What If: How The Lottery Could Have Changed The NBA

By: 05.30.12

Oklahoma's Blake Griffin

Charlotte wants — no, needs; actually MUST get — the No. 1 pick in tonight’s NBA Draft lottery selection. The Bobcats just endured the worst season in NBA history, giving owner Michael Jordan the dubious distinction of being a part of the NBA’s best and worst teams. What separated them? Sixty-five wins — and a roster that didn’t resemble one drawn out of a hat at random. And key to that, of course, is good drafting. As history tells us, though, it’s hardly a guarantee that Charlotte will get the top pick.

Sure, Charlotte is one of America’s major banking centers, but the only thing bankable about this team was that they’d fail spectacularly. Paul Silas looked to be in some sort of seizure in every game, perpetually grimacing as if to say, “Seriously?” If you hedged that Bobcats bet, congratulations, you made out well. The rest of us, though, had to actually watch this team, and it was not pretty; so bad, in fact, that the Bobcats “earned” 250 out of a possible 1,000 chances to earn tonight’s No. 1.

But how has that fared in the past? Not since 2004, when Orlando was the NBA’s worst team and took Dwight Howard after winning the lottery, has the worst team won the top lottery slot. In fact, you don’t even have to be close to the top to win. The Bulls had a 1.7 percent chance in 2008, giving them the ninth-best chance. We’ll let NBA conspiracy theorists decide whether that pick, along with Patrick Ewing to the Knicks in 1985, was rigged. Instead, it’s much more fun to dream about the hypotheticals. Fantasy leagues are insanely popular in the NBA, so consider this just an extension of putting yourself in a GM’s office. How would the NBA be changed if the team supposed to win actually won?

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2005: Andrew Bogut (Milwaukee). Actual worst team: Atlanta.
Atlanta needed a bigger body that season and eventually picked Marvin Williams, who was hot off his role as uber-sixth man for a title-winning North Carolina team. Bogut has been less of a bust than Williams when he’s healthy, but his arrival in ATL wouldn’t have triggered a massive change in the Hawks’ future. Now, had Atlanta gone with either Deron Williams or Chris Paul (and when Tyronn Lue and Tony Delk are your best PPG guards, there’s room for a new guard), the Hawks would likely be in the East finals at least once paired with the current squad of Joe Johnson and Josh Smith. Of course, they wouldn’t have been nearly as bad to get Al Horford so high in the 2007 draft, either. Prediction: Would have made two East finals.

2006: Andrea Bargnani (Toronto). Actual worst team: Portland.
Easily one of the most intriguing “what ifs” because while Portland was actually much better in the short-term with Brandon Roy at No. 4, they’ve since come apart at the seams with him retiring early. Bargnani’s presence still would have done nothing to keep Portland from being so bad the next year that the Trail Blazers would be in position to draft Greg Oden (sorry Blazer fans), but while he’s still around (unlike Roy) and still productive, he wouldn’t be a game-changer. That is, one in the mold of LaMarcus Aldridge, who was the No. 2 pick this year. I’m not convinced Portland would have chosen Bargnani, who doesn’t fit the mold they got in Aldridge’s more traditional post-up game. Then again, Portland does weird things in the draft, so it’s better not to assume. Prediction: A wash.

2007: Greg Oden. Actual worst team: Memphis
Even with Pau Gasol on the roster in Memphis at the time, Grizzlies’ execs could have been imagining a master plan to ship him out for good parts in return, all while replacing him with the seeming next-coming of … in-his-prime Pau Gasol. That they went with a guard, Mike Conley Jr., is logical given the Grizzlies’ third-best scorer was Chucky Atkins that season and even Damon Stoudamire played in 62 games. Kevin Durant is the can’t-miss star now, but with a player in his mold (Rudy Gay) already young and on the roster and Pau looking like incredible trade bait I could see the Grizz going with the Ohio State star. Conley, for all the head-scratching we gave his new contract last season, has become a dependable guard who’s already led one 8-over-1 playoff upset and should have gone to the second round this year. Prediction: Disaster for Memphis, back into the lottery the next two seasons.

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Derrick Rose

Derrick Rose (photo. adidas)

2008: Derrick Rose. Actual worst team: Miami
Can you imagine Dwyane Wade and Rose together? With Rose running point his numbers wouldn’t have approached his MVP season of two years ago because of deferring to Wade, but the productivity and the excitement these two would have created would have been unreal. Something along the lines of a KD-Russell Westbrook tandem that break traditional guard roles. This addition would not have precluded the Heat from needing Chris Bosh or LeBron James in free agency, and you have to think a team with that makeup wouldn’t have created any need for “The Decision” — because it would have been a no-brainer. Play with D-Rose and D-Wade? Play with D-Rose and D-Wade. Even Clevelanders would have shrugged. Prediction: Two NBA titles for Miami, fewer burned jerseys in Cleveland.

2009: Blake Griffin. Actual worst team: Sacramento
This one seems pretty easy. Tyreke Evans is a hell of a player and for the love of revisionist history, he won NBA rookie of the year! But Griffin would bring the “new money” mystique to Sacramento as he has in Clipperland, a franchise with a perception that was much, much worse than the Kings. He’d sit out the year with his microfracture surgery, which would give Sacramento an even better chance at the 2010 lottery than they had (fifth pick for DeMarcus Cousins). Suddenly, everyone swarms to Arco Arena like Mike Bibby is still dropping dimes to Vlade Divac as the Kings become the new “it” team in the league. The co-owning Maloof brothers drum of support for a new arena because, hey, there’s demand of 50,000 people wanting to see Blake dunk, let alone the 23,000 the new place can hold. Prediction: The Kings wouldn’t be moving.

2010: John Wall . Actual worst team: New Jersey.
Sorry Nets, this is not a story of being a Ping-Pong ball bounce away from you becoming the next Spurs Post-Duncan. Wall would be interesting to have playing in Brooklyn and is the no-doubt face of the franchise. There is no way the Nets don’t pick Wall (he was as much a lock as his Kentucky brethren Anthony Davis is this year), but I don’t see him bringing in a flood of talent around him, nor improving the team by 20-plus wins. An incredible player can only do so much with the parts around him, and New Jersey is like the cast of “Xanadu” being built around Brad Pitt. It’s not going to work, much like the Deron Williams experiment has yielded low returns. Prediction: More of the same for the Nets.

Kyrie Irving

Kyrie Irving (photo. D.L. Anderson)

2011: Kyrie Irving. Actual worst team: Minnesota
GM David Kahn loves point guards, and with Jonny Flynn and Ricky Rubio already on the roster, would Minny have even taken Irving? Neither Flynn nor Rubio had the buzz at the time to warrant much in return in a trade, so it seems like a backlog of guards would have filled Minny’s roster. Seeing the guard situation as untenable, we think Kahn goes with Derrick Williams, again. His up-and-down rookie year has people forgetting how loud the buzz around the Arizona stud was post-NCAA Tournament. Kahn would have gone with the logical complementary piece to Kevin Love. With only a year to see how this draft class has performed, it’s much harder to see how a do-over with this class would have changed the inner workings of the league. The Spurs likely would still have taken Kawhi Leonard, for example, and we’d still be cleaning up after our slobber (as we are now) talking about how well he’s fit into that system. For the Wolves, though, they’d still be at home for the playoffs. Prediction: Nothing different.

What is the most likely scenario?

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