Reimagining the Biggest NBA Draft Lottery 'What Ifs' in History
Years from now, a handful of the teams currently sitting at the bottom of the NBA's barrel will invariably be left wondering what could have been had the pingpong balls bounced differently in the 2017 draft lottery.
The Phoenix Suns might opine about the potential of a backcourt filled by Devin Booker and either Markelle Fultz or Lonzo Ball rather than whichever prospect falls in their lap at No. 4. The Philadelphia 76ers won't be upset that they swapped into the Sacramento Kings' spot at No. 3, but think of how much better off they would be had the Los Angeles Lakers dropped out of that top trio.
The Brooklyn Nets don't have to wait. They have already spent several years wondering what their lot in the NBA would be had they not paid a (Billy) king's ransom for Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry back in 2013. It could be years before that line of thinking subsides, what with Brooklyn's 2018 first-round pick bound for the Boston Celtics outright.
We'll see whether any of these "what ifs" wind up among the biggest in league history. In the meantime, let's re-examine the 10 most provocative lottery outcomes, selected according to long-term impact and listed in chronological order.
1985: NBA 'Delivers' Patrick Ewing to the New York Knicks
The NBA's original conspiracy theory doubles as its most enduring. More than 30 years after the New York Knicks nabbed the No. 1 pick in the league's first lottery, phrases like "creased corner" and "frozen envelope" re-enter the sports lexicon every May when the Association determines its draft order.
The Knicks, who won just 24 games during the 1984-85 season, had as good a shot as any team at landing Georgetown's Patrick Ewing, the closest thing to a surefire franchise cornerstone to come out of college since Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) graduated from UCLA in 1969. As Sports Illustrated's Chris Ballard recalled:
"He offered the total package. He could score in the post, defend, rebound and knock down an 18-foot jumper. When TBS superimposed a graphic of strengths on the screen during the 1985 draft broadcast, it read only, are you kidding? In Ewing, teams saw not just talent but salvation: ticket sales, playoff runs and, most of all, relevance. He was, as this magazine put it at the time, possibly 'the most recognized athlete ever to enter a major professional league.'"
At that time, each of the NBA's seven non-playoff teams had the same odds (14.3 percent) of jumping to the top. That math convinced some on the fringes of postseason play, including the Dominique Wilkins-led Atlanta Hawks, to engage in what's since been deemed "tanking."
"Dominique and I were called into a room and told that we were going to miss some games down the stretch because we were not that far off," Doc Rivers, then a promising young player for the Hawks, told Bleacher Report. "I swear it's 40 games left, and we're like, 'Wait a minute; we're still in this.'"
Atlanta might have had a chance to advance in the playoffs against the likes of the Boston Celtics, Detroit Pistons and Chicago Bulls if Ewing had wound up there. The Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers, the two worst teams in the West, could have turned their sorry histories around much sooner than they did with Ewing at the helm. Perhaps the Indiana Pacers would've played their way out of range for Reggie Miller, the No. 11 pick in 1987, with Ewing aboard.
Instead, he went to the league's biggest market—at a time when the NBA needed a boost in New York City—and unwittingly wound up in the middle of a web that gumshoes are still angling to untangle to this day.
1990: Sonics Slip Out of the Playoffs, Land Gary Payton
As much as basketball fans in Seattle must despise the Oklahoma City Thunder, they should always have a special place in their hearts for the Houston Rockets—thanks to both the Seattle SuperSonics' 5-1 record in the playoffs against the Rockets and the one time Houston kept Seattle out of the postseason entirely.
The Sonics, with a rookie Shawn Kemp, and Rockets finished the 1989-90 season with identical 41-41 records. Houston, though, snagged the West's No. 8 seed by way of a tiebreaker.
So instead of succumbing to the Finals-bound Los Angeles Lakers in Round 1, Seattle settled for one of the better consolation prizes in NBA history: a jump to No. 2 in the 1990 draft, where the team lucked into Oregon State's Gary Payton.
"We were all united on Payton; [he] was the guy," Bob Whitsitt, then the general manager of the Sonics, told Bleacher Report's Jonathan Abrams.
The Rockets could've used a point guard of Payton's caliber—not that they had any trouble finding one thereafter. That summer, Houston acquired Kenny Smith, a critical component of their back-to-back champions in 1994 and 1995.
