Beard: Pistons didn’t win the lottery, and blame it on Detroit vs. Math

Detroit News

Detroit — One day, I was in a zone at the blackjack table. I had won a few hands in a row, so I dramatically increased my wager. On the next hand, I was dealt a pair of fives, and the dealer had a six showing, so I doubled down. I got a king, and felt good about having 20.

The dealer turned a four, then another six.

Still feeling really good.

The dealer’s last card was a five, for a very unlikely 21.

It was a hard loss, but it’s what happens at the blackjack table — and it’s not exclusive to me.

Everyone has a bad-beat story. It’s such an ubiquitous situation that it’s become a feature on Scott Van Pelt’s “SportsCenter” shows on ESPN.

The Pistons had their own bad beat on Tuesday night, losing out on the chance to get Victor Wembanyama with the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft.

Not only did the Pistons, who had the worst record in the league, not get the No. 1 pick; they slid all the way down to No. 5, their worst possible outcome in the draft lottery.

No Victor Wembanyama. No Scoot Henderson. No Brandon Miller.

And Pistons fans are understandably upset. They went 17-65 for this? Instead of an impromptu “Victor-y” parade down Woodward-yama, there was more likely to be an angry mob with pitchforks and torches because they Pistons fell, yet again, in the lottery.

They’re not wrong. That’s the feeling of having a 20 in blackjack. They had the best odds, at 14%, of hitting the Wembanyama jackpot. But so did the Houston Rockets, who fell two spots to No. 4. And so did the San Antonio Spurs, who did get the No. 1 pick.

Look at it this way: it also means the Pistons had an 86% chance of not getting the No. 1 pick.

It’s math. That’s how math works. Statistically, the odds were tilted in favor (47.9%) of the Pistons getting the No. 5 pick. In reality, the odds of falling to the No. 5 pick were three times as likely than picking first.

More than three times as likely.

What’s to be mad about? The numbers say it all.

Maybe it was just that there was so much at stake in this lottery, with Wembanyama, the 7-foot-5 French delight, having everyone salivating at the opportunity to change the trajectory of a franchise in one night. It’s the NBA equivalent of winning the Powerball or Mega Millions — and the odds weren’t even that good.

Especially in the Pistons’ case, getting Wembanyama would have been the turbo boost in their rebuild that would have elevated them to playoff contention next year, becoming the final piece in their core of young players built through some lottery luck — and some unluckiness — in the past few years.

The fix isn’t in

There was something of an audible gasp in the ballroom at McCormick Place in Chicago that was also heard on the ESPN broadcast when NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum announced the Pistons would be picking at No. 5.

That was a dramatic turn because all the previous picks at the bottom of the lottery had gone to form. None of the teams in the 6-14 spots moved up, which meant there were no surprise teams that leapfrogged the Pistons. Some conspiracy theorists surmised that the Chicago Bulls, who were slotted at No. 11, would jump up to No. 1, after their Blackhawks got the top pick in the NHL Draft Lottery last week.

Didn’t happen.

Some others thought that the Dallas Mavericks, who were slotted at 10th, might get the top pick to pair Wembanyama with Luka Doncic, for a formidable international duo.

Didn’t happen.

In some ways, if the Pistons had gotten the No. 1 pick, that could have been a better situation for the NBA. Why not have Wembanyama with Cade Cunningham, Jaden Ivey, Jalen Duren and Isaiah Stewart — along with another French player, Killian Hayes? That would be one of the best young cores in the league, along with Oklahoma City, to feature on national TV for most of the season.

Why not reward one of the legacy teams in the league with multiple NBA titles and give Detroit a shot in the arm to get back to relevancy?

That’s conspiracy material.

That doesn’t fit the “fix-is-in” agenda, but that would be as exciting as any other scenario mentioned.

Even if the NBA wanted to send the No. 1 pick to the Spurs, why would they do it? To reward Gregg Popovich? The Spurs don’t have an exciting roster to build around Wembanyama, and it’s not a marquee city like some of the other teams in the lottery. There’s some NBA history, but the Spurs might just find themselves back in the lottery again next year.

And maybe the Pistons will too.

Everything worked

Here’s what fans — at least the ones who are willing to listen to logic — can take away from this.

The lottery worked the way lotteries are supposed to. One of the teams with the best odds (14%) won the lottery. It wasn’t the New Orleans Pelicans, who had a 0.5% chance to get the No. 1 pick — and the talk that would be there, pairing Zion Williamson with Wembanyama.

It wasn’t the Oklahoma City Thunder, who have 95 first-round picks — or something like that — in their draft chest for the coming years, along with a blossoming roster that made the play-in tournament, and they’re expecting Chet Holmgren, last year’s first-round pick, to return from injury next season.

It wasn’t the Orlando Magic, who just got Rookie of the Year Paolo Banchero last year at No. 1, and who seemingly get a No. 1 pick in the lottery every four or five years.

The Rockets, who had a 12% chance of getting the No. 4 pick … got the No. 4 pick.

You win some. You lose some.

Even when your team loses a lot, it doesn’t mean they get the No. 1 pick.

Rod.Beard@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @detnewsRodBeard

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