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The 2017 Lottery Karma Power Rankings

If there were any cosmic justice, these are the teams that would win the NBA draft lottery. Sorry, Lakers fans.

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

Greetings from Boston, where the Celtics fended off Washington on Monday in an emotional Game 7 to make the Eastern Conference finals. They were saved by Isaiah Thomas (what else is new?) and Danny Ainge’s past three lottery hauls: Jaylen Brown (just 12 hours earlier, I’d emailed four Ringer staffers that “there’s a real chance Jaylen might just be the American Mickael Pietrus and that’s it”), Marcus Smart (the Chairman of the No-No-Yes Club), and Our Lord and Savior Kelly Olynyk, a.k.a. The Prince of Man Bun, a.k.a. the creator, director, and lead actor of The Olynyk Game (which debuted for one night on May 15, 2017, and will never be forgotten by anyone who attended).

Speaking of lottery picks, the Celtics could make history by winning a Game 7, the NBA draft lottery, and a conference finals game in the span of three days. It’s unusual, to say the least. Lottery Night has always been infested with losers, incompetents, failed legacy kids, impeccably poor planning, frightening Elgin Baylor sweaters, and in the case of James Dolan, four of those five things at the same time. Now here come the Celtics waltzing in like a multimillionaire sitting at a $5 blackjack table filled with degenerates.

Is anyone sitting at third base, Vivek? Can I play a couple hands?

Of all the reasons the Celtics can’t and won’t win Tuesday’s lottery, that one definitely ranks the highest. The NBA draft lottery’s Karma Gods won’t appreciate seeing the Celtics. No way. Your odds for tonight’s lottery:

(Tankathon.com)
(Tankathon.com)

Technicality no. 1: The Celtics grabbed Brooklyn’s spot thanks to 2013’s trade/pillaging, in which they did everything short of stealing Brooklyn’s credit cards and online identity. The Celts are sending owner Wyc Grousbeck to represent them when they should have sent former Nets GM Billy King. Who’s luckier for the Celtics than Billy King???? If I ever saw him, I’d keep trying to hug him even as he kept trying to punch me in the face.

Technicality no. 2: The Lakers give their 2017 pick to Philly and lose 2019’s first-rounder to Orlando UNLESS they land a top-three pick. In your opinion, what’s a more realistic outcome tonight?

A. A signature NBA franchise in the league’s second-biggest TV market loses two first-rounders, including a top-three player in the best lottery in 10 years, despite having one of the five most famous basketball players of all time representing them during the event in his first public act as the new face of their franchise.

B. Donald Trump shaves his head, admits he colluded with Russia, apologizes to the Clintons, hands his businesses over to charities, and announces his resignation.

(I’m going with “B.”)

Technicality no. 3: Philly can swap spots with Sacramento thanks to an irresponsible 2015 trade that any fantasy basketball keeper league would have vetoed. (FYI: I covered every other 2017 lottery loophole in detail in this March piece.) That trade bumped Philly to a 14.7 percent chance for the first pick. Meanwhile, Kings fans have a 2.8 percent chance of seeing their team win the lottery and immediately hand the pick to Philly in a swap, after which they’ll jump on Reddit for the inevitable 6,500-post “F — K VIVEK AND F — K VLADE!” thread.

Technicality no. 4: Thanks to the controversial (I’m being nice) Boogie Cousins trade, Sacramento gets New Orleans’s pick unless it falls in the top three. If Philly and Sacramento were to snare the top two spots, and if Sacramento’s hated rival (the Lakers) were to fall out of the top three AND if New Orleans were to give the Kings no. 10, that would absolutely be the greatest moment in Kings history. (Don’t bank on this happening. It’s Sacramento.)

Let’s focus on numbers that matter: The Lottery Karma Rankings! Stud guard Markelle Fultz stands out as this year’s prize. I’d rank him somewhere between Durant and John Wall on the Sure-Thing Scale, maybe just a hair below Blake Griffin and three hairs above Derrick Rose. The Ringer’s NBA Draft Guide describes Fultz’s best-case career scenario as “James Harden, Brandon Roy, Gilbert Arenas,” with the added bonus that he can’t get abruptly traded by Sam Presti, both of his knees are intact, he’s not a hothead, and the winning fan base delightfully gets to call him “MF.” What’s not to love?

