Sports fans around the world love a good conspiracy theory. We see this to be true in just about every popular league and competition each and every year. Supporters blame referees, gamblers and executives when their favorite teams and clubs lose massive contests. Some seem to go out of the way in attempts to prove outcomes of tournaments, playoffs and draft classes are rigged for whatever reasons. It often doesn’t mean matter if a well-known conspiracy ends up being debunked by individuals who theoretically would have inside knowledge of such a story. Logic and common sense are, in some cases, not enough to squash some tasty and entertaining sports conspiracy theories that find life and grow thanks to social media platforms and other websites.
The National Basketball Association has, over the years, been a breeding ground for all kinds of conspiracy theories. Perhaps the craziest thing about such stories is that many are, in fact, believable when you think about them for any considerable length of time. For example, it isn’t all that wacky a notion to believe certain people running the NBA and television networks would favor seeing more popular teams and franchises located in larger TV markets compete for championships. Last but certainly not least is the rumor regarding the first retirement of the game’s biggest star, a story that still gets mentioned in TV specials and stories about supposed NBA conspiracies to this day. Maybe one day we’ll learn all that really happened behind the scenes.
15 2002 Western Conference Finals
We start with one of the more well-known NBA conspiracy theories involving a playoff game that still leaves us scratching our heads. The Sacramento Kings were a win away from eliminating the more popular Los Angeles Lakers and earning a berth in the NBA Finals when the two met for Game 6 at Staples Center.
Sacramento fell victim to several questionable refereeing decisions during the contest, and it was especially suspicious that the Lakers went to the free-throw line 27 times during the final quarter of play. Los Angeles held serve and went on to win Game 7, an outcome former referee Tim Donaghy later claimed was planned by the NBA. Donaghy’s allegations were never proven to be true, but some remain convinced the Kings were robbed.
14 Jeff Van Gundy Blames Refs
When an NBA conspiracy theory is directly floated out to the public by a man who is a coach at the time, it’s a serious matter regardless of what you think of the person making the claim. Jeff Van Gundy was serving as the head coach of the Houston Rockets in the spring of 2005 when he explained referees were “targeting” center Yao Ming, in part because Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban had “called” the NBA regarding the big man.
Van Gundy went so far to say “another official” even phoned him to verify this conspiracy theory was accurate. You may or may not have believed Van Gundy at the time, but the idea any coach would make up such a story just because he was mad at refs is, to say the least, odd. He was eventually fined $100,000 for his comments.
13 2012 NBA Draft Lottery
Get used to seeing NBA Draft Lottery moments mentioned throughout this piece, because conspiracy theories seem to hover over this process almost every season. The idea behind this one is simple enough to understand. The NBA bought the rights for what was known as the New Orleans Hornets in 2010, and the league held financial control of the franchise until selling it to Tom Benson, owner of the New Orleans Saints, in the spring of 2012.
Rather coincidentally after that sale occurred, the Hornets won -- or “won” depending on how you view the matter -- the draft lottery and the ability to select Anthony Davis. New Orleans acquired the to-be NBA All-Star, and a well-known NBA conspiracy theory that likely will never be convincingly debunked was born.
12 2011 NBA Draft Lottery
The next three NBA conspiracy theories in this list all have to do with Superstar LeBron James eventually making the move from the Miami Heat back to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the summer of 2014. Cleveland’s basketball franchise failed to build a winner around James the first time around, and the Cavs quickly became an absolute mess after the star made his decision to join the Heat in 2010.
The Cavaliers not only won the rights to the top pick via the 2011 NBA Draft Lottery. Cleveland did so via the Los Angeles Clippers’ traded pick that had only a 2.8 percent chance of winning the lottery heading into that fateful night. The Cavs selected guard Kyrie Irving, who became an All-Star and a pivotal reason why James returned to northeast Ohio to help the team win the 2016 NBA Finals.
11 2014 NBA Draft Lottery
The Cavaliers were still a team incapable of even contending to win a title in 2014 when the NBA Draft Lottery once again came around. Per CBS Sports, the Cavs had a 1.7 percent chance of winning the lottery before the 2014 NBA Draft. Despite those odds, the basketball fates once again smiled upon the city of Cleveland. Well before the start of the draft, there were all kinds of rumors in and around northeast Ohio James could re-sign with the Cavs.
The Cavaliers, meanwhile, drafted Andrew Wiggins, a promising young talent who became a piece in a trade that allowed Cleveland to acquire forward Kevin Love. James eventually put pen to paper with the Cavaliers a few weeks after the draft, and one can’t help but wonder if The King received exactly what he wanted all along.
10 LeBron Returns Home
There remains one other fascinating NBA conspiracy theory regarding James rejoining the Cavaliers in 2014. As explained by Steve DelVecchio of Larry Brown Sports at the time, Chris Sheridan of SheridanHoops.com reported there was a “75 percent chance James returns to Cleveland” in part because he had learned individuals close to the player, particularly his wife, believed that was the best decision he could make and wanted to return home.
Such rumors made sense, as both Mr. and Mrs. James have personal ties to northeast Ohio, and the Cavs had enough cornerstones to build a championship team sooner than the Miami Heat. James, as you know, announced in July he had signed with the Cavs, and he and his teammates helped end a title drought that plagued Cleveland pro sports for 52 years when they defeated the Golden State Warriors in the 2016 NBA Finals.
9 2001 Eastern Conference Finals
The Milwaukee Bucks had no recent history of drawing TV viewers when the club faced the Philadelphia 76ers, a team featuring Superstar Allen Iverson, in the 2001 Eastern Conference Finals. Thus, Milwaukee’s Ray Allen directly claimed the NBA wanted the Sixers and not the Bucks to face the Los Angeles Lakers in the Finals after the Bucks found themselves on the losing ends of multiple calls.
