What happened at the wildest NBA lottery ever seen
CHICAGO -- Holy smokes. What a wild lottery. That may have been the wildest lottery ever. The NBA's new smoothed lottery odds raised the possibility of teams leaping from the middle toward the top, and boy howdy was there some leapin' on Tuesday in Chicago.
Here's how it went down from inside the locked-down drawing room, where the real lottery takes place about an hour before the television reveal.
• In all my years in the drawing room -- and I'm becoming the Elgin Baylor of that room at this point -- the loudest display of emotion I had seen was in 2012 from Dell Demps, then the general manager of the New Orleans Pelicans, when New Orleans won the Anthony Davis lottery. Demps pumped his fist under a table and stifled one celebratory grunt.
Seven years later, with Davis hovering over the lottery in a very different way, Alvin Gentry, the Pelicans' coach and drawing room representative, threw all decorum out the window when the fourth pingpong ball drawn (numbered 13) completed a four-number combination that belonged to New Orleans.
Gentry rose from his chair. "F---, yeah!" he exclaimed. He raised his arms in celebration, and even turned to high-five six rival team representatives behind and around him. They reciprocated. "Sorry, sorry," Gentry said to the room as he sat back down and the drawing continued for the second, third and fourth picks.
He didn't need to apologize. Almost everyone in the room was smiling along with him. Gentry has always been popular, but the Davis debacle turned him into a more sympathetic figure. Most of the people in that room were happy for him.
• After the lottery ended, Gentry approached the dozen reporters in the room and offered another wink-wink apology. "Sorry, guys," he said. "Not really."
• Gentry wore a black tie with silver-gray striping. It was his good-luck charm. David Griffin, New Orleans' new executive vice president of basketball operations, gave it to Gentry. Griffin was a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers' front office during a stretch in which the Cavs won three lotteries in four years, from 2011 to 2014. Each time, a man named Jeff Cohen -- a former vice chair for the Cavs and confidant of owner Dan Gilbert -- represented the team in the drawing room.
I began referring to Cohen as a warlock. Gilbert and Cohen had some sort of falling out, and the Cavs have not had him in the room in either of the past two lotteries. (Cleveland owned Brooklyn's pick a year ago.) I half-jokingly said the Cavs had cursed themselves.
And then Gentry revealed the ultimate plot twist: The tie Gentry wore Tuesday was the same one Cohen wore in each of those three lottery wins. Griffin had phoned Cohen and asked for a good-luck charm in the lead-up to the lottery, he told ESPN.com in the aftermath Tuesday. Cohen scoffed at the idea that any trinket could win the favor of the lottery gods. Griffin asked if he might please send the tie. Cohen did. Griffin passed it on to Gentry.
Put Jeff Cohen and his damned tie in the Hall of Fame. Gentry said he is going to frame the tie and the lottery balls, and hang it in the Pelicans' practice facility.
• Upstairs in the ballroom, Griffin saw Celtics assistant GM Mike Zarren, embraced him and screamed, "What did I tell you?" In the leaguewide general managers meeting earlier that day, Griffin apparently told everyone New Orleans would win the lottery. "I've already seen it," Griffin recalled announcing to the room. "We're winning this thing."
This is exactly the sort of borderline spiritual language Griffin used when his Cavaliers trailed the Warriors 3-1 in the 2016 NBA Finals. He insisted that the Cavaliers were going to rally and win. If you looked at him funny, Griffin just stared back at you, dead serious.
Between Griffin, Cohen and Cohen's tie, I'm starting to believe in some real mystical stuff. I'm a little scared. I also worry that in excising all three, the Cavaliers will suffer years of self-inflicted bad luck.
• Speaking of Tuesday's GMs meeting: Multiple sources say the liveliest topic of discussion centered around the possibility of implementing a coach's challenge at some point soon. Some in the room favored a more limited challenge system focused on black-and-white rulings: out-of-bounds plays, goaltending, and the like -- but not fouls. Others argued coaches should be able to challenge foul calls.
The league would likely favor the more restricted concept, if anything. Allowing coaches to challenge fouls is something of a Pandora's box. Should they be able to challenge non-calls, too? There was also discussion of whether a challenge should cost a team one timeout regardless of whether the coach "wins" or "loses" the challenge. Some in the room were wary of coaches using the challenge to create an extra timeout. Also: What if a team is out of timeouts?
There is a lot to determine, but accounts of the depth of the discussion suggest this concept has some new momentum.
• Also discussed, per sources: stationing a "replay official" at the scorer's table who could make some determinations (was that shot a 2-pointer or a 3-pointer?) without stopping play, and flag other plays right away so that referees would not have to huddle up and decide whether to trigger review. Thumbs up!
• Back to the lottery: How crazy is it that we spent the past two months wondering how the lottery would impact the Davis trade sweepstakes, only for Davis' actual team to win the lottery? You cannot make this up.
