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The Thunder Finally, Almost, Sort of Hit the Lottery

The years-long rebuild is starting to take shape in Oklahoma City. After another nail-biting lottery for Thunder fans, Sam Presti landed the no. 2 pick and will have a chance at landing a potential franchise player. The question is: Who will that player be?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

There have now been 38 NBA draft lotteries. 38 nights of dreams and nightmares. 38 hellscapes of hope and damnation and change. The first took place in 1985 at the Starlight Roof on the 18th floor of the Waldorf Astoria in midtown Manhattan. They put the envelopes in a big clear drum and Jack Joyce, the NBA’s head of security, spun them around about six times. The Knicks won. Conspiracies abounded. They would go on to take Patrick Ewing. New York was tied for the best lottery odds that year. Prior to last night, over the course of those 37 events—the lotto odds changing throughout—a team with the best odds, or tied for the best, had won the lottery 15 times. That number reached 16 last night with the Orlando Magic taking the top spot. The Magic, Houston Rockets and Detroit Pistons had the three worst records in the league this season, giving each a 14 percent chance to win the top pick. My Oklahoma City Thunder were next in the percentage pecking order. Typically they’d have been working from behind with a 12.5 percent chance at the top overall pick, but thanks to a second lottery pick they got from the Clippers in the Paul George trade, OKC found themselves the same as the other three: with a 14 percent chance at the top pick and all the hope in the world.

The way it works is, there are podiums. The podiums are big and bright and everywhere. The lotto dais has experienced an incredible aesthetic evolution throughout the years. In the ’80s, they’d sit the on-stage reps at two long tables, raspberry red stadium-style seating, execs elbow-to-elbow behind nameplates. Then in the early ’90s, they brought the podiums out, wooden with the team’s logo in the center. They stayed more or less that way for decades until, in 2016, they changed again. Things got sleeker. Jet black and shiny, a couple strips of silver at the top, a real Epcot forward vibe from the mothership or whatever dumb thing people call it. That look remained until the pandemic arrived and brought with it remote broadcasts the past two years. For those broadcasts, there was but one podium and that was for the deputy commissioner of the NBA, Mark Tatum, one of the meanest, rootinest, tootinest scoundrels this country has ever seen. This year, they changed them again. The front of the podiums were video screens. When a team’s pick was announced the screen flashed their logo and the number of the pick they got. When your favorite team is in the NBA lottery, you know the odds. The scenarios have been played out over and over again in the months and weeks leading up to lotto night, so the percentages are ingrained in a fan’s head by the time the telecast rolls around.

If the playoffs are a marathon, the draft lottery is a drunken 40-yard dash over burning shards of glass. It happens fast. The lottery is long on ramifications and short on everything else. That is not a complaint. I’d just as soon get the thing over with in five minutes. The telecast is 30 minutes long. It could and should be shorter. They stretch that thing to within an inch of its life. Space Jam buzzer-beater/Goldmember on roller skates/Cameron Diaz in The Counselor on the windshield of that yellow Ferrari California/Van Damme Bloodsport splits between Volvo trucks level stretching.

Things can get messy quickly. Tatum inflicts pain from the comfort of his podium, dreams dashed in seconds, countless fans sent into fury. He reaches into envelopes, pulls out cards, and changes the world. He does it with blood dripping from his blade. Tatum’s up there just cutting people’s souls in half, one after the other, mowing through the worst teams in the league like a giddy John Deere. He doesn’t even apologize. He just puts the card down, looks like he opened a present he’s always wanted, and moves on before any of us have even had the chance to ask any questions. For instance, “How dare you?” and “How are your teeth so white?” Every year he smiles and I’m Saul on the way to Damascus. The wattage is extraordinary. I wear sunglasses during the lottery now. Bright as it is, though, the smile only communicates one thing: He will skip on your bones. Tatum should have to say sorry after every reveal until he gets to a certain pick. Every year, the participating teams should get to vote and decide what pick that is. If it’s Tim Duncan coming into the league, he should say “I’m sorry” after every card until the last one. If it’s last night’s lottery, his final “I’m sorry” should’ve gone to the Kings who leaped to no. 4 and then bowed out.

The team’s on-stage representatives:

Charlotte Hornets: P.J. Washington, Player. Looks like P.J. did not want to be there, and who could blame him? Mark Tatum is there. He sucks. I have a checklist I run through before I go anywhere. It is one point long and says, “Is Mark Tatum There?” No? See you in twenty. Yes? Lose my number.

