By: Bob George/
May 24, 2007

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Bill Belichick pays tribute to Patriots Hall of Fame broadcaster Gil Santos
Bill Belichick pays tribute to the late Gil Santos
Tight end Troy Niklas’ “crazy” story makes him a Patriot and a father, too
Patriots notebook: Season starts with Houston at Foxboro

In 1993, could you imagine new Patriot head coach Bill Parcells mulling over drafting John Copeland or Eric Curry instead of Drew Bledsoe?

Copeland and Curry, both defensive ends from Alabama, were the fifth and sixth picks in the 1993 NFL Draft (remember, the Celtics pick fifth this year). Copeland went to Cincinnati at five and Curry to Tampa Bay at six. Since New England had the worst record in the league in 1992 (2-14), they naturally picked first. And Parcells was able to pick the top prize, the young quarterback out of Washington State with the laser arm.

And he never had to worry about ping-pong balls, improperly sealed envelopes, or any other luck of the draw or element of chance.

The NBA offers no such comfort for teams that do poorly the previous year. Since 1985, they have offered up this mockery of professional sports called the Draft Lottery, where the truly worst teams in the NBA might not even draft in the top three. They hold a drawing for the top three spots based upon a weighted random draw, then fill in slots four through fifteen with the rest of the non-playoff teams in inverse order of best record.

It is the reasoning behind this lottery which is absurd and why the NFL beats the tar out of the NBA and any other sports league. The Draft Lottery, now in its third makeover, came into being because NBA bigwigs did not want teams tanking games down the stretch and gunning for a better draft position. They completely ignore the fact that this sort of thing happens in the NFL all the time, yet no one says much of anything nor wants to take extreme measures to try to curtail the practice.

The 1983-84 Houston Rockets are generally attributed with the honor of being the reason why the Draft Lottery was invented. They went 5-17 over their last 22 games, supposedly for the prime purpose of getting the top pick in the 1984 draft and the chance at Akeem Abdul-Olajuwon, right in their own backyard at Phi Slamma Jamma (aka the University of Houston). Then-new NBA commissioner David Stern set out to make sure that NBA teams didn't tank the rest of their regular season again.

(By the way, your Celtics lost 18 in a row this year, and everyone assumes it was just so they could make a strong push for the league's worst record. You have perhaps conveniently forgotten that Paul Pierce was injured for most of that stretch, and in the end, the Celtics' losing effort, if that's really what it was, was all in vain.)

The result has been a flawed and shameful system that was put in place thanks to a knee-jerk, anal overreaction to a problem which was likely caused simply due to poor play (you're a fool if you think Houston would still have made the 1986 NBA Finals with only Ralph Sampson and not also with Olajuwon). Meanwhile, much the same thing goes on in the NFL, but thankfully, the powers that be in pro football know better than to tamper with the proper drafting order of the teams.

Many people think that the entire process stinks rotten, and not just because it cheats truly bad teams out of their rightful chance at the top picks. The very first lottery, in 1985, is best remembered for New York Knicks general manager Dave DeBusschere nearly having a heart attack when his team was announced as getting the top pick, and therefore the rights to draft Georgetown's prized center Patrick Ewing. It came off as Stern wanting to "fix" the draft so that Ewing could go to the Big Apple and thus help greatly with television ratings and more exposure for the league, just beginning but not fully ensconced yet in the Larry vs. Magic era.

Then there was the celebrated incident with Orlando in the early 1990s. They won the rights to draft LSU's Shaquille O'Neal in 1992 (rightfully so), but then beat something like 1 in 100 odds the next year and took Michigan forward Chris Webber. Stern was incensed that the same team got to pick first two years in a row.

Then, of course, you have your Boston Celtics. Seemingly poised to take Wake Forest's Tim Duncan with the top pick in 1997, Rick Pitino left a terrific job at Kentucky and came home to run the Celtics. He would later say that "If I had known we would not land Duncan, I would never have taken the Celtics job." Duncan wound up going to San Antonio, and the Spurs have won three titles since despite the fact that the Celtics had a 15-67 record prior to the 1997 draft, far and away the worst record in the league of any non-expansion team.

Of course, you could argue that even by winning the Draft Lottery, it guarantees nothing. Ewing never won a championship in New York, or anywhere for that matter. In 1986 the Celtics lucked into the second pick in the draft and took Maryland forward Len Bias, who subsequently died of a cocaine overdose two days later. O'Neal won his prizes with other teams, and was a playoff bust in Orlando. Since the Draft Lottery was instituted, only three top picks have won NBA titles, and all were done in San Antonio (Duncan and teammates Glenn Robinson, 1994's top pick (by Milwaukee) out of Purdue, and David Robinson, the top pick of 1987 out of Navy).

The NFL, meanwhile, has teams which pack it in late in the season if their fortunes have run afoul. "Get on the bus" games abound, extremely popular with late December prohibitive road dogs. Nobody says anything when those teams give little effort and lose the game. The home team and fans will take the win, and the losing team and fans keep a keen eye on April. Nobody complains about non-professionalism here.

Your favorite football team has a great example which the NBA could learn from. The 1981 regular season final week featured a God-awful matchup, with the 2-13 Patriots at the 1-14 Colts (then based in Baltimore). The only Colt win was in the season opener at Foxborough, 29-28. This was dubbed the "Ken Sims Bowl" (or the "Marcus Allen Bowl" by some). The loser of this game would get the top pick in the 1982 NFL Draft. The game was predictably sloppy, but it was compelling to watch and was well worth your time to do so. Baltimore was able to defeat the playing-to-win Patriots, 23-21, and by virtue of winning the tiebreaker based on a head-to-head sweep, finished ahead of the Patriots in the standings and allowed the Patriots to pick first in the draft.

And, of course, the Patriots were "rewarded" for their bad record with a mediocre career from Sims, the heralded defensive lineman from Texas. Baltimore chose second and took linebacker Johnnie Cooks from Mississippi State (of course you've heard of this guy). Allen didn't go until the tenth pick, to the Raiders. This once again goes to show how overrated the draft can be, but that you really should not mess with the draft order at all.

The NBA needs to let the teams that need to rebuild the most to do so without luck or chance getting in the way. No NBA player would prefer to go through a long losing streak to improve a draft position rather than a long playoff run. Sometimes teams shut it down because they have to, be it attrition based on injuries, trying to prevent injuries, or sizing players up for the next year. Overreacting to what Houston may have done in 1984 has done a major injustice to a lot of NBA teams over the last 20 or so years.

The NFL, meanwhile, continues to do things the right way. The poorest get richer, high school football players go to college first, and the product on the field is the most exciting of any pro level sport in the nation. It seems that the NBA could help itself a lot more by eliminating this silly lottery and let teams rebuild the proper way.

Besides, look how the lottery came out. The top two picks are both in small cities in the Pacific Northwest and not in the eastern megalopolis. Call it ironic justice.