The NBA Draft Lottery is an event that is held annually by the National Basketball Association (NBA)
The basic premise of what turns out to be a highly complex affair is this:
The teams who missed the NBA Playoff series in the previous year participate in a lottery process to determine the order in which they will make their NBA Draft picks. The eventual NBA Draft Lottery winner gets to make the first selection.
In the NBA draft, teams are given the opportunity to select eligible players they wish to add to their roster. These players come from the ranks of U.S college basketball and any available international players. They are also able to pick former NBA players who have spent time away from the league, plying their trade elsewhere – generally overseas.
WHEN DID THE NBA DRAFT LOTTERY BEGIN?
The NBA Draft lottery first started being used in 1985 and has seen several adjustments and rule-changes since. The history of the NBA Draft itself goes right back to the origins of the National Basketball Association:
1947 – 1965: TERRITORIAL PICKS
In the early incarnations of the NBA Draft, teams made their picks in reverse order of their win-loss record. There was, however, a special allowance for what were known as “territorial” picks.
In the first 20 years of the BAA/NBA, the league was still in the process of attracting fans to the sport. To this end, it was essential to engage fans with their local teams and build a sense of tribalism and competition. To achieve this, the league introduced the territorial pick rule.
This allowed teams to acquire popular players from local colleges. They reasoned that there would be strong local support for those players and that would naturally transfer to the BAA/NBA team they played for.
The rule allowed any team to draft a player from the local area (within 50 miles of their home arena). If they chose to do so, however, they automatically gave up their first-round pick in the draft that followed.
1966 – 1984: COIN FLIP
A slight change to the system was introduced in 1966 and lasted for 18 seasons. A coin flip between the worst 2 teams in each conference decided who would get first pick in the NBA Draft. This flip determined who would obtain the first overall NBA Draft pick. The team that lost would get the second pick. From there, the rest of the first-round picks proceeded as normal in reverse order of win-loss record.
This system saw the beginning of a sad, demoralising side to the NBA. It may not have been known as “tanking” at the time, but the premise was the same. Teams were acutely aware that there was an advantage to be had in being one of the worst 2 teams.
Accusations of deliberate losses began to surface. The Houston Rockets were the main target of scorn for this in 1984 but other teams were also complicit in the dark arts. This unpleasant side-effect of the system at that time led to the introduction of a lottery system.
1985 – 1989: FIRST LOTTERY SYSTEM
Following the accusations of 1984, the NBA introduced its first lottery system to determine NBA Draft pick order. A random envelope was drawn (even this was not without controversy) Each envelope contained one of the non-playoff teams that didn’t make the cut.
First drawn got first pick and so on until all the envelopes were opened. Each of the 14 teams, therefore, had an equal chance to get first pick and the remaining teams went in reverse win-loss order as always.
In 1987, this system was tweaked so that only the first 3 picks were determined by a lottery draw. After that it was win-loss in reverse again. This effectively meant that the worst team could pick no later than 4th and the team with the second-worst record no later than 5th etc…
1990: WEIGHTED LOTTERY SYSTEM
In 1990, the NBA changed the format of the lottery once again. This time they endeavoured to give the team with the worst record the best chance of getting the first pick. Again, only the first 3 picks were lottery-based with the same system for determining the rest. The worst team that season would get 11/66 chances to receive first pick. 2nd worst got 10 chances and so on…
This system backfired somewhat in 1993. Orlando Magic won the lottery from last position (having been the best team not to make the NBA Playoffs that season) Their 1 chance to win from 66 proved enough and they took first pick. More modifications ensued and the most recent incarnation of the NBA Draft Lottery drew nearer. The new, new system increased the chances of the worst team obtaining the first pick from 16.7% to 25%. The best team saw their chances drop from 1.5% to just 0.5%
14 numbered ping pong balls were used for the first time but, sadly the pariah of tanking raised its ugly head again. The advantage of having the worst record returned and the NBA saw teams ‘allegedly’ losing deliberately as soon as it became obvious that they could not reach the NBA Playoffs.
In 2014, another proposed reform was voted on by the board of governors. It would have reduced the advantage of tanking by giving the 4 teams with the worst regular-season records identical odds of winning the lottery.
IT FAILED TO PASS
More controversy plagued the lottery in 2016. Bizarrely, Dikembe Mutombo Tweeted a congratulatory message to the Philadelphia 76ers on winning 1st pick. Nothing weird about that…
EXCEPT THAT IT WAS SEVERAL HOURS BEFORE THE LOTTERY HAPPENED…
Lo, and behold Philadelphia won and the conspiracy theories went stratospheric.
Mutombo has long denied that he had any prior knowledge of the result and there is no reason to doubt him. However, it was too late to get the cat back in the bag and chaos ensued yet again.
Magic Johnson caused even more furore over the NBA Draft Lottery process when he assured the head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers (of whom Johnson happened to be president of basketball operations) that they would get a top 3 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft. He made this assurance 12 days beforehand.
THE LAKERS TOOK 2ND PICK
The validity and impartiality of the lottery are fiercely defended by the NBA but the fact remains that the draw is done behind closed doors and only the subsequent results are revealed live.
In 1995, the NBA Board of Governors agreed to increase the number of NBA teams participating in the lottery from 11 to 13. This was done to account for the addition of the newly-included expansion teams Toronto and Vancouver.
2004: FURTHER EXPANSION
The NBA Draft Lottery increased to 14 teams in 2004. This was to allow for the addition of the Charlotte Bobcats. As a stipulation of their expansion agreement, the Bobcats were locked into the fourth position. They did not receive other picks in the lottery.
