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The Most Important NBA Lottery Since the LeBron Sweepstakes

The final month of the NBA season means a lot to more than just title contenders. With the most loaded college draft class in years, there’s a chance for an excruciating lottery for some teams.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

The Ringer’s college basketball savant, Mark Titus, wishes fans would watch March Madness because they enjoy basketball, and not also because they’re trying to project the next 12 years of someone’s professional career. That sounds noble and awesome.

I just can’t get there.

It’s the unknown that gets me. After watching the tourney for 40 years, I still can’t figure out, definitively, how it translates to failure or success in the pros. March Madness made me believe in the NBA futures of Stephen Curry, Glen Rice, Kemba Walker, and James Worthy; it also made me believe in Bo Kimble, Miles Simon, Shabazz Napier, and Jack Givens. This year’s tournament brings unusual allure: It features the decade’s most loaded draft class (even without expected no. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz), and it’s feeding our most action-packed NBA lottery in 10 years. Remember Oden vs. Durant and Yi Jianlian vs. A Chair? Oh yeah! Even better than that! We need Chris Harrison opening every envelope — this might be the most dramatic lottery ever.

Available in June: two possible franchise guards (Fultz and Lonzo Ball, UCLA’s wondrous playmaker, who has pieces of Young Kidd, Young Pistol Pete and even Young Magic), but also you might get the next Danny Granger (Jayson Tatum), the next poorish man’s Paul George (Josh Jackson), the next Steve Francis (Dennis Smith Jr., and I mean that in a good way), an all-caps FREAK shooter (Malik Monk), a freak athlete point guard (De’Aaron Fox), a slightly Dirk-ish stretch 5 (Lauri Markkanen), the next Euro stud who might be awesome (France’s Frank Ntilikina), and the rich man’s Brandon Ingram (Jonathan Isaac). With the TENTH pick, you might get someone as good as last year’s second pick. Now that’s a great draft.

You know what else comes with great drafts?

May’s lottery will be loaded with an unusual number of painful variables and what-ifs, which harkens to the memories of our most painful lottery ever: when the 2003 Grizzlies vaulted into the top three of the LeBron Lottery, then ESPN went into commercial with Memphis fans knowing they had a legitimate chance to land LeBron, then the Grizzlies came in second … and lost their top-one protected pick to Detroit. There’s never been a crueler lottery moment. And it’s on YouTube!

An impromptu running diary …

0:03 — "Look, it’s LeBron James and his posse!" says Phil Jackson.

0:09 — Carmelo’s 2003 TV setup makes me nostalgic for the days of square TVs, hideous brown TV stands, video game/VHS wires going everywhere, and VHS tapes precariously hanging off the top of the TV. I’m pretty sure I had that exact same setup in 1996; so did Sue and Trent in Swingers.

0:17 — They had cameras on three lottery picks: LeBron, Carmelo … and our old friend Darko Milicic! Pause that video at the 17-second mark — poor Darko looks he’s sitting between two wealthy, horny businessmen who ordered him off the dark internet. We should have known this was a bad sign. Why didn’t we know???

0:34 — "The third pick," Russ Granik tells us, "goes to the Denver Nuggets," as Nuggets representative Harry Reems tries not to seem disappointed.

0:34 — "That means Cleveland or Memphis get number one," Mike Tirico tells us. He doesn’t have enough time to add, "And if Cleveland gets number one, then Detroit gets number two because six years ago, when the Grizzlies were coming off a 14–68 season, former Grizzlies GM Stu Jackson thought it would be smart to give up a future first-round pick for 35-year-old Otis Thorpe even though Detroit was dying to get rid of Thorpe because he was feuding with his coach." (That trade actually happened. I swear to God.)

0:39 — Fun fact: The 2003–04 Grizzlies had Pau Gasol, Jason Williams (the White Chocolate one, not ESPN Jay or Chauffeur Jayson), Shane Battier, James Posey, Mike Miller, Stro Swift, Lorenzen Wright, Bo Outlaw, and Earl Watson and went 50–32 WITHOUT Rookie LeBron. He put up 21–6–6 with 42/29/75 splits on a putrid ’04 Cavs team. Stick him with better teammates, lessen his workload, surround him with shooters, make him more of a creator and what happens? Is he worth six to seven more wins? Would he have played more at point guard? What about a giant crunch-time lineup of Pau, Battier, Miller, Posey and LeBron??? Isn’t that 100 times more exciting than every lineup LeBron played with in Cleveland for seven solid years?

