Cohen 8-Ball: Truth About Lottery Odds
February 7, 2013
Josh Cohen’s Analysis: May 21 of this year will be an anxious and restless day for 14 NBA teams. It’s the day of the NBA Draft Lottery, an event that unwraps hope for some and a continuous bind for others. Though lottery results are random, luck charms and superstitions will be out in full force. This year, unlike most, may not be as rewarding to land the No. 1 pick considering there isn’t a universally affirmed top prospect entering the draft. If you are an advocate of trends, you may be fascinated to learn about NBA Draft lottery tendencies since the league adopted a weighted scale in 1990.
Slot 1 (team with best chance): Actual: 25% | Trend since 1990: 17% - Cohen’s Analysis: Only three times in NBA history has the team with the worst record won the draft lottery (NJ in 1990, CLE in 2003, ORL in 2004). However, in 1996, Vancouver, which owned the worst record, was not permitted to receive the No. 1 pick because of expansion rules. Therefore, the team with the second worst record, Philadelphia, which actually had a 33 percent chance of selecting No. 1, had the upper hand and indeed claimed the top pick.
Slot 2 (team with second best chance): Actual: 19.9% | Trend since 1990: 4% - Cohen’s Analysis: This is by and large the most shocking tally. Remarkably, only once in the 23 years of the weighted scale draft lottery has the team with the second worst record claimed the No. 1 pick. It was Orlando, which secured one of the most dominant centers in NBA history, Shaquille O’Neal, in 1992. Since there were only 11 teams in the lottery at that time, the Magic had a 15.15 percent chance of getting the No. 1 pick. And remember, Philly in 1996 doesn't count.
Slot 3 (team with third best chance): Actual: 13.8% | Trend since 1990: 22% - Cohen’s Analysis: Having the third worst record seems to be a friendly spot for lottery-bound teams. In five of the 23 years has the franchise in this spot earned the top choice. Those teams and years include: San Antonio in 1997, L.A. Clippers in 1998, Chicago in 1999, Washington in 2001 and the Clippers again in 2009.
Slot 4 (team with fourth best chance): Actual: 13.7% | Trend since 1990: 9% - Cohen’s Analysis: There is only a 0.1 percent difference between third and fourth worst teams (record-wise) landing the top pick. Yet, fascinatingly, the results have proven otherwise. While on five occasions the franchise with the third worst record secured the No. 1 choice, just twice has the team directly below them done the same, Milwaukee in 1994 and New Orleans in 2012. Grant it, the overall percentages have altered through the years.
Slot 5 (team with fifth best chance): Actual: 7.6% | Trend since 1990: 22% - Cohen’s Analysis: Another very jovial place to be, however there is also a discouraging inclination. In the five years that the team in this spot won the lottery, a blend of injuries or underachieving performance derailed the No. 1 picks. Larry Johnson (1991) dealt with chronic back problems, Joe Smith (1995), though lasted in the league a while, was rather disappointing, Yao Ming’s (2002) lower body ailments cut his career short, Andrea Bargnani (2006) seems to always be hurt and John Wall (2010) recently returned from a knee injury.
Slot 6 (team with sixth best chance): Actual: 7.5% | Trend since 1990: 4% - Cohen’s Analysis: The results just get more and more peculiar. So, the odds of the team with the sixth worst record are higher now than they were prior to 2008. But it was in 2005 with a 6.3 percent chance that Milwaukee landed the top pick and chose Andrew Bogut first overall.
Slot 7 or lower (teams between 7 and 14 in lottery): Actual: 3.6% and lower | Trend since 1990: 3.1% avg - Cohen’s Analysis: The reality is, it’s very possible to get the No. 1 pick even if the odds suggest otherwise. Orlando in 1993 had a 1.5 percent chance, Chicago in 2008 defied a 1.7 percent chance and three other teams, including New Jersey in 2000, Portland in 2007 and Cleveland (via Clippers) in 2011, all won the lottery with very low percentages.