NBA lottery luck can swing many ways

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Charles F. Gardner, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Monday, May 19, 2014

One year you’re up. Way up.

A few years later you’re down. Way down.

That’s the way lottery luck can swing. The Milwaukee Bucks know that story all too well as they prepare to watch the bouncing pingpong balls Tuesday night in New York.

The Bucks enter a new era under the ownership of Marc Lasry and Wesley Edens. And they would love to start it by winning the NBA draft lottery and securing the No. 1 overall pick in the June 26 draft.

Andrew Wiggins? Jabari Parker? Dante Exum or Joel Embiid or Julius Randle?

Come on down. There are plenty of prizes to be found in a well-stocked draft.

Wiggins, Parker and Embiid—possibly the top three picks—skipped the annual draft combine in Chicago last week. Exum and Randle attended and made strong impressions in interviews with general managers and scouts.

Milwaukee has the best odds of gaining the top pick with a 25 percent chance. The Bucks have a nearly 46.5 percent chance of drafting 1 or 2 and a better than 64 percent opportunity of getting one of the top three picks. They are guaranteed one of the top four picks.

But you have to go back to 2004 for the last time the team with the worst record actually won the lottery—Orlando choosing Dwight Howard. It also happened the previous year when Cleveland took LeBron James.

Since the weighted lottery system was introduced in 1990, the team with the best chance has won the lottery just three times in 24 years.

Milwaukee has won the lottery twice, in 1994 when they chose Glenn Robinson and in 2005 when they drafted 7-foot center Andrew Bogut.

The Bucks jumped three spots from fourth in the ’94 lottery and made a big leap from sixth in ’05, stunning then-general manager Larry Harris.

“We never thought we were going to get 1, so it was a complete surprise,” Harris said last week. “The position they’re in now, you’re thinking you’re going to be 1 or 2.

“The expectations are that. You’re going to be disappointed if you’re 3 or 4.”

The Bucks chose Bogut over Marvin Williams (taken second overall by Atlanta) the last time they had the top pick. Deron Williams went third and Chris Paul fourth, but neither was seriously considered as a No. 1 choice that year.

“I remember how nervous I was talking to the national TV people there,” Harris said of the ’05 lottery show. “My hands were shaking.

“I didn’t expect to get the No. 1 pick, and when we did, emotions came through me for the city, for the Senator (then-owner Herb Kohl), for our team, for our state. For the first time, Milwaukee got back on the map with the No. 1 pick, and I just wanted to make us proud and through the whole process we got the right pick.”

The real killer draft lottery scenario for the Bucks came two years later in 2007. Milwaukee was in the third position entering the lottery but dropped the maximum three spots to sixth.

If the Bucks had stayed in the third spot, they were poised to take Florida forward Al Horford, who went on to become an all-star for Atlanta. Memphis took point guard Mike Conley fourth overall and Boston took Jeff Green fifth.

The Bucks gambled on Chinese forward Yi Jianlian with the sixth pick, and it was a disaster from the start. Yi’s agent did not want to sign with Milwaukee, but eventually the Chinese player did arrive after signing a contract in a meeting with Kohl in Hong Kong.

Yi lasted just one year with the Bucks before moving on to New Jersey, Washington and Dallas. At age 26 he is playing for Guangdong in the Chinese Basketball Association.

The ’07 draft hurt even more because Seattle took Kevin Durant with the second pick.

“We had gotten Andrew, so beggars can’t be choosers,” said Harris, now a scout for Golden State. “I was like, ‘At worst let’s just stay 3.’

“We felt good about the draft at 3, no more than 4. When we went all the way back to 6, things just changed. It’s not so much who we took, it was just the depth of that draft was different.”

The Bucks needed a power forward, so Horford also would have been a great fit.

“It was Horford and Conley at 3 and 4, without a doubt,” Harris said. “When we brought in Horford, we worked him out for about a half-hour. And as a staff we said, ‘Let’s take him to lunch, because this will be the last time we ever see him.’

“Because we knew there was no chance he was ever going to get to us at 6.”

The Bucks will be in a rare position Tuesday after drafting no higher than eighth during the past six drafts.

“I’ve never been first before,” Bucks general manager John Hammond said.

“Obviously sitting today in our position, there’s a real sense of anticipation and hoping for the best.”

Forward Joe Alexander washed out after being selected at No. 8 in 2008, in the first draft under Hammond after he replaced Harris.

But the Bucks have fared better in the last five years, starting with point guard Brandon Jennings at 10th overall in 2009. Larry Sanders was No. 15 in 2010; Tobias Harris was No. 19 after the Bucks traded down in 2011; John Henson was No. 14 after they traded down two spots in 2012; and Giannis Antetokounmpo was No. 15 last year.

Milwaukee is trying to build around a young core including Sanders, Henson and Antetokounmpo. And the Bucks will add a high draft pick and possibly get something out of the second round, where the team holds the 31st, 36th and 48th selections.

The Los Angeles Lakers are making a rare trip to the lottery and are in the same sixth spot that worked out so well for the Bucks in ’05.

Philadelphia has a 19.9 percent chance of winning the lottery in the second slot. Orlando has a 15.6 percent chance; Utah is at 10.4 percent and Boston at 10.3 percent.

Phoenix has the worst odds (0.5 percent) and is the only team in the lottery with a winning record at 48-34.

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