Instant replay tonight — Timberwolves’ miserable lottery luck?

With the Timberwolves’ luck, Charles Lindbergh would have taken off from New York’s Roosevelt Field, gotten confused in the clouds, landed near Fresno and claimed the domain name “Wrong Way” a decade before anyone ever heard of Douglas Corrigan.

With the Timberwolves’ luck, Charles Luciano’s catchiest nickname would have been “Chuck” and he would have ended up as a target of Murder Inc., rather than its founder.

With the Timberwolves’ luck, “The Deer Hunter” would have been about 37 minutes long, going to end credits the first time Robert DeNiro’s character pulled the trigger in the film’s notorious Russian roulette sequence.

You know how the song goes: If it wasn’t for bad luck, the Timberwolves wouldn’t have no luck at all. And yet, ignoring that most practical definition of insanity — repeatedly doing the same thing but expecting different results — the Wolves will try again tonight to beat both the odds and their miserable fate by participating in another NBA Draft Lottery at the league’s studios in Secaucus, N.J.

Annual battle of the losers

Assistant general manager Fred Hoiberg will join 13 other reps of the NBA’s lesser half — teams that played too poorly in 2007-08 to qualify for the playoffs — in what, to those clicking past it on their cable or satellite boxes, looks to be an old-school set for a cheesy game show. All 14 franchises will be hoping that the pingpong balls (actually drawn off-camera moments earlier in a hermetically sealed room but announced live on ESPN prior to Game 1 of the Boston-Detroit series) pop in their favor, handing them the No. 1 pick in next month’s draft.

The Wolves, thanks to a 22-60 record that was NBA’s third-worst this season, hold the third-most chances for lottery success. Even at that, though, they will be swimming upstream, with 138 chances per 1,000 (13.8 percent) of winning the top pick outright. Because the system determines only the top three draft positions, with teams then lining up in inverse order of record, the Wolves this time can finish no worse than sixth; they have a 4.55 percent chance of that happening. And while that mathematically is a long shot, that’s precisely what happened a year ago, when Portland, Seattle and Atlanta all leapfrogged into the top three spots, pushing down the “more deserving” Memphis, Boston and Milwaukee clubs.

The Wolves? They lost a pre-lottery drawing with Portland and were stuck at seventh. (It is worth noting that, had Minnesota won that tiebreaker, it would have held the winning number combination that gave the Trail Blazers the No. 1 overall pick.)

Here are the Wolves’ 2008 odds for finishing in each of the top six spots:

No. 1: 13.8 percent.

No. 2: 14.24 percent.

No. 3: 14.54 percent.

No. 4: 23.82 percent.

No. 5: 29.05 percent.

No. 6: 4.55 percent.

Lacking any luck last year –- or rather, dripping with Timberwolves luck –- Minnesota selected guard Corey Brewer, a raw, underdeveloped athlete from the University of Florida. The spindly Brewer, with thighs the size of some players’ forearms, endured a first season of high enthusiasm and hard lessons, and Wolves’ fans endured it along with him as the rookie shot 37.4 percent, averaged 5.8 points and had 89 turnovers to 111 assists. Their greatest comfort, in hindsight, came from the fact that, even with a little luck, their team wasn’t going to add an impact player anyway; the Nos. 4, 5 and 6 picks –- Mike Conley Jr., Jeff Green and Yi Jianlian –- all were projects, contributing little.

It would have taken a lot of luck, gobs of it, in quantities and of a certain quality beyond anything positive this franchise ever has known, to have vaulted them into position to draft the prizes of last year’s class: Greg Oden, Kevin Durant or Al Horford.

11 losing trips to Lotteryland

Remember, these are the Wolves we’re talking about. In 11 previous trips to Lotteryland, they never have improved their position. That is, their pingpong ball never has popped up. Now, that might seem entirely logical and defensible to the statisticians among us, but to laymen and average fans, it sounds a lot like flipping a coin 11 times and getting 11 consecutive “heads.”

