The history of the NBA is filled with small changes that have made re-shaped the game, both on and off the court.
The introduction of the 24-second shot clock in 1954, the rule for a player to leave the court if they are bleeding (1992), no matter how small the open wound…. or the incorporation of a third referee in 1978 with equal responsibility and power in the game in order to remove any blind spots.
All these modifications, introductions and changes (among many others) greatly impact the development of the game. These are the decisions that impact the off-court discussion, which dictates the narrative around the game.
MORE: What previous Drafts can tell us about the 2020 Class
When David Stern was named Commissioner of the NBA in February of 1984, a few other executive structures within the NBA would undergo a renovation and, in some cases, a complete remodel. As the new Commissioner, he wasn’t completely unaware of the business and its competitions.
In fact, since 1970, he had been in indirect contact with the league offices in New York representing the NBA in different legal disputes while working for the law firm – Proskauer, Rose, Goetz & Mendelsohn – in cases such as the NBA-ABA merger or the negotiation with the NBPA for the creation of Free Agency.
In 1978, Stern would leave Proskauer, Rose, Goetz & Mendelsohn to become the league’s General Counsel under Commissioner Larry O’Brien. A couple of years later, he was promoted to the Executive Vice President for business and legal affairs, before replacing O’Brien in 1984.
Through a series of ideas over the years, he would revolutionise the league to what we know of it now. One of his most impactful changes came in the first year of his term as Commissioner, one that affected both the game (Playoff format) and team-building process (The Draft).
On May 12, 1985, one of those first changes materialised with the new lottery system. The NBA Draft would go from being an endless day dedicated to the executives and scouts of the franchises to a televised event, where players, who aspire to start their career in the best league in the world, are analysed with a magnifying glass.
Coin Toss: The previous system
From the second season of the NBA under the initials of the BAA in 1947, teams would pick in the reverse order of their win-loss record. However, a special system of territorial picks allowed a franchise to chose a native player from its area (e.g. Wilt Chamberlain in Philadelphia or Tommy Heinsohn in Boston). This system prevented any franchise, that was exercising its territorial choice, from being able to choose any other player in the first round.
This format, designed to increase the fan interest in the team markets, would remain in force until 1965. It would be scrapped following the introduction of a new model that would last from 1966 to 1984.
Known as the coin flip, this system tried to benefit teams with the worst record from both divisions or conferences and was based, simply, on tossing a coin. The team that won the coin flip picked first while the other picked second.
The rest of the Draft order was assigned among those teams that had been left out of the Playoffs, using their record of wins and losses as a reference. It was a simple system designed to benefit the rebuilding teams that were going through a losing spell.
At that time, the Houston Rockets were the team that won the number 1 pick the most number of times (1968, 1976, 1983, and 1984), and the first, the New York Knicks.
The Gap: Houston Rockets
The main reason why Stern advocated a change was the Houston Rockets, who after picking first overall in the Draft (1983, 1984) for two years in a row, were being accused of deliberately losing for a shot at picking first overall.
Between 1978 and 1982, the Rockets made it to every postseason, winning more than half of their games in most of those seasons and even made it to the NBA Finals in 1981. But in 1983, they would pick Ralph Sampson, after they were the bottom of the standings at the end of the 1983 season… and the 7″4′ center’s impact was immediate.
In February of the prior year, they were 8-37, in February of 1984, the Rockets were 20-26. However, they made no attempt to improve their performance, losing 27 of the remaining 36 games and went on to pick Hakeem Olajuwon with the number one overall pick.
The Rockets’ tailspin, which was seemed to be a clear adulteration of the system, created tension among the owners after the 1984 Draft night. That forced Stern to change things.
“The talk of the meeting is this Houston nosedive, and even though the coverage then is far from what it is today, what Houston did was enough of an eyesore for the NBA that they jumped to action – they did not put together a task force, they did not have a long, drawn-out period of careful consideration,” 76ers general manager Pat Williams told Sporting News.
“In that owners meeting, they said, ‘That’s it, no more coin flips. We are going to institute a draft lottery.’ They could not afford another Houston dump. That was it, it was instituted immediately.”
In order to stop teams from repeatedly ending the regular season’s competitive spirit like the Rockets did, the NBA took a step forward and adopted a new Draft system.
New Horizon: The Lottery
For the 1985 edition of the Draft, a Lottery system would be adopted whereby every non-Playoff team had an equal chance to receive the number 1 overall pick. The system involved envelopes, which were inserted into a giant drum with each symbolising a franchise with its respective logo.
Envelopes would be picked one at a time until only one remained and the team whose logo would be on that envelope would receive the number 1 overall pick. The rest of the first-round picks would be determined in reverse order of the win-loss record.
This new format would undergo some modifications with the original style only maintained in 1985 and 1986. The following year it was modified so that only the first three picks were chosen through the Lottery, the rest being allocated in the reverse order of their win-loss records.
