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Up in the air

Lottery participants, competitive at core, try to find ways to beat fate

POSTED: May 17, 2016 11:36 PM ET

By Lang Whitaker

BY Lang Whitaker

NBA.com

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2016 Draft Lottery Drawing

Watch a replay of the 2016 NBA Draft Lottery Drawing.

— Numbers never lie, except for when they do. Such as in sports, where it happens all the time. A team wins the turnover battle but still loses the game. A shooter gets hot but his team can't secure the W.

Yet there is no place where cold hard math is more important than at the NBA Draft Lottery, where the performance of a dozen ping-pong balls in what looks like an underused popcorn machine can determine the future of a franchise.

There are two direct ways to have an effect on the NBA Draft Lottery: wins and losses. Rack up enough of either of those and watch your chances of snagging that No. 1 spot rise or fall.

Once the balls are in the hopper, under the watchful eyes of a couple of executives from Ernst & Young? That's when there's nothing left to rely on except math and probabilities.

But that doesn't stop NBA teams from trying.

As long as there's been a draft lottery, teams have tried everything and anything possible to get lucky. From Russell Westbrook's floral print shirt to the Timberwolves invoking French holy water, NBA teams have run the gamut hoping to create a ghost in the Draft Lottery machine, with varying results.

The NBA is a results-oriented business, and team executives and players are used to having some tangible effect on those results. The Draft Lottery allows for no such thing.

"The worst part is that it's out of your control," said Philadelphia 76ers CEO Scott O'Neil. "We're all Type-A crazy people. So for us to have something that was so far out of your control, and you just let the dice roll? It's very difficult."

For Tuesday's lottery, several participants carried things with them to try and tilt the odds. Minnesota's Karl-Anthony Towns brought the wedding band of late Wolves coach and president Flip Saunders, which Towns wore on a necklace. The Wolves didn't see their draft status change, however, staying in the fifth spot. Boston's Isaiah Thomas had marshmallows from a box of Lucky Charms. They may have been magically delicious, but they didn't have any affect on Boston's draft position, as the Celtics ended up remaining in the third pick.

Sacramento center Willie Cauley-Stein was on the podium as the Kings' representative, hoping to help them finish higher than eighth. Cauley-Stein did not bring any sort of good luck charm.

"I'm not superstitious," said Cauley-Stein, who seemed to embrace a pragmatic approach to the evening. "It's pretty standard as far as how it's going to go. There isn't anything you can really do about it. There's nothing I can do about it. It's going to happen, just ... whatever, you know?"

Devin Booker traveled to New York from Phoenix to represent the Suns, and he brought along 16-year-old Suns fan Jenna Warren, who has Down syndrome and has been through eight surgeries.

"She's been a big fan of this team this year, and helped me get through the long year that we had," said Booker. (Booker also admitted to indulging a superstition and putting his left shoe on first, although that is apparently nothing out of the ordinary for Booker: "I do that every day.")

Despite the ping-pong ball drawing being held several floors away from his actual location in the New York Hilton Midtown, Booker felt like his presence alone could somehow force a difference in the outcome.

"I always think I have a will to do something," Booker said. "I thought I was going to come out with the number one pick. But it came through all the way the way it was supposed to go. So, I'm fine with that. I feel like the 13th pick worked out well for last year and hopefully we can get a steal there again." (Booker himself was Phoenix's 13th pick last summer.)

Heading into the evening, the 76ers had the highest odds of winning the first overall pick, by virtue of their league-worst 10-72 record last season. For the Sixers, there was literally nowhere to go but down.

The Sixers' contingent was split on how to approach the ideas of luck and superstition. Coach Brett Brown represented the team on the dais, and according to Brown, these things weren't part of his plan.

"I brought my son with me," Brown said, "and I'm thrilled to share this experience with him, but the Browns don't roll like that. We're not a superstitious family, and we walked into the building like you all, and sat in a chair and took it, and wherever it went, it went."

Sixers owner Josh Harris echoed Brown's feelings.

"I think you make your own luck," Harris said. "I think the balls bounce where the balls bounce. There's nothing you can do about it other than be happy when you win."

Which doesn't mean the 76ers left things completely to chance. According to Harris, minority owner Art Wrubel, who represented the 76ers in the actual drawing room, brought "a lucky pink pig" with him. And at the opposite end of the spectrum from Brown and Harris was O'Neil.

"I'm superstitious. I believe in good luck charms," said O'Neil. "I brought a folded two-dollar bill, which is an old family tradition. I brought a silver heart from my wife. I brought a picture that my middle daughter gave me ..." O'Neil briefly displayed each of these items as he ticked through the list, removing them from various pockets.

"So are we a little insane for bringing good luck charms?" O'Neil asked. "Yes. But, what's the downside?"

For the Philadelphia 76ers, after a few seasons of dark clouds, with their choice of collegiate stars Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram ahead of them, that long-awaited silver lining may have finally arrived.

And right now in Philly, luck or no luck, it's all upside.

Lang Whitaker has covered the NBA since 1998. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

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