Ranking the biggest NBA draft lotteries of all-time
The 2019 NBA draft lottery appears particularly important.
Where does it rank all-time?
Here are the five biggest lotteries, based on what we knew entering the drawing:
1. 1997 (Tim Duncan)
Duncan looked like a ready-made superstar coming out of Wake Forest, where he played for four years. That gave NBA teams plenty of time to salivate over him.
The Celtics tanked their way to a 15-67 record and traded Eric Montross to the Mavericks for another lottery pick. Boston had a 36% chance of getting the No. 1 pick and treated it as a likelihood.
Instead, the Spurs got the top pick and built a dynasty around Duncan. Boston settled for and made little use of the No. 3 pick (Chauncey Billups) and No. 6 pick (Ron Mercer).
2. 1985 (Patrick Ewing)
The NBA’s first lottery came just in time. Ewing looked like a generational prospect at Georgetown. Teams would have tanked hard for him.
At first, every lottery team had an equal chance at each pick in the lottery. So, this was an important experiment for determining how, and how not, to structure the drawing.
The Knicks won the lottery that sparked a thousand conspiracies, and Ewing manned the pivot in New York for a decade and a half. Every team saw the importance of getting a high pick – and just how fickle attempting to land one could be.
Ewing was the clear prize, but the next few picks – Wayman Tisdale, Benoit Benjamin, Xavier McDaniel, Jon Koncak – retroactively made clear the importance of getting No. 1 this year.
3. 2012 (Anthony Davis)
Davis was a special prospect, but at this point, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist also impressive. At least everyone was right about Davis, whom New Orleans got. (Kidd-Gilchrist went No. 2 to Charlotte).
In addition to the big name at the top, a couple protected picks had lasting ramifications.
The Warriors, with the No. 7 lottery seed and a top-seven-protected pick, stayed at No. 7. They used that pick on Harrison Barnes, who became a starter on their 2015 title team and 73-win team the following year.
On the other hand, the Nets stayed at No. 6 and conveyed their top-three-protected pick to the Trail Blazers. Portland took Damian Lillard and have since built a conference finalist around him. Brooklyn soon entered a dark period it’s now just escaping.
2003 (LeBron James)
LeBron was on the cover of Sports Illustrated in high school… as a junior. The hype was palpable, especially with his hometown team – the Cleveland Cavaliers – having the best odds of getting the No. 1 pick.
But by the time of the lottery, Darko Milicic and Carmelo Anthony had emerged as great consolation prizes. Chris Bosh was working his way into an impressive fourth prospect. The draft appeared to remain deep throughout the lottery with a strong group that’d later be headlined by Dwyane Wade. So, as coveted as LeBron was, it was also important just to have a pick in this lottery.
That’s why two protected selections loomed so large.
The Grizzlies kept their own pick only on the 6% chance they got No. 1. So, it was LeBron or bust. Memphis busted, though its conveyed pick – No. 2 to the Pistons, who took Darko – was also the rare bust in this draft.
The Hawks, the No. 8 seed in the lottery, owed the Bucks a top-three-protected first-rounder. Atlanta stayed at No. 8 and gave Milwaukee the pick used on T.J. Ford.
5. 2019 (Zion Williamson)
2007 (Greg Oden and Kevin Durant): With two projected superstars in the draft, it didn’t feel as essential to get the No. 1 pick over the No. 2 pick – slightly lowering the perceived importance of this lottery. Oops.
2009 (Blake Griffin): Griffin stood alone as the top prospect, but Ricky Rubio was a highly rated second prospect – who surprisingly fell to No. 5.
1987 (David Robinson): As great as Robinson was, there was too much uncertainty about when he’d jump to the NBA from Navy, including whether he’d actually join the team that drafted him in 1987.
1992 (Shaquille O’Neal): Shaq looked awesome and became the (correct) No. 1 pick, but eventual Nos. 2 and 3 picks Alonzo Mourning and Christian Laettner softened the blow of not landing the top pick, at least in the theory of the time.