The Lottery: Everything You Need To Know (And Probably A Lot More...)

Watch on ESPN Tuesday, May 20, at 8pm (EST)
by Max Rappaport
Sixers.com Writer
@MaxRappaport

As basketball fans, we often take games comprised of hundreds of independent and unique possessions and reduce them down to the micro level – a bounce of the ball that went one way as opposed to another, a controversial block/charge call down the stretch, missed free throws... But in reality, games aren’t decided by these arbitrary, and sometimes cruel, acts of fate. More often than not, outcomes are determined by carefully calculated plans devised by coaching staffs and thousands of hours of training put in by players. 

But once every year, executives, coaches, players, and fans can simply sit back and pray for serendipity.

On May 20, the 14 teams that missed out on this year’s postseason will converge upon New York City for the 30th iteration of the NBA Draft Lottery, a process by which the top three selections in every draft are distributed via a confusing and esoteric process involving ping pong balls, factorial functions, and a shroud of secrecy so thick that even in the age of Twitter, its results are able to be kept private from the time of the drawing until being announced later in the evening.

It begins in the days following the regular season. The non-playoff teams are ordered by final record – worst to first – and are allotted pre-determined lottery odds based upon that order. 

If two teams finish the season with a same record, their odds split evenly and a coin is flipped to determine which team is awarded an extra combination (if  the total is an odd number) and is slotted higher in the case that neither is awarded one of the three top selections determined via the lottery system (the remaining 11 picks are awarded based upon regular season record). This season, the Utah Jazz and Boston Celtics each finished with a 25-57 record (tied for fourth-worst); Utah won the ensuing coin flip and as a result was awarded 104 combinations as opposed to the 103 allotted to Boston. More on what exactly these combinations mean later; for now, think of each as one chance out of 1,000 that a particular team will be awarded the top pick.

Here’s a look at each team’s odds of picking in each of the top 14 spots in this year’s draft. Note that no team can fall more than three spots (since, at most, only three teams below them could be propelled into the top three) and only the first three selections are determined by lottery. This means that some teams cannot mathematically end up in certain spots, regardless of what happens on lottery night.
(Bolded are picks that belong to the 76ers)

•••

Team 2013-14

record

Lottery

chances

Pick
1st 2nd 3rd 4th 5th 6th 7th 8th 9th 10th 11th 12th 13th 14th
Milwaukee Bucks 15–67 250 .250 .215 .177 .358
Philadelphia 76ers 19–63 199 .199 .188 .171 .319 .124
Orlando Magic 23–59 156 .156 .157 .156 .225 .265 .041
Utah Jazz 25–57 104 .104 .112 .121 .099 .373 .177 .014
Boston Celtics 25–57 103 .103 .111 .120 .238 .342 .082 .004
Los Angeles Lakers 27–55 63 .063 .071 .081 .440 .304 .040 .001
Sacramento Kings 28–54 43 .043 .049 .058 .600 .232 .018 .000
Detroit Pistons 29–53 28 .028 .033 .039 .725 .168 .008 .000
Cleveland Cavaliers 33–49 17 .017 .020 .024 .813 .122 .004 .000
New Orleans Pelicans 34–48 11 .011 .013 .016 .870 .089 .002 .000
Denver Nuggets 36–46 8 .008 .009 .012 .907 .063 .001 .000
New York Knicks 37–45 7 .007 .008 .010 .935 .039 .001
Minnesota Timberwolves 40–42 6 .006 .007 .009 .960 .017
Phoenix Suns 48–34 5 .005 .006 .007 .982

•••

The process by which the lottery is determined is no less confusing than the series numbers and decimal points shown above. One representative from every team is ushered into a room where the lottery is conducted in private – the results are shared on live television later in the evening. 

Fourteen ping pong balls numbered 1-14 are placed into a machine for 20 seconds. Then, the first ball is drawn, 10 seconds later, the second is drawn, another 10 seconds, and a third ball is removed from the machine, finally, after 10 more seconds, the fourth ball is drawn. 

