Welcome to Cracked’s Silly History of the NBA. This week, we’ll be exploring the oddities and eccentricities surrounding some of the most talented and richest people to regularly wear tank tops to work. We promise to solve no GOAT debates or write anything of consequence beyond fun and goofy stories about putting a ball through a modified peach basket. Lace up a pair of Jordans, put on a 90s throwback Penny Hardaway pinstripe jersey, and start counting to 21. Check out parts one, two, three, and four here. 

Basketball can be something of a subjective sport. Foul calls are at the discretion of the referee; blown calls happen, and that sometimes means a legend doesn’t win a championship. Also, less subjective but still kinda luck-based: sometimes a shot goes in or out by a degree of millimeters. It can feel like a team didn’t “deserve” to win or lose a game/playoff series/championship because the outcome looked like luck. These little imperfections in the game are incredibly frustrating, and it’s crushing when you’re a fan of a team on the wrong side of the basketball gods. 

Unfortunately, this leads to accusations of behind-the-scenes rigging and conspiracy theories. We’re not going to address those really here; they take the enjoyment out of the game. I already spend enough time thinking about power structures, whether or not life is remotely fair or equitable, and if any ambitions I have in life matter beyond the whims of those at the levers of power. When a game of basketball is on my television, I am interested in “Did the ball go in the hoop and look cool doing it?” I can’t view the league commissioner as some nefarious puppet master and the refs as his Pharisee foot soldiers. It ruins the game. What I’m interested in, both in basketball and just in life, is idiosyncratic moments of magic coincidences too crazy not to address. NOT conspiracies, though. This is something different ... 

The Audacity of The Frozen Envelope

So okay, right away, this is one of the most famous NBA conspiracies ever, but we’re NOT here to talk about that. What I want to talk about is how hilariously audacious it would be if it was a conspiracy theory. Here’s the thinking: the NBA Draft order used to be decided by whomever had the worst record—the worse you are, the higher your pick, and the two worst teams of each conference flipped for first place. The draft lottery was invented because of allegations of tanking. The first year the lottery was happening happened to be a bad year for the Knicks. The thinking goes, the envelope with the Knicks’ name was frozen before the drawing, allowing Commissioner David Stern to pick the Big Apple as the NBA’s Biggest Draft Picker. 

Google

For all the good it did.

Once again, I don’t believe in conspiracy theories. But let’s think about how hilarious the next two decades are if the fix was actually in: New York still never wins a title, they eventually run Ewing out of town in humiliating-for-both-sides fashion, and Ewing’s departure results in a multi-decade streak of Knicks incompetency so bad we devoted all of yesterday’s column to it. It’s like bribing your way to the best table at a Michelin-starred restaurant only to find the food-sullying crew from Fight Club is the wait staff. THAT’S the basketball gods for you. 

The Cavs’ Draft Lottery Luck Post-LeBron

There isn’t a greater thought experiment to test the hypothesis of karma’s existence than the Cleveland Cavaliers after LeBron James left for Miami in 2010. If philosophy profs aren’t having their students debate this in 101 classes, then their whole pedagogical approach is broken. Here’s what happened: LeBron openly flirted with the entire league for two years before his free agency as teams purposely sucked in order to try to have enough money to afford him. When he predictably left, Cavs owner Dan Gilbert wrote a letter, in Comic Sans no less, that read like Dan Gilbert was mad that LeBron dumped him before prom. Personally, I didn’t like LeBron’s decision, either, but I was far more disgusted by Gilbert’s letter. I cheered against those Heat teams; Dan Gilbert’s a person I actually hold in contempt. Plus, Gilbert one time snitched on Kelly Dwyer to Yahoo’s CEO when Dwyer called the Quicken Loans Arena the “Predatory Loans Arena” because powerful people love hurting people who tell the truth about them.

CNN

Hey, what’s this random financial news headline doing in the middle of our good-times sports article?

Right or wrong on any side, the reality of the situation was the Cavs were an incompetently managed team who could not put a contender around LeBron. You ever heard of Mo Williams? Of course, you haven’t heard of Mo Williams; your Google search probably turned up children’s book author Mo Willems. Anyway, Mo Williams was the second-best player to ever play for the Cavs during LeBron’s first tenure. Naturally, the Cavs sucked without LeBron. 

