SECAUCUS, N.J. – Just in the past week, Portland Trail Blazers general manager Kevin Pritchard had been sitting with his scouting staff and coaches in the team's offices. They were throwing out names on top of the draft board, probing the impossibilities of a draft-night choice of Greg Oden and Kevin Durant. They went back and forth until Pritchard left them with these wistful words, "Wouldn't it be great to have the debate?"
Now, Pritchard was standing on the sound stage of the NBA Entertainment Studios. He had just hugged Brandon Roy, the Blazers' representative at Tuesday night's draft lottery, and his cell phone was buzzing relentlessly in his pocket. He stopped for a second and smiled, his eyes downright dizzy.
"Stunned," he said breathing out.
For the first time since the NBA moved to the weighted draft lottery system in 1993, the worst three teams – Memphis, Boston and Milwaukee – dropped out of the top three spots. Portland won the lottery despite a 5.3-percent chance of winning it, and, whatever you want to believe, there will be no debate.
"I can't believe that Greg Oden has a chance to be my teammate now," said Roy, the rookie of the year. "We have a chance to start putting together a championship contender."
Unless Pritchard wants to be derided as ruthlessly as his Portland G.M. ancestor Stu Inman, who picked Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan in 1984, Oden promises to go to the Blazers on draft night. Durant goes to the Seattle Sonics with the second pick, and well, the Memphis Grizzlies and Boston Celtics, who pick fourth and fifth respectively, go directly back into the dumper.
"I don't think the lottery's fair," Grizzlies G.M. Jerry West grumbled. "I don't like the draft lottery, never liked it. I just think it's a terrible system and it needs to be addressed."
All of that suspected tanking for nothing. Well, Pritchard, one of the bright young executive minds in the sport, had the worst team in the league a year ago and ended up with the fourth pick. But of course, if you're going to miss out on No. 1, you don't mind doing it in a draft where the top pick turns out to be Andrea Bargnani.
Prichard called it a "dangerous path" for him to dare say that he would take Oden over Durant, insisting that it was the interview process that ultimately sold the Blazers on the steal of the draft at No. 6 a year ago, Roy, who was acquired by Portland in a draft-day deal.
There are no issues with Oden and Durant, no knucklehead tendencies to push people off one prospect and onto another. Ten years ago, the Spurs drafted the dominant 7-footer, Tim Duncan, and are chasing a fourth title in a decade this year. The Blazers can debate Oden and Durant until the June 28 draft, but there is an inevitability to the ultimate choice. It'll be Oden, and it'll be championship contention sooner than later.
They've come so far, so fast, from the Jail Blazers that Pritchard inherited as assistant G.M., and then, general manager. "From where we were, no, I didn't think we could be at this point in such a short time," Pritchard said.
In his hand, Pritchard clutched a lady bug pendant his 10-year-old daughter Kendall gave him for the trip to Jersey. They haven't felt lucky in a long time in Portland, and now, with the Blazers' staggering array of young talent, they're the fresh-faced envy of the sport. As soon as Pritchard discovered backstage that they won the lottery, he called his owner, Paul Allen, in Europe, where he was a on a trip. Now, his cell phone was buzzing on the studio floor, and he was sure it had to be the Microsoft mogul on the line.
It felt like everything had been turned upside down. The Grizzlies and Celtics were stunned. Ten years later, the franchise center got away from the Celtics again. Danny Ainge sent his lucky charm, the old Celtic, Tom Heinsohn, to his Northern Jersey roots to sit on the podium, and when it was over, Heinsohn, a broadcaster now, had a beauty of a line, insisting that this wasn't all so bad because, "If Al Jefferson was coming out this year, he'd be right up there, so in essence, we already have our first pick."
Sounds like a season-ticket marketing campaign for the final days of the Ainge-Doc Rivers regime. Same time, same place next year, Tommy. Only maybe Ainge can come represent his franchise at the 2008 draft lottery. West is retiring in Memphis, and that franchise's future could be doomed there. So much on the line in Secaucus on Tuesday night, so many fates impaired.
Soon, the general manager of the Trail Blazers would be on the line to his staff back in Portland, where they will again gather and make believe that they're going to have a debate over the drafting of Oden and Durant.
Just for laughs, they'll run through the possibilities with two of the biggest prospects to come out of college together in years. Yet know this: The Blazers are getting Oden, and the suddenly old face of the franchise, Roy, was right: Sooner than later, the Blazers could be chasing championships.