This year, second also wins lottery

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It was early April, and the Washington Wizards were a little more than an hour from tipoff on the road in Charlotte.

The locker room atmosphere was loose, as it was for most of the season, even though the Wizards had just learned Caron Butler would be lost for the remainder of the season with a broken hand.

But the topic of debate among Gilbert Arenas, Antonio Daniels and DeShawn Stevenson already focused on the summer: Which college freshman, Ohio State’s Greg Oden or Texas’ Kevin Durant, should be selected first in the NBA Draft in June?

Everyone involved gave their vote to Durant, continuing a debate sure to heat up tonight after the NBA Draft lottery determines the order of the draft.

“Look at his numbers, look at his range,” Arenas said.

“He’s Baby T-Mac,” Stevenson said, shaking his head in amazement as he compared the 6-foot-9, 225-pound, 18-year-old forward to Houston All-Star Tracy McGrady.

The dialogue — which included reporters who appear to favor Oden — continued for several minutes. While all three players said they liked Oden a lot, they were adamant Durant — the first freshman to be named national player of the year — will be the better pro.

The conclusion of Arenas, Daniels and Stevenson differed from what general managers and NBA player personnel officials argue: Big men like the 7-foot Oden win titles.

Dominant post players Tim Duncan and Shaquille O’Neal were selected first in their respective drafts and have been parts of seven of the last eight NBA champions. Between them, they have won six finals MVPs.

“Historically, you go with the big man,” an Eastern Conference scout said earlier this season. “Look at the results. But I think that both of the top guys are special players this time around. Oden looks like he has huge upside. On the other hand, Durant looks ready to play in our league and perhaps be an All-Star in his first season.”

Either way, the team that wins tonight’s draft lottery likely will land a franchise cornerstone. Unlike in some years, such as 2001, when the Wizards chose Kwame Brown No. 1, both top prospects are seen as sure things.

The Memphis Grizzlies, with the worst record in the league (22-60), have the best shot at finishing with the top pick. Because of the way the lottery is weighted, they can pick no lower than fourth. Boston, which had the second-worst record (24-58), can choose no lower than fifth.

Finishing with the worst record has not always guaranteed lottery success. In the 22 years of the lottery’s existence, the team that had or tied for the worst record won the top pick just four times.

The key has been picking first when a dominant player is available like this year. San Antonio has had the No. 1 pick twice — landing David Robinson in 1987 and Duncan in 1997. It has avoided the draft lottery since, the longest streak in the league.

The lottery also can be cruel. San Antonio didn’t have the worst record in 1997 — the Boston Celtics were 15-67 — but still won the lottery. The Celtics, meanwhile, missed out on Duncan and instead landed Chauncey Billups at No. 3 (they traded Billups that season) and Ron Mercer at No. 6. The Celtics haven’t won a title since 1986, while San Antonio has won three with Duncan.

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