As much as those who construct teams in sports would like to think that they have a formula and a blueprint that they can go execute with any team in any market and be successful, the fact of the matter is that even for the best personnel men in the best-run organizations, an element of luck is heavily involved in achieving success.
With one superstar player sometimes able to change the entire fate of a franchise, the NBA is probably the league/sport where a little bit of luck can alter years, sometimes decades of gloom (or cause it, depending on which team you root for).
When your league's methodology of dispersing new talent is a weighted lottery system, then luck isn't just one of several factors affecting franchise futures; it's actually woven into the league's fabric. The facts in the NBA are as such: In order to get your next superstar in a star-driven league, you have to:
1. Have the cachet as a market and the cash under the salary cap to lure a big-time free agent (think Shaq to Los Angeles, LeBron to South Beach). This methodology works for and applies to about a fifth of the league (LA, New York, Miami, Boston, Chicago and maybe one other revolving door with a different team behind it every few years -- in the late '90's, the Rockets were this team).
2. Catch a break in the draft (or in a trade) on getting an unknown or devalued stock (this would include trading for first round draft picks years before a draft). For example, it's crazy to go back now and see that Kobe Bryant was the 13th overall pick in 1996. Dirk was a mystery in the trade that brought him to Dallas in 1998 (go back and watch that draft, the announcers talk about him like he's a UFO or something). John Stockton and Karl Malone selected in back-to-back seasons by the Jazz is the ultimate "sleeper exacta" for one franchise. By the way, this method happens for teams practically never.
3. Bottom out to the brink of catastrophe and then hope that a bunch of ping pong balls come out of a hopper true to form for your team. Going back even before the advent of the lottery in 1985, most good teams wound up with their foundation player by being really, really terrible the year before they drafted him. Jordan, Isiah, Hakeem, Ewing, Duncan/Robinson, Wade, LeBron (in Cleveland), Shaq (in Orlando), Dwight Howard, Rose, to name a few.
Unfortunately, the third method is the one most often employed and the one that is the least fair. "Hey, let's reward complete ineptitude by virtually guaranteeing teams that are poorly run the pick of the most impactful players in a sport where one or two players can completely change things."
The one very underplayed element of NBA lottery luck, though, is a team "choosing" (and I use that word tongue in cheek) the right year to be terrible, the right year to land in the top spot or in the top five. Imagine how the fate of the Rockets might have changed if they won the lottery in 2003 (LeBron) instead of 2002 (Yao). And yet we all breathe a sigh of relief that they didn't win it in 2001 (Kwame Brown was the top pick, and before you say the Rockets wouldn't have messed up that draft by taking Brown, remember by 2001 the Rockets were dishing out long-term deals to Kelvin Cato and other stiffs like they were Skittles).
Point being, picking the right year to be among the worst matters, or else you're destined to be there again the following year.
In 2011, the lament of nearly every NBA city (pretty much everyone except Cleveland and Minnesota) is that the talent level is at record lows. It's Kyrie Irving and Derrick Williams (mid-lottery picks, at best, in most years) and a bunch of guys who will be "off the bench" guys to start with, and most of them will be just that forever.
For the Rockets, picking 14th and 23rd (for now) in the first round, this is a terrible year to have extra picks. Even moving up in the draft into the top five gets you a guy who maybe cracks your seven man rotation. Maybe.
In other words, if you're a lottery team in 2011, you picked a bad year to be a lottery team.
I'll go ahead and just say it -- talent-wise, the 2011 draft class sucks. (And this is on the heels of a 2010 draft class that was very underwhelming.)
But before we wear down the dermis on our hands from wringing them together, before we Rocket fans cry ourselves to sleep at night on Thursday after coming away with two obscure Euro players, a dose of perspective -- as bad as this year's first round draft class will be, it will never come close to the on-court ineptitude and the off-court tragedy and dysfunction of the 1986 NBA Draft first rounders.
Bad players in this draft will just eat up roster spots for a few years. In 1986, bad draft picks and bad decisions were submarining franchises for decades to come.
On the heels of two drafts that changed the face of the league to the good (1984 with Hakeem, Jordan, Barkley and Stockton; 1985, the first-ever lottery, with Patrick Ewing as the grand prize), 1986 was supposed to build on that momentum. Instead, we got a draft class that was probably more worthy of an E! True Hollywood Story than an ESPN 30 for 30, although I'd take either.
How bad was that 1986 day for the league? Well, in chronological order by draft choice:
1. Brad Daugherty, Cleveland This is more of a personal plundering than anything else. Brad Daugherty actually turned out to be the centerpiece of one of the only success stories to come out of the 1986 draft -- the Cleveland Cavaliers' building a nucleus for a contender with Daugherty, Ron Harper and Mark Price. But you have to understand that in 1986, I was a Philadelphia 76ers fan, and Charles Barkley was (and still is) my favorite athlete of all time. In an effort to surround young Barkley with a suitable supporting cast, the Sixers wound up making two of the most boneheaded draft day moves ever:
-- They traded Moses Malone (a couple years removed from being the most dominant big man in the league, but still highly effective) and Terry Catledge to Washington for Jeff Ruland, Cliff Robinson and a couple draft picks. Ruland was the main piece coming to Philly, the only problem was he missed most of the previous year because of knee injuries and he had a body type that could be delicately described as "knee injury conducive." He ended up playing five games for the Sixers because of recurring problems in his knees. FIVE GAMES. (I don't count his attempted comeback in the early `90's. Damage was done.)