As for the Sonics, who knows whether they so much as sniff the Finals during the '90s without The Glove? And who knows whether the Miami Heat, who fell to No. 9 in the 1990 draft after Seattle sneaked into the second spot, would've needed another half-decade to become an Eastern Conference power had they gotten a shot at Payton?
1996: So Many Superstars, Even More Possibilities
The 1996 draft turned out to be one of the most star-studded in NBA history—and one of its most replete with "what ifs."
What if the then-Vancouver Grizzlies, who finished a league-worst 15-67 in 1995-96, had been awarded the No. 1 pick? Would a small standout from Georgetown named Allen Iverson have done enough to keep the Grizzlies in British Columbia?
Consider that Iverson led the Philadelphia 76ers to the Finals in June 2001, mere months after the Grizzlies applied for relocation to Memphis.
What if the Sixers had passed on The Answer and, instead, gambled their pick on a precocious 17-year-old in their backyard named Kobe Bryant? Maybe a hometown hero would have led Philly to a title. Or maybe they, too, would've been scared off by Bryant's threats of playing in Italy if he didn't land with the Los Angeles Lakers.
How much better off would the Minnesota Timberwolves have been had they opted to keep Ray Allen, the No. 5 pick, instead of swapping him to the Milwaukee Bucks for Stephon Marbury, the No. 4 pick? With a shooter, scorer and dedicated worker of Allen's caliber next to a young Kevin Garnett, it's possible the Wolves would've won a playoff series well before 2004.
Then again, if Garnett and Allen got along then like they did as teammates with the Boston Celtics—which is to say, not all that well—Minny might have imploded anyway.
1997: San Antonio Spurs Snag Tim Duncan
Ask Gregg Popovich how his San Antonio Spurs became the NBA's standard-bearers, and he'll point to one player in particular: Tim Duncan.
"I've always told our group, our managers, our coaches, our organization that after being able to draft Tim Duncan, anything that doesn't go well for us, we deserve it," Popovich said back in December, not long after the Spurs retired Duncan's No. 21 jersey.
San Antonio needed tons of luck, both bad and good, to land the Big Fundamental.
The bad: Sean Elliott missed 39 games and David Robinson sat out 76 because of injury en route to a 20-62 record.
The good: The Spurs, with the third-best odds of landing the No. 1 pick, leapfrogged the Vancouver Grizzlies and Boston Celtics for the right to draft Duncan out of Wake Forest in 1997.
With or without him, San Antonio would've been plenty competitive. Robinson, an MVP before his setbacks, made three more All-Star teams after his return. Elliott was never quite the same, though he remained a productive player in Pop's rotation. Had the Spurs stuck at No. 3, they could have snagged Colorado's Chauncey Billups, a future Finals MVP.
But Duncan ensured San Antonio would be a perennial powerhouse long after The Admiral retired. In Vancouver and Boston, he would've been an outright franchise savior—and, in the latter case, maybe pushed Paul Pierce, the No. 10 pick in 1998, out of the picture entirely.
2003: Memphis Grizzlies Suffer a Serious Case of FOMO
Is there a more notorious piece of trade bait in NBA history than Otis Thorpe?
In 1995, the Rockets traded him to the Portland Trail Blazers in the deal that brought Clyde Drexler to Houston and ignited a Phi Slama Jama reunion with Hakeem Olajuwon. Three years later, the Sacramento Kings packaged him and Mitch Richmond together to extract Chris Webber from the Washington Wizards.
In between—in August 1997, to be more specific—the Vancouver Grizzlies fancied him enough to acquire him from the Detroit Pistons in exchange for a 2003 first-round pick (top-one protected).
Fast forward nearly six years, and there was Jerry West, then the general manager of the Memphis Grizzlies, sitting anxiously next to Denver Nuggets owner Stan Kroenke and down the line from Cleveland Cavaliers owner Gordon Gund. Win the lottery, and West's Grizzlies not only keep the pick but also get to draft LeBron James, the most hallowed prep-to-pros prospect ever. Anything else, and the Pistons, just beginning their run of six straight conference finals appearances, luck into an elite prospect.
