Lottery FAQ

Pistons again slotted 7th, but chance to get No. 1 pick less than in 2010

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The Pistons and Philadelphia 76ers ended the 2009-10 season with identical 27-55 records, necessitating a draw to determine which one would go into the May lottery slotted in the No. 6 position and which in the No. 7 position in case neither drew into the top three.

The 76ers won that tiebreaker. And it also allowed them to draw into the top three. Even though each team had the same chance to land the No. 1 pick – a 5.3 percent chance, combining the 6.3 percent chance the No. 6 position merited with the 4.3 percent chance allotted the No. 7 position – the NBA needed to differentiate one from the other not only to determine who would pick sixth and seventh, but also to identify which lottery combination belonged to which team should one get lucky and draw a top-three pick.


The following FAQ will answer most of your questions about how the NBA draft lottery works. But first consider how different things might have played out had the Pistons won that coin flip.

The Pistons would have gone into the June draft with the No. 2 pick. Chances are they would have wound up trading it to Minnesota, which had the No. 4 pick and clearly coveted Ohio State swingman Evan Turner. But either way – had they picked second or fourth – the Pistons probably would have come away with DeMarcus Cousins, the behemoth Kentucky freshman center who would up going No. 5 to Sacramento.

No one can say how Cousins would have performed for the Pistons, but as a Kings rookie he displayed all of the traits that had scouts simultaneously enthralled and frightened – a major talent with significant maturity issues that might have been exacerbated during a trying Pistons season that saw confrontations between John Kuester and several players become public.

Through it all, Greg Monroe stayed above the fray, exhibiting a maturity that belied his youth. And because the Pistons lost that coin flip – with no small thanks to Golden State, which passed on Monroe at No. 7 in favor of Ekpe Udoh – they wound up with a young big man whose dramatic progress from November to January to April has the entire organization convinced fate did the Pistons right last May and June.

One more thing: Even though the Pistons again go into the lottery slotted seventh, they had better odds of landing a top-three pick last year because they were essentially splitting the odds of the six and seven spots with Philly. This year, they are all alone in seventh. Last year’s 5.3 percent chance to land the No. 1 pick is this year’s 4.3 percent chance. Here’s a look at how the NBA draft lottery works:

Does any team have a chance to get the No. 1 pick?

All 14 teams that miss the playoffs have a shot at any of the top three picks. The NBA has held a lottery for 26 years and a weighted lottery that gives teams with the worst records better odds of landing a top-three pick for the last 21, yet only four times in 26 years and three times in the 21 weighted lottery years has the team with the worst record landed the No. 1 pick.

The four occasions are: 1988, when the Clippers won for the only time during the five years when all non-playoff teams had equal chances to win the lottery and chose Danny Manning; 1990, New Jersey, Derrick Coleman; 2003, Cleveland, LeBron James; and 2004, Orlando, Dwight Howard.

What are each team’s chances to get the No. 1 pick?

Minnesota, by virtue of its NBA-worst 17 wins, has a 25 percent chance. Cleveland is next with a 19.9 percent shot and Toronto is third at 15.6 percent. The Timberwolves actually get 250 out of 1,000 possible four-digit lottery combinations, Cleveland gets 199 four-digit combinations and Toronto 156. From there, in descending order from 4 to 14, lottery teams will have 119 (Washington) of 1,000 combinations, then 88, 63, 43 (Detroit), 28 (the LA Clippers, in a pick that now belongs to Cleveland), 17 (Charlotte), 11 (Milwaukee), 8 (Golden State), 7 (Utah), 6 (Phoenix) and 5 (Houston). More on this in a minute – and why no team has either 88 or 63 four-digit combinations this year.

What about teams that finish with the same record?

This is what happened to the Pistons and 76ers last year. It happened this year to Sacramento and New Jersey, each of which finished 25-58. Sacramento won the draw, giving it one more lottery combination, 76-75 – the NBA adds the 88 allotted to the No. 5 team and the 63 allotted to No. 6 and divides by two, with the remaining chance going to the winner of the tiebreaker in instances when the total isn’t divisible by two. The tiebreaker also determined that Sacramento will draft No. 5 and New Jersey No. 6 (actually, that pick goes to Utah as part of the Deron Williams trade in February) if neither team has one of its four-digit combinations drawn in determining the first three picks.

Besides a chance of getting the first, second or third picks, what are the other possibilities for the Pistons?

Because any of the 14 lottery teams can move into the top three, the Pistons could be jumped by three teams slotted behind them. So the Pistons can land in any one of seven draft spots – 1, 2 or 3; or 7, 8, 9 or 10. But the odds of the Pistons picking 10th, when rounded to three places, come to 0.000. There are four chances in 10,000 that three teams would jump the Pistons.

What do you mean by 1,000 possible four-digit lottery combinations?

There are actually 1,001 possible combinations if you take the numbers 1 through 14 and sort them by four-digit combinations without regard to order – for example, 1-2-3-4 is the same as 4-3-2-1 or any other possible combination of those four digits. All possible combinations of 11-12-13-14 are discounted, allowing the NBA to round to an even 1,000 possible combinations. A computer then randomly assigns each team its allotment from the 1,000 possibilities. Because Philadelphia won the coin flip with the Pistons last year and was assigned its 53 four-digit combinations based on that result, the 76ers were the team that drew the No. 2 pick.

What happens if a team that draws the No. 1 pick also has one of its other four-digit combinations selected for the No. 2 or No. 3 pick?

Then the NBA will dismiss that result and pick again until a different team’s combination is selected. Last year, in fact, Washington had three different four-digit combinations selected in the process of determining the first three picks, twice winning the No. 1 pick. The Wizards went into the lottery slotted No. 4, with 119 of the 1,000 possible four-digit combinations, behind New Jersey, Minnesota and Sacramento.

All we see on TV is NBA commissioner David Stern removing envelopes from a drum. Where are the 1,000 combinations?

The process of picking the top three teams – and, thus, determining the entire order of the 14-team lottery – is actually conducted before the TV event, in a separate room, in a meeting attended by NBA officials, one representative of each lottery team, and accountants entrusted with safeguarding the integrity of the process.

Four numbered ping-pong balls are pulled to determine the No. 1 pick. Whichever team has the corresponding four-digit combination assigned randomly by the computer then receives the No. 1 pick. The four balls are then returned to the drum and the process repeated to determine the No. 2 pick, then repeated again to determine the No. 3 pick. Picks 4-14 are determined by reverse order of NBA record, worse teams drafting higher than those with better records.

So why do team representatives on TV seem surprised, happy or disappointed when David Stern reveals the top picks?

Because those people do not know the results of the separate process. Team representatives that attend the meeting where ping-pong balls are drawn to determine the first three picks must remain in that room – without access to any communication devices – while the televised event plays out.