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Why Does the NBA Do a Draft Lottery?

For new fans that just started watching the NBA, it can be confusing to see something called the Draft Lottery. Other professional sports leagues like the NFL don’t have this type of thing, which makes the NBA that much more confusing when you are first examining it. However, the reason isn’t that difficult to comprehend.

Why Does the NBA Do a Draft Lottery? The NBA Draft Lottery has the intention of randomizing the chance of getting the top Draft pick, amongst the NBA teams with the worst record. When the NBA was first created, teams were given their draft position depending strictly on their record. The worst team in the league for the previous year would be given the top selection in order to improve their organization. The goal was to drive parity across the league. The problem was that teams were beginning to tank intentionally. It started to throw off the balance of the sport and fans weren’t enjoying watching certain teams intentionally lose games all season to get the best player in the draft. The NBA Draft Lottery is a deterrent against tanking.

There is a lot more to the draft lottery than it may seem at first sight. Which is why we are going to dive a bit deeper into the aspects of it.

How Does the Draft Lottery Work?

The draft lottery is surprisingly simple to understand. A league official places 14 ping pong balls that are all numbered 1-14 to represent the 14 worst teams in the association, usually the ones that miss the playoffs. A machine will then spit out a ping pong ball with a number. Now, it should be noted that the worst three teams in the league that year will have the same chances of obtaining the number one overall pick, all of which are higher than the teams better than them. It should also be noted that the worst overall team will not drop further than number five overall. Moving forward, each team is presented with a combination. The worse the record, the better the odds. The first four or five teams to complete their combinations get picks going up from one to four. After that, the rest is determined by the final record. There are 1001 possible combinations of ping pong balls. For example, if you are the absolute worst team in the league, then you will be given 140 combinations where if you hit one first, you get the top overall selection. Thus, netting you a 14 percent chance. If you are towards the bottom of the lottery like 13 and 14, you will only be getting about five combinations to hit on. This is a very fair way to organize it and while some people don’t prefer this method, it does help stop tanking in the league.

Craziest Draft Lottery Victories

Well, sometimes the impossible happens in the draft lottery. This is when a team with a semi competitive record, but misses the playoffs, comes into the lottery and wins the top selection. Dating back to the year 2002, the team to win the lottery with the worst odds has been the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2014. They had just a 1.70 percent chance to obtain the top overall selection that year. Before the placement was announced, Cleveland was expected to receive the number nine overall selection. With their eight placement jump in the draft, they decided to take Andrew Wiggins who was then traded shortly after to the Minnesota Timberwolves. Another team with a 1.70 percent chance to win was the Chicago Bulls in 2008. Chicago went 33-49 the year before and just like Cleveland, they were expected to obtain the 9th overall pick. They somehow found a way to get lucky and win the lottery, netting them Derrick Rose in that upcoming draft. Finally, the lowest odds since the lottery was introduced came in 1993. The Orlando Magic finished with a solid 41-41 record. For most teams, that is actually a good season. They just missed out on the playoffs and were ranked 11th in pre-lottery showings. Still, it didn’t stop them from beating the 1.52 percent chance that they had to get the top seed. With the pick, they grabbed Chris Webber. Funnily enough, it was the season after they drafted Shaquille O’Neal with the number one overall pick. Orlando had some insane luck during this time span.

Early Draft Lottery Years

We didn’t always have the smooth-running system that we have in the lottery today. No, we had a much more interesting system going on a few decades ago. During 1947 all the way to 1965, the league had something called territorial picks. Their lottery wasn’t really a lottery, as the order was determined by overall record. However, a team would be able to draft a player if they were from the local area. There is a reason why this type of pick isn’t around anymore, because it really isn’t fair at all. Anyways, they moved onto the coin flip from 1966-1984. This was their first real draft lottery system. The worst teams in each conference would do a coin flip to see who gets the top overall selection. If a team loses the flip, they would just get the second overall pick. The rest of the teams were determined by overall record again. While this does seem to be a solid method all-around, I would definitely not want my team’s future to be determined by a single coin flip. Then came the cards. A bunch of envelopes were placed inside of a hopper with the name of a non-playoff team. A card was drawn to determine the top pick and went up all the way until the 14th. This rule got changed to a point where only three envelopes were drawn to determine the top three but it ended up getting replaced shortly after. Finally came the most recent system that we have talked about with the ping pong balls. There have been a lot of tweaks to the process over the two and a half decades that this has been used, but it has pretty much stayed similar to the original.