How Does The NBA Draft Lottery Work? Full Walkthrough

Your favorite NBA team just had a horrible season. The roster doesn’t look like it will be competitive any time soon and all that’s left is to pray that the fourteen ping-pong balls of the draft lottery are going to give your team the chance to select the next generational talent. 

Some teams have lost games on purpose for a better draft position and improved chances of obtaining a higher draft pick.

Some teams have even gone as far as losing so much on purpose that the NBA had to step in and replace their General Manager and put an end to the infamous process.

For the league’s basement-dwellers, the NBA draft lottery is the most interesting part of the season. It’s the night where futures are made and where some franchises take the first step towards getting a new lease on life.

Not Every Team Can Participate

Not all teams participate in the NBA draft lottery. Only the 14 teams that didn’t make the playoffs actually take part in the lottery, while the remaining 16 teams automatically receive picks 15-30 in the draft order that is inverse to their regular season record (usual tie-breakers apply).

Poorer previous season performance = Better chance of obtaining a higher pick

The 14 lottery teams are assigned a certain number of combinations out of a possible 1000 with the exact number (i.e. the odds of getting the first overall pick) depending on their regular season record.

The three teams with the worst regular season records have the same chances of becoming lottery winners: each get a 14 percent chance for the first pick.

Lottery Night: A Formal Process Done Behind Closed Doors

The actual drawing is done behind closed doors. The only people allowed to be in attendance are NBA officials who are carrying out the drawing process, a selected member of the media, and a representative of an accounting (Ernst & Young) firm hired by the league. 

The media member and accounting firm representative are there to act as witnesses that everything went according to the rules and that the results of the lottery are truly the result of random chance rather than outside interference. 

The accounting firm representative is also in charge of validating the results of the lottery and handling the envelopes which the deputy commissioner will be opening and reading during the televised event where the results are announced.

That’s the event where each lottery team has one representative in attendance.

Only The First Four Picks Are Decided By Lottery

Not all lottery picks are determined by ping pong balls. In fact, most aren’t, meaning the majority of draft players are simply selected in reverse order of their win-loss record.

Only the first four picks are actually awarded via the lottery process and it is entirely possible for the team with the most successful season record (and thus the worst odds) to still get the first overall pick.

Once the first four picks are awarded, the order of picks 5-14 is determined by the inverse order of the regular season records of the remaining lottery teams.

Every Effort Is Made To Ensure Fair Outcomes

Before the actual lottery starts, each ping pong ball numbered 1-14 is officially weighed and verified to ensure that the results of the lottery are legitimate and not altered by faulty balls.

Once the balls go in the lottery machine, they are first mixed for 20 seconds before the first ball is removed. Three more balls will be removed with the balls being mixed for 10 seconds before each ball is removed.

There is a special person in charge of ensuring that the balls are mixed for the appropriate amount of time. This timekeeper must be facing away from the machine at all times to eliminate even the slightest possibility of them affecting the lottery results.

The timekeeper can only signal the machine operator when to start and when to stop the machine.

The numbers on the balls will correspond to one of the 1000 combinations distributed among the participating teams. The team with the corresponding four-number combination is awarded the first pick.

The procedure is then repeated for the second, third, and fourth overall picks.

A team can only get one pick

The mathematicians among you may have figured that it’s entirely possible for more than one four-ball combination belonging to the same team to be drawn during the lottery.

But no team can have more than one pick in either round of the draft unless they trade for it.

So, if a team already receives a pick in the lottery and another combination belonging to that team is drawn, the second result is discarded and the drawing process is repeated.

Since the balls numbered 1-14 can actually produce 1001 four-ball combinations and only 1000 combinations are actually distributed to the participating teams, the draw will be repeated on the rare occasion where the unassigned combination is drawn.

What about picks that are traded ahead of the lottery?

Trades involving picks are common in the NBA. You may remember the infamous Celtics-Nets trade that led to the Celtics having the first overall pick despite being a playoff team a few years ago.

Let’s say that a lottery team trades its first-round pick. How is the position of that pick determined?

The lottery pick will be treated as if it belongs to the original owner for the purpose of the lottery. So, in the Nets and Celtics example, the lottery odds for the picks being first overall were calculated based on the Nets’ regular season record despite the pick actually belonging to the Celtics via trade. 

Once the position of the pick is determined, the actual owner gets to use it at the said position. That’s how the Celtics ended up with the first overall pick (and subsequently traded it to the 76ers in what later turned out to be another classic Billy King trade robbery).

This scenario doesn’t take into account protections, but that’s a topic for an entirely separate post.

For now, I hope this is enough information for you to understand how the NBA draft lottery actually works.

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