by: Chris Foss
During a June 2012 airing of his radio show, Jim Rome interviewed then-NBA Commissioner David Stern. The subject turned to the draft lottery that had just taken place. Rome addressed concerns floating around in the media that the NBA unduly favored the New Orleans Hornets, which the league then ran while it was searching for a prospective owner, to receive the No. 1 selection.
purchased the Hornets, who changed their name to the Pelicans for the 2013-14 season, allowing the Charlotte Bobcats to become the Charlotte Hornets in 2014-15, and thus reclaim the name the New Orleans team had held when it was located in Charlotte from 1988 to 2002. Tag: NBA Histor"
Public perception was that the league did not want the team to fail just seven years after Hurricane Katrina had devastated the New Orleans area. Furthermore, since the league voided the team’s trade of star Chris Paul to the Los Angeles Lakers just months earlier, Stern was criticized as intervening in an attempt to keep the team competitive.
Hornets opens door to
talk of rigged draft lottery,”
- Adrian Wojnarowski
Lo and behold, the Hornets won the lottery, and ended up selecting Anthony Davis, who has had a spectacular career with the Hornets-turned-Pelicans. All of this was apparently too much for Rome, who came right out and asked the commissioner, “Was the fix in for the lottery?” to which an incredulous Stern responded, “Shame on you for asking,” adding the off-color comeback, “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?” The segment ended in acrimony, with Stern ultimately hanging up on Rome.
The exchange, however buffoonish, illuminated a larger question: is the NBA draft lottery an effective, fair means of attempting to achieve competitive balance?
The lottery was instituted in 1985 in an attempt to balance a league tilted toward big cities, with many of its mid-market teams in danger of going bankrupt. Free agency, meanwhile, first instituted in the mid-1970s, saw players become increasingly mobile and able to sign with big-market teams or demand trades to big cities. Without some sort of parity, many in the league feared the gap between haves and have-nots would never be closed.
The Breaks of the Game (Hachette, 2009 2d ed.);
“The Greatest Team That Never Was,” - Jonathan Abrams,
players for alleged game-fixing, drug scandal"
By: Ben Golliver
Now, as we see with an upcoming TV deal set to massively increase the league’s salary cap for the 2016-17 season, it is clear the NBA has come a long way financially since 1985, but what about in terms of competition?
Interestingly, in the 16 seasons prior to the first draft lottery (1968-69 to 1984-85) the NBA never produced a repeat champion. Teams in Boston, New York, Milwaukee, Los Angeles, Oakland, Portland, Washington, Seattle, and Philadelphia variously claimed the crown. In the 30 seasons since the first draft lottery, the NBA has had the following repeaters: Los Angeles (two repeats and a three-peat), Detroit, Chicago (two three-peats), Houston, and Miami. The other teams to win the title are San Antonio (five non-consecutive times), Boston, Dallas, and Golden State. Nine different winners in 30 lottery years, versus nine different winners in the 16 pre-lottery years.
Seen from this perspective, it could be argued that the draft lottery has not created competitive parity in terms of championships. On the other hand, perhaps the lottery has worked to balance the competitiveness of the league overall.
Take, for example, the results of the most notorious—good and bad—No. 1 lottery picks:
1985: New York Knicks: Patrick Ewing. Made two NBA finals in his Hall of Fame career.
1987: San Antonio Spurs: David Robinson. Had modest playoff success in the years in which he was
“The Man” and was a key role player on the team’s 1999 and 2003 championships squads.
1989: Sacramento Kings: Pervis Ellison. A huge bust, Ellison lasted one season in Sac-Town before being dealt to the then-Washington Bullets.
1992 :Orlando Magic: Shaquille O’Neal. Made a huge splash with a 1995 NBA Finals berth, a couple of scoring titles, and was a perennial All-Star, but money issues saw him leave for the Lakers in 1996.
1996: Philadelphia 76ers: Allen Iverson. One of the most beloved sports figures in Philadelphia history, he led the Sixers to one NBA Finals in 2001.
