NBA draft lottery marks 25 years

Updated: May 19, 2009, 5:19 PM ET
Associated Press

Patrick Ewing and Dwight Howard worked out at one end of the court, a couple guys who know what it's like to be the grand prize in the draft lottery.

At the other end Sunday night were the Boston Celtics, who've been ruined and resurrected by the NBA's ultimate game of luck -- without ever winning it.

After a quarter century of building champions and breaking hearts, the lottery celebrates its 25th birthday Tuesday, with the real party being held by the team that wins it and earns the right to pick Oklahoma's Blake Griffin.

"I think it's pretty much accepted by our fans now and our teams get into it," commissioner David Stern said. "It's just another way to promote the potential for next season, particularly and for the most part for those teams who have the most need for next season. And that's what makes it good."

Sacramento, after finishing with a league-worst 17-65 record, has a 25 percent chance of landing the No. 1 pick. The Kings shouldn't prepare a jersey for the All-America forward just yet, though: Not since 2004, when the Orlando Magic ended up with Howard, has the team with the worst record won the lottery.

That's why some teams hate it. Jerry West blasted the system in 2007, when his Memphis Grizzlies had the best chance to win one of the most anticipated lotteries ever and ended up falling to the fourth pick.

The Celtics didn't like it much either that night, since they had the second-best shot at Greg Oden or Kevin Durant, and settled for the No. 5 pick. That came 10 years after they were heartbroken by missing out on Tim Duncan despite the best odds of winning the lottery.

At least the second time they didn't let their bad luck lead to more bad play, sending that No. 5 pick to Seattle in a trade for Ray Allen, a move that convinced Kevin Garnett to accept a move to Boston and leading to the Celtics' 17th NBA title last season.

The easier way is for teams to have the lottery create the luck for them.

No team has done that better than San Antonio, which used lottery wins 10 years apart to land David Robinson and Duncan, starting its run of four NBA titles. Orlando won consecutive lotteries in 1992 and '93, getting Shaquille O'Neal the first time and trading the rights to the second for Penny Hardaway, and those two would team on an Eastern Conference championship squad in 1995.

Of course, there's more to it than just winning the pick. It has to come at the right time, and teams have to do the right thing with it.

"What we tell our fans is that if a team is well managed and it isn't doing so well, it will have the opportunity under the NBA system to improve," Stern said.

Instead of Howard, a high school player, the Magic could have gone for Emeka Okafor, who had a decorated career at Connecticut but has been only solid, not spectacular, as a pro. Houston also went for the lesser known in 2002 and it paid off, taking Yao Ming instead of Duke All-American Jay Williams, whose career was wrecked after leg injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident.

"You're hoping that the players turn out to be what you expect them to be. And again, a lot of things play into it," said Magic guard Rafer Alston, who this season played with both Yao and Howard.

"You remember with Sam Bowie, health issues played a major role, he never overcame health issues so could never become the dominant player he was coming out of Kentucky. Ewing just continued to get better and better, and he turned not only a franchise but a whole city around. I think Dwight is on that path, a Ewing path, an [Hakeem] Olajuwon path."

Ewing was the first lottery prize, going to the New York Knicks in 1985. The NBA changed how the top pick was awarded following the 1984 draft, when Olajuwon and Bowie went 1-2 -- with Michael Jordan going third -- after concerns that teams were losing on purpose to finish with the worst record possible and secure a high pick.

The lottery has undergone some tweaks since. It was changed to set only the top three picks, with the remainder of the first round going in inverse order of a team's finish. The system was later weighted to give teams with the worst record the most chances to win, and modified again in 1993 to further favor the teams that needed the most help after Orlando went .500, just missed the playoffs, and won the lottery.

And it's created its share of controversy along the way, notably the theory that one of the envelopes in 1985 was either frozen or heated, so Stern would know which one to grab and send Ewing to New York.

"I wish I had as much sway as the conspiracists attribute to me," Stern said. "Lotteries have to do with chance and this lottery follows that for the most part."

Washington (17.8 percent) and the Clippers (17.7 percent) follow Sacramento with the best chances for No. 1, and 14 teams will arrive in Secaucus, N.J., with hopes that the right combination of pingpong balls can spark an immediate turnaround.

Remember what the Cleveland Cavaliers were like before they won the 2003 lottery and got to pick LeBron James?

"I think it has become part of the sport's culture now," Stern said.


Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press