2019: FINAL (FOR NOW) ADJUSTMENTS
The final adjustment was made in 2019 to combat the return of depressing tanking issues and the NBA Draft Lottery as we know it today was born. This, most recent version of the NBA Draft Lottery is as described in detail below but we may yet see more tinkering in the coming seasons…
HOW DOES THE NBA DRAFT LOTTERY WORK?
The lottery is usually held during the third or fourth week of May.
The pool of lottery hopefuls is made up of the 14 teams who failed to qualify for that season’s NBA Playoffs. They are seeded in reverse order from how they finished the NBA regular season.
FROM WORST REGULAR-SEASON RECORD TO BEST
Each team’s seed determines the odds it will eventually have of obtaining one of the top three NBA Draft picks.
Although the lottery system looks, for all intents and purposes, like a regular lottery draw, it is actually rather different. Fourteen ping pong balls are placed in a standard lottery machine and drawn one at a time until 4 are removed. The order in which they appear is irrelevant, as with a standard lottery. The possible combinations of 4 numbers drawn from 14 balls at random this way = 1,001
One of the combinations is removed (11,12,13,14), leaving exactly 1,000.
The same ping pong balls that are drawn are then returned to the lottery machine and are available to be drawn again. A team cannot win multiple picks, so the drawing of a combination that is assigned to a team that has already won their pick is simply ignored, and the balls are redrawn.
There are exceptions that are too tedious to go into here
Teams are allowed to trade their picks with other teams and those trades represent the only way in which an NBA Playoff team can find itself with an NBA Draft Lottery pick.
The drawing of the ping-pong balls is, somewhat controversially, done behind closed doors. It is, so they tell us, observed by independent auditors and representatives from each NBA team. The results are unveiled live on television as part of an ESPN special.
As with any high-flying sporting event of such importance, conspiracy theories are rife when it comes to NBA Draft Lottery.
It has been mooted that the NBA occasionally fixes the Draft Lottery if it will be to the overall benefit of the league. In 1985, the theory goes that the NBA wanted to send Patrick Ewing to New York to drive up the viewing figures there.
The 7 envelopes that represented the 7 worst teams at that time were placed into a tumbler and picked out one at a time. If one of those envelopes happened to have been kept in a refrigerator beforehand then it would be easily identifiable by touch…
Whether true or not, David Stern duly selected the envelope representing the New York Knickerbockers and history was made.
WHAT ARE A TEAM’S CHANCES OF WINNING?
Those 1,000 possible combinations are distributed among the NBA Draft Lottery teams. This is done according to their seeded position. The teams with the worst records receive more combinations. The top 3 seeds (worst 3 teams) are given 140 combinations each. This represents a 14% chance of being drawn first and having the first NBA Draft pick. The distribution of combinations and subsequent chances of winning are as follows:
Seed Number of combinations % chance of receiving 1st pick
The remaining picks are still assigned according to the NBA regular-season record. Therefore, a team can drop no more than four spots from its seeded position to its actual NBA Draft position.
If two teams finish with an equally abysmal record, then they each receive the average of the total number of combinations for the positions that they find themselves in. If this number cannot be divided to give a whole number then a coin is flipped. This decides which team receives the extra combination number. It also determines which team receives the earlier pick in the event that neither of the tied teams places 1-4 in the NBA Draft Lottery.
SOUND COMPLICATED? YES. YES IT IS…
HOW ARE PICKS 15-60 DECIDED?
The first 14 picks are made via the NBA Draft Lottery. From there, the remainder of the first round (picks 15-30) and the whole of the second round (picks 30-60), are conducted in reverse order of the NBA regular-season record. Each NBA team makes one selection in the first round and another in the second round.
WHAT ARE THE LARGEST UPSETS IN NBA DRAFT LOTTERY HISTORY?
In 1993, Orlando Magic won the NBA Draft Lottery from a position that gave them only a 1.5% chance to win. 2008 and 2014 saw the Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers both win from a 1.7% chance. In 1999, the Charlotte Hornets took 3rd pick with only a 1.83% chance of doing so. Since the NBA Draft Lottery was first introduced in 1985, 21 of the 30 NBA teams have won.
This is not necessarily a particular badge of honour but the Los Angeles Clippers have won it more than any other team.
5 times in total. They actually traded out 2 of those picks beforehand. Since the introduction of the weighted lottery system in 1990, the team with the worst record has only gone on to win the lottery 7 times. The 2nd worst team has won 4 times.
So, here’s the rub folks. The team here at The Jump Hub are down for anything to do with basketball operations and the inner workings of the NBA in general. We’re glued to the TV on NBA Draft night just like 3 million other people in the USA. But the NBA Draft Lottery format still doesn’t cut it, even after all that tinkering. Whether we like it or not (not. It’s definitely ‘not’) tanking is still an ugly issue in the NBA. It belittles the sport and is embarrassing and demeaning.
How it must feel to be a fan of a side that chooses to deliberately worsen their winning percentage is literally beyond our comprehension. So far, the guys here are lucky enough not to have found ourselves in that position. But it surely doesn’t feel good.
How can any self-respecting team set out to lose?
It is anathema to the spirit of sport in general and an absolute blight on the NBA.
Until the NBA Draft Lottery can successfully negate the effects of tanking and force teams to compete right until the bitter end it will remain a sham.
An entertaining one to watch for sure.