The first thing you notice, when you get into the secret conference room, on the third floor of the NBA offices in Secaucus, N.J., is that three people are missing.
Who is it who got the honor of representing the Timberwolves here tonight? Who from the Suns will be making certain that nothing untoward happens with the drawing of the pingpong balls? Who will pump his fist in the air on behalf of the Los Angeles Clippers?
The answer, on all three counts, was: Nobody.
It seems absurd, but: Is this a sign of the economy? Are teams saving on travel?
The way the system works is that every team is invited to send two official representatives. One witnesses the proceedings and is locked in this room so as to not spill the beans and ruin the broadcast. The other, who has no idea what happened, is on the stage.
Can you imagine if 14 teams took the same approach as those three? It would make the whole drawing almost meaningless.
A sizable contingent of those not invited into the secret room harbor the suspicion that maybe, just maybe, this event is rigged. Those of us who get to go into that room have a certain obligation to see if it is.
In honesty, I have no real way to assess that.
But I can tell you this:
There is a machine that is used in all kinds of lotteries besides this one. It belongs to a company that uses it the rest of the year for other things like state lotteries.
The balls that go in there have the proper numbers on there and appear to be round. They whiz around and around like crazy in that machine, with all kinds of people watching. The lever is pulled at the pre-approved moment.
While NBA fans love talking about the fact that the draft lottery may be rigged, the people in this room, who have careers and fortunes that hinge on this moment, and some of whom may be fired do not express the slightest suspicion that this may not be on the up and up. Honestly, I talked to half the team representatives, and to a man they find it amusing that people think this is not legit. Jeff Weltman, of the Bucks, expressed amazement that people think it's anything but random, pointing out that he has heard people suggest that executives who represent a team that does poorly in the lottery are sometimes treated like they are to blame.
If you were going to rig the lottery, no way in hell you'd rig it for the Clippers. They're famous for being bad, and cost-conscious. The owner has had legal entanglements involving two third-rails of public life: sex and discrimination. They have players like Zach Randolph that the NBA presumably would rather not publicize. And most importantly: They have players under contract at power forward/center (Zach Randolph, Marcus Camby, Chris Kaman) and point guard, the two positions represented by the best players in this draft. And nobody in the draft room! With apologies to Clipper fans, there could hardly be a less exciting outcome.
The Clippers didn't just win the first pick. They won the second pick too! The first four ball combination was 5, 3, 6, 10. Bingo. Clippers get the top pick. The second combination was 5, 6, 3, 4. Also the Clippers! The balls were placed back in the machine for a do-over, which went to the Grizzlies. I don't know what the chances are of this happening (the Clippers had about a 17% chance each of getting the first and second picks) but it has to be about as likely as a power outage, which as I'll explain would have been a lot more fun.
An Aside: Lou, Jeff, and Contingencies
The NBA's president, Joel Litvin, explained that in a "disaster scenario," for instance if the machine malfunctioned or there was a power outage, they would instead put the 14 lottery balls into an official NBA basketball that had been cut open, then someone would fish around with their hand and pull out the balls. (This seems so unscientific, but in reality it's pretty much exactly how the real lottery used to happen with the envelopes in the big tumbler thing.)
I found myself praying for a power outage, just to see that. Can you imagine? And presumably it would be in the pitch black. As an event, this would kill the actual lottery drawing. Glitzy performance lottery ... meet gritty dark lottery. Not to mention, it would be followed by 14 (or, umm 11) team executives locked in a room together with reporters and snacks.
NBA Vice President of Events and Attractions Lou DiSabatino, and a manager in his department named Jeffrey Rossi, tell me that they practiced the hollowed out ball drawing earlier in the day. This has to happen some time, I suggest. They don't share my enthusiasm.
Lou, incidentally, is the guy who pulls the lever to release the air, which sweeps up a ball into the tube to determine who wins the lottery. Another "disaster scenario" would be for Lou to hold the lever open too long, causing balls to shoot all over the room like popcorn on the stove top with the lid off. Before the event begins, Litvin explains that should this happen the balls will be gathered up and stuck back in the machine. I'm thinking that if this happened in a James Bond movie, somebody would have a specially weighted #14 ball to replace the real one.
Lou will not make this mistake. Everything is very practiced and precise. The first ball is drawn twenty seconds after the balls start whirring in the machine. The remaining balls are drawn at ten second intervals. Rossi does the timing. But here's the fancy part: Rossi clutches a stopwatch, four yards away with his back turned to DiSabatino. When the requisite number of seconds have ticked off, he raises a hand, and then Lou pulls the lever.
Why is his back turned?
I asked, and it's to prevent any possibility that the two would collude, and time up the release of a ball to achieve a certain result.
Did I mention they rehearsed this? Talk about Life's Rich Pageant.
After the drawing was completed, I guess the ideal thing would have been for one guy to jump up and down with joy while everybody else stared daggers at him and forced smiles. (I'm under the impression this is more or less what happened two years ago, when Portland won.) Perhaps everyone would enjoy a drink, for different reasons. And then we'd go home.
