Lottery fate is what you make of it

Lottery fate is what you make of it
May 20, 2014, 1:15 pm
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Do you remember where you were on the night of May 22, 2007?

If you’re a Celtics fan above the legal drinking age, the answer is most likely and unfortunately yes. If you’re legendary Celtics broadcaster Mike Gorman, the answer is definitely and unfortunately yes.

Gorman spent that evening at the team facility in Waltham, watching the 2007 NBA Draft Lottery with Doc Rivers and Danny Ainge.

Back then, the event was held in beautiful Secaucus, N.J., and deputy commissioner Adam Silver was the man bestowed with the honor of revealing the picks. On this night, he’d eventually pull the Celtics’ logo out of the No. 5 envelope, kill Boston’s dream of landing Greg Oden or Kevin Durant, and temporarily crush the soul of an entire city. But before Silver even began to rattle off the results, Gorman, Rivers and Ainge already had a bad feeling.

You see, every year before the order is revealed on live TV, the lottery itself is conducted behind closed doors. Each team is allowed a representative in the room, just to make sure everything is kosher. These representatives are forced to surrender any and all cell phones prior to entering, and are prohibited from having contact with the outside world until after the results are announced.

Celtics co-owner Wyc Grousbeck was Boston’s inside man in 2007, and no, he hadn’t secretly texted out a sad emoji to the rest of the organization. In this case, he didn’t have to do or say anything. Instead, at one point early in the coverage, the ESPN cameras caught a quick glimpse of Grousbeck standing off to the side, and his face said it all. Mike, Doc and Danny knew this face well. In that brief moment, they knew something wasn’t right.

A few minutes later, everyone’s worst nightmare was realized.

“Pick No. 5 . . .” Silver said, rustling the envelope, “ . . . goes to the Boston Celtics.”

The camera immediately panned to Tommy Heinsohn, the Celtics' lottery representative, and for the first second or so he didn’t move. He just sat there like a giant granite statue. (Although if you slow down the footage, like with Ralph Wiggum on Valentine’s Day, you can see the exact moment when Heinsohn’s heart breaks). Tommy eventually forced out a little squint, slightly pursed his lips and furiously tapped his fingers until the camera moved on.

Back in Waltham, Gorman, Rivers and Ainge were deflated. Dejected. And then, at a loss for what to do next, Gorman recalls:

“We figured we should probably start learning how to pronounce ‘Yi Jianlan’.”

***

Ah yes, NBA Draft Lottery memories. Every Celtics fan has them, and they’re all pretty miserable.

Why? Well, for starters, the C's never won the lottery in the 28 years since the format was created. Of course, they’ve only been in contention nine times, and within that, they’ve only had two super serious chances to land the top pick, but still . . . 

In their previous nine tries, the Celtics have either gotten a worse pick than projected or the same pick that was projected eight times. The one and only time they moved up? That was in 1986, when they had the fifth-best odds, earned the No. 2 overall pick, and that pick died tragically before ever taking the court.

In other words, to steal a line from the esteemed poet Treach, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning opus “Ghetto Bastard”: When it comes to the NBA Lottery, if not for bad luck, the Celtics would have none.

***

Tonight, Boston is back in the lottery saddle for the first time since 2007. Team President Rich Gotham will play the role of Wyc Grousbeck inside the private room. Co-owner Steve Pagliuca and his handcrafted Portuguese . . . um, rooster will sit in the seat formerly occupied by Tommy Heinsohn. Together, the three of them hope to exorcise the demons of past lottery heartbreak and finally break into the Top 3. 

The Celtics have a 10.3 percent chance of landing the first pick, which isn’t great, but here’s a piece of uplifting news. In the 20 years since the NBA converted to the current system, eight teams have won the lottery with worse odds than the Celtics have tonight. That’s a 40 percent clip.

Boston also has a 21.4 percent chance of landing in the Top 2 and a 33. 4 percent chance of winding up in Top 3. It’s mathematically impossible for them to pick fourth. They have a 23.7 percent chance of picking fifth, a 34.2 percent chance of picking sixth, an 8.2 percent chance of picking seventh and a 0.3 percent chance of landing in the eight spot.

That’s it. Seven possible outcomes. But across the spectrum of those seven outcomes lies worlds beyond worlds of different Celtics realities. Each potential slot comes with its own set of unique options and paths for Boston to take. No matter where they land, the future will be altered forever.

***

The NBA Lottery is annually one of the best and worst nights in professional sports.

