By Adam Spinella
Conspiracy theories are the best. The lunar landing was fake. Dark Side of the Moon is meant to be in sync with The Wizard of Oz. Trump is working with the Russians (okay, this one may be real). Still, there’s nothing like popping a can of your beverage of choice, lounging back in a recliner and listening to your buddy rattle off the lunacies that make sense in their brain. Instead of tossing the millions of “yeah, but” statements which could potentially falsify the argument, it’s always best to lean back and let them go until they’re blue in the face. After all, it is free entertainment.
The NBA has long been the center of a conspiracy theory well known across the sports world — that the NBA Draft Lottery is rigged. Screw the fact that there are cameras in the room when the process is taking place! Forget that multi-billionaire owners and their handsomely-paid legal representatives help oversee the process. The lotto fixing remains one of the conspiracy theories with the most grandeur, the most intrigue, and the most fun reputation across the entertainment landscape.
So, in what seems like an annual tradition of the most lighthearted nature, I indulge those conspiracy theorists. I’ve found a way to prove, beyond any reasonable doubt, that for each team that wins the draft lottery we can prove that it’s rigged! So join me on your leather lazyboys, kick back with a chilled domestic and prepare for the NBA Draft Lottery in the way only a true sports cynic can… with the 2017 version of “How To Tell If The Draft Lottery Is Rigged”.
It’s kosher to start with a nice visual, provided by friends over at Tankathon, for how the odds are presented to the public. Each team’s odds of ending up with each of the fourteen lottery picks are shown below, with some trades and swaps highlighted in red.
The Lakers pick, if falling outside the top three, goes to Philadelphia. If the Pelicans do not jump into the lottery, it’s shipped off to Sacramento. That 0.0 percent chance the Kings have after the 10th pick (which is really 0.0001 percent) would mean the pick goes to Chicago. Philadelphia also has the right to swap picks with the Kings if theirs ends up being better than the Sixers. So those five teams have some fingers crossed extra tight that the lottery turns out well.
Let’s run this down, team by team, and make their case for why the system should be rigged in their favor this year.
Gang green earned both the number-one seed in the Eastern Conference the same season they have the highest odds at the number-one pick, thanks to the Brooklyn Nets. Why would the NBA want the rich to get richer? Well Boston still is weak in transcendent and marketable stars, and giving them this pick allows them to either trade it for one or draft one. The league draws well when the Celtics, a franchise with robust history and a loyal fanbase, are a true contender, and seeing a more equitable Cavaliers-Celtics rivalry in the East may be the league’s last great chance to throw a compelling storyline at LeBron in the East.
Of course, Silver has to think carefully about giving such a valuable pick to a team that could turn around and trade it for a guy like Paul George or Jimmy Butler. This is such a valuable tool for the NBA to use in helping shape the landscape of the league; giving a pick to the Celtics just to swap it elsewhere is a move that loses them some control over the process. Still, in today’s political climate, it would feel nice to stick it to Prokhorov and the Russians by having Brooklyn’s would-be pick win the lottery.
Phoenix may be one of those great cases for knowing the lottery is fixed by them getting bumped out of the lottery. Think about it, Phoenix hasn’t exactly been the most loyal basketball community in the league. They already have a franchise-caliber backcourt, and the expected top-two picks are both point guards. The league can still cultivate a winner in Phoenix by giving them a fourth overall pick, and can use this opportunity in the lottery to vault another team into a speedier rebuild.
If the Suns were to get something in their favor, it’s because the league thinks a superstar point guard and Devin Booker can key a successful turnaround for years to come. Similar to the Celtics situation, the NBA would probably want a back-channel say in where Eric Bledsoe goes as a result.
The NBA’s golden boys for two decades lose their pick entirely if they fall out of the top three. So while the odds are officially set at around a 56 percent chance of that happening, we all know the real odds are closer to zero percent. Magic Johnson is running the Lakers now! It’s such a high-profile story, and the league can cash in on it in such a specific way. It goes like this…
“Magic returns to save the Lakers. They draft Lonzo Ball first overall, making the UCLA kid the face of their franchise. Johnson turns Ball, a point guard that reminds the world of a young Magic, into a transcendent superstar, revolutionizes the style and pace the team plays at, and they’re back in the title hunt within three years.” It’s almost so obviously going to happen that there’s no reason to even watch on Tuesday night.
Of course, Silver has more intel than we do… if he suspects that Paul George is going to head to L.A. anyway, this might not be a pick needed to get the Lakers back into contention. If Silver has some sort of inside scoop and knows that the Lakers will get better without the pick, then dropping the pick outside the top three could be his best strategy to keep people from saying “see, this isn’t rigged, because the Lakers got screwed!” This is how any conspiracy theorist thinks… keep up with me here, would ya?
Everything gets so much more complicated with Philadelphia because there are a myriad of ways the ping pong balls could “fall” for them. The Sixers could end up with one pick (their own) and it could be as low as seventh. Or they could get three picks — including both of the first two picks — and the third pick could go as high as fourth. Could you imagine… three of the first four draft picks all belonging to Philadelphia? Viva La Hinkie! Trust the Process!
