We Went There: God Loves Cleveland and 24 More Notes From Inside the NBA Draft Lottery

I love the NBA draft lottery. There is real tension in the air, and it’s delightful to watch the league’s workaholic, process-oriented thinking GMs and owners grapple with the fact that a random Ping-Pong ball drawing in a sealed-off room is about to determine a major part of their organization’s future.

Watching the broadcast from the TV studio is a trip. You get to see how everyone behaves off-camera and during the commercial breaks. Lottery representatives on the dais either have to just sit there in awkward silence or force small talk with whoever happens to be sitting next to them. What is Dr. J’s go-to icebreaker in a conversation with Mallory Edens, the 18-year-old daughter of one of the Bucks’ new owners and the team’s rep on the dais last night? How does Kyle Singler start a chat with Anjali Ranadivé, daughter of the Kings’ owner?

Singler’s hair was disappointingly normal, by the way, and the basketball/style gods may have punished the Pistons in response.

Some nuggets from a night at the lotto:

• The reaction to Cleveland winning again was predictably hilarious. The polite studio crowd gasped when the Cavaliers’ name did not come up at their designated no. 9 slot, meaning they had moved into the top three. During the following commercial break, everyone around me — league officials, representatives from other teams, media members — was just shaking their heads and muttering, “Unbelievable.”

People just kind of laughed when they won the no. 1 pick. It’s ridiculous.

• The Cavs’ contingent toned things down this season after whooping it up last year — smaller crowd, no bow ties, no rappers or radio hosts, and no Dan or Nick Gilbert. Dan Gilbert was actually speaking at an event during the lottery television show, and didn’t learn his team had won the no. 1 pick again until about 30 minutes after the winning moment. Someone interrupted his speech to break the news, a Cavs official said.

• Jeff Cohen, the team’s vice-chairman, represents Cleveland in the secret room whenever the Cavs are in the lottery. The process is reversed in the actual drawing room — they reveal the no. 1 pick first and go down from there. When Cohen saw that the four-number combination of Ping-Pong balls corresponded to one of the measly 17 Cleveland owned (out of 1,001 such combos), he said he just put his hands on his head and started chuckling.

The reaction in the room was boisterous, I was told by Cohen and others inside. “The other guys were asking me for financial advice,” Cohen joked afterward.

• I am almost frightened that Cohen might be a warlock, and I asked him after the lottery if it is tempting after all these wins to believe he can influence events that would appear beyond his control. “I’ve always believed you create your own luck,” he said. “Luck just isn’t sitting there. You have to believe you are entitled to it. You have to see it, to visualize it. It doesn’t always work, but three years out of four, I mean, that’s pretty good.”

• Cohen again vowed that Cleveland would not be back at the lottery next season: “We will not be here.” I reminded him as gently as I could that he made the same promise in a chat with me at last year’s lottery. “I did say that,” he laughed. “I did. But I really mean it this year.”

• Cohen had taken the little placard with the Cavaliers logo from the drawing room as a souvenir, and he said the team has already framed the same placards from previous lottery wins. The team plans to display them on a wall in their practice facility. Sometimes the jokes really write themselves.

• There were more varied reactions to the Cavs’ win as everyone had time to process it. One official from another club was happy the lottery ended up rewarding a team that actually tried to win games this season. He used the word “karma,” and suggested that the lottery had served its purpose by introducing the kind of unpredictability that makes tanking a risky strategy.

But there is discomfort with the idea that a team can win the lottery three times in a four-year span. The Cavs won the Kyrie Irving lottery with the Clippers’ pick, but vaporize that trade from history and the Cavs would still be looking at four consecutive top-four picks — and two no. 1s.

That’s a false projection, obviously. You can’t go back in time, alter the Irving lottery, and then assume everything else falls the same way it did in actual life. And Cleveland’s win this year was a true long shot — a fluke. The system produced three lottery wins in four seasons for Cleveland, but the same system made that outcome extremely unlikely. Cleveland’s success is not an indicator that some other team might experience the same run of luck.

But supporters of a wheel-like reform have something to hold on to here. It is uncomfortable to see a team fail, and fail, and fail, and continue to win perhaps the most valuable asset in the entire league. Should that be possible?

• Cleveland is absolutely going to call the Timberwolves about Kevin Love, even though Love has just one year remaining on his contract before he can enter free agency. They dangled last season’s top pick in calls with Minnesota and Portland about Love and LaMarcus Aldridge, respectively, at a time when those guys had two years left on their contracts.

