No other NBA event packs as much drama into as little time as the draft lottery. Because one player can have such a dramatic impact in a team's fortunes, landing the No. 1 pick can mean the difference between years of success and continued futility. 13 teams are hoping such fortune will smile on them a week from today when this year's draft lottery assigns the right to make Kentucky's Anthony Davis the No. 1 overall pick. There are few better examples of the draft lottery's role in writing NBA history than the 2007 lottery, which swung the fate of at least three teams, none of them in exactly the way we thought five years ago yesterday.
Then as now, the end of the regular season was filled with allegations of tanking. Stars like Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce ended the year on the sideline as their teams limped to the finish line. If they were trying to lose, it was tough to blame them. The 2007 Draft promised two franchise talents in Ohio State center Greg Oden and Texas forward Kevin Durant, both of them enjoying unprecedented success as freshmen in the second year of the one-and-done era. Durant became the first freshman ever chosen consensus national player of the year, while Oden led the Buckeyes to the title game during his only year on campus.
After the All-Star break, fans of lottery-bound teams had turned to their attention to the excitement of what might be in store. The Durant-Oden debate--whether to take the throwback center who could anchor a team at both ends or the freakishly talented wing with the height of a four--spawned countless barroom discussions. By the day of the lottery, the loose conclusion was to take the sure thing in Oden over the upside of Durant. The firm conclusion was that either team picking in the top two couldn't go wrong.
As he began to read off the lottery teams in reverse order, the NBA's deputy commissioner, Adam Silver, delivered a nod to the moment: "The stakes are pretty high tonight." I knew that as well as anyone. My lifelong team and employer, the Seattle SuperSonics, entered the lottery in fifth position, with just under one in five chances of taking home one of the top two picks. The Memphis Grizzlies (46.5 percent) had the best odds, followed by the Boston Celtics (38.7 percent), the Milwaukee Bucks (31.3 percent) and the Atlanta Hawks (24.5 percent).
Unlike the Celtics, Grizzlies and the Portland Trail Blazers (who entered the lottery sixth, with an 11.3 percent chance of a top-two pick), we weren't confident enough to host a draft party for fans. But employees gathered in our lounge to watch the broadcast with eager anticipation. The moment was captured on video, though you can't see me--I was way at the back of the room, all the better to run back to my desk and update the website as quickly as possible back in a time before everyone was posting on Twitter in real time. You definitely cannot see that I was wearing one green sock and one yellow sock for good luck, a nod to a fifth-grade superstition.
As Silver goes through the teams that failed to move up, there's actually a delayed reaction from staff. When Milwaukee comes up sixth, it proved the Sonics had already moved up, since they would have picked behind the Bucks, but people don't go nuts until the Celtics come up in fifth--where the Sonics should have been if the lottery went to form. Getting into the top three was the first step. We then had to sweat out a commercial break before finding out whether the Sonics would pick third, a major letdown, or land either Oden or Durant.
I always laugh when I hear people yell out "Portland" before Silver reads the third pick. It wasn't the Blazers, but it was the Hawks, and pandemonium broke out in the Storm offices. Nobody really even noticed that we drew the second pick and Portland the first. In some ways, given Durant's popularity, that was all the better. The video ends with our director of marketing showing off a premade Durant Sonics jersey. Within minutes, supersonics.com featured a splash page advertising a new era in franchise history.
For me, there are two iconic images from the night of the lottery. One is a rare peak inside the actual room where the lottery is conducted before Silver reads the results on national television. The representatives for the Blazers and the Sonics, Kevin Pritchard and Rich Cho, were sitting next to each other. After winning, they flashed their lucky charms for the camera. Back then, the two friends were young executives on the rise. Within four years, they would both be fired as Portland's general manager after Cho succeeded Pritchard.
The No. 1 pick was an unexpected bonus for Portland, which was already building a talented young nucleus led by Brandon Roy--weeks removed from winning Rookie of the Year--and LaMarcus Aldridge. In some ways, the Blazers had the less enviable position. While Seattle could sit back, wait for Portland to make its choice and know it was getting a great prospect either way, the Blazers were at the mercy of second-guessers.
The Blazers' business staff, looking to capitalize off the team's good fortune, embraced the debate. Billboards asked fans to honk once for Oden or twice for Durant. My friend Benjamin Golliver got his start with Draft Kevin Durant--a blog urging the team to draft Durant. Portland's front office kicked the the tires on both players, inviting them to work out for Pritchard and the rest of the front office. (They interviewed but did not work out in Seattle.) Ultimately, the Blazers followed conventional wisdom and made Oden the top pick in the 2007 NBA Draft.
The same 7-foot, 285-pound frame that made Oden such a coveted prospect doomed his chances of staying healthy at the NBA level. His injury woes started within weeks of the draft, when Oden's summer league ended after one game (and 10 fouls) because of a tonsillectomy. Before Oden could make his NBA debut, he underwent microfracture surgery on his right knee, costing him the entire 2007-08 season.
