Everything You Need to Know about the NBA Draft Lottery

It’s the biggest NBA lottery since 2003, so you better be watching

It’s NBA Draft Lottery Day, when millions of otherwise rational (*snicker*) NBA fans throw math to the wind and let their conspiracy theories fly. The Knicks envelope was frozen! The league paid Cleveland back for losing LeBron! The NBA favors big markets! The karma gods never reward tanking! You name your conspiracy, and someone on the internet has not only thought of it but also written 17 blogs about it.

The Lakers could have a Ball or nothing at all. The Process could be completed in Philly. The Kings could burn down their entire franchise. Millions of viewers will tune in to watch 19-year-olds get auctioned off before our very eyes. It all starts at 8:30ET on ESPN.

I’m here to set the record straight and answer all your questions. Here’s what you need to know.

So who exactly are we playing for?

PG Markelle Fultz, Washington

The last few years we spent months talking about teams tanking for Ben Simmons and Andrew Wiggins. Markelle Fultz may be a better prospect than either of those guys, yet everyone’s talking about Lonzo Ball instead and chances are high you’ve never even seen him play. That will change soon.

Markelle Fultz may be the most complete guard prospect in the NBA Draft since Chris Paul. He’s the whole package. Fultz can create both for himself and for others and shoots well from everywhere. He has a huge wingspan at 6'10 comparable to Shaun Livingston so he’ll tower over opponents. Fultz’s size and shooting give him good defensive upside and allow him to play off the ball at the two as well. Plus he’s one of the youngest players in the draft, barely 19, so he has extra time to improve and might still be growing.

Fultz fits into any back court in the country and is the clear prize in a loaded draft. He’s not an elite athlete but he may be an elite player. Think Brandon Roy or James Harden. He should be the #1 pick for any team.

PG Lonzo Ball, UCLA

Ball is the guy you’ve heard of thanks to big papa Lavar and his Big Baller shoes and loudmouth media appearances, and maybe in part to Lonzo’s standout performance at UCLA. This is probably the guy you think teams are gunning for in what is being called a two-player draft.

Ball is one of the most unique top prospects in a long time. He is an analytics darling, shooting basically only threes and lay-ups, and he’s an elite passer whose vision and ball sharing was infectious for an entire UCLA team that was the most watchable team in basketball. His shooting numbers, hoops IQ, and generational passing talent have teams dreaming big.

Of course there’s a flip side. Ball shoots from his left hip in a funky form that could struggle in the NBA, and he wasn’t really used in isolation or as a pick-and-roll driver in college, two key NBA point guard skills. He also lacks a great first step or a pull-up jumper. Was Lonzo’s freshman year the start of something great? Or was it just a perfect mask for a brilliant but flawed player? Lonzo Ball feels like a player that could be genuinely special in the right situation but a massive bust if he ends up on the wrong roster that isn’t built around his very specific talents. In a league that values versatility more every day, that’s worrisome and it’s what makes this draft top-one and not top-two.

SG Malik Monk, Kentucky
SF Josh Jackson, Kansas
SF Jayson Tatum, Duke
Wing/big Jonathan Isaac, Florida State

Any of these guys could be the #2 or #3 pick for the right team. In fact this draft is so loaded that stud point guard prospects De’Aaron Fox (Kentucky) and Dennis Smith (North Carolina State) are also top-10 locks and didn’t even make the list above.

Josh Jackson is a do-everything forward from Kansas that plays sticky defense and can distribute or score on offense. Jayson Tatum is a classic scoring wing and could average 20ppg. Malik Monk is a one-note shooting guard whose one-note shot is so perfect it could transform an offense. Jonathan Isaac is 6'11 and growing, a wing that might be a center, a defender that can knock down jumpers.

All four are freshmen, as are Fultz, Ball, Fox, and Smith. Any one of these players could be a franchise cornerstone, and every one of them would’ve been a top-3 pick last year. Teams at #2 and #3 will get first dibs, but the rest of them make for pretty nice parting gifts.

What can we learn from past lottery results?

You’re going to hear a lot of bad analysis today.

Minnesota has never once improved its expected position in the draft, despite being in approximately every lottery in NBA history, so they’re due! The #2 lottery spot is cursed because no team at #2 has won the lottery since Philadelphia in 1996! The #9 Dallas lottery spot is someone’s “sleeper pick” because both the ‘08 Bulls and ‘14 Cavs won the lottery from #9! Bill Simmons somehow even thinks karma is due to smile upon a Knickerbockers franchise featuring James Dolan and Phil Jackson.

All of this “analysis” is at best bad math and #FakeNews and at worst sheer lunacy.