"We're going to get a great player," Gentry told ESPN.com after the drawing. "We have something to sell."
I asked: You mean sell to Davis? "To Anthony and our fans," Gentry said. "Everyone forgets he's still a part of our roster."
• Griffin echoed that during a brief chat with ESPN.com after the televised reveal. "We can be Oklahoma City with Paul George," he said. "We can hold onto [Davis] and let him see what we really are. [Winning the lottery] changes how quickly he can buy into it. It gets us closer. Every day, maybe he believes a little more. As much as elite talent likes to play with elite talent, I can't imagine any elite player in his prime looking at our situation and saying to himself, 'There's a better grouping to play for' than ours."
We'll see. Several reports late Tuesday suggested Davis had not changed his stance post-lottery. Griffin has to create the perception of leverage. But it's not crazy to suggest that the Pelicans could build something very interesting -- and lasting -- around Davis, Jrue Holiday, Zion Williamson and a couple of other young pieces. If they trade Davis for another top-four pick in this draft -- more on that later -- building around two top-five picks in the same draft is kind of cool.
• The first three balls drawn on the winning combination were numbers 7, 4, and 12. The worst teams -- New York, Phoenix, and Cleveland -- owned 420 of the 1,000 four-number combinations, and most of the combos featuring 1s, 2s, and 3s. There is real suspense in the air when the first three numbers drawn are 4 or higher. For 10 delicious seconds -- and exactly 10 by league rule -- a lot of teams are in play.
Gentry knew the Pelicans had a shot. "Oh, s---," he thought to himself after that 12 came up, he told ESPN.com. Tommy Sheppard, the Wizards' top executive since the team fired Ernie Grunfeld, also felt butterflies, he told ESPN.com afterward. The Wizards owned a few combinations featuring 4, 7, and 12. For a moment, Sheppard let himself envision Washington erasing a year of rotten feelings. "Of course you do that," Sheppard said. "But then you remember this is like bingo. You can't control anything."
And then Kiki VanDeWeghe, the NBA's executive vice president of basketball operations, announced the number on the last ball: 13. Gentry rifled through the eight-page printout listing all the combinations to see if New Orleans owned 4-7-12-13. It was taking too long. He gave up and waited. An NBA attorney proclaimed that New Orleans had won the No. 1 pick.
• Maybe the most fun part of the drawing room experience is watching the TV show knowing the results. When ESPN cut to the bar of New York fans celebrating that the Knicks had cracked the top four, everyone either chuckled or winced. If only they knew the letdown that was coming.
As the Pelicans' big TV moment approached, Sheppard declared to the room that Gentry had to re-enact his "F---, yeah!" moment. Gentry announced that he was "feeling good again" even though he already knew the results. When ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reminded television viewers that Davis was still a Pelican, and that Griffin would fight to keep him, Gentry bellowed, "Thank you!"
• It's strange to declare the Knicks slight "losers" for landing at No. 3 and the Lakers "winners" for rising from No. 11 to No. 4, but that assessment is correct. For all their flaws -- and perhaps too much has been made of those flaws considering the players' age -- the Lakers' young players have more combined trade value than Kevin Knox, Frank Ntilikina, Dennis Smith Jr. and Mitchell Robinson. (Does Robinson have the most trade value of those four guys? He might. He had the best 2018-19 season among them.)
The No. 3 pick in this draft plus all of those guys does not carry the same appeal as the No. 4 pick plus Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart and Kyle Kuzma. I'm not sure the two Dallas future first-round picks the Knicks received in the Kristaps Porzingis deal (plus the Knicks youngsters being further from their paydays) tilt the equation in their favor; the Lakers can add their own first-round picks into any Davis package. If the Davis sweepstakes still happens, the Lakers probably come out of the lottery ahead of Knicks.
Some in the league wonder if the Pelicans' ownership and the New Orleans Saints officials who once had so much influence might still hold some grudge against the Lakers. Maybe. The door is slightly ajar for a surprise Davis suitor beyond the Lakers, Knicks and Celtics. But Gayle Benson has empowered Griffin, and the bet here is that Griffin will push for the best deal -- if a deal happens -- without much regard to the destination.
• Rob Pelinka, the Lakers' GM and drawing room rep, was candid in a post-lottery chat with ESPN.com about the team's urgency to improve immediately -- and how the No. 4 pick might play into that. "We are coming off a very tough season," Pelinka said. "We are going to do all we can to increase our chances to win next year. This pick is a powerful asset. We'll be methodical with the options of either selecting the right player or using it another way to get better."
• Pelinka of course cannot say the words "Anthony Davis." He's also well aware that the Lakers' brain trust -- him, Jeanie Buss, Linda Rambis, Kurt Rambis -- is taking a public beating. (That beating is deserved, by the way.) "The important thing in the eye of the storm is to keep your mind on doing your work excellently and not getting caught up in public opinion," Pelinka said.
