The NBA Draft Lottery and Luck

Like life itself the NBA Draft Lottery is random, painful and wonderful. It will remain as such unless they adopt that stupid wheel. This piece looks at what teams have been lucky and/or unlucky in the lottery during its 30 years of existence. What I’m looking at is which teams have had the ball bounce their way the most during the lottery era and which teams just can’t catch a break.

What the list below shows is how much each team moved up or down in the draft order during the 30 years of the lottery. What I did was look at each draft since the first lottery in 1985. I took each teams’ record against where they finish in the lottery and gave them a +/-. For instance the ’85 NY Knicks had the league’s 3rd worst record. They won the top pick in that lottery, so they get a +2 for that year. The Warriors had the worst record in the league in ’85 but drafted 7th because of the lottery. They would get a -6 for that year. The number below is the cumulative number of draft position movement up or down for each team during the 30 years of the lottery.

Team Net Lottery Luck
Philadelphia 19
Cleveland 11
OKC/Seattle 8
Charlotte 7
Orlando 5
San Antonio 5
Brooklyn/New Jersey 4
Houston 4
Indiana 3
Utah 3
Phoenix 2
Chicago 1
LA Clippers 1
Milwaukee 1
Atlanta 0
Detroit 0
Portland 0
LA Lakers -1
New Orleans -1
Boston -2
Toronto -2
NY Knicks -3
Washington -4
Golden State -5
Memphis/Vancouver -6
Miami -8
Sacramento -9
Dallas -9
Denver -11
Minnesota -13


When franchise moves occurred, I combined the teams. As an example, the Memphis numbers include the Vancouver Grizzly years. The exception to this is Charlotte. The Charlotte Hornet numbers are included with the Bobcat years and the current Charlotte Hornets. The New Orleans Hornets numbers are for just their time in New Orleans and the 2 seasons in Oklahoma City. I felt that was the correct way to go. The number is applied to the team that held the rights to the draft pick at the time of the lottery.

That’s just the raw numbers. Each draft has its stars and not all stars are created equal. Winning the right to select Anthony Bennett is not the same as winning the right to draft Tim Duncan. Here are the teams I consider to be the 5 luckiest teams of the lottery era:

  1. Orlando Magic: There have been a lot of great players drafted during the lottery era. There are only 3 whose presence has meant multiple championships. That’s Duncan, LeBron and Shaquille O’Neal. The Magic won the Shaq lottery in ’92. The next year they made the biggest jump of any lottery team ever, moving from 11 to 1 and drafting Chris Webber who quickly became Penny Hardaway. In ’04 the Magic again won the lottery that delivered the best center prospect of that decade, Dwight Howard. Despite being a favorite team of the bouncing balls, Orlando is still without a championship.
  2. San Antonio Spurs: You could make the case that the Spurs have been the luckiest lottery team. I mean they have been to 3 lotteries in 30 years and their 2 lottery wins netted them a top 5 all-time player in Duncan and a top 20 all-time player in Robinson. Unlike Cleveland and Orlando, the Spurs were able to build a dynasty around their franchise star.
  3. Cleveland Cavaliers: The Cavs have won so frequently in recent years that there has been talk of reforming the lottery. The funny thing about the whole scenario is that in 10 years no one will contend that the Cav’s bounty after winning the lottery in 3 of 4 years of Irving, Bennett and Wiggins would ever form the core of a contender. The big score however was LeBron in ’03, a year when they were tied for the worst overall record and won the lottery, which netted them no points on this list.
  4. Philadelphia 76ers: No team has seen the bouncing balls improve their draft position during the lottery era as much as the Sixers. This good fortune has brought some nice players, but no transcendent superstar. The stretch that could have formed the core of a Sixer dynasty that ruled the aughts was ’95-’97. The Sixers drafted in the top 3 each year and came away with Jerry Stackhouse, Allen Iverson and Keith Van Horne who was flipped for Tim Thomas shortly after being drafted. With 20-20 hindsight, drafting Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady would have been the way to go.
  5. Oklahoma City Thunder/Seattle Supersonics: The two big scores happened in Seattle. The first was moving up 9 spots in the ’90 draft and selecting Gary Payton. The next was in the ’07 draft when the team jumped 3 spots to the second pick and landed Kevin Durant. The Thunder may yet win a title with Durant, but seriously sabotaged the effort when they traded away James Harden for spare parts a few years ago.

