Houston Rockets’ questionable bad luck got lottery system off the ground

Posted Monday, May. 20, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
More information Lottery winners by year Year, team, draft pick 1985 New York Knicks, Patrick Ewing 1986 Cleveland Cavaliers, Brad Daugherty 1987 San Antonio Spurs, David Robinson 1988 Los Angeles Clippers, Danny Manning 1989 Sacramento Kings, Pervis Ellison 1990 New Jersey Nets, Derrick Coleman 1991 Charlotte Hornets, Larry Johnson 1992 Orlando Magic, Shaquille O’Neal 1993 Orlando Magic, Chris Webber 1994 Milwaukee Bucks, Glenn Robinson 1995 Golden State Warriors, Joe Smith 1996 Philadelphia 76ers, Allen Iverson 1997 San Antonio Spurs, Tim Duncan 1998 Los Angeles Clippers, Michael Olowokandi 1999 Chicago Bulls, Elton Brand 2000 New Jersey Nets, Kenyon Martin 2001 Washington Wizards, Kwame Brown 2002 Houston Rockets, Yao Ming 2003 Cleveland Cavaliers, LeBron James 2004 Orlando Magic, Dwight Howard 2005 Milwaukee Bucks, Andrew Bogut 2006 Toronto Raptors, Andrea Bargnani 2007 Portland Trail Blazers, Greg Oden 2008 Chicago Bulls, Derrick Rose 2009 Los Angeles Clippers, Blake Griffin 2010 Washington Wizards, John Wall 2011 Cleveland Cavaliers, Kyrie Irving 2012 New Orleans Hornets, Anthony Davis

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Answering critics who felt that teams such as the Houston Rockets were purposely losing games in order to enhance their position in the draft, the NBA adopted a lottery system in 1985.

The lottery ultimately was formed to make the practice of tanking games to receive the top pick less inviting. It’s a system that appears to be working well.

“I think it’s fair,” Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver, whose team has the league’s fourth-worst record, said. “I think it’s better in that if you have the worst record you’re not guaranteed the first pick.

“I think that’s fair and I think that’s good for the league.”

In the early 1980s, the Rockets were accused of losing games on purpose to angle for the top overall draft picks, which they used in 1983 on 7-foot-4 Virginia center Ralph Sampson and in 1984 on 7-foot future Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon.

While there was no concrete way for those with a conspiracy theory to prove that the Rockets tanked games, history shows that the Rockets lost 28 of their last 32 games in 1983, and 14 of their final 17 games in 1984.

In those days, the teams with the worst record in each conference flipped a coin to see which would receive the No.1 overall pick in the draft.

The loser received the second pick, and the other teams that didn’t make the playoffs would receive the subsequent picks in regard to their records, with the team with the third worst-record getting the No. 3 pick.

The Rockets won the coin flip over the Indiana Pacers in ’83 and drafted Sampson; the Pacers wound up with Steve Stipanovich.

In ’84, the Rockets again won a coin flip, this time against the Portland Trail Blazers, who had previously obtained the pick from the Pacers. Houston wound up drafting Olajuwon, the Blazers selected Sam Bowie, and the Chicago Bulls, who had the third pick, chose Michael Jordan.

In an effort to eliminate teams playing loose with the rules, the NBA rolled out the Draft Lottery in 1985. This year’s lottery will be held Tuesday night at the ABC Times Square Studios during halftime of the Spurs-Grizzlies Western Conference Finals game.

“I like the lottery system,” said former NBA point guard Kevin Johnson, a lottery pick in 1987 and now the mayor of Sacramento. “I’m in favor of it.”

The draft lottery system is weighted so that the Orlando Magic, who had the league’s worst record this season at 20-62, have a 25 percent chance of winning it, which is the best percentage among the 14 teams in the lottery. The Dallas Mavericks only have a 0.6 percent chance of obtaining the No. 1 pick.

In previous years, some draft lottery winners secured franchise-type players with the top overall pick.

That includes the New York Knicks (Patrick Ewing in 1985), San Antonio Spurs (David Robinson in 1987 and Tim Duncan in 1997), Orlando Magic (Shaquille O’Neal in 1992 and Dwight Howard in 2004), Houston Rockets (Yao Ming in 2002), Cleveland Cavaliers (LeBron James in 2003), Chicago Bulls (Derrick Rose in 2008) and the Los Angeles Clippers (Blake Griffin in 2009).

Elton Brand, who was the No. 1 overall selection by the Bulls in 1999, believes this lottery system eliminates teams trying to manipulate the system.

“They were talking about teams tanking games [back in the early 1980s],” said Brand, now a free agent center for the Mavericks. “Now if you were guaranteed the No. 1 pick, teams might start tanking in December.

“I think now you play it out and you get a good chance for securing the No. 1 pick, but it’s not guaranteed. So I like the way the system is.”

Lottery lament

Not every team hit the jackpot when they won the NBA Draft lottery.

At least five teams who won the lottery and the No. 1 overall draft pick came away with players who never lived up to expectations.

The list includes Pervis Ellison (Sacramento in 1989), Joe Smith (Golden State in 1995), Michael Olowokandi (Los Angeles Clippers in 1998), Kwame Brown (Washington in 2001) and Greg Oden (Portland in 2007).

None of those players ever participated in an NBA All-Star Game. Ellison, though, was selected the NBA’s Most Improved Player in 1992.

Dwain Price, 817-390-7760 Twitter: @dwainprice

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