The Wolves have, however, gotten unlucky, slipping a spot or three to lose out on players who on merit — the merit of being lousier than the other guys — should have been theirs. Most famously, this happened in 1992, when the Wolves (15-67) posted the NBA’s shabbiest record but got elbowed aside by both Orlando (21-61) and Charlotte (31-51) for the top two spots. Here’s how the selections went on draft night:

No. 1: Shaquille O’Neal (arguably one of the five best centers of all-time and a player who boosted the Magic to instant respectability at 41-41).

No. 2: Alonzo Mourning (probably a Hall of Fame big man, unsurpassed in intensity and toughness over the past 16 seasons).

No. 3: Christian Laettner (a teen idol at Duke whose patrician bearing bore no connection to his journeyman game).

A year later, with the league’s second-worst record (19-63), the Wolves picked fifth and chose franchise migraine Isaiah Rider. In 1994, after tying for the second-worst record (20-62), they landed fourth in what was considered a three-star draft, taking Donyell Marshall because Glenn Robinson, Jason Kidd and Grant Hill already were gone. Most experts would say the 2008 draft is like that one, with two consensus stars — Kansas State’s Michael Beasley and Memphis’ Derrick Rose — and then everybody else. So even just staying put at third could smell like defeat for the Wolves.

“This is a big year to move up,” Hoiberg said at Target Center the other day. “There are a couple of players who I think could really help accelerate the building process. But even if we don’t get one of the top two picks, I still think there are some players who would fit well with the players we have. Even if we pick sixth, I’m confident we can get a player who can come in and make an immediate impact.”

In 1995, the Wolves were tied again for the second-worst mark (21-61) and this time fell to fifth, where … let’s just say that Kevin Garnett was a gamble of epic proportions — first high school player in 20 years to go directly into the NBA, a 19-year-old taken by a team that needed serious immediate gratification — when the Wolves grabbed him. We’re not even willing to concede that Minnesota, for once, had gotten lucky; rather, the teams that took Joe Smith, Antonio McDyess, Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace all were participating with their own doses of lousy luck.

Since Garnett, draft mostly a mess

Since then, the draft has been mostly a shambles, from Ray Allen being swapped for stubborn short-timer Stephon Marbury moments after they picked in 1996 to Paul Grant, William Avery and Ndudi Ebi as first-round selections, from a Brandon Roy-Randy Foye switcheroo in 2006 that looks too clever by half to the three first-rounds the Wolves sat out entirely (2001, 2002, 2004) as punishment for cheating with Joe Smith’s contracts. It was the sort of cheating that was pretty common in the NBA at that time, but the Wolves actually put some wink-wink promises on paper. And got caught. More Timberwolves luck. 

And still, Hoiberg will bring a lucky charm, a talisman, a good-luck omen with him tonight for the big drawing. It is a teddy bear, the close personal friend of a local 12-year-old who, like Hoiberg himself, has beaten long odds medically to stay around and is enthused about his favorite pro basketball team. The bear, Hoiberg said, has seen Brooklyn Park’s Matthew Gamber through a lot worse than some hard lottery times.

Again, these are the Wolves we’re talking about, whose lottery luck is coyote ugly. A team run by a guy named McHale, employing at various times players named McCann, McLeod, McCants and O’Lowokandi (OK, Olowokandi), and not one whiff of the ol’ luck o’ the Irish.

That’s why we couldn’t help flashing back to the old SCTV skit about sports and a promise to an ailing boy. And why we’re a little worried about that teddy bear winding up in the Hudson River.

Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Dean Carlson on 05/20/2008 - 12:13 pm.

    Hey Steve, check your facts from last year. The Wolves were slated to pick 7th and pick 7th. Portland, Seattle, and Atlanta all moved up but because they were already ahead of the Wolves, it didn’t impact where the Wolves landed.

    Now of course the Wolves have still had bad bad lottery luck over the years but not as bad as you made it out to be.

  2. Submitted by Steve Aschburner on 05/20/2008 - 01:11 pm.

    Good catch, Dean. We fixed that — and updated to include the bad luck that was part of last year’s lottery for the Wolves (they lose tiebreaker drawing with Portland, Portland’s numbers come up for No. 1 pick).

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