It seems fitting that as the 45th anniversary of the drafting of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar draws near, the Milwaukee Bucks were the subject of another potential franchise changing pre-draft process Tuesday night at the NBA Draft Lottery, when they were awarded second pick in the upcoming NBA Draft.
In 1969, the Bucks "won" the right to draft the center out of UCLA thanks to a coin flip, leaving the Phoenix Suns to draft second and take Neal Walk.
After all these years, that still stings those in Arizona. Former Suns owner Jerry Colangelo nearly hung up on me when I brought it up in jest during a recent conversation.
That said, the difference between the top two players in this year’s draft – Duke’s Jabari Parker and Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins – is not as stark as it was in 1969.
"It feels good," Bucks general manager John Hammond said Tuesday night from New York. "It feels good. I think that we’re still dealing very much from a position of strength, where we wanted to be."
At a packed viewing party at Evolution Gastro Pong, Bucks executive vice president, business operations John Steinmiller added: "A top two pick in this draft will get us an excellent player that in five years that may be as good, or better, than a number one. It takes five years to analyze your picks in the draft, particular in the high level, and if you do your research you’ll see a lot of twos, threes and fours have done very well and excelled, sometimes beyond the number one."
But, in light of the fact that the Cleveland Cavaliers beat nearly all the odds (1.7 percent chance) to sneak past the Bucks for the top pick, it’s somewhat ironic that man who helped usher in the lottery era in the three decades ago was the one who won that coin flip for Milwaukee.
Former Bucks owner Ray Patterson not only picked the right side of the coin to draft Abdul-Jabbar, but he did it again in 1983 as the president and general manager of the Houston Rockets when he won the right to take Ralph Sampson. He did it yet again the next year when he won the flip for the right to draft Hakeem Olajuwon.
Because of those back-to-back coin flip victories – and the fact that Houston finished the last two months of the 1983 season 3-22 – the NBA changed its policy of setting its draft order by record (with a coin flip to break ties) to a lottery system. (This was done to prevent "tanking," though that term did not exist then.)
The lottery was born into controversy when the New York Knicks won the ability to take Patrick Ewing in 1985, and the league amended its system in 1987, again in 1990 and then once more prior to 1994 to the current weighted format.
So what did the "weighted" system mean for the Bucks headed into Tuesday night’s drawing?
As the worst team in the league, Milwaukee had 250 out of 1,001 possible combinations for the first pick – the most allowed. Phoenix , the best team in the lottery with 48 wins, had just five combinations. (Wouldn’t it have been something if the Suns jumped all the way in front of the Bucks!?)
In fact, the Bucks were the beneficiary of such fluidity that very first year of the change, as they landed the No. 1 pick despite having the third highest odds. They then selected Glenn Robinson.
In this system, the Bucks could not have picked lower than fourth, but, their odds of picking fourth (35.76 percent) were far better than their odds of landing the No. 1 pick (25 percent).
This is why that in 20 years, the team with best odds had won the top overall pick just twice (Cleveland in 2003; Orlando in 2004).
The lottery does give all 14 teams a chance to win the top spot, but the biggest jump to that spot came in 2008 when the Bulls moved up from the ninth-best odds to first, allowing them to select Derrick Rose in 2008 (the biggest overall move occurred in 1999 when Charlotte went from 13th to third to take Baron Davis).
The Cavaliers matched the Bulls’ leap this year, and it’s the third time in four years they are picking first.
"I think we should talk about Cleveland and getting the number one pick – guys, it is pretty alarming that team in our division has gotten the first pick three of the last four years ," Hammond said. "You talk about the odds of that happening – I don’t know what it’d be. It’s got to be minute. I’m thrilled to be where we’re sitting with the second pick. Would I rather have another team other than Cleveland have gotten that pick? I would definitely say yes to that."
It’s a blessing, in a way, though, having the second pick – perhaps both for Hammond and for the player he selects.
"I think the guy, the player, does come in with less burden on him," Hammond said. "But, we still know we’re going to get a very high quality player and a high quality person and a guy that has a chance to be an all-star in this league, and that’s what we need."
It also relieves a bit of pressure in that potential top three picks Joel Embiid and Dante Exum have already indicated they have little interest in playing for the Bucks. Then there are Marcus Smart, Julius Randle and Noah Vonleh – all good players who would also have been options at No. 4, but they would’ve created a logjam at positions the Bucks currently have filled.
Now, all are no longer concerns.
Instead, the Bucks have all the options. The NBA Draft is on June 26 and the Bucks – who also own three second round picks and marketable veterans to potentially deal – are in a position of strength to wheel and deal on draft night.
"You never know what could present itself on draft night," Hammond said. "Could you ever maybe move up somewhere else into the first round? I’m not saying that’s going to happen but you always try to be prepared for anything."
It’s a good start to a new era of Bucks basketball. Time will tell if it has even half the impact of the draft held 45 years ago.
"With new ownership and a great player coming to us, it’s a great start for our new season, which is tonight," Steinmiller said.
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.