“You know, we don’t know who we’re gonna pick yet.” Twenty years ago, that classic one-liner spilled out of a grinning Gordon Gund, moments after the former Cavaliers owner learned on national television that his team had won the most consequential draft lottery in NBA history.
The league has held 38 lotteries, and all of them have mattered. Some were more forgettable than others, though. A very special few, like the one we just witnessed, included a franchise-altering prize—be it LeBron James, Blake Griffin, Anthony Davis, Zion Williamson, or Victor Wembanyama—with enough talent and promise to transcend stakes that are already sky-high.
On these nights, it’s hard to process in real time just how important the winning declaration will be. But for all 13 teams that weren’t as lucky as the San Antonio Spurs on Tuesday night, it’s easy to feel the immediate agony. Back in 2003, everyone’s reaction to learning they wouldn’t get James was transparent. Steam seeped out of Jerry West’s ears after the Memphis Grizzlies went from potentially landing one of the most celebrated prospects in basketball history to having zilch. When NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik announced that the Heat would have the fifth pick, ABC’s broadcast cut to Miami representative Caron Butler, who rolled his eyes and shook his head. This was an appropriate time to express instant regret instead of a polite smile. (Don’t worry, everything eventually turned out OK for the Heat.)
That’s what these specific lotteries, the historic ones that change the league, are all about. Of course, there are winners and losers. Jubilation and misery. Victor Wembanyama and a pool of awesome, young players who aren’t Victor Wembanyama. Let’s recap who’s celebrating and who feels like crawling into a hole.
Winner: San Antonio Spurs
Um, I don’t know how much elaboration is needed here. Gregg Popovich wins. R.C. Buford wins. Their young core wins. The Dejounte Murray trade really wins. The Spurs’ new $500 million practice facility wins. For a team that’s won five titles since 1999 and had the privilege of drafting David Robinson and Tim Duncan, today easily feels like one of the 10 greatest nights since it joined the NBA. It’s a blessed time to be a Spurs fan … again.
Loser: Detroit Pistons
The lottery was a nightmare, worst-case scenario for Detroit. The Pistons lost a league-high 65 games last season, five more than any other team. They had the highest possible odds (14 percent) to win this thing and instead fell all the way down to five. No Victor. No Scoot Henderson. No Brandon Miller. Bummer. Now, their rebuild will take much longer than Wembanyama would’ve allowed.
There’s still plenty of talent available at the no. 5 spot. Hopefully, the Pistons will find someone who can complement Cade Cunningham and Jaden Ivey on the wing. Detroit wants to be competitive very soon. After Tuesday night, the road there will be a lot rockier than the team hoped.
Winner: Portland Trail Blazers
No, they didn’t get the first pick. But their jump two slots up to third may help clarify the direction this organization will go over the next few years. They can either plop some extremely attractive trade assets into a blockbuster offer and make a serious run behind Damian Lillard, or they can take the best player available, shop Lillard, and rebuild around a showstopping core.
Loser: Scoot Henderson
The Hornets have LaMelo Ball. The Blazers have Lillard. The Rockets have Jalen Green. Not to overthink this too much, but which one of these teams is champing at the bit to draft a 6-foot-2 guard with a suspect jump shot? Will the Magic—a team that may want some more shot creation in its backcourt—consider packaging no. 6 and no. 11 to move up to get him?
Will the Hornets take Henderson, roster construction be damned, and figure the rest out later, or will they strike a swap with the Blazers, knowing Portland would rather have Brandon Miller? There’s so much to contemplate right now. But as things stand, it’s safe to say that Henderson won’t go to an ideal destination.
Winner: Dallas Mavericks (but Not Really)
They kept their pick, thanks to some flagrant tanking down the stretch of the season (which they were punished for). Congratulations to Dallas for being slightly less of an embarrassment!
Winner: Victor Wembanyama
This could’ve gone in so many different directions for Wemby, with a slew of dysfunctional organizations stumbling over themselves all year long and punting games, culture, and good habits in an attempt to maximize their odds of landing one of the greatest prospects of all time.
Instead of slogging through his first few seasons in Houston, Charlotte, or Detroit, Wembanyama gets to spend his formative years as a student under Gregg Popovich, the greatest coach in NBA history. He’ll be placed in a no-nonsense environment where basketball is the priority every day, with Hall of Famer Manu Ginóbili in his ear whenever extra words of advice are necessary.
The Spurs were very bad this year, but they didn’t cut corners. Other organizations did, exchanging consistent effort and sensible game plans for more Ping-Pong balls. They also have a solid, young core—led by Keldon Johnson, Jeremy Sochan, and Devin Vassell—that was just begging to revolve around a franchise big man like Wembanyama.
The Spurs won’t be terrible for very long. They have max cap space, five incoming first-round picks from other teams (including two that are unprotected from the Hawks), and a presumable desire to win sooner rather than later. San Antonio won the lottery, but in so many ways, so did Wemby.
Loser: Every Other Team That Woke Up This Morning With a Chance of Winning This Thing
The odds were heavily stacked against Indiana, Washington, Chicago, Oklahoma City, Orlando, New Orleans, Dallas, Utah, and Toronto. But it still hurts to know there is some alternate reality where Wembanyama could’ve been theirs.