The Draft Lottery Explained

Let us explain...from the beginning.

On Tuesday, just before the tip-off of the Magic-Celtics game, fans of the 14 teams that didn’t make the playoffs will tune in to see how their teams’ fate was decided by fast-moving ping-pong balls inside a clear plastic machine.

It’s called the NBA Draft Lottery and here’s how it works:

Fourteen ping-pong balls, numbered one to fourteen, are placed in a lottery machine in Conference Room 3A at the NBA TV studio in Secaucus, just off Meadowlands Parkway. Two representatives of each of the 14 lottery teams are permitted into the conference room—one to witness the lottery and another who will later sit on the stage in the nearby TV studio. The team reps are usually principal or minority owners, GM's or even players. We know that Mikhail Prokhorov will sit on the stage Tuesday...and say a few words.  We don't know yet who will witness the selection in the conference room.  If a team has traded away its lottery pick, the team that owns the pick will be invited. So the Jazz not the Knicks will be represented. Reporters who cover the three teams with the best shot at winning the lottery are also invited. That means one of the Nets' writers will be in the room. We don't know who that will be either.

To gain access to conference room 3A, everyone must first surrender all forms of communication with the outside world, no cell phones, no blackberries, no IPads. A sign on the outside of the entrance offers a stern (Stern?) warning: NO ADMITTANCE AFTER 7:10 P.M.

At the center of the room sits the lottery machine. In the event the machine breaks down, there is a second machine in an adjacent room. In the event both machines break down, there is a power failure or another unforeseeable event, the balls will be drawn manually from a basketball which has been lopped in half.

After a discussion of the rules by the NBA’s general counsel, the team representatives who will sit on stage leave. They won’t know for two hours their teams’ fate. The reporters stay on too.

Then the process begins.

There are exactly 1,001 possible four-ball combinations when you have a set of fourteen. Each team in the lottery has been assigned a set number of combinations of any four of the balls, for a total of 1,000 combinations. (The 1,001st combination belongs to no team.)

The number of different combinations assigned to each team depends on that team's record; teams tied at the end of the regular season split evenly the total combinations allotted to their two positions, with one team getting one more combination in the event the total is odd. The same would hold true if there were a three-way tie for a position.

Then, an independent accountant, witnessed by the representatives from each lottery team, draws four balls out of the bin, and whichever team is assigned that combination gets the first pick in the draft. (If it's the 1,001st combination, the balls are replaced and drawn again.) The balls are placed in the machine and spun for 20 seconds prior to the first ball being drawn. The remaining three balls are drawn at 10-second intervals.

Here are the chances of each team of receiving the #1 pick, starting with the team with the worst regular season record:

1. Nets - 250 combinations, 25% chance of receiving the #1 pick
2. Timberwolves - 199 combinations, 19.9% chance
3. Kings - 156 combinations, 15.6% chance
4. Warriors - 119 combinations, 11.9% chance
5. Wizards - 88 combinations, 8.8% chance
6. 76ers - 63 combinations, 6.3% chance
7. Pistons - 43 combinations, 4.3% chance
8. Clippers - 28 combinations, 2.8% chance
9. Jazz (from Knicks) - 17 combinations, 1.7% chance
10. Pacers - 11 combinations, 1.1% chance
11. Hornets - 8 combinations, 0.8% chance
12. Grizzlies - 7 combinations, 0.7% chance
13. Raptors - 6 combinations, 0.6% chance
14. Rockets - 5 combinations, 0.5% chance

So, the Nets have no more than a 25% chance of getting the overall #1 pick, a 44.9% chance of getting the first or second pick and a 60.5% chance of getting one of the first three. The team with the worst record can do no worse than the fourth pick. Compare that probability to last year. In the 2009 draft, when the Nets had the league's 10th worst record, their chances of getting one of the top three picks were around 3%.

The team with the worst regular season record has won only four of the past 22 lotteries...or 18.2% of the time. In the nine lotteries this decade, it’s happened twice...or 22.2% of the time: the 2003 Cavaliers and the 2004 Magic. Both were doubly lucky, since they got to take no-brainers with the overall #1 pick: Lebron James and Dwight Howard. Only four teams with the second-worst record have won the lottery.

After the first pick is determined, the balls are replaced, and the process repeated. If the new combination belongs to the team that already won the first pick, the balls are replaced & drawn again. The next different team whose combination is chosen gets the second pick, and then the whole process is repeated again for the third pick. After those three picks are set, the remaining teams are set to pick in inverse order of record.

The accountants mark down who gets each pick, and place a card bearing each team's logo into an envelope bearing the number of that team's pick. The envelopes are then brought out on stage, where they're opened in front of a live TV audience, at which point we all find out where each team is drafting. The winning representative (hopefully the big Russian) will be interviewed by ESPN.

The single luckiest team under the current rules, instituted in 1994, was the 2008 Chicago Bulls, who finished with the ninth worst record but won the overall no. 1 pick, choosing Derrick Rose. Prior to that, the Nets had made the biggest leap to #1 in 2001. They had the seventh best record but won. They took Kenyon Martin a month later. That night, Nets’ minority owner Finn Wentworth was in conference room 3A and principal owner Lewis Katz was on stage. (Last year, it was Rod Thorn on stage. The year before, Jay-Z. Remember, Mikhail Prokhorov has said it is "foolish" to dismiss the role of luck in one’s success. And who would dismiss the luck of a man worth north of $17 billion?)

The Bucks and Blazers have been next luckiest, having finished with the 6th worst record in 2005 and 2007 respectively, the Bucks taking Andrew Bogut, the Blazers taking Greg Oden. On the other side of the coin...three times in the last decade, teams with the worst record wound up with the fourth pick: the Bulls in 2001, the Blazers in 2006 and the Kings last year.

It's not easy getting that top pick...no matter where you finish.

This article is mainly drawn from several written about the Draft Lottery over the past several years, including Jeff Dengate's description of the 2005 Lottery for NBA.com and Mike Zarren's explanation of the Lottery's rules and machinations for celtics.com in 2007 as well as the Draft Lottery entry in Wikipedia.

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