May 12th, 1985, is in the history books as a day of NBA innovation, of creativity of ownership, and of problem-solving by the officials in the league. In an attempt to negate tanking, the NBA launched the first-ever Draft Lottery. The Draft Lottery is aimed to discourage tanking without punishing teams for being bad. Instead of just rewarding the team with the most losses the number one overall draft pick, the NBA decided to run a lottery system of all the teams that did not make the NBA playoffs. Initially, all of the nonplayoff teams actually had the same exact percentage chance: they were each put in an envelope, and Commissioner David Stern drew them out one by one.
May 12th, 1985, is in the history books as a day of one of the earliest NBA conspiracies, blatant big market bias, and aiding the wealthiest owners. It’s one of the days in NBA history that feels “fixed,” in air quotes. The first-ever NBA Lottery winner was the New York Knicks. New York was twelve years removed from their last NBA title, and had seen losing record in seven of those twelve seasons. They played in the Madison Square Garden, one of the most famous arenas in all of basketball… and conveniently in Manhattan, the same borough David Stern grew up in. The Knicks’ ownership, Gulf and Western, was one of the wealthiest ownership groups in the NBA, and in the mid-80s was at the peak of their powers. They had just sold off their shares of pinball manufacturer Bally and the South Puerto Rican Sugar company, and were primed to grow the investments they had, especially Madison Square Garden and their connection to the emerging NBA.
Whether the NBA Draft Lottery of 1985 fixed the NBA Draft of “fixed” the NBA Draft has been a bar discussion level conspiracy theory since the night it happened. Some saw the lottery on TBS that night and saw it immediately: all but one envelope was gently tossed into the bin, but the envelope that wasn’t clearly jams the side and bends the corner… Thus, Stern would know to draw that envelope. Some wrote about it in the coming days, claiming the envelope had been frozen, and thus Stern could’ve felt it as the much colder envelope. Some maintain it was random, and that they held a one in seven chance to get the pick anyways. Whatever the case, the prize was clear: Georgetown Center Patrick Ewing was the clear cut pick. The four-year Hoya had put up over 2,000 points in his four years, and had played in three NCAA championship games.
In 1985, the Center was the focal point of a franchise. Seven of the previous ten number one overall picks were Centers, and eight of the previous ten NBA MVP awards were centers. In the draft immediately preceding the ’85 draft, Michael Jordan himself was taken third overall… behind two Centers. Teams were built around big men, and Patrick Ewing looked like the type of big man to place an entire franchise, even the NBA’s most marketable, on his broad shoulders.
The lottery drew immediate criticism. Of the other lottery picks, Atlanta was the only city that could have even been considered a “big” NBA market. Sure, the Clippers played in LA… but it was 1985. The Showtime Lakers had just won a title, their third title in five Finals trips in six total years. They ran the NBA, not just Los Angeles. The Knicks were the only big market team to miss the playoffs, and thus the only big market that stood to benefit from a Draft Lottery. Chicago held the third-worst record in 1984, but Rookie of the Year Michael Jordan had them in the playoffs. Houston had the number one overall pick in ’84, but was in third in the West with Hakeem Olajuwon. Boston and Philly won 63 and 58 games respectively in 1984-85, and had won championships earlier in the decade. New York won just twenty-four games and came in last in the Atlantic division. Bernard King got hurt on March 23rd, and the Knicks didn’t win a game the rest of the year.
With so much conspiracy surrounding the Draft Lottery, many called it a dud. It came off as a tool for the NBA to be sure top talents continued to fall into top markets, and the small town teams would be left to pick up scraps. For the first four years of the system, all non-playoff teams had an equal shot at the number one overall pick. In 1986, the Draft Lottery’s second year, Boston got the number two overall pick after winning an NBA Championship (they had acquired the pick from Seattle). 1987? New Jersey, who had bounced back and forth between New York and New Jersey a couple of times at that point, got the number three pick. In 1988 Philadelphia and New Jersey had the third and fourth picks respectively. A team that missed the playoffs on a tie-breaker had the same odds as a team that went 0-82, but the size of the market seemed to keep certain teams in the top three picks.
While it did not appear equitable, the unweighted Draft Lottery did cut down on outright tanking, a problem that dominated Draft talk in 1983 and 1984. In 1983, the Houston Rockets won just 14 games and “earned” the number one overall pick. Houston selected big man Ralph Sampson of Virginia, a 7’4” big man. Sampson, like Ewing later, appeared to be a franchise-altering Center. He won the NCAA’s Wooden Player of the Year award three times, and elevated the UVA basketball program to national prominence. Sampson had actually declined to turn pro early in 1982 when he saw that he might have to play for the LA Clippers.
