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May 31, 2012
NBA Lottery
On Conspiracy Theories

by Bradford Doolittle

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I'm not one for conspiracy theories and I will refuse to buy into them to the bitter end. That is unless of course they proven to be true by concrete evidence. I have always shouted down suggestions that the NBA has used officials to manipulate results of key games. And I have likewise always dismissed suggestions that lottery results that were somehow or another favorable to the league have been manipulated. My main reason for this is that I believe there is just too much of a risk for the league to engage in such high-level fraud. If even one of these charges were ever proven to be true, the NBA would be irretrievably damaged. Kaput. Forever after viewed as nothing more than a hardcourt version of professional wrestling.

Last night, the rebuilding process of the New Orleans Hornets took a giant step forward when they became the only team to move up from its natural drafting slot, earning the right to select Anthony Davis as the top pick in the draft. It's a game-changing event for the team that is still at the moment owned and operated by the league, though Tom Benson will be taking the reins in the near future. Sure, the notion crossed my mind that, hey, this is awfully fortuitous. The team franchise that is probably wobbling more than any other in the NBA just happens to win the lottery in the season that a legit impact talent is on the board. And make no mistake about it, this is the Anthony Davis draft. But that's the way the lottery balls bounce, right?

Lottery rigging is not something that I want to think about, but when a high-caliber journalist like Adrian Wojnarowski is willing to publish a piece that calls into question the legitimacy of last night's event, you can't help but feel a little nauseous. Wojnarowski's sources are all anonymous in name, but he did identify them as officials within the league. No, that doesn't mean that the lottery was fixed. It does mean that it's not just the conspiracy-theory crackpots crying foul--there are real questions within the NBA about whether the lottery results were bended to conform to David Stern's iron will. This is troubling on many levels.

Tanking was a hot topic this season and many great ideas were floated about to reward teams for winning games after being eliminated from the postseason. It's been nearly three decades since the Rockets' back-to-back tank years landed them Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon, leading to a widespread outcry that wasn't quieted until the lottery system was installed in the aftermath. I think we're reaching a similar crisis stage with last night's lottery and once again, the NBA needs to take a serious look at how top amateur talent is delivered to its teams. That look should begin with an independent audit of how the lottery process unfolds from beginning to end. No, it's not likely that damning evidence could be brought to the fore even if the lottery weren't on the up-and-up. That doesn't mean an investigation shouldn't take place.

Last night's event was the 28th lottery. During that time, there have been a number of coincidental results that play into this paranoia in draft seasons in which there was a clear-cut top prize. There was the first lottery, when Patrick Ewing was the target. The Knicks, an essential franchise in the league that was atrocious on the court, won the rights to Ewing off a 1 in 7 chance under the early non-weighted format of the lottery. Questions about that outcome still hover over the league. After that, though, I don't recall thinking anything was amiss with any particular lottery outcome.

In 2003, LeBron James landed with his quasi-hometown Cavaliers, who at least had the league's worst record. Same thing the next year, when Orlando lost a league-worst 61 games and won the lottery rights to Dwight Howard. The James' situation raised some eyebrows because it really seemed too good to be true. As for Howard, I can't think of any great reason why at the time the league would have steered him to Orlando. At the same time, it's only in retrospect that Howard became the clear top dog of his draft class. When he was selected, there was no guarantee he was going to turn out this dominant. James was billed as a Michael Jordan-Magic Johnson hybrid by the time he was 16 years old; Howard didn't carry with him that sort of advanced-billing.

There were no slam-dunk No. 1 choices from 2005 to 2007, with the last of those years featuring a tough call between Greg Oden and Kevin Durant. Then came 2008, when the Bulls the won rights to hometown hero Derrick Rose despite just a 1.7 percent chance to ascend to the top pick. But it's only with hindsight that we see Rose as the obvious No. 1 pick. Michael Beasley had his advocates at the time, and a lot of them.

The last three years have featured pretty clear-cut top picks. Blake Griffin landing in Los Angeles was good for the league, but the Clippers had the second-worst record the year before and a 17.7 percent chance to get him. I don't recall that raising any eyebrows. The Cavaliers got Kyrie Irving because of another Clippers' pick that had been conveyed to them, one that had just a 2.8 percent chance of ending up No. 1. Cleveland's own pick slid to fourth when that happened. But if the league was going to rig those results because, I don't know, maybe they were trying to undo public relations damage caused by James' departure, they would have had the Cavs land the top pick with their own slot, wouldn't they? Wouldn't that have seemed less suspicious?

As for the Hornets, yes they moved up but they were tied for the third-worst record in the league and had a 13.7 percent chance to go No. 1. I'm sorry, but that just doesn't set off any alarm bells in my head. When you go through the lottery year-by-year, none of it seems all that fishy to me and in many cases, the head-scratchers only look bad in hindsight. Perhaps that's naive, but I don't know how else you can view it and remain a fan of the league.

To me, the NBA has always had to deal with this dark cloud regarding the lottery system because of Ewing landing with the Knicks that first year, and the resultant rumors of bent envelope corners. When randomness results in good fortune, someone always wants to cry foul. The reputation Stern has for a dictatorial style of running the league doesn't help matters, perhaps resulting in some of the grumbling coming from within the confines of the NBA's house.

I don't believe for a second that the NBA has ever rigged a lottery. But it's reached the point that too many people are raising questions. Transparency is in order going forward, and some kind of independent review should be conducted to look back. There also needs to be some serious thought given to the overall system of determining draft order. If the league indeed has nothing to hide, what could these ideas hurt? Why would any circuit want to deal with questions of impropriety when so much is at stake?

I've been an NBA fan since I was old enough to walk and pick up a basketball. I want to say that could never change. But I can say this without reservation: If any kind of wrong-doing was ever proven in terms of lottery rigging, I would be done. I would not watch another game, nor write another word on the subject. These are serious rumblings going around, and the league should seize the opportunity to dismiss them. No longer can the NBA continue to ignore what has long been a thorn in its side.

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