Lottery Oddities

May 23, 2012
by Joe Gabriele Managing Editor

Cavs fans don’t need any convincing that just about anything can happen in the NBA Lottery.

The Cavaliers have won the Lottery when they were supposed to, won it when they weren’t supposed to and they’ve benefitted big from Clippers wheelings and dealings in two different generations.

One of those occasions was just one year ago, when the Wine and Gold – in the person of 14-year-old Nick Gilbert – dramatically defied the odds and won the No. 1 overall pick with the Clippers’ entry, one that had a mere 2.8 percent chance to succeed.

Of course, Cleveland spent that top selection on guard Kyrie Irving, who was easily the NBA’s top rookie. Irving was in Secaucus that night, and he’ll be in Times Square this year when the Cavs try to become just the second team in league history to win the top pick in back-to-back seasons.

Last year, with their own selection, the Cavaliers had a 19.9 percent chance of winning and finished fourth. (Still good enough to eventually land forward Tristan Thompson, who was recently selected to the All-Rookie Second Team.) This year, the Cavs head into Wednesday’s festivities with a 13.8 percent chance of landing the No. 1.

As big an upset as last year’s result was, it’s still third on the list of Lottery shockers.

In 1992, Orlando parlayed the league’s second-worst record (21-61) into a center from LSU named Shaquille O’Neal. The Young Aristotle led the Magic to a 20-win jump in his first season, barely missing the postseason and sporting a .500 record. Missing the playoffs paid off in spades as Orlando – with just one chance out of 66, a 1.5 percent chance – secured the top pick the very next year.

(The Magic used that selection on Michigan forward Chris Webber, but traded him immediately to the Warriors for the draft rights to the No. 3 pick, Memphis guard Penny Hardaway and three future picks.)

The second largest upset came a decade-and-a-half later, when the Chicago Bulls won the top pick in 2008 – used to select Derek Rose – with just a 1.8 percent chance.

(The team that went in odds-on and won it anyway was Philadelphia, which went into the 1996 Lottery with an all-time high 33.73 percent, won it and eventually selected Georgetown guard, Allen Iverson.)

The lottery system – with some tweaks, both minor and major, over the years – has been in place since 1985. That year featured what’s still the most controversial moment in Lottery history: the infamous “frozen envelope” conspiracy theory that landed Patrick Ewing in New York.

One year later, the Clippers won the rights to the top pick in the Draft. But a deal with the Sixers back in 1979 – one that sent Joe “Jellybean” Bryant to San Diego – gave Philly the top pick in 1986. The 76ers, of course, traded that pick to Cleveland for Roy Hinson and cash considerations. And that pick would eventually became five-time All-Star, Brad Daugherty.

Even in its inception period, the Lottery was a necessary tool for the NBA.

In the early days, teams would simply draft until they ran out of prospects. The 1961 Draft, for example, went 21 rounds. It was shortened to ten rounds from 1974-84, to seven rounds from 1985-89 and two rounds from that point forward.

The order of selection was determined scientifically – with a coin toss between the worst team in each division determining who’d draft first. The team that lost the toss was awarded second pick, and all other teams selected by inverse order according to record. The last team to win No. 1 pick via the coin toss was the Houston Rockets, who took future Hall of Famer, Hakeem Olajuwon.

In 1990, the drawing was amended to where only the bottom three teams were determined by the Lottery. Once top three were picked, the rest of the teams would select in inverse order based on won-loss record.

This year, the Bobcats (250 chances out of 1,000) and Wizards (199) have the best shot at claiming the top prize. But as the Cavaliers, among other teams, have shown, there’s no guarantee it’ll work out that way.

Since the “weighted” system began, 16 of the NBA’s 30 teams have won the Lottery. Only three teams with the worst record have gone on to win the top pick – (the Nets in 1990, Cavs in 2003 and Magic in 2004) – while the team with the second-worst record has won it four times. Cavs fans will be pleased that the team with the third-best record historically has the best shot, racking up five wins since 1985.

There’s also no guarantee that the top player selected will pan out. Since the 1990 Draft, seven players drafted No. 1 overall have failed to make a single All-Star Game, including Joe Smith (1995), Michael Olowokandi (1998), Kwame Brown (2001), Andrew Bogut (2005), Andrea Bargnani (2006), Greg Oden (2007) and John Wall (2010).

The Clippers have won the Lottery five times – although they conceded that pick twice. (Both, eventually, to the Cavs). Orlando is second with three wins and the Cavaliers, Bucks and Bulls have won twice each.

On Wednesday, the league will break recent tradition and hold the Lottery in New York City for the first time since 1993 – just the ninth time in the event’s 28-year history that it’ll be held outside of the Garden State.

The Cavaliers contingent – led, of course, by young Nick Gilbert – will be in the Big Apple.

As we’ve seen, strange things can happen when the ping-pong balls start swirling around the hopper. The Cavaliers have won with worse odds, and they’re in the luckiest slot among the top three teams.

There won’t be any frozen envelopes or coin tosses. It comes down to sheer chance on Wednesday night in Manhattan. The only question is whether the Basketball Gods will smile on the Wine and Gold for the second straight season.