As I wrote in Friday’s LeBron-Isaiah column, anyone who creates at a high level for himself and four carefully spaced teammates can become a superstar these days. Barring injury, that makes MF a worthy no. 1 pick, but the next six guys (Lonzo Ball, Josh Jackson, Jayson Tatum, Jonathan Isaac, Malik Monk, and De’Aaron Fox) have ridiculously high upside too. And I didn’t even mention Steve Francis 2.0 For Better Or Worse (Dennis Smith, gaining major buzz this week) or The Extremely Poor Man’s Dirk Nowitzki (Lauri Markkanen). It’s such a deep lottery that the Knicks — picking around seventh unless they vault into the top three — almost can’t screw this night up. It’s like we finally figured out how to childproof the lottery for Dolan.

Quick aside: I’m a big karma guy and a big “Ball Don’t Lie” guy, so it’s always mystified me why the NBA Karma Gods frequently disappear on Lottery Night. Why wouldn’t they reward franchises that either tried to compete (and had rotten luck), smartly rebuilt around younger players and cap space, or swung a savvy trade to earn a lottery spot? Why wouldn’t they throw a bone to truly hopeless fan bases, the ones who are habitually kicked in the teeth by incompetent owners and/or executives and just want to catch ONE break? (I’m looking right at you, Knicks fans. We’re locking eyes right now.)

Is your team overdue for the right ping-pong ball to levitate its way?

Has its big-picture game plan made any semblance of sense these past few years?

Has it pissed you off so royally that you hissed, “Why can people divorce their spouses, but they can’t divorce their teams?”

Should the Karma Gods be saying, “We gotta hook these poor souls up before something awful happens”?

You might remember when I first broke out this idea, for 2014’s Bleed For Embiid Lottery. It turned out to be the Anthony Bennett of column gimmicks. Phoenix “won” the power rankings but earned the 14th pick (T.J. Warren). Boston finished second and picked sixth (Smart). Cleveland finished last and somehow scored the top pick with a 1.7 percent chance (Andrew Wiggins, who enabled them to eventually lure LeBron back). I served a three-year suspension and now we’re back. Without further ado, the 2017 MF’ed for MF Lottery Karma Rankings …

No Karma Whatsoever

14. Boston Celtics

The Celtics rebuilt the KG-Pierce-Rondo era on the fly, sentenced Doc Rivers to Clippers Hell, found a superstar scorer under a rock in Arizona, added two top-six draft picks, landed 2016’s second-biggest free agent, created enough cap space for a second marquee free agent this summer, grabbed home court in 2017’s Eastern finals, decimated a division rival with a wealthy Russian owner, and accrued the best odds for this year’s no. 1 pick AND (probably) next year’s no. 1 pick too. They’re using Brooklyn as their Process Proxy like it’s a surrogate lottery mom.

I’m the biggest homer on the planet. I’d put my homersexuality against anyone’s. And even I can’t find a situation where the Karma Gods say, “I feel bad for these guys; let’s take care of them.” Of course, none of it matters because LeBron’s prime is apparently going to last until he’s 50. Crap.

13. Los Angeles Lakers

Dating back to their Minnesota days, the Lakers have won 16 titles, appeared in 31 Finals and trotted out at least one all-time superstar in every NBA decade: Mikan, Elgin, Jerry, Wilt, Kareem, Magic, Shaq and Kobe. (Translation: You can’t play the “these poor fans” card yet.)

They’ve lost nearly as many games these past four years as Philly (with nearly as many tanking shenanigans). They haven’t made one front-office move since 2013 that you’d call “savvy” other than drafting Larry Nance Jr., and it’s not like you’ll be bouncing your grandkids on your laps telling them about that one. The Buss kids disgraced the legacy of the NBA’s best-ever owner by turning their dad’s team into a cross between Tommy Boy, Dynasty, and the last 30 minutes of The Social Network — only with more lawsuits, more chaos and more leaks to Ramona Shelburne. And I didn’t mention Magic Johnson openly lobbying for Mitch Kupchak’s job, to the abject horror of pretty much everyone in the league, or the impossibly stupid Deng and Mozgov contracts that demolished tens of millions of their precious cap space.

So why would the Karma Gods throw them a life raft now? Seriously, why? The Lakers aren’t allowed to suffer for a few years? If the Karma Gods wanted to go full “Spacey Putting Paltrow’s Head In A Box For Brad Pitt” evil with this lottery, maybe they’ll give the Lakers a top-three pick so the Ball family can destroy them from within. What’s in the box? WHAT’S IN THE BOX? It’s LaVar Ball … and he has some thoughts on D’Angelo Russell and how Magic is running the team, coming up next on the Mason and Ireland show!!! Lonzo and LaVar hijacking the dysfunctional Lakers would be the funniest running NBA story in a long time. (Well, unless Lonzo made them great again. Then it wouldn’t be so funny.)

