The NBA Draft lottery is, arguably, more important than the actual draft or any other off-season event (with the possible exception of free agency). The lottery allows teams to get out of the cellar or commits them to a potential life of purgatory. This annual event is fast approaching and is often steeped in suspense and filled with high stakes, it determines the fate of teams and can shift the power dynamics of the entire league.

The NBA Draft Lottery is a unique system, blending chance and strategy, which decides the order in which NBA teams select new, promising talent in the upcoming draft. While it may seem like a simple draw of ping-pong balls, the implications run deep, affecting team strategies, players’ careers, and fans’ hopes.

In this post, we will delve into the fascinating history of the NBA Draft Lottery, unravel its complex mechanics, and explore its significant impact on teams and players. We’ll get into the history and explanation of the NBA Draft lottery, but we won’t bury the lead in the meantime.

2023 NBA Draft Lottery Odds

See below for the 2023 NBA Draft Lottery odds. We’ve considered the drawing among the teams who tied with identical records.

TEAM RECORD WIN% LOTTERY ODDS
Detroit 17-65 .207 14.0%
Houston 22-60 .268 14.0%
San Antonio 22-60 .268 14.0%
Charlotte 27-55 .329 12.5%
Portland 33-49 .402 10.5%
Orlando 34-48 .415 9.0%
Indiana 35-47 .427 6.8%
Washington 35-47 .427 6.7%
Utah 37-45 .451 4.5%
Dallas1 38-44 .463 3.0%
Chicago2 40-42 .488 1.8%
Oklahoma City 40-42 .488 1.7%
Toronto 41-41 .500 1.0%
New Orleans 42-40 .512 0.5%

History of the NBA Draft Lottery

The NBA Draft Lottery, as we know it today, is an evolution of several systems implemented over the years to ensure fairness and competitive balance in the league. So let’s take a step back and trace its origins to understand its significance.

Before implementing the lottery system, the NBA Draft operated on a coin flip. Yes, you read that correctly. From 1966 to 1984, the teams with the worst records from each conference would toss a coin to decide who got the first overall pick in the upcoming draft. This system was simple, but it led to some concerns. The most glaring issue was that it potentially incentivized teams to perform poorly—also known as “tanking”—to secure a higher draft pick.

The NBA, aware of the controversy and the possible negative impact on the sport’s integrity, sought a solution. In 1985, the league introduced the NBA Draft Lottery, a system designed to discourage tanking and add an element of suspense and fairness. The first lottery involved a literal “envelope system,” where all non-playoff teams had an equal chance of securing the first pick. The New York Knicks won the inaugural draw, leading to the selection of future Hall of Famer Patrick Ewing.

However, the envelope system wasn’t without its criticism and conspiracy theories, and the NBA continued to refine the process. In 1990, the league implemented a weighted lottery system, giving teams with the worst records a higher chance of landing a top pick. But it wasn’t until 2004 that the current weighted lottery system, as we know it, came into effect. This system significantly boosted the odds for the teams with the three worst records to get a top-three pick, further balancing competitiveness.

Over the years, the NBA Draft Lottery has experienced a few more tweaks, the most recent major in 2019, to further discourage tanking. This change leveled the odds for the teams with the three worst records in the league, each receiving a 14% chance at the number one pick.

The journey of the NBA Draft Lottery, from a simple coin flip to a complex weighted system, reflects the NBA’s commitment to maintaining competitive balance and integrity in the league. It’s a history fraught with suspense, surprise, and intrigue, much like the sport it serves.

How The NBA Draft Lottery Works

The NBA Draft Lottery, despite its history and various changes, can seem complex at first glance. However, once broken down, it’s a fascinating system designed to maintain fairness and competitive balance in the league.

The lottery determines the selection order for the first 14 picks of the NBA Draft. These teams did not make the playoffs in the previous season. The remaining 16 slots (15-30) are filled by playoff teams and are arranged in reverse order of their regular-season records.