In 1983-84, the Houston Rockets and Rookie of the Year Ralph Sampson were accused of throwing games as the season went on in an effort to secure the number one draft pick. Sampson played just 32 minutes a game, the least of any season he would play in Houston. Further, Houston had the most access to the “prize” of the 1984 Draft: Hakeem Olajuwon, of the University of Houston. Having Olajuwon in their back yard meant the Rockets could “woo” the collegiate star for a full season before suiting him up. Houston appeared to have thrown games for two years to gain two number one overall picks, and used them both on drafting future Hall of Fame big men. By the 1985-86 season, Houston was pushing the dynastic Boston Celtics to the brink in the NBA Finals.
Injuries to Sampson derailed his NBA career, as well as his relationship with the Houston Rockets. But Houston had sparked the conversation: throwing games works.
In basketball, a single-player literally makes up twenty percent of the players on the floor. Losing on purpose, if there is no Draft Lottery, means pulling in better players in the draft each year. And in the NBA, those better players make a big difference. Eleven different number one picks have won a combined twenty-two NBA MVP awards. That’s eleven of the thirty-four players that have ever won the NBA MVP were drafted number one overall… Nearly a third. Clearly, getting a number one pick can be history-altering for a franchise if utilized correctly.
So perhaps Stern and the NBA “fixed” the NBA Draft Lottery in an effort to fix the NBA thirty-five years ago today. Does it matter? If they could solve the problem of teams throwing games, did they end with a better product?
The NBA went to a weighted Draft Lottery in 1990, in which the teams with the worse records had a better chance (or weighted odds) to win the number one pick. Initially, the odds were still impossible to predict. The most notable “upset” in the Draft Lottery came in 1993, when Orlando won the number one overall pick even though they had just a 1.7% chance of doing so. But in the thirty years since, the weights have shifted. As the weights shifted more towards nearly guaranteeing the number one pick for the team with the worst record, the Philadelphia 76ers started “The Process,” which included singing and playing large numbers of young and fringe NBA players to acquire top-end draft picks. Philly earned four top-three picks in a span of five years. Tanking was working yet again.
Last season, the NBA altered the weights to help discourage tanking yet again. The bottom three teams, in terms of record, all shared equal “weight.” Thus, as long as you hovered in that area, it didn’t help you to straight continue to lose games on purpose.
But did that help?
Last season, New Orleans received the number one overall pick and selected college hoops phenom Zion Williamson. Zion has been a coveted prospect since he was a sophomore in high school. He blew up college basketball and was drawing sold-out stadiums full of celebrities and former presidents alike. In the NBA, Zion appears to be the type of immediate impact player that is going to turn around a franchise… Except New Orleans didn’t need to turn around.
New Orleans spent the latter half of 2019 sitting their superstar big man Anthony Davis. The 26-year-old All-Pro was, reportedly, unhappy in New Orleans and wanted to be traded. Upon hearing his request, New Orleans sat him in an effort to punish him… which resulted in a lot of end of season losses and increased odds of winning the number one draft pick. But, the season before, Davis was leading New Orleans to the playoffs. They ran into a tough Portland team, but Davis had put the franchise on his back. He was playing like a franchise-altering big man. Then, in the spring of 2019, the Pelicans were sitting him, accumulating losses, and got a shot at another one. The NBA had to eventually step in and say, if healthy, Davis had to play. New Orleans strategically played him to a limited number of minutes, ensuring they couldn’t win more games.
So where did Davis end up? The LA Lakers… Who also appeared to throw in the towel to end 2019.
Once LeBron James signed in the summer of 2018, the Lakers were clearly in “win now” mode. James was injured on Christmas Day. Though LeBron returned in March and posted on his Instagram that he was in “playoff mode,” LeBron was ruled “out” for the remainder of the season. The Lakers began to accumulate losses… and landed the fourth overall pick. That pick became an integral part of trading for franchise-altering big man Anthony Davis.
Tanking half a season got New Orleans two top-four picks, one of which was used on Rookie phenom and big man Zion Williamson. Tanking half a season got the LA Lakers an All-Pro big. Tanking, even for teams that had playoff aspirations up until the trade deadline, worked.