Cleveland Cavaliers: Anderson Varejão, Team Ambassador and Total Hottie

Detroit Pistons: Richard Hamilton, Pistons Legend. Rip had the mask there with him but he didn’t wear it. He just sat it on the podium. I’ve always had a soft spot for Rip’s game and he probably has not gotten the flowers he deserves, but it’s an absolutely unconscionable decision on his part to not wear the mask for the broadcast. If I was a Pistons fan I’d be furious.

Houston Rockets: Rafael Stone, General Manager. Wonderful beard and death stare combo you typically only see from really grumpy defensive line coaches and burly dudes who work the grill at 24-hour diners.

Indiana Pacers: Kelly Krauskopf, Assistant General Manager. Kel deserved more screen time. Don’t show me Rick Carlisle and his stupid lanyard. Kelly seems cool. Just stay with her.

New Orleans Pelicans: Swin Cash-Canal, Vice President, Basketball Operations. Looking regal and very disappointed in Mark Tatum, a man who kicks kittens.

New York Knicks: William Wesley, Executive Vice President, Senior Basketball Advisor and My Best Friend

Oklahoma City Thunder: Nick Collison, A Prince

Orlando Magic: Jamahl Mosley, Head Coach. Sort of smiled like Summer’s boyfriend Don in Napoleon Dynamite when Tatum announced the Magic got the first pick.

Portland Trail Blazers: Damian Lillard, Player. The most disappointed person in the room who did his best to smile through it.

Sacramento Kings: Domantas Sabots, Player, Rapscallion. I know there’s a typo on his last name, but I’m tired and you know who I’m talking about. It’s a lot of work to move the cursor sometimes.

San Antonio Spurs: David Robinson, Spurs Legend and Strategic Partner (With Kind Eyes and a Terrific Smile). He looks shorter than Chet Holmgren and that is freaking me out.

Washington Wizards: Wes Unseld Jr., Head Coach. Looks like he has both never seen a camera and never lost a staring contest.

The presumptive top three picks in the 2022 NBA draft were in attendance. Jabari Smith Jr., Chet Holmgren, and Paolo Banchero were interviewed by ESPN draft guru Mike Schmitz. Not a lot to be gleaned from their answers. Platitudes, yawns, the word versatility. At the end of his questioning, Schmitz brought out David Robinson to give some advice to the kids. His words of wisdom amounted to something along the lines of, “The NBA is very hard and you boys need to get ready to work.”

Robinson was an amazing player with amazing biceps who now looks like he spends his days Velcro’d out in all white Dr. Comforts. He has the vibe of a man with prescription shoe inserts and despite that, I’m still operating under the assumption that if he took his shirt off I would start levitating First Reformed-style. Dr. Comfort needs to stop ripping these old people off. Making them pay triple digits for a pair of Walmart shoes. He should have his medical license revoked for garbage like that.

All I care about is Top 3. Top 3, Top 3, Top 3. From the moment the first envelope is opened, I’m on high alert. Before the Clippers/Thunder pick landed at 12, due to both machinations and math I do not have the time or intelligence to explain, Oklahoma City fans knew, if the pick didn’t land at 12, it would mean it jumped into the Top 4. It would mean I would be very happy. And so when I saw the Cavs card at 14 and the Hornets card at 13, the irrational fan in me was hollering for a miracle, hollering for a jump. It didn’t happen. Tatum pulled the Thunder logo and then there was a breather. Oklahoma City having the fourth-best lotto odds for their own pick meant the worst they could get would be 8th. And so from picks 11 to 9, I was on vacation, but not. Relaxed, but terrified. Knicks get 11, Wizards get 10, Spurs get 9, and now fear is riding me around the living room like a horse.

From 8 on, I behave like a madman. A lunatic 33-year-old whispering no Thunder to himself over and over and over, staring at Tatum, begging for mercy. Pathetic behavior, really, but sports fandom is about taking all ration and reason out of the equation and leading with feeling. I am nerve endings and nothing else.

Tatum opens the next envelope. No Thunder, no Thunder, no Thunder. “The eighth pick will be made by … the New Orleans Pelicans.” I break out my first real, impassioned fist pump. Sort of a Kobe after a buzzer-beater kind of pump. A pump and hold. No Thunder, no Thunder, no Thunder. “The seventh pick in the NBA draft belongs to … the Portland Trail Blazers.” Dame is not happy. Neither am I. Domantas Sabonis is. Malika Andrews, our host for the evening, explains: “Wow, that means Sacramento has moved into the Top 4.” That’s one less prime spot for my Thundies. No bueno.

Tatum’s unveiling at breakneck speed. No Thunder, no Thunder, no Thunder.

