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Rigging the NBA Draft

Anything can seem like a conspiracy if you look hard enough. The NBA draft lottery is determined at random, by ping-pong balls. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t cosmic forces at work, tipping the scales toward big markets and satisfying economic needs.

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

Is the NBA lottery rigged? It’s a question that has haunted the NBA since the first draft lottery, in 1985, when good fortune and perhaps an envelope placed in a freezer sent Patrick Ewing to the Knicks with the top pick. The benefits of such a scheme, should it exist, are numerous — the most obvious being that seeing as how the NBA is a star-driven league, strategically placing stars in major media markets generates interest, which generates ratings, which generate revenue. As with every conspiracy theory, the key is to follow the money.

I do not believe that the lottery is rigged. Not really. I don’t know, maybe. Sometimes I do, sure. But only, like, 10 percent of the time. Generally speaking, I think most conspiracy theories that boil are a matter of mistakes and miscommunication. The fun is in the analysis. Life unfolds haphazardly. Slow anything down and look at it from from multiple camera angles, and it will appear suspicious. Out of place. Perhaps even nefarious. In his short film Umbrella Man, documentary filmmaker Errol Morris explored the strange incongruities of life that swim up at you through the microscope when time is stopped, rewound, and rewatched again and again. The film is about a man, holding an open umbrella, in the bright sunshine of Dealey Plaza in Dallas, in November 1963, just as President Kennedy’s motorcade is driving by. "If you put any event under a microscope," Morris says, "you will find a whole dimension of completely weird, incredible things going on."

Consider the frozen envelope. The theory goes that, back in 1985, the league was so desperate to place Georgetown titan Patrick Ewing with the Knicks that commissioner David Stern and various conspirators fixed the proceedings so New York’s envelope would be selected first. This was done by placing the envelope in a freezer, making it easier to detect by touch, and creasing the corner of the envelope by flinging it, Frisbee-like, against the side of the clear-plastic hopper.

Like all conspiracy theories, actual evidence is scant. The corner of New York’s envelope is slightly dented. Stern exhales, as if attempting to unburden himself, before reaching into the hopper. He brushes a few envelopes away before selecting the Knicks’ envelope. Searching, perhaps, for the frozen one? Or does this fall into Morris’s quantum "dimension of the weird"? How many unconscious tics or strange gestures do I make every day just reaching for my coffee cup?

With conspiracy theories, the primary evidence is always, simply, the motive itself. The league would benefit from having a superstar in New York City, the nation’s biggest media market. And that’s what wound up happening. The question for this year’s lottery, then, is who would benefit from getting the no. 1 pick?

The lottery works like this: 14 ping-pong balls, numbered 1–14, are placed in a machine that jumbles them at random. The machine is clear and the helter-skelter action of the balls is visible to the witnesses in the room and the cameras observing the proceedings. Balls are drawn from the machine at regular intervals until four have been selected. There are 1,001 possible four-digit combinations. The team with the worst regular-season record, in this case the Nets, is allotted 250 combinations, giving them a 25 percent chance of winning (Brooklyn’s pick would, of course, transfer to the Celtics). The Suns, with the second-worst record, received 199 combinations, and so on. The process is repeated two times, for the second and third picks.

What would be the motive for, theoretically, fixing the 2017 lottery? In a word: ratings.

In 2014, the NBA signed a landmark nine-year, $24 billion deal with ESPN and Turner Sports. The agreement, which went into effect this season, pays the league about $2.6 billion annually. It’s the reason that the salary cap jumped 34 percent, from $70 million to its current $94.1 million, in one summer.

The ink on the deal isn’t quite dry, but the structures underpinning that historic agreement are not-so-subtly crumbling. A new generation of tech-savvy consumers are availing themselves of a panoply of cord-cutting options, ravaging cable TV’s subscriber base and eroding profit margins. This puts pressure on ratings-driven advertising to pick up the slack.

