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ON BASKETBALL

Celtics can't curse their lot over fall

To listen to and read all the palaver yesterday, you would have thought the Celtics were the victims of the commissioner's wrath or some sort of league conspiracy Tuesday night. The teams that were suspected of tanking games to improve their odds -- the Bucks, Grizzlies, and Celtics -- were the teams that suffered the most in the NBA draft lottery.

No, the Celtics didn't get what they wanted, but not because of anything sinister from David Stern or his henchmen. They didn't get it because they had an almost 80 percent chance of not getting it. The glass-half-full contingent looked at the lottery and said, "Well, the Celtics have the second-highest chance of getting the No. 1 pick, so their chances are pretty good." The realists said, "The Celtics have a 1-in-5 chance of getting the No. 1 pick, so their chances are pretty slim."

And realism trumped hope.

That is the way of the lottery. It is not a system that is designed to reward the incompetent, the futile, or the unfortunate. How could it be, given those staggering odds that the team with the worst record must overcome?

Tuesday night's was the 23d lottery. It has undergone a few changes since its inception, but only four times has the team with the worst record come away with the No. 1 pick. (In 1996, Philadelphia had the second-worst record, but the worst team, Vancouver, was ineligible for the No. 1 pick. The 76ers got the first pick and took Allen Iverson.)

What the lottery undeniably has become is another entertainment vehicle for the NBA. It generates an inordinate amount of interest, especially in the handful of cities whose teams feel they have a legitimate chance at the No. 1 pick. That interest spikes when there is a supposed franchise player available, as appears to be the case in 2007. Who will ever forget the reaction of that fan in Boston as he watched Adam Silver pull the Celtics' logo out of the No. 5 envelope? That picture is a keeper.

Think anyone in Portland felt comfortable or confident going into this year's lottery with a 5.3 percent chance of winning? This was the same team that the year before had had the worst record, the highest odds at the No. 1 pick, and ended up dropping to No. 4 overall. In other words, the 2006 team had five times more chances at No. 1 than the 2007 team -- and ended up at No. 4.

As the Celtics' Leo Papile noted, it's like putting your future on a table at Foxwoods.

But do you think the Trail Blazers are calling for a system overhaul? Or the folks in (pick a city) that will eventually be home to the team now known as the SuperSonics? Outgoing Grizzlies director of basketball operations Jerry West grumbled about the system -- Jerry West pretty much grumbles about everything -- but in basketball, where one player can make a dramatic difference, you can't simply go by reverse records.

Look what happened this year, with a heavily weighted lottery. You still had teams positioning themselves for more Ping-Pong balls. (That's a polite way of saying they tanked games. And you know who you are.)

You didn't see or hear much of that stuff last year, when Andrea Bargnani and Tyrus Thomas were available. But there were two indisputable difference-makers, Greg Oden and Kevin Durant, available this year, so that led to all the skullduggery. (And, to be fair, Bargnani might be one, too, someday.)

The lottery itself was born to put an end to tanking; we have the Houston Rockets in 1984 to thank for that. The original lottery treated all seven non-playoff teams the same. The weighting system came later, mainly because Orlando won it two years in a row. (I still haven't figured out why that was so bad. Lotteries inherently are gambling enterprises.)

As long as the numbers remain what they are, it doesn't make sense for any team to tank games. Yes, you may get more combinations. But the overall odds against you are still overwhelming. The Celtics didn't even have a 40 percent chance of getting one of the first two picks. Yet they were undeniably, unabashedly, and understandably crestfallen when the results came out.

But, as the saying goes, someone has to win. Portland was that someone Tuesday night, despite an almost 95 percent chance of not winning. That's what makes the lottery exasperating. That's what makes it entertaining. Anyone can win it. Maybe the odds need to be changed to bring hope closer to reality, because as it now stands, even for the worst of teams, the gap is huge.

Peter May can be reached at P_May@globe.com.

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