Not sure the machinations of the NBA lottery is what the British envisioned for a free-market enterprise when they parked their ships on native soil. We know they brought guns, germs, and steel to the shores of New America, but they also brought games of chance.
As forms of gambling evolved, the colonies would employ lotteries as a system of financial backing. These lotteries serve as solutions to debt and to finance colonial ventures. Sound familiar? The mechanics might have evolved, but the motivations remain the same. Since the first NBA lottery in 1985, player drafts have served to boost the luck of fledgling teams with fresh, young talent from collegiate and overseas pools.
NBA front offices have entire subsidies focused on lottery odds and selections, scouting prospects on potential team fits throughout the year. Selecting a player is a game of chance. In a way, so are entire drafts. No team wants to lose. But some, when revenue is down, and talent is low, purposefully tank to land the next NBA superstar. But purposefully tank for the wrong draft, or land in the wrong selecting order, and it can be all for naught.
In the last decade, there have been many mad dashes for the top spot (or the bottom, depending how you choose to look at it), such as the 2021 and 2019 drafts when teams went all out in their pursuit of losing for a chance to select Cade Cunningham and Zion Williamson, respectively. Not every draft can be 2003, considered the best pool of talent in recent memory with names like LeBron, Melo, and Wade. On the flip side, the 2015 draft might be the worst draft since the 1986 edition, a seven-rounder plagued with drug issues (most notably leading to the death of Maryland star Len Bias) which only produced one Top 75 Player (Dennis Rodman), three Hall of Fame inductees (Rodman, Arvydas Sabonis, Dražen Petrović) and only one player to make at least one All-Star Team out of the first 20 picks. The leading scorer from that draft? Forty-sixth pick Jeff Hornacek (15659).
Drafts usually change the course of the next five to ten years for the franchises drafting in the lottery. For the 2015 version, not a single team’s destiny was improved from their selection for the teams who picked the top ten that year. Nor are any of the ten teams reaping playoff appearances or sustained winning from their selections either. This is a monumental feat of failure. Usually, at least two to three players become franchise cornerstones, allowing front offices to build around them and utilize their elite skill sets to offset losing.
For the ten players chosen in the 2015 Draft, this was not the case. Let’s start at the top. It’s not often that the No. 1 and No. 2 picks are playing on the same team within five years of being drafted. Yet, that’s precisely what’s happened with Karl-Anthony Towns, who went first, and D’Angelo Russell, who went second, as the two have teamed up in Minnesota. Russell was on his fourth team by his fifth season, a rare feat by a player drafted second overall. Russell has a career average of 17.6 ppg, and Towns has a career average of 22.9 ppg. Yet, the Wolves have yet to make the playoffs in the three years the two friends have been paired up. This is due to injuries and personal struggles by both players. But the fact remains. Russell has only made the playoffs once, in 2019, while he made the All-Star team that same year with Brooklyn. This stands as the only time one of the players selected in the top ten of the 2015 Draft took its team to the playoffs as the undisputed best player. How the hell could that be true?
Towns was undoubtedly a more skilled player than Jimmy Butler when the two of them finally brought the Timberwolves back to the playoffs in 2018. But it only takes looking at what the two players have done since — Butler in Miami and Towns remaining in Minnesota — to know which player was the MVP of that squad. Towns averaged 15.2 ppg and Butler 15.8 ppg in the five-game beat down by the Golden State Warriors. And of the entire first ten players drafted, only Towns is still with the team that drafted him.
The only other All-Star player from that year’s lottery is Kristaps Porzingis, who made the team in 2018, the year he tore his left ACL. He would not play in the game due to injury. Porzingis has yet to return to the pre-injury form he had with the Knicks, eventually forcing his way out of New York and onto Dallas, where he has struggled to stay healthy and be the type of dependable second option that makes his teammates better. He has barely played well alongside his superstar teammate, Luka Dončić, appearing to resent having to be a second option.
The other seven players from that draft are either mediocre role players (Willie Cauley-Stein, Justise Winslow, Frank Kaminsky) or entirely out of the league (Jahlil Okafor, Mario Hezonja, Emmanuel Mudiay, Stanley Johnson). This speaks to the chilling level of guessing that takes place at the lottery level. If it could even be called that, the real meat shows up later in the First Round. It’s at this part of the draft where some pretty good players are taken, but not anything close to a superstar. Instead, it’s guys like Myles Turner, Terry Rozier, Jerian Grant, and Cameron Payne. These are guys we perennially argue about being overpaid and inconsistent.
The real prize here is Devin Booker, who was somehow drafted 13th by the Suns, where he still plays and has helped turn Pheonix Into an offensive juggernaut. But even Booker was not the best player in last season’s final run. That title goes to MVP candidate and all-time great point guard Chris Paul. It just goes to show the lack of leadership and true cornerstone abilities.
To go even further, between picks 11 and 30, only three players are still with the team that rolled the dice on them: Booker, Turner, and Kevin Looney. More than any other, many players taken in this draft have been used as pawns in mediocre trades. And only Turner, Grant, and Booker are a top-three option on their teams. Typically we see a few players picked in this area turn out to be All-Stars or, at the very least, 20 ppg scorers.
It doesn’t get much better as you get into the second round. The ratio of gems to busts seems about on par with other drafts of this decade. The gems are guys like Montrezl Harrell, Richaun Holmes, Josh Richardson, and Norman Powell. The busts are guys who even expert fans can’t pick out in a crowd, names like Satnam Singh, Juan Pablo Vaulet, and Sir’Dominic Pointer. If there was such a thing as winners in this draft beyond the first round, it happened with the undrafted finds of T.J. McConnell, Christain Wood, and Royce O’Neale, three players who are solid contributors on both ends of the floor. McConnell and O’Neale are still with the teams who picked them up in the post-draft pool.
When the best player drafted, Booker, has only made the All-Star team twice and has a career-average PER 2.5 percentage points higher than the league average, you’re working on the low-end of the league’s draft average.
It’s audacious to call an entire draft a bust. But this one failed on its own to improve teams out of a lottery-doomed cycle. And as sports continue to evolve the cut-throat capitalism of our forefathers, teams will need to take swings when opportunity calls and hedge when they don’t. In other words, play the lottery like American corporate overlords play the stock market minus the bi-partisan bailouts.