“Pick no. 6 goes to … the Indiana Pacers.” Another fist pump. No Thunder, no Thunder, no Thunder. “The fifth pick will be made by … the Detroit Pistons!” My biggest fist pump yet. Rip Hamilton looks like he just walked up to his car as someone was writing him a ticket. The Top 4 is set. The camera goes to Nick Collison aka Hair Jordan aka Thor. He looks beautiful and like a king. He is trying not to smile too wide. He looks up. And then it goes to commercial.

I am bursting and really not wanting the fourth pick. Our two-year-old walks into the room in underwear and nothing else. She sits beside me on the couch and says, “I’ll watch with you, daddy.” We aren’t maniacal about screen time but we’re not making it rain either. Rarely does she see commercials. There are ads for State Farm, Taco Bell, and USPS. The USPS commercial features the Johnny Cash hit, “I’ve Been Everywhere.”

“Daddy, what’s this song?”

I tell her. She likes it. The next commercial is for AT&T. She doesn’t care about Lily or Matthew Stafford. Then it’s a CarFax ad. Obviously a cartoon fox is a big hit. “Oh he’s a funny guy, huh, Daddy?” And I am doing the parent thing where I’m trying to respond and really be in the moment with her but in my head I am also thinking MAN IT WOULD SUCK TO GET FOUR. REALLY HOPE WE GET TOP THREE. HOW CRAZY WOULD IT BE TO GET NUMBER ONE —

“What’s this song, Daddy?” It’s a commercial for Shakey’s Pizza Parlor, a chain of buffet pizza spots in Los Angeles. The music is some instrumental backing track that sounds like the kind of nondescript dance music you’d hear in a Dave & Buster’s commercial. “I’m not sure,” I say. The next commercial is for Morongo Casino Resort & Spa. Morongo is calling. Good times. More nondescript dance music.

“What’s this song, Daddy?” she asks.

I get her logic. If you know the music for one commercial, shouldn’t you know the music for all of them? “I’m not sure about that one either, baby,” I say. “I don’t know every song in every commercial, just some of them.”

One more replay of the same Shakey’s Pizza Parlor commercial and then we’re back. The only team reps left on stage are from the four teams remaining. The Kings, Thunder, Magic, and Rockets. Tatum gets right into it.

“The fourth pick in the 2022 NBA draft presented by State Farm goes to … the Sacramento Kings.” I fist pump like ’97 Tiger after he aced 16 at TPC Scottsdale.

“The third pick goes to … the Houston Rockets.” I fist pump like ’01 Tiger after the 60-footer on the island green at TPC Sawgrass. Rafael Stone does not. He stares straight ahead and looks like he wants to die. “The second pick will be made by … the Oklahoma City Thunder. And that means that the first pick in the 2022 NBA draft goes to the Orlando Magic.” I fist pump anyway, go all out, Tiger at Augusta in ’05. Top 3 is all that mattered but Top 2, I’m on Cloud 99. That’s a pick that has been good to the Thunder in the past. Hopefully it will be good for them again. There is a part of me that wants to do the isn’t-it-actually-better-to-have-the-second-pick thing, but after some thought I have decided to be smart and say it is better to get to choose whoever you want.

As for who I want, it changes daily. I was a Banchero Boy for a couple years, but like many, I’ve gotten a tad spooked by his distaste for defensive effort. Some days I think I want Jabari for sure. To put shooting like that next to SGA and Giddey? Seems like he’d flourish. And it’s not just the stroke, it’s the potential to maybe guard across all five positions. But a big question for him is the ball handling. He projects as a guy that will favor operating from the perimeter but will the ball handling get to where it needs to? If you’re going to be the A1 best scorer on a title team nowadays, a tight handle has stopped feeling like a luxury and started feeling like a necessity. Maybe the shooting is good enough that he kills regardless, but it’s something to consider.

And then there’s Chet. Chet is unlike any prospect that has come into the league before. He’s a tall rail that blocks shots, hits 3s, leads the break, can handle it a little, pass it a little. He does a lot of things to affect winning. He also scares the hell out of me. Despite that, right now, all my belongings on the table, I think that’s who I’d want? But actually, maybe I’d rather have Jabari. The shotmaking at that size? He’s 6-foot-10, hitting 20-foot fadeaways with four hands in his face. See, but then as soon as I say that I think about Paolo’s shot creation off the bounce, how fluid he is, how much he improved as a playmaker during his time at Duke, and I want it to be him. But then Chet deters a shot at the rim, gets the defensive board, brings the ball up, and calmly wets a 25-footer with an ease that’s at least in the neighborhood of the last number two pick the Thunder had (Sacrilegious? Probably?) and I change my mind again. I don’t think I’ll stop anytime soon.