0:42 — "The second pick goes to …"

0:43 — "… the Memphis Grizzlies."

0:50 — Check out Jerry West’s face — he wants to scream "FUCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCK!" and storm off the stage, but he knows he’s on TV, so he’s trying to pull off a polite smile, only his face is going in nine different directions, Ellen Barkin–style, as he’s thinking, "My God … I think I just watched 12 straight 50-win seasons and six Finals appearances go up in smoke." And it’s all happening in the span of three seconds. That’s what someone looks like as they’re having a premature orgasm while getting struck in the chest with an ax.

0:57 — "The first pick of the 2003 NBA draft goes to … the Cleveland Cavaliers." Right at that moment, what kind of odds could you have gotten that the same sentence would be uttered three more times over the next 10 years. Like 5 million–to-1?

1:22 — "We don’t know who we’re gonna pick yet," jokes Cleveland owner Gordon Gund, as everyone waits for Jerry West to walk over and calmly stab him in the neck.

1:43 — Just a phenomenal interview performance by Gund, who happened to be blind, only you’d never know until Tirico forgets and offers him a handshake before audibling to the shoulder-grab-handshake combo. Gund was an amazing guy — check out this 1991 Bloomberg piece.

1:50 — Lottery reps you might recognize in the background: Antawn Jamison, Allan Houston, Young Caron Butler, and, of course, Deep Throat star Harry Reems.

1:52 — "That Memphis pick now goes to the Detroit Pistons," says Tirico, "so Detroit ends up a big winner here as well." He neglects to add, "And the Grizzlies just got boinked right through the eyeballs."

To repeat: That was a 10-second stretch when Jerry West and every Grizzlies fan thought to themselves, "We’re either getting the next Michael Jordan … or nothing."

Maybe 2017 won’t offer that level of life-altering agony, but collectively, it’s almost unparalleled for ping-pong devastation. Here’s everyone ranked by their highest ceilings of potential excruciation. Not included: Chicago, Charlotte, Minnesota, Dallas, Portland, Denver and everyone else in no-man’s-land who didn’t tank fast enough and don’t have a realistic statistical chance at cracking the top three.

Dead Man Walking

Brooklyn (13–54, first spot in the ping-pong order): Nets fans watched in horror as Boston became a playoff contender while simultaneously running the Hinkie Process (only with three straight Brooklyn high-lottery picks as its proxy). What could happen during 2017’s lottery that would make Nets fans MORE disappointed? They’re already dead inside.

Excruciation potential: 3 out of 10

Playing With House Money

Boston (owns Brooklyn’s first-round selection in a pick swap): Montreal reader Don Porcello wonders, "As a Celtics fan, should I want the Lakers to keep their top-three lottery pick (over having to give it to Philly if it’s four or lower)? It seems like an obvious NO for rivalry reasons, but how many top-five picks can Philadelphia get before they become Boston’s biggest competition? I think I would rather have the Lakers suffer, but I don’t know."

The short answer: Worry about your own envelope. When that no. 4 envelope is being opened, every Celtics fan should be thinking, "not the Celtics" and that’s it. (The furthest that Nets pick could drop is fourth.)

The long answer: Setting aside Boston’s interests, anytime the answer to any question is, "I would rather have the Lakers suffer," isn’t that always the choice?

The worst-case scenario answer: The Lakers AND Sixers vault over Boston, followed by me wandering around in a dazed stupor like Quinn during this entire Homeland season. And even then … there’s Always Next Year (With Brooklyn’s Pick).

Excruciation potential: 3 out of 10.

Better Off Not Winning

Phoenix (22–46, third ping-pong spot): Should Phoenix fans be rooting to get their hopes crushed? The Suns have never won an NBA lottery and have made only two top-three draft picks: Neal Walk (1969’s consolation prize in the Kareem Sweepstakes) and Armen Gilliam (1987’s consolation prize in the David Robinson Sweepstakes, as well as the owner of the NBA’s coolest 1990s mustache). They’ve picked fourth four times (Corky Calhoun, John Shumate, Alvan Adams, Dragan Bender), fifth twice (Walter Davis, Alex Len), sixth once (William Bedford), seventh twice (Tim Perry and Luol Deng, who was sold to Chicago) and eighth twice (Gary Gregor, Mike Bantom). Not exactly a murderers’ row. Phoenix’s best picks consistently came in the 9-to-21 range (Shawn Marion, Amar’e Stoudemire, Devin Booker, Dan Majerle, Steve Nash, Larry Nance, Michael Finley), which puts Phoenix fans in the rare position of shaking off the lottery by telling themselves, "That’s fine, we’re better off trading down and picking ninth, anyway."