The order in which the four numbers were drawn is not important – meaning a drawing of 1, 2, 3, and 4 is the same as a drawing of 4, 3, 2, and 1. A league official refers to a massive board showing 1,000 combinations of four digits with a team name assigned to each (this is where the number of combinations each team has factors into the odds). Whichever team’s combination was drawn first is awarded the top pick.

The four balls are then returned to the machine and the process is repeated to determine the winners of the second and third picks. In the event that a combination is drawn for picks #2 or #3 that belongs to a team that has already been awarded a pick via the lottery, the drawing is repeated until a unique winner is determined. 

After the top-three selections have been determined, the remaining 11 lottery picks (as well as the 16 non-lottery picks) are sequenced based upon regular season record, from worst to best. 

The results are kept a secret until being announced on ESPN beginning at 8pm (EST). The 14 representatives on stage for each team during this process are unaware of the results of the lottery until this on-air reading.

•••

If all that weren’t enough to wrap your head around, the Sixers are in a unique situation this year in that they also possess the rights to New Orleans’ 2014 first-round pick (via a draft-night trade last year) unless it falls in the top five. Because the Pelicans are ineligible for the fourth and fifth selections due to their starting position (10th), it can be understood more simply that the Sixers will receive the Pelicans’ pick unless it is drawn during the lottery. 

Looking at the odds, New Orleans has just a 4.0% chance of being awarded a top-three selection. But should that happen, the Pelicans’ obligation to Philadelphia would simply shift to next year’s draft (still in the form of a top-five protected pick). This process would be repeated next year if the Pelicans were to again receive a top-five pick, and if somehow New Orleans selects in the top five of each of the next six drafts, the Pelicans would then convey their 2019 and 2020 second-round picks to Philadelphia as compensation. 

From the perspective of a Sixers fan, there will be two very important things to watch for during the lottery broadcast. First, is the Pelicans’ name drawn during or prior to the announcement of pick #10? If it is not, that means New Orleans has moved into the top three and their obligation to Philadelphia is delayed until 2015; if it is, that selection belongs to the Sixers. And second, is the Sixers’ name drawn before the commercial break that takes place between picks four and three? If it isn’t, that means the Sixers have been awarded a top-three pick (obviously), but it also means that there is a 35.7% chance that they have won the first-overall selection.

•••

A lot to keep track of, right? To recap, here are the basics:

• The 2014 NBA Draft Lottery will be held on May 20 in New York City

• It will be nationally televised on ESPN beginning at 8pm (EST) and concluding just before the start of Heat-Pacers at 8:30pm

• This year’s lottery will be the 30th iteration of the event, which first took place 1985

• The actual drawing is done behind closed doors prior to the television program via a complicated process detailed at length in the paragraphs above

• Only the top three selections are determined via the lottery, with the remaining 27 pick assignments decided based upon regular season record, ordered from worst to first

• By virtue of finishing with a 19-63 record, the Sixers hold the second-best odds in this year’s lottery (behind Milwaukee)

• As a result, Philadelphia’s pick can be no lower than fifth overall

• Philadelphia has a 19.9% chance of receiving top pick, a 18.8% chance of receiving the second pick, and a 17.1% chance of receiving the third pick, a 31.9% chance of receiving the fourth pick, and a 12.4% chance of receiving the fifth pick

• The Sixers have won the first-overall pick via lottery just once, in 1996, when they finished the 1995-96 season with the second-worst record (18-64). Philadelphia selected point guard Allen Iverson out of Georgetown with that pick

• Despite selecting first overall just once since the induction of the lottery in 1985, the Sixers have been lucky in regard to the other two lottery-eligible picks

• Since the lottery odds became weighted with respect to regular season records in 1990, the Sixers have jumped into the top three five times – winning the first-overall pick in 1996, jumping from sixth to second in 2010, from fifth to second in 1997, from fourth to third in 1995, and from fifth to second in 1993

• The Sixers also possess the rights to New Orleans’ first-round pick (as a result of a draft-night trade last year). That pick is top-five protected, and, as a result of the Pelicans’ 10th-worst record, will be conveyed to Philadelphia unless it is drawn during the lottery (more on that process and what happens to the pick if that happens above)