The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

So ... still think the NBA draft lottery is rigged?

NBA Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum announces that the New Orleans Pelicans won the first pick in the draft. (AP Photo/Nuccio DiNuzzo)

When Tuesday’s NBA draft lottery show reached the point where the Knicks and Lakers were among just four teams left in the running for the No. 1 pick, conspiracy theorists were in full throat. Here we go, they said, it was obvious all along that the league would prefer to put Duke superstar Zion Williamson in a huge market such as New York or Los Angeles.

A funny thing happened, though, on the way to the fulfillment of the NBA’s Machiavellian scheme: The Knicks and Lakers wound up with the third and fourth picks in the draft, respectively. Moving all the way up to the first and second spots were the … New Orleans Pelicans and Memphis Grizzlies?

Lucky charms and F-bombs in NBA draft lottery drawing room, as Pelicans learned their Zion destiny

Those teams happen to play in, by some measures, the NBA’s two smallest markets, and each started the day with just the seventh-best chance of winning the lottery, a.k.a. the Zion sweepstakes. Nevertheless, the most-hyped prospect arguably since LeBron James 16 years ago will now almost certainly be starting his career in New Orleans, while Memphis is set to nab a very nice consolation prize, quite possibly in the exciting form of Ja Morant or RJ Barrett.

In other words, it doesn’t appear that Tuesday brought the ideal outcome for league executives. All of which leaves the question: Still think the draft lottery is rigged?

It’s a question that, unfortunately for the NBA, merits asking, because an awful lot of people not otherwise inclined to don tinfoil hats seem to be of the opinion that the league has, in fact, manipulated outcomes in the past to its perceived benefit. In the case of the draft lottery, that skepticism about its impartiality began with the very first installment, when then-commissioner David Stern was rumored to have used a frozen envelope to ensure that the Knicks wound up with Patrick Ewing in 1985.

Since 1990, the NBA has gone to a draft-lottery process involving ping-pong balls popping out of a hopper, overseen by an independent accounting firm and watched by several media members before the results are announced to the world. Nevertheless, lottery results that have struck some observers over the years as a bit too convenient for the NBA include:

  • James, a local hero from nearby Akron, Ohio, going to the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2003.
  • The Chicago Bulls getting the opportunity in 2008 to have Derrick Rose play in his hometown.
  • The Cavs again landing the No. 1 pick in 2011, following James’s decision the year before to jilt them for the Miami Heat.
  • And in 2012, after the league oversaw the controversial trade of Chris Paul away from turmoil-racked New Orleans before selling the Pelicans, that very team had Anthony Davis fall into its lap.

Seven years later, the Pelicans again enjoyed a lightning strike of good fortune. However, it was one that had been widely predicted to hit the Knicks, who were tied for the best lottery odds and could then have used Williamson, as well as their bountiful salary-cap space, to help bring to New York a long-awaited championship contender.

Among those completely convinced the latter result would come to pass was ESPN analyst and former NBA player Richard Jefferson, who said on “The Jump” a few hours before the lottery show aired, “I guarantee the Knicks will get the No. 1 pick in the draft. … Knick fans, I’m telling you — set up the party, get everything going, start buying the jerseys, you guys are going to get Zion Williamson.”

Instead, New York, which had the fewest wins in the NBA this season, continued its streak of never again getting the No. 1 pick. In fact, since 1985, when the Knicks have moved at all in the lottery it’s only ever been backward.

And it’s not like the Knicks haven’t been in dire need of some good fortune, if not divine (or otherwise) intervention, given that the team has the NBA’s worst record over the past 18 years. So it seems awfully strange that a league supposedly eager to arrange things to its benefit, with headquarters in New York, wouldn’t throw its biggest market a bone at any point in the past 34 years.

Add in this year’s results, and it’s almost as if the NBA — gasp — does not actually rig its lottery, and it’s important to keep in mind that the league is on exponentially firmer financial footing than it was in 1985. The other massive change since then, of the technological variety (i.e., the Internet and smartphones), also means that star players can have easily have worldwide reach no matter where they suit up.

Of course, it’s the nature of conspiracy theorists to not be easily deterred, and so it was Tuesday that some still discerned master plans afoot. One popular line of thought had the Lakers, who somehow missed the playoffs despite signing James last summer, being gifted a pick high enough to greatly help them complete a trade with the Pelicans for Davis — but not too high a pick, all the better to avoid rousing suspicion.

Along those lines, in the Pelicans and Grizzlies getting the first two picks over the Knicks and Lakers, some claimed they saw the ever-devious hand of the NBA trying to throw everyone off the scent. As such, that amounted to a reply to this tweeted request from The Athletic’s David Aldridge: “I would LOVE to hear all your conspiracy theories about how the NBA rigged this for New Orleans and Memphis to go 1-2 in the draft rather than two of its seminal franchises.”

Naturally, Twitter users were happy to comply, offering motivations for the league that included these theories:

  • “Lowest 2 valued franchises, need to bring the bottom up.”
  • “New Orleans is in the most dire need of a superstar player. If/when they lose [Davis], the city could then potentially lose its franchise due to lack of support from their fan base. Can’t say the same about any other franchise in the NBA.”
  • “Trying to keep NO from moving to Seattle. It’s not rocket science Dave."
  • “Did it for the Saints debacle.” (With another Twitter user chiming in, “Exactly what I was looking thinking! [Gayle] Benson owns both teams!”)
  • “They rigged it so that [Davis] would stay in New Orleans and [James] wouldn’t getting any help and thus finishing out his career with no more rings further cementing MJ as the Goat.”
  • “They posted the Pelicans logo on TV before it was even revealed to us. Supposedly, only the person from the firm knew the order...”
  • “Sending a message to players trying to push their way out of small market teams. No other explanation.”

So there you have it — vagaries of ping-pong balls be darned, there’s no other explanation for how the Pelicans and Grizzlies could have wound up 1-2 in the draft.

And with the lottery behind us, it’s now back to railing about how the NBA is instructing its referees to help the Warriors win playoff games. [shakes fist at the sky] The whole thing is fixed, I tells ya!

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