By John Fricke

The Atlanta Hawks are currently battling with seven other teams for the right to be the worst team in the NBA.

Not that the Hawks truly want that honor, but there is something that comes with it. More ping-pong balls than anyone else gets. But is that a good thing?

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In an attempt to keep teams from stripping out their talent and intentionally losing games to get the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, the league instituted a lottery system for those clubs at the bottom of the standings.

The lottery began in 1985. And since then it’s not always been a good thing to have the top spot.

The team with the worst record gets the most ping-pong balls; 25 percent of the balls in the barrel. The team with the worst record is guaranteed a top-4 slot. The team finishing with the second worst record gets about 20 percent of the balls and is guaranteed no worse than No. 5 in the draft. The odds drop for the teams behind those down to less than 3 percent for the team that finishes eighth from the bottom.

Looking at the history of the lottery we see some surprising results (both good and bad, sometimes very bad). Here are a few findings I dug up.

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  • The first lottery was held in 1985. Indiana had the most losses, but the New York Knicks won the lottery draw and selected Georgetown star Patrick Ewing with the first pick. There was considerable screaming over this that the lottery had been rigged to give the most high-profile team in the league, in the home of the league, the biggest star in college basketball. And it did help the Knicks, considering the impact and career Ewing would go on to have in his career.

But it’s not always been a good thing…

  • There have been 33 lotteries total. In only seven has the team with the worst record won the top pick in the draft. And that has hurt clubs… Imagine how the NBA changes if the teams with the worst records had won the ping-pong battle in the following years.

Year (Worst record) (Lottery Winner) (No. 1 Pick)

  • 1987 LA Clippers (Worst record) San Antonio (Lottery Winner) David Robinson (#1 Pick) – Wow how this would have changed a franchise! The Clippers fell to fourth, took Reggie Williams (Scottie Pippen went with the fifth pick) and the Spurs’ history was made.
  • 1992 Minnesota (Worst record) Orlando (Lottery Winner) Shaquille O’Neal (#1 Pick) – Minnesota fell to third and wound up with Christian Laettner. Enough said.
  • 1996 Vancouver (Worst record) Philadelphia (Lottery Winner) Allen Iverson (#1 Pick) – The Grizzlies dropped to No. 3 and ended up with Shareef Abdur-Rahim.
  • 1997 Vancouver (Worst record) San Antonio (Lottery Winner) Tim Duncan (#1 Pick) – Seriously? Did the Spurs make a deal with the devil? Vancouver picked Antonio Daniels No. 4. And you wonder why the Grizzlies are now in Memphis.
  • 2003 Denver & Cleveland (Worst record) Cleveland (Lottery Winner) LeBron James (#1 Pick) – Denver dropped to third. Memphis beat the Nuggets for No. 2 and then traded that pick to the Pistons. Detroit then made one of the worst draft picks in the history of sports. After James went first to the Cavs, the Pistons picked a young European star named Darko Milicic. Bad enough since he wasn’t very good. Worse because the next 3 picks were – in order: 3) Carmelo Anthony to Denver, 4) Chris Bosh to Toronto, and 5) Dwayne Wade to Miami.

And some…. are like this.

  • 1998 Denver (Worst record) LA Clippers (Lottery Winner) Michael Olowokandi (#1 Pick) – Not that the Nuggets helped themselves when they fell to third and drafted Raef LaFrentz. Since both teams missed on Antawn Jamison (#4) Vince Carter (#5) Dirk Nowitski (#9) and Paul Pierce (#10).

For the record the Hawks have had only one No. 1 pick in their Atlanta history. That was David Thompson out of NC State in 1974. But Thompson opted to sign with the Denver Rockets of the ABA. Thompson claimed the Hawks showed such little interest in him that when he came to town to be wined and dined before choosing which league to go with, the Hawks took him to dinner at McDonald’s. Atlanta has not had great luck with top-5 choices in the past… Jon Koncak No. 5 in 1985, Al Wood No. 4 in 2001, Marvin Williams No. 2 in 2005 which doubly hurt since Chris Paul went two picks later at No. 4 to New Orleans.

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The Draft is a crap shoot and ping-pong balls don’t always mean success. No matter how hard you fight for them.