NBA Draft Trends: The luck of the lottery in the modern era

By Matt Norlander | Staff Writer

Tuesday night marked the 20th year the NBA held its annual lottery using the same formula and odds for all teams involved.

The two-decade anniversary triggered a thought: Which teams have had the most luck of the draw since 1994? Though the NBA went to its "weighted" lottery process in 1990, the number of balls/odds that teams get was adjusted in 1994 to a 25-percent chance for the worst record.

The sliding scale that's been in place goes as such:

Worst record: 25.0 percent
Second-worst record: 19.9 percent
Third-worst record: 15.6 percent

And so on.

So in that time, here's how the NBA's bingo bin of luck has played out for teams involved. The data below does not factor in trades post-lottery. They are purely based on where teams were slotted the night of the selection and a team's correspondence to that pick.

First, you should know that every team has been in the lottery at least once in the past 20 years. Even San Antonio -- who used that one and only showing to get the No. 1 pick and select Tim Duncan. Ridiculous.

You'll notice that of the five most recurring teams in the lottery, the only team this year that failed to make the playoffs was the Timberwolves. And wouldn't you know, the Timberwolves have been the star-crossed franchise since 1994.

Look at this chart. It measures where a team "should" get its lottery pick according to the percentages. But sometimes you luck out and get a higher pick -- like Cleveland as of late -- and sometimes you drop because others in the bin have their number beat the odds.

No team has been unluckier than Minnesota, picking a collective nine spots lower than the expectation of their picks over the years. While you'd expect Cleveland to be near the top, they are, but not top-four. On the opposite end, Donald Sterling's Clippers have been the luckiest. Three teams -- the Pacers, Grizzlies and Hawks -- are even-stevens.

Now, in terms of earning the No. 1 pick, it's all Cleveland. And this doesn't even include the Cavs trading for the No. 1 spot in 1986 -- the only time the top spot in the draft has been traded away.

In terms of who gets that No. 1 overall pick, here's the 20-year progression of the pre-lottery odds. The higher the yellow dot, the greater the chance. The randomness of this process is trending "down," which means the better teams are ending up closer to the top of the draft board.

This pie chart looks at the top pick in a different way. It shows which team in the pre-lottery spot/forecast has wound up with the top pick. You want to be in that No. 3 spot. No. 5 comes in second. After that, the past 20 years have shown that having the worst record or the ninth-worst record has amounted to the same number of No. 1 picks.

Begs the question: Is this the best process for the NBA to continue using?

The last graph looks at the league as a whole. Where have all the teams averaged in lottery draw in the past 20 years? San Antonio has the highest spot, while Indiana has the lowest. The full data chart is listed below the graph.

TeamAverage lottery draw since 1994
San Antonio Spurs1
Chicago Bulls3.1
Memphis Grizzlies4.2
Atlanta Hawks5.1
Los Angeles Clippers5.6
Washington Wizards5.8
Charlotte Hornets/Bobcats6.2
Philadelphia 76ers6.4
New Jersey/Brookyn Nets6.5
Minnesota Timberwolves6.7
Miami Heat6.8
Denver Nuggets6.9
Cleveland Cavaliers7.1
Toronto Raptors7.1
Boston Celtics7.5
Milwaukee Bucks7.5
Orlando Magic7.7
New York Knicks7.8
Portland Trail Blazers7.9
Detroit Pistons7.9
Golden State Warriors8
Sacramento Kings8.1
New Orleans Hornets/Pelicans8.4
Seattle SuperSonics/OKC Thunder8.5
Dallas Mavericks8.6
Los Angeles Lakers9
Phoenix Suns10.5
Utah Jazz10.8
Houston Rockets10.8
Indiana Pacers11.4

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