Bouncing around: NBA lottery leaves teams’ futures to chance

Eleven years ago in the highly vaunted 2003 NBA Draft, the Memphis Grizzlies had the sixth-best odds to win the lottery and snag high school phenom LeBron James with the top overall pick.

The pick came as a result of a 1997 trade with Detroit, when the Grizzlies were still north of the border in Vancouver. Because of complicated trade conditions, Memphis could only keep that pick if it won the lottery. But Cleveland, which had the best chances to get the top pick, won the lottery and selected LeBron.

Memphis’ pick returned to Detroit, where the Pistons botched the good fortune anyway by taking Darko Milicic instead of Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh or Dwyane Wade. The Grizzlies went on to swap their two remaining first rounders with each of Boston’s, netting Memphis Troy Bell and Dahntay Jones. Not quite the same as LeBron.

Playing the what-if game is always dicey because hypothetically having certain players would change a team’s subsequent roster moves. But imagine for one second if LeBron, Mike Conley, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol were all on the same team. My goodness, that’s a powerhouse.

In a more recent example, the 2011-’12 Charlotte Bobcats were the worst team in NBA history. Lottery luck, however, was not on their side. In a draft in which Anthony Davis was the only bona fide superstar-in-the-making, Charlotte got stuck with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

Such is the crapshoot of the NBA lottery, and team outlooks will inevitably change in this year’s edition, shown Tuesday on ESPN at 8:00 p.m. ET. Here’s a clip of the selection process from last year:

The tough-luck Milwaukee Bucks possess the best odds of securing the No. 1 overall pick. The Bucks, which finished with a putrid 15-67 mark for the worst season in franchise history, have a 25 percent chance of winning the lottery. Philadelphia has the next-best odds at 19.9 percent.

Since the weighted lottery system was instituted in 1990, the team with the worst record (and thus the best odds) has won the lottery only three times—in 1990 when the Nets took Derrick Coleman, 2003 when the Cavaliers took LeBron and 2004 when the Magic took Dwight Howard.

Because this year’s draft class is projected to be one of the best ever, rumors swirled all season that certain teams were tanking for a position that would give them better draft odds. Though the lottery was created to eliminate tanking, there has still been enough controversy that alternatives are being developed, such as the draft wheel.

Therefore, we don’t know how much longer the lottery will continue. Until any changes are made, however, it’s here to stay. And the fate of the NBA’s worst teams will continue to rest on the bounce of its ping-pong balls.