By Evan Hall
I'm not sure if I understand the ideals of NBA conservatism, but my guess is that they go something like this: gifting the most poorly-run teams with the best young players through the draft is bad for the league because it puts those players in toxic environments where they're less likely to reach their potential. It also hurts the overall competitiveness of the league by reinforcing incompetent strategies for constructing a team. The system, as presently constructed, allows team executives to run their team so far into unwatchable oblivion that, at the sad climax of their ineptitude, the only roster they can muster is one built to lose. Not only that, but the system then rewards those teams for doing just that. The NBA draft lottery doesn't just forgive ownership and front offices for being bad at their jobs -- it incentivizes it. Or, in other words, the system encourages the Cleveland Cavaliers to continue being the Cleveland Cavaliers.
And so long as you agree that the draft lottery really is designed so that the Cavs can keep on Cav-ing until the end of time, you can be comforted in the knowledge that last night, the system worked again. Only a year after winning the number one overall pick and burning it on the immortal Anthony Bennett of the sub-7 Player Efficiency, the Cavs won the lottery again, despite having only a 1.7% chance at doing so. Mathematically, it was enormously improbable for them to win it even one year, as they did in 2011 when they drafted Kyrie Irving, but to do it three times in four years invokes suspicions, depending on how you feel about the Cavaliers or the draft lottery. Regardless, the monumental absurdity of Cleveland's stroke of luck just made it a little harder to argue with those aforementioned tenets of NBA conservatism.
And yet, if you want to forego the handwringing over dubious consequences or the apparent unfairness of the current system, there were other ways to look at Tuesday's lottery results. For one thing, it was plainly funny in a way that only sports can be. Cleveland is a mess of a franchise, one that drafted LeBron James, the single greatest basketball talent of his generation, and couldn't turn that blessed windfall into a single championship. In fact, the Cavs so completely botched the LeBron-era, both through on-court personnel decisions and with a baffling loyalty to head coach Mike Brown, that LeBron felt perfectly justified in leaving his home state to pursue a championship elsewhere. Though the situation seemed impossibly dire at the time, the Cavaliers quickly lucked into an emerging superstar in Kyrie Irving only to surround him with a roster so horribly designed with a coach so outmatched that the team couldn't even make the playoffs in the putrid 2014 Eastern Conference. And this is the hot mess, the prized catastrophe of the NBA, that will get first pick at its next superstar.
Unfortunately, it's easy to conflate a team's identity with that of its fanbase, and certainly, Cavaliers fans don't deserve to root for a poorly run team any more than the rest of us do. Cavaliers fans did not decide to draft Anthony Bennett, and yet, had the lottery system changed this last year to something like the wheel proposal or the record-based ranking of the NFL, the Cavaliers would not be in a position to rectify that mistake and give their fans something to believe in again.
It may be justifiable to want to punish the guys with all the decision-making power by taking away their opportunities to keep making their deranged decisions, but doing so would also bring more anguish to fans who want to watch a good basketball team in Cleveland as much as I want to watch one in Utah. Looking at the NBA holistically, as an association that has joint needs to be considered, is useful in some contexts, but that type of thinking frequently ignores or at least displaces the fans, for whom the entire operation is ostensibly designed. Not every NBA fan gets to root for R.C. Buford's Spurs or Pat Riley's Heat, and the NBA is better off when they don't. The NBA needs loyalty to dumpster fire teams like the Cavs as much, if not more, than it needs to reward the consistently successful teams.
But more than all that, part of what makes the NBA -- and sports in general for that matter -- so enjoyable is the unspoken sense that there's an incomprehensible, cosmic significance to it all. Sure it's just sports, but sometimes, when one of the players you really love does something that really moves you, it feels like something more -- like there are forces at work that are greater than you or any one person. Damian Lillard's off-balance, buzzer-beating three against the Rockets, for instance, felt like something more than a made three-pointer. When Lillard came off and around that screen, Chandler Parsons trailing him by a step, and he started clapping for the ball like a madman, and you rose out of your seat to join the thousands of standing Portland fans in the arena, and he caught that pass and you thought "holy crap he got a clean look" and then he released it so pure and calm and then it went in and you really couldn't believe that something so improbable could happen so smoothly. It was just a shot, I know, but maybe it was also something else. It certainly felt like it could have been.
The draft lottery is nothing like that in practice, but in theory, the ideas are emotionally similar. This may sound like FreeDarko-esque basketball mysticism gone too far, but controlling everything about the draft with something like a wheel -- where each team gets a turn at each pick through a preconceived pattern -- takes the chance out of it, and in so doing takes out any possible twists in the dramatic narrative of the NBA. The draft lottery is founded on a complicated and stupidly arbitrary system of ping-pong balls and number combinations, and yet, it's also founded on luck, and it's the luck that makes it feel mystical. That's why you get irrational reactions to it. Some Bucks fan is out there really feeling like the universe has it out for him, just because a ping-pong ball didn't bounce his way. That's illogical, but it's also kind of great that someone could use something as innocuous as an NBA draft lottery to look for clues as to how the universe felt about him.
I spent all day Tuesday analyzing everything that was happening to me in that same context, looking for good omens that pointed to the Jazz winning the lottery. I feel like an idiot now, but maybe there's a Cavs fan out there who went to sleep in his Kyrie Irving jersey the night before the lottery in the hope that his team would win the number one pick. They did, and now he's feeling a little better about his chances in life. The rest of us who had any investment in the outcome are feeling anywhere from slighted to outraged, but at least there's someone whose faith was rewarded. That has to be a good thing. As all those beleaguered Cleveland fans discovered, the draft lottery was just luck, but at least it was in their favor, which seems reason enough to keep the lottery as is. We have enough reason to believe that the universe hates us to take away someone else's evidence, however scant, that it might not.
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Evan Hall is a freelance writer from Boise, Idaho who has written for the Classical and Salt City Hoops of the ESPN TrueHoop Network. You can find him on Twitter @the20thmaine.