Follow the Bouncing Ball

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/GettyImages
by Joe Gabriele Managing Editor

One refreshing quality about new Cavaliers GM David Griffin is that he doesn’t mince words. So last week, when he was asked about the Wine and Gold’s return to the NBA Lottery, his candor was completely expected.

“Nobody wants to be a Lottery team,” Griff responded to a question about Cleveland’s return to said event this Tuesday night. “We'll know we're succeeding when we're winning and playing this time of year, and that's our attention.”

Griff will be behind the moves – including the selection of a new head coach – that will hopefully have the Cavaliers in the postseason one year from now. In the meantime, he’ll be in New York, representing the franchise as it tries to defy the odds again.

The Bucks finished this past season with the league’s worst record (15-67), so they’ll be assigned the first 250 combinations. The Suns were the best among all Lottery teams at 48-34, and they’ll have only five combinations out of 1,000.

The Cavaliers are slotted in the ninth position and they have a 1.7 percent chance of winning the Lottery for the second season in a row. The odds are against them, but – as they say – crazier things have happened.

Cleveland’s odds were only slightly better when they won the rights to the top pick in 2011, with the Clippers’ pick coming all the way up from No. 8. The Bulls were in the 9th slot when they won the Lottery in 2008 (eventually selecting Derek Rose with the pick). After landing Shaquille O’Neal with the top pick in 1992, the Magic – with just one chance out of 66, a 1.5 percent chance – secured the top pick for the second straight year in '93.

The Cavs went from the third spot to win it last May and New Orleans went from fourth to first the previous year. In fact, since the NBA went to the Lottery system in 1985, the team with the worst record has won it exactly three times (Orlando in 2004, Cleveland in 2003, and New Jersey, 1990).

Of course, like most franchises, Lady Luck has both smiled and scowled at the Cavaliers.

In 2011 and 2013, the Wine and Gold beat the odds, winning the rights to top picks, who turned out to be Kyrie Irving and Anthony Bennett, respectively. And Cleveland legitimately “leap-frogged” Denver to land LeBron James in 2003. Back in 1986, as part of a deal that sent Joe “Jellybean” Bryant to San Diego seven years earlier, the Sixers won the Lottery but traded the pick to Cleveland for Roy Hinson and cash considerations. That pick would eventually become five-time All-Star, Brad Daugherty.

The following season, however, Cleveland finished with the worst record in the league but wound up picking seventh (the final Lottery spot back in 1987). That year’s seventh-slotted team – San Antonio – wound up winning the Lottery and tabbed Hall of Famer David Robinson one month later. (The Cavs didn’t do too bad, landing the future Mayor of Sacramento in the Draft. But can you imagine what a frontline of Brad Daugherty and the Admiral would've looked like?)

The number of Lottery squads has doubled since then, and on Tuesday night, fourteen ping-pong balls numbered 1 through 14 will be placed in a drum. There are 1,001 possible combinations when four balls are drawn out of 14, without regard to their order of selection. Prior to the lottery, 1,000 of those 1,001 combinations will be assigned to the 14 participating lottery teams.

Four balls will be drawn to determine a four-digit combination and the team that has been assigned that combination will receive the number one pick. The four balls are placed back in the drum and the process is repeated to determine the number two and three picks.

The order of selection for the teams that do not win one of the top three picks will be determined by inverse order of their regular season record. Milwaukee can pick no lower than fourth, Philadelphia (19-63) no lower than fifth and Orlando (23-59) no lower than sixth.

The Lottery process has come a long way since it was initiated in 1985.

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.

In the pre-Lottery days, the order of selection was determined 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. (Portland, which lost by calling “heads” on the coin toss, got Kentucky’s Sam Bowie as a consolation prize. The Bulls’ consolation prize that June was a kid named Michael Jordan.)

Winning the top pick on Tuesday is the goal, but the Cavaliers have also added to the team’s core with other Lottery picks.

After winning the rights to Kyrie with the Clippers’ pick, the Cavaliers finished fourth with their own entry. That was still good enough to eventually land forward Tristan Thompson, who was selected to the All-Rookie Second Team after his first campaign, emerged as one of the top rebounders as a sophomore and finished his third season with a team-leading 36 double-doubles. Thompson hasn’t missed a single start in two seasons.

In 2012, the Wine and Gold went into the Lottery with a 13.8 percent chance of winning and again came out with the No. 4 overall pick. That player turned out to be Dion Waiters, who went on to be the top-scoring rookie in the East in his first season and the Conference’s top-scoring reserve as a sophomore.

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, while the team with the second-worst record has won it four times and the team with the third-worst mark racking up six wins since 1985 – including the Cavaliers taking it last year.

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

The Cavaliers have beaten the Lottery odds several times over the years and there’s no reason to think the Basketball Gods won’t be smiling on them again on this season. But no matter how well things turn out on Tuesday night in New York, David Griffin hopes that his first time representing the Wine and Gold is also his last.