Calling doesn’t mean pulling the trigger. The top overall pick, plus at least one future pick and a current player (Dion Waiters?), is a steep price for a guy who might leave after one season. The Cavs would need assurances, and the only nonverbal assurance Love could provide is the decision to exercise his player option for 2015-16 — the same tactic Chris Paul used to grease his trade to the Clippers.

The Cavs would then have at least 18 months to convince Love they could make things work, and with Irving in the weaker Eastern Conference, they’d have a shot.

• Conflicting early reports have the Cavs leaning toward Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid, and it’s impossible to divide the fake from the real at this point. But Cleveland’s new GM, David Griffin, has been open about finding more spacing and varied skill sets among his front-line players. The Cavs don’t have a single big man with proven 3-point range, and as Anderson Varejao declines, they don’t have a threatening rim protector, either. They need to find a big who can do at least one of those things.

• Expect the Sixers to make the same Love call, armed with two top-10 picks, potentially all their future first-rounders, and two interesting young guys in Michael Carter-Williams and Nerlens Noel. But they just don’t have the same stockpile, especially since they view both MCW and Noel as cornerstones. Thaddeus Young is a good player, but he’s almost 26 and due nearly $20 million combined over the next two seasons. I’m not sure he really moves the needle for Minnesota.

But Sam Hinkie will call. “He will be very active,” said Scott O’Neil, the Sixers CEO. “He’s an unbelievable deal-maker.”

• Philly took the slide back to no. 3 in stride. “I guess part of you wants the no. 1 pick, just to have the option,” O’Neil said. “But having two lottery picks, plus Nerlens coming back to join the Rookie of the Year — I’ll take that every day and twice on Sunday.”

• Orlando’s row of representatives, including GM Rob Hennigan and Jacque Vaughn, the team’s head coach, barely moved when they came up at no. 4. They were like robots. Totally stone-faced.

• Cleveland’s win overshadowed what might have been a bigger basketball story: the Detroit-Charlotte flip-flop, with the Pistons moving down a spot and forfeiting their pick to Charlotte via the Ben Gordon–Corey Maggette deal — the final ripple of dirty water from the Joe Dumars era. “Can you believe Detroit loses their pick in Stan Van Gundy’s first draft?” Pat Williams, the Magic’s senior vice-president and longtime lottery rep, exclaimed afterward.

Detroit has a real shot to make the playoffs with Van Gundy coaching next season, and had they done that and kept their pick this season, they would have ended up sending Charlotte a pick in the 15-17 range. That’s a meaningful difference. Detroit can take solace in the fact that it was going to have to surrender the pick at some point, but this one hurts.

Charlotte people must have been doing backflips at home. They have a chance to add a real piece, and to build on the momentum from their playoff appearance and the name change.

• By the way: If you deal away an unprotected first-round pick that ends up in the lottery, you should still have to send a representative to appear on TV. Dell Demps, the Pelicans’ GM, had to smile at the dais even though the Pellies had only a 3.98 percent chance of keeping their own pick. That sliver of hope made his attendance mandatory, since the league has to have a representative on hand to stand for the ceremonial top-three reveal and do interviews in the event of nabbing the top pick.

The Knicks had a zero percent chance of keeping their own pick, since they gave it to Denver without any protection. But teams in that situation should still have to sit at the dais, if only for comedic purposes.

• Williams, one of the key founders of the Magic franchise, has been the team’s lottery representative every season they’ve been in it. “Every time we are not in the playoffs, they drag me out, put a new suit on me, and send me up here,” he told me afterward.

He has learned some tricks through all that experience. He had an angle to peer just behind Mark Tatum’s podium as the deputy commish opened each envelope, and if Tatum shifted the tiniest bit, Williams could lean over and see the logo a few seconds before Tatum showed it to the world. He got an early glimpse of the Magic logo as Tatum opened the no. 4 envelope, and just cringed, he said.

• Tatum told me afterward that he worked on opening the envelopes in such a way that no one on the dais could steal an early peek. He positioned the envelope in front of him, parallel to the ground, and tried to keep it perfectly flat before snapping it up to the cameras.

Tatum said he wasn’t nervous, but that he is a bit nervous to take Adam Silver’s place announcing the second round of the draft in Brooklyn next month. “Some of the unbelievable talent that will be joining our league have some incredibly difficult last names to pronounce,” he said, laughing.