The positive comes in the form of hope. In the minutes leading up to the official announcement, it doesn’t matter if you were the worst team in the NBA or the 14th-worst; there’s still that split second before a team’s name is pulled from the envelope when optimism creeps into your brain and overcomes even the most jaded corner of your soul. In that moment, you believe that anything is possible, because in this case, it really is. Math is math. Odds are odds. And as long as the odds don’t read zero and there’s even one combination with your name on it, there’s a chance of coming out on top.

In 1993, the Magic landed the top pick (and eventually, Penny Hardaway) with only a 1.52 percent chance. In 2008, the Bulls landed Derrick Rose with a 1.7 percent chance. In 2011, the Cavs scored Kyrie Irving with a 2.8 percent chance. These are the things that run through your mind as the picks are revealed. It’s like you’re playing a slot machine and the first two spots have already stopped on the jackpot and, deep down, you know it’s just a tease. You know that this is how they do it. You know so many people have sat in the same seat before you, dreamed the same ridiculous dream, only to see that third column land on a cherry or a 777 and immediately smack you across the face with a frying pan.

You know the disappointment’s coming, but in the moment, you can’t help it.

Why not me? Why not just this one time?

And even though that feeling very rarely amounts to anything, that feeling is good. It’s positive. Even if it’s just for a fleeting second, it’s fun to believe that you’re a millionaire. It’s fun to picture Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker or Joel Embiid spending the next 15 years playing in front of a sold-out TD Garden. And in the off chance that this one time really is YOUR time, well, hell — let’s party.

The negative comes with the understanding that something as vital and significant as the NBA Draft order should never come down to the spin of a slot machine; that the whole Draft Lottery process is ridiculous, flawed and unfair. The good news is that the league understands this, and they’re starting to look at other more logical ways to determine who picks where.

But for now, it’s all in the hands of fate. That’s both exciting and terrifying. Empowering and paralyzing. And for 30 minutes tonight, it will have you on the edge of your seat, tapping your fingers like a furious Tommy Heinsohn; expecting the worst, but secretly holding out for the best. It’s a trip. One that this organization and its fans haven’t been on in seven years. But today, seven years ago feels like yesterday.

***

Above all else, as Boston learned back in 2007 -- when the crippling image of the Celtics landing in the fifth spot set off a chain reaction that resulted in a championship only 13 months later -- lottery fate is only a matter of what you make of it. And I can guarantee that wherever Boston lands tonight, Ainge will spend every hour between now and the draft either looking to capitalize on his good fortune or trying spin another bout of bad luck into the best-case scenario.

Right now, all the conversation revolves around the possibility of acquiring Kevin Love, and to be honest, with outcome of the lottery set to have such a profound effect on where Boston stands and it'll have to work with, it’s probably worth waiting until at least tomorrow before really diving into the reality of Love winding up in Green.

But for today, I’ll just say this:

Kevin Love is 25 years old. He’s six months younger than Steph Curry. Only two weeks older than Kevin Durant. He’s a top 10 NBA player. The prototypical range-shooting 4 that Brad Stevens (or any modern coach) dreams about. He’s not perfect, especially not on defense, but he still has so much time to get better. He’s a caliber of player that only becomes available once every three or four years. Would he put the Celtics over the top? Of course not. Rajon Rondo and Kevin Love, alone, aren’t going to win a title. But Rondo, Love and another star? Now we’re talking. And the combination of Rondo, Love, Brad Stevens and the first-class Celtics organization will make Boston a very appealing destination for any third star that pops up on the radar.

Bottom line: You have to start somewhere and sometime. And with Dwyane Wade’s body, and LeBron James’ and Chris Bosh’s contract situation leaving serious questions about how long the Miami Heat will be the Miami Heat; with the Pacers facing tough decisions this summer; with the Nets ready to combust; with Derrick Rose’s health still hovering menacingly over Chicago . . . 

The time is now. The Celtics should do everything they can to bring Love aboard and take the next step to put themselves in position to strike when the window opens up. 

But even beyond Love, the Celtics will work the phones relentlessly between tonight and the draft. As someone in the organization told me, there’s a good chance that they’ll engage in more trade talk over these next six weeks than they have in the last six years combined. And knowing Danny Ainge’s track record, that’s saying something fierce. 

***

Either way, it all starts tonight. Coverage begins at 8 p.m. on ESPN, and we’ll all be watching as, slowly but surely, hope turns into fate, fate turns into reality and we eventually go to sleep with an entirely different outlook on where the Celtics stand and where they’ll go from there. 

Or if you can’t wait that long, keep an early eye out for Rich Gotham’s face. It might be the most significant clue as to how it’s all about to play out.

And in the event of a worst-case scenario, let me save you some time.

It’s pronounced: YEE JEE-AHN LEE-AHN.

Follow me on Twitter: @rich_levine

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