Why the Knicks Still Owe the NBA Lottery

May 20, 2015 Updated: May 20, 2015

The New York Knicks lost again Tuesday night when the team with the second-best chance to win the lottery somehow ended up with the fourth pick. The poor lottery position is actually the fitting ending to a very disappointing season, yet they probably deserve it after being treated well previously by the luck-based process.

The team run by former Knicks player Phil Jackson, which finished with a 17–65 record, will likely miss out on selecting highly touted centers Karl-Anthony Towns or Jahlil Okafor as they look to quickly rebuild around star forward Carmelo Anthony. (Fortunately, long-suffering Knicks fans took the news in stride, as evidenced by their hilarious twitter reactions.)

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Lakers—who had the fourth-best odds—moved up two spots from their projected draft position and wound up with the second overall pick.

But anyone feeling robbed about the Knicks lottery fortunes need only look back at the first lottery to realize that, all in all, it’s still treated them well—maybe too well.

Thirty years ago, the league debuted its draft lottery as a way to discourage teams from losing on purpose, in order to grab the first pick. So while the NFL and Major League Baseball have the team with the worst record choosing first in the next year’s draft, the NBA wanted to throw some doubt into any team eyeing an easy way to get the next big thing.

That first lottery (in 1985) was no ordinary event though—the stakes were higher than normal. Georgetown star Patrick Ewing—a projected franchise center—was the main prize and every team wanted him.

But it was a critical time for the league.

Unlike the thriving NFL or Major League Baseball, the NBA was not very well established 30 years ago. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird had started to drum up significant interest and Michael Jordan was just entering the league, but they weren’t there yet.

Teams were losing money and in need of media write (imagine that) so much so that the NBA actually paid USA Network $40,000 to air the draft—it actually ran on a weekday afternoon that summer.

But with another supposed superstar on the horizon—Ewing—it was thought, around the league, that if he went to some low-profile franchise (like Indiana) it wouldn’t do the league much good. Especially if the media-centric New York Knicks—which played their games in the world-famous Madison Square Garden—were in need of a star.

So when the Knicks won the lottery that year and went on to take Ewing first overall, conspiracy theories ran rampant—and unlike Deflategate, they had more than circumstantial evidence.

In that first lotto event, the NBA wasn’t sure how to make the whole process completely transparent. They put a bunch of envelopes in a clear plastic bin, spun it around a few times, and then commissioner David Stern reach in and pulled out the winner—the Knicks. Only when Stern went to pick out an envelope, instead of pulling out the first one he touched, he dug around for a second and pulled out the one with a damaged corner—it just so happened to be the Knicks one. And the rest is history.

But don’t expect any more favors from the NBA anytime soon as the drawing is out of the commissioner’s hands—literally. Pingpong balls now determine the NBA’s fate.