The unlucky five

  1. Minnesota Timberwolves: The lottery hates the Timberwolves. They have never once seen their draft position improve via the lottery and have lost spots on 8 occasions. Bad bounces aren’t the only reason this franchise has been hapless for most of its existence. They have landed a couple of superstars in Kevin Garnett and Kevin Love only to see each depart. The David Kahn era produced what is likely the worst stretch of drafting by any GM ever. The reason the Timberwolves have struggled is bad management, but the lottery gods haven’t been much help.
  2. Denver Nuggets: The Nuggets always seem to be close to a score, but never quite make it. This is the only team that has been in the bottom 4 in wins going into the 3 biggest lotteries, ’92, ’97 and ’03. Instead of landing a Shaq, Duncan or LeBron they came away with LaPhonso Ellis, Tony Battie and Carmelo Anthony. Like the Timberwolves, the Nuggets have never seen the lottery improve their draft position.
  3. Sacramento Kings: The Kings made a big move in the ’89 lottery, moving up 5 spots to the top pick. The ’89 draft produced several solid NBA players, but was weak at the top. The Kings used the top pick on Pervis Ellison, who became a useful rotation big but is still one of the worst top overall picks ever. In recent lotteries the Kings haven’t been able to catch a break. They’ve lost spots in 5 of the last 6 years.
  4. Dallas Mavericks: The Mavericks have been a solid franchise since coming into the league in 1980. They drafted well, became competitive quickly for an expansion team, won a championship in 2011 and have only the one decade, the 90s, when the team struggled. No thanks to the lottery balls. The Mavs are another team that has never seen improvement in draft position via the lottery.
  5. Miami Heat: Like the Mavericks, the Heat haven’t been to the lottery much because the team has been pretty good and just hasn’t needed help from the random whims of ping pong balls. That’s a good thing, because the lottery has never been kind to the Heat.

The takeaway from this list is that lottery luck is nice, but smart, creative, aggressive organizations will find a way to win with or without help from the lottery. The Spurs were definitely lucky in landing Robinson and Duncan 10 years apart. But they also created a winning culture and added teammates that made both players want to stay in San Antonio. The Cavs, Magic, Sixers and Thunder have been unable to turn good lottery fortune into a championship.  On the flip side, poor lottery luck hasn’t stopped the Heat or the Mavericks from having success.

This is how tonight’s lottery will go if past wrongs are to be righted:

  1. Minnesota Timberwolves
  2. Sacramento Kings
  3. Denver Nuggets
  4. New York Knicks
  5. Philadelphia 76ers
  6. LA Lakers
  7. Orlando Magic
  8. Detroit Pistons
  9. Charlotte Hornets
  10. Miami Heat
  11. Indiana Pacers
  12. Utah Jazz
  13. Phoenix Suns
  14. Oklahoma City Thunder

I had pondered keeping Denver or Sacramento out of the top 3, because if 2 teams jump the Lakers the protection is removed from the Lakers’ pick. That means the pick goes to the Sixers who have had more than their share of lottery fortune. But playing lottery god is tough and it would be nice to see these 3 beleaguered franchises catch a break. The nightmare scenario for those of us who like life and lotteries to be fair would be Philadelphia, Orlando and Oklahoma City getting the top 3 spots. But the truth of the matter is the lottery matters little if the team that wins the right to draft Karl Towns can’t put the right championship mix around him.

Enjoy the lottery and all the speculation and conspiracy theories that happen in its wake. The prospect analysis for the 2015 draft will start soon.

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