Memphis fell just short, landing at No. 2 behind Cleveland. Detroit would spend it on Darko Milicic, eventually spelling doom not only for Joe Dumars' front-office regime but also the NBA's old ways of evaluating (and overvaluing) European prospects.
Without that trade for Thorpe, who was dealt to Sacramento after a mere 47 games in Vancouver, the Grizzlies could've used that pick to add a promising young player—with Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh among the best options available—to pair with incumbent budding star Pau Gasol.
2007: Boston Celtics Stumble Out of the Top 2 into a Big 3
For Bill Simmons, then toiling for ESPN's Page 2, the 2007 draft lottery, in which his beloved Boston Celtics fell from No. 2 to No. 5, was another dark cloud hovering over a franchise that had been snakebitten for more than two decades:
"Ever since the summer of '86, for nearly 21 years and counting, the Celtics have been wildly, comically, irrationally unlucky. That's an exceptionally long time. Maybe we didn't fully realize the ramifications of losing a potential franchise player in '97, but we certainly realize them now. We're back to Square 1. We're sentenced to another decade of quick-fix plans, risky trades and dumb free-agent signings. We're looking at another decade of excuses, spin control and hyperbole. We're headed for another decade in which the Sox and Pats are Michael, and Sonny and the Celtics are Fredo. It's basketball deja vu."
For the Celtics, that cloud was lined in silver all the way around. Absent a shot at a potential game-changer like Greg Oden or Kevin Durant, Boston packaged that pick—which became Jeff Green—with Wally Szczerbiak, Delonte West and a 2008 second-rounder in exchange for Seattle's Ray Allen. That trade, which paired two All-Stars in Allen and Pierce, was enough to pique the interest of Garnett, who had previously vetoed a move from Minnesota to Massachusetts.
With those three in tow, the C’s engineered the most dramatic season-to-season turnaround in NBA history en route to the 2008 title. Two years later, that squad came within spitting distance of winning a Game 7 in L.A. to claim a second championship at the Lakers' expense.
Had the luck of the Irish been with the Celtics in May 2007, the Boston Three Party wouldn't have been born. And while a long-term partnership between Pierce and Durant could've yielded extraordinary results over time, Gang Green would've remained mired in mediocrity for many more years had it jumped to No. 1 and taken the injury-prone Oden.
2008: Derrick Rose Goes Home to Chicago
For whatever reason, the 2008 draft lottery didn't spawn anything close to the spate of conspiracy theories that emerged from the original in 1985.
No team had ever moved up so much, with so few combinations, as those Chicago Bulls, who finished the 2007-08 season with the NBA's ninth-worst record and a 1.7 percent chance of nabbing the No. 1 pick. That the top prospect in the class, Memphis' Derrick Rose, hailed from the Windy City only further inflamed those wearing homemade tin-foil hats.
Rose's arrival was to be both a blessing and, in some respects, a curse for the Bulls. In 2011, he became the youngest MVP in league history during a season in which Chicago won an NBA-best 62 games and cracked the conference finals for the first time since the Michael Jordan era. The following spring, Rose tore his ACL in the first round of the playoffs, sparking a frustrating cycle of injuries that lowered the ceiling on that team's core and ended with his ouster to New York last summer.
As it happens, the Miami Heat, who knocked those Bulls out of the playoffs twice, had the best odds of getting the top pick in 2008. Instead, they took Michael Beasley at No. 2—all the more reason to go all-in on signing James and Bosh during the summer of 2010.
With a young Rose and an MVP-caliber Wade on their side, perhaps the Heat wouldn't have been in position to tear their team down to the studs and start anew with three superstars. Or maybe they would've put together a Big Four rather than a Big Three and run even more roughshod over the rest of the league.
Either way, Chicago would've wound up on the wrong side of a South Beach dynasty.
2010: Washington Wizards Rise Up for John Wall
The Washington Wizards needed a win—any win—in the spring of 2010. They were fresh off a 26-56 season, one made immeasurably worse by owner Abe Pollin's death in November 2009 and the infamous locker-room gunplay between Gilbert Arenas and Javaris Crittenton the next month.
Somewhere, Pollin must have been smiling down on his old club. The Wizards went from fifth to first in that year's lottery, putting them in pole position to rebuild around Kentucky's John Wall.
