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Thursday, May 16
Updated: Thursday, May 16, 6:49 PM ET
NBA out to prove conspiracy theorists wrong
By By Darren Rovell

When the word "conspiracy" is mentioned, UFOs, JFK and the moon landing come to mind. In 1947, the government supposedly covered up a UFO crash in Roswell, N.M. Fifteen years later in Dallas, another gunman was allegedly on the grassy knoll, and in 1969, astronaut Neil Armstrong was to have uttered his famous "mankind" line in a movie studio.

But conspiracy also surrounds the NBA draft. As the theory goes -- 16 years after the moon landing -- NBA commissioner David Stern gave the league's largest market the No. 1 pick in the 1985 draft by freezing New York Knicks' envelope and thus easily making sure not to pick the six "warmer" teams.

Patrick Ewing
Many believe the Knicks' winning of the Patrick Ewing sweepstakes in 1985 was fixed.
It's been 17 years since the Knicks received the right to pick Patrick Ewing. The lottery has now expanded from seven to 13 teams. Lottery balls are used instead of envelopes. But with the Knicks back in the lottery for the first time since 1985, the importance of 7-foot-5 Chinese star Yao Ming getting selected by a team that plays in an area with a high Asian population and the fact that the actual drawing still isn't shown on live television, the talk of conspiracy is a hot topic again.

"It's like believing that the referees walk onto the court and know how to fix the game," said Indiana Pacers general manager Donnie Walsh. "I've never seen any evidence of any draft conspiracy."

Evidence will be hard to come by, says NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik, who will open the envelopes with the team logos at halftime of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals on Sunday night. Granik believes that those in the media who perpetuate conspiracy theories don't do their homework and never think through how a fixed scenario would work.

"Someone should try and freeze an envelope and see if they can really pick the right one out," Granik said of the old system. "I don't think anyone has ever tested it to see if it would work. But if people want to believe in the conspiracy, they don't want to think about those details."

In today's NBA lottery, it's much more complicated than pulling out an envelope. It's even more sophisticated than simply putting the names or logos of the 13 teams on the number of balls each team has in the hopper.

Instead, 14 balls, numbered 1-14, are placed in a drum. Four balls are then drawn to create four-digit combinations that determine each of the first, second and third picks. Each team has a certain number of four-digit combinations, with the team with the worst record -- the Golden State Warriors and the Chicago Bulls both finished 21-61 -- having the most four-digit combinations (225) and, therefore, the highest odds to receive the top pick. After the first three teams are determined, picks 4 through 13 are determined in inverse order of the club's regular-season record.

"Someone's going to find some theory," Granik said. "Maybe Penn and Teller could figure out one, but we certainly can't."

Granik laughs at how conspiracy theorists disappeared when the Orlando Magic, which had expanded into the league for the 1988-89 season, received the first picks in 1992 and 1993. Orlando was the second-worst team in 1992, but was the team with the best record in the lottery in 1993 and only had 1 of 66 balls in the drum.

"No one said back then that we must have fixed it," Granik said. "If you subscribe to a conspiracy theory, then you have to remember to ignore the results when it doesn't fit your theory."

In other words, constructing a winner in Orlando wouldn't make as much sense over a larger market city such as Philadelphia or Dallas.

The league knows that, despite the intricacy of the process and how hard it tries to show fairness -- and until the lottery goes live -- NBA officials won't silence all the critics.

Granik says a live broadcast of the actual selection process won't happen because one of the teams with the most combinations that already has received one of the first three picks might keep popping up, making for some boring TV. Officials are also worried that the lottery ball machine might break down, despite the fact that it's never happened before.

We think it's a good idea for some journalists to see exactly how it works and they'll tell others what happened. But someone still might believe it's fixed.
Russ Granik, NBA deputy commissioner

"I don't think you can do anything to prevent the conspiracy theorist from coming out," said Wally Walker, president and CEO for the Seattle SuperSonics. "There's always someone who's going to say that we never landed on the moon or that it's made of green cheese."

Walker says there'll be cries of a fix if a team with a high Asian population like Chicago, which has a 22.5 percent chance of the first pick, or New York, which has a 4.4 percent first-pick chance, gets the first pick and winds up taking Yao on June 26.

The theory is that Yao might be more likely to play in the U.S. if the Chinese government is happy with the city of the team that owns his rights. Not only are the Bulls and the Knicks the only two teams Yao had private workouts for, but they are also two of the league's top three markets, making it easier for the NBA to profit from Yao's appearance in America.

"The draft lottery has worked the way it should work," said Jeff Nix, assistant general manager for the Knicks. "It has taken the teams that have struggled and allowed them to get back to the top. Look at what it has done for the Celtics."

The league, in an effort to calm conspiracy theories after the draft, has invited four journalists to watch the lottery balls being called. ESPN.com, along with writers from USA Today, Sports Illustrated and the Associated Press, will be on hand to see just what goes on behind the scenes and before the TV cameras start rolling.

"Sometimes writers approach it in a tongue-and-cheek way and aren't really suggesting that we have done something fraudulent," Granik said. "But it's still frustrating. So we think it's a good idea for some journalists to see exactly how it works and they'll tell others what happened. But someone still might believe it's fixed. If Siegfried and Roy can make a Tiger disappear, anything's possible."

Listed below are the chances (out of 1,000) for each of the lottery teams to receive the first, second or third pick. After those picks are determined, picks 4-13 are slotted according to record.

Draft lottery odds
Team Record Chances First pick Second pick Third pick
Golden State 21-61 225 22.5% 20.3% 17.63%
Chicago 21-61 225 22.5% 20.3% 17.63%
Memphis-1 23-59 157 15.7% 15.8% 15.66%
Denver 27-55 120 12.0% 12.68% 13.39%
Houston 28-54 89 8.9% 9.75% 10.78%
Cleveland 29-53 64 6.4% 7.2% 8.23%
New York 30-52 44 4.4% 5.05% 5.91%
Atlanta-2 33-49 29 2.9% 3.37% 4.02%
Phoenix 36-46 15 1.5% 1.77% 2.14%
Miami 36-46 14 1.4% 1.65% 2.0%
Washington 37-45 7 0.7% 0.83% 1.01%
LA Clippers 39-43 6 0.6% 0.71% 0.87%
Milwaukee 41-41 5 0.5% 0.59% 0.73%

Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at Darren.Rovell@espn.com.

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