This ensured that the team with the worst record would drop to a maximum of the fourth pick if they did not enter the Lottery. Thus, guaranteeing certain equality between those who did not enter the postseason.
Progressively, the system would be modified until 1990, when the teams outside the Playoffs were assigned a series of possibilities, with their names on balls, depending on their record. The more losses, the increased possibility of picking 1st in the NBA Draft.
The Beginning: The 1985 Draft
Everything was set for the new format to begin on the night of May 12, 1985. Seven non-playoff teams were in the fight for the first pick – the Atlanta Hawks, New York Knicks, Indiana Pacers, Kansas City Kings, Seattle SuperSonics, Los Angeles Clippers, and Golden State Warriors.
Picking first meant picking Patrick Ewing – one of the most promising prospects out of college, a 7-foot center from Georgetown University, born in Jamaica, who was set to dominate the NBA in the coming years.
No coin flips. Each team had a 14.3% chance of acquiring the pick. The Hawks had won just 41.5% of their games while the Warriors and Pacers had won 26.8% of their games, but everything depended on the envelope that would be removed from the giant drum.
The NBA and representatives from each franchise would be the main stars of a nationally televised event on the 18th floor of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York. Sten’s plan to give special relevance to the Draft was taking shape.
The Draft Lottery was televised at the halftime break of Game 1 of the 1985 Eastern Conference Finals between the Larry Bird-led Boston Celtics and the Julius Erving-led Philadelphia 76ers.
To ensure transparency during the process, in addition to being televised, the envelopes would be carried by the representatives of the law firm Ernst & Whinney. All envelopes were identical and would be inserted into a transparent drum devised by Rick Welts (then a young executive of the league), who is currently the President and Chief Operating Officer of the Golden State Warriors.
The problem is that, of course, the quadrangular envelopes do not move in the same way in a sphere that, say, a small ball would – an idea that was discarded for the fear that while opening the drum several of them would go out into the air.
With more than a hundred accredited media, the room would close an hour before the draw began and the tension was felt in the air. “It was very, very tense,” says Pat O’Brien, host of CBS. “I’ve been in courtrooms and murder trials that weren’t that tense.”
With all the envelopes in the pot, Jack Joyce, NBA safety director, spun the pot five times and David Stern picked out the first envelope and announced: “The seventh pick in the 1985 Draft goes to the Golden State Warriors!”.
The process would continue with the next four teams called out being the Kings, Hawks, Sonics and Clippers – leaving only two teams – the Knicks and Pacers. The moment Stern announced that the second pick would go to the Indiana Pacers, there was a huge commotion from those present – press and the team executives.
One of the Pacers’ owners, Herb Simon, got up and immediately sat down while Knicks manager Dave DeBusschere hit the table so hard that Brian McIntyre, the Bulls’ Chief Marketing Officer at the time, said he thought he was going to break it.
“Basketball is back in New York City,” the CBS presenter would cheerfully comment in a phrase that would sum up that evening perfectly. The Knicks took No.1 and most importantly: Patrick Ewing.
The Big Apple project finally had a pillar on which to grow.
A change for the better
That event would demonstrate several things.
The first is that in the NBA, large markets end up being the engine of the league’s economy, since in the two hours following the draw, the Madison Square Garden sales offices received more than 1,000 calls to reserve season passes and tickets for the next season.
The second being the decision to make the new format transparent and expose it to the eyes of the entire country during one of the most important games of the year had aroused interest in a day that, in the past, was nothing more than a meeting between the executives without major significance.
The event had high peaks in the television audience that night and served as an incentive to bet on the format.
“We are very happy with the Lottery, ” Stern told reporters. “The interest was great. People talk about the Lottery instead of drugs, unauthorised franchise movements or anything else negative,” said the Commissioner. “
McManis told Sports Illustrated. “Stern was a genius. It was a great theater.”
Third and finally, you can’t talk about the 1985 Lottery without the conspiracy theory that the league would have tampered so that the Knicks, the most powerful team on the market present there, get hold of the best player and thus relaunch their franchise.
“It’s crazy, it’s ridiculous,” Stern told the New York Times in 2012. “If people want to believe that the Lottery was corrected, that’s fine,” he said on another occasion. “As long as they spell our name correctly. That means they are interested in us. That’s fantastic,” he added with his characteristic irony.
Altering the lottery would not make sense for the NBA since it’s mission is to ensure fair competition among all the franchises. In fact, the Commissioner’s position is sanctioned by the rest of the team owners, so benefitting one would have only aroused the animosity of the other 22 franchises.
Given the tension surrounding the event, the NBA was risking its prestige. The reality is that the Lottery and its media exposure, as an event, is of tremendous importance and value to the league and its calendar to mark the beginning (or the end) of a normal season.
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