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Original Issue

Good: Better Than Lucky

I AM like any other flag-waving, off-key-anthem-singing American: I believe that if you work hard and make wise decisions, you will achieve wild success, but you should still buy lottery tickets. After all, if you win Powerball, you might just rake in more than $1 billion, which would enable you to buy a downtrodden pro sports franchise, which would mean you can play the lottery again.

Yes, even billionaires believe in lotteries. This is the only way to explain what happens in the NHL and NBA each spring.

The NHL held its draft lottery two weeks ago, and it was riveting television, even though it featured a bunch of longtime hockey people grimacing as though they had to visit the dentist ... as if they haven't done that enough in their lives. The Maple Leafs won; they are expected to draft 18-year-old phenom Auston Matthews, then cut him into small pieces and feed him to the Toronto media.

The NBA will hold its lottery on May 17, which means the 76ers could cash in on general manager Sam Hinkie's master plan, which was so masterful that it outlasted Hinkie. He resigned earlier this year, after the Sixers' marketing slogan—Sure, we suck now, but we might not suck so much later—failed to catch on.

Multiple studies have concluded that winning a cash lottery does not necessarily make people happier in the long term. You'd think this wouldn't apply to sports lotteries—but it does. Of the last 28 No. 1 NBA draft picks, exactly one has won a title with the team that drafted him: Tim Duncan.

Some No. 1 picks just don't contribute enough, like Greg Oden, who played only 105 games for the Trail Blazers and the Heat, or Andrea Bargnani, who has played in 550 for the Raptors, Knicks and Nets but has played defense in only two or three of them. Just as often, though, the No. 1 pick turns out to be terrific—and that still isn't enough.

The Magic won the lottery in 1992 and '93, turning the picks into Shaquille O'Neal and (after trading Chris Webber) Penny Hardaway. But the next NBA championship parade down Disney World's Main Street U.S.A. will be the first. Shaq bolted for the Lakers, Hardaway's knees betrayed him, and by '98, Orlando was back in the lottery. The Magic won the lottery again in 2004 and chose Dwight Howard. He also left town without a title.

The 76ers should know that winning the lottery guarantees nothing. They once used the No. 1 pick on Allen Iverson, whose nickname was the Answer but who, himself, was not the entire answer. He is in the Hall of Fame but never won a ring.

Conventional NBA wisdom says that you need a superstar to take a title, and the surest way to nab a superstar is to win the lottery. This must make the Warriors laugh. They won a championship last year and finished 73--9 this year, yet they don't even have a player they drafted in the top five on their roster.

If Golden State doesn't win it all next month, the Spurs probably will. And since Duncan is 40 and no longer plays like a No. 1 pick, San Antonio is no longer a lottery-fueled contender. Lotteries did not bring Tony Parker, Kawhi Leonard or LaMarcus Aldridge to town.

If the Warriors or Spurs don't win, the Cavs probably will. They have two players they drafted with the No. 1 choice, LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, but even they prove the greater point. Cleveland failed to win a Finals in James's first go-round because it failed to build a great team around him. The franchise collapsed after he left for Miami, landed Irving with a pick they essentially bought from the Clippers, and only returned to contention, if you get right down to it, because James is from Akron and wanted to be back in Ohio. If he had grown up in Kansas City, he wouldn't be a Cav today.

There is a reason that so many teams that win the lottery end up back in the lottery. Winning the lottery is helpful, of course—but that's all it is. To achieve wild success in sports, you still must work hard and make wise decisions.

Multiple studies have concluded that winning a lottery does not make people happier. The same is true for sports franchises.

Whom would you take with the No. 1 NBA pick this year?

Join the discussion on Twitter by using #SIPointAfter and following @Rosenberg_Mike