Stan Kasten, general manager of the Atlanta Hawks, was engaged in what has become his two favorite activities: fidgeting and scoreboard watching. Finally, cornered by a reporter, Kasten, who is usually an eminently quotable sort, hemmed and hawed before addressing the question.
"If you're asking me where my heart would lie if it came down to a last-second shot between making the playoffs or the lottery, I couldn't -- I wouldn't -- tell you.
"I won't gnash my teeth and go kicking and screaming if we don't make the playoffs. I won't gnash my teeth and go kicking and screaming if we do make the playoffs. The most I can say is that our situation has raised a sense of ambivalence, but I think that's an improvement from last season, when, valid or not, some teams had absolutely no incentive to win."
At 2 p.m. (EDT) on Sunday, May 12, representatives of seven NBA clubs will meet with Commissioner David Stern in New York. The purpose of the gathering: to determine the order of selection for the first seven positions of the 1985 NBA draft, to be held June 18, with the winner of the lottery getting to pick Patrick Ewing of Georgetown.
The teams eligible for the lottery will be those that failed to make the playoffs. Cards bearing the official logos of those teams will be placed in identical envelopes and then drawn by Stern. The first envelope will be placed in a position marked No. 1 and the succeeding envelopes will be placed under Nos. 2 through 7 in the order drawn.
Then, beginning with No. 7, the envelopes will be opened, proceeding up to No. 1, which will be the team that gets the first selection in the June draft.
As with the Academy Awards, before Stern can say, "May I have the envelope please," the entire process will have been verified by an independent accounting firm. To enhance the drama, the proceedings will be televised live by CBS during halftime of a playoff game.
Unfortunately for the NBA, by the time the lottery takes place, the league may not have fully recovered from the drama of establishing which teams are eligible. It is a situation that has moved from, as Kasten said, a single team having no incentive to win, to one in which several could benefit from avoiding a berth in postseason play.
Before this year, the team with the worst record in the Eastern Conference engaged in a coin flip with its Western counterpart to determine who picked first. That system, in effect since 1966, also had flaws, the most obvious being that a team going nowhere could improve its draft position, and hence next year's squad, by giving up on the season.
While the threat of that had always been present, the idea of it actually occurring didn't arise until the 1983-84 season, when the Houston Rockets, who had won just 14 games the previous season and used their No. 1 pick in 1983 to take Ralph Sampson of Virginia, lost 17 of their last 22 games, including nine of their final 10 contests.
A number of people in the league were suspicious because the Rockets' year-end record of 29-53 was one game worse than that of the San Diego Clippers and once again placed them in the position of flipping for the first pick, which they won and used to take Akeem Olajuwon of Houston.
The league's coaches and general managers were so concerned they decided to put together a committee to study the situation. But before they could get going, the league's Rules and Competition Committee suggested the lottery, and the Board of Governors -- which consists of owners or representatives of each of the 23 teams and is the only league body empowered to make rule changes -- voted, 20-3 (with San Diego, Chicago and Dallas going against the flow) to implement it immediately.
According to Pat Williams, the general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers, a number of teams were caught short at the suddenness of the board's action. "People were upset and unhappy over the Houston controversy," he said. "The Competition and Rules Committee came up with the idea of the lottery and the owners got hold of it and ramrodded it through in a matter of minutes.
"Dallas made what was a frantic effort to slow it down, but things were too emotional. You have to remember the climate last June on the heels of the Houston thing."
To this day, Dallas General Manager Norm Sonju fairly bristles when the subject is brought up. At the time, most dismissed his fervid criticism merely as sour grapes. After all, the Mavericks were holding the first draft choice of the Cleveland Cavaliers, thought to be a definite contender for the flip.
That has changed, of course, given the recent playoff-level play of Cleveland.
"It's not as if it was a 50 to 49 percent type thing. If there were 46 people present (when the coaches and general managers met), 40 were against it," he said. "What it came down to were a few guys looking out for their own selfish interests. They said, 'Do you have any reasons why we shouldn't do this?' I told them I could think of three or four right then but they had given me only 30 seconds to prepare. If they had waited three months, I could have thought of a lot more."
The idea of the lottery has been successful for two reasons. First, the excitement over which of the seven teams will get the right to draft Ewing has been building all season. Second, as Williams says, "You're not hearing anywhere near the rumors and innuendo that you did about Houston last year."
Perhaps one reason for that is the new and improved Rockets' 50 wins this season. During the past few weeks, however, other teams have taken Houston's place in the "are they or aren't they?" sweepstakes. It may have taken a bit more than the three months envisioned by Sonju, but eventually the idea that it could be profitable to lose began to emerge.
Teams like the New York Knicks, presently ending the season without their five top front-court players, had little choice in the matter of being competitive, as did truly bad teams like Indiana and Golden State.
But then there were the marginal teams -- Atlanta for one, and Seattle, Phoenix and Kansas City in the Western Conference. As the season wore on and the losses began to mount, it became obvious that teams so inclined could still profit by the postseason draft setup.
