Commentary

The first lottery draft still rates the best

Page 2 looks back at the best and worst of the lottery era

Updated: June 29, 2009, 2:20 PM ET
By David Schoenfield | Page 2

The first NBA draft lottery took place in 1985, with the seven non-playoff teams participating. The big prize in that year's draft: Georgetown center Patrick Ewing.

As we prepare for the 25th draft conducted under the lottery system, consider how much the NBA has grown: from 23 to 30 teams; from seven lottery teams to 14; from rumors of frozen envelopes to a complicated system of ping-pong balls.

Consider also: in 1985, Ewing was a polished college senior who had led Georgetown to three NCAA championship games; one of the top picks this year will be 18-year-old Spanish point guard Ricky Rubio.

[+] EnlargePatrick Ewing
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty ImagesPatrick Ewing played 15 seasons with the Knicks, leading them to 13 playoff appearances.

But NBA commissioner David Stern saw all this coming: "There are some 237 schools playing in Division I of the NCAA and that doesn't include smaller schools or foreign programs that will turn out more players like Uwe Blab or Bill Wennington," he told The Washington Post in 1985. "As basketball continues to grow worldwide, it will only get better."

OK, we'll forgive the Uwe Blab reference, but the commish was right. Basketball has grown as a global sport, turning the NBA draft into a worldwide event.

How did we get here? Contrary to the beliefs of conspiracy theorists, the lottery system was not created to steer Patrick Ewing to the Knicks, who had gone 24-58 in the 1984-85 season. In fact, the system was voted in after the 1983-84 season (in which the Knicks had won 47 games and reached the conference semifinals) in reaction to the perception that the Houston Rockets had tanked down the stretch. The Rockets lost 17 of their final 22 games, and nine of their final 10, to "pass" the San Diego Clippers by one game for the Western Conference's worst record. At the time, the worst teams in the West and East flipped a coin for the No. 1 overall pick. The Rockets won the toss, giving them the No. 1 selection for the second straight year (they added Hakeem Olajuwon to Ralph Sampson).

At the time, the controversy was whether a team on the fringe of making the playoffs would tank in order to make the lottery (originally, all lottery teams had an equal shot at the No. 1 pick). "If you're asking me where my heart would lie if it came down to a last-second shot between making the playoffs or the lottery, I couldn't -- I wouldn't -- tell you," Atlanta Hawks general manager Stan Kasten told the Post back then.

The Hawks missed the playoffs but didn't win the lottery. They drew the No. 5 pick and bypassed future All-Stars such as Karl Malone, Chris Mullin and Joe Dumars to draft the forgettable Jon Koncak (4.5 points per game in his career). The Clippers, predictably, didn't win the lottery either. Drafting third, they made a pick that would pretty much define the next two-plus decades of the franchise: Benoit Benjamin, a big man of immense talent, but best remembered for once trying to enter a game wearing two left shoes.

With that, let's relive each of the previous 24 years of the NBA draft under the lottery. We'll list the top 10 picks each year, suggest how teams should have drafted and grade the overall talent of each draft. Note that often players are selected by one team only to be dealt to another club in a prearranged trade; in those instances, we'll list the drafting team as the club that acquired the player.

Also, note this as you think about the results of Thursday's draft: By our hindsight accounting, NBA teams have nailed the top two selections in order just one time in 24 drafts (Shaquille O'Neal and Alonzo Mourning in 1992). They've nailed the top pick just seven times out of 24: David Robinson, Shaq, Chris Webber, Tim Duncan, LeBron James, Dwight Howard and Derrick Rose.

David Schoenfield | email

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