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Last week, erstwhile Cavs coach and well-known NBA life coach John Lucas spilled the beans. Big time. Lucas, who began the 2002--03 season on the Cleveland bench before being fired in the wake of an 8--34 start, told AOL FanHouse that he had been hamstrung by a front office that was trying to lose to improve the team's draft lottery odds. "They trade all our guys away and we go real young, and the goal was to get LeBron and also to sell the team," Lucas said. Then again, he added, "you can't fault the Cavaliers for wanting to get LeBron."
No, John, you certainly can't. Cleveland had been in a funk for years. Mired in a dead-end existence with little hope of improving its lot, the team needed destiny to intervene, and it did when the Cavs—who finished with the league's worst record—won the lottery.
But 2003 was one of those rare years in which that was unequivocally a good thing. The prize was obvious: LeBron James, who is kind of the oversized check of basketball players. In most years the NBA's version of the lottery is nearly as twisted as that in The Lottery, the Shirley Jackson short story that's a staple of high school English reading lists. In that tale the lottery winner gets stoned to death by the townspeople to ensure a good harvest. In the NBA the "winner" gets the chance to misjudge who the best player is, draft Michael Olowokandi and then spend years catching hell for it.
Even when there's a consensus about who should go No. 1, that doesn't mean something won't go wrong. Oklahoma's Blake Griffin, who was the toast of last summer's draft class and was taken first overall by the Clippers, announced last week he'll miss the entire season with a broken left kneecap. He's the second top pick in three years to spend his rookie season in street clothes, following Greg Oden in 2007. (Oden is most likely out for the rest of this year as well after he broke his left kneecap. Just who's throwing stones at these guys, anyway?)
The 2007 draft is a perfect illustration of how fraught having the top pick can be. Neither Oden nor Kevin Durant emerged as the clear-cut favorite before the lottery. When the Blazers won it, they ended up with all the weight of the basketball universe on their shoulders, torn between the prized building block and a singular talent whose natural position was up for debate. History, it turns out, does have a sense of humor; in 1984 the Blazers took Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan with the second pick because 1) they already had Clyde Drexler and 2) dynasties are built from the inside out. This time around the front office decided that Durant and the incumbent power forward, LaMarcus Aldridge, were too similar, while Oden would provide the franchise center needed to contend.
The point of rehashing that story isn't to make Blazers fans cringe. If anything, it's to sympathize. Portland's front office was forced to make a difficult choice. Winning the lottery—as opposed to picking second—arguably did the Blazers more harm than good. Their decision made for them, the Sonics (who owned the second pick) got off with minimal angst and ended up with the future superstar, to boot.
Last summer the Clippers were supposed to have it as easy as the Cavs in 2003. Griffin was a polished, explosive power forward in a class full of midgets, the kind of player who's in especially short supply these days. Sure, three other teams passed on Tyreke Evans, and eight passed on Brandon Jennings. And for all we know, Griffin might still end up being better than either of them. But for now, this is what it comes down to: The Clippers ended up selecting a guy who gave them zero points as a rookie. The injury was an act of God and not their fault—even if Phil Jackson is right and Los Angeles owner Donald Sterling has more than a little bad karma coming his way. That almost doesn't matter, though. The Clippers had options—the ultimate freedom of choice, really—and they ended up with a disappointment.
And they're the winners?
Bethlehem Shoals writes for AOL Fanhouse and FreeDarko.com, which he founded.