Said Sonju, "The things I hear . . . I'm worried about some teams doing crazy things. They may not want to but it's easy to be tempted. If you have a locked car, no one will probably touch it. But if you leave the door open, with the key in the ignition and a wallet on the seat, you're practically forcing someone to steal it."
Although the playoffs, the chance to compete for the NBA championship, are what every team in the league strives for, for those with no realistic chance to win, the economics of participating are dismal. Even in their 1982-83 championship season, the Philadelphia 76ers lost money. In the process of amassing a 12-1 record and sweeping the Los Angeles Lakers in four games for the title, the Sixers came out on the short end of the balance sheet by not realizing the anticipated revenue in playing more games than they had to.
In the first round of this season's playoffs, the defending-champion Boston Celtics will meet the Cavaliers in what most likely will be a very short series. According to Sonju, financially it would behoove a team to skip the playoffs entirely rather than be swept in the first round.
"In that case, you would play just one home game and maybe bring in $75,000," he said. "What's the economic gain by being in the lottery? There's a 14 percent chance of getting a player that will make you a viable playoff team later, a player that could make your franchise. Teams are thinking about that, even if they're not admitting it."
According to most pro scouts, the only true franchise player in this year's college draft is Georgetown's Ewing, but there are a number who could greatly improve any of the lottery participants.
The question is, however, will the teams that need help the most, ostensibly the purpose of the draft, be able to get it?
The answer to that question may depend on the number of college juniors who opt for an early pro career. Marty Blake, an NBA scouting maven, lists Bill Wennington of St. John's at center after Ewing, who is obviously the most desired prize.
Wennington, though, is considered to be a risky pick for a pro team, as is any guard chosen after Chris Mullen or any forward -- the graduating crop there being so lean that, according to Williams, Blake doesn't even have a top-rated small forward, choosing to list Xavier McDaniel of Wichita State and Detlef Schrempf of Washington even at No. 2.
But according to more than one NBA player personnel director, that all would change with the addition of four select juniors, Carl Malone of Louisiana Tech, Wayman Tisdale of Oklahoma, Chuck Person of Auburn and Len Bias of Maryland. Says one team's chief scout, "If any of those guys comes out early, they'll be sure to be in the first seven players picked along with Ewing, Mullen and Keith Lee (of Memphis State)."
"Basketball is the one sport that can truly be influenced by one man. Baseball and football can't and hockey no one understands, anyway," said Williams. "There have been years where you're scrambling for a body if you have the No. 2 pick. This year, Golden State and Indiana, which are absolutely deserving to be the worst teams in the league, may pick no better than sixth and seventh. That's difficult to justify, especially if they get players who won't help them that much."
That's part of the charm of entering the lottery through the back door. According to Stern, the Washington Bullets, hampered by injuries much of the season, "are a team that might not have made the playoffs, yet are capable of winning the championship."
Stern feels that that sort of competitive balance is what will eventually make the lottery a success. "In 1981, a so-so Houston team made it all the way to the finals with a 40-42 regular-season record," he says. "It's logical to think that as teams become more and more competitive, they'll want to make the playoffs because they'll believe they have an honest chance of winning the title and not just staying for a cup of coffee."
Kasten, for one, likes the system as it is because "every team in the league gets rewarded, either by making the playoffs or being in the lottery for the No. 1 pick." Stern also likes the lottery. "This was the most sensible cutoff point," he said. "Suppose we made it the two worst teams in each conference, where does that put the No. 3 team? There will always be a question of a team's motives, but the Board of Governors acted in good faith."
A number of alternatives to the new system have been suggested. In one method, the results of the regular season would be weighed. Said Kasten: "You could have a machine with little Ping-Pong balls representing each of the lottery clubs in it. If your team lost 58 games that year, you'd have 58 balls in the hopper; if you lost 46, there would be that many. That way, if you're team was worse than another, the odds would be greater that when the selection was made you'd be chosen."
Stern thinks the idea has some merit but would prefer to stop just short of a game show. "Something like that could just serve to muck up the procedure," he says. "It's not as simple as reaching in and pulling out a name."
Another suggestion: in the process of playing out the 82-game season, determine each team's winning percentage in say, blocks of 20, 20, 20 and 22 games. At the end of the year, those percentages would be divided and an average assigned, with the seven poorest teams picking in order.
"Everyone wants to do well at the start of the season but a poor team will probably be poor all year long," said Boston Celtics assistant coach Jimmy Rodgers. "This way, though, a team that starts out strong will have no incentive to possibly tank at the end of the season because their overall average would work against them."
Stern thinks the point will become moot shortly, anyway, as the talent entering the NBA becomes so great that it won't matter where a team picks.
"There are some 237 schools playing in Division I of the NCAA and that doesn't include smaller schools or foreign programs that will turn out more players like Uwe Blab or Bill Wennington," Stern said. "As basketball continues to grow worldwide, it will only get better."
For now, however, even Stern admits he could do without the talk -- positive and negative -- engendered by the upcoming lottery. "The league doesn't need the drama, and I don't care about it," he said. "Just give me something that everyone agrees with."