Lottery Tuesday: A 14 percent shot at the No. 1 pick and more nuts & bolts lottery stuff

Cade Cunningham
Oklahoma State freshman Cade Cunningham is widely considered the No. 1 prospect for the 2021 NBA draft
Andy Lyons/Getty Images
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

(Editor’s note: The most important NBA draft lottery draw for the Pistons since 1994 will take place four weeks from today, June 22. We’ll take a look at different aspects of the lottery each Tuesday from now until then, starting with today’s dive into the mechanics of the revised lottery.)

The Pistons haven’t had much luck in the NBA draft lottery over its 36 years of existence, but they’ve never been in as advantageous a position as they’ll take into the 2021 lottery four weeks from today.

They’ll go into the June 22 lottery in the No. 2 position and with the same odds at pulling the overall No. 1 pick and each of the top four picks that the lottery determines as the team that finished with the NBA’s worst record and holds the No. 1 lottery position, the Houston Rockets.

The Pistons, Rockets and Orlando Magic, in the third spot, each have a 14 percent chance to land the No. 1 pick and a cumulative 52 percent chance at landing somewhere in the top four. That said, the single likeliest outcome for the Pistons will be landing at No. 5, 27.8 percent. And the second most likely landing spot will be at No. 6, 20 percent. They can’t drop lower than sixth, though.

Pistons general manager Troy Weaver said last week that while he thinks there is “star potential” at the top of the draft, he doesn’t see a generational talent like Shaquille O’Neal or LeBron James. Oklahoma State’s Cade Cunningham, a 6-foot-8 playmaking wing, is widely considered the No. 1 overall pick.

But while no team has better odds to land the No. 1 pick than the Pistons, the revision made by the NBA to the lottery starting with the 2019 draft means they have significantly lesser odds at the top pick than they would have had under the old system.

If this were 2018 and the Pistons sat in the No. 2 position, they would’ve had a 20 percent shot to get the top pick, a 56 percent chance at a top-three pick and could have picked no lower than fifth. The combination of lesser odds for a top pick and determining four instead of three picks creates a greater chance for disappointment come draft night.

“We’ll be excited to make the choice wherever we land,” Weaver said. “I’m not looking for somebody to walk in from the draft and change the franchise. I’m not going to quote Rick Pitino” – a reference to Pitino’s memorable rant about “Larry Bird’s not walking through that door, Kevin McHale’s not walking through that door …” as he was trying to pull the Celtics back to relevance – “but we’ll be excited for the choice.”

The mechanics of the draft remain unchanged from the past. The NBA randomly assigns 1,000 four-digit combinations to the 14 lottery teams. The Pistons, Houston and Orlando will be assigned 140 combinations apiece. Cleveland and Oklahoma City, which finished tied with 22-50 records, will get 115 combinations. The number of combinations each team receives declines proportionately throughout the 14 lottery teams down to five of 1,000 combinations for the Golden State Warriors, who lost their play-in game to Memphis last week.

By the time the ESPN telecast comes on the air at 8:30 p.m. on June 22, the lottery results will be finalized – but only one representative from each team, NBA officials and employees of the accounting firm Ernst & Young, all of them sequestered in a conference room with their cell phones and all other access to communications outside the room severed, will be aware of the results. The revelation of those results comes during the telecast when a different representative of each team sits at a dais.

The lottery results are revealed in inverse order starting from 14. There will be no gnashing of teeth for Pistons fans necessary as long as the order stays true to lottery odds. So if it starts off with Golden State at 14, Indiana at 13 and San Antonio at 12, all good. But if at 11 Chicago turns up instead of Charlotte, that means the Hornets have pulled a top-four pick. It doesn’t mean the Pistons haven’t – they’d still have the same 14 percent shot at getting the No. 1 pick and the same 52 percent odds of a top-four pick – but it means one of those top four picks already has been secured and opens the possibility the Pistons have been jumped by at least one team.

And as unlikely as it would seem that four teams could jump the Pistons, the odds say it’s basically a coin flip – 52 percent they’ll get a top-four pick, 48 percent they’ll pick fifth or sixth.

A pessimist would say that wouldn’t exactly be a surprise for a team that has never moved up in the lottery with their own pick. An optimist would say that surely means they’re overdue to actually win it.


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