- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Once again at lottery time, the Wizards were cursed with too much ping - or not enough pong. The jewel of the 2009 draft, Blake Griffin, will go to the Clippers, and Washington fans will spend the next decade wondering how a power forward with Karl Malone’s muscle and Amare Stoudemire’s spring might have fit in with Agent Zero and Co.

(Wild guess: They probably would have found a way not to bump into one another.)

Yes, you can obsess too much about getting the first overall pick. As history has shown, it’s not always the key to happiness. But consider the recent record:

Dwight Howard just led the Magic to the finals. Howard was the first pick in the 2004 draft.

Two years earlier, LeBron James led the Cavaliers to the finals. LeBron was the first pick in the 2003 draft.

Not long before that, Kenyon Martin was Jason Kidd’s sidekick on the Nets clubs that made the ‘02 and ‘03 finals. Martin was the first pick in the 2000 draft.

In fact, going back to 1999, there has only been one NBA championship series that didn’t involve at least one former First Pick, usually in a prominent role. (Surprisingly, it was last year’s star-studded finals, which featured Kobe Bryant and the Celtics’ Big Three of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen but nobody who went No. 1 overall.)

Heck, in six of those series, you had at least two former First Picks playing for the title, and in ‘99 you had four on the rosters of the two finalists - Patrick Ewing (No. 1 in ‘85) and Larry Johnson (‘91) for the Knicks and Tim Duncan (‘97) and David Robinson (‘87) for the winning Spurs.

A quick rundown:

2000 - Shaquille O’Neal (1992’s Numero Uno).

2001 - Shaq and Allen Iverson (‘96).

2002 - Shaq and Martin.

2003 - Duncan, Robinson and Martin.

2004 - Shaq.

2005 - Duncan and Glenn Robinson (‘94), who got some perfunctory minutes off the San Antonio bench.

2006 - Shaq.

2007 - Duncan and James.

And now Howard.

For most of these former First Picks, success came fairly quickly, too. LeBron was 22. Howard is 23 - as were Duncan and O’Neal the first time they reached the finals. Martin was 24. AI was 25. So all the razzmatazz surrounding the lottery is more than just hype. If you get your hands on The Right No. 1, the fortunes of the entire franchise can change.

But let’s face it, it has less to do with science than with luck - as the Wizards well know. It’s not just enough to have the pingpong balls bounce your way. They have to do it in a year when there’s an O’Neal or a Duncan available. Otherwise you wind up with Kwame Brown… or Michael Olowokandi… or a noncenterpiece like Joe Smith.

Actually, four former First Picks have been the property of the Wizards in the last, oh, 20 years - Brown (No. 1 in 2001), Chris Webber (1993), Pervis Ellison (‘89) and, ever so briefly, Ralph Sampson (‘83). Alas, none was a true franchise player. Brown was - and still is - a Classic Headcase, Webber could always be counted on to miss from 10 to 67 games, Ellison was even more brittle (and less talented) and Sampson, who had gone to the finals in ‘86 with the Rockets, was at the end of the line, trying to get by without the benefit of knees.

Getting back to Kwame, though - and with the Wizards, doesn’t it always get back to Kwame? - it was an absolutely dreadful year to be looking for a difference-maker in the draft. The best scorer who came out in ‘01 was a second-round selection, a fellow by the name of Gilbert Arenas. The best rebounder was Tyson Chandler, and the best point guard was Tony Parker. Any of them, obviously, would have been preferable to Brown, as would a number of others available (Pau Gasol, Joe Johnson, Richard Jefferson). But would they have changed the course of the franchise, which is what you hope for from a No. 1 overall pick?

So it goes in the NBA crapshoot. In the old days, the fate of clubs would hinge on the flip of a coin. That’s how the Suns lost the chance to draft Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (and wound up with Neal Walk instead). Forty years later, they’re still looking for their first title.

Nowadays, futures are determined by pingpong balls. Gregg Popovich has Tim Duncan land in his lap, so he gets to be a genius. Doug Collins gets stuck with Kwame Brown, so he gets to be fired.

LeBron James makes Mike Brown the coach of the year. Michael Olowokandi makes Chris Ford an assistant again (save for an interim stint with the 76ers in ‘04).

It’s all about Being Bad at the Right Time - and then having things break your way on lottery day.

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