The NBA Draft Lottery is a weighted system, meaning teams with worse records have a better chance of receiving a higher pick. This is intended to help balance the competition in the NBA by allowing struggling teams to draft better prospects and improve.

The lottery process involves drawing four numbers from a set of 14 ping-pong balls, and creating a combination. The ping pong balls are placed in a lottery machine for precisely 20 seconds before the first ball is drawn, then ten seconds for each subsequent ball. There are 1,001 possible combinations when you select four numbers from 14, and each team is assigned several varieties proportionate to their lottery odds. The team whose combination is drawn first gets the first pick, and the process repeats for the second and third picks.

If the same team is drawn more than once, the result is discarded, and another four-number combination is selected. After the top three picks are determined, the remaining teams are ordered in reverse win-loss record for picks 4-14.

Now, let’s look at the odds for each of the 14 lottery teams to get the No. 1 overall pick as of the changes implemented in 2019:

  1. Teams with the 3 worst records: 14.0% chance each
  2. 4th worst record: 12.5% chance
  3. 5th worst record: 10.5% chance
  4. 6th worst record: 9.0% chance
  5. 7th worst record: 7.5% chance
  6. 8th worst record: 6.0% chance
  7. 9th worst record: 4.5% chance
  8. 10th worst record: 3.0% chance
  9. 11th worst record: 2.0% chance
  10. 12th worst record: 1.5% chance
  11. 13th worst record: 1.0% chance
  12. 14th worst record: 0.5% chance

Remember, these percentages are for the first pick only. Because the lottery also determines the top three picks, the overall odds of landing a top-three pick are slightly higher for each team.

This system may appear complex, but it’s integral to the NBA’s mission to maintain competitive balance and ensure every team has the chance to improve and succeed. However, it hasn’t always shaken out that way.

The NBA Draft Lottery, despite its history and various changes, can seem complex at first glance. However, once broken down, it’s a fascinating system designed to maintain fairness and competitive balance in the league.

The lottery determines the selection order for the first 14 picks of the NBA Draft. Another way of saying it, is the 14 teams that did not make the playoffs in the previous season. The remaining 16 slots (15-30) are filled by playoff teams and are arranged in reverse order of their regular-season records.

The NBA Draft Lottery is a weighted system, meaning teams with worse records have a better chance of receiving a higher pick. This is intended to help balance the competition in the NBA by allowing struggling teams to draft better prospects and improve.

The lottery process itself involves drawing four numbers from a set of 14 ping-pong balls, creating a combination. There are a total of 1,001 possible combinations when you select four numbers from 14, and each team is assigned a number of combinations proportionate to their lottery odds. The team whose combination is drawn first gets the first pick, and the process repeats for the second and third picks.

If the same team is drawn more than once, the result is discarded, and another four-number combination is selected. After the top three picks are determined, the remaining teams are ordered in reverse win-loss record for picks 4-14.

Now, let’s look at the odds for each of the 14 lottery teams to get the No. 1 overall pick, as of the changes implemented in 2019:

  1. Teams with the 3 worst records: 14.0% chance each (the three worst teams have the same opportunity to win the first overall pick)
  2. 4th worst record: 12.5% chance
  3. 5th worst record: 10.5% chance
  4. 6th worst record: 9.0% chance
  5. 7th worst record: 7.5% chance
  6. 8th worst record: 6.0% chance
  7. 9th worst record: 4.5% chance
  8. 10th worst record: 3.0% chance
  9. 11th worst record: 2.0% chance
  10. 12th worst record: 1.5% chance
  11. 13th worst record: 1.0% chance
  12. 14th worst record: 0.5% chance

Remember, these percentages are for the first pick only. Because the lottery also determines the top three picks, the overall odds of landing a top-three pick are slightly higher for each team.

