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Eric Wilbur's Sports Blog

As Usual, Playing Ping-Pong in the NBA is a Total Racket

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Denver Nuggets coach Brian Shaw, left, chatted with New Orleans Pelicans general manager Dell Demps before the NBA lottery in New York on Tuesday. AP Photo

Well, that was fun.

David Stern may be gone, but his legacy of tomfoolery in the NBA Draft Lottery remains as strong as ever, now to the degree that we aren't left wondering if there were shenanigans involved with the Cleveland Cavaliers "winning" the first pick in this year's draft, but why.

Payback for LeBronís ďDecision?Ē A potential buddy reality show with Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel in the works? Is Dan Gilbert simply handing out free rubdowns at NBA headquarters?

Frankly, it bores us to no end trying to figure out Cleveland's importance in all this other than to gape at the odds that the team faced in landing three No. 1 picks over the past four years: 13,467:1. Isn't that neat?

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From a Boston perspective, quit whining. After a season dedicated to worshipping at the altar of the false ping-pong gods, the Celtics are right about where they should be picking: Sixth. Much like the 2013-14 campaign in general, that spot has potential with some grooming and a Rainbow Swash in Dorchester filled with patience. Hey, after all, Larry Bird was a No. 6 pick.

So was Joe Klein.

And Ron Mercer.

Maybe it will be worth it, the nightly irrelevance the Celtics were all winter in hopes of a Tom Bergeron ("Lottery Live" edition, not the one on the overbearing, celebrity dance competition) lookalike awarding them good fortune by simply plucking names out of a hat. This is a professional sports league, where millions of dollars and livelihoods are put in the faith of air-popped plastic balls. Why not just draw straws? Or eeny, meeny?

"Suck for Luck" in the NFL, and you wind up with a franchise quarterback. Do the same in the NBA, and more often than not you wind up paddling in the same mediocrity that got you there in the first place.

To suggest that the NBA Draft Lottery is broken is like putting your pants on one leg at a time and then wondering how you got there. Every season teams go through the same, stupid hopes of bucking the system, only to find themselves woefully unrewarded come May. By November, the whole thing is forgoteÖ.Hey, look at that kid Calipari recruited.

If the lottery system were put in place to discourage teams from ignoring the competitive nature of the league, with the tantalizing crumbled pecan pie awaiting them at the finish line of their season-long fast, then it works about as well as telling a child he canít go to Disney World and sending his older sibling instead. Teams will try to tank every year, and every time the lottery comes around, the middling teams get better for a stretch, while the dregs of the league continue to tread financial water.

But hereís the real catch: Attaining the No. 1 pick doesnít matter one iota unless youíre the likes of Miami, Los Angeles, or New York, lifestyle destinations where free agents will flock. Since the lottery system was fixed put in place in 1985, when the New York Knicks shocked the world by landing the top pick, and thus Patrick Ewing, exactly two (two) players have gone on to win a title with the team that drafted him first overall: David Robinson (í87) with the San Antonio Spurs and Tim Duncan (í97) with theÖSan Antonio Spurs.

That fact speaks to four factors:

1 Ė Just plain bad luck. Greg Oden.

2 Ė Stupidity. Andrea Bargnani. Michael Olowokandi.

3 Ė The market. In a league where glitz is king, four seasons mired in Milwaukee will be plenty for Joel Embiid.

4 - Those freaking Spurs, huh?

Celtics fans know both spectrums of the lottery, getting mercilessly kicked in their green teeth both in í97 and 10 years later. Dreams of Duncan went unwarranted primarily because the Spurs suffered a blow when Robinson went down for the season. Rick Pitino ended up with Mercer and Chauncey Billups, who he gave up on after 51 games. In 2007, Danny Ainge rightfully said, ďScrew No. 5Ē and instead built a team that hoisted a long-overdue banner. Kevin McHale still gets thank-you cards.

If Ainge had stayed put with the fifth draft pick and merely added Jeff Green to Paul Pierce and company? Maybe the Celtics leap to No. 3 the next season and get the joy of drafting O.J. Mayo. Whee!

For the most part, teams drafting are left with a list of kids, most of whom are too green for the NBA. That either results in them being labeled busts, or just merely groomed in their podunk city until they can jump at the chance for free agency. But thereís still just such a fine line to draw there. For every Kobe Bryant, there is a Kwame Brown. For every Kevin Durant, an Oden. For every Darko Milicic, there are Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade, all mercilessly laughing at you in the face.

If any professional sports draft pick is normally an unsure commodity, in the NBA itís more like shooting darts blindfolded and drunk.

Thatís why the lottery system makes it all particularly worse; in a sport where one player can be the difference-maker, the slightest slip in the draft can affect you for years. Unless youíre the Cavs, in which you merely get a do-over for Anthony Bennett.

Iím not sure what it means, but since the lottery system was put into place 29 years ago, the NBA has had only eight different teams win championships, or about 27 percent of the league. Compare that to the NFL (14 teams, 44 percent), NHL (15, 50 percent), and Major League Baseball (16, 53 percent), over the same time period, and it is clear that parity isnít something germane to basketball.

Should it be? I donít know. Sports are generally more interesting when thereís a greater landscape of competition, but if it means the Carolina Hurricanes have their name on the Stanley Cup? Ick.

The easy way to fix the system is to simply have a natural progression of bad teams getting the top picks like in the NFL and MLB. The NHL may labor through the lottery process as well, but the pool is that much greater that the difference between picks 3 and 6 is normally negotiable. And just how the hell do you tank in hockey anyway?

If you still think that will encourage NBA teams to give it their fraction of effort, there is always the ďDraft Wheel,Ē (seen below) that Grantlandís Zach Lowe presented last winter as an option for the NBA.

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ďThe team that gets the no. 1 pick in the very first year of this proposed system would draft in the following slots over the systemís first six seasons: 1st, 30th, 19th, 18th, 7th, 6th,Ē Lowe wrote. ďJust follow the wheel around clockwise to see the entire 30-year pick cycle of each team, depending on their starting spoke in Year 1.Ē

What a laborious headache. So, if you got LeBron one year, you could build around him by drafting Anderson Varej„o with the 30th pick the next year? Wonderful.

Wouldnít the system eliminate hope for bad teams?

ďPerhaps,Ē Lowe writes.

So, whatís the diff?

Who knows? Maybe the best idea for curing the absurdity of the NBA Draft Lottery is to make it even dumber, yet more complicated for anyone lacking a degree in either nuclear physics or underhanded deals to understand. Hey, look it may be fixed, but you just don't understand how it's fixed.

Also, I like Julius Randle a lot and wouldnít hate him in Green. Then again, I thought the Celtics got a steal with Mercer at No. 6.

Not to worry though, itíll probably be someone elseís pick to mess up anyhow. Just be warned, there are only so many Kevin Garnetts in the NBA world, but plenty of teams aloof enough to surrender his like in the name of the almighty draft pick.


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