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20 August 2020 16:30

Kristaps Porziņģis New York Knicks NBA

Part of it is the nature of the sport where one young star player can truly be the difference between a lottery team and a team in the playoffs, so seeing which franchises get an opportunity to be in that position is exciting. The question of whether the NBA Draft Lottery is rigged has been around since 1985. Back then, the board of governors had just instituted a lottery system for the draft--ironically as a response to claims that the old system, where the team with the worst record in each conference would decide who got the No. 1 spot on a coin flip, was unfair. The belle of the ball in the '85 draft was national champion and one of the greatest college basketball players of all time: Georgetown's Patrick Ewing. At the lottery itself, envelopes with logos of all seven of the non-playoff teams were put into a hopper, and it was spun around a few times to mix them up.

In the eyes of a conspiracy theorist, the logic went as such: the league, whose four-year, $91.9 million TV deal with CBS was set to expire after the season, sought to move negotiating power for the next contract in their favor by placing Ewing in the league's biggest market. It is probably easier to believe that the 1985 draft was fixed via frozen envelope, or bent corner, rather than that the Knicks' 14% chance to win the lottery actually hit. When asked about a rigged draft, the late Commissioner Stern was initially a lot more light-hearted in his response back in 1985. "If people want to say that [the lottery was fixed], fine," Stern said that year, per Sports Illustrated. Nearly 20 years after that transformative moment for the Knicks, I asked Stern about the frozen envelope conspiracy, foolishly thinking he might laugh it off.

What the league has on its side is that the closest thing to evidence that any conspiracist has on the league rigging the '85 lottery are microscopic analyses of a slowed down, Zapruder-like version of the event's video that looks at things like little tics and breathing patterns that Stern exhibits posted on YouTube--not to mention that surely if something fishy happened that night, someone would have come forward by now. Also, the Knicks, despite being awful in recent memory, have had some of the worst draft lottery luck since they got Ewing. Secondly, the NBA has actively worked to address concerns brought up about the lottery, which includes conspiracy theories themselves, to ensure a more fair and transparent process. For example, when asked whether those theories inform the NBA's decision to upload video of the draft lottery process online--a dull procedure that's not made for television--a league spokesman told CBS Sports, "Transparency is the main reason and that motivates so much of what we do… but certainly questions in the past about our lottery process certainly inspired our decision to create more openness." Shortly after the Warriors, who had the NBA's worst record in the 1984-85 season, were dealt the seventh pick of the draft, the format changed so that the team with the worst record could pick no worse than fourth. The clunkiness of envelopes were eventually swapped out for the simplicity of ping pong balls and the idea of giving all non-playoff teams an equal shot at the No. 1 pick was soon replaced with a weighted lottery system that has adjusted odds based on the league's size and with past results in mind ever since.

This selecting process was repeated two more times for the second through fourth picks in the draft. Team representatives and a select group of media members were ushered in and, as Ben Golliver of the Washington Post noted in his report about the 2019 event, "staffers collected cellphones, smartwatches and other electronic devices in sealed yellow envelopes." There was a presence from the NBA's legal team, NBA media was present to record the event so that it could be uploaded online, and there was a member from the accounting firm Ernst & Young who is, as the league puts it, "vital in the process as far as ensuring the highest integrity of the event." He or she will review the charts that have all the team assigned number combinations and they will review the letters of authenticity from Smart Play--the manufacturer of the machine--that the balls are the proper weight," a league spokesman told CBS Sports. "Also, following the lottery, they witness the placement of the team logos into the envelopes and follow them until delivered to the stage," In the 90s, it was the league rigging it for Orlando, the new expansion team at the time, when they got two No. 1 picks in a row. In 2003, it was supposedly rigged for the Cavs, who got to draft local high school phenom LeBron James--and then again in 2011 when conspiracists claimed the league compensated Cleveland for LeBron leaving for Miami. Though if there was ever a time for conspiracy theorist to really take hold of the NBA Draft, it'd be for the event slated to take place tonight. To comply with health and safety protocols made in response to COVID-19, the lottery will be virtual, which means, as the league describes it, "all of the on-stage participants will join virtually and there will not be a team representative present for the actual drawing." Simply put, this could be the greatest opportunity for the league to get away with some sort of rigging with many of the building blocks painstakingly put in place to run a fair draft removed. Not only does the current TV contract, a nine-year, $24 billion deal that began in the 2016-17 season, not expire for a few more years, but there is not a clear enough No. 1 pick that would make sense for the league to "manipulate" the draft order for. In the latest mock draft by CBS Sports' Gary Parrish, he notes that the winner of the top pick will determine who gets selected first, before writing, "But there is no consensus No. 1 pick this year. And, I think, at least four players — LaMelo Ball, Obi Toppin, Anthony Edwards and James Wiseman — could reasonably be selected first. As a result, the best opportunity for a conspiracy theory to come to life in the 2020 NBA Draft Lottery appears to have been thwarted by the very forces that created this theoretical opportunity in the first place. A familiar face will be on the (virtual) podium for the Atlanta Hawks at the 2020 NBA draft lottery on Thursday night. For the past three lotteries, that's included representing the team, something she'll do again Thursday night. The arrival of the NBA draft lottery Thursday night has sparked teams to resume putting their boards together and dig for more intelligence. Here is some of the buzz we've heard pertaining to what scouts are thinking as teams take their draft preparation a step further. The general belief all year had LaMelo Ball, Anthony Edwards and James Wiseman as top-three overall favorites, with Obi Toppin, Deni Avdija, Onyeka Okongwu and Isaac Okoro mixed into a tier that either slightly overlaps or follows. But based from some scouts' takes I've heard over the past few weeks, mock drafts could start looking silly right from the top. Another scout floated the idea that when we look back in a few years, we'll question how and why Williams wasn't a top pick more than any other prospect. His versatility at the small and power forward spots also fits with every lottery team. Rather than question Avdija's ceiling, we're looking at a case of teams valuing a player's high floor in a draft loaded with uncertainty. Another scout questioned why Edwards couldn't win more games on a team that had decent talent. Multiple scouts have Smith graded as a lottery pick. Teams want bigs who'll bang inside and stretch the floor, and Smith just became the sixth NCAA player on record to average at least a three-point make, 10 rebounds and two blocks a game, per Sports Reference. He'll be moved into our lottery projections for our next mock draft. Teams don't sound as high on Hampton as they did earlier in the season, when many projected a lottery pick despite his decision to play in the NBL over the NCAA. He's likely to be the first NCAA point guard drafted and the second point guard to go after LaMelo Ball.