SECAUCUS, N.J. Every once in a while, a player comes along who gives hope to all the downtrodden teams of the NBA.
This time around, it's LeBron James.
The high school phenom from Akron, Ohio, will make the NBA draft lottery Thursday night almost as important as a playoff game. All 13 teams that missed the playoffs are hoping to land the superstar.
''LeBron James has all the allure,'' said Marty Blake, who heads a scouting service affiliated with the NBA. ''He is a very skilled player who sees the court better than any other high school player I have ever seen.''
Denver and Cleveland have the best chance of winning the lottery under the NBA's system of weighting the draw to favor the teams with the worst records. The Nuggets and Cavaliers finished tied for the worst record in the league at 17-65, and each will have 225 of 1,000 lottery chances, or 22.5 percent.
Toronto (157 chances), Miami (120), the Los Angeles Clippers (89), Memphis (64), Chicago (44), Atlanta (29), New York (15), Washington (14), Golden State (7), Seattle (6) and Houston (5) also have a shot at picking No. 1.
Houston won the lottery last year and took Yao Ming. The Rockets missed the playoffs by a game.
''I can't speak for all the other teams, but we know who we want with the No. 1,'' said Cavaliers general manager Jim Paxson, who knows landing the local star would also guarantee a turnaround at the box office.
Houston saw its attendance jump 17 percent after taking the 7-foot-5 Yao.
Teams are banking on James to become the next in a line of superstars who can make an immediate impact.
Patrick Ewing did it for the Knicks in 1985. Shaquille O'Neal turned around the Orlando Magic's fortunes in the early 1990s. Tim Duncan made the San Antonio Spurs a champion after being the No. 1 choice in 1997.
James averaged 30.4 points, 9.7 rebounds, 4.9 assists and 2.9 steals as a senior at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School. The 18-year-old was selected the MVP in all three of his postseason all-star games.
James' athleticism is rare. He is a 6-8 swingman who can shoot from the outside and has the power and leaping ability to play inside.
The Nuggets' fans want James. They chanted ''Bring on LeBron!'' at the end of the season's final game.
The fans also gave Nuggets officials good luck charms to bring to New Jersey for the lottery, which will be held at the offices of NBA Entertainment, starting at 8 p.m. EDT.
The NBA draft will be held on June 26.
The charms included rabbits' feet, horseshoes, four-leaf clovers, statues of saints, holy cards, a leprechaun, a key from the Luxor Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas and a New Orleans voodoo doll.
''It would be a pretty gutsy play not to take him,'' Denver general manager Kiki Vandeweghe said of James.
''But having said that, there are a lot of good players, and I think that you've got to weigh all the factors. You have to keep an open mind on a lot of things.''
The teams that don't win the draft won't walk away losers.
This might be the deepest draft in years, Blake said.
Carmelo Anthony, who led Syracuse to the national championship this season as a freshman, is a great second choice, and there are some who think he has an outside shot at being the top pick.
Anthony, who turns 19 on May 29, had an impressive Final Four. He had a career-best 33 points and pulled down 14 rebounds in the semifinals against Texas, then scored 20 points in the championship game against Kansas.
Darko Milicic, a left-handed 7-footer from Serbia who turns 18 on June 20, is the best of the big men available, and he's expected to be the No. 3 pick.
Blake said the draft is loaded with point guards, including All-American T.J. Ford of Texas.
Among the first seniors expected to be taken are Kansas teammates Kirk Hinrich and Nick Collison.
Only twice since 1988 has the team with the worst record won the lottery.
''If I'm in the lottery, I'm ecstatic,'' Blake said. ''If I'm not in the lottery, I'm still excited.''
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