakers. Perhaps that prevents the Lakers' disastrous Steve Nash trade, and keeps the Sixers from having such a beautiful outlook going into Tuesday night.
Some ping-pong balls are going to bounce around a see-through globe for a moment, and what happens next will have major impacts on the course of the NBA for years to come. Minutes later, two teams of super athletes will battle until they are bruised and maybe broken just to get one quarter of the way to the next series, where they'll do it all over again. High-level sports are phenomenally bizarre.
But perhaps no day in the NBA season is more appropriately absurd than this one.
Editor's Note: This piece originally suggested the Lakers pick would go to the 76ers completely unprotected in 2017 if they keep it this year. It actually is still top-3 protected in 2017 and would only become completely unprotected in 2018. We regret the error.
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