NBA Draft Lottery 2019: Conspiracy theories that make us wonder if the lottery is rigged

The NBA's annual draft lottery was held Tuesday night, and it looks like this year's top prize, Zion Williamson, could be going to the Pelicans.

New Orleans came away with the top pick in a wild lottery that featured several teams hopping up the board to get into the top four. The Pelicans only had a six percent chance of ending up in that top spot but they defied the odds and now hold the right to select first. The Lakers and Grizzlies also jumped into the top four. 

Coming into the draft, the New York KnicksCleveland Cavaliers and Phoenix Suns all had the best odds at landing No. 1, with each of them holding a 14 percent shot at picking first overall. The Knicks will pick third, the Cavs will pick fifth and the Suns will pick sixth.

Of course, the lottery is put in place to give each of the 14 teams that didn't make the playoffs a shot at landing that first pick. A worse record brings more likely odds to land in the top spot. But what if the NBA had a say in who won? What if they wanted the stars to align perfectly for the best possible outcome from the league's perspective?

If that was the case this year, Zion probably would have been gifted to the Knicks, who are in desperate need of a superstar to end their era of misery. Many conspiracy theorists expected New York to win the lottery not only because they had top odds, but also because they're a huge market that would be able to maximize Zion's star power.

With New Orleans winning, it seems unlikely that fans will cry foul and claim that the league rigged the draft. If anything, fans might raise their eyebrows over the large leap the Lakers made, but this year's draw doesn't exactly stink of corruption. 

However, there have been some rather peculiar circumstances surrounding certain lottery wins over the past couple of decades, enough to lead many to wonder if league intervention wasn't involved. Let's revisit some of the most popular conspiracy theories regarding the lottery in years past.

The bent/frozen envelope

The draft lottery has evolved over the years. Before 1985, the league used to decide the top overall pick by holding a competitive coin flip with the worst team in each conference. But the first lottery drawing was held in 1985 and it didn't take long for controversy and conspiracy to show up. 

Patrick Ewing was the consensus coveted prize in that '85 draft class, as he was pretty much guaranteed to be a superstar coming out of Georgetown. Wouldn't it be nice if that superstar went to a big market team like the Knicks to help boost the league's overall marketability? Pretty ideal!

As it turns out, the Knicks did win the lottery and select Ewing first overall, and some people think the league helped set it up.

The draft lottery was a much less refined ordeal in its inaugural year, as it literally consisted of seven team cards getting thrown inside a big orb, which then was spun around a handful of times before the cards were drawn to determine draft order. Like I said, not exactly a perfect science. 

When David Stern selected the Knicks' envelope as the top overall pick, people noticed that the corner of the card was bent, possibly as an indicator of which card to select. 

Then again, it also seems likely the corner could have been bent from the extremely amateur "bingo night" process of shuffling of the cards, but that hasn't stopped scores of conspiracy theorists from accusing the league of gift wrapping Ewing to the Knicks. 

Another wild conspiracy theory claims that the league froze the Knicks draft card before the lottery so that Stern would be able to identify the New York envelope by touch.

Even if neither of these things actually happened, the league was probably happy to see Ewing go to New York, where he helped revitalize the basketball scene. But if they did actually rig the lottery, karma may have helped even things out and prevented the Knicks from winning a title with the big man.

The local King

The 2003 NBA Draft featured one LeBron James at the head of the class. James was one of the most hyped high school players ever and he had a chance to end up with his hometown team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, with the first overall pick. The Cavs finished tied with the Nuggets for the league's worst record in 2002-03, giving Denver and Cleveland an equal shot to score the top pick.

If the league had to pick a side on this one, you would imagine that they would land on the side of Cleveland in about a nanosecond. James to Cleveland was always the most compelling scenario considering he grew up in Akron and seemed to take a lot of pride in that. The prodigal son getting to stay at home and wear the hometown colors while attempting to deliver a championship to a success-starved market? That's a pretty damn good story! And wouldn't you know it -- the Cavs won the lottery, selected the local superstar and instantly became relevant again!

It was perfect ... maybe a little too perfect?

Luckily for Denver, it lucked into a pretty solid consolation prize in Carmelo Anthony despite getting the No. 3 pick. As far as I'm aware, there's no conspiracy theory as to why the Pistons goofed up by selecting Darko Milicic with the second overall pick that year.