1997: San Antonio Spurs: Tim Duncan. An unquestioned success at No. 1, Duncan has been the centerpiece of five NBA championship squads in a Hall of Fame career.
2001: Washington Wizards: Kwame Brown. A huge disaster, Brown never even approached respectability, either in his short Wizards stint or elsewhere in the NBA.
2003: Cleveland Cavaliers: LeBron James. Two championships and six Finals appearances, but 0-2 with the Cavs. Still, they’d be nowhere without him.
2004: Orlando Magic: Dwight Howard. Howard got the Magic back to the Finals in 2009, but as with Shaq, money and personality differences led to a nasty divorce from the Sunshine State to the Lakers despite some good years in Orlando.
2007: Portland Trail Blazers: Greg Oden. Career devastatingly cut short by knee and leg injuries before a fair assessment was even possible.
2008: Chicago Bulls: Derrick Rose. Rose’s ceiling may have already been reached, with knee injuries and LeBron in his way in the East, but the Bulls are a perennial contender.
2009: Los Angeles Clippers: Blake Griffin. Has gotten the Clips to the West semifinals a couple of times. So far so good, but not yet a ring to show for his effort.
2011: Cleveland Cavaliers: Kyrie Irving. A key part of the Cavs’ 2015 resurgence.
2012: New Orleans Hornets: Anthony Davis. Looks like a major star for the future and got the Pelicans back to the playoffs in 2015.
2013 and 2014: Cleveland Cavaliers: Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins, both already gone to Minnesota.
The results seem to indicate that the NBA draft lottery does lift teams and players to a certain degree, but that most players move on from the team which drafted them before winning a title. David Robinson and Tim Duncan are the only No. 1 overall picks that have won titles for the team that drafted them, although LeBron may yet join them in that rarified air. Of course, the draft lottery, consisting of 14 picks, is more than just the sum of the No. 1 pick, so there will be a lot of room for disagreement here, but it seems as though No. 1 is not a sure-fire way even to respectability: just ask the 1989 Kings, the 2001 Wizards, or the 1999 Clippers. And of all the draft lottery winners, only San Antonio has undeniably entered the pantheon of perennial NBA powers.
Ultimately, imperfect as the system is, the NBA draft lottery should stay—and be improved upon. As it now exists, the lottery deters tanking to an extent. Furthermore, unlike in the NFL—which has a worst-and-you’re-first system of organizing draft choices—it’s painfully obvious when NBA teams intentionally lose to try and gain a higher draft choice. Teams still do this even today, so the league needs to figure out a way to tinker with the ping pong balls and make it so that losing the most games does not necessarily give a team the best chance to win the #1 pick. Tanking should be not just discouraged, but eliminated, both through slight adjustments to the lottery, and punitive measures instituted whenever the league finds concrete evidence of intentionally poor play or long-term “rebuilding” projects really meant to line owners’ pockets. It’s not fair to fans, and probably not profitable over the long run, for the league to have teams in the tank for years or decades on end.
 New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson eventually purchased the Hornets, who changed their name to the Pelicans for the 2013-14 season, allowing the Charlotte Bobcats to become the Charlotte Hornets in 2014-15, and thus reclaim the name the New Orleans team had held when it was located in Charlotte from 1988 to 2002. Tag: NBA History
 Adrian Wojnarowski, “NBA’s problematic ownership of Hornets opens door to talk of rigged draft lottery,” http://sports.yahoo.com/news/nba--nba-s-problematic-ownership-of-hornets-opens-door-to-rigged-talk-over-draft-lottery-20120531.html.
 For good reads on the league in this era, see especially David Halberstam, The Breaks of the Game (Hachette, 2009 2d ed.); Jonathan Abrams, “The Greatest Team That Never Was,” http://grantland.com/features/an-oral-history-hakeem-olajuwon-ralph-sampson-1980s-houston-rockets/; Ben Golliver, “Reports: FBI investigated 1980s Knicks players for alleged game-fixing, drug scandal,” http://www.si.com/nba/point-forward/2013/09/15/new-york-knicks-gambling-scandal-drugs-cocaine-1980s
sports analysis, sports history articles