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The Triumph and Tragedy of the NBA Draft Lottery

The NBA’s system for determining its draft order is chaotic, frustrating, and exhilarating at the same time; a piece of modern theater that is as intriguing as it is unpredictable 

Imagine for a minute that you are walking into a casino. The first thing you see is a myriad of slot machines vying for your attention. They have vibrant colors, smooth animations, and the promise of potential winnings to capture your interest. Once you select a machine and start playing there is a slight moment of anticipation and hope as you see the reels spinning with every press of the bet button. It is what draws people in and ultimately keeps them coming back to their favorite games.


The NBA Draft Lottery, much like a slot machine, presents opportunities to strike it rich but often comes with a lot of disappointment as well. The annual event happened recently, with the Atlanta Hawks jumping 9 spots above their slotted projection (that’s the largest leap since Charlotte jumped 10 spots from 13 to 3 in 1999).  For the sixth year in a row, the worst team in the league (the Detroit Pistons) has not won the number one overall pick. The Lottery is an interesting dynamic that gives bad and mediocre teams alike hope. It is a time where these teams think about their futures that are filled with agony, ecstasy, and the unknown. 


The War Against Tanking 

The NBA has been using a lottery system to determine its draft order since 1985. The premise is relatively simple, the worse a team’s record the better their chances of securing the top pick. Unlike other leagues, like the NFL, that award the worst team with the top pick, the NBA’s system allows for mediocre teams that just missed the playoffs to have a chance at top talent. The odds of the worst team acquiring the top pick have changed over the years. In the first five years of the lottery every team had an equal chance of winning, but then the worst team had a better chance of winning the lottery over the others. In 1990 that percentage was 16.67%, then it rose to 25%, and today the worst team only has a 14% chance of winning the opportunity to select first in the draft.


So why did the NBA do this and why have the chances of the worst team winning dropped? The answer is the same for both questions: to stop tanking. The NBA, much like all sports leagues, places a high value on its competitive integrity. So, the idea that a team would lose games on purpose to secure a higher draft pick is akin to blasphemy. This is especially more of a concern in basketball versus other sports like football or baseball because one player can alter the course of a franchise’s trajectory almost instantly.


College basketball in most years will offer the NBA up to three players that could be All-Star caliber talents at the next level. After them, the gap is relatively wide featuring a combination of developmental projects, starting caliber players, and role players. If you are a team that is in a rebuilding phase, acquiring one of these players is of paramount importance. Consider the 2012 NBA Draft for an example of how the lottery could deprive a team of a player they need to turn things around.


The Charlotte Bobcats (since re-branded back to the Hornets) were coming off the worst season in NBA history from a win percentage perspective with a 7-59 record (10.6% winning percentage). They needed a reboot, a player that they could build around. That player in the 2012 Draft was Anthony Davis out of Kentucky. He was guaranteed to go with the first pick and was a generational talent, a can’t miss selection at the top of the draft. The Bobcats had the best odds to land the pick and instead selected Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, also from Kentucky. Davis (who was drafted by New Orleans) has gone on to be a Hall of Fame level player and NBA champion while Kidd-Gilchrist played nine years in the NBA but never lived up to his potential.


Missing out on Davis set Charlotte back, but it was a lesson that this system does not reward chronic losing. In the 39 years that the league has held a Lottery, the team with the worst record has only earned the top pick seven times, or only 18% of the time. The changes in the lottery weighing to a mere 14% chance in today’s system further discourages teams from building non-competitive rosters. Ultimately, the Lottery exists and continues to be tweaked to avoid losing as a building strategy, such as we saw with the “Trust the Process” era of the Philadelphia 76ers.


The Perception of Movement 

If you are a Detroit Pistons fan, it is easy to feel that the Lottery is designed against your teams' interests. The Pistons have had 17 draft picks in the Lottery throughout their history, which is 14th highest across the league. But they have moved down in the Draft for a total of 12 picks, second only to the Minnesota Timberwolves who have moved down 18 selections with their 23 Lottery selections. This means that the Pistons average a pick movement of –0.706 every time they are involved in the Draft Lottery (full breakdown of Lottery results over the years HERE).


