Was sacrificing a season worth it? Will Andrew Wiggins deliver?
Will Joel Embiid or Jabari Parker? Will a Hall of Famer emerge from farther down this draft, like Steve Nash at No. 15 in 1995 or John Stockton at No. 16 in 1984 or Tony Parker at 28 in 2001?
Will a city end up with a true franchise player like Tim Duncan or Kobe Bryant or will they end up investing everything in an athlete that forces their way out of town at first chance?
So many questions that can’t be answered for years, if ever.
But as the ping pong balls settled Tuesday night and the selection order for the most hyped draft class in NBA history – which doesn’t mean the best – was determined, we inch a little closer to understanding if franchises that wasted a season or more chasing lottery dreams will earn anything close to an acceptable return on the investment.
In Toronto, where draft lotteries have been a tradition, the Raptors were for once on the outside looking in, locked into the 20th pick after their 48-34 season that came out of nowhere.
But even then the question begs – was it worth it? Toronto was electric during the Raptors surprising playoff run, but we won’t know if it was fool’s gold as their Eastern Conference rivals (five of the top six picks and seven of the top 10 belong to East teams) accumulate potentially elite talent, or truly a sign they are further down the road to a championship for some time yet.
The layers of irony are many. Among the NBA’s weaker-thans, the one closest to being in win-now mode starting the 2013-14 campaign were the Cleveland Cavaliers, who picked first, fourth and first in three straight drafts and wanted a successful season to show for it.
It was a disaster, head coach Mike Brown and general manager Chris Grant were fired, and yet the Cavaliers, with just a 1.7 percent chance, jumped from ninth to first and are in position to add über-talent Wiggins to their Canadian lottery picks Anthony Bennett and Tristan Thompson.
The most determined tanker, the Philadelphia 76ers – losers of 26 straight at one point this season – didn’t get the top pick, but should make out well at No. 3 as one of Wiggins, his 7-foot Kansas teammate Joel Embiid or Duke’s Jabari Parker will be available. They also have the No. 10 pick and a slew of second rounders and with them and Cleveland being so thick with young players it could set the stage for plenty of trades as the summer progresses.
If you had to handicap it at this point Wiggins seems like a good fit with what they already have in Cleveland, which means Parker goes to the Milwaukee Bucks while Embiid ends up in Philadelphia, the team that may have coveted Wiggins above all.
It’s more proof that in sports the law of unintended consequences often defies everything else.
The draft lottery was devised by former NBA commissioner David Stern in 1985 to prevent teams from purposely losing games to improve their draft position. This all came about because the Houston Rockets raced nakedly for the bottom in 1983-84 when the leading candidates for the first overall pick were Hakeem Olajuwon and Michael Jordan.
As detailed in Filip Bondy’s book Tip-Off: How the 1984 Draft changed the NBA Forever, the Rockets had started the 1983-84 season with high hopes. They had finished a miserable 14-68 the year before but were rewarded when they won the right to pick first overall (at the time the worst teams in each of the NBA’s two divisions flipped a coin to determine which would pick first, the loser of the flip chose second) and took Ralph Sampson from Virginia, thought to be Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 2.0.
Even though Sampson averaged 21 points, 11.1 rebounds and 2.4 blocks as a rookie, the Rockets struggled out of the gate and called it quits after the all-star break. They dropped 14 of their last 17 games, nine of their last 10, and their final 5.
They won the coin flip with Portland and took eventual Hall of Famer Olajuwon. The Trail Blazers famously passed on Jordan (they already had an outstanding wing player in Clyde Drexler), taking injury-riddled big man Sam Bowie out of the University of Kentucky to the eternal gratitude of the Chicago Bulls.
The draft lottery was implemented the next season to prevent all-out tanking but it proved to be a winning strategy for Houston he led the Rockets to two NBA titles even as Sampson’s career was undone by knee problems.
Today tanking has never been more popular, even if NBA commissioner Adam Silver tries to pretend it doesn’t happen. At least five teams actively sacrificed this past season in order to position themselves for Tuesday night’s lottery and several others embraced losing once their playoff hopes disappeared. It was only rational. In the NBA one player can change a franchise. The problem is getting one and the next is keeping him.
Over the years, the NBA has fiddled with the lottery format to find the right mix of fairness and chance, finally settling on the weighted ball format used currently where the worst team has a 25 percent chance at picking first overall and the next 13 teams that miss the playoffs having fewer chances based on their order of finish.
In most years it made outright tanking an unwise bet as picking first overall was so uncertain.
But this season was a perfect scenario, with so many all-star caliber players available simply being in the lottery meant getting a chance to draft a player that could easily help any team. If Plan A didn’t work there were Plan Bs and Cs.
And while the exact route to getting an elite player can be circuitous in the NBA, championship teams always end up looking awfully similar.
As far back as 1980 the only title-winning team that didn’t have at least one player taken among the top three in the NBA draft was the 2008 Boston Celtics. Even that is misleading as the only reason Kevin Garnett wasn’t a top-three pick in 1995 was he was the first player to come straight from high school in 20 years. As a result he slipped to No. 5.
The Cavaliers will now have a chance to draft three No. 1s in the space of four years but they seem like a long way from a title. Can Andrew Wiggins change that if he’s the player they take? And how quickly?
On Tuesday the lottery balls finally fell, stripping away one more layer of uncertainty as teams try to go where the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs tread.
But there will be more questions than answers until one of the players – Wiggins, Parker, somebody – so many teams have been falling over themselves to get in position to draft actually wins something.
It will all make sense then. Winning answers all.