He also knows the history of the sometimes hostile New York draft crowds, though I assured him the deputy commish is always greeted as a lovable hero. But just in case, Tatum reminded me he grew up in Brooklyn, listing off all the local schools he attended, and pointing out that his parents still live in his childhood home. He’s playing the crowd already!

2014 NBA Draft Lottery

• Edens became something of an immediate celebrity last night. She showed me her phone a few minutes after the broadcast, and it was just a constant whir of Twitter and Facebook notifications — like a list of TV credits scrolling so fast, you can’t actually read any of the names. “I just got Twitter to follow other people,” she said, “but now I apparently have followers.”

• When she saw my press credential, Edens immediately exclaimed she is a “huge Grantland fan.” Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s dastardly troublemaker, was lurking nearby, and asked Edens to name her favorite Grantland writers. He knew what was coming. She didn’t miss a beat, even though a Grantland writer was interviewing her: “Bill Simmons!” Whitaker cracked up and left. Damn you, Simmons!

• The level of excitement in Milwaukee is real. Wesley Edens and Marc Lasry, the new owners, sat in the front row with several family members, and the vibe is already out that they will allow for new levels of creativity with the Bucks — more spending, and more available team-building strategies. The team will “absolutely” be willing to approach the luxury tax when the time is right, Wesley Edens told me. “We want to be good businesspeople, but this is about winning basketball games.”

• Wesley Edens added this about John Hammond and David Morway, Milwaukee’s top basketball executives: “It’s going to be great working with them.” So count that as another piece of evidence Hammond and Morway will survive the ownership change, at least for one year.

• Fun window into the life of a GM no. 1: I spoke with Pete D’Alessandro, the Kings GM, and tried to ease into the interview by pointing out that there really isn’t much difference between no. 7, the Kings initial slot, and where they ended up at no. 8. “It’s almost the same, right?” His response: “No! No, it’s not! It’s no. 8, not no. 7. But I do think we’ll get a good player. I don’t think anyone in this draft is really upset about where their pick is.”

D’Alessandro said the Kings are open to trading up, trading down, or moving out of the first round entirely. The team is overloaded with big men, but the initial draft discussion has focused on finding the best player available regardless of position, he said. “That’s what we’ve been talking about. But at the moment of truth, you do wonder, ‘Should we tear all that reasoning down and get a player who fits our team now?’”

• All of Sacramento’s reps wore buttons that said “Power Forward,” the slogan supporting the construction of a new arena, which got a huge boost in a City Council vote last night. There were some jokes made about how the new buttons could also indicate the team’s ceaseless lust for power forwards.

• Fun window into the life of a GM no. 2: Almost every GM in New York last night had a pre–5 a.m. wake-up call for a flight to L.A., where teams and agents will hold a series of workouts for potential draft picks over the next three days. Nobody was excited about the trip, even though it will apparently feature some actual 5-on-5 basketball — something that does not happen at the NBA’s official pre-draft combine in Chicago.

And yet, most team reps in attendance were not super-stoked about the workouts. Travel is a grind, and teams are skeptical at this late stage that anything they see in such an environment is going to sway their eventual pick.

• There is something like unanimity that the league needs to just scrap the drills portion of its draft combine. Nobody cares about it. Teams have given up on ever seeing real basketball there, and they’d rather have more interviews and medical tests than waste time on seeing dudes jump and lunge.

• Fun moment: There is a big to-do when John Daniels, the league’s security chief, and an Ernst & Young rep walk the pile of envelopes up to Tatum’s podium before the televised drawing. Daniels looks and acts like a Secret Service guy, and the two of them approached the podium in a slow walk, turned to face the cameras, and stood there looking very serious.

Cut to commercial, and they exchanged a fist bump while cracking up.

Seriously: The lottery is the best. It raises all kinds of serious questions about fairness, tanking, and team-building, and Silver has said he will consider the wheel and other possible tweaks. But it’s fun to set aside all that and bask in the madness for at least one night.

Filed Under: NBA, Draft Lottery, Cleveland Cavaliers, The Wheel, NBA Draft, Kyle Singler, Mallory Edens, Bill Simmons, Jeff Cohen, David Griffin, Sacramento Kings, joe dumars, Detroit Pistons, Charlotte Hornets, Dell Demps, Kevin Love, 2014 NBA Draft

Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ ZachLowe_NBA