By Brian Tuohy
Why do seemingly logical fans become card-carrying members of the tinfoil-hat crowd every year, when the NBA draft lottery rolls around? Some point to the fact that the team with the best odds of winning the No. 1 pick rarely actually gets it. (It hasn't happened once in the last nine years, and only four times in the lottery's history.) Others will mention the first-ever NBA draft lottery, in 1985, which some believe was rigged to hand the No. 1 overall pick to the Knicks, so that Patrick Ewing would play in the country's largest media market. (You actually can see the alleged fix on tape. The commissioner's crony damages one particular envelope as he tosses it violently into the hopper, and then the commissioner himself selects that one damaged envelope out of the hopper a moment later.)
Other lotteries have come under suspicion as well. Of course, the NBA tells its fans everything is on the up-and-up, but at the same time, the league no longer televises the actual drawing. All that is revealed is the result. The fact of the matter is that the NBA can do whatever it chooses. They are not legally obligated to run the draft lottery in any certain fashion. If owners decide to cut some backroom deals to determine who gets the No. 1 overall pick, they can. It's their league.
Which raises the interesting question: If the NBA was going to rig this year's draft lottery for one particular team, which franchise would it be apt to choose? Here are The Conspiracy Theorist's thoughts on the subject, going from the team with the worst "Conspiracy Odds" to the best.
New York Knicks
Mathematical Odds: 0.7%
Conspiracy Odds: 0.0%
The Knicks actually have zero chance of landing the No. 1 overall pick, because even if their ball is drawn, they gave it away as part of the Carmelo Anthony trade back in 2011. (Orlando ended up with this pick, thanks to the Dwight Howard trade a year later.) So for New York to come up No. 1 would just be an insult to the franchise, a slap in the face to Knicks fans everywhere who already have a bone to pick with owner James Dolan. The Knicks don't have a single first-round selection in a draft that's being called one of the deepest ever.
Mathematical Odds: 0.5%
Conspiracy Odds: 0.8%
The Suns simply don't need the No. 1 overall pick. The franchise has three (potentially four) first-round picks as it is, thanks to first-year general manager Ryan McDonough, who dumped veteran talent to build for the future. At worst, the Suns will come away with the No. 14, No. 18, and No. 27 draft spots. That's more than enough to keep the Suns' rebuilding on track.
Mathematical Odds: 0.6%
Conspiracy Odds: 0.9%
Much like the Suns, the Timberwolves aren't in dire need of the No. 1 pick, though Minnesota could use it more. They are slotted to have four picks in the draft as it is, three of which fall in the second round. They could lose their first-round pick at No. 13 if (and only if) the Suns win one of the top three slots in the lottery. That would push the Timberwolves down to No. 14 overall and, as luck would have it, the Suns would then get the Timberwolves' selection as part of a three-team deal back in 2012. So the NBA could really stick it to the T-wolves while rewarding the Suns, if it so chooses.
Mathematical Odds: 1.7%
Conspiracy Odds: 1.3%
To paraphrase Frank Sinatra, how lucky can one guy be? Some fans from other teams want to hire the bowtie-clad Nick Gilbert to be their team's representative at this year's draft, and who can blame them? Cavs owner Dan Gilbert's kid was present when the Cavs waltzed away with the No. 1 pick in both 2011 (on the heels of the LeBron James "Decision" to go to Miami) and 2013, despite not being the favored team in either lottery. Landing two of the past three No. 1 overall selections hasn't completely changed the Cavs fortunes, however, as, well, here they are again. If Nick does represent the team again this year, it's likely his percentage will drop down to a measly .500.
New Orleans Pelicans
Mathematical Odds: 1.1%
Conspiracy Odds: 1.8%
Many in the sports-conspiracy realm already feel that the NBA threw the team a bone back in 2012, when new owner Tom Benson saw his franchise beat the odds, winning the No. 1 overall selection to take Anthony Davis. Was it a "makeup call" for trading away Chris Paul during the franchise's "lost years?" If so, the tables are turned on the Pelicans this year. The Pelicans landed All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday in a trade with the 76ers, but if New Orleans doesn't end up in the top three via the lottery, then the Sixers walk away with the Pelicans' pick. Luck may preserve that pick for them, but it won't bestow the No. 1 spot on the Pelicans again.
Mathematical Odds: 0.8%
Conspiracy Odds: 2.7%
Denver has never had the No. 1 overall pick in franchise history. The closest they came was in 2003, when they lost the LeBron James lottery and instead drafted Carmelo Anthony at No. 3 overall. Is this their year? They have two (long) shots at it -- their own as well as the Knicks' -- but one of these will have to be shuttled off to Orlando, thanks to the Dwight Howard mega-trade in August 2012. They may not be able to plant their flag at the top of the mountain, but the Nuggets at least will end up with a first-round pick, unlike the Knicks.
Mathematical Odds: 3.5%
Conspiracy Odds: 4.2%
The Pistons need anything but a conspiracy. If their pick falls outside the top eight -- and right now, they are No. 8 -- they lose their pick to the Charlotte Bobcats/Hornets, thanks to the Ben Gordon-Corey Maggette trade. If they manage to keep their pick this year, the Pistons will still lose it in either 2015 or 2016. Why can't they just land the No. 1 overall pick now and worry about Charlotte later? Because the Pistons are in flux, having only just hired Stan Van Gundy days ago. They're short of cap space as well, with a decision to make on Greg Monroe. The team is young, and many thought up-and-coming until they lost 15 of 20 late in the season. The top pick could change this franchise's fortunes, but their situation is too unsettled for such a blessing.
