For a moment in the closed-off lottery drawing room, there is real suspense. The machine with the 14 pingpong balls inside flips on, the balls fly around, and a timekeeper with his back to it waits 20 seconds before raising his hand, the signal for the operator to suck up the first ball.
Those 20 seconds last forever. In that 20 seconds anything is possible for 14 franchises. Even if you have no stake in the outcome, you get butterflies in your stomach. And then, in a snap, it was over: The machine spit out the “1” ball, and a quick scan of your handy-dandy lottery guide showed the Sixers owned 250 of the 286 four-number combinations featuring the number one. Finally, after three years of endless, historic losing, the Sixers were about to hit paydirt.
When it was time to draw the second four-number combination, and determine the owner of the No. 2 pick, the machine again started the sequence by spitting out a “1.” Another Philly combination, forcing the league to scrap that second draw and start over. That would have been the ultimate revenge for Sam Hinkie, Philly’s deposed GM who resigned rather than accept what would have in effect been a demotion: the lottery machine picking the Sixers over and over, delaying the results so long the NBA would not be able to go forward with the televised lottery reveal scheduled an hour after the real thing.
Before the drawing, Bryan Colangelo, the Sixers new GM, told ESPN.com he would contact Hinkie if the Sixers won the No. 1 pick.
“It’s unfortunate that Sam isn’t here to be a part of this,” Colangelo said. “But it was his choice.”
Colangelo could relate, he said. He stepped down when the Raptors fired him as GM and then coaxed him into an advisory position alongside his successor, Masai Ujiri.
“I walked away just the same way,” Colangelo said, “but maybe without as much, um, fanfare.”
Two hours later, the Sixers could finally celebrate something.
“It has been a hard process,” Josh Harris, the team’s controlling owner, told me.
“It validates getting punched in the stomach a lot over the last three years,” Brett Brown, the team’s head coach, told me. “It doesn’t promise anything, but it gives us an opportunity we haven’t had before. I’ve always been proud of the fact that we were trying to teach the right things. We just didn’t have anything to show for it.”
Inside the closed-off drawing room, where everyone has to give up their phones and computers so the results remain secret, the rest of the lottery unfolded in order for the first time in league history. But if you knew the system, there was still at least one moment of glorious, absurd, delicious lottery-inspired tension.
After the lottery gods awarded the Lakers the No. 2 pick, league officials began drawing the four-number combo that would determine which team would pick third. The first three numbers: 9, 4, 7. If the final number were eight or higher, Minnesota, in the No. 5 slot, would leapfrog both Phoenix and Boston. If it came up as a 5 or 6, Phoenix and Boston would flip places. A 1 or 2 would mean a re-draw, because the Sixers and Lakers owned those combinations.
Wyc Grousbeck, the Celtics owner and drawing room rep, was reduced to this: hoping for “3,” the only ball that would hold Boston in the No. 3 slot, a one-in-eleven shot at that exact moment.
“I was just thinking, ‘Oh, no! Only one ball can save us now!'” Grousbeck told me afterward, when we were all sequestered in the drawing room.
Relieved, he poked fun at a former colleague now running the Wolves, those would-be usurpers of Boston’s draft slot: “Tough luck, Thibs!”
Grousbeck wore his championship ring and an old Celtics tie, a gift from Red Auerbach, as his good-luck charms. Isaiah Thomas, the team’s representative on the dais, tucked a plastic bag of actual Lucky Charms — literal pieces of the cereal, all green ones, naturally — into his suit jacket.
“I got some Lucky Charms, so I got some lucky charms,” Thomas told me, laughing at the ridiculousness of a sentence a grown human would only say before the NBA’s draft lottery.
Brad Ruiter, the Wolves’ drawing room representative for the second straight season, wore the same suit, shoes, and socks as last season, when the league-worst Wolves snagged the No. 1 pick, the team’s only lottery success story amid a dreary history of dropping down. Before that “3” ball came up last for Boston, Ruiter, the team’s vice-president of communications, thought he had done it again.
“We had it,” he told me. “I was just sitting there saying to myself, ‘Give me a big number, give me a big number.'”
Ujiri, the Raptors’ rep on the dais, brought photos of his children. Colangelo didn’t bring any trinkets, reasoning that if the Sixers moved down, any item aimed at securing good fortune would be forever tainted. After years of bad luck, the Magic nixed their tradition of bringing along Ping-Pong balls from the lotteries that ultimately netted them Shaquille O’Neal and Anfernee Hardaway. The balls had apparently lost their mystical powers.
