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The NBA Draft Lottery

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2009 NBA Draft

Top prospects gather on stage for the 2009 NBA Draft at Madison Square Garden in New York

Getty Images / Jim McIsaac
Updated July 03, 2011
The NBA Draft Lottery is a consolation prize for the NBA's non-playoff teams. Every team that fails to reach the postseason gets entry in the lottery, and a shot at the first overall pick in that year's draft. The system is heavily weighted towards the teams with the worst overall records, but nothing is guaranteed. Under the current format, implemented in 1994, the league's worst team has only won the lottery twice.

Odds of Winning

Each lottery team is assigned sets of numbers -- the number of sets is determined by the standings, with the worst team in the league getting the most sets, the second-worst getting the second-most, etc.

Numbers are drawn by private auditors, and the results are announced on live television.

Odds of winning are as follows -- "Team 1" represents the league's worst record, while team 14 would be the non-playoff team with the best overall record:

  • Team 1 - 250 combinations (25.0%)
  • Team 2 - 199 combinations (19.9%)
  • Team 3 - 156 combinations (15.6%)
  • Team 4 - 119 combinations (11.9%)
  • Team 5 - 88 combinations (8.8%)
  • Team 6 - 63 combinations (6.3%)
  • Team 7 - 43 combinations (4.3%)
  • Team 8 - 28 combinations (2.8%)
  • Team 9 - 17 combinations (1.7%)
  • Team 10 - 11 combinations (1.1%)
  • Team 11 - 8 combinations (0.8%)
  • Team 12 - 7 combinations (0.7%)
  • Team 13 - 6 combinations (0.6%)
  • Team 14 - 5 combinations (0.5%)
Only the first three picks are determined by the lottery; the remainder are determined by team record alone.

Draft Lottery History

The first NBA Draft Lottery was held in 1985. At the time, every non-playoff team had an equal shot at the top pick. The New York Knicks won the lottery and the right to draft Georgetown center Patrick Ewing.

One of the most enduring NBA conspiracy theories suggests that the lottery was fixed in an attempt to prop up the franchise in America's biggest media market. According to legend, the envelope containing the Knick logo was frozen so NBA commissioner David Stern would know it by touch.

Changes to the Lottery Foramt

The league has made several changes to the lottery format since then.
  • 1987: Only the first three picks drawn by lottery
  • 1990: Odds of winning weighted towards the league's worst teams. With eleven non-playoff teams, the worst team had eleven changes to win, the second-worst had ten, etc.
  • 1994: Current system implemented, with league's worst team having a 25 percent chance of winning.
Despite the odds, the league's worst team has only won the lottery twice. In 2003, the Cleveland Cavaliers won the first pick -- and the right to draft LeBron James -- and in 2004, the Orlando Magic came out on top, and drafted Dwight Howard.
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