Updated: May 12, 12:03 AM ET
A heartbreaking tiebreak for Cavs, Nuggets
By Marc J. Spears
Special to ESPN.com
On Monday night, the Denver Nuggets and Cleveland Cavaliers will tune in to NBATV to find out which one of them will get a higher position in the NBA Draft after tying for a league-worst 17-65 record.
Denver and Cleveland will each have a 22.5 percent chance of landing the top pick in the June 26 draft. But if neither team nabs one of the top three picks in the draft lottery on May 22, Monday's tiebreaker will determine which team will choose fourth and fifth overall. Just imagine how disappointing that scenario would be to Denver and Cleveland after going through a season that was as fun as a root canal.
Denver opened the season with seven players 22 years old and younger, played without center Marcus Camby for most of the 2002-03 campaign, had four rookies on the floor at times and also had seven rookies on its roster late in the season. The Cavaliers traded 2001-2002 NBA assist leader Andre Miller, forward Lamond Murray and guard Wesley Person (while receiving little to nothing back in contribution for the players they received in return) and drafted a young guard in Dajuan Wagner, who was hampered by injuries. One way to make sure your team ends up having great odds in the lottery is to start undrafted rookie point guards for much of the season. Both the Nuggets and Cavaliers did with Junior Harrington and Smush Parker, respectively.
The reward for being so horrible in the regular season is nice odds to win the May 22 draft lottery and the No. 1 choice, which most certainly will be used on James. The next two picks figure to involve other superstars in the making in Syracuse forward Carmelo Anthony and Yugoslavian forward Darko Milicic. While both Denver and Cleveland would instantly sell out its arenas, receive numerous games on television and national media appeal and sell lots of jerseys with the arrival of King James, obtaining Anthony or Milicic would leave both franchises satisfied, too.
How horrific would it be for the Nuggets or Cavaliers to not land one of the top three picks? The words "worst day in franchise history" come to mind.
For the Nuggets, having a great draft pick includes a trickle down theory that affects their free agency. Denver has enough salary cap room to sign as many as three quality free agents this summer. With rookie sensation Nene Hilario and either James, Anthony or Milicic on board, a free agent prospect might find being shown the money in Denver much more appealing. And if the Nuggets have any hopes of re-signing forward Juwan Howard, who led the team in scoring, rebounding and free-throw percentage, adding talent is the needed drawing card.
But if the Nuggets draft fourth or fifth, that drawing card for Howard or any other free agents could be crumpled since prospects after the third selection are big wild cards. Possibilities at Nos. 4 and 5 include Marquette under-sized guard Dwyane Wade, Texas under-sized guard T.J. Ford, raw Central Michigan center Chris Kaman, young and raw Polish forward Maciej Lampe and young Georgia Tech forward Chris Bosh. Outside of possibly Ford, who also needs to improve his jump shot, these guys don't excite free agents or fans immediately. Denver still would have a chance of getting someone to take some money out of its vault, but the selling job would be 10 times harder without one of the top three picks.
Not getting James would be a huge disappointment to Cleveland fans. But in time, the play of Anthony or Milicic would soothe the pain of the home state prep star going elsewhere. So what happens in Cleveland without James, Anthony or Milicic? An Art Modell "Welcome Back" party or a David Hasselhoff concert would draw more at Gund Arena than a Cavs game. All that losing for nothing would bring a lot of scrutiny, and most importantly, the Cavs would go from attracting a marquee coach from a high draft pick to a run-of-the-mill retread.
As one Cavaliers official once noted, having a bad record doesn't guarantee the No. 1 pick but it does give you the best odds. That being said, a lottery is a lottery. That means everyone has a chance to win.
Just a year ago, the Houston Rockets finished with the sixth-worst record and ended up winning the draft lottery to take Yao Ming. Moreover, no team with the NBA's worst record has landed the top pick in the draft since New Jersey won the lottery and drafted Derrick Coleman in 1990.
Nothing is guaranteed. Espectially when the New York Knicks are in the lottery.
"No. 1, I hope that LeBron James goes to Cleveland or Denver," TNT analyst Charles Barkley said in a media teleconference last week. ''I think it would be a travesty if he didn't go to the two bottom teams in the league. That's my biggest problem. I think that it's fair to the fans that have to pay to watch and if you don't luck up and get a guy that has first-round pick potential, you just have to go through the motions again.
"I just hope he goes to Cleveland or Denver, because those are both great NBA cities and it's time for them to get great competitive teams out there, just in fairness to the fans."
Again, getting the top pick would be great but not a total loss for Denver and Cleveland. The key is staying in the top three. If there is justice in this world, James will suit up for the Cavaliers while Anthony scores much needed baskets for the Nuggets. But as of now, that is just wishful thinking with fear growing stronger and stronger as May 22 drawers nearer and nearer for two struggling franchises that are desperate and due for a break.
"The 22nd is the date we got circled on our calendar," Denver assistant general manager David Fredman said.
Marc J. Spears, who covers the NBA and Denver Nuggets for the Denver Post, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.