There are few more exciting moments during the season than the annual NBA Draft Lottery. This becomes especially true when the prize up for grabs is a potentially franchise-altering star such as LeBron James in 2003, Anthony Davis in 2012, and more recently, Zion Williamson in 2019. All three guys were heavily projected as the first overall pick in their respective drafts, and winning the lottery for the likes of the Cleveland Cavaliers and the New Orleans Pelicans (twice) turned out to be one of the best moments in their franchise’s history.
The draft lottery almost always produces a shocking moment or two. There always seems to be a team that somehow beats the odds to significantly improve their standing in the draw, while on the contrary, other sides suffer what they call the luck of the draw — or the lack thereof. Below we’ve compiled a Top 3 list of the most shocking moments that have transpired throughout the history of the NBA Draft Lottery.
3. 2011: The Cavs Get Lucky
The 2011 NBA Draft Lottery was a roller coaster ride for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Prior to the lottery, they had a 19.90% chance of winning the first overall pick, second only to the Minnesota Timberwolves whose odds were at 25.00%. Once the balls were drawn, however, the Cavs fell all the way to fourth. They ended up using that pick on Tristan Thompson, who at that time was a raw prospect that needed at a year to develop.
However, the Cavs still ended up snatching Kyrie Irving in that draft as the first overall pick. They owned the pick of the Los Angeles Clippers, who were fortunate enough (at least for Cleveland’s point-of-view) to win the lottery despite having just a 2.80% chance of snagging the first pick. A couple of months prior to the draft, the Clippers traded the aforementioned pick to the Cavs along with Baron Davis in exchange for Mo Williams and Jamario Moon. In hindsight, it is clear that the Cavs won that deal, especially considering how Irving eventually helped them win the title in 2016.
2. 1993: Orlando’s Magic
Before we entered the new millennium, Shaquille O’Neal was arguably the most highly-touted talent entering the NBA Draft. This was in 1992, and as destiny would have it, the Orlando Magic won the lottery that year. They had the second-best odds to win the first overall pick, and true enough, they lucked out. As we all know, O’Neal would do great things in Orlando prior to making his move to the Los Angeles Lakers in 1996.
It was in 1993, however, that the Magic shocked the world by once again winning the lottery for a second consecutive year. What makes this victory even more amazing is the fact that Orlando only had a 1.52% chance of winning that lottery. Their pre-draft ranking was 11th, but obviously, all those statistics didn’t matter once their name was drawn for the first pick.
The consensus top overall pick was Michigan’s Chris Webber — but the Magic had other plans in mind. With some prodding from O’Neal, the team shipped the pick to the Golden State Warriors in exchange for three future first-round picks and the third overall selection which was used to nab Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway — a player O’Neal coveted after filming the drama “Blue Chips” with him. The guard then formed a tremendous partnership with Shaq during the early 1990s.
1. 1985: The Frozen Envelope Conspiracy Theory
As far as shocking moments of the Draft Lottery go, one particular episode stands out. This was in 1985 in the infamous frozen envelope incident which centered around the New York Knicks and then-league commissioner David Stern. The story goes that at that time, the NBA was desperate to increase its viewership. What better way to do the same than by sending over the first overall pick of the draft — a 23-year-old 7-footer who had one of the most decorated NCAA careers in Patrick Ewing — to the Knicks, which is one of biggest market teams in the league.
According to reports, the league pre-marked the envelope containing the Knicks by folding one of the corners. This allowed Stern to conveniently pick New York’s envelope, and thereby handing over Ewing to the Knicks. The fact that this was the first year the league had adapted the lottery system certainly didn’t help prove the NBA’s innocence.
Shockingly, that’s exactly what happened on the night of the lottery. The Knicks beat six other teams who had equal odds to win the first overall pick, and as we all know, Ewing had quite a memorable career in New York.
Then again, the shock factor was perhaps not that considerable for some folks who had predicted this very same outcome beforehand. There were already whispers prior to the draft that the NBA was going to rig the lottery in favor of the Knicks, and the events of that evening just validated their theories.
Nothing was ever proven, but nevertheless, this still remains to be one of the biggest conspiracy theories in not only the Draft Lottery, but that of the entire history of the NBA as well. These turn of events were so controversial that it led to the league opting to revamp the lottery system soon after. Envelopes were nixed in favor of ping pong balls, presumably under the premise that balls are “rig-free.” Then again, as they always say, if there’s a will, there’s a way.