CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Wednesday could be the most important night in Charlotte Bobcats history.
It could be the first lucky step toward years of title contention. Or it could be a crashing disappointment for fans who just suffered through the worst season, winning percentage-wise, in NBA history.
The 7-59 Bobcats are headed into Wednesday's annual draft lottery with a 25 percent chance at the No. 1 pick. Kentucky big man Anthony Davis is a prohibitive favorite to be the player the Bobcats or any other team would select. The Bobcats have the best odds, but only three times since the lottery was created in 1985 has the team with the worst record received the top pick.
As prominent sports agent David Falk recently told the Charlotte Observer, this is a one-player draft where the difference between picks 2-8 might be "minuscule." So lucking into Davis - the best shot-blocker in recent memory and an emerging offensive star - would be a huge boost to the Bobcats' hopes.
They are guaranteed no worse than the fourth pick in the weighted process. Players worthy of consideration with picks 2-4 include Kansas forward Thomas Robinson, Kentucky forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Connecticut center Andre Drummond, and wing shooters Harrison Barnes of North Carolina and Bradley Beal of Florida.
Rare as it is that the worst team receives the first pick, the rewards can be massive: The last two examples were LeBron James going to the Cleveland Cavaliers and Dwight Howard going to the Orlando Magic. While James eventually left for Miami and Howard might be ticketed out of Orlando, each player led his team to an NBA Final and headlined years of playoff appearances.
Then there are counter-examples, where a team jumping one, two or even nine spots in the order can dramatically change an individual franchise or even the league at large.
Five cases where the lottery changed NBA history:
2008 - The Bulls hit the jackpot
The Chicago Bulls weren't close to the worst team in the league in the 2007-08 season. Their 33-49 record more than doubled the win total of the Miami Heat, who went 15-67. Seven other teams had records inferior to the Bulls.
And yet the Bulls beat absurd odds to jump from ninth to first in the draft order. Under the weighting system the NBA has used since 1994, Chicago had just a 1.7 percent chance at the top pick. They sure picked the right year to get lucky, because the prize of that draft was Memphis point guard Derrick Rose.
Point guard has become the NBA's most coveted position in recent years, with the league strictly enforcing a no-hand check rule in guarding ballhandlers. Rose's dribble-drives become just about unstoppable when you can't push and grab him off the pick-and-roll.
Just three seasons later Rose was named NBA Most Valuable Player. He's the centerpiece of a team that also features Luol Deng, Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer. The Bulls were the top seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs this season, but Rose suffered an anterior cruciate ligament injury that effectively knocked out his team in the first round. Rose could be out a year while rehabilitating from that injury.
1997 - Spurs' future secured, Rick Pitino's scuttled
There was never a question who would be the No. 1 pick that year, just which team would be lucky enough to draft Wake Forest's Tim Duncan.
Duncan was that once-in-a-generation big man that the lottery system is about. The NBA instituted the lottery to ward off public perception a team might tank a season to be in position to draft that one great player.
Back then Rick Pitino was coach of the Boston Celtics and effectively general manager, too. He was counting on getting Duncan, perhaps a little too much. The Celtics had finished the 1996-97 season 15-67. Only one team, the Vancouver Grizzlies, had a worse record at 14-68. And under terms of the NBA's expansion agreement with the Grizzlies and Toronto Raptors, neither team could win the lottery until 1999.
So Pitino figured this was a lock. And then the Spurs - with five more victories than Boston at 20-62 - had the right combination of Ping-Pong balls to leap-frog the Celtics in the lottery for the right to draft Duncan. Two seasons later the Spurs won the first of four championships with Duncan as their star. Pitino's Celtics (who had drafted point guard Chauncey Billups) struggled until he resigned to go back to college ball. He now coaches Louisville.
Duncan was everything scouts anticipated, averaging 20.3 points and 11.3 rebounds in his first 15 seasons. He figures to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
1992 and 1993 - The Hornets and Magic double-dip
OK, technically these are two lotteries, but their time proximity and similarity were so striking they caused the league to change its rule.
One year after winning the lottery and drafting Larry Johnson, the Charlotte Hornets jumped from the No. 8 spot up to No. 2 in the 1992 lottery. That allowed the Hornets to pair Johnson with Georgetown center Alonzo Mourning.
The next year, after using the '92 first pick on Shaquille O'Neal, the Orlando Magic jumped from the No. 11 spot to second in the '93 lottery. The Magic had finished the preceding season 41-41, the best record in the NBA among non-playoff teams. Orlando drafted Chris Webber and traded him to Golden State for a package that included guard Penny Hardaway. Two seasons later the Magic advanced to the NBA Finals before losing to the Houston Rockets.
The coincidence of two teams having such remarkable lottery luck back-to-back resonated with the NBA. Within months the league reworked the lottery rules, giving the league's worst teams extra chances in the weighted process. Because of that change, the worst team now gets a 25 percent chance at the top pick, up from 16.7 percent in 1993.
1987 - Spurs get the right to enlist the Admiral
It's hard to imagine using the No. 1 pick on a player who wouldn't be available for at least two seasons because of a military commitment. But that's how special a talent Navy center David Robinson - "the Admiral" - was.
At 28-54 the Spurs were far from the league's worst team. The Los Angeles Clippers were 12-70 and New York and New Jersey were each 24-58. But it was the Spurs who got the prize in Robinson. There were other good players in 1987 - Scottie Pippen, North Carolina's Kenny Smith and eventual Hornet Armon Gilliam among them. But Robinson, particularly when paired later in his career with Duncan, became an all-time great. They won two championships together. Robinson averaged 21.1 points and 10.6 rebounds in a 14-season career and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2009.
1985 - Ewing to the Big Apple; conspiracy theories all around
This was the first draft lottery, an attempt to mitigate the perception from the previous season that the Houston Rockets had tanked games in 1984 to land center Hakeem Olajuwon.
Georgetown center Patrick Ewing had huge star potential and the New York Knicks - situated in the NBA's largest market - had won just one playoff series in the previous 10 years. So when the Knicks were declared lottery winners, the conspiracy theorists were unleashed.
Over the years this lottery took on an urban legend that the league had frozen the envelope containing the Knicks logo so that commissioner David Stern would know which envelope to grab last, representing the top pick.
That first lottery and the one in 1986 were unweighted and every draft spot outside the playoff participants was up for grabs. Later the league limited the lottery to the first three picks and began weighting the process so that the worst teams had the best chance to stay in the top three.