When Winning The Lottery Is Underwhelming, NBA Draft Edition

Eric Raskin

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The mock drafting is almost over. The real drafting is finally about to begin. The 2024 NBA Draft tips off at Barclays Center in Brooklyn Wednesday night, and there’s only one thing all of the draft experts agree on:

This is one of the worst draft classes any of them has ever seen.

The Atlanta Hawks won the draft lottery on May 12, overcoming having the fifth-worst odds to land the No. 1 pick — a 3% chance coming in. Those aren’t long odds by a lottery player’s standards, but they are in this setting.

Any NBA franchise should be thrilled to win the draft lottery. Just like any citizen buying lottery tickets should be thrilled with when their numbers come in.

But … what if you win at the worst possible time? Winning the NBA draft lottery in 2023 meant landing Victor Wembanyama and changing your team’s trajectory on the spot. The same good fortune just one year later is expected not to change Atlanta’s outlook in any appreciable way.

It should never be a bad thing to win a lottery, but it can be if you let envy over previous winners eat at you. Being in the Hawks front office this year is a little like winning Powerball the very next draw after someone took down a record $2.04 billion jackpot. Nothing makes a life-changing $20 million score feel less life-changing than knowing some lucky SOB just won 100 times more than you did.

No grand prize

Maybe the Hawks will end up selecting a star with the top pick. But it seems unlikely. Some executives are calling this draft class the “worst ever,” and there is nothing close to a consensus No. 1, with different mockers mocking Zaccharie Risacher, Alex Sarr, or Donovan Clingan to Atlanta. Observers have suggested that whoever goes No. 1 on Wednesday will be a player who wouldn’t have gone in the top seven of an average NBA draft.

And even when the draft class looks promising, the No. 1 pick isn’t necessarily a sure thing. While the last five years appear to have produced more hits than misses (Wembanyama, Paolo Banchero, Cade Cunningham, Anthony Edwards, and Zion Williamson), the previous six years were loaded with disappointment for the team picking first. Those top picks were Anthony Bennett, Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns, Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz, and DeAndre Ayton. Some of them have had moments. None have lived up to the expectations that come with being a No. 1 overall pick.

The Hawks won the lottery, but if GM Landry Fields is being honest, he’ll tell you he’d be delighted if whomever they pick turns out to be even as good as Ayton.

After someone wins Powerball or Mega Millions, the jackpot resets to $20 million. That’s not chump change. Even if you reduce it to the lump-sum cash option (about $9.3 or $9.4 million), and then you figure on paying the standard estimate of 37% in taxes, you’re taking home almost $6 million.

Depending on how lavishly you want or need to live, that could be enough to quit your job and relax for the rest of your days.

But a little under $6 million after taxes isn’t generational wealth. Not in 2024.

If only you’d won one week later, after a couple of jackpot rollovers, you would have pocketed more than twice as much. Make it two weeks later, and we’re talking four or five times as much. Maybe that’s not the equivalent of winning the Wembanyama draft. But it’s something roughly akin to winning the Banchero draft and getting a franchise cornerstone for the next 10-15 years.

Various shades of green

Jackpot fatigue” is the term assigned to the way inflated prizes have skewed perceptions and made tens of millions of dollars, or even hundreds of millions of dollars, feel unremarkable.

Jackpot fatigue centers on public excitement, or lack thereof, to play the lottery on a given drawing. Jackpot envy is also a very real thing, though usually it refers to folks who didn’t win resenting the people they just read about who did win.

What we’re talking about here isn’t quite the same. What we’re talking about here is winning big … and feeling disappointed, or perhaps even bitter, that you didn’t win bigger.

Of course it’s better to have $6 million of extra cash fall into your lap than to not have that $6 million, just like it’s better to have the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft and select the prospect you like best than to have the No. 2 pick and not necessarily be able to get the prospect you like best.

But it still does mess with your head to get lucky one year after Wemby or three days after somebody bags a billion bucks.

Nevertheless, my advice to the Atlanta Hawks: Step forward and claim your prize. You’d be crazy not to.

And curse your luck all you want, but, remember, it could be worse. You could be the Detroit Pistons, who had the highest chance at landing the No. 1 pick both this year and in the Wembanyama draft.