The Flip of a Coin

Kurt —  May 25, 2007

This story yesterday from True Hoop — how Portland winning a coin flip gave them the top pick this year, had it gone the other way it would have gone to Minnesota and dramatically changed Kevin Garnett’s future — reminded me how the flip of a coin dramatically changed the course of the Lakers franchise.

The story starts in 1976, when tall ships were gathering in New York and a young Romanian girl named Nadia Comaneci was the talk of the sports world. With the Lakers, Gail Goodrich, a key part of the 71-72 championship team, was pissed about what team owner Jack Kent Cooke was offering him for future salary. Goodrich, whose jersey hangs in the rafters at Staples now, was sulking his way through the rest of the season.

At the end of it, Cooke finagled a deal with the New Orleans Jazz (back when that team name made sense) — Goodrich could sign with the Jazz in exchange for two future first round picks and a second rounder. Cooke and the Lakers got absolutely killed by fans and the media for that deal — I can’t imagine the heat intensified by talk radio and the Internet today. It could have cost someone his or her job.

(By the way, the Jazz had a great idea, pairing “Pistol” Pete Maravich with Goodrich, it worked for a while. If injuries had not undone Gail that could have been an all-time backcourt for a few years. For those of you younger fans not familiar with Maravich, find some old clips, he may have been the most entertaining player in the history of the NBA. )

Fast-forward two years, to the 1978-79 season. The Lakers were a solid playoff team, picking up 47 wins with a roster that included Kareem Abdul-Jabar, Jamaal Wilkes, Norm Nixon and personal favorite Adrian Dantley. The Jazz were terrible, earning just 29 wins and finishing with the worst record in the Eastern Conference. Back then the worst team in the Western Conference was the 31-win Chicago Bulls (ah, remember that pre-Jordan the Bulls were not a great franchise).

But in 1979 teams didn’t just pick in order of worst record, nor was there a lottery. Instead, the teams with the worst records in their conference had a coin flip to determine which one got the first pick.

With the Jazz pick from the Goodrich trade, it came down the Lakers and the Bulls — and the coin toss came up in LA’s favor.

“Chick let up a yell that could have been heard in downtown Los Angeles.”

The Bulls then offered the 2nd pick plus Reggie Theus for the opportunity to draft Johnson. The Lakers declined. It was a good thing because if the Bulls had won the toss or the Lakers had traded the pick…

“If that coin had come up heads I probably would have headed back to Michigan State for another year.”
-Magic Johnson

The Lakers were also a team in transition. Jack Kent Cooke was in the midst of selling the team to then real estate tycoon, Dr. Jerry Buss.

The transaction to sell the team was about to be consummated and the recommendation came down that Buss draft Moncrief.

“No way,” said Buss. “Magic’s the guy, or the deal’s off.”

With the first pick in the draft, the Lakers took Earvin “Magic” Johnson out of Michigan State. Five championships and a decade of the most exciting and well-played basketball the world has seen followed.

With the second pick, the Bulls took David Greenwood out of UCLA. By the way, there was a sentiment among some fans and media that the Lakers should pass on Magic to take Sidney Moncrief out of Arkansas. What are you supposed to do with a 6’9” point guard with flash but no jump shot when you have Norm Nixon? Draft Moncrief, a 6’4” off guard who could play both ends of the floor.

Moncrief would eventually be drafted by the Bucks and fourth year head coach Don Nelson and go on to have a distinguished NBA career. Greenwood would not be so lucky, having a career that could best be described as solid.

But how different would the Lakers have been if the coin had landed the other way and the Lakers ended up with the second pick in 1979?

We may one day look back and wonder how different things would have been had Minnesota won this coin toss. The story has already begun to take on a similar arc, but sister luck can be a fickle gal.

Some quotes and facts from The Show and Magic Johnson, My Life
Also, Gatinho contributed considerably to this post.

to The Flip of a Coin

  1. Cool story Kurt. It sounds like the Blazers are in the same position now that the Lakers were back then. Everybody is throwing offers at them for the pick but they should hold on to it like the Lakers did.

    As long as the Blazers can acquire a pretty good SF/Swingman in return for Zach Randolph, they are gonna be GOOD soon.


  2. Who did the Lakers get with the other pick?

    Also, I’ve always wondered how the Lakers got the #1 pick that got James Worthy.


  3. Great article Kurt. Really nice to look back while we stare forward to the future.

    Fun watching Magic on TNT now. He seems to take plenty of joy in watching the young players in the league who have been influenced by him.


  4. I don’t know if this is legit or official, but someone just mentioned to me that they heard on AM570 that Kwame is having ‘reconstructed ankle surgery’ which would “ruin the chances of him getting traded”




    Here’s a blurb I worte a while back about it.