A Cereal Bowl of Karma Points

12. Charlotte Hornets

Did you know that the Hornets have already locked up nine players for $102 million next season? And seven for $97 million the next season? Can you even name seven Hornets players? Did you know Miles Plumlee is next year’s fifth-highest-paid Hornet at $12.5 million? The Karma Gods don’t feel sorry for teams that successfully execute an inherently dumb plan. Charlotte’s plan was clearly, “Let’s lock down 38 wins every year.” At least nobody else was this shortsighted …

11. Detroit Pistons

“Not true,” yells Stan Van Gundy! “Can I interest you in over $130 million for Andre Drummond, Reggie Jackson, Tobias Harris, and Jon Leuer over the next two seasons?”

Poor Stan. When I replace Adam Silver as the next NBA commissioner, I’m immediately passing the Doc Rivers Rule to prevent anyone from being a coach and GM at the same time. In 2019, on the 15-year anniversary of their last title, it’s going to be OK to feel bad for Pistons fans. But not yet.

By the way, eight 2017 lottery teams have either never won the lottery or never won a lottery that didn’t have a frozen envelope with their logo inside it: Detroit, Boston, Phoenix, Dallas, Denver, Miami, the Lakers, and the Knicks.

10. New Orleans Pelicans

9. Minnesota Timberwolves

The Karma Gods have already rewarded the Pellies with Anthony Davis (2012’s top prize) and the Boogie Cousins trade (the All-Star equivalent of an Amazon Prime Black Friday sale). And the Timberwolves have already stumbled into two no. 1 overall picks, including one of the league’s best under-26 franchise guys (Karl-Anthony Towns).

So why does ’Sota get the slight nod over N’Awlins? Twenty-eight seasons, 20 lottery appearances (including 13 straight), two winning playoff series (and they both happened in 2004), only one superstar (KG), lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of losing. If you were trapped on a desert island and could watch only DVDs of one NBA team since 1990 for entertainment, Minnesota would be your 30th pick out of 30. Might the Karma Gods finally take pity and give them Fultz or Lonzo?

(Thinking.)

You’re right, LaVar is never letting Lonzo go to Minnesota. Lemme rephrase: Will the Karma Gods take pity and give them Fultz? Hey, did you know that only two lottery winners have actually won an NBA title with their prize? San Antonio did it with Robinson and Duncan, then Cleveland did it in 2016 with LeBron and Kyrie. Two teams in 33 years? Maybe we’re overrating Lottery Night.

8. Sacramento Kings

The embattled Kings fans deserve the no. 1 pick more than any other fan base, but their bumbling front office deserves it the least. That’s why I stuck them in the middle and flipped a coin to determine whether they’d get the seventh or eighth spot.

(Yes, the Kings lost the coin flip because they’re the Kings.)

7. Orlando Magic

Five years of post-Dwight rebuilding has yielded zero All-Stars, zero future All-Stars, four lost lottery picks, one legendary whiteboard of stretch-4 targets that included Chandler Parsons AND Luol Deng and doubled as a “FOR THE LOVE OF GOD FIRE ME!” sign, and Kevin O’Connor excluding the Magic from his Blow It Up Index because the Magic had nothing to blow up.

Remember, the Magic have already won three of the better lottery prizes: Shaq, C-Webb, and Dwight. As Kevin Clark keeps predicting, 2017’s lottery is heading for the Magic winning the second spot, then enduring three to four rocky Lonzo seasons as his father keeps leaking “He’s signing with the Lakers” rumors before they finally trade him for 45 cents on the dollar. There’s no other way. That’s Magic basketball.

By the way, here’s your lifetime NBA Lottery Winner scoreboard: Cavaliers (5), Clippers (3), Magic (3), Bucks (2), Bulls (2), Nets (2), Spurs (2), Wizards (2), 76ers (2), Blazers (1), Hornets (1), Pelicans (1), Kings (1), Knicks (1), Raptors (1), Rockets (1), Warriors (1), T-Wolves (1). Anytime you can potentially break a lottery winner tie with the Clippers — the Lords of Lottery Night for 25 years — you know you’ve had some rough times.

A Salad Bowl of Karma Points

6. Dallas Mavericks

Kudos to Team Cubes for always spending money, doing right by Dirk, and doing whatever they could to compete. I don’t believe the lottery should be used, year after year, to protect incompetence and tanking. That makes me an NBA Republican. So be it. But I wish the following three rules were in place:

1. No team can win the lottery twice in a five-year span. (That would rule out Minnesota and Philly tonight; it also would have saved us from Cleveland in 2013 and 2014.)

2. No team can win the lottery if it has made it five straight times. (That would eliminate Sacramento, Phoenix, Philly, Orlando, and Minnesota tonight.)

