Inside the NBA's draft lottery drawing room

NEW YORK – The NBA loves a good conspiracy theory. Strike that – the NBA fan likes a good conspiracy theory. From the frozen envelope in 1985 to Michael Jordan’s “secret suspension” in 1993, from referees over-exercising their whistles in the 2002 Western Conference finals to seemingly Miami Heat-friendly officiating in the 2006 NBA Finals, you don’t have to scour the internet to find one.

Seriously: They have their own Wikipedia page.

The NBA draft lottery is conspiracy-proof. Complain all you want about the league’s lottery system – and more than a few big-market owners will tell you it needs to be revamped – but the drawing itself is flawless. It is done with Swiss watch-like efficiency and under prison-level security.

Good fortune was smiling on the Celtics on Tuesday night. (AP)
Good fortune was smiling on the Celtics on Tuesday night. (AP)

On Tuesday, representatives from 14 teams gathered in a curtained-off room inside the Hilton Midtown hotel. Reps ranged from team owners to P.R. flacks who volunteered – or in some cases were dragooned – to oversee the drawing process.

That the lottery is a made-for-TV event isn’t surprising. Content, after all, is king. That the drawing has become television-friendly? That is. The drawing isn’t live, of course. But when the televised lottery is over, fans eager to see grown men pull pingpong balls out of a plastic jug can consume video on the NBA’s various platforms.

That’s all it is. At 7:30 p.m. ET, NBA vice president of events and attractions Lou DiSabatino pulls 14 numbered balls out of a case. How do we know they are numbered? Because DiSabatino holds each up before sliding them into the cylinder.

From there the oh-so-engaging process of drawing begins. There are 1,000 four-number combinations doled out among the lottery teams. Boston, owners of the Nets’ draft rights, a gift courtesy of the ill-fated 2013 trade that shipped Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to Brooklyn, had the best odds (most combinations) to form the four winning numbers at 25 percent. The Miami Heat, which just missed the playoffs last season, had just a 0.5 percent chance.

Everything is transparent; in case of machine malfunction, a half-basketball was nearby to serve as a makeshift replacement. The duty of stuffing the placards of lottery-winning teams falls to a representative from Ernst & Young. Two, actually. Seems the fiasco at the Oscars this year has caused the professional service firm to be extra careful.

It’s dull, but it accomplishes its goal. Conspiracies are virtually impossible. To document the event, the league invites a handful of reporters into the room each year. The Vertical was one of the outlets represented. Here is a brief diary of a brief event.

7:43 p.m.: “Whooooo!”

Or 7:44. Or 7:45. Only two of the five reporters in the room were wearing a wristwatch and one (yup, mine) didn’t work. Electronics are collected at the door. No phones, no recorders, nothing. It’s notepads and paper and not much else. The NBA takes great pains to make sure the results of the lottery aren’t leaked, meaning for nearly an hour everyone in the room is cut off from the outside world.

“7-1-9-10. Boston.” Steve Pagliuca, the Celtics’ co-owner, let out an audible whoop. What a 48 hours for Boston. On Monday, the Celtics earned a trip to the conference finals; on Tuesday, they secured the first overall pick in the draft.

The lottery has not been kind to Boston. In 1997, the Celtics had the best odds to land No. 1. They finished third. San Antonio, picking first, took Tim Duncan. Boston drafted Chauncey Billups – and traded him midway through his first season.

In 2007, Boston had a 20 percent chance of landing the top pick. Better for No. 2. The top pick that year was Greg Oden. The second was Kevin Durant. The Celtics were slotted fifth. It worked out – Boston traded the pick to Seattle for Ray Allen, which was critical in the subsequent deal to bring in Kevin Garnett, which is the reason why banner No. 17 is hanging from the TD Garden rafters. At the time though, it was devastating.

Fast forward to 2017, to Pagliuca, who came to New York with all the trimmings: green socks, green tie, even a piece of the old Garden parquet floor. It worked: Boston’s number combination didn’t just come up once. It came up two more times after. “Red Auerbach,” Pagliuca said, invoking the name of the Celtics legend. “He finally made it happen.”

7:47 p.m.: “Whatever happens, we’d be good.”

No team had more riding on the lottery results than the Lakers. The balls bounce right, and LA adds a possible franchise player to its young core. They bounce wrong, leaving the Lakers outside the top three, and the pick conveys to Philadelphia while the Lakers’ 2019 first-rounder goes to Orlando, a final tax on the Dwight Howard deal.

The Lakers sent the big guns east. Magic Johnson, the newly minted team president, would be the public face, with GM Rob Pelinka in the drawing room. Pelinka grimaced through three straight Boston combinations before a fourth – LA’s – popped out of the cylinder. A fist pump and a long sigh followed.

“It was a rush, exhilaration,” Pelinka said. “It felt like a blessing.”

The Lakers went in hoping for the best – and preparing for the worst. “Going in, I was very calm,” Pelinka said. “Magic and I every day went through the scenarios, if we had the pick or we didn’t.” There were no superstitions. Pelinka went for a run through Central Park at 6 am. He met up with Magic, and the two said a prayer on the way over. There was a FaceTime meeting with owner Jeanie Buss. There was a good-luck phone call from Kobe Bryant.

“Whatever happens,” Pelinka said. “We’d be good.”

They are. The Lakers scored the second pick, and in all likelihood that means UCLA star Lonzo Ball is staying home. They are in the fledgling stages of a rebuilding process, but the cornerstone pieces they have now should help in the pursuit of free agents – see George, Paul – later.

Said Pelinka, “We want to build a sustainable roster for many years.”

7:50 p.m.: Sam Hinkie strikes again

In 2015, Philadelphia acquired Nik Stauskas from Sacramento. It was a salary absorbing deal for the Sixers, who coaxed the Kings into including swap rights in the 2016 and ’17 drafts. That deal – cut by maligned former GM Sam Hinkie – paid off Tuesday, when the Kings landed the third pick and promptly flipped it to Philadelphia, which was at five.

It wasn’t a great night for the Sixers; the Lakers’ lottery luck deprived them of another top-five pick in a top-heavy draft. But landing the third pick is a nice consolation prize. There is no obvious choice – both elite point guards, Ball and Washington’s Markelle Fultz, will likely be off the board by then – but plenty of good ones. Philadelphia needs shooting, and GM Bryan Colangelo should get plenty of interest should he put the pick on the market.

In all, the drawing takes less than 15 minutes. The waiting lasts another 45. Winning team reps engage reporters in interviews. Boilerplate stuff. Pagliuca wouldn’t go near questions about trades (George and Jimmy Butler’s names are bound to resurface) or how a rookie playmaker would fit in on a team already set with one. (And really, does anyone think Isaiah Thomas would be happy?) Pelinka reiterated Johnson’s earlier position that LaVar Ball would have no impact on a decision to draft Lonzo, adding that “there is no Anthony Davis in this draft.”

It could be a messy few months in Boston and LA. But on Tuesday, things couldn’t have gone smoother.

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