2020 has been shitty. A global pandemic, partisan politics and aggressive radicalization of extreme points of view, and strangely the rise of validity given to egregious conspiracy theories.
Sports are not, and have not, been immune to a great conspiracy. Perhaps my favorite, an annual tale, is the idea that the NBA rigs the draft lottery to drive high-profile future stars to certain markets or reward owners with key picks. A dubious look at the history of the draft, from the 1985 lottery with the smashed corner of the Knicks envelope, to stars winding up in perfect markets for them, might lead some to believe this is true.
As an annual satire piece, I'll indulge the creative and skeptical. Instead of proving how the lottery would be rigged if it were won by a certain team, we'll show how it's rigged in favor of every team. That way, regardless of who the ping pong balls favor, you can use this as proof that the lottery is pre-determined in their favor.
Boston Celtics/ Memphis Grizzlies
Top 4 Odds: 2.4%
Top Pick Odds: 0.5%
With the Grizzlies missing the playoffs, their pick has the 14th-best odds of landing the top selection and only a 2.4 percent chance of vaulting into the top-four. If it goes into the top four, the pick stays in Memphis. If not, it will be the 14th pick and go to the Celtics.
So no, conspiracy theorists, the Celtics won't be walking out of the lottery Thursday night with another shot at sweetening their incoming dynasty.
But Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. have proven to be a formidable young duo, and one the powers-that-be might enjoy marketing. Giving them a top-four pick, to go along with Jackson and Morant, would keep the Grizzlies firmly in the playoff conversation for years to come.
New Orleans Pelicans
Top 4 Odds: 5.7%
Top Pick Odds: 1.2%
We can't let Zion miss the playoffs again. Another top pick and a stablemate for Zion's ascent up the NBA ladder is necessary. New Orleans is a small-market franchise with the potential to build itself like the Sonics/ Thunder did with Durant, Westbrook and Harden. Hire a new coach with some star power, keep this group together for a few years and build around the two-man show of Zion and LaMelo or Zion and Anthony Edwards. Sheeeeesh...
Top 4 Odds: 6.2%
Top Pick Odds: 1.3%
At some point, a loyal NBA fanbase needs to be given an end to its suffering. The Kings have the longest playoff drought in the NBA and haven't been a contender in almost twenty years. They wasted the prime of DeMarcus Cousins and have been a roulette wheel for coaches and front office personnel. It's a volatile situation, and it starts at the top with owner Vivek Ranadive.
Sometimes, in order to stabilize the ship, you've got to give them a golden road map. The top overall pick would do that.
San Antonio Spurs
Top 4 Odds: 9.4%
Top Pick Odds: 2.0%
The last time the Spurs missed the playoffs, they were rewarded with the top pick and Tim Duncan. For one of the league's most consistent franchises, a dearth of young superstar talent may arrive once LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan are at their peak.
If the NBA wants to reward their consistency and the continued strong civic activism of Gregg Popovich, throw them a bone here. They don't need to get the top pick, just something in the top four. Hey, they're not greedy.
Top 4 Odds: 13.9%
Top Pick Odds: 3.0%
This one has to happen. Full stop.
We all saw what the Suns could do inside the Bubble. 8-0! A hell of a superstar in Devin Booker. Tremendous rim protection and communication on the inside in DeAndre Ayton. A coach in Monty Williams who is beloved and maximizes his group. Young, fun role players - Mikal Bridges!
The West is so brutal though. If the NBA wants to keep this Cinderella story going, the Suns will need help. This is exactly the type of help they can get.
This HAS TO happen.
Top 4 Odds: 20.3%
Top Pick Odds: 4.5%
If the NBA is wise about this, they'll make the top four teams almost exclusively in the Eastern Conference. Steer the top available players to the conference and markets that need it most.
No team is ripe for an immediate upward shot than the Wizards. John Wall will be back. Bradley Beal is a legitimate star. Rui Hachimura is... something. A valuable pick and a path to immediate success could convince Davis Bertans to stick around.
Several of the top picks are, to put it diplomatically, defensively challenged. Washington could lean into that and become the Dallas of the East - filled with offensive talent and banking on that to carry them for the next few years.
Top 4 Odds: 32.0%
Top Pick Odds: 7.5%
Through the draft, the NBA has the opportunity to hand-pick which small markets their future stars enter. That usually brings buzz and excitement back to those cities, as well as a winning team. We know Michael Jordan will never tank, as portrayed on The Last Dance. Reward his commitment to the pursuit and reward a fun, small-market team.
Charlotte offers a few other fringe benefits for the league if they have a top star. They're in the Eastern Conference, ripe for fresh faces. They're barren of a superstar or a path forward to acquiring one. If the NBA wants to avoid another decade of mediocrity, invest in the Hornets now with a strong draft pick.
Top 4 Odds: 32.0%
Top Pick Odds: 7.5%
We're a long way removed from the darling days of the Bulls and Knicks, two storied NBA franchises who would benefit from a shove to the top.
In Chicago, a rabid fanbase has been disenfranchised by the continuous blunders of ownership and management. But now is the time for a reset. A new President of Basketball Operations leads the way. A coach will be chosen. An intriguing host of young talent, particularly in the frontcourt, gives them hope that an all-out rebuild can be avoided.
It's time to reward the fans. Their last chance at a title was robbed by injuries and a coach who played his stars 50 minutes a night. Perhaps the Bulls will be a little wiser when their next shot at a top pick comes around.
