NEW YORK — Phil Jackson remembers watching old teammate Dave DeBusschere pound his fist in triumph, when the Knicks and NBA were dual winners.
The first draft lottery in 1985 gave New York the No. 1 pick and the NBA all the publicity a league could want, plus a way to deter teams from losing on purpose.
Thirty years later, the lottery still creates hope and headlines — though it’s debatable if tanking has ever gone away. “It’s unique,” Jackson said. “It’s a fascinating process.”
It returns May 19 with the Knicks, now run by Jackson, with the second-best odds of winning, perhaps for the right to choose between big men Karl-Anthony Towns of Kentucky or Jahlil Okafor of national champion Duke.
The Minnesota Timberwolves have the best chance, though they’ve fallen backward eight times and never won even from the pole position. The team with the worst record rarely has, going winless since the Orlando Magic got the rights to Dwight Howard in 2004.
Howard is now playing in Houston, which is where this whole lottery story begins.
The Rockets nose-dived their way toward the bottom two years running, with longtime Orlando executive and four-time lottery winner Pat Williams once saying they “not so subtly basically packed it in for the last month” on their way to getting Hakeem (then Akeem) Olajuwon in 1984.
The top pick then was determined by a coin flip between the teams with the worst records in each conference, with the remaining teams picking in inverse order of their won-lost records.
The lottery debuted in 1985 with the seven non-playoff teams having equal odds as they vied for Patrick Ewing, and conspiracy theories forever followed when Commissioner David Stern pulled the envelope of the big-market Knicks, triggering the celebration of DeBusschere, their General Manager.
Envelopes have given way to pingpong balls and the format has been tweaked through the years, though it dodged significant change last fall.
Commissioner Adam Silver, concerned about the tanking perception fueled largely by Philadelphia’s strategy of angling for high draft picks, favored reform to the current system that gives the team with the worst record a 25 percent chance of winning.
It fell short of approval, and Silver now suggests the lottery will remain as is at least until after the league’s new TV contracts begin in 2016-17.
Perhaps by then the 76ers’ tactics will have worked, though Silver considers them rebuilding rather than tanking.
“What’s interesting in the discussion here, conventionally, when you think of tanking, you think of teams trying to lose,” he said. “Here in this case, even the greatest critics of a so-called rebuilding strategy would acknowledge that the team is trying to win. They are trying to win over a longer time period than that particular year.”
The 76ers are slotted in the third spot with a 15.6 percent chance of moving up to No. 1 and could land another high pick if the Lakers fall outside the top five and have to give it up as terms of a previous trade. So Los Angeles also ended up on the perceived tankers list while finishing with the NBA’s fourth-worst record.
The Knicks and Lakers being so high brings added interest Tuesday, and usual contenders Miami and Oklahoma City being in the lottery has prospects envisioning a chance to play with a Dwyane Wade, Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook — who will represent the Thunder on stage.
“It’s crazy if you think about that type of stuff,” Kentucky’s Willie Cauley-Stein said. “Like, those are people that you watched, that’s the people that you grew up watching. And getting a chance to play with them, or get to, like, learn under them? That’s powerful.”
Indiana’s Larry Bird and Miami’s Alonzo Mourning are some of the other big names who will be on stage in a New York hotel ballroom. Jackson declined, leaving the Knicks’ seat to be occupied by General Manager Steve Mills.
Jackson also insisted that the Knicks earned their 17-65 mark, not aimed for it.
“There was no tanking involved in any of our expressions to the basketball team or to our coaching staff,” he said recently. “The idea wasn’t even proposed or talked about.”
The Knicks had the worst record late in the season, but a few victories dropped their odds of getting the No. 1 pick to 19.9 percent. Jackson shrugged that off, since only four times has the team that finished last or tied for last won the lottery.
Maybe the team needing the most help will find it under future formats. For now, Jackson just hopes the 30th anniversary lottery ends like the first.
“I think the NBA has put some thought in, and had so many discussions over the past. It’s really interesting,” he said. “We’ll submit ourselves to that and go and hope for the best.”
(BRIAN MAHONEY, AP Basketball Writer)