Mathematical Odds: 8.8%
Conspiracy Odds: 6.4%
The Celtics could certainly use the No.1 pick, after finishing the 2013-14 season with the third-most losses in franchise history. They're falling behind not just in the NBA but in the city of Boston, where the Bruins are contending for the Stanley Cup, the Red Sox are coming off a World Series title, and the Patriots dynasty marches onward. The problem with awarding the Celtics such a pick is that GM Danny Ainge seems more apt to trade it away than to keep it. They have two first-round picks to play with -- one by lottery and the other at No. 17 -- and two more first-rounders coming in 2015. Ainge has traded such picks away in the past, and he doesn't sound too thrilled with this year's crop of talent, saying recently, "There aren't any game changers in the draft. There are a lot of nice players and players that we'll be excited to work into the development, but they're not going to come in and turn our team around in one year or two years." If that's Ainge's attitude, the NBA can't be eager to hand him the No. 1 pick.
Mathematical Odds: 3.6%
Conspiracy Odds: 7.7%
The 2013-14 season was supposed to usher in a new era for the Sacramento Kings. Unfortunately for owner Vivek Ranadive, that didn't quite pan out, so the Kings are back in the lottery. Ranadive does however have the right mindset for new NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. Ranadive wants to continue to make the NBA a global entity, and he has a plan to end tanking. That's the kind of can-do spirit the NBA might like to reward with a No. 1 overall draft pick. (Ranadive was also a vocal supporter of ousting Clippers owner Donald Sterling.) The only holdup might be the Kings new arena. While the team has committed $222 million toward the project, the $255 million coming from the city is still up in the air, though it's believed the October 2016 deadline will be met. If the arena is not completed by the 2017-18 season, the NBA has the right to buy back the team. That cloud of uncertainty might hold the NBA back from rewarding the Kings.
Mathematical Odds: 19.9%
Conspiracy Odds: 8.5%
Does the NBA really want to reward the most spectacular tank job in league history? Losing 26 straight games did not ingratiate the team with fans, and it brought the tanking issue front-and-center in the media. Giving the 76ers the No. 1 overall pick would be like rewarding the kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar with a big bag of Double Stuf Oreos, and as a PR move, it would be terrible. Plus, perhaps all is not as dark in Philadelphia as it seems. Point guard Michael Carter-Williams was just named the NBA Rookie of the Year. He was selected 11th overall in last year's draft, proving that a team doesn't need the No. 1 pick to find talent. That's a good sign for the 76ers, who have multiple picks in this year's draft regardless of where the lottery places them.
Mathematical Odds: 15.6%
Conspiracy Odds: 10.2%
The Magic are seeded No. 3, which has been a fortunate slot in recent lotteries. The last two winners were seeded third, and teams with the third-best odds in the lottery have come home winners seven times. Those odds-defying results aside, the Magic are another franchise not in need of the No. 1 pick. They have two lottery positions as it is -- their own and one from the Knicks -- so the worst pick they could possibly wind up with is No. 6. The franchise is only five years removed from an NBA Finals appearance, and while it was Dwight Howard who got them there (and he's now in Houston), success isn't too far from the Magic's grasp. Combining Rookie of the Year runner-up Victor Oladipo with two lottery picks on its roster should rebuild the team without any manipulated assistance.
Mathematical Odds: 11.9%
Conspiracy Odds: 12.7%
The Jazz would get the No. 1 pick for one reason and one reason only: Jabari Parker. Parker is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), the predominant faith in Utah, so his landing there would be a marriage made in Mormon heaven. Most NBA players are reluctant to head to Utah for many reasons, but Parker might relish it. It's a perfect fit on paper, especially as the Jazz feature the third-youngest roster in the NBA, with an average age of just under 25. The team still needs a head coach, but landing a player like Parker would make that position much more attractive.
Mathematical Odds: 25.0%
Conspiracy Odds: 17.8%
The Bucks need something to remain competitive, and they need it now. They have new owners, Marc Lasry and Wesley Edens, but the team still lacks a new stadium deal. Former owner Senator Herb Kohl has agreed to pay $100 million towards a new Milwaukee arena, and the new ownership group has pledged the same amount, but the city doesn't have the taxpayer's support it needs to commit to the project. Without it, the Bucks may relocate. A No. 1 overall pick might just be the shot in the arm the team needs to get people to rally around building the Bucks a new arena... assuming the odds-on favorite can land it.
Los Angeles Lakers
Mathematical Odds: 6.3%
Conspiracy Odds: 25.0%
As Kobe Bryant's famous tweet read, "Sh-- season. Flush it. Forget it #amnesia Next Season will be epic #blackout #bussfam." That pretty much summed it up. Reportedly feuding with Bryant and Pau Gasol, head coach Mike D'Antoni resigned after two seasons and a 67-87 record. What would revitalize the Lakers -- perhaps the league's preeminent franchise -- more than the No. 1 overall pick? Heck, any first-round pick is big for the Lakers, who haven't really had one since Javaris Crittenton in 2007. (The Lakers' 2009 first-round pick, Toney Douglas, was immediately traded to the Knicks.) Call it serendipity, but the team already announced its representative at this year's lottery: James Worthy, the franchise's last No. 1 overall pick, way back in 1982. If the fix is in at this year's installment of the NBA draft lottery, it's in for the Lakers.
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Brian Tuohy has been called America's leading sports conspiracy theorist, but really he's just highly skeptical when it comes to what the sports leagues tell their fans. He's also one of the few writers brave enough to tackle the topic of game fixing in sports, detailing evidence of it in his books Larceny Games: Sports Gambling, Game Fixing and the FBI and The Fix Is In: The Showbiz Manipulations of the NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL and NASCAR. He also runs the semi-popular website thefixisin.net.