New York Knicks
Top 4 Odds: 37.2%
Top Pick Odds: 9.0%
Speaking of that coach, welcome to New York, Tom Thibodeau!
For years, the Knicks have failed to land a top pick. Their subpar management and embattled ownership has not given the NBA the incentive to pull the trigger on jump-starting a franchise overhaul.
Now may be the time. Thibodeau and President Leon Rose will have unique power through free agency in ways that the Knicks have lacked for a decade. But that negotiation prowess and the world's biggest stage won't lure free agents by itself. They need a little pick-me-up, such as a top pick, to set themselves ablaze.
The Knicks are close enough to the bottom that jumping to the top spot wouldn't seem like an assault on the odds or an egregious violation of hand-picking the direction for future stars.
Make it happen, Silver!
Top 4 Odds: 42.1%
Top Pick Odds: 10.5%
Have you seen the Pistons roster lately?
They're starving for talent. They just built a new arena and struggled to fill it. Blake Griffin's star power is dying in the Motor City without anyone around him.
Throw them a frickin' bone here!
LaMelo might not make the team an instant contender, but he'd put butts in the seats. Throw him and Blake Griffin together and they could reignite excitement while pushing themselves into the category to tank for Cade Cunningham next year. Best of both worlds, no?
Top 4 Odds: 48.1%
Top Pick Odds: 12.5%
With an almost one-in-two shot of the Hawks landing in the top-four, Trae Young and John Collins may finally get the right fit next to them.
The Hawks have a ton of B or B+ pieces in their long-term arsenal. Collins is great offensively but doesn't have a natural spot to guard. Cam Reddish showed promising flashes as a rookie. Kevin Huerter is a solid option as a shooter. Clint Capela is still fairly young and a solid center. They need the next piece.
A great fit here would be Anthony Edwards, a local product who stayed in-state to Georgia. If the NBA is keen on having a natural, long-term star stay within their market, finding a way to get Edwards to Atlanta is a priority. He and Trae would be outstanding together, and in order to make that happen, they likely need to give the Hawks the top overall pick.
Top 4 Odds: 52.1%
Top Pick Odds: 14.0%
I'm really not sure what to make of the T-Wolves. They've essentially had two top picks in the last seven years, and now have a competent due of Karl-Anthony Towns and D'Angelo Russell to build around. More than star power, they need competent third-wheels.
If there's one team with high odds who can be safely bumped outside the lottery, it's Minnesota. For that reason, proof of the lottery being rigged might be found in the absence of the T-Wolves as a top team.
There is a flip-side to this coin. Glen Taylor is selling the team, and as we've seen in the past, valuations skyrocket and sales are more attractive if a top-pick or young star promising on-court performance comes attached. It wouldn't be out of the realm of possibility to see the Timberwolves get the top pick, an ownership group pony up a ton of funds, and Taylor reap the benefits on his way out the door.
Top 4 Odds: 52.1%
Top Pick Odds: 14.0%
No bowtie-laden Nick Gilbert on ESPN this year.
The Cavaliers are a hodgepodge of young guard play and bloated, one-dimensional bigs. I'm not sure what to do with a team like that during a draft year where the clear three best prospects are either guards or bigs.
From a competitive standpoint, the Cavaliers would have to make some sort of a roster move in order to draft best player available (which they should always do) and still get the pieces to fit. Therefore, anticipating Cleveland's rise to the top pick or holding firm in the top-three is largely dependent on the league constructing an avenue to offload Kevin Love, Colin Sexton or Darius Garland to the right environment.
Personally, I'd love to see Garland in Dallas next to Luka Doncic. Sexton would be great if given the keys in a place like Orlando or New York. But the NBA's rigging of this process isn't reckless. They'll make sure they have these deals constructed beforehand, like they did with Love and Andrew Wiggins back in 2014, to make sure the Cavs get their man.
Cleveland's success was strong for the NBA. LeBron is an entity and a brand unto himself, but the longstanding marketability of the Cavaliers franchise in his absence can only be tested if the team is any good. Maybe the league invests to see how possible this is.
Golden State Warriors
Top 4 Odds: 52.1%
Top Pick Odds: 14.0%
Oh, you forgot about the five-time defending Western Conference Champions?
You forgot they had one of the best backcourts in NBA history returning next year in Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. You forgot about their energetic third man in Draymond Green.
You forgot they have Andrew Wiggins, a wing bursting with scoring potential who is still somehow only 25 years old.
You forgot about their new arena, which the league would love to show off in the postseason.
You forgot about Steph and Klay being the most marketable international players, particularly in China, and the league's continued interest in pushing those top stars.
Perhaps what we all forgot about, though, is that the salary cap restrictions moving forward are going to prevent the Dubs from making the Kevin Durant-like splash in free agency so long as those big three are in the Bay. If this team is to add top-tier talent between now and 2030, this is without a doubt their best chance to do so.
Do they trade the pick or keep it? That's a whole separate discussion, but as we learned above, the plan needs to be hatched before the NBA hands them the all-valuable top pick. There are some young guys on their rookie contract in need of new homes (hello, Lauri Markkanen) and some veterans who could make immediate impacts while absorbing Wiggins' contract (greetings, Bradley Beal) who make sense here.
I love the idea of Markkanen and Otto Porter Jr. for Wiggins and the lottery pick. But I'm enamored with both Anthony Edwards and James Wiseman. They may not keep the title window wide open these next two years, but they are franchise-changing talents that are hard to pass up.
Head Boys Basketball Coach, Boys' Latin School (MD).