The happy medium for the NBA comes somewhere subtly in between, acquiescing the hurting fanbase while not looking to reward the efforts of the league’s arch-nemesis, the multi-year tank job. When the NBA helped step in and introduce Colangelo to the Sixers, the organization must have known firing Hinkie would be a super unpopular move to the cult leader of their loyalists. Perhaps a handshake agreement was made that the Sixers would swing another top-three pick this year, get their franchise point guard and call the whole thing even. Either that or if they made the deal to get the Lakers pick too, the league will make sure Philly isn’t in the top two and doesn’t get Ball or Fultz. Those both sound like rational meeting grounds between the two parties.
Orlando doesn’t even have a General Manager yet, and their owner Richard DeVos is the husband of one of the enemies of the liberal world these days. Silver and the league run a fairly progressive platform, so if pop culture are at play and the league wants any individual to suffer, it would be a cunning move to keep the Magic away from the top of the draft.
There are no other stars on the roster, and giving them one superstar might not even make the franchise relevant for many moons. The more I think about it, this could be the perfect landing spot for Lonzo Ball if the league is looking to stick his father on an incompetent franchise of mediocrity and outside of the plans the NBA is currently puppeteering (you know, because the whole league is fixed). If the Magic don’t win with Ball? Great, we gave them a top draft pick and they messed it up. If they do, wonderful that Lonzo is such a large superstar that the Magic are relevant with little skin off the league’s backs.
After a while, enough is enough, right? Minnesota can’t possibly get another top-tiered star to flounder. They already have Wiggins, LaVine and Towns, plus some other household names like Ricky Rubio and last year’s first-rounder Kris Dunn. Giving them another top three pick would be insane. But the league could desperately use a playoff-bound and compelling Timberwolves team — Wiggins draws in Canada, Towns is a transcendent star and a backcourt of LaVine and Fultz or Ball would make for must-see television. Never say never.
Those poor Knicks fans deserve so much better than what they have. Phil Jackson has swung and missed so frequently since taking charge of the organization that it no longer feels like Kristaps Porzingis is enough of a beacon of hope to turn the franchise around. So what does the league do? Toss their largest market team another bone! This is a draft ripe with backcourt play — the exact areas where the Knicks need help. They don’t necessarily need the first overall pick, but jumping up to the third slot would guarantee them a probable star and a definite franchise point guard. Keeping the Knicks in the seven-hole could dilute their chances at getting a starting point guard. Eh, you don’t need a point guard to run the Triangle anyway.
Oh Sacramento… you are the most hated franchise by the league office, bar none. Your owner is a delusional mad man, your General Manager in over his head and your superstar player recently shipped away to New Orleans. If any team deserves to not jump up in the lottery with low odds, it’s them. What would be more painful: the Kings pick lofts into the top three and the Sixers falls all the way to sixth. That would mean Sacramento might miss out on their franchise point guard they’re craving (there are four clear names anticipated to be gone around the top five or six) and see the Sixers hit jackpot with their pick. A big screwjob to Vivek. Well… Kings fans should read the Pelicans section below to see what the ultimate screwjob really is.
Dallas has some merit to climbing here — Dirk and Nerlens are a good tandem, Harrison Barnes is good… hell, just give them a really good point guard and the Mavericks could slide back into the upper part of the playoff race in the West. The NBA loves Dirk, and giving him a winning team this season could elongate his career and the league’s ties in central Europe. Who wouldn’t want to see Dirk go out in an emotional postseason series next year?
So remember when I told Kings fans that this would be their ultimate screwjob year because the league hates Vivek? New Orleans cashes in on that. You see, the Pelicans pick goes to the Kings… if it isn’t in the top three, which it has only a 4.0 percent chance of being. But there are SO MANY reasons to think about the Pelicans getting this loot from a rigged perspective. Their longstanding ties with getting Tom Benson as the owner and pulling the strings on a CP3 deal. The need for Davis and Cousins, two of the league’s best big men, into the limelight and a postseason series. It only makes sense that New Orleans is our 2017 darkhorse for a lottery selection… the league would stand to profit heavily from a superpower revolving around Cousins, Davis and a young backcourt stud.
Now we’re officially in reach territory, where the teams left on the board have a fewer than three percent chance to vault into the top three and less than a one percent shot at the top overall pick. So these cases have to be really short, really simple and really strong. For Charlotte, it’s the desire to see what the league never has: Michael Jordan the owner vs. LeBron James the player. M.J. needs help if he wants his Hornets to ever reach that level while James is in his prime… this is the best method to do so.
Detroit needs hope. And a franchise point guard. And someone new for Stan Van Gundy to yell at. And we still feel bad about that whole Darko thing. So, maybe they get some miraculous gift from the NBA and get a gift as they head into their brand new downtown arena. Motown could use a spark.
If the league really likes Jokic — and I mean really really likes him — the Nuggets could be the recipients of a gift-wrapped superstar. Mudiay stinks, the team has some good players but not a lot of star power, and if they don’t get a superstar via the draft now, it may be the last chance before this roster looks totally different years down the road. Denver is a nice place, they have loyal fans, why not?
Pat Riley is owed something, and something big, for losing LeBron, then Wade, and now Bosh’s mystery ailment. The Heat have towed the party line regarding player safety, refusing to relent on Bosh while saving themselves and the league from a potential PR nightmare. The Heat won’t have a first-rounder next year or in 2021 thanks to the Goran Dragic deal, so there is a bit of a “now or never” feel to this type of charity work. And it’s not like Miami needs the number one pick here… a top three pick would cause the streets of South Beach to go crazy. If there’s anybody that the odds don’t apply to, it’s Pat Freakin’ Riley.