-- Thinking they had their center in Ruland, the Sixers then traded the first overall pick (which they'd acquired from the Clippers, who back then gave away first round picks like they came with a venereal disease or something) to Cleveland for forward Roy Hinson and $700,000 in cash. Cleveland used the pick on Daugherty, who became a top tier center for a decade, Philly had traded Hinson to New Jersey for Mike Gminski by the next season, and the $700,000 in cash was hopefully used by Sixers management to throw a kick ass office party during the holidays. (But I wouldn't count on it; if one team could screw up blowing $700,000, it was the Sixers in 1986.)
Was this turn of events a disaster for the league? Not really. It was bad for Barkley, who was one of the top stars in the league and was stuck with crap around him until he was traded to Phoenix in 1992. It sent the Sixers into a quarter-century malaise of lottery residence. And it gave birth to the "Moses Curse" in that the Sixers list of starting centers since that day would be funny if it weren't so pathetic.
Daugherty wound up being a very good center in the league. Not great, just good. Kind of like the Cleveland teams he was part of. After him, though, the draft spun wildly out of control....
2. Len Bias, Boston The Sixers set their franchise back through pervasive managerial stupidity. The Celtics franchise ended up being set back by tragedy (and, in retrospect, the stupidity of a young stallion of a basketball player putting cocaine in his body). If there was one player in this draft who had superstar qualities -- charisma, boundless game, highlight-reel athleticism -- it was Bias. He was a Celtic for two days; cocaine robbed us of his potential greatness. He died on June 19.
3. Chris Washburn, Golden State The third of three straight ACC players taken at the top of the draft, Washburn was perceived as the riskiest of the three. Not only did he have a smaller body of work, but rumors of out-and-out academic fraud while he was at N.C. State (not to mention the fact that he spent his offseason stealing stereos) gave a glimpse into the lack of discipline that ultimately did Washburn in as an NBA player. Ultimately, he would play 72 games in the league, which is a lot if you're Jeff Ruland as a Sixer, but not so much if you're the third overall pick on a team trying to scratch together a future. Oh, and in the ultimate stupidity, after watching cocaine kill his draft classmate Bias, Washburn was run out of the league for cocaine use. One of the biggest busts ever.
(NOTE: Chuck Person went fourth in this draft. He was a good NBA player for many years, but brushed up against the rest of his draft class he feels like the love child of Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson. Let's keep movin'...) 5. Kenny Walker, New York "Sky" was best known for two things -- winning the 1989 Slam Dunk contest and racing a horse on foot. No, he literally raced against a horse on foot. Unfortunately for the Knicks, he was not known for being a good basketball player. On a positive note, he didn't have any cocaine-related issues in his time in the league. Unlike....
6. William Bedford, Phoenix Bedord was drafted out of Memphis by the Suns and bumped around the league for six seasons before succumbing to drug use (cocaine again). He went on to not only have continued substance abuse problems after basketball, but was arrested for transporting 25 pounds of marijuana in the early part of the 2000's. He is currently serving a ten-year sentence in a Fort Worth prison.
7. Roy Tarpley, Dallas. Tarpley was actually a very good player and a rebounding machine for the Mavericks in the late '80s. There was only one problem. See if you can say it with me....DRUGS! Tarpley wound up getting banned from the NBA for violating the substance abuse policy in 1991. He was reinstated in 1994, but again kicked out after drinking alcohol and violating the terms of his aftercare program. He capped it all off by taking a hot iron to his girlfriend's stomach in 1997. Nice guy.
So that's your NBA lottery in 1986. (Back then, kids, the lottery was only seven teams. Almost EVERYONE made the playoffs!) One good center, one good swingman, one bad slam dunk sideshow freak and four drug abusers (one of whom died two days after the draft). Put up any top seven of any draft against that; you won't find a worse top seven. You just won't. Don't try.
The rest of the first round in 1986 was dotted with a few success stories (Ron Harper, John Salley, Dell Curry, to name a few), a few more disappointments (John "Hot Plate" Williams, Brad Sellers, Mark Alarie), a few more headcases (Walter Berry, Pearl Washington), and one major "what might have been" (Arvydas Sabonis).
In fact, the second round of the 1986 draft actually accounted for more collective All-Star appearances than the first round. The second round had nine (Mark Price 4, Dennis Rodman 2, Kevin Duckworth 2, Jeff Hornacek 1) to the first round's five (all Daugherty's).
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So when we complain tomorrow night about the lack of transcendent talent in the 2011 NBA Draft, and ask ourselves, "Why did the Rockets pick this year to have multiple first rounders?!?" look back to 1986, where bad decisions by teams and life-altering decisions by players set a half-dozen franchises back for years. The 1986 draft was like a college keg party spun wildly out of control -- it looked good on paper, appeared to be fun, but the next day the place is trashed, kids are puking, hangovers are rampant and the coroner's office has transportation on its way over.
Worst case, the 2011 draft will just be a really boring birthday party for a first grader. Show up for three hours, eat some cake, play some stupid games, drink some milk and go home.
If you were around for the 1986 draft, then you know that sometimes a tame party like the 2011 draft may not be the worst thing in the world.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on 1560 The Game from noon to 3 p.m. weekdays and follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanCablinasian. He'll be live-blogging tonight's draft here at Hair Balls starting around 6 p.m.