2017 is the Most Important NBA Draft Lottery Since LeBron Entered the NBA


When the ping pong balls go into the hopper on Tuesday, May 16 in Secaucus, New Jersey, it’ll be the biggest moment in the NBA draft lottery since 2003, when Cleveland beat out Detroit and Denver for LeBron James.

Yes, the 2017 draft has the potential to be as loaded as what unfolded in 2003: Three of the top five players drafted 14 years ago are Hall of Fame locks (Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade along with James), and a few other players are still having very productive careers (David WestBoris DiawKyle Korver). That doesn’t even include Chris Bosh, who went 4th overall and had an incredible career that has been cut short due to injuries.

[Aside: How badly did whiffing on the #2 pick hurt the Pistons? The season after the draft, they won the title, stunning the Lakers. Had they made the right pick – Anthony, Bosh or Wade – they’d have been set up for a decade of dominance. Instead, they took Darko Milicic. He scored one point in the playoffs that first season. He was a non-factor the next year, when the Pistons lost to the Spurs in the Finals. In year three, Milicic was traded. The Pistons lost in the conference finals the next three years, and haven’t won a playoff series since.]

There’s obviously no LeBron in the 2017 draft – we’ll never see another LeBron in NBA history. But the quartet of Markelle FultzLonzo BallJosh Jackson and Jayson Tatum have all shown hallmarks of being potential NBA franchise players.

And that’s just the beginning. Does Malik Monk have the potential to be a Mitch Richmond-type sharpshooter? Scouts are fond of comparing 19-year old Lauri Markkanen to a young Dirk NowitzkiDe’Aaron Fox might be the fastest point guard to enter the NBA since John Wall.

And on and on.

In 2003, the Cavs had the best chances of getting the #1 pick, and landing the local kid from Akron altered the direction of the franchise forever. Denver had the best chance at the #2 pick, but got leapfrogged in the hopper, and ended up at #3. Toronto and Miami went 4th and 5th, as expected. So how did the Pistons get the #2 pick? From the oral history of the 2003 mock draft:

"In 1997, then-Vancouver Grizzlies general manager Stu Jackson traded a future first-round pick to the Pistons for Otis Thorpe. The pick had various protections on it, but by 2003, the only way the Grizzlies would keep their pick was if it was No. 1 overall."

I only bring that up because of what could happen in the 2017 draft. The Lakers had the 3rd worst record this season and have a 46% chance of keeping their top three pick. If they don’t keep the pick? It goes to the 76ers.

Theoretically, the 76ers could get the 1st and 4th picks in the draft. There’s a parallel with Detroit’s 2003 draft and Boston’s potential in 2017. Detroit was in the 2003 playoffs. Boston is in the 2017 playoffs. Getting a top three pick could certainly help set up the Celtics for a decade. Detroit made the wrong pick in Milicic. Will the same become of the Celtics?

And if you want to go back further in NBA draft history, the Celtics won the Championship in 1986, and then landed the 2nd pick in the 1986 draft. The team drafted Len Bias, who they hoped would take the torch from Larry Bird, and extended their dominance into the 1990s. Bias died of a cocaine overdose a little over 48 hours later.

The 2017 draft has the potential to make a team – besides Boston, it could be the 76ers, who have a good young nucleus; or even the Lakers, who have several nice young pieces in place – an instant contender for a decade.

After the Cavs drafted LeBron in 2003, they made the playoffs in 2006, then the Finals in 2007, and if not for a blip when LeBron went to Miami, Cleveland has been at or near the top of the league. Wade won a title in Miami, then two more when LeBron joined him.

Eight days until the ping pong balls vault a team or two into the stratosphere.