The NBA Draft Lottery takes place tonight. Complete and total luck will potentially determine the future of the 14 teams with ping pong balls in play.
But before the lottery was instituted in 1985, settling ties came down to a coin flip and that was that.
It nearly came to that in 1984 when, had either a contested play gone the other way or another franchise helped out, Michael Jordan’s NBA future could have been decided by whether the Dallas Mavericks called heads or tails.
The year was 1980, and the brand-new Mavs had yet to play a single game in the NBA. Cleveland Cavaliers general manager Don Delaney and owner Ted Stepien were trade-happy, and that might even be an understatement. On Sept. 16, the Cavs traded their 1984 first-round pick to the Mavericks in exchange for point guard Mike Bratz, whom the Mavs had acquired via the expansion draft just four months earlier. Bratz would play one season in Cleveland before being traded for a third-rounder.
We’ll get back to that 1984 pick.
Over the course of the next five months — yes, five months — the Mavericks would also acquire Cleveland’s 1983, 1985, and 1986 first-round picks in two separate trades.
First, on Oct. 30, Dallas acquired the 1983 pick (which would become Derek Harper) and 1986 pick (Roy Tarpley) in exchange for Richard Washington and Jerome Whitehead.
On Feb. 7, 1981, the Mavs acquired the Cavs’ 1985 pick (which would become Detlef Schrempf) for Geoff Houston. As a result of the Cleveland organization’s excessive trading — Cleveland also traded away what became the first overall pick in the 1982 Draft, which turned into James Worthy — the NBA would later institute what’s known as “the Stepien rule,” which prevents teams from trading away future first-round picks in successive seasons.
But back to 1984.
At the time the Mavericks were an upstart, rising team, featuring Rolando Blackman, Mark Aguirre, Brad Davis, and Harper, among other players. Cleveland, meanwhile, toiled from the beginning, falling to 8-21 by Christmas. On March 18, 1984, the 23-43 Cavs lost to the 25-41 Chicago Bulls in overtime. The Bulls would win just one more game that entire season, nearly losing out as the team’s draft position rose higher and higher. The talent pool in 1984 was maybe deeper than ever, with Hakeem Olajuwon, Jordan, Sam Bowie, Charles Barkley, and North Carolina’s Sam Perkins at the top of the board, just to name a few.
On the last night of the season, the Bulls lost to the Philadelphia 76ers to finish the season 27-55. Meanwhile, the Cavs upset the Washington Bullets on the road to win and finish the season with a 28-54 record. Had the Cavaliers lost, the third overall pick would have come down to a coin toss.
Interestingly enough, the Houston Rockets (29-53) actually finished with a better record than Cleveland, but because the Rockets were last place in the Western Conference, they entered a coin toss with the East’s last-place Indiana Pacers (whose pick was owed to Portland), with the winner getting the No. 1 overall pick. The NBA no longer does it this way, as it now disregards conference affiliation when determining the lottery odds.
Another stroke of luck went Chicago’s way earlier in the season. Bulls.com’s legendary Sam Smith reported in 2014 that the Bulls actually protested the result of a December game against the Rockets that season, as Houston’s Caldwell Jones nailed a 3-pointer as time expired in regulation to force overtime. Chicago felt he didn’t get the shot off before the buzzer, but there was no replay review in those days so the two teams played on, with Houston eventually winning in overtime. Despite the team’s protest, the NBA refused to overturn the referees’ ruling. Had the Bulls won that game, however, they could have finished with the same record as the Cavaliers.
Had either of those events gone the Mavs’ way, Dallas could have potentially landed the No. 3 overall pick in the 1984 Draft and almost surely would have drafted Jordan. It was known at the time that the Mavericks front office coveted the North Carolina standout, and adding him to a stable of wings alongside Blackman, Aguirre, and Jay Vincent — not to mention adding two more future first-round prospects via Cleveland — could have turned the young Mavericks into a Western Conference powerhouse. Instead, Dallas selected Jordan’s college teammate, Perkins, who averaged 14.4 points and 8.0 rebounds in six seasons with the Mavs and went on to score more than 15,000 points and appear in three NBA Finals in a terrific career. Just not as terrific as Jordan’s, of course. (One of Perkins’ trips to the Finals came with the Indiana Pacers, who Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle worked for as an assistant at the time. Carlisle was also drafted in 1984.)
The Mavs would advance to five of the next six postseasons, including taking the eventual champion Lakers to a seventh game in the 1988 Western Conference Finals. Following the 1989-90 season, however, the Mavericks would begin a rebuild while Jordan and the Bulls quickly formed a dynasty. It would be eight years before the rebuild would be complete as Dallas acquired Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash, the same summer Jordan won his sixth and final NBA championship. There’s no telling what would have happened in Dallas had Jordan been a Maverick, or how much success the team would or would not have enjoyed. It’s pure speculation.
That said, it’s awfully fun to think about what could have been, isn’t it? That’s what the NBA Draft is all about. And that’s what makes the lottery such a thrill for on-the-rise franchises or those who made savvy trades to earn higher odds. Once you’re there, anything can happen. In more recent seasons, fortune brought Derrick Rose to Chicago, Anthony Davis to New Orleans, and Kyrie Irving to those Cleveland Cavaliers — to whom the Mavericks would owe a great deal had they lost just one more game 32 years ago.