Is the NBA Draft Lottery Rigged?

The suspicious historical results of the NBA Draft Lottery

The 2017 NBA Draft Lottery ping-pong balls will be bouncing behind closed doors Tuesday, May 16, with the results unveiled at 8:00 p.m. ET prior to Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals between the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors. With the top three picks in this year’s NBA Draft (Thursday, June 22) at stake — as well as franchise-altering trade scenarios triggered by the results — this year's 33rd annual NBA Draft Lottery is in many ways more important than the NBA Draft itself. Yet ever since the New York Knicks won the first NBA Draft Lottery in 1985, the process has been a magnet for conspiracy theories.

“It’s too delicious. If you want to go on YouTube you can see the (1985) lottery where I supposedly had the frozen card. It’s all too delightful,” said Commissioner David Stern, discussing the NBA Draft Lottery with ABC during the 2012 NBA Finals and referencing the popular urban legend that the New York Knicks’ envelope had been frozen prior to the 1985 lottery, ensuring that Stern would be able to pick the Knicks’ envelope for the No. 1 overall pick Patrick Ewing.

The NBA Draft Lottery has evolved from the Commissioner pulling envelopes out of a spinning bin to today’s complicated ping-pong ball method overseen by the accounting firm of Ernst & Young — the pillar of integrity that paid $123 million to the feds in 2013 in order to squash a tax-fraud probe stemming from $2 billion in unpaid taxes.

The weighted system gives the team with the NBA’s worst record (Brooklyn Nets, whose pick is owned by the Boston Celtics) a 25 percent chance to win, the second-worst club (Phoenix Suns) a 19.9 percent chance, the third-worst (Los Angeles Lakers) a 15.6 percent chance and on down the line to the 14th and final non-playoff team (Miami Heat) with a 0.5 percent shot at the No. 1 overall pick.

After the top three picks have been determined by lottery, picks 4-through-14 are placed in reverse order of record. The lottery is intended to give the worst teams a chance to draft the best players, without handing the worst team the No. 1 pick outright. Sometimes the ball bounces your way and sometimes it doesn’t. But the results can be the difference between LeBron James and Darko Milicic.

There have been many statistical anomalies over the years. And each long shot has had a suspicious story to tell.

1.52 %
1993 – Orlando Magic – Chris Webber

The Magic won their second of back-to-back lotteries, having selected Shaquille O’Neal with the top spot in 1992. Orlando traded Webber for Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway, a castmate of Shaq’s in Blue Chips. Despite having the best record of any non-playoff team, the Magic won the lottery (and a Superman sidekick) despite having the longest odds. Doesn't take the Big Aristotle to do the math on this one, which was so shady it actually resulted in a rule change in the lottery process.

1.70 %
2008 – Chicago Bulls – Derrick Rose
Shy Chicago native Derrick Rose landed in his hometown despite the odds. The joke was that the Bulls weren’t going to unretire Michael Jordan’s No. 23 — the jersey number that Rose wore at Memphis — but the local legend could wear No. 1.7 to honor his unbelievable lottery luck.

1.70 %
2014 – Cleveland Cavaliers – Andrew Wiggins
The Cavs' third No. 1 overall pick in four years (2011, 2013, 2014), Wiggins was flipped to Minnesota in exchange for Kevin Love after LeBron returned his talents to "The Land." The odds of winning the NBA Draft Lottery three times in four years? One in 13,467. You have a better chance of hitting a hole-in-one today (1 in 12,750) or bowling a perfect 300 game (1 in 11,500) than being as lucky as the Cavs were with random bouncing ping-pong balls. This was also Cleveland's fourth lottery win (LeBron had a 22.5 percent chance to go to his hometown team in 2003) in 12 years (1 in 10,000 odds).

2.80 %
2011 – Cleveland Cavaliers – Kyrie Irving
The Cavaliers won the first post-LeBron Lottery, after King James' painful "Decision" to join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami. But dig deeper; Cleveland won not with its own lottery ball, but with that of the longshot L.A. Clippers, who traded the rights to their selection as part of a bad Baron Davis deal. So, the Cavs’ lottery winnings resulted in both the No. 1 overall pick and the No. 4 pick — which was used to select Tristan Thompson.

4.40 %
2000 – New Jersey Nets – Kenyon Martin
Rod Thorn went from being David Stern’s right-hand man in the league office to the top spot in the Nets’ front office, immediately winning the lottery in a one-man draft class. This was a must since the other top prospects included Stromile Swift, Darius Miles and Marcus Fizer in a draft generally regarded as one of the weakest in recent memory.

5.30 %
2007 – Portland Trail Blazers – Greg Oden
The Blazers were given the chance to carry on their tradition of drafting injury-prone 7-footers, winning the lottery and taking “can’t miss” center Greg Oden one spot ahead of Kevin Durant. Bill Walton, Sam Bowie and Arvydas Sabonis can empathize with Oden, who was viewed as a generational talent at the time.


It doesn’t take a longshot winning the lottery to raise a few eyebrows, however. There are a few other interesting winners and statistics.

– In 2012, the New Orleans Hornets (now Pelicans) won the lottery while technically owned by the National Basketball Association itself. The timing could not have been better. Adding Anthony Davis to the mix made the NOLA franchise much more appealing.

– Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin passed away on Nov. 24, 2009. The Wiz won the very next lottery in 2010, with Abe’s widow Irene Pollin in attendance.

– Basketball history was altered by the bounce of a ping pong ball when Tim Duncan’s destination was David Robinson’s San Antonio Spurs rather than coach Rick Pitino’s Boston Celtics, who owned two picks and had a 36 percent chance of winning the No. 1 overall pick. Since then, Duncan has won five NBA championships and Pitino has gone back to school, where he led Louisville to the 2013 NCAA title.

There doesn't appear to be a LeBron James or Tim Duncan looming at the top of this year's draft, but the lottery results are arguably more important than they've ever been. Here's a quick overview of 2017 storylines (percentage being odds of winning No. 1 overall pick):

 

25 %
Boston Celtics (via Brooklyn Nets)
The No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference NBA Playoffs has a chance to land the top spot in the NBA Draft. Even if the Celtics whiff completely, they are guaranteed the No. 4 pick, at worst. A top-4 pick could be used to draft a cheap potential star, or flipped for Paul George or Jimmy Butler.

 

15.6 %
Los Angeles Lakers
Magic Johnson's first draft as President of the Lakers hangs in the balance. The Lakers' first-rounder is top-3 protected. If L.A. fails to land a top-3 pick, then the selection goes to the 76ers. The results of this lottery also impacts future draft picks. If the Lakers fail to land a top-3 pick this year, they will also lose their 2019 first-rounder. It's complicated, but it's crucial.
 

11.9 %
Philadelphia 76ers
"The Process" could be a big winner on NBA Draft Lottery night. The 76ers have the rights to their own pick, as well as the Lakers' pick if it falls outside the top-3, in addition to the option to swap with the Kings if Sacramento has a higher draft position.
 

1.1 %
New Orleans Pelicans
Like the Lakers, the Pelicans will only retain their pick if it falls within the top-3. Otherwise, the Kings own the selection as part of the DeMarcus Cousins trade that also included the acquisition of Buddy Hield. If NOLA lands a top-3 pick, basketball fans will love Brow and Boogie teaming up with Markelle Fultz or Lonzo Ball. It's a long shot, but that's never mattered before. Long live the NBA Draft Lottery.
 

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