I was one of eight or 10 media members who got to watch the lottery last night from inside the television studio where the NBA draft order is filmed. It’s not quite as cool as being in the secret locked-down room where the lottery actually happens, but it’s an experience — a bizarre event filled with odd moments, awkward silences, uncomfortable people, team representatives wearing ridiculous amounts of makeup, endless commercial breaks where everyone on the dais just sort of sits there, Jay Bilas, and other strangeness. Some quick observations from TV land:
• The Cleveland Cavaliers contingent at these things is just very weird. They make a party of the lottery, and the party treads the line between quirky and unseemly. They bring at least a dozen people every year, and there is always a local celebrity or two among them; Bernie Kosar came last year, and he was on the list again this year. He didn’t show, but a rapper named Machine Gun Kelly, who does not know how to tie a tie, filled the celebrity void.
I had never heard of Machine Gun Kelly, which is not surprising. I am 35 and unhip. He is 23 and something like hip. When another reporter told me Machine Gun Kelly was in the Cleveland group, I thought he was making some kind of joke about how everyone affiliated with the Cavaliers wears maroon bow ties to the lottery every season, giving them an old-timey look. (The real Machine Gun Kelly, a prohibition gangster, almost certainly didn’t wear dapper bow ties, but the 1920s are often stereotyped as glamorous, and I couldn’t think of any other reason someone at the NBA draft lottery would make a Machine Gun Kelly reference.)
Nope. Machine Gun Kelly, MGK, is a real Cleveland-based rapper who needed help tying his bow tie on the private jet the Cavaliers group took to New York on Tuesday. He told me after the lottery that he has replaced LeBron as Cleveland’s cultural touchstone. “One bounced and one stayed,” he said. “It was an easy choice. Machine Gun Kelly is like the voice of Cleveland.”
MGK also does the music that plays over the Cavs’ starting-lineup intros, which is how he got to know the team.
• When the Cavaliers leapfrogged into the top two picks, the group, seated about 25 feet to my right, broke out in loud applause and some muffled shouting. When NBA deputy commissioner Adam Silver announced Orlando had “won” the no. 2 pick, the Cleveland guys didn’t even wait a beat before celebrating. They screamed and clapped. One young man, a season-ticket holder who had won a contest to join the group, stood up, raised his arms, extended his index fingers in the “We’re no. 1” gesture, and mugged for the cameras as if a sports team had actually accomplished something that involved skill. A second man I didn’t recognize, a middle-aged man with slicked back hair, expensive-looking thick glasses (sort of like the ones Jim Cutler wears now on Mad Men), and a very loud baritone voice began straight-up shouting — “YEAH! YEAH!” and “ATTA BOY, NICKY!,” the latter directed at Nick Gilbert, son of Cavs owner Dan Gilbert, and perhaps the biggest lottery celebrity since Elgin Baylor. The “atta boy!” was particularly hilarious. You’d normally reserve that expression to praise someone who had completed a difficult task — for a job well done, or the culmination of hard work, practice, and the honing of skills.
The Cavaliers were going bananas over their ability to lose an incredible number of NBA games and then perform well in a contest that involves sitting in a chair while watching officials suck Ping-Pong balls out of an air pressure machine.
It was all in good fun, I realize, and winning the no. 1 pick is a thing worth celebrating. But it has been a little off-putting over the last three seasons to watch Cleveland turn a loser’s event into a ritualized frat party. There just aren’t many teams who would react this way, for a variety of reasons. Some are more buttoned-up and business-oriented. Some are legitimately ashamed to be there, or at least sad about it. And some have handed control of things to analytics-oriented people who understand and internalize the idea that the lottery is really a very silly random drawing based on set probabilities. It’s just math.
• Three of the player representatives — Bradley Beal, Kevin Love, and Damian Lillard — were seated consecutively on the dais, which meant they got to make small talk among themselves during the frequent ad breaks, instead of having to force it with a GM or team president. They mostly just checked their cell phones, but the seating arrangement paid off big time during the Cavaliers’ raucous celebration. Lillard smirked, looked at the floor, and shook his head, clearly astonished at the reaction, and muttered something out of the side of his mouth to Love. Minnesota’s franchise player chuckled in response and gave the Cleveland group a bit of a side-eye. He politely confirmed to me afterward that he and Lillard were indeed trying to absorb what was happening.
• Love also said he’s very close to 100 percent, if not all the way there. He’s excited about the Timberwolves.
• I had to know who that shouting baritone guy was, so I approached him during a quiet moment after he was through the requisite photo shoots. I figured he was a Gilbert business associate who had no role on the basketball side of things. Nope. Turns out he’s Tony Rizzo, 52, a local ESPN radio host in Cleveland whom Gilbert invited at the last minute after doing an interview on Rizzo’s show. This blew me away. Rizzo is a journalist, but he was the loudest fan in the room. He’s been covering Cleveland sports since 1987, he told me, and he had no ethical qualms about taking off his journalism hat and replacing it with a (metaphorical) Cavaliers beer helmet. “Absolutely not,” he said. “Absolutely not. I’m just a Cleveland sports fan, bro, from way back when. I’m very happy for the Cavs and Dan [Gilbert] tonight. Its been a tough time since LeBron left. It really has been. I speak for all of Cleveland when I say we believe in Dan, we believe in the Cavaliers, and we’re really looking forward to the future.”
