How the lottery lost its cool

May, 21, 2013
5/21/13
11:46
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
Dan Gilbert
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images
Nobody has done better at it than the Cleveland Cavaliers, but even they don't swear by the lottery.

It’s a weird kind of party, the NBA draft lottery.

The 2013 version began on the Good Morning America’s repurposed Times Square set (complete with test kitchen) with an NBA staffer welcoming everyone by saying: “For those of you who are new to this, my condolences.”

Then they confiscated our cell phones.

Woohoo!

We were in the secret inner sanctum with the high ceilings, exquisite air conditioning and fake wood paneling. A collection of team representatives and a few others were gathered to witness the drawing of the pingpong balls that would decide who among the NBA’s worst teams got the first few picks of June’s NBA draft. The results would be determined here, but publicly revealed an hour or so later on national TV.

In the interim, we were not free to leave, even for the bathroom, lest we ruin the fun.

Just upstairs, in a different TV studio, the picks are revealed with the celebratory air of a Powerball drawing. But even that room is anxiety-ridden. Sitting in nervous silence is the essential task of the NBA draft lottery. The vibe’s beyond tense.

Once deputy commissioner Adam Silver had revealed the picks, however, at least one corner of the room went bananas.

The Cavs know how to party

The noisy posse in bowties, they’re screeching and hollering and pumping fists in the air. That’s Cavs owner Dan Gilbert and the many spirited people who traveled on his private jet for the occasion.

They won the NBA draft lottery again, they’re color coordinated and they don’t give a damn who knows it.

But even for Gilbert, in this moment of glory, with the TV cameras in his face to collect his acceptance speech, the lottery is bittersweet.

“We were hoping,” he said of his team’s potentially franchise-defining victory, “this would be our last.”

That’s the thing about the lottery. It’s nobody’s idea of perfect, and it's getting less so.

It’s some office building off the Turnpike, by day

Just as a run-of-the-mill Hollywood shopping mall can be transformed into the glamorous home of the Oscars, so did the NBA’s offices in Secaucus, N.J., used to become a wonderland of hoops glitz on the night of the NBA draft lottery. Gloved security men crowded the entrance, welcoming a steady procession of limos and fancy cars pulling up one at a time, dumping out a who’s who of NBA faces: players, owners, GMs.

The NBA, bless them, puts on a lot of buffet meals for the media, but this was the one that was a hell of a buffet. The fish was peppered to taste, the roast beef sliced to order, the gorgonzola crumbled and ready to cascade across your chopped romaine. You have never seen cookies like these, and if you’re not big into cookies, please consider the finest fresh fruits, still shiny with a fresh coating of dark chocolate.

This was how the lottery used to run, back when it was easier to forget the lottery was about losers, not winners.

Sure, it wasn't all showbiz. It was tough to hide some of the workaday details. Most of the party took place in a rented tent out back, the kind you’d more commonly see used for weddings. The walk there from the front door was a long one, much of which bordered a drab cube farm.

But a half-decade ago, say, as then-Blazers GM Kevin Pritchard made the walk, he made it like a prize fighter. People emerged from all angles, offering high-fives and attaboys. Pritchard beamed, a proud man representing a basketball-mad city, entering the ring to do his job saving the Trail Blazers.

Pritchard’s shoulder was one of the few tapped early in the evening that night. Along with a who’s who of NBA front office personnel, he was invited upstairs to witness the pingpong reveal.

Every team in the lottery sent two representatives: One to take care of the real business with the pingpong balls, and another to be the face of the franchise on TV. The back room, as usual, had the power brokers.

Please come with me, sir. Up these stairs. Place your cell phones and all personal electronics in this sealed envelope.

Pritchard had even more pep in his step a couple of hours later, when the pingpong digits delivered him a dreamy choice between Greg Oden and Kevin Durant. (This was before the off-road portion of Pritchard’s freeway-to-the-top career.) Pritchard walked out of that building a front office champion.

Who knows how many times he told the story of what happened in that room, on how many radio shows and local TV shows. Hell yes, he circled up Blazers staff to inspire them with thoughts about the great ride that franchise was about to take. He talked about character, he talked about fortune, and it was hard not to get the feeling some Higher Power was smiling on the Portland Trail Blazers, thanks in no small part to the magic Pritchard mustered in some stuffy Secaucus boardroom.

New York, New York

A couple of years ago, the NBA downsized the Secaucus offices and the draft lottery has packed up for TV studios in Times Square. It’s ostensibly as nice. The roast beef is still delicately cooked, and is accompanied by mild horseradish, but it’s no longer sliced on demand and the chocolate chip cookies in the back room were all gone by 8:15.

The bigger change comes from the crowd. Sure, there’s a Damian Lillard or Andre Drummond here or there to enliven the proceedings, but in the big picture, to put it bluntly, this event is getting less cool by the minute.

My guess is that trend will continue, not because of how anything is run, but because of what everybody knows.

At the highest levels of running a team these days, on smart teams at least, are masters not just of basketball, but of decision-making. It's a different kind of person.

These are people who gather and process information professionally, from all angles, and turn it into strategy. People who read books about optimal decision-making. People who are obsessively connected with reality.

Getting excited about the draft lottery, meanwhile, requires divorcing yourself from reality, in one key way: You have to forget how you got here. To celebrate here means detaching from the fact that the team you’re charged with making great actually stinks.

In the days when NBA brain trusts were thick with grocery store magnates and retired players, maybe that was more doable, especially with a beer or two on board. In the era of smartphones, Twitter and non-stop information parsing, reality thickens the air, even after they confiscate your smartphone.

The NBA draft lottery might have the trappings of a Powerball drawing, but it’s different in a key way. A real lottery is a windfall for some lucky schmuck who happened to buy a ticket.

This?

This is a mindless game of chance open only to losers.

And, increasingly, they know it.

You know who was not on hand? Most of those with the most on the line. Michael Jordan, for instance, who owns the Charlotte “we’re betting the farm on the lottery” Bobcats. Same goes for his GM, Rich Cho, as well as most of the front offices of most of the teams represented.

New Sixers GM Sam Hinkie? Absent. Mark Cuban? Joe Dumars?

It’s not the event to be seen at. Not if you’re into winning.

Many teams sent a PR person. But very few sent the brain trust, because there’s nothing for them here.

Nobody has gotten more from the lottery than Gilbert, whose team just added another top overall pick to a collection that already included LeBron James and Kyrie Irving.

He of all people must love this system, right?

“There’s no perfect way to do it,” Gilbert told me, literally minutes after winning. “I think of all ways it’s probably one that is not optimal. But there isn’t an optimal one. It’s probably the best of the worst you can do. You’ve got to give it to the guys at the NBA to even come up with something like this.”

And if all goes well, he won’t be back anytime soon.

Henry Abbott | email

TrueHoop, NBA

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