“America has only three cities: New York, New Orleans and San Francisco. The rest are just Cleveland.”
- Tennessee Williams
As a disclaimer: I feel like the draft can’t please everyone, and as such, I don’t mess around with it too much on here. Like most of my basketblogging peers, I wrote a visceral piece reacting to conspiracy theorists (that is, Lakers fans) who feel that every aspect of the National Basketball Association is rigged, from the regular season to the playoffs to the offseason. But since then, there hasn’t been much to say. Some think the ping pong balls are fine. Others would prefer a wheel; like the NBA draft is a late-afternoon game show (and truth be told, it sort of is). Frankly, I could conjure up an argument why a Zoltar machine might produce draft lottery results that better align with our worldview. But frankly, I don’t care whether you think it’s fixed or not, whether you think it’s completely broken and in need of an overhaul, or simply needs a few tweaks to be a better system for all parties involved. You are entitled to your opinion — as strange and paranoid as your opinion about a weighted system that creates 14 new millionaires may seem — and I’m not here to legislate your behavior.
But the Cleveland-Cavaliers-winning-the-2014-draft-lottery-thing — a King Harvest draft that is projected to join 1986, 2003 and 2009 as all-time great bounties — really does throw a monkey wrench in the entire operation, no matter how hard I argue otherwise. It’s not just the fact that Cleveland won it again, bucking a 1.7% chance of winning the deal this year, and a mathematical chance of winning the draft two years in a row, and three out of the last four years, that is much smaller. Rather, it was that every person who had an opportunity to speak, whether they were a lofty pundit or a lowly plebeian, hated that Cleveland won. The vitriol was nearly universal; booming over the airwaves and bristling on social media.
Bill Simmons, the bombastic white liberal male who seems to symbolize the NBA’s target audience, went on a tirade on national television that even made me raise my eyebrows. The slow motion replay depicted The Artist Formerly Known As The Sports Guy mouthing “that’s bull!” as the top pick was announced, his head shaking slowly. Simmons spat that the Cavaliers had already received “too much karma” for losing LeBron James in 2010, and that the system was “broken.” Meanwhile, on social media, angry fingers pecked away, championing Celtics assistant GM Mike Zarren’s draft wheel as the Golden Calf to save the draft which had fucked up again, and awarded the Cavaliers the chance to select Joel Embiid, Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker as the number one overall pick. One didn’t have to search too far to identify a general sentiment that the Cleveland Cavaliers did not deserve the top pick.
Of course, this is perplexing for several reasons. The primary reason, of course, is that, unlike other lottery participants — in fact, nearly every single one — Cleveland did not tank. No, they went for it this year, Dan Gilbert had ants in his pants. They weren’t the Sixers, who lost nearly 30 straight games and still had the audacity to say they had completed a “successful season.” They weren’t the Bucks, who boasted a point differential of -8.2 in their games, and had billboards in their cities with ping pong balls emblazoned on the front. They weren’t the Celtics or the Lakers, who proudly displayed their tank jobs to a national television audience throughout the year.
No, the Cavs went for it this year, rehiring successful former coach Mike Brown, and signing sought-after free agents like Andrew Bynum, Jarrett Jack and Earl Clark in a push to qualify for the playoffs. When things didn’t go well for Brown or the Cavs, they took on more salary, adding Luol Deng and Spencer Hawes by trade, and jettisoning Bynum to the Pacers. They did everything they could to qualify for the playoffs, scraping with the Hawks and the Knicks for the final spot in a desperate effort to save face. And when the season ended, the organization behaved like the team had vastly under-performed — because, well, they had — and fired the coach, as well as all of his assistants. By all accounts, this was a team that attempted to win, and for a bevy of reasons, it didn’t come together. Assuredly, this is exactly the team that “deserves” to win the lottery; one that didn’t plan to be obsolete, it just didn’t work.
What was more interesting were the values others imparted onto Cleveland, the opinions of the place that were intimated by casual fans and caustic pundits. In these short, sarcastic bursts, we are able to figure out what Cleveland represents for others, but some definition behind a rather black-and-white state-of-mind. For the average fan, Cleveland represents ineptitude and irrelevance, created at the hands of countless misguided management teams, and perpetuated by a permanently negative fanbase. Regardless of whether we’re discussing the Cavaliers, Indians or Browns, the prevailing narrative always centers around a “lack” or something, and the seemingly blighted nature of the sports culture in that polity. In our minds, the Cleveland sports fan is always frowning, certain that things are going to go wrong, and for most, isn’t very likable. In our hearts, we feel those folks don’t deserve any more handouts. We assume they will misuse what we give them to work with, and will become dour when it goes wrong. That sentiment reared it’s ugly head on Tuesday, continued to scowl and snarl Wednesday, and is issuing its last vitriolic comments today, embodied in “fix the draft!” posts and eye-roll comments about how the Cavs are almost destined to take a 7-footer with a bad back, like it’s encoded in their DNA.
I think our struggle with Cleveland sports, and by extension, their seemingly unwarranted success in winning a weighted game of chance (which they didn’t have the best chance of winning) mirrors a deep conflict we carry in our national consciousness. As a people, Americans remain uncomfortable with the idea that those that struggle deserve any sort of hand out, any sort of unconditional favor which carries no guarantee of repayment. It is a fear that has no political leanings, and manifests itself in both major political parties. It is rooted in our pastoral championing of the ”yeoman farmer,” and is animated in our distinctly American values of “pluck and luck” and “pulling yourself up by the bootstraps.”
It is this inner conflict that ensured that Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty was going to fail before the first salvo was fired, and this pervasive fear that ushered Ronald Reagan into office in the 1980′s. It gives conservatives who hold archaic views that non-whites are inherently lazy the gumption they need to decry welfare, and liberals who feel that the superstructure of capitalism perverted the intentions of the New Deal the right to promote austere measures that reduce the impact of social programs. All of this is coded into the way we operate in the world, and it trickles down into nearly every aspect of our lives, including the way we view sports, and the way new talent enters the league. We often need a strawman to knock down to make our deeply held beliefs seem more imposing, more real. For those who don’t have the language to express what they really feel — about Cleveland, the poor, the bedraggled — the draft can serve as a useful example.
Is the draft lottery broken? I’m not quite sure, myself, and I’m not that interested in figuring that out, especially when my team has no business collecting ping pong balls. But rest assured: the Cavaliers did wrong the right way. In a room where the rest were just Cleveland, they were the most Cleveland of them all. There is nothing broken here, except perhaps your view on who deserves a “hand out”, and what constitutes a “hand out” in the first place.
Editor’s Note: In the original draft of this piece, the author credited the “draft wheel” to Zach Lowe. This is incorrect. The idea was proposed by an NBA team official. The author regrets this error, and apologizes to both Mr. Lowe and the readers for lazy research.