- NBA Draft Lottery
The NBA Draft Lottery is an annual event held by the National Basketball Association (NBA) in which the teams who had missed the playoffs in the previous season, or teams who hold the draft rights of another team that missed the playoffs in the previous season, participate in a lottery process to determine the draft order in the NBA Draft. In the NBA Draft, the teams obtain the rights to amateur U.S. college basketball players and other eligible players, including international players. The lottery winner would get the first selection in the draft. The term "lottery pick" denotes a draft pick whose position is determined through the lottery, while the non-playoff teams involved in the process are often called "lottery teams".
In the current rules, 14 teams participate in the Draft Lottery. The lottery is weighted so that the team with the worst record, or the team that holds the draft rights of the team with the worst record, has the best chance to obtain a higher draft pick. The lottery process determines the first three picks of the draft. The rest of the first-round draft order is in reverse order of the win-loss record for the remaining teams, or the teams who originally held the lottery rights if they were traded. The lottery does not determine the draft order in the subsequent rounds of the draft.
Before 1985: Territorial picks and coin flip
In the earlier drafts, the teams would draft in reverse order of their win-loss record. However, there was a special territorial pick rule that allowed a team to draft a player from its local area. If a team decided to use their territorial pick, it forfeited its first-round pick in the draft. The territorial pick rules remained until the NBA revamped the draft system in 1966.
In 1966, the NBA introduced the coin flip between the worst teams in each division to determine who would obtain the first overall draft pick. The team who lost the coin flip would get the second pick, while the rest of the first-round picks were determined in reverse order of the win-loss record. In this system, the second-worst team would never have a chance to obtain the first pick if it was in the same division with the worst team. The coin flip meant that both teams had an equal chance to draft first. The coin flip system was used until 1984.
1985–1989: Early lottery system
After the 1984 coin flip, which was won by the Houston Rockets, the NBA introduced the lottery system to counter the accusations that the Rockets and several other teams were deliberately losing their regular season games in order to secure the worst record and subsequently the chance to obtain the first pick. The lottery system involved a random drawing of an envelope from a hopper. Inside each of the envelopes were the non-playoff team names. The team whose envelope was drawn first would get the first pick. The process was then repeated until the rest of the lottery picks were determined. In this system, each non-playoff team had an equal chance to obtain the first pick. The rest of the first-round picks were determined in reverse order of the win-loss record.
Starting from 1987, the NBA modified the lottery system so that only the first three picks were determined by the lottery. After the three envelopes were drawn, the remaining non-playoff teams would select in reverse order of their win-loss record. This meant that the team with the worst record could receive no worse than the fourth selection, the second-worst team could pick no lower than fifth, and so on.
The New York Knicks were the first winner of the lottery in 1985. They selected Georgetown University standout Patrick Ewing with their first overall pick. However, speculation arose that the NBA had rigged the lottery so that the Knicks would be assured to get the first pick. Even though the envelope system was highly criticized, it was used until 1989 before being replaced by the weighted lottery system in 1990.
1990–present: Weighted lottery system
In 1990, the NBA changed the format of the lottery to give the team with the worst record the best chance of landing the first pick. For the 11 non-playoff teams that season, the team with the worst record would have 11 chances (out of 66) to obtain the first pick, the second worst would have 10 chances, and so on. Similar to the previous system, this weighted lottery system was also used only to determine the first three picks, while the rest of the teams selected in reverse order of their win-loss records.
Despite the weighted odds, the Orlando Magic managed to win the lottery in 1993 with only 1 chance to obtain the first pick as they were the best non-playoff team in the previous season. In October 1993, the NBA modified the lottery system to give the team with the worst record a higher chance to win the draft lottery and to decrease the better team's chances to win. The new system increased the chances of the worst team obtaining the first pick in the draft from 16.7 percent to 25 percent, while decreasing the chances of the best non-playoff team from 1.5 percent to 0.5 percent.
In the new system, 14 numbered ping-pong balls were used. Then, a four-digit combination from the 14 balls were drawn to determine the lottery winner. Prior to the draft, the NBA assigned 1000 possible combinations to the non-playoff teams. The process was then repeated to determine the second and third pick. The table below shows the lottery chances and the probabilities for each team to win the first pick in the weighted lottery system in 1993 and 1994 Draft.
