The NBA Draft Lottery takes place tomorrow night and the fate of two of the league’s premiere franchises hang in the balance. The Boston Celtics own the likely top pick of Brooklyn Nets thanks to the Kevin Garnett / Paul Pierce trade way back in 2013. The Lakers finished the season with the third-worst record and need to land a top 3 pick or they will go without at the 2017 NBA Draft.
Celtics fans are salivating at the idea of landing the top pick and strengthening an Eastern Conference contender. The Lakers could add a young star and wait for Paul George to come in 2018 and almost immediately turn the team into a contender. Or maybe the top pick in the NBA Draft doesn’t really matter.
No matter who ends up with the #1 pick, it’s unlikely that pick results in championships. In fact, just two franchises in the Draft Lottery era (32 years) have been able to directly turn a #1 pick in the NBA draft into an actual NBA Championship – the San Antonio Spurs and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Even then, it actually took winning two – or four! – lotteries to cash in those chips for the ultimate prize. Let’s look back at how #1 picks have panned out since 1985.
2016 – Philadelphia 76ers – Ben Simmons
Obviously there is plenty of time for the Sixers to add Ben Simmons’s name to this short list of #1 picks made good. Simmons turns 21 this summer and he could be surrounded by other talented young players to build around. Who knows!
2015 – Minnesota Timberwolves – Karl-Anthony Towns
After a slow start to his second season KAT ended up averaging 25 points and 12 rebounds a game and even shot 36% from 3. Still, the Wolves improved just 2 games from the previous year and finished 13th in the West. They have a long way to go.
2014 – Cleveland Cavaliers – Andrew Wiggins
The Cavaliers turned Wiggins into Kevin Love which means they were directly able to connect winning the #1 pick in the 2014 draft to winning the title in 2017. Still, would Minnesota have made that trade if Cleveland had the 2nd or 3rd pick? Probably.
2013 – Cleveland Cavaliers – Anthony Bennett
When you talk about the biggest busts in NBA history, Anthony Bennett has to be pretty good argument for #1 on that list. He started this season in the NBA and ended it getting cut by a Turkish team earlier this month. Still, Bennett was part of the trade that brought Kevin Love to Cleveland, which in turn brought LeBron James to Cleveland. Of course, if LeBron wasn’t “from Cleveland” he probably never would have returned. So the key might be having the best player on the planet born nearby and then trading a few top picks to get him help to lure him home. Sounds easy enough.
2012 – New Orleans Hornets – Anthony Davis
The Pelicans have managed [to be victims of] a single first round sweep during the Anthony Davis era. The good news is that they have a few more years of failure before he leaves to chase a ring elsewhere.
2011 – Cleveland Cavaliers – Kyrie Irving
Kyrie won a title with the team that drafted him #1, but it’s safe to say that never would have happened if LeBron James didn’t have an affinity for Cleveland. The Cavaliers won the lottery with a pick that they got from the Clippers in exchange for Baron Davis. Even if the Clippers had kept this pick, they’d still be stuck in the middle of the Western Conference. And I don’t know if enough will ever be made out of the fact that the Cavaliers had to win 3 of 4 lotteries in order to lure LeBron back to Cleveland.
2010 – Washington Wizards – John Wall
Stuck in LeBron James’ conference, but could possibly advance to a conference final for the first time in his career!
2008 – Chicago Bulls – Derrick Rose
Rose won an MVP and actually had them on the doorstep of the Finals before the injuries.
2006 – Toronto Raptors – Andrea Bargnani
He’s only 31 so there’s still time for him to return to Toronto as a healthy hero and lead them to a championship.
2005 – Milwaukee Bucks – Andrew Bogut
Finally, a #1 pick who actually won a title. Sure, it was for another franchise, but that still almost counts. Good job Bucks!
2004 – Orlando Magic – Dwight Howard
Great for a while. Took the Magic to the Finals then slowly slid off the map all the way to Atlanta.
2003 – Cleveland Cavaliers – LeBron James
In 2010, LeBron left Cleveland for Miami. The Cavs got no compensation and lucked into the top pick in the next draft. It is more likely LeBron went back to Cleveland in 2014 because he was born in Akron as it is that he was returning to the place that drafted him. So again, someone being born near a city is more important than winning the draft lottery.
2002 – Houston Rockets – Yao Ming
Yao’s Rockets won one playoff series, but they sold a ton of jerseys.
2001 – Washington Wizards – Kwame Brown
Perhaps Kwame Brown should return to Washington next season to team with fellow Wizards top pick John Wall. The only problem is, he last played in 2013 and only averaged double-figures once in his career.
2000 – New Jersey Nets – Kenyon Martin
This one almost worked out. Martin and the Nets went to two straight Finals with Jason Kidd, but ran into the Lakers and Spurs. Martin then made an All-Star team in 2004, but was then traded to Denver.
