NBA Draft Lottery : : Back in the Day
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Posted May 20, 2008 | By Anthony Hyde
How did we get here? What was is like when the NBA first started? Why did the league start a Draft Lottery?
Those questions and a few more usually pop up around this time every spring, so below is a brief history lesson of how it was, why it’s been changed and how has it affected the balance of power within the NBA over the last 60+ years.
1947-65: Territorial Picks
In the league’s early years, when teams were struggling to build strong fan bases, the NBA Draft included territorial picks. Before the start of every Draft from 1947 until 1965, a team could forfeit its first-round pick and instead select a player from its immediate area, presumably with a strong local following.
In 1956, the Boston Celtics used a territorial pick to select Tom Heinsohn from Holy Cross in nearby Worcester, Mass. Heinsohn went on to enjoy a Hall of Fame career, averaging 18.6 points and 8.8 rebounds, and helping the Celtics to eight NBA Championships in his nine-year career.
1966-84: Coin Flip
In 1966, the league decided to radically change things up and adopt a coin flip between the last-place finishers in each of its two divisions to determine which team would open the Draft, a system that remained in place until 1985.
In 1979, the 31-51 Chicago Bulls decided to call “heads” but unfortunately for Windy City basketball fans the coin landed “tails,” thereby the first overall pick was awarded to the New Orleans Jazz. But the Jazz never had the chance to enjoy the their good fortune because the team had agreed two years earlier to compensate the Los Angeles Lakers for having inked 33-year old LA free agent guard Gail Goodrich. The price for Goodrich was three future draft picks, including New Orleans’ first-round choice in 1979—the No. 1 overall after the coin toss, which in turn became future Hall of Famer Earvin “Magic” Johnson, out of Michigan State.
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1985: The First Lottery
Under the system adopted prior to the 1985 NBA Draft, the NBA Lottery determined the order of selection for the non-playoff teams (or the teams holding their draft picks through trades) for the first round only. Teams picked in inverse order of their records in the second round and in all succeeding rounds.
In 1985, the jackpot of the very first NBA Draft Lottery was 7’0” Georgetown center Patrick Ewing. All seven teams that didn’t make the playoffs had an equal chance of landing the No.1 overall pick and thereby, Ewing. A lucky bounce of the ping pong balls made the New York Knicks the first Draft Lottery winner.
New York selected Ewing with the first overall pick in the 1985 Draft, and Ewing went on to play 15 fantastic seasons for the Knicks, leading them to playoffs 13 times.
1987-Present: Top Three Teams
Under a procedural change adopted by the NBA Board of Governors in October of 1986, the Lottery determined the order of selection for the first three teams only. The remaining non-playoff teams selected in inverse order of their regular season records. Therefore, the team with the worst record in the league was assured of picking no worse than fourth overall, the team with the second-worst record no worse than fifth and so on.
In 1987, the Los Angeles Clippers finished with a league-worst 12-70 record, but unfortunately they didn't strike it lucky in the lottery and, under the new rules, wound up with the fourth overall pick.
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In 1988, again only one of the three worst teams wound up with one of the top three picks, but, at least this time, the Clippers’ lowest winning percentage paid off, as L.A. won the Lottery. The Clippers then used the No. 1 pick on Kansas forward Danny Manning.
1989-Present: Just Two Rounds
In the early years of the NBA Draft, teams would select players until they ran out of prospects. The 1960 Draft went 21 rounds. By 1974, it had stabilized to 10 rounds, which held up until 1985, when the Draft was shortened to seven rounds. By agreement with the National Basketball Players’ Association, the Drafts from 1989 onward have been limited to only two rounds, which gives undrafted players an opportunity to try out for any team.
Since the Draft went to two rounds, eight second-round picks have gone on to become NBA All-Stars: Jazz guard Jeff Hornacek (1992), Pistons forward Dennis Rodman (1992), Lakers guard Cedric Ceballos (1995), Raptors center Antonio Davis (2001), Bucks guard Michael Redd (2004), Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas (2005), Spurs guard Manu Ginobili (2005) and Sonics forward Rashard Lewis (2005). In 2003, Detroit’s Ben Wallace and Indiana’s Brad Miller became the first undrafted players ever to make the All-Star team.
1990-Present: Weighted Lottery System
In a further refinement of the Lottery arrangement, the NBA Board of Governors adopted a weighted system beginning with the 1990 NBA Draft Lottery, which then included 11 teams due to expansion. The team with the worst overall record during the regular season received 11 chances at the top pick (out of a total of 66), the second-worst team got 10 chances and the team with the best record among the non-playoff clubs got only one chance.
The Orlando Magic defied the odds by winning the No. 1 pick two years in a row. In 1992, the weighted system worked in their favor as they parlayed the second-worst record (21-61) into LSU All-American center Shaquille O’Neal.
O’Neal helped Orlando make a 20-win improvement his rookie year, but the Magic just missed the playoffs after posting a 41-41 record in 1993. With just one chance out of 66, Orlando scored the No. 1 overall pick yet again and selected Michigan forward Chris Webber, trading him immediately to the Golden State Warriors for the Draft rights to the No. 3 overall pick, Memphis guard Penny Hardaway and three future Draft picks.
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Under the system, 14 ping-pong balls numbered 1 through 14 are placed in a drum. There are 1,001 possible combinations when four balls are drawn out of 14, without regard to their order of selection. Prior to the Lottery, 1,000 combinations are assigned to the Lottery teams based on their order of finish during the regular season. Four balls are drawn to the top to determine a four-digit combination. The team that has been assigned that combination will receive the number one pick. The four balls are placed back in the drum and the process is repeated to determine the number two and three picks. (Note: If the one unassigned combination is drawn, the balls are drawn to the top again.)
1996-2003: 13-team Lottery
In October of 1995, the NBA Board of Governors increased the number of teams participating in the Lottery from 11 to 13 to account for the addition of two expansion teams, Toronto and Vancouver. Starting in 1996, the team with the worst record in the Lottery continued to have a 25% chance (250 combinations) of winning the first pick, teams two (20%; 200 combinations) through six (6.4%; 64 combinations) have slightly fewer chances, team seven (4.4%; 44 combinations) has the same number of chances and teams eight (2.9%; 29 combinations) through 12 (0.6%; six combinations) have slightly more chances. The number of chances for team 13 (0.5%; five combinations) did not change. Tied teams split the number of chances and a blind draw is held well prior to the actual Lottery to determine which team receives an extra chance if the combined number of chances can not be split evenly.
2004-Present: 14-team Lottery
The 2004 NBA Draft Lottery increased to 14 teams with the addition of the Charlotte Bobcats in the league. Although a part of the 2004 Draft Lottery, the Bobcats were locked into the fourth position in the Draft and therefore did not have a chance to receive any of the top three picks in the 2004 Lottery. The 2004 NBA Draft Lottery essentially decided picks one through three and five through 14.