Lucky Charms, Puppy Dogs, and Ice Cream

I'll be in attendance at the lottery this evening. I wish I could say I'm going for journalistic reasons. And, I guess, that might prove to be so.

But in my heart of hearts I confess that the reason I'm going is to try to rig the lottery to be there when my beloved Portland Trail Blazers win a great pick.

For some reason, this time I believe it will happen. It's just a mood. Blazer executives and fans that I have heard from all seem to have a little glint in their eye -- whereas last year there was much more gloom and doom. I just feel there's a good vibe about this thing (Portland people are picturing success), although I am trying hard not to get my hopes up.

Also, I'm totally not a believer in superstition and that kind of stuff, but I made a special exception this morning when I tore around the house looking for some kind of lucky charm. I settled on a clothespin-and-paper towel-butterfly my daughter made at school, with a cut-out photo of her face glued on as the head. If the human-headed butterfly doesn't bring luck, I have no idea what will.

Now, let's get into what's actually happening in Seacaucus this evening. This is from ESPN research:

Fourteen ping-pong balls numbered 1 through 14 will be placed in a drum. There are 1,001 possible combinations when four balls are drawn out of 14, without regard to their order of selection. Prior to the Lottery, 1,000 combinations will be assigned to the 14 participating Lottery teams by a computer.

The Memphis Grizzlies finished the season with the NBA's worst record (22-60), so they will be assigned 250 combinations. The Los Angeles Clippers, the best team in the lottery at 40-42, will have five combinations out of 1,000.

Four balls will be drawn to the top to determine a four-digit combination. The team that has been assigned that combination will receive the number one pick. The four balls are placed back in the drum and the process is repeated to determine the number two and three picks. (Note: If the one unassigned combination is drawn, the balls are drawn to the top again.)

The order of selection for the teams that do not win one of the top three picks will be determined by inverse order of their regular season record. Thus, Memphis can pick no lower than fourth, Boston (24-58) no lower than fifth and Milwaukee (28-54) no lower than sixth.

The actual Lottery procedure will take place in a separate room prior to the national broadcast with NBA officials and representatives of the participating teams and the accounting firm of Ernst & Young in attendance.

Following the drawing, team logo cards will be inserted into envelopes marked 1 through 14 by an Ernst & Young representative. These envelopes then will be sealed and brought on-stage, where the announcement of the Lottery results will be made by NBA Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver. A second representative from each participating team will be seated on-stage. Neither the Deputy Commissioner nor the team representatives will be informed of the Lottery results prior to the opening of the envelopes.

First of all: Adam Silver! Wow. This is a big step for the man who many assume will one day succeed David Stern.

A second thought: Please, sports media, let's agree right now that we're not going to say that this or that team won the lottery "despite long odds." It's like the roulette wheel: the likelihood of a certain number coming up may be slim, but the only possible scenario, every time you spin the wheel, is that a number (a "longshot" number) comes up. If it's a longshot number every time, how long is that shot?

Now, much more importantly, let's think for a moment about what's actually at stake in an NBA lottery in a great draft. There is the temptation to believe that we're watching something like "who's going to make the NBA Finals in five years."

Horse puckey.

As ESPN's David Thorpe pointed out to me this morning, look at the teams in the Conference Finals. This is where you want to get, right? Did these teams get here through the lottery? Two of them did, at least in part. San Antonio without Tim Duncan and Cleveland without LeBron James would probably not be here.

Utah, on the other hand, is led by a second-round pick in Carlos Boozer. The Pistons are a collection of players who were either drafted well out of the lottery (Tayshaun Prince) or became Pistons only after being discarded elsewhere (Rasheed Wallace, Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Chris Webber).

And don't forget that there are plenty of teams (Clippers!) that have had a million great picks through the years, and still aren't all that great.

A fancy player on the wrong team, says Thorpe, is just "puppy dogs and ice cream."

But this is The Greg Oden and Kevin Durant draft.
I'm going to use a baseball analogy. Picture a fastball pitcher trying to throw fireballs past a great hitter. The hitter swings the bejusus out of the bat, and even from across a noisy stadium you can clearly hear that certain, pleasing "ping" of ball on wood.

Freeze the action right there.

Here's what you know: the ball has been hit solidly, and it's headed somewhere hard. But what you don't know, in this frozen moment, is where. At the shortstop? The center-fielder? Out of bounds? Off the back wall? Or, really, could it be ... over the wall for the big enchilada?

In that frozen moment, what you know is that if you're cheering for the offense, you'll take it. This is a fantastic start that has a great shot at being a truly momentous play. You already know so many good things: he didn't swing and miss. He's seeing the ball well. He didn't bloop it. He didn't foul it off.

But you have no idea what's going to happen. It can go right or wrong a million ways.

Greg Oden and Kevin Durant, each just a year out of high school, are that ball, in that moment, fresh off the bat. Everyone likes the looks of things, but no one has any real way to predict what will happen in the years to come. A foul ball would not be shocking, and neither would a home run.

Predicting the future is always tough. That's true in the stock market, that's true in the weather, and that's true in basketball. Still, anything can happen. (This might one day be remembered as the "Corey Brewer draft" or the "Thaddeus Yong draft" or just about any other crazy thing.)

Take a look at the NBA's all-time best and worst number one picks. Heck, yeah, "can't miss" picks can miss.

One of the main ways blue-chippers fail is by landing on teams that don't know how to win. More talent can't fix losing culture, just like more water can't fix a leaking bucket.

(That's why, I confess, I am not eager to see Durant or Oden end up in Memphis or Atlanta. From a distance, those teams would appear to have little shot at good corporate culture at the moment, because in both cases nothing -- the ownership, the front office, the roster, the coaching staff -- is established for the long haul. Also, wouldn't it be nice to see Phoenix get a great pick, which can only happen if Atlanta does not win?)

Maximizing potential means having a certain way to do things -- giving everyone involved a clear idea about what they need to do to succeed. Winning, on some teams, permeates every aspect of the business. Consider the words of the general manager of the winningest team in professional sports over the last decade. This is what San Antonio's R.C. Buford tells USA Today's David DuPree:

  • "We built this thing together," Buford said. "My role in the whole deal is I am very proc
    ess oriented. I function better if it is a step-by-step process. It works because we've had good players. The system has helped us not screw it up."

  • "We know what we are looking for (hard-working, high-character, team-oriented, mentally tough, coachable and unselfish players), and the important component of it is knowing what works and what doesn't work - and that qualifies your risk," Buford said. "There are NBA players who aren't necessarily Spurs, and there are Spurs who may not fit someplace else."

I have also heard Gregg Popovich talk about how this or that player has good "corporate knowledge," as in understands the many things that come with wearing the Spurs' uniform.

The point is, the Tim Duncans, Kevin Durants, and Greg Odens of the world certainly mean a ton. I pray my team, the Blazers, who have done an amazing job of setting up their own winning corporate philosophy in recent years, are lucky enough (oh, mighty human head butterfly, do your stuff) to get the opportunity to grow with one of them.

But even the greatest assets in the world can be squandered -- especially in a very competitive league where almost every team has some supremely talented players. The pressure is still on for teams to get their houses in order, and to welcome these young players into the fold with a clear and accurate idea about how that team, long-term, is going win.