LeBron James poses
Jennifer Pottheiser

Homegrown Rose

Much in the same vein as Cleveland winning the lottery and landing LeBron, the Chicago Bulls lucked into the opportunity to draft local kid Derrick Rose. The point guard was a standout at Memphis and looked to like a potential superstar talent but the Bulls, who finished with the ninth-worst record in the league, had less than a two-percent chance of winning the lottery.

But by some convenient stroke of "luck" the Bulls did end up with the top selection and were able to bring Rose home. He immediately became the face of the franchise and the biggest Bulls superstar in the Post-Jordan Era. Unfortunately, they couldn't quite figure out how to successfully rig his knees. 

The post-LeBron Cavaliers

What's better than one Cavs draft being rigged for LeBron? How about SEVERAL?

After James took his talents to South Beach to become an NBA villain, the Cavaliers were left scrambling to pick up the pieces. Their inability to put a solid team around James really shined through when he left and the Cavs quickly sank to the bottom of the league. In their first season following James' departure, they headed into the 2011 lottery with both the second- and eighth-best odds to land the top pick and officially start their rebuild in James' wake. 

Not only did they win the lottery that year, they did it with the pick that had the worse odds (that pick, which had less than a two percent chance of winning the draw, originally belonged to the Clippers). This allowed the Cavs to select first and fourth in the draft, and they ultimately drafted Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson with those picks. The rebuild was on!

Unfortunately, things didn't exactly turn around swiftly and the Cavs found themselves still playing the lottery balls over the next couple of years. Amazingly, they won again in 2013 and drafted Anthony Bennett, which was such a poor decision that it eventually inspired this amazing tongue-in-cheek song. 

When Bennett didn't pan out, the Cavs went on to win the lottery AGAIN in 2014, which conveniently provided them with a valuable chip to lure James back to Cleveland in free agency (the top pick was used to select Andrew Wiggins, who was then traded to the Timberwolves in exchange for Kevin Love).

A conspiracy theorist may point out that the draft lottery conveniently gifted the Cavs every possible opportunity to rebound from losing LeBron and, ultimately, maximizing their odds at bringing him back.

Stern secures A.D.

You might recall that the franchise now known as the New Orleans Pelicans had some tumultuous years not long ago. They temporarily had to relocate to Oklahoma City in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, then their owner sold the team to the NBA amid controversy in 2010. While the league was operating the franchise, they traded their best player, Chris Paul, and things were looking quite bleak. The value of the team wasn't looking so hot. 

But the NBA found a new owner in Tom Benson, who decided to rebrand the team as the Pelicans. With that rebrand, he also needed a new star to market the team around. Unibrowed big man Anthony Davis looked to be a great candidate for that role coming out of Kentucky, but New Orleans only had the fourth-best odds (13.7 percent chance) of getting the top overall pick. 

Turns out, that was good enough. The Pelicans got the top pick and their shiny new star. Wow! How nice!

Was it a convenient stroke of beginner's luck for Benson or was it perhaps a handshake, wink-wink provision of him buying the team from the league just months earlier? Hmmm ...

Similarly, the Orlando Magic won back-to-back draft lotteries in the early '90s after the team was sold. The first gave them Shaquille O'Neal, while the second win came when they entered the lottery with the worst odds (1.7 percent) at nabbing the top pick.

The Mutombo tweet

The mid-Process 76ers finished as the league's worst team in 2016 and had the best odds to win the lottery, so it's hard to yell "CONSPIRACY!" when they actually did wind up on the top of the selection board. However, a tweet from Dikembe Mutombo that prematurely congratulated the team on winning the top pick before the lottery led many to wonder if something wasn't afoot. 

The bad news for those conspiracy theorists is that Mutombo had a pretty damn good explanation for his early congratulations. The team asked Mutombo -- a former 76ers star -- to consider posting a tweet if they happened to win the lottery later that night. He claimed that he didn't read the email closely enough and accidentally congratulated the team too early. A pretty relatable explanation for those of us who hate reading work emails.

Pete Blackburn is from Boston, so there's a good chance you don't like him already. He has been a writer at CBS Sports since 2017 and usually aims to take a humorous and light-hearted approach to the often... Full Bio

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