Next Tuesday, independent representatives and auditors of the fourteen teams who didn’t make the NBA Playoffs will converge. Where? A secret locked-down area Jodie Foster’s character in Panic Room would’ve lauded. Those confined to their dais sit there for far too long watching numbered ping-pong balls tumble around a plastic maze before unfolding.
Air-filled celluloid reveals the immediate future of NBA franchises in need of a new marquee player each season. In Milwaukee’s case, it’s players. As you can reasonable ascertain: it’s a tad ostentatious.
Nothing in the NBA tries to take itself as seriously as the Draft Lottery. A myriad of bizarre moments coupled with commercialized State Farm campaigns, high-strung men in ill-fitting suits, and enough awkward silence to make a mandated middle school dance appear graceful.
Acolytes lost in the seaflow of a gamble; the whirling derby of a basketball lottery.
Every team that misses the playoffs has an opportunity to win the no. 1, no. 2 and no. 3 overall pick. That leaves eleven losers in each lottery. The representatives forced to watch their team squander yet another opportunity – this time in private – make their picks in inverse order of their seasonal record.
There are ways of obtaining franchise players later in the draft once the top picks have passed; the Mavericks seized Dirk Nowitzki at no. 9, the Lakers grabbed Kobe Bryant at no. 13. But the preeminent odds are found in the muddy puddle of the league’s bottom feeders, the turbulent tankers. This plan is not fail-safe, of course, but the Draft Lottery has slowly become the holy grail for sieve-like teams staggering through 20-win seasons.
Franchises chase the prize of futility.
Each year the NBA holds game-show night. All they’re missing are the envelopes and confetti.
The history of the NBA Draft Lottery is a long one. It’s overblown yet marketable, significant yet silly. It is a byproduct of speculation, controversy and intrigue. At its core, though, the event is an opportunity to change the trajectory of a franchise.
If only for a little while, it allows chance to dictate the game.
Part 1: Territorial Picks (1947-65)
The Philadelphia Warriors stole one of the most dominant players in the National Basketball Association’s history.
His name was Wilt Chamberlain.
You’ve heard of him.
Long before ping-pong balls handed out picks in the NBA Draft Lottery, the territorial pick rule helped economically crippled organizations pilfer college boys within a 50-mile radius of their home arenas. On March 31, 1959, the Warriors forfeited their first-round draft pick by legally shoplifting Wilt Chamberlain from the pool.
Despite Chamberlain attending and exceling at the University of Kansas – more than 1,300 miles from Philly – the man who would scythe the annals of the league: only player to record a 100-point game; only center to lead the league in assists; all time league leader in rebounds, would be surreptitiously thrust back into the city where he attended high school.
However, Chamberlain would not be the face of the territorial rule; Holy Cross’ Tom Heinsohn would.
Jersey City’s product shined in his college days at Worchester and was taken by Boston before the draft had even started. Coupled with a disastrous managerial breakdown by the St. Louis Hawks that sent no. 2 overall pick and future Hall of Famer Bill Russell to Boston, Heinsohn led the Celtics to eight NBA Championships in his nine-year career. The Rochester Royals who finished a league-worst 31-41 didn’t have a chance to draft him.
Part 2: The Coin Flip (1966-84)
The league revamped the draft system in 1966 with the introduction of a coin flip. A primitive 50-50 tossup pitted the league’s two worst teams from their respective divisions against one another. Whoever won the coin flip would pick first and the rest of the draft selections were made in inverse order of their won-lost records.
In 1996, point guard Gail Goodrich was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Two decades prior, the slippery guard with an affinity for back-cuts left the Los Angeles Lakers to sign with the New Orleans Jazz, a move designed to pair Goodrich with “Pistol” Pete Maravich. The signing would haunt the franchise soon after. Per league rules at the time, the Lakers were to receive compensation for losing the veteran, which came in the form of three draft picks. When the Lakers won the 1978 coin toss, one of the picks became the electrical showman and Hall of Famer Magic Johnson.
