Denton: Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Draft Lottery
By John Denton
May 17, 2013
ORLANDO – My incredibly good fortune as a sports writer over the past 21 years has allowed me the privilege of covering four Super Bowls, three NBA Finals, eight NBA All-Star Games, Mark McGwire’s 62nd home run in 1998 and the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia.
And still one of the coolest sporting events I’ve ever been able to cover actually had very little of a sports feel to it at all.
It was 2004, and I was chosen to be one of the media members to analyze the NBA Draft Lottery, which was held previously in Secaucus, New Jersey. Not the slick, made-for-TV Hollywood version that fans watch at home; I got to see the gritty, behind-the-scenes lottery selection unfold in real time.
This was the equivalent of going into the belly of the beast, pulling back the curtain on a magic show or being in on a dirty, little secret that you can’t tell anyone about for 2 hours. Everything I thought I knew about the lottery process was blown out of the water by watching the actual procession behind the scenes.
This year’s NBA Draft Lottery will be held on Tuesday at the Times Square Studios in Manhattan. Much like in 2004, the Magic will be front and center in the lottery process as they head to New York City with the best odds at winning the No. 1 pick for the June 27 NBA Draft. Remarkably, the Magic were the last team with the best odds to win the top pick, meaning the lottery process has defied the statistical odds for eight consecutive years.
The Magic – and Senior Vice President Pat Williams – have become something of legends at the NBA Draft Lottery. Williams, who first won a lottery in 1986 while working for the Philadelphia 76ers in 1986, was on center stage when the Magic landed the top spot in 1992, a historic victory because it allowed the franchise to draft Shaquille O’Neal.
Even more remarkably, Williams and the Magic went back to New York City a year later with just a 1.5 percent chance (66 to 1) at the top spot and won again. Williams still talks about the disgust that NBA Commissioner David Stern had for him when he greeted him after the Magic became the first team in NBA history to win consecutive lotteries.
There were other small-percentage misses in the years to come, but the Magic closed the deal again in 2004. Armed with a 25 percent shot at the top pick, Orlando won the lottery and won the rights to draft a teen-aged Dwight Howard.
Fortunately for me, I was there to see the lottery process that year. On the surface, the process just involves a group of stuffy NBA and team executives sequestered in a room and watching a bunch of ping pong balls being drawn. But because of what’s at stake for these teams involved, the intensity of the moment is quite gripping and proved to be drama as good as any movie I’ve seen in recent years. As we’ve seen through the years, the difference between getting to draft Dwight Howard and Emeka Okafor is like getting a prime cut New York Strip steak instead of a spam sandwich.
First off, the actual lottery process takes place in a mundane room deep in the bowels of the NBA headquarters. And because the actual lottery takes place 90 minutes earlier in the night, team’ fates are sealed prior to the version that viewers see on television later in the night. Only the participants in the room are sequestered until the TV show is complete, unable to use cell phones, internet, Twitter, Facebook, smoke signals or anything at all, really.
And this process of selecting the draft order is nothing at all like the old footage from 1985 where Stern is pulling envelopes out of a large, hamster wheel contraption. No, the Magic’s consecutive wins in ’92 and ’93 played a big role in the NBA dramatically adjusting the format to make it more difficult for long-shot teams to win the lottery.
Now, teams are assigned four-digit codes based on their rankings in the standings. The worst record gets 250 of a possible 1,000 combinations, giving them a 25 percent chance of winning. The percentages dwindle based on a team’s record in the previous season. The lottery process decides the top three picks and the rest fall in place based on their record, meaning Orlando can fall no lower than fourth in this draft lottery.
In 2004, four media outlets were allowed to watch the draft proceedings – Brian Schmitz from the Orlando Sentinel, myself and writers from the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune. Scott Herring, the Magic’s former Director of Basketball Administration, represented the team in the lottery procession that night, while Pat Williams was on the stage for the TV show.
The tension in the room as the lottery balls were being selected was especially high. I remember talking to a couple of scouts and GMs in the lottery room about this Howard kid from Atlanta, and they were all saying he was a can’t-miss prospect. Everyone in the room was hoping to win the top spot to pick Howard, especially a Magic squad that had just endured a 21-61 season, a 19-game losing streak and the firing of then head coach Doc Rivers and former GM John Gabriel.
As the final number of the first combination was announced, Herring pumped his fist and yelled out, `Yeah, we earned it.’ Later, Herring went on to say: ``I didn’t bring any lucky charms; I brought 61 Ls.’’
It was excruciating knowing that the Magic had just captured a huge victory and won the top pick and not being able to tell anyone at all. Security personnel seize cell phones and communication devices before heading into the room, so we had to wait 90 minutes before breaking the news of the No. 1 pick to Magic fans. It goes against your every instinct as a journalist, but it was well worth it to see all of the lotto drama play out.
Remarkably, the intrigue didn’t stop there in the draft room even after Orlando had snagged the first pick. The Magic were so dialed in and have become such experts at this lottery process that their combination actually came up a second time when the No. 2 pick was being hashed out. Even though it would be disqualified, the representatives from the other 13 NBA teams in the room weren’t very amused by the luck of the Magic. But to this day, I still remember the Magic’s delight and other teams being dumbfounded by what had just unfolded.
The Clippers, winners of five NBA Draft Lotteries, eventually won the No. 2 spot, while the Chicago Bulls and expansion Charlotte Bobcats got Nos. 3 and 4. The Bobcats would eventually trade up to No. 2 so that they could select the highly disappointing Okafor.
Howard’s time in Orlando soured after eight seasons, but winning the rights to him in 2004 unquestionably changed the direction of the Magic’s franchise in a dramatic way. He helped Orlando win a playoff series in 2008 – its first postseason victory in 12 years. He got the team to the NBA Finals in 2009, to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2010 and to the playoffs six straight years. That can never be overlooked – even with how messy Howard’s divorce was from the franchise last summer.
There is no definitive top pick in this June’s draft. It was considered a weak draft class even before University of Kentucky center Nerlens Noel shredded his ACL in March. He proclaimed this week that his knee was ``ahead of schedule,’’ but there’s plenty of poking and prodding to be done before Noel is cleared medically. And with the uncertainty at the top, guards and forwards such as Ben McLemore, Trey Burke, Otto Porter and Victor Oladipo vying to be the top pick in the draft.
Still, all 14 teams at Tuesday’s NBA Draft Lottery will be hoping to win the top spot, including a Magic franchise that has just had a knack for winning these things through the years. It would be a nice shot-in-the-arm boost for a Magic fanbase that stuck by the team throughout the 2012-13 transition season. Orlando will be well-represented at the lottery with CEO Alex Martins, GM Rob Hennigan, head coach Jacque Vaughn and Williams expected to be in attendance.
And if all goes as planned, I’ll be back in the lottery room again on Tuesday watching the actual lottery process unfold. That way I will be able to give you a blow-by-blow recount of the drama that goes down in the actual lotto process. And here’s to hoping that Orlando can once again work its lottery luck and come back home with the No. 1 pick. That hasn’t happened for the team with the best odds since 2004, but if anybody can pull it off it’s a seemingly charmed Magic franchise.
Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by John Denton are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Magic and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.
Follow John Denton on Twitter here