For a brief, four year run, Stern and the NBA had a league where tanking didn’t matter. Winning 40 games and barely missing the playoffs was as good for a franchise, long term, as losing each game. Teams were encouraged to win because losing didn’t help.
Was the 1985 Draft Lottery “fixed?” Potentially. Ewing’s fifteen-year Hall of Fame career with the Knicks, even if title-less, made New York City basketball and Madison Square Garden relevant in a way they haven’t been for twenty years. If it was intentional, it worked.
And if the goal was to avoid tanking, 1985 was also fixed. No air quotes.
Zach LaVine Is The Missing Piece For The Sixers by Chris Allen
Zach LaVine is a 6’6 catch and shoot lob threat. This 25-year-old two-time slam dunk champion has spent his career trying to make it to the playoffs or keep the Chicago Bulls at 500. In contrast, he’s averaging over 25 points per game since 2019, per basketball reference. LaVine is bound to be an All-Star this year, having career highs in both points and FG shooting percentage. His skill set, and size, might be the missing piece for the Philadelphia 76ers.
The 76ers have themselves projected anywhere from a 2-4 seed coming out of the Eastern Conference. Ben Simmons is the best playmaker and on-ball defender on the team. Joel Embiid is a beast in the post and spreads the floor. Tobias Harris is a solid shooter anywhere on the floor and can create his own shot. Out of the three, the most tradeable player is Harris in exchange for LaVine. Depending on management, you can make LaVine sign an extension or throw in Danny Green and Otto Porter Jr. to offset the salary cap.
How would the 76ers offense and defense schemes work? In theory, depending on matchups, Simmons would play the four on defense for the most part and alternate with LaVine or another guard to play the one. This allows for more explosive offensive firepower surrounding Simmons and still creates space for Embiid to operate in the post or stretch the floor. This open space leaves room for your slashers, Simmons and LaVine.
With all the movement and attention on the central core, spot up, catch and shoot three-point shots will thrive. Matisse Thybulle, Seth Curry, & possibly Porter Jr. offer the Sixers solid shooting on the floor to make this a solid offense. Simmons at the four on defense allows him to turn into the point guard as soon as he gets the rebound hitting LaVine on the fast break for quick transition points.
LaVine can do something that Simmons can’t do, which is the ability to shoot from outside the paint. Whatever position you put them in, they could cover each other’s weaknesses and keep Philadelphia’s offense potent. Philly still has depth with Shake Milton and Tyrese Maxey for guards if Simmons and LaVine ran as your forwards.
No one wants LaVine to have career numbers on a struggling team. Simmons and Embiid are rare in their skill set. They could use an independent scorer to take away attention and get a bucket when needed. With LaVine holding the ball more, there’s less talk about where Simmons sits in the offense with his lack of shooting. With the trade deadline coming, it will be interesting to see whether LaVine will stay a Bull or find himself with a contender for a ring.
Damian Lillard Named Cover Athlete for NBA 2K21
There aren’t many players in the NBA that are as exciting to watch as Damian Lillard. The Portland Trail Blazers point guard can drop 50 points on any given night, putting up statistics only seen in video games.
Due to his gaudy play this year, Lillard has been announced as the first of three players that will grace the cover of the NBA’s premier video game franchise, NBA 2K.
Lillard was in the midst of a remarkable season prior to the league shutdown, as he averaged a career-high 28.9 points and 7.8 assists per game. If the season resumes next month, Lillard will look to close a 3.5 games gap across an eight-game schedule to get his Trail Blazers into playoff position.
Regardless of how this season ends for Lillard though, it will still go down as another incredible campaign for the five-team All-Star. One worthy of his first selection as the cover athlete on 2K.
Lillard will be on the cover of NBA 2K21 for all the current-gen gaming consoles including PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Windows PC and Google Stadia systems. 2K still needs to announce another cover athlete for the new PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X consoles.
For the 29-year-old point guard, this honor is very gratifying as it continues to solidify his status as one of the game’s most elite players.
Due to the continued fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is still unclear whether NBA 2K21 will be released at it’s regularly scheduled drop-date in September, or if it will be pushed back to accommodate the league’s changed schedule.
If the season is played in it’s entirety, many don’t expect the 2020-2021 NBA season to start until late November, if not some time in December.