A high draft pick might be in order, right? Try getting first and fourth in 2011, fourth in 2012, first in 2013, and first in 2014. That’s three number ones in four years. Then LeBron re-signed with the Cavs in 2014! By “highest draft pick, best player” logic, the Cavs should’ve been loaded, right? Well, all those draft picks yielded Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters, Anthony Bennett, and Andrew Wiggins. That ranges from “champion” (Kyrie) to “biggest and most obvious bust ever” (Bennett). Wiggins was traded for Kevin Love, the third-best player on the 2016 championship team. So was any of it all worth it? Some say winning a championship makes anything worth it. But LeBron, the first or second greatest player of all time, should mean multiple championships, right? Did the karma gods reward or punish Cleveland? Or was it just a bunch of stuff that happened? 

The Game 7 Quadruple-Bounce Buzzer Beater That Decided The Fate Of Two Franchises

In 2019, the Philadelphia 76ers and Toronto Raptors went seven games in the Eastern Conference semifinals. The series had been hard-fought, and both teams had championship aspirations: the 76ers were looking for a capstone to their “The Process” years when they tanked their way to high draft picks Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid and traded around other high draft picks until those two stars were flanked with Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris. The Raptors, after years of being stomped out of the playoffs so thoroughly by LeBron James-led teams that the city of Toronto had been unofficially renamed LeBronto, had gone all in by trading star guard and fan favorite DeMar DeRozan for what was likely a one-year rental of Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard. Losing in the conference semifinals would be absolutely devastating for either team and here they were, staring at a tied scoreboard and dwindling clock.

What happened next? Well:

Pretty crazy, right? In his oral history, The Ringer’s John Gonzalez said the ball bounced around the rim long enough for him to (erroneously) say, “We’re going to overtime,” before it dropped in. 

The Raptors would go on to win the title, proving that Kawhi was worth it, but then Kawhi left in the summer, making people wonder if Kawhi was worth it (he was, championships are good). The 76ers retooled by choosing Tobias Harris over Jimmy Butler, a bad move compounded by adding ill-fitting Al Horford next to Embiid and Simmons. A couple of years later, Ben Simmons would flame out in the playoffs so spectacularly that his coach said, “I don’t know” when asked if he could be the starting point guard on a championship team. The resulting mental health issues Simmons struggled to cope with had him sit out an entire season while the 76ers tried to trade him to Brooklyn. The situation is ongoing and a mess, and it could’ve been different if that ball bounces a different way. 

NBA history is littered with these moments. Kevin Durant’s foot being one inch too big maybe cost the Nets the 2021 championship. Tayshaun Prince’s absurdly long arms, followed by the Malice at the Palace the next year, killed Reggie Miller’s last hopes of a championship. Larry Bird’s steal and Dennis Johnson’s layup sent the Celtics to the Finals and told the Pistons to wait a few years. Draymond Green sack-tapped LeBron James and got suspended for Game 5 of the 2016 NBA Finals, and the 73-win Warriors blew a 3-1 lead to LeBron’s Cavaliers. 

A Non-Trivial Amount of Franchises Seem To Be Cursed By Specific Things

The Portland Trail Blazers won their only championship in 1977, when center Bill Walton was the hippie weirdo hub of a beautiful, egalitarian offense that featured lots of passing and cutting and intricate offensive sets. The next season, Walton led the Trail Blazers to a 50-10 record before going down with a foot injury that would last basically the rest of his life. He missed, functionally, the next four seasons. A few years later, in 1984, the Blazers would draft center Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan, a sentence I shouldn’t need to explain as a bad thing for Portland. In 1986, the Blazers would draft Soviet center Arvydas Sabonis, who wouldn’t be on the 1990 and 1992 Blazers teams that made the Finals, but would be around for the start of the Jail Blazers era. In 2007, the Blazers drafted center Greg Oden over Kevin Durant, and some of our younger readers might not even know who Greg Oden is. The Portland Trail Blazers, it can be reasonably said, are cursed when it comes to centers. 

