Ping-Pong Balls: The 2014 NBA Draft Lottery, Utopian Visions and Paths Paved With Gold

The NBA Draft Lottery is tonight. Professional hoops fans from 14 cities will be eagerly anticipating the dropping of ping-pong balls from a device that looks like this (you can’t see the long plastic tube that shoots the enormous array of ping-pong balls into this smaller plastic device):

Ping-pong balls and Utopian visions of the future.

Ping-pong balls and Utopian visions of the future.


The device used for the Selective Service Draft (1972, Vietnam War) looked like this:

A plexiglass drum containing capsules with birth dates and orders of assignments for men born in 1953 at the beginning of the fourth annual Selective Service lottery Feb. 2. (Charles W. Harrity / AP)

A plexiglass drum containing capsules with birth dates and orders of assignments for men born in 1953 at the beginning of the fourth annual Selective Service lottery Feb. 2. (Charles W. Harrity / AP)


As a fan of the Boston Celtics, (10.3% chance of winning the lottery, currently 5th pick if all goes according to odds–which it never does), the day of the draft lottery was a date I made myself aware of in early November, when it was seemingly guaranteed that the Celtics had started the 2013-14 season with an eye on the 2014-15 season. As in, let’s get us some ping-pong balls while Rajon Rondo rehabilitates his knee and we figure out what we have here.

As we head into the fateful lottery night, the Celtics have the following odds:

  • 33% chance of landing a top-3 pick,
  • 57% chance of landing a top-5 pick,
  • 91.5% chance of landing a top 6 pick.
  • If three extreme long-shots all win the lottery (close to the actual odds of you, kind reader, winning the Mega Millions), then the Celtics could wind up with the 7th or 8th pick.

The Milwaukee Bucks, owners of a 15-67 regular season mark, have the greatest odds of winning the lottery (25%). Even if the Bucks get the worst of the ping-pong ball bounces, they will end up with the 4th pick. Milwaukee has a 46.5% chance of a top 2 pick, and a 64.3% chance of a top 3 pick. When you think about it, in most drafts, that’s far from guaranteeing a franchise-changing player. Of course, Greg Oden and Darko Milicic were thought to be franchise-changing players. Nothing is guaranteed, especially when you’re talking about 7-footers.

Still, this is the moment that devotees of the Bucks, Sixers, Magic, Jazz, Celtics and Lakers have been waiting for since the holiday season. This is their holiday season. Here are a few future paths (paved with gold and mostly unrealistic expectations) for the likely Top 7-8 picks in this year’s 2014 Draft. It’s both perfectly understandable and totally insane. A fan-base hopes for someone to come along and save the day. The rare patient fan waits at least a year to judge that high lottery pick. Everyone else waits two weeks. Remember Simmons talking about Michael Carter-Williams as if he were the next future All-Star, franchise-changing player? That was two weeks (and 6 games) into the season. Now MCW waits for help. But this year is supposed to be different. We’re supposed to believe that these top 5-6 players have that higher-level within them. Potential…

  • The Utopian Visions of Andrew Wiggins as a 25 year-old, dominating both sides of the ball like Paul George with an even better vertical leap? Can he develop the range on his jumper in one year? Two years? Four years?
  • The wide frame and scoring stability of Jabari Parker, instantly giving an offense a go-to, possibly post-up option. Can Parker become the next hybrid power forward? A poor man’s LeBron, with elite passing skills?
  • The idealistic dream of Joel Embiid (em-BEED) anchoring the center position as a young Hakeem Ojajuwon (Embiid the Dream?). Shot-blocking and rebounding with that kind of footwork is rare.
  • The perfect possibilities of Dante Exum running an up-tempo offense and harrassing opposing guards like Shaun Livingston with his reach. Can Exum reach the heights of Penny Hardaway? With his height (6’6″) and his passing, the ceiling is high.
  • And let’s not forget dynamic young big men Noah Vonleh and Aaron Gordon, both who show incredible promise and versatility. Vonleh is something of a mystery and his measurements (wingspan, hands, standing reach) have front offices excited. Who wouldn’t want a taller version of Kawhi Leonard (not that anyone will ever be a taller version of the impossibly unique Kawhi)? In the 2011 Draft, the Spurs were delighted to see 14 teams didn’t want him. It appears that front offices are much more aware of physical gifts and long-term planning than they were in 2011, though. Vonleh has the proverbial “high ceiling,” but his one year at Indiana was less-than-outstanding.
  • Aaron Gordon can jump through the roof and he’s 6’9″. The Shawn Marion comparisons have begun.
  • Marcus Smart has similar abilities to Tyreke Evans, a do-everything wizard with a desire and nose for the ball. The “character issues” that trail him are insulting. Yes, there will be NBA fans taunting him, but only in the Deep South and in college hoops will he hear the N-word. Instead of talking about the larger problem, it’s easier for scouts and pundits to label Smart with having “character issues.” On the other hand, watching him play, he plays with such force and drive, that he must learn to contain that energy within an NBA offense. A better jump-shot would also help.
  • Julius Randle would have been a top-5 pick in 1995, 2000, or 2005. Instead, the back-to-the-basket power forward is no longer viewed as a threat to crack the top-5. Turning his ankle in an agility drill didn’t help his draft stock. Such a minor thing, but it’s those “big stage” moments that alter a player’s reputation. If he can’t knock down a 15-footer, he’s a lot less valuable than he might have been a decade ago. Randle seems capable of inhaling rebounds and providing something of a post-game. A comparison that is being tossed around is Zach Randolph, who learned to hit that elbow jumper with regularity, which made his post-moves that much more effective. Time will tell.

The ping-pong balls will bounce. The order will be set. And then we will wait another month until the actual draft. Teams will make trades. Kevin Love may be headed to the Bay Area, or Chicago, or Boston. The order is set in clay instead of concrete. The future begins tonight. And then tomorrow night, and the night after, and the night after.

Hooray for Utopias.

My Celtics Dreams…

I’m envisioning Rondo and Exum, with Avery Bradley as a lock-down 6th man…

I’m thinking of playoff games in May of 2016, when the Heat have been dismantled, the Pacers are getting old, and the Wizards are at the top. Who guards Bradley Beal? Dante Exum. Now for that shot-blocker….




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