1993 Draft Lottery 1994 Draft Lottery Team 1992–1993
(out of 66)
Probability Team 1993–1994
(out of 1000)
Probability 1 Dallas 11–71 11 16.67% Dallas 13–69 250 25.00% 2 Minnesota 19–63 10 15.15% Detroit 20–62 164 16.40% 3 Washington 22–60 9 13.64% Minnesota 20–62 164 16.40% 4 Sacramento 25–57 8 12.12% Milwaukee 20–62 163 16.30% 5 Philadelphia 26–56 7 10.61% Washington 24–58 94 9.40% 6 Milwaukee 28–54 6 9.09% Philadelphia 25–57 66 6.60% 7 Golden State 34–48 5 7.58% L.A. Clippers 27–55 44 4.40% 8 Denver 36–46 4 6.06% Sacramento 28–54 27 2.70% 9 Miami 36–46 3 4.55% Boston 32–50 15 1.50% 10 Detroit 40–42 2 3.03% L.A. Lakers 33–49 8 0.80% 11 Orlando 41–41 1 1.52% Charlotte 41–41 5 0.50%
In 1995, the NBA had an agreement with the two expansion franchises, the Toronto Raptors and the Vancouver Grizzlies. The agreement stated that both teams would not be eligible to obtain the first overall pick in the 1996, 1997 and 1998 Draft, even if they won the lottery. The Raptors won the 1996 lottery but were forced to settle with the second pick. Another combination was drawn and resulted in the Philadelphia 76ers getting the first pick. A similar situation occurred in 1998 when the Grizzlies won the lottery but had to select second in the draft while the L.A. Clippers obtained the first pick.
The lottery is normally held during either the third or fourth week of May. The 2011 draft lottery was held on May 17. The Cleveland Cavaliers, Minnesota Timberwolves, and Utah Jazz won the first through third picks, respectively. The Cavaliers had two separate lottery picks in that draft; the pick that was drawn first was acquired in a trade with the Los Angeles Clippers.
To determine the winner, fourteen ping pong balls numbered 1–14 are placed in a standard lottery machine and four balls are randomly selected from the lot. Just as in most traditional lotteries, the order in which the numbers are drawn is not important. That is, 1-2-3-4 is considered to be the same as 4-3-2-1. So although there is a total of 24 (4!) orders in which the balls numbered 1-2-3-4 can be picked, they are all treated as the same outcome. In doing this, the permutation of 4 balls from 14 becomes the combination of 4 balls from 14. That is, the total of 24,024 (14! / 10!, or 14x13x12x11) possible permutations is reduced by a factor of 24, to 1,001 combinations (or 14! / (10! x 4!)). Of these, 1 outcome is disregarded and 1,000 outcomes are distributed among the 14 non-playoff NBA teams. The combination 11-12-13-14 (in any order that those numbers are drawn) is not assigned and it is ignored if drawn; this has never occurred in practice.
In the event a lottery pick is traded to another team, the record of the original team (whose pick it was before the trade) still determines eligibility for the lottery, and assignment of chances.
As of 2008, with 30 NBA teams, 16 qualify for the playoffs and the remaining 14 teams are entered in the draft lottery. These 14 teams are ranked in reverse order of their regular season record and are assigned the following number of chances
- 250 combinations, 25.0% chance of receiving the #1 pick
- 199 combinations, 19.9% chance
- 156 combinations, 15.6% chance
- 119 combinations, 11.9% chance
- 88 combinations, 8.8% chance
- 63 combinations, 6.3% chance
- 43 combinations, 4.3% chance
- 28 combinations, 2.8% chance
- 17 combinations, 1.7% chance
- 11 combinations, 1.1% chance
- 8 combinations, 0.8% chance
- 7 combinations, 0.7% chance
- 6 combinations, 0.6% chance
- 5 combinations, 0.5% chance
Here are the odds for each seed to get specific picks if there were no ties (rounded to 3 decimal places):
Seed Chances 1st 2nd 3rd 4th 5th 6th 7th 8th 9th 10th 11th 12th 13th 14th 1 250 .250 .215 .178 .357 2 199 .199 .188 .171 .319 .123 3 156 .156 .157 .156 .226 .265 .040 4 119 .119 .126 .133 .099 .351 .160 .012 5 88 .088 .097 .107 .261 .360 .084 .004 6 63 .063 .071 .081 .439 .305 .040 .001 7 43 .043 .049 .058 .599 .232 .018 .000 8 28 .028 .033 .039 .724 .168 .008 .000 9 17 .017 .020 .024 .813 .122 .004 .000 10 11 .011 .013 .016 .870 .089 .002 .000 11 8 .008 .009 .012 .907 .063 .001 .000 12 7 .007 .008 .010 .935 .039 .000 13 6 .006 .007 .009 .960 .018 14 5 .005 .006 .007 .982
In the event that teams finish with the same record, each tied team receives the average of the total number of combinations for the positions that they occupy. In 2007, the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Portland Trail Blazers tied for the sixth worst record. The average of the 6th and 7th positions in the lottery was taken, resulting in each team getting 53 combinations (the average of 63 and 43). Should the average number not be an integer, a coin flip is then used to determine which team or teams receive the extra combination(s). The result of the coin flip is also used to determine who receives the earlier pick in the event that neither of the tied teams wins one of the first three picks via the lottery.