The New Jersey Nets, owners of the league's worst record, dropped to third, where they picked Georgia Tech's Derrick Favors. Four months into his rookie campaign, Favors was a pawn in a package of players and picks that brought over Deron Williams from the Utah Jazz to fill a hole at point guard into which the Nets, in another universe, might have otherwise plugged Wall.
Even without that luck, Washington would've been within drafting range of an All-Star at No. 5. Then again, if the way things deteriorated between DeMarcus Cousins, the fifth pick that year, and the Sacramento Kings is any indication, dropping him into the Wizards' quagmire might only have made things worse in D.C.
2011: Cleveland Cavaliers Luck into Kyrie Irving
Kyrie Irving's arrival in Cleveland was seemingly the first in a series of dominoes to fall before James' triumphant return to the Cavaliers. As Bleacher Report's Flinder Boyd put it: "A year removed from LeBron James' acrimonious departure from Cleveland and team president Dan Gilbert's meltdown, Kyrie was seen as a sort of savior for a franchise and a city needing a hero."
That the Cavs had the No. 1 pick in the 2011 draft was no minor miracle. Their own selection slipped two spots, from No. 2 to No. 4, in the lottery.
But during the 2010-11 season, Cleveland picked up a particularly valuable nugget from the Los Angeles Clippers in a swap of disgruntled former All-Star point guards Baron Davis and Mo Williams, as recapped in a 2016 article for B/R:
"All it would cost L.A. was a 2011 first-round pick that, given where the Clippers were in the standings and barring a lottery miracle, didn't project to finish higher than No. 8 in a weak draft. By rule, they couldn't put any protections on the pick because they had already sent away their 2012 selection to snag [Eric] Bledsoe's rights in 2010. The lack of protection made the selection a more attractive trade chip in Cleveland's eyes, per sources."
Lo and behold, that No. 8 pick became No. 1 in the lottery, paving the way for Irving from Durham, North Carolina, to Northeast Ohio. His rapid rise from Rookie of the Year to All-Star MVP caught James' eye enough to help get the ball rolling on LeBron's exit from Miami.
If not for that bit of serendipity, the Cavaliers might still be waiting for their home-state savior. Or maybe James would've still seen enough from Irving to join forces with him and Kevin Love...in Minnesota, with a Timberwolves team that had the best odds of landing atop the 2011 draft.
2014: Cavs Get the Top Pick...Again
The conspiracy theorists came skittering out of the woodwork again in 2014, when the Cleveland Cavaliers won the No. 1 pick for the third time in four years.
As if being bad enough for that long to luck into those selections was any great honor or that the overarching incompetence that had the Cavs looking like such a mess in the first place was the product of dastardly planning. If anything, Cleveland's leap from ninth to first, as Chicago had in 2008, only reinforced the whole point of the lottery by showing terrible teams that their tanking efforts could be futile.
That aside, the Cavs agonized over whom they would take first overall. As ESPN.com's Jeff Goodman reported at the time, Joel Embiid was "first on the organization's wishlist" despite concerns about a back injury suffered at Kansas. Fellow Jayhawk Andrew Wiggins and former Duke standout Jabari Parker were also said to be in the mix.
Cleveland went for Wiggins at No. 1, only to flip him and 2013 No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett to the Minnesota Timberwolves in a three-team trade that brought Kevin Love to Cleveland.
The only conspiracy theory from this whole ordeal—and any draft lottery, for that matter—was the one born of the all-too-conspicuous absences of Wiggins and Bennett from LeBron's letter, co-authored by Sports Illustrated's Lee Jenkins, announcing his homecoming.
It’s possible that No. 1 pick was the tipping point in James' decision to rejoin the Cavaliers in 2014. He and his camp had to know they could spin Wiggins into a more experienced sidekick, though a spot anywhere in the top three might have sufficed.
Had the draft order played out as planned, the Milwaukee Bucks would've been better off with a healthy Wiggins instead of a now-twice-injured Parker. But would the Philadelphia 76ers, at No. 2, be any further along in their Process with Parker than Embiid given their struggles to stay on the court? Would the Orlando Magic have pulled themselves out of their post-Dwightmare with Embiid hobbling around rather than Aaron Gordon struggling to find his calling?
In the grander scheme, the Cavs were the only team for which drafting first in 2014 would've made a world of difference. And in their case, that had little to do with the player they took.