Why do they play the games? To win an NBA title.
Why do they lose games? Well, in the current NBA landscape it’s to tank your way to the No. 1 overall pick.
Teams in the NBA draft lottery are at the mercy of a pingpong ball which will determine the order of draft picks in the 2017 NBA draft, but the first overall pick has not historically shown to be a franchise savior.
Just three times since the NBA started the lottery system (in 1985, a small sample size, we admit) has a player been drafted first overall and gone on to win an NBA title (or multiples) with the team that drafted him. The Spurs hit gold with David Robinson in 1987 and 10 years later with Tim Duncan. The Cavaliers did it with Kyrie Irving in 2011 — and if you include LeBron James it’s four (but he left the Cavaliers and returned as a free agent).
In the cutthroat environment of the NBA, middling franchises stuck in the No. 4-8 seed in the conference are failures. Only making it to the NBA Finals and winning validates a franchise and it’s never been harder to succeed at that — which is why teams like the Sixers and Lakers have sunk so low as to stockpile assets and attempt to strike gold in the draft. The Warriors and Cavaliers don’t appear to be going anywhere any time soon.
The first pick is supposed to be the great equalizer, which is why it is so coveted. But when compared to the NFL, which does not have a lottery for the first pick, the comparison yields unexpected results.
Not including Eli Manning, who was drafted by the Chargers and traded to the Giants, just five teams have won Super Bowls with players taken No. 1 overall since 1985, with two of them playing for the 1990s Cowboys (Troy Aikman and Russell Maryland). Peyton Manning (1998 Colts), Orlando Pace (1997 Rams) and Drew Bledsoe (1993 Patriots) are the only others on the list. The NFL, you’d expect, would have a worse success rate as the teams winning the first pick are much worse on average. But it’s not so. Instead the NBA has the worst championships to show for it’s No. 1 picks.
Part of this — in both leagues — is due no doubt to the situation the top draftee often finds himself in. Teams are mired with a losing culture and bad players. They can have terrible front office management and offer a tough situation for a player to succeed in.
But perhaps the NBA is also just a victim of bad scouting. Michael Jordan went third overall, Kevin Durant second. Some of the best players of all time over the last 30 or so seasons were not taken first in their respective drafts. Which is even more reason for teams to spend more time wishing for their lucky rabbits foot on lottery day and more time finding the next Steph Curry at No. 7 overall (like the Warriors did in 2009).
The NBA does have better overall results for its top pick, as an Allen Iverson, Patrick Ewing or Yao Ming can prove to be a franchise player on a team that just misses the promised land — but ask any long-suffering Knicks fan — success is elusive. The draft is of monumental importance.
Will Markelle Fultz or Lonzo Ball pan out as a title-winning player for this year’s lotto winner? The odds say it’s highly unlikely.