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Keith Strudler: Basketballs And Ping Pong Balls

Yesterday was a good day for the Minnesota Timberwolves. Those days have been few and far between as of late, since they’ve just wrapped up a league worst 16-66 record for the year. But while the final four remaining NBA squads play in the conference championships, the T-Wolves may have had last night’s best result, even better than the league leading Golden State Warriors, who took a 1-0 series lead against the Houston Rockets.

Unlike Golden State, Minnesota’s success came in a studio, not an arena. That’s because last night the NBA held its annual draft lottery, where the league both systematically and randomly creates the order for its June talent show, where teams pick their future hopes, dreams, and busts from colleges and overseas. Earning a number one pick can mean a Tim Duncan or a LeBron James, a franchise player as its termed. Selecting players is a lot like betting on horses. In theory anyone can win, but certain ones have much better chance. So winning the lottery doesn’t guarantee a superstar – see Michael Olowokandi for a lesson on that – but it sure does reduce your risk, which is all a team general manager can hope for.

Even slight movements can make a big difference, for better or worse. If the New York Knicks had picked first instead of third in 2003, they’d have LeBron instead of Carmelo Anthony, which even the most subjective of Knicks fans would consider an upgrade. In 1984, perhaps the greatest draft of all time, the Houston Rockets took Akeem Olajuwon first, while the Chicago Bulls grabbed Michael Jordan at number three. Both clearly surpassed Portland’s second selection of Sam Bowie, who spent more time in physical therapy than practice. And future Hall of Famer John Stockton went all the way at 16th that year, so you never really know. Still, I’d rather go for the can’t miss than the dice roll, even if they’re all essentially that to some degree.

Due to their massive incompetence last season, Minnesota had the best shot of all 14 lottery teams, at 25%, of landing the top spot. The Knicks were second at nearly 20%, with a 55% chance of finishing in the top three. That didn’t happen, shooting them down to fourth and out of the vaunted big two, either Kentucky's Karl-Anthony Towns or Duke's Jahlil Okafor, two big men that arguably could change the entire trajectory of an ailing franchise.  That’s what’s happened to New Orleans with the addition of Anthony Davis, one of the league’s top players after being drafted first in 2012.

For the Los Angeles Lakes, the ping pong balls – which is how this lottery goes down – took a more fortuitous bounce. They moved from the presumptive fourth to the actual second pick, giving some life to the moribund LA franchise. And the Philadelphia 76ers ended up third, marking the second year in a row they’ll take the bronze.

In just over a month, all fourteen lottery teams, and the rest that pick after, will take a stab at their respective futures, hoping to find the perfect mix of talent, drive, and success. That comes after volumes of scouting, a process that started literally years ago when these soon-to-be millionaires were still taking high school midterms. GM’s careers will be made and broken based on their ability to tell a hit from a miss, an assassin from an outcast, a winner from a whiner. And no amount of data can guarantee success, can tell you when someone might tear their ACL playing catch, or anything else that can derail the most fragile of career aspirations. Drafting talent in the NBA, really any sport, is as much art as science, just like the game itself. So no matter how much teams touch the merchandise – and trust me, the T-Wolves and Lakers and everyone will touch liberally these next few weeks – it’s always buyer beware.

Yet it all starts with the simple cascade of a humble ping pong ball, an arbitrary, random moment that will shape the lives of millions of adoring fans. If it weren’t for a lucky coin flip in 1984, my hometown Rockets wouldn’t have won two titles in the 90’s, and I’d have to find something else to call the happiest day of my life – wedding and children excused, of course.

New Yorkers, it seems your destiny wasn’t kind last night, certainly not as it was for the Land of 10,000 Lakes. You or your kids won’t love Towns or Okafor, since they’ll belong to another. That’s how sports work, with fate, aspiration, effort, and luck all equal parts in destiny’s tale. Which makes yesterday, a day without a single bounce pass, a great one for the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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