The lottery is conducted with witnesses verifying that all 14 balls are represented once as they are placed in the lottery machine. The balls are placed in the machine for 20 seconds to randomize prior to having the first ball drawn. The remaining three balls are drawn at 10-second intervals. NBA officials determine which team holds the winning combination and that franchise is awarded the #1 overall draft pick. The four balls are returned to the machine and the process is repeated to determine the second and third picks. In the event that a combination belongs to a team that has already won its pick (or if the one unassigned combination comes up), the round is repeated until a unique winner is determined. When the first three teams have been determined, the remaining picks are given out based on regular season record with the worst teams getting the highest picks. This assures each team that it can drop no more than three spots from its projected draft position.
A simple explanation: 1000 different outcomes of an experiment exist and are equally likely to occur. A certain number of outcomes is assigned to each non-playoff NBA team. The largest number of outcomes is assigned to the team with the worst record. The team with the second worst record gets the second largest number of outcomes, and so on for each of the 14 teams in the lottery. The experiment is conducted, and the team to which the winning outcome was assigned receives the 1st pick in the NBA Draft. The experiment is conducted again. If the winner is the same team that already won, the experiment is performed over again until there is a different winner. The winner of the second experiment receives the 2nd pick. The winner of the third experiment receives the 3rd pick. After the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd picks are determined, the 4th-14th picks are assigned to teams based on weakness of record.
In a case where a lottery team trades its pick to a playoff team, the playoff team assumes the lottery team's position in all draft lottery situations, unless provisioned by the conditions of the trade.
The drawing of the ping-pong balls is conducted in private, though observed by independent auditors and representatives from each team. The results are subsequently presented in a short ceremony (typically broadcast prior to or during halftime of an NBA playoff game), in which the order of the lottery is announced in reverse order, from the fourteenth selection to the first. Representatives from each NBA franchise with a lottery pick are present at the lottery ceremony.
The decision of not showing the ping-pong balls live has fueled speculation that the NBA will occasionally fix the Draft Lottery if it can benefit the league. The root of this speculation is the 1985 Draft Lottery that sent Patrick Ewing to New York, with the theory being that the NBA wanted to send the best player in the draft to New York to increase ratings in a large television market. At that time the NBA used 7 envelopes in a tumbler representing the seven teams with the worst record. When the envelopes were added to the tumbler, two envelopes were put in forcibly, and banged against the edge, while all the rest were set in gently. The first envelope drawn was the 1st pick, and it went onwards up to the 7th pick. David Stern went for an envelope with a bent corner, which upon opening the envelope, it was revealed that the New York Knicks logo was inside, fueling speculation of a draft fix ever since. Afterward the Draft Lottery Format was changed to the current ping-pong ball lottery in a private room with team representatives.
The largest upset in the lottery occurred in 1993 when the Magic won the lottery with just 1.5 percent chance to win. The second largest upset occurred in 2008 when the Chicago Bulls won the lottery with just 1.7 percent chance. Since the lottery was introduced in 1985, only 16 of 30 NBA teams have won the lottery. The Orlando Magic and the Los Angeles Clippers have won three lotteries each. The Orlando Magic were the only team who had won the lottery in two consecutive years. Since the weighted lottery system introduced in 1990, only three teams with the worst record went on to win the lottery while only five teams with the second-worst record have won the lottery.
