The NBA regular season ends on Wednesday, and the 14 teams that fail to make the playoffs will cast their lonely eyes toward this year’s draft. The current wisdom suggests earning a high draft pick (by settling for a losing record) is the easiest way to rebuild an NBA team.
But is it? Pat Williams, the Senior Vice President of the Orlando Magic, joined Bill Littlefield.
BL: Pat, you’ve had opportunities to fix less-than-great NBA teams in Chicago, Atlanta, Philadelphia and now in Orlando. The Magic went 21-61 in the ‘91-92 season, and I'm sure none of those 61 losses was intentional. What was going through your mind as you realized you were going to have the opportunity to draft Shaquille O'Neal?
We've got our secret stash of ping pong balls that we try to get into that machine. We raise them out on a farm on Disney property and we sprinkle pixie dust on them every evening.Pat Williams, Orlando Magic Senior V.P.
PW: Well listen, we were just starting as a new franchise. They kept turning those logos over in '92 and ours was not getting turned over. And with each turn of the logo you could feel the pressure mounting because everybody knew who Shaq was and what he was going to do for your franchise. That's not the case most years.
I do remember that everyone in the lottery — there were 11 teams in the lottery — they had all made up Shaq jerseys for their uniform. And they had them stuffed in paper bags waiting to pull them out, and we were the only one with a shirt that worked, so the rest of them had to tuck them in bags. Somewhere out in the internet you can probably buy a Dallas Maverick or a Charlotte Hornet Shaq jersey.
BL: Do you ever feel badly about what fans go through when the team they're rooting for is just awful?
PW: Good question. Although I think a city can rejoice with victory with their team, but I think they really come together when your team is losing. Kind of a mutual sympathy, perhaps.
BL: Until their dominant regular season this year, the Atlanta Hawks were a perennial mid-level playoff team — make it every year but with nobody really expecting them to go all the way. Should teams always try to make the playoffs or does there come a point where a team like the Hawks might be better served by setting their sights a little lower and hoping to do something in the draft?
PW: Oh, Bill, listen: once the ball goes up, these athletes are extraordinarily competitive. The last thing on their mind is a bunch of ping pong balls in May. They could not care less about the draft. They're concerned about their contract and their career and their future and what the team is doing now. So any talk — I get churned up about this — of, 'Oh, we're just kind of backing off this year,' forget it. Forget it. Because the ballplayers and the coaches, their careers hinge on winning and playing well, so the word "tank" bothers me.
BL: According to at least the math that I’ve been able to do this afternoon, the last two teams to win the title shortly after picking No. 1 in the draft were San Antonio, when they picked Tim Duncan in 1997, and the Los Angeles Lakers, when they took James Worthy back in 1982. Given that sad statistic, maybe teams considering trying to get much better as quickly as they can shouldn’t be thinking about the draft so much.
[sidebar title="David Robinson On OAG" width="630" align="right"]The former Spur tells Bill Littlefield about his time in the Navy and his favorite NBA Finals memory.[/sidebar]PW: Well, Bill, let me just talk for a minute about San Antonio and Gregg Popovich, who will tell you this, from the beginning that his whole career has been predicated on two ping pong balls that bounced the right way.
And a ball bounces the right way, and who is waiting for them but one David Robinson? Gets hurt. They have another terrible year. Back into the lottery, and guess what happens? Another ping pong ball bounces right, and there is Tim Duncan from my alma mater — Wake Forest University. Oh my, it's an amazing story to me. Absolutely amazing.
BL: The Magic is not going to make the 2015 postseason. Are you hoping for big things on May 19's NBA Draft lottery?
PW: Oh listen, Bill, we always are. We've got our secret stash of ping pong balls that we try to get into that machine. We raise them out on a farm on Disney property and we sprinkle pixie dust on them every evening and we tell them to get ready.
BL: Of course now the secret is out.
PW: Well, I'm just telling you, Bill. Nobody else is going to be in on this. Just you. And those ping pong balls love to go to New York. They're so proud. Love to be dumped into that machine. And we have in our trophy case, believe it or not, the three winning ping pong balls from '92, '93 and '04. One was Shaq, one was Chris Webber, who turned into Penny Hardaway and the other was Dwight Howard. They have made room, however, for another one. They are never resentful. They always are happy if another one happens to join them. Now we have no championship trophies yet, Bill. But in the meantime we're very proud of our victorious ping pong balls.
BL: Pat, I was going to say not only thank you but good luck. But you don't need to be wished good luck cause you've got those ping pong balls you were raising.
PW: Well, listen, you never run out of the need for things breaking the right way. Ping pong balls bouncing around in a machine determining what player you might or might not get — and with that determines your future as a GM or a coach — oh my, what a way to a make a living.
This segment aired on April 11, 2015.