Almost everything about the lottery is objectively funny. If the power goes out in the drawing room, the NBA sticks all 14 balls into a basketball with a hole cut into the top, and has an official pluck them out one-by-one. The Bulls drawing room representative showed up late, after lockdown.
But the results can change everything for a franchise. Philly finally won its lottery 18 months after the league, moved by outrage over the Sixers’ unprecedented multi-year tanking scheme, submitted a proposal to reduce the chance the worst teams would win the best picks. The proposal did not receive the required super-majority of team votes, and it has since faded away. Small-market teams panicked at losing the pathway to superstars they — in their view, at least — rarely nab in free agency, and everyone got cold feet about rattling the system already quaking from a crazy salary-cap boom.
“I was in favor of changing the lottery,” Adam Silver, the league’s commissioner, told reporters after the drawing. “But we’ve parked the issue. We’ve said, ‘Once we get through this summer of free agency, let’s return to it and see if a modification is necessary.'”
Perhaps the Sixers delayed gratification will reignite that debate. They didn’t care. After the drawing, a beaming Colangelo flagged me down: “I’m definitely sending Sam [Hinkie] a note!” he yelled.
Other news and notes from the lottery:
• I loved that the Wizards had to send a representative onto the dais even though they had a miniscule chance at keeping the top-9 protected pick they flipped to Phoenix for Markieff Morris. Even if a team has zero percent chance at keeping a traded pick, they should still have to send someone up there to absorb the shame. The Nets needed to be sitting at the dais. The Knicks should have paid Andrea Bargnani an appearance fee, so that Ujiri could have been in Cleveland, watching the Raptors get spanked.
• Speaking of the Raptors: Bobby Webster, their vice president of basketball management and strategy, is among the candidates interviewing for Milwaukee’s assistant GM job, according to sources familiar with the matter. Webster, a former cap and CBA expert for the league office, is considered a rising front-office star.
• What Boston does with that No. 3 pick now becomes the most interesting pre-draft question in the league.
• Speaking again of the Raptors: Nick Nurse, one of Dwane Casey’s lead assistant coaches, might get a look from the Pacers for a lead assistant spot alongside Nate McMillan, sources say. Whether Nurse would view that as a lateral move worth taking is unclear.
• Some of the more nefarious team executives sequestered in the drawing room wondered before the lottery if the league were aware of smart watches, and if they might be able to sneak in an Apple Watch and communicate the results in real time. Nope. The league specifically warned that all smart watches had to stay outside the room, along with phones and laptops.
• For the second straight year, rival execs expect Utah to quietly gauge the market for its lottery pick in search of veteran help at point guard or on the wing. And for the second straight year, Utah will have trouble finding a player under the right sort of contract, and in the right age range, to make a deal worthwhile.
• Silver spoke with the draftees in attendance, and their agents, during a private event in the afternoon. When he paused to take questions, the room went silent, until Denzel Valentine blurted out a question that caused an uproar of laughter, per people in attendance: “What do you do all day long?”
“I just really wanted to know what his schedule is like,” Valentine told me before the lottery, laughing. “And he answered for, like, five minutes.”
• The latest scuttlebutt is that the Kings are prepared to cut bait with Rajon Rondo if the bidding for him gets beyond a certain threshold that is lower than we might imagine, given the Kings’ recent transaction history.
• I asked Ujiri what he thought of Toronto’s performance so far in the playoffs. Reaching the final four is nice, but seven-game slogs over Indiana and then Miami, which was without Chris Bosh and Hassan Whiteside, don’t exactly make a compelling case for maintaining the status quo. But Ujiri cautioned that you could interpret Toronto’s play in a different way.
“Sometimes you have to win ugly,” he said. “You have to be resilient and keep forcing your way.”
• We’ve reached the point where everyone — players, agents, GMs, scouts, league officials — is dissatisfied with the draft combine. Expect the combine itself, and the medical testing that happens there, to be a thorny little slice of collective bargaining talks.
• Bryan Colangelo has heard the charges of nepotism since the Sixers, chaired by his legendary father, Jerry, tapped him to replace Hinkie.
“I’ve tuned it out,” he told me. “I’m 50 years old. Opportunity helped me get into his business, but the idea that nepotism is helping me maintain — I hopefully threw that out a long time ago.”
When the Sixers’ owners first approached him, Colangelo told them he wasn’t interested, in part “because of the structure of what they wanted to do.” He only put his hat in the ring six weeks later, when the Sixers’ owners outlined a different short- and long-term vision for the team, he said.