Tonight marks the NBA's draft lottery, the league's annual ritual of rolling up its sleeves, turning its palms to the crowd, and magically pulling Ping-Pong balls out of a hat. The NBA assigns non-playoff teams a portion of 1,000 combinations based on their records, then draws Powerball-style for the top picks. The system, unique to basketball, is designed to keep bad teams from jockeying for a top player by racing to the bottom of the standings. Yet despite the lottery's transparency, it's also an occasion for skeptics to accuse the NBA of running the most crooked league in sports.
Sportswriters tend to roll their eyes at such talk, but they may as well be the Warren Commission to some fans. The NBA has crackled with conspiracy fever for years. Exhibit A is the New York Knicks getting the top pick to select Patrick Ewing in 1985. Then there was Orlando beating long odds to win the draft lottery in 1992 and 1993, a huge growth spurt for the new franchise. The latest irregularity was the Los Angeles Lakers' unlikely playoff comeback against the Sacramento Kings last season, aided, some suggest, by dubious officiating in Game 6. That the San Antonio Spurs last week knocked off the Lakers "hushed conspiracy theorists all over the world," wrote ESPN.com's Marc Stein, who suggests the NBA show the lottery live to quell accusations of chicanery.
Even coaches and playershave kvetched that the fix is in. Donnie Nelson, an assistant with the Dallas Mavericks, called his father Don's ejection from last night's game "peculiar." Then-Milwaukee Bucks guard Ray Allen cried foul after his team's 2001 playoff loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, and the league fined Allen, his coach, and the Bucks a combined $85,000. Commissioner David Stern told reporters, "We can't just take it as a joke that the league is involved in some kind of criminal conspiracy."
Why does the NBA among pro sports syndicates draw such distrust? Too much order among chaos, perhaps. Since 1980, the league has featured huge TV markets Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, or Houston in all but one finals series (Detroit over Portland in 1990). That, in turn, has maximized the number of sets tuned in to the league, which last year inked a TV contract worth about $4.6 billion, double its previous deal. With safeguards like the salary cap and draft lottery, the big-market mastery of the playoffs is simply too lucky. If you're sitting in Sacramento, prima facie the league looks crooked.
Then there are the officials. A crooked baseball umpire or NFL ref could theoretically throw games, but the NBA official has one power the others don't: He can remove a player from the game with six personal fouls or two technicals. Thus, when a player hits the pine, fans wail that the fix is in. (The theory extends to college basketball, too; Duke allegedly draws more post-season calls than any other school.) It doesn't help that NBA refs placate the league's superstars by granting them extra steps in the lane and push-offs against defenders as time winds down, like in Game 6 of the 1998 Finals—all of which fosters even more speculation. With the top markets bounced from this year's playoffs, the conspiracy du jouris that refs have marching orders to extend each series as long as possible to guarantee high ratings.
Commissioner Stern himself doesn't exactly allay conspiracy talk. He's suave and smiles well but has a vague oiliness about him. In a TV biopic, he would be played by a tanned and subdued Jon Lovitz.
What many of the conspiracy theorists overlook is how the NBA's supposed favoritism reflects basketball itself. Intimate arenas and minimalist uniforms mean NBA stars have facial expressions, hair, tattoos, voices—Dennis Rodman would have been wasted in a hockey uniform—and largely as a result, no sport creates stars more efficiently. Seven years ago the Lakers got to resume their dynasty because Shaquille O'Neal gravitated to the glare of Hollywood, and sure enough, he seems to be constantly hawking Whoppers and Crunch bars. Surely the NBA doesn't favor big-dollar markets any more than its image-savvy players do.
Since basketball is highly individualistic, power shifts slowly. With just five players on the court, one or two marquee players can lead a team of hoi polloi into contention for a solid decade. All of which makes the selection order in the NBA's abbreviated, two-round draft all the more critical. Last year Houston beat long odds to take the top pick, selecting Yao Ming, who, if most conspiracy logic held, should have wound up playing in Madison Square Garden, a Q-train ride from New York's Chinatown. This year the no-duh pick is LeBron James, the Sports Illustrated-anointed "chosen one" who could carry one lucky team for the next 15 years. The allegedly professional teams in Denver and Cleveland each have a 22.5 percent chance of getting the top selection and thus dibs on James, while Chicago has a 4.4 percent chance and New York 1.5 percent. Cover your ears for conspiracy buffs' howling if either of the latter teams gets the top slot. Then again, wouldn't it be just like Stern and his front-office cabal to banish LeBron to Denver, just to shake us off their scent yet again?