And on the celebration: “I didn’t mean to disrespect anyone.”
Rizzo said he knew Nick Gilbert would bring good luck after playing euchre against him, and losing, 10-2, on the private jet the group took to New York. Yup.
• The best moment of the lottery, every season: when the team rep who was in the locked-down room during the actual drawing, and thus knows the results an hour before the world, sprints up to the studio after the televised drawing and celebrates with the rest of his contingent. It is agonizing, some of those folks have told me, to be in that room, results in hand, and watch close friends and colleagues sweat out the anxiety on stage.
For the third straight year, the Cavaliers tabbed Jeff Cohen, Gilbert’s no. 2 guy and the vice-chairman of the Cavs, for secret room duty. The real drawing happens quickly. Each team rep sits at a round table with sheets of paper listing every four-number combination the team owns. (There are 1,001 such combinations.) If your team is in the top three or four of the initial order, you have a lot of combinations; the top team, the Magic this season, has 250. Many of a team’s combinations begin with the same number, so that executives have some idea about what numbers are good and bad before the drawing.
But there is some overlap, and the balls come up quickly, one after another. Executives scramble with some franticness to track the combinations. Cohen told me that two seasons ago he did not realize at first that Cleveland had won the lottery, because he was looking at the Cavaliers’ own four-number combinations, and not the combos linked to the pick Cleveland had obtained from the Clippers in the Baron Davis–Mo Williams deal — the pick that improbably won them the lottery.
And last season, the Hornets and Cavs shared the first three numbers of the winning combination. Both Cohen and Dell Demps, the Hornets/Pelicans GM and secret room rep, knew before the last ball came up what numbers would make them winners. Demps told me last season he initially thought the last ball, a “7,” was a “1,” which would have meant defeat for the Hornets. He slumped in his chair before realizing his mistake and delivering an understated fist pump under the table.
Cohen told me last night he knew the Cavaliers were in business as soon as the no. 3 shot out of the machine as the first ball drawn. The Cavaliers were no. 3 in the draft order, meaning a lot of their four-number combinations included that number. “I knew when a ‘1’ didn’t come up, we were sitting in the catbird seat,” he told me. “We all went in with a good feeling this time. Last year we all wanted to win, but we didn’t really have that good feeling. When I went in there today, there was just something — the basketball gods were shining down on us. It felt right.”
• Their celebration was rowdy, but the Cavaliers made it clear they did not plan to be at this crazy event next season — that the ritual, with the bow ties and the celebrities, must end. Nick Gilbert made that vow on the broadcast, and Cohen echoed it in chatting with me afterward: “We’re gonna be in the playoffs,” he said. “You’re going to be watching us play after this event.” (That would mean, obviously, that the Cavaliers would be in the conference finals. Cohen was sort of chuckling as he said this.)
• There is no question the Cavaliers are going to listen to offers for this pick. The Cavs have three top-four picks already on the roster, the nos. 1 and 19 picks (the latter via the Lakers) in this draft, two of the first three picks in the second round, and three more future first-round picks from other teams, including a potential lottery pick from the Grizzlies. They almost literally have too many draft picks. (A sidenote: The future first-rounder the Cavs stole from the Kings in the Omri Casspi–J.J. Hickson deal is top-12 protected next year and top-10 protected through 2017, meaning the Cavaliers only get the pick if it falls outside the top 10 in those years. It says a lot about the Kings that you read those protections and think, “Man, the Kings are so bad, the Cavaliers might not actually ever get that pick.” If the Kings haven’t sent the pick by 2017, they will send a second-rounder instead — a huge downgrade, obviously.)
They also might have the cleanest cap sheet in the league, with about $20 million in cap room and zero fully guaranteed deals yet on the books for 2014-15. (That last bit will change once Cleveland makes its picks next month and executes no-brainer options on Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson, and Dion Waiters.) Waiters and Thompson are promising players, and the idea of pairing Irving with a potential Tyson Chandler type in Nerlens Noel is appealing. But there are a lot of unknowns in that equation, and the Cavs will think hard about whether it’s best to exchange some of those unknowns for a young-ish known franchise player type who might become available via trade. Next summer’s unrestricted free agency class has some glittery names, including LeBron, but some of those names (including LeBron) have various option clauses in their contracts, and Cleveland’s record of drawing big-time free agents isn’t exactly robust. The two names you’ll hear most often, Love and LaMarcus Aldridge, aren’t eligible for unrestricted free agency until (at the earliest) after the 2014-15 season. That’s a long time to hoard cap room.
The Cavs have a war chest now, much like the one Houston piled up for use in the James Harden deal.
• The other team whose calculus changed a bit last night was Washington. The Wiz view themselves a playoff team next season, and are confident they’d have made it this season had John Wall been healthy from the jump. They also already have six players who will be in either their second, third, or fourth seasons in the league next season — a lot of really, really young guys. In other words: A lot of folks around the league expected Washington to shop its first-round pick for some veteran help when that pick was slated in the mid-lottery. It will be interesting to see what the Wiz do now that they’re picking third.
• Last thing: A league official told me last night the league plans to stream the actual Ping-Pong ball drawing on its website at some point. That’s a good move. It’s short and only semi-boring, and shining a light on the secret room will put to rest the lunatic fringe conspiracy theories that crop up every season.