Months of anticipation and, in some cases, tanking have led to this moment: The NBA is holding its annual draft lottery drawing in New York City on Tuesday (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN), when 14 teams will vie for the No. 1 overall pick. Once the ping pong balls fall, Kentucky's Karl Towns, Duke's Jahlil Okafor, and the rest of the 2015 draft class will officially begin the process of finding out where they will begin their professional careers.
The ongoing NBA playoffs stand as clear evidence of the lottery's importance. Six of the eight teams that advanced to the conference semifinals featured No. 1 overall picks as key building blocks: LeBron James and Kyrie Irving (Cavaliers), Derrick Rose (Bulls), John Wall (Wizards), Blake Griffin (Clippers), Dwight Howard (Rockets), and Andrew Bogut (Warriors). Two other No. 1 overall picks—Tim Duncan (Spurs) and Anthony Davis (Pelicans)—went out in the first round. What's more, this year's top seven finishers in the MVP voting (Stephen Curry, James Harden, James, Russell Westbrook, Davis, Chris Paul, and LaMarcus Aldridge) were all lottery picks, with all but Curry being selected in the top four. All of that cheesy "today's drafts prospects are tomorrow's superstars" talk you're bound to hear over the next 24 hours is rooted in very, very firm reality.
Here's a rundown of what to expect on Tuesday and some of the key questions around this year's lottery.
Which teams will be in attendance?
The 14 teams invited to the lottery are this year's non-playoff teams, and they are arranged in order such that teams with worse records have a higher probability of earning one of the top three picks than teams with better records. Below, find the 14 teams invited to the lottery, as well as their chances of winning the No. 1 selection.
Timberwolves (16-66): 25%
Knicks (17-65): 19.9%
Sixers (18-64): 15.6%
Lakers (21-61): 11.9%
Magic (25-57): 8.8%
Kings (29-53): 6.3%
Nuggets (30-52): 4.3%
Pistons (32-50): 2.8%
Hornets (33-49): 1.7%
Heat (37-45): 1.1%
Pacers (38-44): 0.8%
Jazz (38-44): 0.7%
Suns (39-43): 0.6%
Thunder (45-37): 0.5%
How does the lottery work?
The lottery drawing process is straightforward. Fourteen numbered balls are placed into a hopper and each team is assigned its designated percentage of the possible four-digit combinations. Four numbers are drawn, and the team whose numbers corresponds to that four-number combination wins the No. 1 pick. The process is then repeated for the No. 2 and the No. 3 picks. The remaining picks—Nos. 4 through 14—proceed in order from worst to best record.
What could go wrong?
In most years, the worst-case scenario is that the team with the best shot at the No. 1 pick gets jumped by three teams with better records, thereby pushing it down to the No. 4 pick. For example, Minnesota might fall from No. 1—where it could take its pick between Towns and Okafor—to No. 4, where it might be forced to "settle" for a player like Emmanuel Mudiay (who played professionally in China this year) or Duke's Justise Winslow.
If you're a sucker for a potential disaster, look no further than the Lakers. After enduring three consecutive season-ending injuries to Kobe Bryant and back-to-back lottery trips, L.A. finds itself fourth in the draft order, with an 11.9% chance of snagging the No. 1 pick. Lakers fans should be drooling: franchise legends Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson and Shaquille O'Neal were all No. 1 picks. But there's a catch, and it's a big one.
L.A. shipped a protected first-round pick to Phoenix in the 2012 sign-and-trade deal that landed Steve Nash. The Suns in turn traded that pick to the Sixers at this year's deadline in a three-team deal that sent Brandon Knight from the Bucks to the Suns. According to the protections, the Lakers get to keep their pick if it remains in the top five but they must send it to the Sixers if it lands at six or seven. Put another way, two teams must jump over the Lakers in the lottery order for the Sixers to receive the pick. In case you're wondering, there is a 17.2% chance of that happening, leaving L.A. empty-handed after the worst season in its 67-year franchise history.
What else could go wrong?
Although it wouldn't be quite as catastrophic, the Heat are also in danger of losing their pick. Miami will begin the drawing in the No. 10 slot. However, if any of the four teams behind it in the draft order jump up into the top three, the Heat must turn their pick over to the Sixers. Why? Miami originally sent out a top-10 protected pick to Cleveland as part of the 2010 sign-and-trade payoff for LeBron James. The Cavaliers in turn shipped that pick to the Sixers in last summer's three-team trade that landed Kevin Love in Cleveland.
What could go right?
The flip side to those two nightmare scenarios for the Lakers and Heat would be an unlikely dream scenario in which the Sixers wind up holding three of the 14 lottery picks. Philadelphia's absolute best-case involves it jumping from No. 3 to No. 1 with its own pick, claiming the Lakers' pick at No. 6, and obtaining the Heat's pick at No. 11. (Click here for more on the likelihood of this possibility unfolding.)
