How the NBA draft lottery works

Here’s how the NBA’s annual draft lottery works, and what else you need to know.
Publish date:

Get breaking news and SI’s biggest stories instantly. Download the new Sports Illustrated app (iOS or Android) and personalize your experience by following your favorite teams and SI writers.

Well, that snuck up quickly. The draft lottery is nigh, and the fates of teams and players alike will be determined, based on luck and a little bit of competitive mediocrity. 

In anticipation of the annual drawing of ping-pong balls, here’s a primer on what you need to know entering the big night.

Why is there a draft lottery?

The draft lottery was adopted prior to the 1984–85 NBA season, as voted by the NBA’s board of governors to better and more fairly determine which teams had how much of a chance at selecting first. From 1966 to 1984, the teams with the worst records in each conference would go to a coin flip for the No. 1 pick. The rest of the teams picked in the inverse order of their regular-season records.

The rules were adjusted to give all non-playoff teams a chance at a better selection. In 1986, the rule was amended so that the lottery only determines the first three picks, with the rest of the teams choosing in the inverse order of their record.

How does it work?

The 14 non-playoff teams each year receive ping-pong balls in the lottery, with their odds allotted corresponding to their regular-season finish. The team with the worst record receives a 25% chance to win, whereas the team with the best non-playoff record has a 0.5% chance. Coin-flip tiebreakers are used to separate teams with the same record. The specific odds are weighted a little differently each year, based upon lottery teams’ win-loss records relative to one another.

During the lottery, four ping pong balls are drawn from a drum containing 14 of them, individually numbered 1–14. That allows for 1,001 possible four-digit combinations. Prior to the drawing, 1,000 of those specific combinations are allocated to individual teams, with the worst team receiving the most (250 permutations) and thus the best percentage chance to win.

At the lottery, four balls are then drawn three different times, once for each of the top three picks. If a team comes up twice, a new combination is drawn. If a team outside the designated top three teams beats the odds and “jumps” into the lottery, the rest of the teams then slide down one spot. The process is specific and meticulous.

Which teams are involved?

This year’s lottery teams, their regular-season record, and their percentage chance to win the first overall pick, are below.

1. Philadelphia 76ers (10–72, 25% chance to win)

The 76ers actually have a 26.9% chance to win, because they hold the right to swap picks with the Kings.

2. Los Angeles Lakers (17–65, 19.9% chance)

If the Lakers’ selection falls outside the top three, it goes to the 76ers, via the Suns. This would require two teams to leapfrog ahead of them.

3. Boston Celtics (via the Brooklyn Nets, who went 21–61, 15.6% chance)

The Nets sent their pick to the Celtics in a 2013 trade, which brought back Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, among others.

4. Phoenix Suns (23–59, 11.9% chance)

5. Minnesota Timberwolves (29–53, 8.8% chance)

6. New Orleans Pelicans (30–52, 6.3% chance)

7. Denver Nuggets OR Toronto Raptors (via the New York Knicks, who went 32–50 for a 4.3% chance)

Here’s where things get complicated: two separate trades have affected the status of this pick. A 2011 trade gives Denver the rights to swap first-round picks with New York and move up if the Knicks’ selection is higher. BUT, the Knicks made another trade in 2013 to acquire Andrea Bargnani from the Raptors, and sent this year’s first-rounder to Toronto. In a nutshell: the Raptors will receive whichever of the Nuggets’ and Knicks’ picks is lower. The Nuggets have the ninth-best odds to win.

8. Sacramento Kings (33–49, 1.9% chance)

Through past trades, this pick can go to Chicago (via Cleveland) IF it falls outside the top ten. This unlikely scenario would require three teams with worse odds than the Kings to leapfrog into the top three, moving the Kings down to No. 11. Note: If the Kings jump into the top three and finish ahead of the 76ers, Philadelphia holds the right to swap picks, so Sacramento will not receive the No. 1 pick even if it wins.

9. Denver Nuggets (33–49, 1.9% chance)

As mentioned above, if the Nuggets swap upward for the Knicks’ pick, this pick will go to Toronto. If the Nuggets jump the Knicks in the draft, then the Knicks’ pick goes to the Raptors instead.

10. Milwaukee Bucks (33–49, 1.8% chance)

11. Orlando Magic (35–47, 0.8% chance)

12. Utah Jazz (40–42, 0.7% chance)

13. Washington Wizards (41–41, 0.6% chance)

Barring a leap into the top three, this pick will go to the Phoenix Suns as part of this season’s Markieff Morris trade.

14. Chicago Bulls (42–40, 0.5% chance)

What will I see on the broadcast?

The ping pong balls are actually drawn in a private room, with team personnel and select media members acting as witnesses. From there, envelopes are stuffed and sealed before being brought to the ESPN broadcast studio in another room, where the results are announced to the public, media and team representatives standing at their respective podiums who are unaware of the results.

The envelopes are then opened by the deputy commissioner (who is also unaware of their contents) in reverse order. The last envelope opened contains the team receiving the No. 1 pick, the second-to-last determines the No. 2 pick, and so forth.

What are the storylines I need to know?

If we’re considering only the realm of relative possibility, there are a few interesting things going on here. Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram are the consensus two best prospects. The rebuilding Lakers and improving Celtics have good odds to come out feeling good. The Timberwolves and their embarrassment of riches are on the table. The Pelicans could pair someone cool with Anthony Davis. But the team most people will be zeroed in on is the 76ers, because of how they got here (again): tanking.

What is tanking?

The tanking methodology has been widely discussed and also panned across the sporting world, the M.O. being to lose as many games as possible and increase your own odds of finishing with the No. 1 pick, and hopefully a future star. True superstars are the rarest, most valuable currency in the NBA, and it’s exceedingly difficult to contend for championships without a guy to hitch your wagon to, who can carry the team when necessary and help revitalize the franchise. So by bottoming out and sacrificing on-court product, you can increase probabilities for later success. It’s one theory.

The Sixers and former general manager Sam Hinkie tried this. In a sense, it worked: Philadelphia was able to select in the top three the last two seasons, added lottery picks on cheap rookie contracts, and has in theory positioned itself to succeed down the line. However, Hinkie stepped down from his job after the Sixers grew impatient with his “process” and brought in esteemed executive Jerry Colangelo to oversee operations. That philosophic shift, bringing in an old-school exec to run a numbers-driven organization, essentially signaled Hinkie’s exit.

This is not viewed as a stellar draft, but the Sixers cashing out would be at least somewhat vindicating — although Hinkie won’t get to claim those spoils.

The conspiracy theory

There have been some dubious draft lottery results over the years. The Cavaliers won three of four years following LeBron James’s initial departure for the Heat. The Chicago Bulls won with the ninth-best odds in 2008, selecting hometown product Derrick Rose first overall.

Perhaps the most famous of these instances involves the first-ever lottery, the Knicks, Patrick Ewing and former commissioner David Stern, which Chris Ballard detailed at length for Sports IllustratedClick through for the quintessential draft lottery tale. Then watch as the balls roll.