    Ted Stepien and the James Worthy Rule: Okay, so it’s really called the Ted Stepien Rule… In 1980 the Lakers traded Don Ford to the Cleveland Cavaliers as part of one of many disastrous moves by Stepien.

    Ford would end up playing in only 85 games over the next two years and that pick would turn into Hall of Famer “Big Game” James Worthy. The first, last, and only time that a reigning NBA champ would have the top pick in the following year’s draft.

    Stepien would end up operating with such abandonment that the NBA took away the ability for him to make trades without the league’s specific direction and approval. The Gund brothers, who bought the Cavs in 1983, would only follow through with the transaction after the NBA promised to give them supplemental first round picks to replace those that Stepien had traded away.

    None of this would happen in the here and now. GM’s are now backed by a slew of assistants, and all first round picks are lottery protected. The aptly nicknamed Ted Stepien rule states that teams can not trade first round picks in consecutive years and every team must have at least one pick in the two rounds of the draft.

    In effect, we will never see a traded first round pick end up being the numero uno. It happened to the Lakers twice, and because common sense and league rules now dictate the process, it will never happen again.


  6. Kwame is having ankle surgery, but they won’t be sure if they need to perform any reconstruction until the surgery. The article is on the LA Times website.


  7. According to Dave Smith, there’s a rumor of talks between the Lakers and Portland, with Kobe going to the Emerald City in exchange for the #1 pick. I’m sure it’s hogwash, and too unsubstantiated to comment on here, but just for fun, what does everyone think of the following.

    If the Lakers truly believe that Bynum will develop into an all-star, and that they can’t make any moves to become a legitimate championship contender during Kobe’s prime, then they could theoretically:

    1. Keep Bynum at C.

    2. Trade Odom to Boston for the #5 pick and Theo Ratliff (whose contract is expiring). Draft Yi with the #5 pick to be the new PF. Boston needs vets, not more young guys to develop. And China would be ecstatic to send Yi to LA.

    3. Trade Kobe to Portland for the #1, LaFrentz, and Miles. Portland gets rid of two horrible contracts and gets the best player in the NBA. Kobe theoretically might (but realistically probably wouldn’t) waive his no-trade clause because he would have a better chance to win a championship with a big man rotation of Aldrige, Randolph, Pryzbilla, and Magliore, as well as a guard/SF rotation of Roy, Jack, Webster, Udoka, and Rodriguez, than with the Lakers.

    Lakers draft Durant with the #1 to play SF because the Buss family loves stars and Durant will be a bigger star than Oden.

    4. Draft Nick Young with the #19 pick to play SG, or trade up a few slots to get him. He wants to become the next Kobe, so give him the number 8.

    5. Farmar will be the starting PG next year, but the Lakers will be in the lottery in ’08 and there will be a lot of good PGs, including OJ Mayo, Rose, etc.

    That’s an exciting team that would be fun to watch develop, especially Durant.


  8. Sanchez, the Lakers did have their own pick in 1979 and with it took Brad Holland. He was the last player ever recruited by John Wooden and was a UCLA sharpshooter. He had great range, but oddly never shot the three well in the NBA (19% for his career from deep). He wasn’t really athletic enough to last at the NBA level. Now he’s the coach at USD down the 5 from Staples Center.

    LG, Portland and Seattle are not going to give up the top two picks, and if for no other reason than marketing. Right now their fan base is pumped out of their minds. To trade that energy away for Kobe (who is a great player but at his peak and with for or five years left, and is a controversial figure) would never happen. According to True Hoop (and other sites) after the lottery the season ticket hotline for the Blazers was ringing off the hook, that’s why you don’t make any trade.

    Also, I’d be shocked (and thrilled) if Nick Young fell to 19.

    Now, Kwame needing ankle surgery sounds likely. And that does damage off-season trades. Maybe a team takes him if he performs well in camp, or maybe at the trading deadline. If he gets moved offseason it is only about the salary.


  9. Ouch. I’d never read that Magic quote about going back to Michigan State. Let me tell ya, Earvin — Chicago in the early 80s was pretty swingin’.

    Great post.


  10. warren (philippines) May 26, 2007 at 6:47 am

    Kurt, can you figure out a possible way Denver might exchange Kwame for Camby? (Even now that Kwame will be having surgery) I mean for sure they wont be selling him short but is it possible? Add the #40 pick perhaps?

    Sometimes, payroll relief is one of the major things to be considered. Unless a title is guaranteed, its safe to assume everyone will be allergic of the tax.