Famous Examples of NBA Draft Anomalies

The NBA Draft Lottery, with its blend of suspense and chance, has produced several memorable moments throughout its history. Here are a few notable examples:

  1. The Inception – Patrick Ewing to the Knicks (1985): The first NBA Draft Lottery was arguably the most famous. The New York Knicks won the lottery and the chance to pick first in the 1985 NBA Draft. They chose Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing, who became one of the league’s most dominant centers and a Hall of Famer. This lottery also birthed a long-standing conspiracy theory involving a supposedly “frozen envelope” that helped the Knicks secure Ewing.
  2. The Orlando Magic’s Back-to-Back Wins (1992 and 1993): The Orlando Magic won the NBA Draft Lottery in 1992 and selected Shaquille O’Neal. In the following year, against even more significant odds (only a 1.5% chance), the Magic won the lottery again. They selected Chris Webber and immediately traded him for Penny Hardaway. This back-to-back lottery win set the stage for the Magic’s success in the mid-’90s.
  3. Chicago Bulls Land Derrick Rose (2008): Despite only a 1.7% chance of securing the first pick in the 2008 NBA Draft the Chicago Bulls immediately were resurrected. The Bulls won the lottery and selected Chicago native Derrick Rose. Rose became the youngest MVP in NBA history in 2011 and subsequently a staple of the franchise’s resurrection.
  4. The Cavaliers Win Big (2011, 2013, 2014): The Cleveland Cavaliers had the first pick in the NBA Draft three times in four years. In 2011, they won the lottery (with a pick they had acquired from the Clippers) and chose Kyrie Irving. They won again in 2013 and 2014, picking Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins, respectively. Bennett is often considered one of the biggest draft busts in history, while Wiggins was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves in the deal that brought Kevin Love to Cleveland. These lottery wins laid the groundwork for the Cavaliers’ 2016 Championship run.

Now (particularly with the Cavaliers phenomenon..yikes), the NBA has been accused of rigging the lottery to force competitive balance and improve storylines. Sometimes, it’s felt a little…off. Yes, the Cavaliers had a bottom-three record and 2011-2013, but the 2014 team raised eyebrows. The Cavaliers had only the ninth-worst record in the 2013-2014 season, giving them a mere 1.7% chance of getting the first overall pick. Despite the odds, they won the lottery and received the first pick in the 2014 NBA Draft.

These anomalies lead to this bizarre interaction between Jim Rome and David Stern:

A side note defense of Stern here, the question “Have you stopped beating your wife?” is actually not how it sounds. The question represents a famous example of an unfair debating tactic where one asks a Yes/No question whose answer implies that the responder has done something awful either way (i.e. Answering “yes” means he used to beat his wife, answering “no” assumes he used to and continues to). Having said that, it’s understandable that Stern would be upset as the NBA takes measures to ensure the integrity of the NBA lottery.

How The NBA Certifies The Lottery

To maintain transparency and fairness, the NBA employs several safeguards. Perhaps chief among them is third-party oversight (which was Stern’s defense). Representatives from an independent accounting firm oversee the actual lottery drawing. That firm is one of the most respected accounting firms in America: Ernst & Young. They supervise the entire process, ensuring that the procedures are followed correctly.

As if that wasn’t enough, the NBA takes further measures. Some of those include:

  1. Multiple Witnesses: The drawing is conducted in a separate room before the televised reveal and is witnessed by select media members, NBA officials, and representatives from each lottery team. This provides multiple unbiased observers who can attest to the legitimacy of the draw.
  2. Sealed and Numbered Envelopes: The team logos are placed in sealed and numbered envelopes before being inserted into the lottery machine. This is done to prevent tampering with the envelopes during the televised reveal.
  3. Security Measures: The balls used in the lottery machine are weighed and tested to ensure they are identical, and the machine is thoroughly checked before the drawing. The room where the drawing takes place is also secured and monitored to prevent unauthorized access.
  4. Public Reveal: The order of the envelopes (which corresponds to the draft order) is revealed publicly during a televised event. While the actual drawing isn’t televised, the reveal is done in a manner that ensures transparency.
  5. Audit: After the lottery, the independent accounting firm conducts a thorough audit to ensure the process was carried out correctly.