Fuel was added to the fire when forward Scott Williams was suspended for Game 7 of the series after he threw an elbow during Game 6. While Williams was unquestionably guilty of the crime, some suggested his punishment had more to do with Allen’s comments than with justice or player safety. Philadelphia cruised to an easy win in Game 7 to secure a high profile showdown with the Lakers.
8 1994 Eastern Conference Semifinals
The Chicago Bulls were facing the New York Knicks in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals showdown at Madison Square Garden in the spring of 1994 when a controversial call shocked many watching the contest. Chicago led 86-85 in the closing seconds of the game when Scottie Pippen was whistled for fouling Hubert Davis even though replays appeared to show Pippen made little contact, if any, with the shooter’s arm.
Davis drained both shots from the charity stripe, and the Knicks went on to win the contest and also the series. Why, you may ask, would the NBA go out of the way to help the Knicks beat the Bulls? Michael Jordan was in the middle of his brief retirement, and one could argue the league would’ve wanted the team from the New York market to advance.
7 2008 NBA Draft Lottery
The Chicago Bulls never really recovered after Michael Jordan left the team a second and final time, and the Bulls badly needed a franchise-saving Superstar in the spring of 2008 when the club had only a 1.7 percent chance of winning the first pick via the NBA Draft Lottery.
Luck smiled on the Bulls when it mattered most, however, as Chicago won the rights for the draft’s first pick and the ability to select Derrick Rose. While injuries plagued Rose’s career throughout his stint with the Bulls, he proved he was able to win an MVP award while healthy and in his prime. Rose never guided the Bulls to a title, but the idea the NBA wanted to help a big-market team in 2008 still makes for an interesting conspiracy theory.
6 2012 NBA Finals
LeBron James and the Miami Heat probably didn’t need a ton of outside help to defeat the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2012 NBA Finals, but some still couldn’t help but wonder if the fix was in after watching the closing seconds of Game 2 in the series.
With the Heat up by two and under ten seconds remaining in the contest, James was tasked with guarding Thunder forward Kevin Durant. James clearly made contact with Durant before the shot was attempted, and Jeff Van Gundy, calling the game for the ABC broadcast, stated on the air he believed James was guilty of a foul. No call was made, however, and Miami held on for the win to tie the series. The Heat went on to win the next three games.
5 2016 NBA Finals 1.0
The 2016 NBA Finals will forever be remembered because the Golden State Warriors blew a 3-1 series lead to the Cleveland Cavaliers, but the Finals were not without controversy. Golden State won three of the first four games of the series, but forward Draymond Green was suspended for Game 5 due to an altercation he had with James during the fourth quarter of Game 4.
While it seemed both Green and James both could’ve walked away before things got heated, Green was supposedly suspended because of his history of bad behavior during games even though the majority of casual fans out there probably would’ve preferred both teams start their best lineups. The Cavaliers took advantage and won Game 5 to extend the series, but controversy again arose following Game 6 in Cleveland.
4 2016 NBA Finals 2.0
When the wife of a two-time NBA MVP takes to Twitter to suggest the outcome of a game is rigged or fixed, that’s a conspiracy theory that must be mentioned in such a list. Ayesha Curry, the wife of Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry, famously claimed Game 6 of the 2016 NBA Finals was “absolutely rigged for money” or “for ratings” after the Warriors lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
She apparently was upset about at least one call that went against her husband during the game and because she believed security at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland “racial profiled” her father before the start of the contest. While Cleveland fans understandably lashed out at Mrs. Curry regarding her Tweets, the fact of the matter is that the series going to a Game 7 was best for NBA business and for television ratings.
3 2003 NBA Draft Lottery
One really cannot discuss LeBron James, the Cleveland Cavaliers and supposed NBA conspiracy theories without starting at the very beginning. The Cavs were NBA laughingstocks back in the spring of 2003 when James, a product of Akron, Ohio, decided he was ready to make the direct jump from high school to the NBA.
Cleveland winning the NBA Draft Lottery and securing the rights to draft the generation’s greatest high school player who happened to be from northeast Ohio was nearly too good to be true, but that is how the story played out. Almost immediately, downtown Cleveland became a must-visit NBA city, and James made the Cavs relevant for the better part of a decade. You almost have to wonder if the Cavs would exist as they do today had they not won that NBA Draft Lottery.
2 1985 NBA Draft Lottery
The 1985 NBA Draft Lottery is probably the most famous in basketball history because of all of the conspiracy theories you can find regarding the New York Knicks winning the rights to draft Patrick Ewing. At the time, the process for determining draft picks involved NBA Commissioner David Stern grabbing team envelopes via what was believed to be a blind draw.
After the Knicks landed the top overall selection, some suggested the corner of the envelope belonging to the Knicks was bent so the commissioner would know to not grab it early. Others even went so far to write they believed the NBA could’ve “frozen” the envelope to fix the outcome of the lottery. The Knicks drafted Ewing, but the franchise never won a title with him on the roster.
1 Michael Jordan’s Retirement
It made little sense to outside observers when Michael Jordan would leave the Chicago Bulls and retire from the NBA in the fall of 1993. After all, he had just won a third-straight title, and he was in the prime of his playing days. That same year, multiple stories about Jordan’s alleged gambling habits went public, and some individuals believed those two matters were related.
The conspiracy that’s been written and spoken about for decades is that the NBA, most notably commissioner David Stern, asked and/or demanded Jordan walk away from the game for a period of time to avoid a massive scandal. Whether or not Jordan was secretly “suspended” will likely never be known, as all involved have millions of reasons to want to keep the story quiet if that is what occurred.