When the Houston Rockets sprawled their way out of the 1982-83 season, their dismal 14-68 record afforded them one bright spot: the chance of coin. Upon winning the pick Houston selected Ralph Sampson, a 7-foot-4 skyscraper with cables for arms and moves that were simultaneously finessed and steel-plated. Sampson wouldn’t disappoint, winning Rookie of the Year in 1983. Despite Sampson’s fortitude, Houston finished at the bottom of the Western Conference again. But the Rockets became the only team in the coin flip era to win the league’s lottery pick in consecutive years, electing to draft Hakeem Olajuwon in 1984; a move that carved a formidable frontcourt still heralded today.
The 38th annual NBA Draft and final of the coin flip era was one of the greatest in league history and would shape basketball in the United States forever. When the final pick had been made, arguably the greatest player (Michael Jordan, third overall), passer (John Stockton, 16th overall), center (Hakeem Olajuwon, first overall), and draft mistake (Sam Bowie, second overall) had been chosen.
Part 3: Weighted Lottery System (1990-Present)
The Board of Governors further refined the system by creating a weighted lottery in October of 1989. Due to expansion, 11 teams were included in the draw. The team with the worst record received 11 chances out of a possible 66 to land the top pick, the second worst had 10 chances, and so on. Like the prior system, only the top three picks would be determined by the lottery.
Orlando responded to the newly minted procedure by winning the 1993 lottery with only one 1 chance on account of them being the best non-playoff team that year.
To temper the issue, the league modified the plan in 1994 to give the team with the worst record a higher chance while simultaneously decreasing the likelihood of better teams winning the pick. The new system increased the probability of the team with the worst record winning the first pick from 16.7 percent to 25 percent. Teams with the best record among the draw dropped from 1.5 percent to 0.5 percent.
Despite Philadelphia finishing with the fourth-worst record in the 1994-95 season, the 76ers landed the top pick, and with it, Allen Iverson. Prior to the season, the Toronto Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies entered the league in ’95 and agreed to not accept the top pick in the draft until ’99 as part of their expansion agreement. Although the Raptors won the ’96 lottery, they were forced to relinquish the pick to Philadelphia. Iverson turned an empty arena into an MVP award and contending team in just four years.
Part 4: 13-team Lottery (1996-2003)
In 1995, the Board of Governors enlarged the number of teams participating to 13 after Toronto and Vancouver were brought to the league.
Starting in 1996, the team with the worst record in the Lottery continued to have a 25% chance (250 combinations) of winning the first pick, teams two (20%; 200 combinations) through six (6.4%; 64 combinations) have slightly fewer chances, team seven (4.4%; 44 combinations) has the same number of chances and teams eight (2.9%; 29 combinations) through 12 (0.6%; six combinations) have slightly more chances. The number of chances for team 13 (0.5%; five combinations) did not change – NBA Draft History
Teams that tied split the number of chances and a blind draw determined which team received the extra chance if a split couldn’t be made evenly.
With only an 8.5 percent shot at landing the top spot in 2002, the Houston Rockets flipped a half-decade worth of maladies when they landed Yao Ming no. 1 overall. The 7-foot-6 Chinese center popularized the game globally while making eight All-Star teams.
Part 5: 14-team Lottery (2004-Present)
With the addition of the Charlotte Bobcats in 2004, the NBA Draft Lottery increased to 14 teams, electing to reestablish the weighted lottery system.
The Chicago Bulls spun the narrative of the decade when they won the 2008 no. 1 overall pick on just 1.7 percent likelihood. Chicago native Derrick Rose returned home and won the franchise’s first MVP award since Jordan.
Every year 14 ping-pong balls are deposited into a machine. They’re allowed to tumble for exactly 20 seconds before they’re extracted by a man who’s tense it’s a miracle he doesn’t shatter. Three teams win and eleven teams lose.
This year, the Milwaukee Bucks will have the best shot at grabbing lottery picks. Not even the Philadelphia 76ers losing 26 consecutive games could shake the Bucks, who were set on tanking this season. Look for the Bucks to land a lottery selection, they won’t be picking anything lower than fourth.
No lottery comes without controversy. A myriad of conspiracy theories have followed the event since the New York Knicks took Patrick Ewing in ’85. The NBA plays a game show every year. It’s ridiculous, but you can’t say it comes without merit.