NCAA Football

Shi: Fortune favors the bad: Life, death and the NBA Draft Lottery

May 19, 2016

I like how the NBA Draft Lottery works. There’s very little fanfare or pomp or circumstance — no manufactured tension, no shrill in-house commentator, no spotlights or celebrities. It’s 17 suits in a room. You can’t even see the source of the magic, because by the time the broadcast begins, in fact, the lottery machine has done its thing, and all the draft slots have already been decided.

The sole concessions to tension are a total crackdown on leaks before the announcement, and a man holding up placards, one by one by one by one by one.

The NBA can get away with this because they know that the Lottery supplies enough tension for itself. Because 10 minutes of the NBA Draft Lottery mean more than three days of the NFL Draft.

***

Pardon me. Have I introduced myself? I’m Winston Shi, The Stanford Daily’s resident Lakers fan. As you may or may not know, the Los Angeles Lakers are the greatest franchise in professional sports. I say “franchise” and not “team” because by any reasonable standard, the team’s absolutely fricking terrible.

This year, the Draft Lottery meant everything to me. That’s a weird feeling. But short of Kobe Bryant’s last game, this was the moment of the season that meant the most to me.

I get that I may be trying your patience by now. So let’s make a Stanford analogy. Think of the Draft Lottery as the world’s most judgmental housing draw, except that the people with the worst grades/haircut/success with women get a higher chance (but, critically, not a guarantee) of the best numbers. Except that you can bet some kid with a 1.8 GPA that if you get a steady girlfriend in one month, they’ll be stuck in Oak Creek and you can live in Xanadu. In this scenario, the Philadelphia 76ers have the 1.8 (I could go lower, but grade inflation, man…), Xanadu is a gangly, hyper-athletic Canadian named Ben Simmons, and the Lakers just got atomic wedgied on Hoover Tower by the lovely ladies of Tri-Delt.

The Lakers binged on the past, and the future so far has been one interminable hangover. And unlike a bender, you can’t delay the inevitable with another handle of Fireball.

We should have seen this coming. Several years ago, with the end of Kobe Bryant’s career in sight, the Lakers went all in. They traded nearly all their future assets for stars that could play right away. And that’s how these things are supposed to work. All contenders need to burn little bits of the future in order to survive in the present. The Lakers have not always been good during my lifetime, but they have at least always tried to be good, and sometimes being good means trading away draft picks for veteran help. In a game where the vast majority of game-changers are drafted in the top half of the first round, the Lakers have had…two… high first-rounders since 2005.

So when you have a high pick, you have to make it count.

***

Few teams mortgaged their future to save the present as much as the 2010-13 Lakers. They didn’t necessarily expect the late-Kobe-era superteam to last through 2016, but in trading for Phoenix’s Steve Nash and Orlando’s Dwight Howard, they did have to agree to concessions that would put the franchise on a knife’s edge if things went south. Every draft pick trade is a bet on your future — because worse teams get better draft picks, the better you do in the present, the less you give up down the road. The Lakers got bad, and they got bad quickly.

Though devastating, the rules of the game were simple. The Lakers had traded a 2016 top-three protected pick to Phoenix to complete their Steve Nash deal, which Phoenix then flipped to Philadelphia. As the second-worst team in basketball (ugh), they had a 55.8-percent chance of getting one of the top three picks and keeping their draft slot. That meant that the Lakers had a nearly 50-50 shot of coming away with nothing. Worse, by losing the pick as early as 2016, the Lakers would have had to give up another first-round pick in 2018 to Orlando – and by 2019, the young stars the team had already drafted would have cycled out. The Lakers would be down for at least another six years. Maybe even a decade.

And another one of the five best young basketball players in the world would go to Philadelphia. You know, the NBA’s answer to Jenny in “Forrest Gump.”

Do you see where I’m getting at when I say that the Lottery supplies enough tension for itself? The future of a franchise hung on getting that pick. The Lakers became the greatest franchise in the game because they accumulated draft picks to bring in young talent, and the city of Los Angeles and the oceans of money that the LA market provides allowed them to attract older stars. But the draft picks were lost, and the LA market has lost much of its allure because technology can turn players anywhere into national stars and maximum salaries are capped.

In a game in which young stars must be drafted and veteran stars gravitate to teams that are already good, there was simply no clear path forward for the Lakers without keeping their pick. Without any fanfare, they kept the pick. When Phoenix’s name came up for the No. 4 pick — thus ensuring the Lakers would stay in the top three — the announcer didn’t need to underline the point. I was already yelling my head off.

Keeping the pick doesn’t mean that Ben Simmons or Brandon Ingram will become superstars. In fact, I might even hope they won’t become game-changers right away. The Lakers will have to be bad again — really bad — to keep the rebuild going. (They probably will.) Only by being terrible for another year, keeping the 2017 pick, and finally giving it up in 2018 will the Orlando first-round pick be cancelled. But if they can keep the tank-athon going for another year, they’ll have a core of Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, D’Angelo Russell, their 2016 pick and their 2017 pick, plus all the salary cap space they could possibly need. Four years of madness is a steep price. But those five players would represent a very real shot at rebirth.

The Lakers have a future. And while they’ll be bad next year, too, there’s light at the end of the tunnel.

Apparently, Winston has been trying to cure hangovers with Fireball. Let him know there are better solutions at wshi94 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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