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Ian Thomsen
May 27, 2002
Rocket Power Houston defied the odds and won the lottery jackpot—the No. I pick in the draft
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May 27, 2002

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Rocket Power
Houston defied the odds and won the lottery jackpot—the No. I pick in the draft

Golden state G.M. Garry St. Jean leaned over a sink on Sunday and threw cold water in his face. He had just been dealt another bad break, this time at the NBA draft lottery. The Warriors have been cursed since the 1994 falling out between the team's star ( Chris Webber) and its coach ( Don Nelson) led to the departure of both men and set the franchise back years. That was followed three years later by Latrell Sprewell's attempt to strangle coach P.J. Carlesimo, and lately the frustrated efforts of St. Jean to get more out of the dazzling young talent he has spent the last five years assembling.

Golden State won only 21 games this season, tying Chicago for the worst record in the league, but that gave the Warriors and the Bulls the most Ping-Pong balls in Sunday's lottery drawing. Yet Houston, despite having the fifth-worst record and a slim 8.9% chance of winning, watched its number come up and will have the first pick in the June 26 draft. Chicago has the second pick and Golden State the third. That means St. Jean will have to make an expensive swap with the Rockets or the Bulls to get 7'5" Chinese center Yao Ming or Duke point guard Jay Williams, who could instantly resolve the Warriors' playmaking and shooting woes. The Rockets almost certainly won't draft Williams: They already have an All-Star point guard in Steve Francis. But if Houston believes Yao has the potential to become another Hakeem Olajuwon, whom the Rockets drafted with the top pick in 1984, they will surely grab him.

If the Rockets are interested in trading the top pick, Golden State wouldn't be the only potential suitor. The others would include Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Golden State, Phoenix, Miami and New York (though the last two would have little to offer in trade). Things could get interesting as draft preparation enters its final month. Here are the top teams to watch:

No. 5 Denver—This has the makings of a promising stretch for the Nuggets, who could have as much as $30 million in cap room to spend in 2003.

No. 4 Memphis—Jerry West will be looking for the best player available. Caron Butler of UConn? Drew Gooden of Kansas? Nene Hilario of Brazil? Fortunately for the Grizzlies, West is the league's best evaluator of talent.

No. 3 Golden State—If St Jean can't move up, he'll probably be looking at Duke forward Mike Dunleavy, a consensus high lottery pick. "That wouldn't be bad," said St. Jean, his face brightening at the thought.

No. 2 Chicago—G.M. Jerry Krause is said to have fallen in love with the idea of a frontline of 7'5" Yao, 7'1" Tyson Chandler and 6'11" Eddy Curry. He also is a fan of Williams's. As a third option, he figures to have $6 million under the luxury-tax threshold this summer, which would allow him to package the draft pick in a trade for veteran help.

No. 1 Houston—Last year the Rockets gambled three first-round picks on a draft-night trade for Eddie Griffin, whom they hadn't worked out. Coach Rudy Tomjanovich and G.M. Carroll Dawson will be looking to make the most of this pick, conventional wisdom be damned.

Houston's ascension to the No. 1 pick this year was more complicated than the coin flip it won in 1984 to beat out Portland for the right to choose first. Wary of accusations of a fixed lottery if New York were to win (such conspiracy theories cropped up when the Knicks won the 1985 lottery and snared Patrick Ewing), the league invited an SI reporter and three other media representatives behind closed doors to witness the lottery.

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