A little more than two weeks ago, way ahead of Tuesday's draft lottery, Los Angeles Lakers coach Luke Walton went on a radio show and said he wasn't worried about the lottery outcome because Magic Johnson, the team's new director of basketball operations, had assured him it would turn out fine.
As we know, more than any other team in the lottery, the Lakers had a whole lot to lose if the capricious bounce of the balls chose to go against them. Had their pick landed outside the top three, the 76ers would receive the selection immediately and the Orlando Magic would get the Los Angeles first-round pick in 2019. If form held, however - the Lakers had the third-worst record this past season - the Sixers would have to wait a year and take what they got then, and the Magic would receive only two future second-round picks.
Those are big stakes. Instead of losing two first-round selections in the space of three years, one of which would have most likely been the fourth or fifth pick in the draft, the price would be a single first-rounder and, depending on how the team improves, maybe one that isn't all that spiffy.
The worse outcome would have been a blow to any franchise trying to rebuild from a 26-56 record, even a team able to sell the glitz of Los Angeles and the tradition of the Lakers to prospective employees. Brave words to his coach aside, that's why Johnson looked decidedly tense on stage Tuesday and why he and general manager Rob Pelinka observed several superstitious rituals earlier in the day and met for a brief prayer session before the drawing itself. This would assume that whatever deity was being addressed had no more pressing business than the crying need for a return of Showtime to our world.
Still, the whole scenario - particularly after the prayers were answered and Lakers moved up a spot and got the second pick in the June 22 draft - started the standard howls that the lottery must have been fixed by the league to facilitate the speedier recovery of one of its most lucrative marquee franchises. I mean, just listen to what Walton said on May 3.
"Magic has already assured me that we're going to get our top-three pick this year, so I'm excited about that. We don't know who the pick is yet, but I was just happy to know we're getting the pick. That's good enough for me," the coach said.
Now, of course this was tongue in cheek. Walton was whistling through the graveyard while wearing a smile, if that is maxillofacially possible. But try convincing some segments of 76ers fandom of that, including many who apparently have email capability and wanted to make sure this deceit was exposed.
Rumors of lottery fixing have been around since the first one in 1985, a decidedly low-tech affair in which seven envelopes were spun in a large plastic drum on stage and commissioner David Stern picked out the winner and then the next six in order. The New York Knicks, which then as now needed a break, got the big prize, which happened to be Georgetown center Patrick Ewing. The howls started quickly, with talk of frozen envelopes and bent corners, and there are people to this day who study the film of that draw and still see the evil hand of the fix. These are not interesting people to meet at a cocktail party, but they persist. (As a good reminder of the precarious nature of the draft itself, there were two Hall of Fame players who emerged from that lottery drum: Ewing, the first pick, and Chris Mullin, who was seventh, taken immediately after Jon Koncak and Joe Kleine.)
First of all, fixing a lottery would be a foolish risk for a league that generates $6 billion in annual revenue and in which, according to Forbes, the average franchise is worth $1.36 billion. They are going to jeopardize the public's faith in the entire enterprise - not to mention the sponsors' - for the sake of Magic Johnson's rebuilding program? Not very likely.
And the way the drawing played out on Tuesday should convince anyone of the randomness of the thing. The first set of four-ball numeric combinations that popped out belonged to Boston. So did the second one, which was tossed. And so did the third, which was also tossed. It wasn't until the fourth time the popcorn machine pushed the balls into the tube that the Lakers' combination came up. If that's a fix, it was a pretty elaborate one.
The other way to know for sure the lottery is legitimate is to remember that the Sixers were never punished for overtly tanking, which the league hated wicked. They held onto top-three picks in 2014 and 2015 despite the antipathy the NBA held for Sam Hinkie's methods. They even got the first pick in 2016, but that was after Adam Silver forced the Sixers to hire every available Colangelo and effectively depose Hinkie, so maybe that shouldn't count.
In other words, though, forget the fix. Didn't happen. Never does. If the league wanted to conspire against the 76ers, it wouldn't have waited this long.