clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Everything you need to know about the NBA Draft Lottery

New, comments

Tanking, protected picks, top prospects and everything else worth knowing about the big event that determines the NBA Draft order.

The top picks in the 2015 NBA Draft will be sorted out by the annual draft lottery on Tuesday night in New York City. Set to begin at 8 p.m. ET and broadcast on ESPN, the lottery determines the order of the first 14 picks of the draft that will take place June 25 at Barclays Center. With major implications for all of the teams involved, here's everything you need to know about the upcoming lotto.

How does the lottery work?

The lottery process isn't as simple as pulling names out of a hat. Fourteen balls, each numbered one through 14, are placed into a special machine that randomly selects four balls to create a four-number combination. There are 1,000 possible combinations the machine can select, and before the lottery those combinations are assigned to the various teams depending on their regular season records. The team assigned the first combination selected out of the machine receives the No. 1 overall pick, then the balls are returned to the machine and the process is repeated for the No. 2 and No. 3 picks. The goal is to have the machine select one of your combinations. The rest of the picks go in inverse order of regular season records. The league is also posting the drawing results online this year as part of increased transparency.

How long has the lottery been around?

This will be the NBA's 31st draft lottery since the practice was first used in 1985. Prior to the lottery, the draft order was determined by the inverse of regular season record except for the top pick, which was settled by a coin flip between the worst teams in each of the two divisions. The format of the lottery has changed several times, however, with the biggest coming in 1990 when weighted odds were introduced. Before that, all non-playoff teams had equal odds of earning the top pick.

The most recent change of note came in 1993, when the league set the current 1,000-combination system and determined the league's worst team would receive 25 percent odds.

Why was the lottery created?

It's widely believed that the NBA implemented the lottery in 1985 after accusations that the Houston Rockets tanked down the stretch of the 1983-84 season in order to take part in the coin flip for the top pick in the 1984 draft. A year after a number of losing streaks led to the team getting Ralph Sampson with the No. 1 pick in 1983, Houston went 5-15 over its final 20 games that season to finish last in the conference, then won the top pick and drafted Hakeem Olajuwon. Two picks later, Michael Jordan was selected by the Chicago Bulls.

Owners were reportedly unhappy with the system afterwards, which led to David Stern creating the lottery to limit the benefits of tanking. The Rockets weren't the only franchise guilty of it at the time -- Donald Sterling's San Diego Clippers were also known culprits -- but that sequence of events is generally considered the last straw. Some might argue that effort hasn't been entirely successful, though, given the ongoing discussion of tanking practices involving teams like the 76ers.

Who has won the lottery the most?

No team has won the draft lottery more than the Cleveland Cavaliers, who were awarded the No. 1 overall pick in 1986, 2003, 2011, 2013 and 2014. Two of those instances were actually lottery wins by the Los Angeles Clippers (1986, 2011), but in both instances the pick belonged to Cleveland. With those five picks, the Cavaliers selected Brad Daugherty, LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins.

The other teams to win the lottery multiple times are the Bulls, Clippers, Bucks, Nets, Magic, Spurs and Wizards. Some teams had a lot more success with those picks than others, though. Orlando's three No. 1 picks ended up being Shaquille O'Neal (1992), Chris Webber (1993) and Dwight Howard (2004). On the other hand, the Nets' two top picks ended up being Derrick Coleman (1990) and Kenyon Martin (2000), while the Clippers drafted Danny Manning (1988) and Michael Olowokandi (1998) before striking gold with Blake Griffin (2009).

What are the odds for each team this year?

The odds for each team represent the number of combinations out of the possible 1,000 that are assigned to them. Here are this year's odds, based on inverse order of regular season records:


Which teams could lose their picks?

The implications of the lottery are often large because of the way teams protect draft picks in trades. Two teams, the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat, could lose their picks to the Philadelphia 76ers this year depending on how the lottery shakes out. The 76ers acquired the two picks in separate deals over the last year, but they're both protected and will only be sent to the team this year if they fall in a certain range. The Lakers' pick is top-five protected, so Philly will only get it if it falls to No. 6 or lower, while the Heat pick is top-10 protected and will need to fall to No. 11 or lower. Otherwise, the Lakers pick is top-three protected in 2016 and 2017 before going unprotected in 2018, and the Heat pick is top-10 protected again in 2016 before going unprotected in 2017.

