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ON BASKETBALL

Being pick of litter little help to NBA's dogs

Welcome to the 2004 NBA Draft Lottery. Or, as it's known in the inner circles, "An Evening With Elgin."

The 13 nonplayoff teams, four of whom had better records than the Celtics, will be paraded on stage tonight at, fittingly, the offices of NBA Entertainment in Secaucus, N.J., for another prime-time lottery. The expansion Charlotte Bobcats, a 14th lottery entrant, are already guaranteed the fourth pick but must nonetheless send a rep to Secaucus to sit there and smile through the suspense.

The usual suspects will be there, once again. Lottery regulars from the Los Angeles Clippers, Golden State Warriors, Washington Wizards, and Chicago Bulls are now on a first-name basis with all the NBA employees. Clippers general manager Elgin Baylor has seen his team qualify for the Ping-Pong jumble for the 10th time in 11 years; "Nice to see you again, Mr. Baylor. Another rough year, was it?" The Warriors, under new management (but, unfortunately, not new ownership) have qualified for the 10th straight year.

The Bulls are now automatic participants; they're in it for the sixth straight year, and not only that, they have the second-best chance at the overall No. 1 pick this time around. It's not unfamiliar territory. Since 1999, the Bulls have had a No. 1 pick (Elton Brand), a No. 2 pick (Jay Williams), traded for a No. 2 pick (Brand for Tyson Chandler), and two No. 4's (Eddy Curry and Marcus Fizer) -- and they still are awful. Washington is making its seventh consecutive lottery appearance and has not made the playoffs in 15 of the last 16 seasons.

But there are some remarkable newcomers. The Utah Jazz, whose 42-40 record would have been cause for a parade in many Eastern locales, are making their first appearance in the lottery. The last time the Jazz did not make the playoffs -- 1983 -- the draft was done by record alone. Imagine that! Utah emerged with Thurl Bailey. The Jazz have a 5-in-1,000 chance at the first pick, and Kevin O'Connor, the team's hoops boss, said he wasn't looking forward to the extravaganza. "Everyone in the organization hates the fact that we're in the lottery," O'Connor told the Salt Lake Tribune. "We'd much rather have won a 43d or 44th game and gone to the playoffs."

Sort of the anti-Danny, isn't he?

Also making a rare appearance are the Portland Trail Blazers, who finished 41-41. This is the first time the Blazers have qualified for the lottery; they haven't been this close to the top of the draft since 1984, the last non-lottery year, when they got the second pick and took Sam Bowie, leaving the Bulls to snap up Michael Jordan.

Over the years, the Blazers still have managed to draft the likes of Jermaine O'Neal, Aaron McKie, Zach Randolph, and Theo Ratliff (whom they traded to Detroit for Shawn Respert).

The Orlando Magic, who began last season being coached by Doc Rivers, will have the best statistical chance at the No. 1 overall pick by virtue of their league-worst 21-61 record. The Magic won lotteries in 1992 and 1993, providing Shaquille O'Neal, and, after a trade, Penny Hardaway. (The 1993 lottery was won by Orlando on a 1-in-66 shot; the next year, the league went to the Ping-Pong ball concept.)

Orlando will send vice president Pat Williams to the drawing; he was there in 1992 and 1993. Said Williams, "I hope that when people see me walk in, they start trembling. I want them to say, `We have no chance,' and to intimidate them."

The Magic have a 25 percent chance of ending up with the first pick. Ah, but as Celtics fans know all too well, having the odds with you is no sure thing. Only one team in the last 14 lotteries -- the 1990 Nets -- went into the lottery with the league's worst record and emerged with the No. 1 pick. (Last year's Cavaliers had the same number of chances, and same record, as Denver. The 1996 Sixers had the second-worst record but the best statistical chance at No. 1, which they got.)

Teams sometimes bring good-luck charms to the drawing; the Sixers are bringing a shoe from presumptive Triple Crown winner Smarty Jones. Utah's O'Connor said he hoped "being Irish is enough."

Then again, what's to wish for? There's no LeBron James in this draft. There may not even be a Kwame Brown, although Atlanta high school star Dwight Howard figures to be no worse than No. 2 on most lists. The University of Connecticut's Emeka Okafor, sort of a destitute man's Alonzo Mourning, could well be the No. 1 pick.

The other consensus top three pick (as of now, anyway) is Duke swingman Luol Deng. He has had one year of college ball.

None of the three is projected to be a big difference-maker out of the box. But you can be sure that a big smile will cross the face of whichever individual wins tonight's drawing. Then the fun (and the lying) can begin in earnest. 

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