3. No team can land a top-three pick for three straight years. (That would push out Philly and the Lakers.)

We shouldn’t allow franchises to dwell in the lottery like NBA squatters, right? The Mavericks have succeeded for the entire 21st century; it’s a shame they have to fend for ping-pong balls with the same dumbasses who frequent the lottery like they’re scratch-card buyers at a 7-Eleven. We’ll be back on The Sports Reporters after this.

5. Philadelphia 76ers

I would have ranked them higher if (a) their spineless owners hadn’t pushed out Sam Hinkie and replaced him with the NBA’s version of the Lannisters, and (b) their medical staff didn’t seem like it was borrowed from The Knick. Would you rather be operated on by a Sixers team doctor, Patrick Dempsey, or Dr. Dre?

4. Phoenix Suns

Bad karma: seven straight lottery appearances; cheaped out during the Nash Era (and cost themselves a title); swapped the aforementioned 2017 Lakers pick for Brandon Knight; traded Isaiah Thomas for Marcus Thornton’s expiring contract and the down-the-road draft rights to Skal Labissiere. MY EYES ARE BLEEDING GET ME A TOWEL!!!

Good karma: nailed the Devin Booker pick, the Goran Dragic trade, and the Eric Bledsoe trade; due for a lottery break (amazingly, they’ve never drafted first); due for any kind of break (they lost the Kareem coin flip, for God’s sake); slapped together 35 memorable contending years before finally falling apart in the post-Nash Era. And they have a legion of loyal fans.

Mitigating factor: Robert Sarver once introduced himself to me at a hotel bar by saying, “I’m Robert Sarver. I’m the guy you’ve been a dick to for the last few years.” (Karma points? I’d say yes.)

A Swimming Pool of Karma Points

3. Denver Nuggets

A sterling résumé includes yet another tortured fan base (no NBA Finals appearances, no ABA or NBA titles, never employed a top-50 all-time player); some undeniable front-office competence (the Carmelo trade, the McDermott trade, Nikola Jokic in the second round, etc.); a spirited run at a 2017 playoff spot (they fell just short); and, of course, the delightful possibility of the Joker teaming up with either MF (the franchise scorer they need) or Lonzo (who would raise Denver’s passing/unselfishness/one-of-a-kind ceiling to godly proportions).

My dream scenario as a Celtics fan first and a basketball fan second: (1) Boston, (2) Denver, (3) I Don’t Care As Long As It’s Not The Lakers.

2. Miami Heat

LeBron’s 2014 betrayal and Chris Bosh’s health issues derail just about any other franchise, but the Heat (smartly) avoided paying Dwyane Wade for past performance, renovated Waiters Island, rejuvenated Dragic’s career, struck oil with Hassan Whiteside, turned Skinny James Johnson into one of the 12 greatest players of all time (give or take 500), made an emotional run at a playoff spot (I still think they could have beaten the Celtics or come close), and left themselves with a lottery pick and enough cap space for marquee free agents in 2017–18.

One problem: South Beach + no state income tax + Pat Riley + Micky Arison + three titles + one of the most respected organizations and coaching staffs = a junior version of Boston’s same karma flaw. Namely, it’s a night for train wrecks and hot messes. Who invited the Heat? You’re too pretty. You don’t belong here.

1. New York Knicks

Speaking of train wrecks and hot messes, New Yorkers are actually quitting the Knicks. It’s that bad. For 20 years, the Knicks have been held hostage by a stubborn legacy kid who doesn’t understand basketball and can’t hire anyone competent to save his life. This man cultivated an atmosphere of fear and distrust at MSG, refuses to acknowledge the concerns of his fan base in any meaningful way, and every so often, he insists on overpaying a famous person to keep screwing things up. He steadfastly refuses to sell the team even though EVERYONE WANTS HIM TO SELL THE TEAM.

Last month, a reader named Tom from New York sent me the following email: “After another abysmal Knicks season, I became depressed that the Knicks would never be competitive again in my lifetime due to James Dolan’s horrible leadership and guidance. I came to the conclusion the only way we could complete was if Dolan was gone. Knowing he would never sell the team, I was thinking of other ways he could lose the team. That led to the following two Google searches: ‘James Dolan Age’ (61) and ‘Average Human Death Age’ (79). Only 18 more years! Maybe! I am not proud of this email. I blame Dolan, Phil Jackson, and Isiah Thomas for making me this way.”

And I’m not proud of running that email. What does rock bottom feel like? Read the previous paragraph again. Only the Knicks could win the lottery and make non–New York fans say, “That’s nice, good for them,” like they’re talking about someone who just started dating again after his fiancée fell into a sinkhole. The Karma Gods have no other choice.