• The Mike Conley sweepstakes has to be back on with Memphis in position to draft Ja Morant after jumping from No. 8 to No. 2. Trading Conley would hurt the 2019-20 Grizzlies, which makes Boston an indirect winner on at least one lottery front. With Memphis keeping its pick this season, its obligation to Boston now rolls over to next season with looser protections: The Grizzlies owe their next first-rounder to Boston with top-six protection in 2020, and then (if necessary) with no protection at all in 2021.
If Memphis goes into full rebuild, that pick increases in value.
• The sort of jumps New Orleans, Memphis and the Lakers made Tuesday -- and the connected drops of the league's very worst teams -- were precisely what the NBA intended, or at least what it conceded to as a possibility, when it tweaked the lottery rules for this year. There is less benefit to being abjectly terrible.
Some league officials braced themselves Tuesday for something of a backlash: Have we gone too far? Meh. This is what happens when you disincentivize finishing at the very bottom, and incrementally bump up the incentives for finishing in the middle of the lottery order. The tweaks didn't really even change team behavior that much. Three teams still tanked their way to fewer than 20 wins. Tuesday's results could even inspire more last-minute jostling for position in the middle of the lottery next season.
"One year doesn't tell the whole story," VanDeWeghe told ESPN.com after the lottery. "But the intent was to make it a little more random. It certainly doesn't solve everything, but I think it was a good move by the Board of Governors."
• Another possible consequence of Tuesday: Teams might be even more reluctant to trade potential lottery picks, and haggle even harder about the specific protections on them. After seeing these colossal jumps, will every borderline playoff team hunting a win-now move insist on top-four protection for its draft pick? That could chill the trade market a bit.
• One Eastern Conference executive in the drawing room Tuesday: "Three out of the first four out West? If it's not us, I'm at least glad it went that way."
• More trinkets from the lottery room! Zarren brought a Hoyo de Monterrey cigar -- Red Auerbach's preferred brand, apparently. Mike Gansey, Cleveland's assistant GM, brought nothing. I'm telling you, the Cavs are going to suffer the Cohen Curse. Pelinka brought "optimism," because his 11-year-old son, Durham, is an "eternal optimist" and told Pelinka optimism was all he needed, Pelinka told ESPN.com.
Zach Kleiman, Memphis' new executive vice president of basketball operations, brought an engraved watch his late mother gave to him in 2009.
No one could compete with Ian Hillman, the Sixers' vice president of strategy. Philly entered the night with a 1 percent chance at winning the No. 1 pick -- the last remnant of a laughably lopsided 2015 trade with the Kings. Hillman wore a "Simmons-Embiid" mock presidential campaign T-shirt underneath his dress shirt -- the same outfit choice he made for his job interview with the Sixers.
In an envelope, he carried several coins from 1963, the year the Sixers franchise moved to Philadelphia. He added a special edition South Carolina state quarter from 2000 -- the state in which Williamson grew up and the year he was born. He even had an Australian coin from 1996 -- the year Ben Simmons was born.
"When you have a 1 percent chance, you need as many lucky charms as you can bring," Hillman said.
• Even the timekeeper monitoring the 10-second intervals between the drawing of each ball -- Micah Day, the NBA's director of event management -- has a superstition: He uses the same red stopwatch every year.
• Upgrade alert: The NBA now has a backup pingpong ball machine in case the real machine malfunctions. The NBA's contingency plan until this season: stuff the 14 pingpong balls into a basketball with a hole cut into the top. I swear, that is a real thing. League officials on hand told me that even with the backup machine, that carved-up basketball remains Plan C in case of a power outage and/or double malfunction. One day, people. One day.
• The league keeps the pingpong balls in a black briefcase secured with one of those plastic zip ties. When an NBA official cracked that bad boy open, it almost had the drama of Vincent Vega opening the briefcase in "Pulp Fiction."
• Touching moment in the drawing room: Hillman, of the Sixers, and Andy Elisburg, the Heat's senior vice president and general manager, discussing the pain of being on the wrong end of historic shots. Hillman confided that he was still not over the Kawhi Leonard Game 7 buzzer-beater. Elisburg warned Hillman he would never be over it. Elisburg told Hillman he can still remember exactly where he was (and many other details from) the moment Allan Houston hit the rim-backboard-in floater that won Game 5 of the 1999 first-round series between the Knicks and Elisburg's Heat.
• Actor Jami Gertz, wife of Hawks owner Tony Ressler, has started a new tradition of eating a piece of chocolate cake from the same Chicago restaurant -- the RL Restaurant, i.e., the Ralph Lauren restaurant -- the day of the lottery. In related news, Jami Gertz is an absolute delight. Also: Ralph Lauren has a restaurant? Another thing I learned walking to a meeting in Chicago today: Weber Grill has a restaurant here with a giant red grill sticking out of the facade. What?
See you next year unless the NBA bans me!