The pressure on the league can be felt in the furor over rest. For a few years, teams have been strategically resting star players on the second night of back-to-backs or for games during particularly active stretches of schedule. No one, not the league nor its partners in said multibillion-dollar deal, cares all that much when a star rests on a random Tuesday night during a game broadcast on regional television. It’s the nationally televised games that make everyone’s butt tighten. And who can blame the league’s partners? They just paid a whole lot of coin for a thing that turns out to not exactly be the thing they paid for. Thus the attention to this issue. Ratings, ominously, were down this season.

Quick fix: Make sure the Los Angeles Lakers, the league’s iconic and most marketable franchise, can keep their pick in a loaded draft.

The evidence for the fix is slim. The Lakers, due to the lingering fallout from the Steve Nash trade, would keep their 2017 pick only if it landed in the top three. A profoundly unwise, late-season win streak lifted the Lakers to the third-worst record in the league, giving them a 53 percent chance of losing their pick. Not ideal! The Lakers are coming off a desultory season. The roster has some nice young pieces but no clear-cut star. And the management structure has been riven by an ugly internecine battle for control between Jeanie Buss and dissident members of her family. (Aside: I love learning about random Buss family members that I never knew existed! It’s like when 15-year-old Martyn Lannister shows up in Season 3 of Game of Thrones.)

Though much depended on keeping their pick, the Lakers, suspiciously, it must be said, never seemed worried. "Magic has already assured me that we’re going to get our top-three pick this year so I’m excited about that," said head coach Luke Walton on CBS Sports’ We Need to Talk. "We don’t know who the pick is yet, but I was just happy to know we’re getting the pick. That’s good enough for me for now." Now, how would Magic know that, I wonder …

The league has always strenuously denied any charges of quid pro quo lottery plots. But the idea that the commissioner doesn’t put his thumb, ever so slightly, on the scale doesn’t quite hold up. Think of New Orleans’s vetoed trade of Chris Paul to the Lakers, which occurred while the NBA was the de facto owner of the then-Hornets. Or David Stern, after the most turbulent and scandal-filled era in Knicks history, cajoling James Dolan into hiring, and then retaining, Donnie Walsh. Or the whispers that the league and a group of hawkish owners actively sought Sam Hinkie’s downfall in Philadelphia and then lobbied for the hiring of Bryan Colangelo to replace him.

This falls in line with other conspiracy theories proffered, quietly (i.e., in The Ringer’s Slack), over recent lottery outcomes:

  • That the Sixers were allowed to win the 2016 lottery for getting rid of Sam Hinkie. (I kind of buy this one.)
  • That the NBA sweetened the sale of the New Orleans Pelicans (then Hornets) to Tom Benson by awarding him the top pick in the 2012 draft (Anthony Davis) a few months later.
  • That Cleveland was given the top pick in 2011 (Kyrie Irving) to smooth over fallout from The Decision and stop Dan Gilbert from publicly talking about tampering.
  • That the Orlando Magic was given two consecutive lottery wins (1992, ’93) as a reward to the DeVos family for purchasing the team.

If we are to assume the lottery is rigged, and, again, I don’t think it is, how would they do it? Weighted balls? What is the minimum number of people who would know? Surely Adam Silver and his top deputies and certain owners.

Perhaps, as Morris observed, life does unfurl at a micro and macro level. Strangeness and mystery up close, in slow-motion, and quotidian reality at normal speed. What does it mean, for instance, that the above video of the lottery shows that the Celtics’ numbers were drawn three times in a row … before eventually settling on the Lakers at two.

That likely means UCLA product and Chino Hills native Lonzo Ball and his sports-father-über-alles, LaVar, are headed to Los Angeles, thus averting the potentially ugly scene of LaVar decrying the weather in Minnesota or the incompetence of the Kings, or throwing a fit to keep his son from going to Orlando. It’s a win for the Lakers and team legend Magic Johnson, who understands, perhaps better than anyone, the power of the star player to transform the narrative around a team. Stars attract stars, after all. And what’s Los Angeles without stars? And what’s good for the Lakers is good for the league. Though the NBA might not want to admit it.

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Ernst & Young was the accounting firm responsible for the 2017 Oscars Best Picture mix-up; it was PricewaterhouseCoopers.