Stephen Jackson: Journey Man
Nearly two months ago, when the NBA announced the 2020 Hall of Fame class, and in the midst of having no sports to televise, ESPN ran a series of important games from Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, and Tim Duncan’s careers. For Duncan, ESPN played his near quadruple-double to seal the 2003 NBA Finals. In the fourth quarter, when the Spurs needed buckets, the New Jersey defense collapsed in on Duncan, who kicked to a wide-open, third-year NBA player named Stephen Jackson. Jackson hit three big three-pointers, Spurs win. For many, some combination of that performance (being the secondary star in a non-primetime, 17-year-old basketball game) and his All The Smoke podcast with Matt Barnes was the most thought given to Stephen Jackson in quite some time. Jackson went on, after a brief stint in San Antonio, to play for six franchises in eleven years before retiring in 2015. Many would call him a journeyman for his travels in the NBA, and assumed his life would settle down after that.
Last week Stephen Jackson put himself, and his cause, in front of everyone. Following the brutal murder of George Floyd by four police officers, Jackson took to his Instagram to let the world see and hear the pain he had for his lost friend. Floyd grew up in Houston, Jackson in Port Arthur. For those not acquainted with Texas’ geography, the two went to high school just over an hour apart. Many in Port Arthur residents, like Jackson as a child, go into the city of Houston when they need things you’d find in the city. Port Arthur is a tough-minded oil town that functions as both a suburb of the city of Beaumont and the city of Houston. It’s produced the likes of Jimmy Johnson, Jamaal Charles, Pimp C, and Bun B… but Stephen Jackson is the only notable NBA alum that cites it as home. You can see Port Arthur’s toughness in Johnson, Charles, and Jackson. You can see its swagger in Pimp C, Bun B, and Jackson.
And now, you can see him representing Port Arthur, and making a difference.
Everyone ended their Memorial Day weekend watching the same horrifying viral video. It hit everyone differently. For some, it was a wake-up call to the deadly realities of police brutality. To others, it was an anger-inducing “another one?!” To still others, it was horrifyingly close to home, with a mirror-like reality. And to Jackson? It was his lifelong friend. His “twin.”
Jackson and Floyd have known each other since childhood. Both were active athletes from similar neighborhoods and backgrounds, but the “twin” moniker came not only because they were figuratively brothers, but because they look eerily similar to one another. The two played pick-up basketball in the Cuney Homes housing complex of Houston’s Third Ward. (Jackson has, in the last week, really done an intentional job of pointing out how talented of an athlete Floyd was. To be frank, it is very important. The difference in Floyd’s life cut short and Jackson’s life in the NBA can come down to a few breaks or ball bounces here and there.)
While much of the nation’s initial anger over George Floyd’s murder was in their own homes for the initial twenty-four hours, Stephen Jackson’s was cast for the world to see.
In the following days, Jackson continued to post homage to Floyd while he made his way to Minneapolis to lead protests. Once there, he made his message clear: no one was going to diminish Floyd’s name. No one was going to rest until action was taken. Change was coming, and Jackson was ready to work for it.
Jackson was surrounded by the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns and Josh Okogie, actor Jamie Foxx, Houston area rap artist Trae the Truth, amongst other protestors. After speaking to the crowd, Jackson and others went outside marched to the Hennepin County Government Center.
Protests and marches have been commonplace all over the United States of America this week. In an effort to combat police brutality, communities are banding together to have their voices heard. Both in-person and online, at the forefront of these protests continue to be high profile athletes and celebrities. In North Carolina, Dennis Smith Jr. and J. Cole were mixed into the marches like everyone else. Jaylen Brown did the same in Atlanta. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote an op-ed for the LA Times. It clearly did not take being connected to the situation like Stephen Jackson to take the lead in the community.
In the week since publicly sharing his pain, Jackson has become the face of NBA players involved in the protests, and his movements are seeing results. Within hours of his statements in Minneapolis, the police officer who murdered Floyd was arrested. Protests have continued, calling for both the arrests of his three partners who watched him idly, and for their four convictions. Since Jackson spoke out, major shoe brands, EA Sports, and even Adam Silver have come out in support of the protests. Jackson, who made a career as a reserved tough guy, pushed much of the NBA world to the point of speaking up. While COVID quarantine certainly helped further the cause (everyone is stuck at home with little other distractions, searching social media), Jackson’s activism is the inspiration we look for.
What’s both fascinating and disturbing is George Floyd was not the first unarmed black man murdered on camera. He wasn’t even the first of such since the COVID quarantine started, and the violent reaction to the protests imply he won’t be the last victim of police brutality either. But, his name and case are pushing people to a protesting brink at a national level. There are several factors, but Jackson and the ensuing NBA involvement is certainly a big one.
