Although the process has kind of become somewhat of a caricature of itself -- Dan Feldman of Pro Basketball Talk deftly pointed this out by producing theories for why the NBA will rig the lottery for every team involved -- it's worth remember that the NBA draft lottery is the most exciting event of its kind in sports (with apologies to the NHL lottery and its unfortunately lack of conspiracy theories). For those wondering why it might be worth tuning in this evening, it's probably worth remembering that only 11 years ago, the sports world was only one ping pong ball away from being sent in a completely different trajectory.
The 2003 draft lottery more or less went according to script, but it's easy to overlook that LeBron James was *this* close to becoming a member of Memphis Grizzlies.
Memphis finished the 2002-2003 NBA season with a 28-54 record, which was, quite depressingly, the best finish in franchise history up to that point. Indeed for the first time since the team served poutine at games, it appeared that the franchise was on the upswing.
But first year team president Jerry West had a problem. Because of a shortsighted 1997 trade for a then 35-year-old Otis Thorpe -- who would only play 47 games as a Grizzly, no less -- the team would have to trade their lottery pick to the Detroit Pistons... unless the ping pong ball gods smiled upon Memphis and gave the team the first overall pick. This was a long shot, given the meticulous tanking that other teams -- most notably the 17-win Denver Nuggets and Cleveland Cavaliers -- had engaged in during the regular season to ensure they would land a top selection.
But on that evening, the Grizzlies defied the odds. While their record determined they would have the fifth-best chance (only 6.4 percent) at winning the lottery, they improbably were one of the final three teams remaining in contention for top pick.
The Memphis Grizzlies, in that one moment, went from potentially drafting LeBron James (or Darko Milicic, but I have to imagine West would have known better than to do that) to being pushed out of the top 10 picks all together. Jerry's face says it all.
"When you get down to these situations with a player of the magnitude at one or two in the draft, it would have been an enormous addition to our team -- enormous," West told SI in 2003 after the lottery. "I think there are three or four kids in this draft that are going to be tremendous NBA players, and more importantly for the city of Memphis and the Grizzlies coaching staff, if we'd have gotten the number one pick we would have gotten a real special player."
West would eventually turn the Grizzlies into perennial playoff contenders, but the franchise missing out on their shot at LeBron James is perhaps one of the more underrated what-if's in professional sports. Given both their pedigrees, it's not ridiculous to imagine that the combination of LeBron on the court and West in the front office might have sparked one of the greatest dynasties ever.
So yes, the NBA draft lottery may be antiquated, and even unjust, but it's difficult to deny provocative nature of an event that can determine the entire fate of a franchise -- and sport as a whole -- entirely by chance.
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