Excruciation potential: 3 out of 10.

Hoping to Find a $100 Bill in a Pair of Old Jeans

New Orleans (27–41, tied for seventh): Pelicans fans assumed their top-three-protected pick was a goner after the big Boogie trade; then again, they never imagined LOSING the trade. Boogie and Brow have been so dreadful together (91.1 points per 100 possessions and some of the worst floor spacing in recent memory) that we can’t rule out (a) the Pellies naturally tanking their way into the top three, or (b) a second Boogie trade this summer. But losing a premium pick in the 5–7 range because of a trade that’s bombed from day one, coupled with being on the other side of Vlade and Vivek’s first successful trade?

Throw in the increasingly frightening potential of Anthony Davis glancing around and deciding, "This franchise has been a mess since I showed up, so I think it’s time to go," and … I mean … I’d say the Pellies need to keep this kick-ass pick. GENTLEMEN, START YOUR TANKS!!!!!!!!

Excruciation potential: 7 out of 10

Already Beaten Down and Expecting the Worst

Knicks (27–42, sixth spot): After 16 bad years of James Dolan, can you feel hopeful about anything anymore? What would happen if the Knicks won the lottery? Would their fans do one fist pump, then spend the next 45 minutes wondering how the Knicks would screw it up? How could you blame them? Even rescue dogs have better body language than your average Knicks fan right now. Sure, Knicks fans keep staring at that distant "someday, Phil and Melo will be gone and it will just be us and Porzingis and this pick and some cap space" light at the end of the tunnel. But to steal a joke from The Ringer’s Kevin Clark, that’s not a light, it’s Harrison Ford’s train from The Fugitive … and James Dolan is driving it right at them.

Excruciation potential: 5 out of 10 for the lottery, 10 out of 10 every week

Orlando, 24–45 (fourth spot): Are there any Magic fans even left other than Clark and Tiger Woods? Over the past five years, the Magic effectively flipped Dwight Howard, three top-five lottery picks and two other lottery picks into their current, wildly uninspiring nucleus of Aaron Gordon, Nikola Vucevic, Terrence Ross, Elfrid Payton and Evan Fournier. Since 1990, they’ve landed three no. 1 overall picks in loaded drafts (Shaq, Dwight, and C-Webb-turned-into-Penny), who played a combined 18 seasons for them. I texted Clark about it and we had this exchange.

Me: "If the Magic won the lottery, would you think anything other than ‘I can’t wait to watch this guy for the next 4–5 years until he leaves or we trade him for 30 cents on the dollar?’"

Clark: "You forgot Stage 2, which is the guy saying, ‘I’m not like Shaq, I’m staying forever,’ which every Orlando star says before requesting a trade 10 months later. Then comes the awful trade. It’s the circle of life. Beautiful."

Ladies and gentlemen, yourrrrrrrrrrrrrr Orlando Magic!

Excruciation potential: 6 out of 10

Beaten to Smithereens, Hoping for a Miracle, Ready for the Apocalypse

Sacramento Apocalypse 1.0 (27–41, tied for seventh): If they land a higher first-round pick than Philly (24–43), they have to swap thanks to one of the 21st century’s dumbest NBA trades — in 2015, they gave Philly a first-round pick and two pick swaps so Philly would take the Carl Landry–Nik Stauskas contracts off their hands, just so they could create enough cap space to sign Rajon Rondo, Marco Belinelli and the 25-pound shit sandwich that they mailed to every Kings fan. Couldn’t they have worked 52-year-old Otis Thorpe into the deal?

Sacramento Apocalypse 2.0: If New Orleans vaults into the top three and keeps its lottery pick, that would mean Sacramento traded a 26-year-old All-Star center for Buddy Hield, a high second-round pick, a future first, Tyreke Evans’s not-really-emotional-whatsoever return to Sacramento, Langston Galloway, and that’s it. Even Nets fans would make fun of that trade.