1998 – Los Angeles Clippers – Michael Olowokandi
Olowokandi played 9 seasons in the NBA, but only two were healthy. He made the postseason once with Minnesota.
1997 – San Antonio Spurs – Tim Duncan
Draft a Hall of Famer #1. Wait a decade. Draft another Hall of Famer #1. This is the blueprint whoever wins this year’s lottery needs to follow.
1996 – Philadelphia 76ers – Allen Iverson
The 76ers won the culturally relevant title for about a decade straight after drafting AI. Yet somehow he didn’t make an All-Star team until his 4th season. Iverson is one of my favorite players ever and watching the Sixers win game 1 against the 2001 Lakers was incredible. That was as close as they got unfortunately.
1995 – Golden State Warriors – Joe Smith
Some people might argue that Joe Smith’s two and a half seasons in Golden State laid the foundation for what Stephen Curry and Steve Kerr were able to accomplish two decades later. I don’t know who those people are, but I’m sure somebody said it. OK, maybe not.
1994 – Milwaukee Bucks – Glenn Robinson
Ray Allen, who was drafted by another team, almost got them to the Finals. Robinson eventually won a ring with the Spurs in 2005 and then retired.
1993 – Orlando Magic – Chris Webber
The Orlando Magic turned Chris Webber into Penny Hardaway and made the Finals. They also proved that winning two straight NBA Draft Lotteries doesn’t even ensure a title at any point in your franchise’s existence.
1992 – Orlando Magic – Shaquille O’Neal
Shaquille O'Neal is a terrifying reminder that even when you get the pick 200% right, build an immediate contender around him and he stays healthy, things can still end horribly.
1991 – Charlotte Hornets – Larry Johnson
Larry Johnson made the Finals in a lockout shortened season with another team.
1990 – New Jersey Nets – Derrick Coleman
Coleman was a beast, but he never won a playoff series until 2003 with Allen Iverson and the Sixers.
1989 – Sacramento Kings – Pervis Ellison
Ellison played 1 season in Sacramento before being traded. During the ’91-’92 season he averaged 20.0 points, 11.4 rebounds and 2.68 blocks. In 8 of his 11 injury plagued seasons he averaged single-digit points.
1988 – Los Angeles Clippers – Danny Manning
The Clippers managed to make the playoffs twice before trading Danny Manning. Back then the franchise knew when to pull the plug.
1987 – San Antonio Spurs – David Robinson
Robinson was incredible. In his first 7 seasons the Spurs went 383-191 (.667) but only won 5 playoff series. Then during the ’96-’97 season Robinson got hurt, Popovich took over as coach and the Spurs tanked and won another lottery.
1986 – Cleveland Cavaliers – Brad Daugherty
All the Cleveland Cavaliers do is win draft lotteries. Daugherty has won nearly as many Craftsman Truck Series races (2 as an owner) as playoff series (3).
1985 – New York Knicks – Patrick Ewing
The first ever #1 NBA Draft Lottery pick. The New York Knicks would never win another championship for the end of time. Right there teams should have realized winning the Draft Lottery was a curse.
Back when the top pick was earned and not given in a made-for-TV event, the Rockets selected Hakeem Olajuwon who won two titles with the Rockets in the mid-90’s. The Lakers also picked up James Worthy and Magic Johnson with top picks. The Indiana Pacers traded the top pick in 1978 to the Trail Blazers who selected Mychal Thompson who eventually won two titles with Magic and Worthy in LA. Mark Aguirre, the top pick by the Mavericks in ’81 and was eventually traded to the Pistons where he won two titles.
On top of all that, the only two players picked 2nd in the NBA Draft during the lottery era who would win a title with that team were drafted by were Darko Milicic and Jason Kidd. Milicic ended up on a title-ready team and did not contribute one bit. Kidd spent more than a decade elsewhere before returning to Dallas to help the Mavericks win in 2011. The lesson? Almost nothing ever works out for anyone.
In total, 17 franchises have won the Draft Lottery: Cavaliers (5-times), Clippers (3x), Spurs, Bucks, Bulls, Wizards, Magic, Nets, Hornets/Pelicans (2x each) and the Knicks, Kings, Warriors, 76ers, Rockets, Raptors, Blazers, Timberwolves.
Only 8 of 32 #1 Draft Lottery picks have won a title. (LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Andrew Bogut, Tim Duncan, David Robinson, Glenn Robinson, Shaquille O’Neal) Only four of them have done it on the team that drafted them. And those four guys were spread across two teams.
So fans of the Celtics and Lakers – and the other less popular teams involved – can look at this to lower expectations if the balls bounce the right way. Or they can take solace in this if they don’t.