Lakers GM on draft lottery: 'I don't want to be here next year'

ByBaxter Holmes ESPN logo
Wednesday, May 18, 2016

NEW YORK -- John Black paused along the buffet line, spooning sliced cucumbers and dressing onto a lonely plate. The Los Angeles Lakers' vice president of public relations then spotted a friend of three-plus decades, Pat Williams, an executive with the Orlando Magic, filling up at the coffee station.

"Boy," Williams told Black, clasping his arm, "there is tension in the room tonight."

Black nodded. He asked aloud if any team had ever faced the Lakers' all-or-nothing odds: They'd preserve their draft pick if it fell among the top three slots, or, if it sunk below that range, they'd lose it altogether to the Philadelphia 76ers. Such a scenario would have left the Lakers with nothing to show for suffering through their worst season in franchise history, which, Black admitted, would have been "brutal."

The Lakers teetered on a similar tightrope at last year's NBA draft lottery, only with a bit more margin for error. At the time, after an abysmal 2014-15 campaign, they only risked losing their first-round pick to the 76ers -- thanks, in a convoluted way, to the 2012 Steve Nash trade with Phoenix -- if the pick fell outside the top five slots.

There was only a 17 percent chance of such a situation unfolding a year ago, but it still would have been catastrophic, hence Black suffered through a sleepless night filled with worry before representing the Lakers in the secluded lottery drawing room at the New York Hilton Midtown, where 14 pingpong balls whirred around a clear glass drum to determine the NBA draft order in June.

But by the end of that night, Black beamed. Lottery luck had blessed the Lakers: Instead of coming up empty, they moved up two spots and landed the No. 2 pick, which they used to draft guard D'Angelo Russell from Ohio State.

To help duplicate that good fortune, Black returned to the 2016 lottery (held at the same venue) wearing the same charcoal grey suit that he wore the year before, the same purple-striped tie, the same glittering gold-and-diamond ring from the Lakers' 2001 title campaign, a token he chose because of the team's mighty 15-1 postseason run to champagne.

The Lakers beat the 76ers in those '01 Finals, and they hoped to prevail over them again Tuesday, but the Lakers faced a 44.2 percent chance of losing their pick, leading to yet another sleepless night for Black, who declared himself a "nervous wreck."

"He's sweating here again," Williams said.

Inarguably, the league needs its glamor franchise to succeed, it needs the Lakers to rebound quickly from the worst chapter in their otherwise remarkable history, and Williams said he could sense that sentiment.

"For the Lakers to keep their pick and rebuild with young draft picks, that's the feeling back here," Williams said.

Black picked at his vegetables, then, at 7:14 p.m. ET, an NBA spokesperson called for everyone -- all 14 representatives from competing lottery teams, 12 media members (including three Lakers beat reporters who flew in from Los Angeles) and an NBA Entertainment television crew -- to take their seats.

It was time to begin.

Black sat front and center at a table draped in cloth, a few feet from a water cooler-sized container designed by a company that makes state lottery machines.

Wyc Grousbeck, a Boston Celtics co-owner, sat to Black's left, and to Black's right sat Kylie Rubin, the 10-year-old daughter of Michael Rubin, a member of the 76ers' ownership group. "We decided to bring out the big guns," 76ers co-owner Art Wrubel explained of the young girl seated between himself and Black. And at the far end of the table was Julie Fie, a spokesperson for the Phoenix Suns.

Two flat-screen TVs mounted to the front wall before them listed lottery probabilities, and each of their teams boasted the best odds in the room at the top pick, hence their seating arrangement. On the right wall beside them all, eight large whiteboards listed 1,001 possible four-ball combinations. The more combinations it had been assigned, better a team's odds. If that team's combination came up first, then it had won the top pick in the June 23 draft, meaning a chance at Louisiana State's Ben Simmons or possibly Duke's Brandon Ingram, the two top prospects.

Thanks to the second-worst record in the NBA (17-65), the Lakers had 199 combinations in their back pocket, the second-most behind the 76ers, which had 250 after finishing with the NBA's worst record (10-72). The Celtics had the third-most combinations (156) and the Suns the fourth-most (119).

Shortly after Kiki Vandeweghe, the NBA's senior vice president of basketball operations, explained the rules, Lou DiSabatino, the NBA's vice president of events and attractions, flipped a switch, and a humming noise filled the white-walled room two floors below the stage where the picks would be announced on national television an hour later.

Suddenly, 14 white plastic spheres started popping around the drum.

Black remained calm and looked on with hope, but, in truth, a doomsday scenario of sorts loomed as the Lakers' losses mounted at a historic pace this season: that they'd not only lose their pick, but that their archrival, the Celtics, would vault to the top.

Such an outcome seemed more than plausible when the Brooklyn Nets, who in 2013 traded their 2016 first-round pick to the Celtics, stumbled to a 3-13 start, foreshadowing an abysmal campaign.