This would amount to pure anarchy, as the Sixers have been the most shameless (or devoted, depending on how you look at it) in their long-term rebuilding approach. Philadelphia has hoarded draft picks like crazy, and could theoretically field a 2015-16 starting lineup that includes three 2015 lottery picks plus 2013 lottery pick Nerlens Noel and 2014 lottery pick Joel Embiid. The NBA's Board of Governors has already weighed the possibility of lottery reform in hopes of curbing tanking, and one would imagine that a perfect storm like this could reopen that conversation quickly, if for no other reason than envy.
Who needs No. 1 the most?
The Knicks are the clear leader in the clubhouse when it comes to desperation. The Knicks sport: a despised owner in James Dolan who hired the disgraced Isiah Thomas (he of the sexual harassment history) to run his WNBA team; a president in Phil Jackson who spends his days trolling on Twitter over the supposed unimportance of the three-point shot; a coach in Derek Fisher who made it two months into his career before fans were wearing bags on their heads and calling for his firing; a superstar in Carmelo Anthony who will earn more than $100 million over the next four years after playing just 40 games last season due to a knee injury; and a roster that has been gutted to the point that Anthony's supporting cast is so anonymous that it might as well be in witness protection. Basketball fans in the Big Apple really need some hope.
Who 'deserves' to win?
If New York's despair isn't your cup of tea, there are a few other options.
On pure merit, the Timberwolves are a solid choice: they combine the league's worst record, with a clear need for new talent, a questionable coach/front office dynamic, and a depressing track record of missing the playoffs for 11 straight years.
If you're looking to even the score, the Sixers fell from No. 2 to No. 3 last year, and they responded by failing to win 20 games for the second straight season. A jump up the board this year would fast-track GM Sam Hinkie's rebuilding effort.
The Lakers aren't quite as desperate as the Knicks, but they're close. The front-office has looked rudderless since longtime owner Dr. Jerry Buss died in 2013, coach Byron Scott was a mess in his first year in L.A., Bryant is clogging the salary cap while clinging to his past greatness, the rest of the roster is severely talent and potential, and 2014 lottery pick Julius Randle suffered a season-ending injury during his first regular-season game. There isn't much pity around the league for a franchise that has won 16 titles and rakes in hundreds of millions of dollars on its local television deal, but the Lakers are in need of some good fortune when it comes to the ping pong balls as anyone.
Who should go No. 1 overall?
Most of the discussion at the top of the board this year has centered on Towns and Okafor. That debate kicked up another notch when both Kentucky and Duke made the Final Four, with the Blue Devils taking home the title. This is a juicy conversation: Okafor is the more traditional, polished scorer, while Towns is the more versatile, "modern" option. For a full breakdown, check out this SI.com roundtable.
What's the dream player/team fit?
Although Timberwolves fans probably don't want to hear this scenario just yet—because it would only likely come to fruition if their team slipped down the draft board—my ideal player/team pairing would land the 19-year-old Winslow in Minnesota. Yes, the Timberwolves really need size—center Nikola Pekovic has missed tons of time with injuries and stopgap power forward Thaddeus Young was traded to Brooklyn at the deadline for aging hype man Kevin Garnett—but a Winslow/Andrew Wiggins pairing on the wing is just too tantalizing. Wiggins, the 2015 Rookie of the Year, had a phenomenal first season that surpassed expectations, and he looks destined for superstardom.
Still, he needs a lot of help, as coach Flip Saunders forced Wiggins to carry a heavy, heavy load from a minutes and offensive responsibility standpoint as a rookie. That burden could easily continue for years. Making Wiggins' life easier is Saunders' top priority, and Winslow would certainly help accomplish that goal. Adding the 6-foot-7 Duke product to the mix would pair Wiggins with another scoring threat, a strong perimeter defender, and a quality athlete. In all likelihood, Wiggins and Winslow would establish themselves as the NBA's best wing duo within 3-to-5 years, and that high-upside core would give the Timberwolves a clear, exciting identity around which to build out the rest of the roster. Sure, they might not be Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, or Kevin Durant and James Harden, but they could still be something very, very special together.
What's the most mind-blowing thing that could happen?
Oklahoma City was eliminated from the playoffs on the last day of the regular season, when New Orleans beat San Antonio to clinch the West's No. 8 seed. That left a Thunder team that is a perennial title contender in the lottery for the first time since 2009, when they selected Harden with the No. 3 pick.
The Thunder have just a 0.5% chance of winning the No. 1 pick and a 1.82% chance of moving into the top three...but what if that happened?! New coach Billy Donovan could potentially welcome back 2014 MVP Kevin Durant from injury by rolling out a rotation that includes Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, Steven Adams, Enes Kanter, Andre Roberson, Anthony Morrow, Mitch McGary, Nick Collison and someone like Towns, Okafor or Winslow. That team would be absurd. Can we fast forward to the 2016 Western Conference finals between the Warriors and Thunder right now?
Or, Oklahoma City GM Sam Presti could use that pick as the centerpiece of his efforts to convince Durant to re-sign with the Thunder in July 2016. A top-three pick plus contracts should be a strong enough package to land an All-Star caliber player. A lottery lightning strike in Oklahoma City would have the power to erase all of our assumptions about the lay of the land in the West for the next half-decade.
What's the one thing we can all agree on?
That the Cavaliers can't win this thing for the third straight year and the fourth time since 2011.