After staying mostly healthy during 2008-09, when he started for a playoff team, Oden began putting it together in November 2009. He was averaging 11.1 points, 8.5 rebounds and 2.3 blocks in just 23.9 minutes per game and shooting 60.5 percent from the field when he fractured his left patella during the first quarter of a game against the Houston Rockets on Dec. 5. Oden hasn't taken the court for an NBA game since, undergoing two additional microfracture surgeries, the most recent in February 2012.
When Portland finally released Oden on March 15, it marked the end of an era. That same day, at the deadline, the Blazers fired head coach Nate McMillan and traded veterans Marcus Camby and Gerald Wallace. The moves signaled that, for the first time since 2008, Portland was headed back to the lottery. Degenerative knee injuries forced Roy to retire in December. Of the core that was supposed to lead the Blazers back to prominence, only Aldridge remains. Now, the Blazers find themselves starting over.
Under any circumstances, Oden would have carried a heavy burden. However, the outcome of the 2007 lottery only increased the spotlight on his series of injuries. Oden was inevitably compared to a series of injury-plagued Portland predecessors in the pivot, including Sam Bowie and Bill Walton. He also suffered from the contrast with Durant. As Oden was going under the knife multiple times, Durant was busy emerging as one of the league's top players--but not in Seattle, where a natural rivalry was anticipated between the top two picks, initially separated by just three hours on I-5.
After Durant's Rookie of the Year campaign, the franchise moved to Oklahoma City and became the Thunder. At the time of the lottery, the possibility of the Oklahoma ownership group moving the team was certainly real, but fans in Seattle held out hope that Durant's arrival would generate enough excitement to figure out an arena solution. It was already too late, but Durant still delivered highlights to the Emerald City. He hit the winning shot in the last game the Sonics played at KeyArena before moving.
Durant benefited from the low-pressure management of the team's front office. While Oden was feted in downtown Portland after the draft and his picture appeared on a grain silo near the Rose Garden, Thunder GM Sam Presti--hired two weeks after the lottery--would not allow Durant to be singled out the same way. From the outside, the expectations of Durant were beyond control. Internally, he was to be treated as just another starter.
Freed from the shackles of playing shooting guard after P.J. Carlesimo was fired during the first month of his sophomore campaign, Durant quickly blossomed. In his third season, at age 21, Durant was the runner-up in MVP voting and Oklahoma City reached the playoffs for the first time. Now, in the wake of a surprise trip to the Western Conference Finals a year ago, the Thunder is back with a legitimate chance to win the conference. Durant, again the runner-up for MVP, is exactly the star everyone expected he would be. He's joined in Oklahoma City by fellow young stars Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka as the leader of the team with the most potential of any in the league over the next 5-10 years.
The Celtics didn't have the best odds of the teams that missed out on Oden and Durant; that dubious honor belonged to the Grizzlies, who landed the fourth pick and took Oden's teammate Mike Conley, a perfectly solid but non-transcendent point guard. However, no fan base had convinced itself that a savior was on the way more than Boston, which saw another chance at a superstar after losing the Tim Duncan lottery in 1997. The second iconic image from the night of the lottery came from the Celtics draft party, as shown on ESPN's coverage: a young fan, wearing a Boston hat, grabbing his head in disbelief that his team lost 58 games to get the fifth pick.
After months of fitting Durant and Oden for jerseys, the Boston faithful had to come to terms with the idea of Yi Jianlian. The most famous Celtics fan, Bill Simmons, posted a follow-up column that drew the title "Welcome to the next decade of discontent."
Without an infusion of elite young talent, Danny Ainge decided to take the franchise in a different direction. On the day of the draft, Boston agreed to trade the No. 5 pick with guard Delonte West and forward Wally Szczerbiak to Seattle in exchange for Ray Allen and a second-round choice. Allen alone might not have been enough to change the Celtics' fortunes, but adding a second veteran star to Paul Pierce convinced Kevin Garnett to give Boston another look. On July 31, the Celtics sent five players, two draft picks and cash to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Garnett, completing their Big Three.
Within 13 months of the lottery, Boston was champions again. And while the Celtics have fallen short of returning to such heights, they reached the NBA Finals in 2010 and still have a chance to make another run this season. Boston with Allen, Garnett and Pierce has been as good as any team east of Los Angeles over the last five years.
By no definition did the Celtics come out of the lottery losers. Whether they might have been better off with Durant is a fascinating hypothetical. Had he developed the same way and signed an extension, Durant would have guaranteed Boston at least a decade of contention. Boston could have put an intriguing group of young role players around Durant. The Celtics held on to Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins, starters on the championship team, but would also have kept Al Jefferson, Tony Allen and Gerald Green. Given his acumen drafting in the late first round and second round, Ainge could surely have filled out a solid bench. If Jefferson and Perkins could have coexisted defensively, that's a competitive lineup. Of course, there is no guarantee that group would have won a championship or even reached the Finals, and the 2008 flag flies forever.
Give it another five years and we may have to recalibrate our assessment of the 2007 lottery as its effects continue to ripple across the league. One way or another, 15 minutes on a May night five years ago will continue to play a key role in defining the NBA as we know it. The results also demonstrate the folly of snap assessments next Wednesday. The real winners and losers of the lottery won't be known until far into the future.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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