And so it unfolded all season, the awfulness of the Lakers and Nets further intertwining the Lakers and Celtics, the NBA's grandest franchises with 33 combined championships bound again at a place neither visits often: the lottery.

For as disastrous as it would have been for the Lakers to lose their pick after the worst season in their 68-year history, an even worse consequence would've been to lose the pick while witnessing their bitter nemesis cash in on the Nets' demise.

Those stakes, and more, lingered in the air. After 20 seconds, Kyle Yelencsics, an associate coordinator with the NBA standing in the back of the room, clicked a purple stopwatch in his right hand and raised his left arm, signaling DiSabatino to pull a lever, causing a ball to rise to the top of a vertical tube.

Vandeweghe plucked it like a prize egg and read it to the room as each hopeful representative scribbled onto official NBA white pads of paper before them.

Then, after three more 10-second intervals, a four-ball combination was reached: 1, 10, 5, 9.

At 7:26, Vandeweghe congratulated the 76ers on winning the top pick.

Kylie and Wrubel embraced, smiled, bumped fists and clasped hands. She bounced up and down in her chair, bursting with energy.

"I had a 10-year-old girl with me," Wrubel said later with a laugh. "How could I be nervous?" Black looked at her and smiled. The next combination belonged to the 76ers too, so it was discarded and the process repeated.

Four more balls were plucked from fate: 2, 3, 7, 14.

At 7:29, Vandeweghe congratulated the Lakers on winning the second pick.

Black leaned back in his chair, his shoulders relaxed and a grin spread across his face. Having avoided calamity, Black leaned over and high-fived Kylie.

"He should be happy," Wrubel said. "He's going to get a great pick."

Black collected the winning numbers, as he did last year, storing those four in a desk drawer.

"If nothing else, I'm collecting more pingpong balls," he said, laughing as he rolled them in his fingers, kissing one.

After the next combination went Boston's way, the first three picks were decided, with the rest of the lottery dictated by inverse order of record. So Black gathered with everyone else in the room to watch a nearby television as the lottery results were broadcast on national television.

A year ago in his office, Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak popped open a champagne bottle in celebration after his team's lottery luck was announced.

Now, he found himself on stage at the hotel, awaiting the latest results, knowing they would be great or terrible but nowhere in between.

"That just adds to the drama that, at this stage in my life, is unnecessary," the 61-year-old Kupchak said.

Kupchak brought four lucky charms, only one of which he revealed -- a Lakers lapel pin from 1996, the same year his son, Maxwell, was born. For any big game or meaningful moment, Kupchak would pull out that pin, and he did again Tuesday. "It's just relying on the gods, the lucky gods," he said.

But like Black, Kupchak entered the night on frayed nerves, fully aware of the disappointment the evening threatened. As the picks were announced one by one, his stoic expression never wavered, until the Lakers' pick, when a smile spread across his face. He shook the hands of those nearby.

Kupchak's emotions?

"Relief," Kupchak said. "It's been a long year."

"The Lakers," Celtics co-owner Steve Pagliuca would later say on stage, "were the biggest winner of the night."

In reality, the evening unfolded without surprise. In fact, for the first time since 1990, when the NBA began using Ping-Pong balls to determine the draft order, the first three picks fell in the exact order as the odds projected.

On the outside, the simple choice now for the Lakers will be to select whomever the 76ers do not -- Simmons or Ingram. Yet Kupchak believes this draft is deeper than just those two prospects. Croation forward Dragan Bender, Providence guard Kris Dunn, Oklahoma guard Buddy Hield and Kentucky guard Jamal Murray all project as lottery picks, though none are mentioned as candidates for the top two spots.

With young guards in Russell and Jordan Clarkson, Kupchak said the Lakers are, at the moment, more focused on building their frontcourt through the draft and free agency, whether that's by adding a wing player or a bigger shooting guard.

However, Kupchak denied rumors that the Lakers -- who also hold a second-round pick, No. 32 overall -- have decided to trade their No. 2 overall pick for a veteran, but he admitted such an option is something they will consider.

"It's all possible," he said.

The Lakers project to have up to $60 million in salary cap space this summer, which, as Kupchak has noted, allows them to possibly sign two max players. But free agent speculation will come in time. For now, the Lakers feel only relief, as they have cleared an arduous obstacle that hung heavy over their 2015-16 season. For now, they were able to cash in on those losses in a tangible way.

The Lakers, at the very least, hold a valuable asset in June's draft. They can trade it or use it to expand their promising young core. Next year, the Lakers' first-round pick in the 2017 draft will again be top-three protected, meaning it would go to the 76ers if it falls fourth or lower. The Lakers don't even want to think about such a possibility right now, though.

After making their third straight draft lottery appearance and fifth since the lottery was created in 1985 -- the second-fewest total appearances in the NBA behind the San Antonio Spurs (three) -- the Lakers only hope that Ping-Pong balls won't be in their immediate future.

"I don't want to be here next year," Kupchak said.

He paused, then repeated himself.

"I don't want to be here next year."