FROM MY SEAT: Lottery Lore 

Tuesday -- May 22, 2007, for the historians -- is merely the biggest day in Memphis Grizzlies history. And before you chuckle at the most significant point on a timeline that measures but six years (12 if you count the franchise’s Vancouver days), the date will remain the biggest for at least the next decade, the lone possible exception being an NBA championship-clinching victory. And such an achievement would depend largely on, yes, the events of May 22, 2007.

Should the Grizzlies gain the first or second selection in June’s draft, the good folks at FedExForum can begin mass-producing the Greg Oden or Kevin Durant replica jerseys, but only after they’ve exhausted their sales staff with new season-ticket packages. On the other hand, should the fates conspire and leave the Grizzlies with the third (or at worst, fourth) pick, you can count on plenty of elbow room at the Forum for years (decades?) to come. It’s THAT big a day. The occasion seems right to look back at the history of the NBA draft lottery, more specifically at the fruit picked from the lottery tree since it was instituted in 1985 (first lottery pick: New York’s Patrick Ewing). Here’s one view on the five strongest drafts in the lottery era, based on the first three picks.

1992 -- (1) Shaquille O’Neal, Orlando; (2) Alonzo Mourning, Charlotte; (3) Christian Laettner, Minnesota. There’s some irony to this trio, in that the player who was honored with inclusion on the original Olympic Dream Team -- Laettner ­ turned out to be a journeyman as a pro, his finest days still those NCAA tournament highlights from Duke. O’Neal and Mourning have been two of the best centers of the last quarter-century (and teammates for the 2006 NBA champion Miami Heat). The only big men to rival O’Neal’s achievements (four championships, eight times first-team All-NBA, three Finals MVP trophies) are Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Mourning is a two-time Defensive Player of the Year.

1993 -- (1) Chris Webber, Orlando; (2) Shawn Bradley, Philadelphia; (3) Penny Hardaway, Golden State. The Magic and Warriors traded their draft picks within minutes of making their selections (begging the question how a Philadelphia team seemingly desperate to draft Webber could fall for the Bradley illusion). As the highest University of Memphis draftee in history, Hardaway earned All-NBA honors three times and was the point guard for Orlando’s Eastern Conference champions in 1994-95. Webber earned Rookie of the Year honors in 1993-94, only to have a falling out with once and future Golden State coach Don Nelson. He also achieved All-NBA status and was the central figure for four straight 50-win teams in Sacramento. As for Bradley, he spent most of his 12-year career with Dallas, where he was a 7’6” role-playing center who could barely dunk.

1994 -- (1) Glenn Robinson, Milwaukee; (2) Jason Kidd, Dallas; (3) Grant Hill, Detroit. Kidd and Hill actually tied for the 1994-95 Rookie of the Year award. Robinson made this a trio of future All-Stars, averaging a career high of 23.4 points per game in 1997-98 and leading the Bucks to the Eastern Conference finals in 2001. Kidd has been named first-team All-NBA five times, led New Jersey to the Finals in 2002 and 2003 and is a lock for the Hall of Fame. Were it not for a series of ankle injuries, Hill would also be destined for Springfield. He was first-team All-NBA once and second-team four times.

1997 -- (1) Tim Duncan, San Antonio; (2) Keith Van Horn, New Jersey; (3) Chauncey Billups, Boston. This trio has combined for seven trips to the NBA Finals and has won four championships. A two-time MVP, Duncan is already in the conversation about the best big man in NBA history. Billups realized a career rebirth in Detroit, where he was the playmaker for one of the biggest upsets in the history of the Finals (Pistons 4, Lakers 1 in 2004). Van Horn was a fine shooter who played a big part for the 2002 Eastern champion New Jersey Nets and a smaller role for the 2006 Western champion Dallas Mavericks.

2003 -- (1) LeBron James, Cleveland; (2) Darko Milicic, Detroit; (3) Carmelo Anthony, Denver. Detroit’s misguided selection of Milicic over Anthony (not to mention Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, who went fourth and fifth, respectively) is right up there with Portland passing on Michael Jordan in 1984 to draft Sam Bowie. But with a pair of franchise players in the first and third slots, this draft set a new tone for a league that had just seen Jordan finally retire for good. Milicic picked up a championship ring with the 2004 Pistons despite playing in only 34 games. James has his Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference finals for the first time in 15 years.

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