The NBA lottery is what mathematicians call an independent event. Nothing that happened in past lotteries has any bearing whatsoever on tonight’s results. There’s no karma, no team is due, and David Stern can’t freeze the envelope. It’s random and unrelated to anything else. The odds are against everyone. Three teams will get lucky. The end.

So how does everything work?

The lottery takes place in a quiet side room not long before the results are revealed. None of the team representatives are there, and there aren’t a bunch of envelopes with team names in them or ping pong balls with logos on them.

There are fourteen ping pong balls in a big spinny lottery thingy. They’re numbered 1 to 14. Four balls are pulled out randomly, say 4–8–3–11. Order doesn’t matter. That combination is matched to a corresponding list of 1001 possible team outcomes. Someone finds 3–4–8–11 on the chart and we have our #1 pick. The balls go back in the doohickey, four more are drawn, and that’s the #2 pick. Then they do it again for #3. If a team already won a better pick, they just throw the balls back and try again. They do that for the top three draft picks, then spots 4 to 14 just go in reverse order of standings.

The team with the worst record in the league gets 250 of the 1001 ping pong combinations. That’s Brooklyn this year, though you probably know their pick is headed to Boston. They get 1–2–3–4, 1–2–3–5, 1–2–3–6, and so on. In fact they get almost all of the combinations that start with 1, such that any 1 coming out gives them over an 87% of winning that draw. The lottery team with the best record gets only five combos. This year that’s the Miami Heat, who missed the playoffs on a tiebreaker. Boston is literally fifty times as likely to win the #1 pick as Miami tonight.

So do the teams with bad odds just never win then?

That’s not how it works either.

The odds of flipping a coin and getting six straight heads is only 1.6%. Those are very low odds. If you flip a coin six times, chances are very good that you’ll get at least one tails. But if a thousand people flip a coin six times right now, then one or two of them will probably get six heads. Heck, a couple may get all tails too. Low odds doesn’t mean impossible — just improbable.

The Miami Heat have a 1.8% chance of jumping into the top-3 tonight. It’s probably not going to happen. But randomness is random and sometimes you get six straight heads and the Heat get a top pick.

So if a team with low odds wins tonight, or if the worst three teams all win again like last year, that doesn’t prove the lottery is rigged. It just proves that the lottery is a lottery.

Please, I’m a Knicks fan, just give me some hope

For the Knicks? There isn’t any hope.

But for the other teams at the bottom of the lottery, here are some memorable big jumps in lottery history.

  • 2014: Cleveland jumps from 9 to 1 and lands Andrew Wiggins, flipping him a few months later for Kevin Love and setting up the Cavs title
  • 2011: Cleveland jumps 8 to 1 with a Clippers pick it acquired years before in a terrible Baron Davis deal, landing Kyrie Irving
  • 2008: Chicago jumps 9 to 1 and takes future MVP Derrick Rose
  • 2000: The Nets jump 7 to 1 and land Kenyon Martin in the worst draft in NBA history
  • 1999: Charlotte jumps 13 to 3, the lowest team ever to move up, and snags Baron Davis

The most memorable lottery night what-if came in 2003. The 50–32 Detroit Pistons were in the Eastern Conference Finals but owned the rights to the Grizzlies pick thanks to an ill-fated Vancouver trade for Otis Thorpe six year earlier. The Grizzlies had only the 6th best odds, but the pick was top-one protected, meaning that if Vancouver defied 6.3% odds and won the lottery and got the #1 pick, they got to keep it. The results counted down 14, 13, 12… 6, 5, 4, still no Grizzlies. 3… Denver. Could it be? It could not. #2 came up Vancouver, and the pick was officially headed to the Pistons.

That #1 pick, by the way? It went to Cleveland and they took a high school kid named LeBron James. That’s how close the Grizzlies were to landing LeBron. The lottery can be a cruel mistress. Of course Detroit got the pick instead and passed on top-five picks Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade to select top international prospect Darko Milicic. Oops. The draft can be a cruel mistress, too.

Enough already, what am I watching for tonight?

Here’s a picture of where things are starting, from www.tankathon.com. You can go to that website and run a random simulation if you want to play the lottery yourself.

They’ll start revealing the teams in reverse order. You’ll want to have this chart nearby. Keep one eye on the TV and one here. Odds are very high (98.2% to be precise) that you’ll hear Miami called first, then Denver and Detroit should be next. Follow your eyes up the chart. You’re watching for a team NOT to be called.

Say it starts out Miami, Denver, Detroit but then skips Charlotte and goes straight to New Orleans. If that happens, you just found out Charlotte has leapt into the top-3. So you’re hoping you don’t hear your favorite team’s name in the expected spot.

ESPN will count down from 14 to 4, then cut to a commercial break for dramatic effect. When they come back, there’s just three teams now and everyone knows who they are. These are the three lottery winners.

