This was the tweet that started my dive down the rabbit hole. Rewatching "The Last Dance" and seeing the part about Seattle drafting Scottie Pippen is what inspired the tweet. So what the hell was going on with the NBA draft lottery in the 1980s??
Pippen went 5th in the NBA draft (and was immediately traded to Chicago) but the Sonics were fresh off of a Western Conference Finals appearance! Sure, they were below .500 but that makes this even crazier. Imagine this year's sub .500 Grizzlies somehow making the WCF and then getting the fifth pick in the draft.
Surely this whiff in the draft led to a couple of rebuilding years for the struggling Sonics? Not really. They won 47 games and made the second round of the playoffs before snagging Kemp with the 17th pick in the 1989 draft. The following year, they missed the playoffs after a 41-41 record and got the second pick in the draft (Payton) for their troubles. A Pippen/GP/Kemp core would have had Michael Jordan playing AA baseball by around 1992. I wondered how this team didn't run the conference for a decade until I realized that this is exactly how the teams that did run the decade were built.
The 1978-79 Lakers won 47 games and then won the #1 pick in the Draft on a coinflip. They took Magic Johnson and surprisingly won the championship the next season.
The 1979-80 Celtics won 61 games before landing the #3rd pick in the 1980 Draft. They took Kevin McHale. They too won the championship the following season.
The 1981-82 Lakers won 57 games and the 1982 championship. They got the #1 pick and drafted James Worthy. Big Game James was a fine pick but Dominique Wilkins went two picks later. If Nique got to run with the Showtime Lakers and Magic/Kareem, Jordan might have stayed all four years at UNC and went into telemarketing after graduation. No way he wanted parts of that NBA. Either way, the Lakers made the Finals the next year but were lost to Philly.
Just for reference here, the #1 pick of the 1983 draft (Ralph Sampson) went to a 14 win Rockets team. Mark Aguirre went #1 to the 15-67 Mavericks in the 1981 Draft. The 24 win Warriors took Joe Barry Carroll #1 in the 1980 Draft. So pretty much, every other year a top-three prospect was a lock to go to a championship contender. I gotta say, I don't hate it either. It makes the strong much stronger but I'd rather that than to have elite talent go to teams that will waste their talents. Back to the history.
We have a couple of years off here where the top picks went to terrible teams before we came ROARING back. The 1985-86 Celtics team won 67 games and is widely considered as one of the best teams of all time, if not the best. They got the #2 pick in the draft and took Len Bias. I....forget what happened after that.
Things start to even out after that, more or less, with the worst teams getting the high picks in the draft. I wonder if this just happened naturally??? Hardly:
After the 1984 coin flip, which was won by the Houston Rockets, the NBA introduced the lottery system to counter the accusations that the Rockets and several other teams were deliberately losing their regular season games in order to secure the worst record and consequently the chance to obtain the first pick. The lottery system involved a random drawing of an envelope from a hopper. Inside each of the envelopes was the name of a non-playoff team. The team whose envelope was drawn first would get the first pick. The process was then repeated until the rest of the lottery picks were determined. In this system, each non-playoff team had an equal chance to obtain the first pick. The rest of the first-round picks were determined in reverse order of the win-loss record.
Starting from 1987, the NBA modified the lottery system so that only the first three picks were determined by the lottery. After the three envelopes were drawn, the remaining non-playoff teams would select in reverse order of their win-loss record. This meant that the team with the worst record could receive no worse than the fourth selection, and the second-worst team could pick no lower than fifth, and so on.
Ahhh ha! The coin flip system begat the draft lottery system. This begat the weighted drafted lottery which begat lottery protections being placed on picks. Before this, your best bet was to trade a first-rounder now for a future first-rounder from a terrible team. After all, every non-playoff team had the same odds to get a high pick in the draft. The Lakers and Celtics figured this out early. In a completely unrelated note, the Lakers or Celtics made an appearance in every single Finals of the 1980s.
Was this so bad of a system though?? There would be a couple of drafts that led to comically dominant teams (2012 Heat landing the first pick and drafting Anthony Davis, 2018 Warriors landing a top-three pick and adding Luka Doncic) but this can be evened out. If the odds weren't so stacked to give incompetent teams the best talent for them to waste, we might see a more interesting Draft lottery. This year, the 8th pick in the draft is expected to go to the Hornets. Wouldn't it be more fun if that went to a Portland or New Orleans team that is actively trying to make the playoffs? Do the Knicks need another top-ten pick to punt on? I'd rather have a team like San Antonio be in the mix for that pick. Reward a team for trying to make the playoffs, not by handing them the #1 pick but by giving them better odds to end up with maybe the 7th pick instead of the 13th pick. The talent dropoff in that range for the NBA can be the difference between Jamal Murray and Georgios Papagiannis or Colin Sexton and Jerome Robinson.
Something to consider.