One of my most unforgettable “Where were you?” sports memories doesn’t involve an actual game or players, although seven teams took part. It was the NBA’s first draft lottery, held Mother's Day 1985, the day after my Howard University graduation ceremony.
I was a nervous wreck that Sunday in my dorm room at Carver Hall, anxiously watching the lottery broadcast on CBS. When commissioner David Stern announced that the second pick belonged to the Indiana Pacers, I leapt for joy and ran hollering into the hallway: Patrick Ewing was headed to my beloved New York Knicks.
The Knicks never brought me to the next level of celebration (although they came close as I drove Vanessa to the hospital for our second child’s birth and heard Larry Johnson’s four-point play on the radio). But in that regard I’m like most NBA fans, or at least fans of teams that nab the top pick.
Unfortunately, the result of Wednesday’s lottery proceedings is likely to be as good as it gets for the winner.
That’s not to suggest the team’s fortunes will remain the same. More victories are almost guaranteed. A playoff berth isn’t out of the question before long. The selectee could have MVP trophies in his future.
But in 27 seasons with the NBA lottery system, only one franchise has won a championship with a player it drafted first overall. The San Antonio Spurs did it with a pair of players picked a decade apart, Tim Duncan (No. 1 in 1997) and David Robinson (1987).
Others have come exasperatingly close. Ewing led the Knicks to the NBA finals in 1994 and 1999. Allen Iverson (1996) carried the Philadelphia 76ers to the finals in 2001. Kenyon Martin (2000) played a leading role during the New Jersey Nets’ back-to-back runs in 2002 and 2003. LeBron James (2003) had his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers in the championship round within four seasons.
Coming in as runner-up isn’t the worse-case scenario. Those teams enjoyed a measure of success and reaped some reward for their investment. They did much better than counterparts who gained the No. 1 pick in the lottery era and turned that opportunity into a lottery error. Washington’s choice of Kwame Brown (2001) is the runaway winner in that category, with dishonorable mention going to the Los Angeles Clippers‘ Michael Olowokandi (1998) and Portland’s Greg Oden (2007).
Orlando deserves a separate category for cruel and unusual punishment. The Magic didn’t draft busts with their top picks, but each disappointed in their own ways. Shaquille O’Neal (1992) led Orlando to the finals in 1995, but he bolted after the following season and won four rings before retiring. Dwight Howard led Orlando to the finals in 2009, but he’s likely headed elsewhere after fracturing the franchise and getting folks fired this season.
Nonetheless, fans in Charlotte undoubtedly are drooling at the thought of landing the No. 1 in the draft - presumably Kentucky’s Anthony Davis. The Bobcats didn’t provide much to cheer for while producing the NBA’s worst record ever, but a celebration Wednesday would make up for that. Likewise, Washington fans dream of gaining the No. 1 pick for the second time in three years.
Where a team drafts isn’t nearly as important as who it picks and what it does afterward. Take the Clippers, who have made a record 22 lottery appearances. They drafted fourth, third and second in consecutive years (1999-2001), selecting Lamar Odom, Darius Miles and Tyson Chandler, respectively. Conversely, Oklahoma City drafted second, fourth and third in consecutive years, (2007-09), taking Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden.
Winning the draft lottery brings a wave of joy and euphoria, especially when a great prospect is there for the taking. But it rarely pays in full. History suggests the odds of raising a banner are the same - or better - without such “Where were you?” moments.
© Copyright 2013 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.
Deron Snyder is an award-winning journalist and Washington Times sports columnist with more than 25 years of experience. He has worked at USA Today and his column was syndicated in Gannett’ 80-plus newspapers from 2000-2009, appearing in The Arizona Republic, The Indianapolis Star, The Detroit News and many others. Follow Deron on Twitter @Its_Ball_Good or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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