Sacramento Apocalypse 3.0: In one achingly realistic scenario, the Kings could win the lottery, New Orleans could finish second or third … and the Kings would end up with only the sixth or seventh pick, followed by Vlade Divac probably taking Harry Giles without knowing that he’s missing both ACLs.

Sacramento’s dream scenario: Philly AND Sacramento climb into the top three, they grab the lesser pick, and that New Orleans pick yields them no. 6 or no. 7, followed by a slew of "VIVEK AND VLADE DID IT!" jokes on Twitter.

Sacramento’s nightmare scenario: Just about anything else. For about seven solid minutes on lottery night, they’ll be sweating bullets as their team plays NBA Lottery Russian Roulette.

Excruciation potential: 10 out of 10

All or Nothing

Philly (24–43, fifth spot): Let’s say Philly gets the fifth spot and Sacramento gets the sixth. If you combine their ping-pong odds, they’d have a 50.7 percent chance of snaring a top-three pick — slightly better than succeeding on a two-point conversion, and half as good as the odds of converting a two-point conversion in the Super Bowl against a team whose owner wandered down to the sideline before his team actually clinched the game.

They also have that Lakers pick UNLESS it goes into the top three. And there’s a 44.2 percent chance that it won’t. (Hold this thought.)

See where I’m going here? Philly has a reasonable chance of landing a top-three pick plus the fourth or fifth pick. HINNNNNNNNNNNNNNNKEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!!!!!!! They also have a reasonable chance of losing that Lakers pick, missing the top three, ending up with something like the fifth pick, and heading into the 2017–18 season having thrown away four straight seasons without landing a guaranteed sure thing/franchise player who can stay on the court. Slightly higher stakes than you’d think.

Excruciation potential: 8 out of 10

Los Angeles Lakers (20–48, second spot): For six straight decades, we’ve watched the Lakers pull off one-sided trades, luck out during the right lottery years and lure the best available stars (either by trades or free agency). Lately they’ve unleashed a West Coast version of the Process and taken 10 percent as much shit as the Sixers did. Their records since 2014: 27–55, 21–61, 17–65, 20–48. Did you know the Lakers have just 16 fewer losses than Golden State has wins over that time? It’s true. But it’s worked. And considering 75 percent of the NBA’s finest stars move to L.A. every summer to train, play hoops, enjoy relative anonymity and do L.A. things … I mean, we should NEVER want a competitive Lakers franchise again. I wish they’d kept Jimmy Buss in charge for another 20 years — knowing the Lakers were run by a legacy kid owner who loved playing slot machines at 4:30 a.m. in crummy casinos absolutely warmed my heart.

Lately, it’s been looking like the Lakers have established something resembling a plan: They brought in a respected young coach (Luke Walton); a connected GM (former agent and Rob Lowe look-alike Rob Pelinka); a face of the franchise who can schmooze free agents, inspire fans and celebrities and would never be caught dead playing slots (Magic Johnson). And now they’re headed for the rarest of NBA lottery situations: Either they land a top-three pick in a ridiculously loaded draft or they get NOTHING. It’s the little brother of Memphis’s LeBron-or-Bust situation. (Even worse, if that 2017 pick goes to Philly, then the Lakers lose their 2019 first-rounder to Orlando; otherwise that pick turns into two second-rounders. And you thought the stakes weren’t high enough!)

Adding a little weight to that moment: Even though they’ve picked seventh, second and second these past three years, they didn’t nail any of those picks. Julius Randle, D’Angelo Russell, Brandon Ingram … would you bet on any of them making even one All-Star team? If they pick anywhere from one to three in June, that rookie immediately becomes their best asset. Throw in a shitload of 2018 cap space the following summer and, I mean … would you want to deal with a 2018–19 Lakers team trotting out Paul George, Russell Westbrook, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, and whatever else? Me neither.

As the NCAA tournament keeps going, and we watch Lonzo and/or Tatum and/or Jackson and/or the Kentucky guards rising to the occasion time and time again, the stakes will keep climbing. It’s a stupendous draft class; the Lakers NEED that top-three pick. And we need to see that Lakers logo popping up at no. 4 or no. 5 as Magic makes the "Wait a Second, I Thought Adam Told Me That They Were Rigging This So We’d Get a Top-Three Pick?" Face.

Excruciation potential: 15 out of 10