Here's the full breakdown of the odds for each pick in the draft:


Who are the top prospects?

Winning the lottery is all about getting a shot at basketball's best young talent, and this year is no different. The top of the 2015 NBA Draft class is full of potential superstars, with big men Jahlil Okafor of Duke and Karl-Anthony Towns of Kentucky at the top of the group. The top perimeter players in the draft are Emmanuel Mudiay, who spent the last year playing in China, Justise Winslow, another one-and-done star from Duke, and D'Angelo Russell, who averaged nearly 20 points per game as a freshman at Ohio State. Rounding out the top of the class are Latvian big man Kristaps Porzingis, Kentucky big man Willie Cauley-Stein and a pair of wings, Croatia's Mario Hezonja and Arizona's Stanley Johnson.

Is the lottery fixed?

In a word, no.

One of the most common complaints each year by fans unhappy with the results of the draft lottery is that the whole thing is fixed. It happened a year ago when the Cavaliers won their third No. 1 pick in four years, and can be expected pretty much any time the results meld with a possible conspiracy theory. It's been that way since the New York Knicks won the first lottery in 1985, as Lee Jenkins recently detailed for Sports Illustrated. Back then, there were suggestions that the league had fixed the results to ensure the Georgetown superstar would end up on the team in the nation's largest market.

However, there's no evidence of a fix and little reason to believe that teams winning with poor odds signals wrongdoing. The lottery may not always prize the league's worst records -- it's been over a decade since the league's worst team got the No. 1 pick -- but improbable results don't necessarily point to a rigged system. The Orlando Magic won the 1993 lottery with 1.52 percent odds then selected Webber just a year after getting Shaq. The Chicago Bulls won the 2008 lottery with 1.7 percent odds and used the pick on Derrick Rose. Still, there's never been any legitimate evidence implicating a fix, and until that happens, we're left with a whole lot of speculation and conspiracy theories.

Why is the NBA considering ending the lottery?

With all of the talk about fixing and tanking over the past few years, there's been a swelling movement to replace the lottery with a different system. Critics argue that the lottery doesn't actually prevent tanking, given that it still appears to be a common strategy among struggling franchises, and too often rewards teams that aren't at the bottom of the standings. Since 2004, seven of the past 10 lottery winners had odds of 8.8 percent or worse. Understandably, many teams who finished near the bottom of the standings during that time period feel like the system didn't do them any favors.

What are the alternate proposals?

The most commonly discussed change to the system involves decreasing the odds of the teams at the bottom of the standings. While the league's worst team hasn't won the lottery in over a decade, there's still concern that the current rules incentivize teams to tank and improve their lottery odds.

League owners voted down the proposed rule change at a board of governors meeting in October, however, instead opting to keep the system as previously designed. Twenty-three votes were required for approval, but only 17 voted in favor of decreasing the odds for the league's worst teams.

There have also been proposals to scrap the lottery entirely, the most prominent being a cyclical system known as "The Wheel." A report from Grantland's Zach Lowe detailed the proposal, which was submitted to the league by a team official, and explained some of the pros and cons behind the idea.

In short, each team would pick in each of the 30 first-round draft slots once -- and only once -- over a 30-year period. Here's more information from Lowe:

Each team would simply cycle through the 30 draft slots, year by year, in a predetermined order designed so that teams pick in different areas of the draft each year. Teams would know with 100 percent certainty in which draft slots they would pick every year, up to 30 years out from the start of every 30-year cycle.

The practice of protecting draft picks in trades would cease to exist, as Lowe points out. Once the order of the teams was set in Year 1 of the system, teams would theoretically know where their upcoming draft selections would be for the next 29 years as well.

Lowe says the biggest benefit of the proposal is that it would eliminate the link between being bad and picking high in the draft. Teams would lose all incentive to tank. The primary concern is that the system would make it difficult for struggling teams to add talent if the wheel happens to leave them with a period of several lower picks.

In one example, Lowe points that after a team selects No. 2, it would receive the No. 29, No. 20 and No. 17 picks over the next three years -- if a team messed up that initial high pick, it could lead to years without another opportunity to add that kind of talent.