But instead, everyone more or less sat there, murmuring to each other or not talking at all. Rows of Aeron chairs, and ties, and suits, and quiet.
The handful of reporters in the room tapped away at laptops, but honestly, what was there to write about?
My notepad had things on it like: "Sam Presti, learning the Thunder have the third pick, takes notes and nods in a ho-hum motion."
We're not allowed to leave for more than an hour. The food is way better downstairs. It seems really odd not to be texting Kevin Arnovitz of ClipperBlog to tell him his team won the lottery, but I have surrendered my phone and the whole point of being in the room is not to tell anybody.
Sacramento: Stiff Upper Lip
Pop quiz: Who owns the Sacramento Kings? The Maloofs! Of course. Everyone knows that.
But not just the Maloofs. Also, it turns out, a guy named John Kehriotis. He owns a lot of property in Sacramento, an Embassy Suites, and various other things. He is present with the same good luck charm that helped bring the team Jason Williams back when the Kings were a role model franchise. It's a little plastic troll-looking thing that Geoff Petrie, we learn, calls "the man."
Kehriotis is somehow doing a reasonably convincing job of being upbeat ("we're going to get a good player"), even though the team with the worst record in the NBA, with the worst arena in the NBA, jus
t fell to fourth, the worst pick they could have possibly had.
There has been talk, lately, that the team may flee Sacramento. The top overall pick would have been helpful in generating the kind of excitement that will be necessary to get locals excited about paying for a new arena. The fourth pick, in a weak draft? Potentially helpful, but nothing to build a campaign around. Perhaps the most exciting thing on the Kings' horizon turned out badly.
So he says that Geoff Petrie has a gift with the draft, and that fourth is an excellent pick. He says "there's a high probability we'll have a new coach soon" and says interviews with Eddie Jordan and Paul Westphal went very well.
"We want to stay in Sacramento," he explains. "We're working with the mayor on a new arena." When will we know if there's an arena forthcoming?
He explains that a new arena really is necessary. "Since high-definition [TV]," he says, "you really have got to offer a lot to be competitive." He talks about better restrooms, restaurants, and club seats. He talks about having two tiers of luxury boxes. He says the current visiting locker room is not suitable for a high-school team. He says people these days want better food, and says that creating a certain kind of ambience is marketing. He says that better facilities can help the team -- because players want to be in nice places.
In this economy, with this lackluster team, and now this pick ... the whole thing just feels so unlikely.
I ask him if it seems weird, to be in this room, having important things like this decided by that machine, a yard from us, that spits out lottery balls.
He says he thinks the system is a good one.
The Compass: Sam Presti
Two seats to John Kehriotis' right, Oklahoma GM Sam Presti is rubbing a small antique compass. His team moved up one spot, from fourth, to third. He says the compass was a gift from his girlfriend. And it worked, as they moved north one spot.
Presti has a reputation for being guarded with the media. In a way, it seems ill-founded. We talked for twenty minutes about all kinds of stuff. I took notes the entire time. But then I read those notes and ... really ... he didn't say anything that would make headlines.
For instance, I asked about his team's approach to statistical analysis, and whether or not they were one of the teams that charted plays to create their own statistical database, like the Rockets. His response: "I really value information, whether it's subjective or objective. I always want to have as much of it as I can ... I don't think we'll all end up doing it the same way, and that's what makes the NBA what it is. For us, we like information. But not a lot of teams are going to keep up with [Houston GM Morey] Daryl and his crew. They are a really innovative group that has done a great job."
(For what it's worth, I have it on good authority the Thunder do retain a stat expert.)
I asked about his ho-hum reaction to learning he had moved up a spot. "That's just kind of me," he said. And then he talked about how it was kind of nice to be able to better hone in the player research that must be done between now and the draft.
He's more passionate on the topic of building a winner. We talked a lot about how the players on the Thunder only won 23 games, but they have a process and a system that the whole organization believes in, and through all the losing nobody pointed fingers at each other. He talked about having building blocks. He talked about how every player and even coach Scott Brooks had committed to improving over the summer. (What would that entail? "A lot of film work, visiting players, visiting other coaches and picking their brains, self analysis ...")
"We like the direction," he says. "We feel we have been able to accumulate players with the right mindset, and they're working with passion to get better. This is another opportunity to get one of those players."
Perhaps the Unluckiest of All
Before the lottery, there was a mini-lottery, to break a tie between the Clippers and the Wizards. The Clippers "lost." The NBA's Jamin Dershowitz explains that the tie-break determined two things: Which team got one extra combination of numbers, out of a thousand, and which team got the set of numbers that go to the third-worst team.
In other words, the set of numbers that resulted in the top overall pick.
Instead of having those winning numbers, the Wizards -- who only won two more games than the Kings -- ended up fifth.
The best part of the whole deal is this: You know how they do those tie-breakers? They don't flip a coin. No sir. In a way, the first pick in the lottery was decided just as I hoped it would be. With a hand, reaching into a basketball that has been cut open, and drawing out a pingpong ball.