    Andrew Bynum is surely an interesting piece of asset this offseason. I can foresee around 20 teams asking about him. Can he land us another key piece? Say, a Pau Gasol or a Zach Randolph instead of all the usual JO or KG? With salary fillers of course.

    One last thing: I have devised a way for the Lakers to fill up salary gaps without expending their core if only the ones to matter left are the salarry. We have 6 FAs and until they are renounced, we own their rights. For instance, we sign and trade 4 FAs for say 1M each, for 3 years, with only the 1st year salary as guaranteed. The 2nd and 3rd as team options. They technically become “expiring” contracts. Is this possible?


  11. warren (philippines) May 26, 2007 at 7:32 am


    The trade deadline passed with a lull. I must say I almost stayed up all night waiting for the BIG news. It almost broke my heart to know that Bynum was the deal-breaker.

    At that time, the NO-deal seemed to be a logical decision. We were already thin up front and whoever was playing well, the injury bug seemed to like him.

    Now, 3 months passed and another 1st round exit later, Kobe is calling for these changes. He is not specific in any player, but he sure was ecstatic upon hearing about the possibility of Kidd by the All Star break. That time, Pip was rumored to be signing as well. But I did not mind that as much.

    To be exact, we do not need to panic. It is Kobe’s patience that we are trying to accommodate thats why every Laker fan is screaming for change. We feel you Kobe, and being your fan base we are more anxious in every single move made. As a team, we are still basically better than 20 other teams in the league and we have the single best player and talent. I say only San Antonio, Houston, Dallas, Utah, Denver, Phoenix, Detroit, Chicago, and Cleveland are better. Some among the mentioned, less the injuries, we are even better IMO.

    To this day, I strongly believe New Jersey is still an ideal trade partner and I bet is still interested in a deal with us. This time, Andrew Bynum might no longer be off-limits anymore. After all, if we may have to be contenders, we cannot play it safe. We have to invest in vision and “immediate” help.

    As I would try to play GM for a minute, I offer my insight regarding the deal we should do with NJ. Carter is likely to opt out and sign elsewhere. Jefferson becomes the man in NJ and Kidd will like it in LA. These are 3 separate considerations that corroborate to the logical “moving” of Kidd.

    Kwame Brown (9.1M expiring), Andrew Bynum, Brian Cook, Jordan Farmar, #40 pick. This is my offer. Kwame is a big body, decent defender and an expiring contract most of all. Bynum and Farmar are considered “the future” of the Lakers. Brian Cook is a young big man who can shoot and the #40 pick can be used to get a decent enough player from this year’s deep draft. If NJ dislikes Cook, I can substitute him with 2-3 FAs that are sign-and-traded with only the 1st year salary guaranteed.

    Whether this happens or not, it is up to the powers that be. But let me tell you something if we get Kidd: We may not win it all next year, we may only be as good as the 2nd round. But there is a hidden agenda I am crossing my fingers on – KG. When the time is right, next year, he can opt out of Minny and see that the only place to be is LA. As two celebrated MVPs and seasoned veterans will win their very first ring they so most deserve, Kobe will win his 1st ever MVP award and the 1st ever ring w/o Shaq.


  12. 10. Warren, nobody wants Kwame, and certainly not for Camby. No pick is going to change that. Laker fans seem to think that just because he’s a big expiring contract other teams will take Kwame. Five years ago you saw some of those deals, but GMs noticed that the teams freeing up all that cap space still had trouble getting the top-flight players. Because guys get about 30% more to stay with their team when contracts expire, the top players don’t just leave anymore. If a guy changes teams, it’s usually a sign and trade — so you’ve got to give up guys, quality guys.

    Somebody may take Kwame near the trade deadline, a team not going to the playoffs and wanting to make a big change the next offseason. But the player coming back is not going to be the quality of the defensive player of the year.


  13. ” I found a way to get Bonds and Griffey in the same outfield, and we really don’t have to give up that much.” — George Costanza


  14. Yeah, Kwame will likely not be the centerpiece around any trade. We almost got lucky trading scrap for Kidd…


  15. Kurt do you think Kwame’s surgery will have any affect on trade talks?


  16. Warren I always enjoy reading your posts. You have an energy and an excitement that really comes through. I may not always see your trade ideas as realistic, but still enjoy reading them. Thanks! By the way, if we trade Bynum AND Kwame for Kidd, we’ll still need a legit PG, cause Kidd will have to play center (who else is left to do so in this scenario?).

    Where is it written we have to sacrifice everything to win today? You’re not guaranteed to win anything, but if you sacrifice the future, you’re guaranteed to lose. I don’t want to become what the Celtics have become: irrelevent.