Here are some odds to watch along the way:

  • Miami has the worst odds of the #1 pick, just half a percent. That seems impossible, but it’s about the same odds as rolling three 1s on three dice. That’s not even a full Yahtzee!
  • New Orleans has the 10th best and a 4% chance of moving into the top-3. That’s 1-in-25 and it’s important because the Pelicans only get to keep their pick if they make the magic jump. Otherwise it goes to Sacramento in the Boogie Cousins trade.
  • Dallas has the 9th best odds. Everything up to this point is pretty improbable. In fact, there’s under a 20% chance that any of Dallas, New Orleans, Charlotte, Detroit, Denver, or Miami move up at all. By comparison, Sacramento has the next best odds and a 10% chance of landing a top-3 pick. Of course if Sacramento does move ahead of Philadelphia, the 76ers own the right to swap picks and move up because of another ill-fated deal, because KANGZ.
  • New York and Minnesota are tied for the 6th best odds, so they each get 5.3% chance at the #1 pick and 18.3% at top-3. The Knicks already lost a coin flip, so if neither team improves their position in the lottery, the Knicks pick will be after Minnesota’s.
  • Orlando has the 5th best odds. Every team so far including Orlando has a cumulative 24.8% chance at landing the top pick. That’s still not quite as good of a chance as Boston’s 25%.
  • Because it owns the right to swap picks with Sacramento, Philadelphia basically bought more ping pong combinations. That gives them a 14.7% chance at the top pick (about 1-in-7) and a 45.3% shot at top-3. Basically, the 76ers get the same odds as the third worst team, the Lakers.
  • The Lakers are the big story tonight because of a pair of disastrous trades years ago for Steve Nash and Dwight Howard. Los Angeles only keeps its pick if it stays in the top-3, which has a 46.9% chance after an ill-fated five-game winning streak the last few weeks of the season. If they drop to four or lower, this pick goes to Philadelphia instead — and the Lakers lose their 2019 first round pick too. If they stay in the top three, they keep this pick and instead give next year’s first rounder to Philly (unprotected) while that 2019 first instead becomes a pair of second rounders. The Lakers are the story of the night. They had the last two #2 picks but haven’t picked #1 since James Worthy in 1982.
  • The Suns have a 55.8% chance of a top-3 pick, one of precious few events tonight with better than 50/50 odds. They’re interesting because they’re the one team near the top that most needs help outside the guard position in a guard-loaded draft.
  • Boston owns the rights to Brooklyn’s pick. They have a 25% chance at #1, a 46.5% shot to stay in the top two, and almost a 2-in-3 chance (64.3%) to stay in the top three. Failing that, they still get to add the #4 pick to a deep roster that’s headed to the Eastern Conference Finals Wednesday, and they own Brooklyn’s pick next year too.

Are there any hilarious scenarios that could play out tonight?

Doomsday Kings scenario

Sacramento is the one team in the lottery that cannot win the #1 pick thanks to the swap rights with Philadelphia. In all likelihood, the Kings walk away from the night with two top-10 picks. But if the Pelicans jump into the top-3, the Kings lose that pick… and if two more teams below Sacramento also jump, the Kings lose their own pick too, to the Bulls in yet another trade that happened a million years ago. There’s less than two thousandths of a percent chance of this scenario happening, around 1 in 65,000. Then again, that’s about the odds of someone choking to death any given year, and this is the Kings, so…

Perfect 76ers scenario

Philadelphia’s best case scenario is seeing itself or Sacramento jump to #1 to give the Sixers the top pick, then everything else play out as expected. That would drop the Lakers to #4 and give Philadelphia that pick too. Getting both #1 and #4 would be a dream come true and an incredible conclusion to Sam Hinkie’s Process, and it’s in play at about 2.4%, just under 1-in-40.

None of the Celtics, Suns, and Lakers stay in the top three

Only once since the 1994 lottery reform have all three teams with the best odds fallen out of the top-3. That was 2007 when Portland (7th best odds), Seattle (5th), and Atlanta (4th) all leapt into the top-3 to select Greg Oden, Kevin Durant, and Al Horford. 2001 was the only other time the two teams with the best odds both fell out of the top-3. There’s about a 1-in-8 chance of that and around a 4% chance of the Celtics, Suns, and Lakers all falling out of the top-3. It’s certainly not likely, but it’s not as improbable as you’d think.

Celtics and Lakers get the top two picks

The Celtics and Lakers franchises have 33 championships combined. So if those two teams in those two markets get those top-2 picks, you can bet the conspiracy theorists will be out like crazy — even though it’s one of the most likely scenarios. This would make draft night as much of a circus as lottery night and there’s a 9.8% chance of it happening.

Enjoy the lottery! May the odds be ever in your favor.

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