The murder of an unarmed person at the hands of the police shouldn’t need celebrity grief to become a tragedy. NBA players shouldn’t have to remind the public they’ve been wearing “I CAN’T BREATHE” tee-shirts since 2014. The news should sting on its own and, if you’re paying attention, it always does.
However, in Jackson’s grief he helped elevate this particular case. The NBA, and pro sports, can humanize black people for many white audiences that otherwise don’t get to interact with people that don’t look like them. For decades neighborhoods, schools, and public spaces have been (intentionally or unintentionally) segregated through various means. As pointedly illustrated in Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crowe, these systems can perpetuate cyclically and lock people into only being around folks that look like them. Humanized professional athletes can bring new faces into white neighborhoods, as they connect with and idolize people on their team. Jackson is one of those faces, and he isn’t just “involved” in the ongoing fight in Floyd’s name. In his own words, he’s “all in.”
Jackson’s activism can bring those conversations into white homes, neighborhoods, and families. It can help force the issue and conversation. Recent generations of NBA players have been very socially active, and time after time we see the issues they take up carry significant weight. It’s sad to admit, but in many ways it’s vital. It makes the stories human to more people, because Jackson is a human known by more people.
Jackson has spent the last week publicly riding an emotional roller coaster. He mourned the loss of his friend, was firm in pursuing justice, and was open in sharing his story. As we enter week two of Jackson’s journey, he has accepted being the leader of the current athlete activists.
“Like, I’m honest with you: I did not expect to have the role and to have so many people waiting to see what I have to say and what’s the next move,” Jackson told ESPN. “Like, I didn’t ask to be in this position, but I’m embracing it. I’m embracing it.”
But what does that mean? What does embracing it look like for Journey Man Jackson?
“We got to vote,” Jackson continued. “I’m not just talking about the president. I’m talking about the local city council. I’m talking about your police chief, your fire chief. We need to vote for all that type of stuff because all that stuff’s going to matter at the end. And what we’re doing now as far as protesting everywhere around the world, we got to use that same energy when it’s time to vote.”
“Coming into this, I’ve seen so many situations not pan out right,” Jackson said. “I’ve seen the impossible happen also. And I think this is that situation. I think this [is] going to be the change. My brother’s death is going to be change. I think we’re going to get convictions for all of them. I think they’re drawing it out right now because this is the typical system. That’s why we got to change the rules — they look out for each other. They try their best to look out for each other. So this is expected by me.”
“But we’re going to fight. This is a marathon. And we’re going to continue this fight, and we’re going to outfight them. We’re not going to stop. We’re going to keep this thing going. They’re going to get tired of hearing about George Floyd. They’re going to get tired of hearing his name.”
The word “journey” carries a lot more positivity than “journeyman.” A journey can be life-changing, and it can be historically impactful. A journeyman is a wanderer; he’s lost or he has no home. A journey is going to be important. Calling someone a journeyman implies they weren’t important enough to stick in one place.
However, in the NBA journeymen are often beloved by other players because they have to be good teammates to survive. Journeymen change clubhouses frequently, and they’re more appealing to more teams if their past teammates can attest to their characters. But to fans, and outsiders, they tend to be the periphery of the storylines of the league. Sure, Stephen Jackson hit a barrage of three-pointers in the 2003 NBA Finals, but they were off of Tim Duncan’s assists. He’s an emblem of toughness, but Jackson never stayed in the same organization for more than two complete seasons (though he did have two separate two year periods in San Antonio).
Players love Jackson, that’s evident in his podcasting and TV appearances. But he was never integral to the NBA’s story throughout his journeyman-days. He was always going to be remembered as the guy who scored on Duncan’s kick out, or the teammate that got traded, or the veteran on a one-year deal. If you watched the NBA in his 14-year career, you knew who he was… but his playing days didn’t indicate he’d be an unforgettable piece of the story of the league.
But as the latest chapters of Jackson’s story is being written, he’s looking more like a man on a journey than a journeyman. If you persist he is a journeyman, he’s clearly chosen to focus on the breakdown of the word regardless of your perception.
And his leadership has proven far more than necessary in connection to the story of America in 2020 than it ever was in connection to the NBA.
If you have the means to, or would like to donate to help the cause Jackson is at the front of, please consider the following places to start:
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