The Pistons have had the league’s worst record in the last two seasons and have dropped to the 5th selection in both years. As the team with the worst record, the Pistons are guaranteed a top five selection with the following probabilities:  

  • First pick: 14% chance 

  • Second pick: 13.4% chance 

  • Third pick: 12.7% chance 

  • Fourth pick: 12.0% chance 

  • Fifth pick: 47.9% chance 

There are two ways to look at it depending on how invested you are in the success of the Pistons. If you are a person looking at numbers alone, the team receiving the fifth pick was the likeliest outcome. But if you are a fan of the team the fifth pick feels like more of a curse, considering the league's track record of three high-level players in typical drafts. The Pistons won the Draft Lottery in 2021, moving up from the second slot to draft point guard Cade Cunningham. Since then, they have gotten the fifth pick three years in a row moving down from third, first, and first respectively. This means that the Pistons have missed out on Jabari Smith Jr, Victor Wembanyama, and whoever goes first in the Draft this year. It is understandable why Pistons fans would be bitter.


On the other hand, the Atlanta Hawks won the Lottery with a mere 3% chance of moving up despite having a 65% chance of being awarded the tenth pick. Within the same evening two fan bases as a result left feeling very differently. While Pistons fans felt slighted (understandably so), Hawks fans on the other hand, feel finally vindicated as they have never had the number one pick until now. 


An interesting reality, however, is that the probability of what both teams experienced in this year's Lottery is not the norm. Nearly half of all Lottery pick slots (47.54%) do not move. Only 17% moved up, while 34% moved down. But the extreme variance in this case (the Pistons moving down four slots and the Hawks moving up nine spots) is far less common. In the history of the Lottery, teams have only moved five slots or more 5% of the time, while teams have dropped three slots or more only 7% of the time. It is ultimately a probability game that forces the fates of the future of the league to hang in the balance. 


The Unpredictability of Chance 

The NBA is filled with what-if stories from the NBA Draft. Hypothetical thought exercises like what if Orlando never traded Chris Webber for Penny Hardaway, what if Charlotte never traded away Kobe Bryant after drafting him in 1996, or what if Portland selected Kevin Durant over Greg Oden. These decisions plague front offices, team owners, and fans after these decisions are made. The ripple effect of it all shapes the landscape of basketball, forms reputations, and writes histories.


The sad tales of Greg Oden and Sam Bowie in Portland are juxtaposed by the successes of the players (Michael Jordan and Kevin Durant) of the players that are selected after them. The Draft Lottery plays a big part in these stories. Victor Wembanyama is the next great talent to enter the league. He possesses the rare combination of size, length, and offensive versatility that is the modern-day prototype of basketball stardom. Through the Lottery, he ends up in San Antonio as opposed to Houston, Detroit, or Charlotte (who all had a good chance of winning the lottery).


For Wembanyama’s development, he ends up in a place that has had success with two Hall of Fame big men: David Robinson and Tim Duncan. In San Antonio he was allowed to develop under the radar, which could be seen as a benefit. On the other hand, landing in Detroit or Houston would have re-energized those franchises to be competitive once again as they were at times in the past. If he achieves greatness as a Spur, it will be viewed as another instance of San Antonio being an incredibly well-run organization while Charlotte and Detroit are looked at as mediocre franchises that can’t seem to get out of their way. 


There is a theater to the results of the Lottery that speaks to a divergent path that could also be a blessing. In the 2019 Draft, the New York Knicks had the worst record in the NBA and the best chance of securing the top pick. They did not win the Lottery and ended up with the third pick in that draft. The two teams picked ahead of them (New Orleans and Memphis) selected Zion Williamson and Ja Morant, players that have gone on to be All-Stars, while the Knicks selected RJ Barrett who they eventually traded to acquire OG Anunoby. But despite this, the Knicks have been the healthier franchise since then with Zion struggling with injuries and Morant dealing with various off-the-court issues. Since then, the Knicks have enjoyed more playoff success with 14 playoff wins since 2020 compared to New Orleans’ two and Memphis’ nine.  In the case of the Knicks, Lottery misfortune eventually turned into organizational success.  

The NBA Draft Lottery is a bit of a spectacle, a math game that NBA franchises play every year that is filled with the intoxicating drug of hope. Much like games at a casino, it is filled with few winners and countless losers every year. But the intrigue of the event is part of the NBA machine, a storyline generator. With it we have stories of triumph, stories of discontent, disappointment, and celebration. So, while teams will inevitably be disappointed that they lost the Lottery, it doesn’t mean that they can’t win the Draft. When a player slips in the draft and becomes a star player it is the ultimate redemption of the scorned Lottery loser. And in that sense, it is theater unlike anything else that we have in sports today.

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