The Orlando Magic lucked into two high draft picks early in their existence, grabbing Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway and contending for championships before the franchise was a decade old. Then Shaq, attracted by the bright lights big city of Hollywood, bolted for the Lakers while Hardaway’s legs crumbled. Nearly a decade after Shaq bolted, another center nicknamed Superman had championship hopes in Orlando. Dwight Howard copied Shaq and bolted for the Lakers, and the less said about that, the less pain we inflict on Lakers fans. Basically, the same thing happening to the same franchise is too weird not to comment on.

The post-Michael Jordan Bulls seem cursed to pick players in the draft who are meh-to-good for them and subsequently All-Star level on other teams: Elton Brand (more Jerry Krause’s fault than Brand’s), Ron Artest, Jamal Crawford, Tyson Chandler, Jordan “Cash Considerations” Bell, James Johnson, and Jimmy Butler is too long a list for me not to comment on. The Washington Wizards changed their name from “Bullets” because owner Abe Pollin was upset that his friend, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, “was shot in the back by bullets.” (DC was also in the midst of a bad gun violence wave.) Barely over a decade later, Wizards players Gilbert Arenas and Javaris Crittenton pulled guns on each other in the team locker room, a shocking incident made worse because it dishonored Pollin’s anti-gun stance for the team. 

Where I’m going with all this is that I don’t believe in magic and curses and hexes, but I don’t not believe in magic and curses and hexes. Just because I’ve never seen a Haitian zombie created doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened. The NBA is a league where this stuff happens too often to ignore, and I don’t know what to do with that information except comment on it in this space. It’s probably just a brain looking to make patterns, which is what brains do, but magic might exist in the world of professional basketball. Speaking of … 

Speaking Of Curses, A Quick Note About Lil B The Based God

Look, I try to keep up. I try to stay current. I love music and love listening to new artists. But I’m 34 years old, diving into an album takes time, and it’s easy to not ever get around to stuff. So let me tell you that despite being very aware of who Lil B is for more than 10 years, I’ve never heard a Lil B song. Maybe one, back in 2011. But I don’t remember anything about it.

So why am I talking about Lil B? Because Lil B, as the mouthpiece for The BasedGod, is the NBA blessing/curse master. He hexed Kevin Durant in 2011 while KD was on the Oklahoma City Thunder, and the team went on to lose not one but three MVPs over the course of the next seven years. He cursed James Harden, and it only takes the gentlest nudge in Google to have a million results for JAMES HARDEN PLAYOFF CHOKE ARTIST. He blessed the entire Celtics team last year because Jaylen Brown showed him love, and then the Celtics made the Finals. His work in the field of Hoops Occultism is singular and worthy of study by future basketball scholars. 

BasedWorld Records

He even released an entire mixtape about the sport (including a song about Katy Perry for reasons we won’t even speculate on.)

Because really, who cares if there’s empirical evidence supporting Lil B’s magic powers or not? Go back and watch that Kawhi four-bounce game-winner. Think about how everything aligned for Patrick Ewing to bring a championship to New York during David Stern’s reign as commissioner, and it never happened. Think about how Jack Haley ended up being the last ingredient necessary for the chemistry of the 72-win championship Bulls season. 

Basketball is a game of luck and miracles. It’s a game of awe-inspiring athletic achievement, people pushing the limits of what the human body can do. Most of those people are endearing weirdos and goofballs who have professional license to embrace their idiosyncrasies, give or take a racist dress code here and there. The ego-thumping of who’s the best and the palace intrigue of who’s going to play where is fascinating, but for every LeBron/Wade/Bosh championship in Miami, there’s a Durant/Kyrie/Harden championship in Brooklyn that didn’t happen because of luck on the court. Concepts like the basketball gods, curses, what ifs, and career-altering buzzer beaters give the game texture, a fun way to make sense of the unexplainable. 

Isn’t it the drama of the unexplainable, followed by us fans arguing about who actually did what better for years to come, isn’t that what makes recording basketball history fun? Pull up a chair and let me tell you some ways I think Ricky Rubio could have been the GOAT…

Chris Corlew can shoot from three and handle some playmaking duties, but will absolutely not get back on defense. He is one half of b and the nothingness and co-hosts The Line Break Podcast. Send him DeMar DeRozan highlight videos on Twitter

Top image: EFKS/Shutterstock

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