Year Team Previous season
Probability 1985 New York Knicks 24–58 (3rd-worst) — [B]14.29% 1986 Philadelphia 76ers[A] 54–28 (20th-worst)[A] — [B]14.29% 1987 San Antonio Spurs 28–54 (4th-worst) — [B]14.29% 1988 Los Angeles Clippers 17–65 (Worst) — [B]14.29% 1989 Sacramento Kings 27–55 (6th-worst) — [C]11.11% 1990 New Jersey Nets 17–65 (Worst) 11 (out of 66) 16.67% 1991 Charlotte Hornets 26–56 (5th-worst) 7 (out of 66) 10.61% 1992 Orlando Magic 21–61 (2nd-worst) 10 (out of 66) 15.15% 1993 Orlando Magic 41–41 (11th-worst) 1 (out of 66) 1.52% 1994 Milwaukee Bucks 20–62 (2nd-worst) 163 (out of 1000) 16.30% 1995 Golden State Warriors 26–56 (5th-worst) 94 (out of 1000) 9.40% 1996 Philadelphia 76ers 18–64 (2nd-worst) 200 (out of 593)[D] 33.73% 1997 San Antonio Spurs 20–62 (3rd-worst) 157 (out of 727)[D] 21.60% 1998 Los Angeles Clippers 17–65 (3rd-worst) 157 (out of 696)[D] 22.56% 1999 Chicago Bulls 13–37[E] (3rd-worst) 157 (out of 1000) 15.70% 2000 New Jersey Nets 31–51 (7th-worst) 44 (out of 1000) 4.40% 2001 Washington Wizards 19–63 (3rd-worst) 157 (out of 1000) 15.70% 2002 Houston Rockets 28–54 (5th-worst) 89 (out of 1000) 8.90% 2003 Cleveland Cavaliers 17–65 (T-Worst) 225 (out of 1000) 22.50% 2004 Orlando Magic 21–61 (Worst) 250 (out of 1000) 25.00% 2005 Milwaukee Bucks 30–52 (6th-worst) 63 (out of 1000) 6.30% 2006 Toronto Raptors 27–55 (5th-worst) 88 (out of 1000) 8.80% 2007 Portland Trail Blazers 32–50 (6th-worst) 53 (out of 1000) 5.30% 2008 Chicago Bulls 33–49 (9th-worst) 17 (out of 1000) 1.70% 2009 Los Angeles Clippers 19–63 (2nd-worst)[F] 177 (out of 1000) 17.70% 2010 Washington Wizards 26–56 (5th-worst) 103 (out of 1000) 10.30% 2011 Cleveland Cavaliers 19-63 (2nd-worst)[G] 227 (out of 1000) 22.70%
- A The Philadelphia 76ers won the lottery by virtue of obtaining Los Angeles Clippers' first-round pick in a previous trade that sent Joe Bryant to the Clippers on October 6, 1979. The 54–28 win-loss record is the 76ers' record in the 1985–1986 season, while the Clippers had a 32–50 record.
- B 1 2 3 4 From 1985 to 1988, each of the 7 non-playoff teams had an equal chance to win the lottery, i.e. 14.29 percent.
- C In 1989, each of the 9 non-playoff teams had an equal chance to win the lottery, i.e. 11.11 percent.
- D 1 2 3 The Toronto Raptors and the Vancouver Grizzlies were not eligible to win the lottery in 1996, 1997 and 1998 due to their expansion agreement. Therefore, their lottery combinations for the first pick were excluded.
- E Due to the 1998–99 NBA lockout, the season was shortened into a 50-game season.
- F The Los Angeles Clippers and the Washington Wizards had identical 19–63 records for 2nd-worst record in the NBA. However, the Wizards won the tiebreaker and were awarded one extra lottery combination.
- G The Cleveland Cavaliers had the rights to their own and the Los Angeles Clippers' first-round picks from a previous trade that sent Mo Williams and Jamario Moon to the Clippers and Baron Davis to the Cavaliers. The Cavaliers, who had the second-worst record, had a combined total of 227 chances (22.7%) to win the lottery, which consists of 199 chances (19.9%) from their own pick and 28 chances (2.8%) from the Clippers' pick. Their winning lottery combination came from the Clippers' pick.
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