CHICAGO – When the NBA decided to institute a lottery system in 1985 to determine the order of itsSonju draft, Norm Sonju was not a fan.

At the time, Sonju was the co-founder and president of the Dallas Mavericks. And before ’85, the NBA used the flip of a coin — between the teams with the worst record in the Western and Eastern Conference — to determine the top two picks in the draft. The remaining teams took their respective draft place in inverse order of their regular-season records.

But since the Mavs had executed trades with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 1980 that would give them the Cavs’ first-round picks in 1985 and ’86 – in addition to the first-rounders they got from Cleveland in ’83 and ’84 – Sonju was counting on the Mavs having a pre-lottery bumper crop thanks to the Cavs.

At an NBA Board of Governors meeting in Salt Lake City, Sonju said the change from the coin flip to the lottery was presented and: “Norm was not a happy camper. I was absolutely besides myself. I remember (Phoenix Suns executive) Jerry Colangelo taking me outside down by a river and just counseling me not to get a heart attack over it because it’s a decision the NBA is going to make and it’s just best I go along with it like I like it, but at least don’t let it give you a heart attack. And that was good advice.

“Remember, when we made the trades with Cleveland (in 1980) it was based upon the NBA at that time. Never did I expect them to change the rules before we got all of our picks out. If they would have started (the lottery) the year after our picks, I wouldn’t have said nearly as much. Anyway, everyone knew I was furious with the decision. Once it’s made, there’s nothing you can do but just back it and support it and go on to the next day. But it was tough, and I’ll be honest with you, I really struggled with that.”

It wasn’t just the change to the draft system that Sonju struggled with. In back-to-back years in 1983 and ’84, the fortunes of the Houston Rockets’ franchise changed dramatically when they won the coin flips and selected centers Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon, respectively, after the Rockets had the worst record in the Western Conference in consecutive seasons.

But when the Mavs had the third-worst record in a season where Shaquille O’Neal, Alonzo Mourning and Christian Laettner were the top three picks, the lottery balls bounced the Mavs into the No. 4 position where they selected guard Jim Jackson. And when the Mavs had the worst record in the entire NBA in the 1992-93 season at 11-71, the Mavs fell to the No. 4 slot again and selected Jamal Mashburn after Chris Webber, Shawn Bradley and Penny Hardaway were the top three picks.

The Mavs also had the league’s worst record in the 1993-94 season and wound up with the No. 2 overall pick. The Milwaukee Bucks won the draft lottery in ’94 and chose Glenn “Big Dog” Robinson with the No. 1 overall selection, and the Mavs nabbed Jason Kidd with the second pick.

“Think of how history would have changed if Shaq or Mourning would have come to the Mavs,” said Rick Sund, who was the Mavs’ general Sundmanager from 1979-92. “The Dallas Mavericks history would be completely different.”

Sonju echoed that sentiment, then added: “We had a record of 11-71 and our odds were 16.67%. (of getting the top pick). But Orlando had a 41-41 record. (Orlando) should have been 11th in the lottery that year, but they ended up winning even though their odds (of securing the No. 1 pick) were 1.52%.”

In the lottery’s inaugural year in ‘85, the New York Knicks won it and drafted center Patrick Ewing No. 1 overall. And as this year’s lottery is set to take place Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the McCormick Place, the buzz is about who will win it and ultimately draft France’s Victor Wembanyama, a 7-4 center with Kevin Durant-type talent and who also is expected to be a generational player.

The Mavs have a three percent chance of winning this year’s lottery, a 3.3 percent chance of getting the second pick, a 3.6 percent chance of landing in the third position, a four percent chance of finishing fourth and a 65.9 chance of nabbing the No. 10 spot. If the Mavs land outside of the Top 10, their first-round pick will go to the Knicks as part of the compensation for the 2019 trade which brought Kristaps Porzingis to Dallas.

The Detroit Pistons, Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs each have the highest percentage – 14 percent – of winning this year’s lottery. The Pistons won the lottery in 2021 and grabbed Arlington native Cade Cunningham, and the Spurs landed the No. 1 pick in 1987 and ’97 and snatched both David Robinson and Tim Duncan, respectively.

But the Rockets additionally took things to another level when they first grabbed generational center Moses Malone in a 1976 trade with the Buffalo Braves following the NBA-ABA merger. The Rockets then won those coin flips which enabled them to draft Sampson and Olajuwon No. 1 overall in ’83 and ’84, respectively. And on top of that, the Rockets won the 2002 draft lottery and selected generational center Yao Ming No.1 overall.

“Houston got Moses Malone, they got Sampson, they got Olajuwon and they got Yao Ming,” Sund said. “Those are four Hall of Fame centers – three of them drafted No. 1. That’s why I say if Houston gets Wembanyama, then God is a Houston Rockets fan.Sund

“There isn’t an NBA team that wouldn’t have taken Sampson first, Olajuwon number one or Yao Ming number one. And you also ended up with Moses Malone somewhere along the line.”


The Mavs won a coin flip with the Pistons in 1981 and took Mark Aguirre No. 1 overall while Detroit chose Isiah Thomas with the second draft pick. Fast-forward 42 years later, the Mavs would like nothing better than to have a little more luck on their side so they can draft the franchise’s first-ever generational center.

Meanwhile, Sonju has retired and said he doesn’t keep up with the inner-workings of the draft lottery anymore.

“I honestly think what (the NBA) have done is just done everything they could, I think, to weaken the worst teams with the worst records,” he said. “The theory is so that teams don’t lose (games) on purpose to get a chance to win the first pick.

“I understand the big picture, I understand why the NBA was going in that direction. It still doesn’t change the fact that when we had the worst record in basketball, it’s embarrassing enough to have a bad record. But then to have your chances (of getting the No. 1 overall draft pick) squashed because of rule changes, that was a little tough to handle.”

Twitter: @DwainPrice

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