The Cavaliers and Spurs are two NBA franchises built on draft lottery luck.
Los Angeles Lakers fans no doubt counted their lucky stars when the 2016 NBA draft lottery slotted purple and gold as No. 2 overall. Because the Lakers did not fall out of the top three selections, they didn’t have to send their protected pick to the Philadelphia 76ers (who acquired it via trade from the Phoenix Suns).
This also marked the first time in lottery history that the order held pat—no organization moved up or down in the proceedings.
That was a lucky break for L.A., but in terms of franchises lucking into better selections or continually moving down thanks to some cantankerous ping-pong balls, what fan bases earn the right to be considered lucky or unlucky?
PointAfter, a sports data visualization site that’s part of the Graphiq network, conducted a data analysis of draft lotteries dating back to 1985 to find out. Here, we’ll break down the luckiest organizations in terms of total or average positive pick change, as well as the unluckiest teams on the opposite end of the spectrum before taking a look at the league as a whole.
Lady Luck’s Favorite Teams
San Antonio Spurs
Dating back to 1985, the San Antonio Spurs have only been lottery-bound on three occasions. The storied franchise moved up in the draft lottery each time it missed out on postseason play—frankly, the most Spursian thing imaginable.
After going 28–54 in 1986–87, the Spurs held the No. 3 before the lottery. Back then, every team in the lottery (seven total) held the same odds (14.29%) to attain the No. 1 overall pick. San Antonio moved up two spots and nabbed David “The Admiral” Robinson, a future Hall of Famer.
Two years later (the Spurs’ “unluckiest” year, when they still moved up one spot), San Antonio drafted Sean Elliott out of the University of Arizona. Elliott played 11 of his 12 NBA seasons in a Spurs uniform, made two All-Star teams, won a championship in 1999 and had his No. 32 retired by the franchise.
Eight years after that, the Spurs moved up two spots in the 1997 draft lottery to once again net the No. 1 overall selection. They, of course, took Tim Duncan. They haven’t been back in the lottery since, and have won five titles during the Duncan era.
Although Bill Simmons is wont to revisit his recurring “God hates Cleveland” gag, the dig doesn’t really add up when accounting for NBA lottery luck.
With Cleveland’s first pick in the lottery back in 1986 (from the Philadelphia 76ers via the San Diego Clippers), the Cavs moved up five spots to No. 1 overall. The Cavaliers selected center Brad Daugherty, who played all eight of his professional seasons in Cleveland before injuries prematurely ended his career. Daugherty made five All-Star teams, an All-NBA third team in 1992 and had his No. 43 jersey retired by the Cavs.
Of course, the more recent examples of lucky breaks may stand out more.
In 2011, the Los Angeles Clippers traded Baron Davis (and his albatross contract) along with a first-round pick to Cleveland in exchange for Jamario Moon and Mo Williams. The pick from L.A. entered the lottery with No. 8 position, but vaulted up to No. 1. Cleveland and nabbed Duke University point guard Kyrie Irving with the selection. (Perhaps they should trade for Clippers first-rounders more often.)
Even more recently (2014), the Cavs had No. 9 pre-lottery position and a 1.7% chance of landing the No. 1 overall pick. Despite the longshot odds, Cleveland lucked into the No. 1 overall pick once again, and selected Andrew Wiggins—later orchestrating a trade with the Minnesota Timberwolves to add Kevin Love in exchange for the prized youngster.
Cleveland is still searching for its first championship, but the draft has been quite kind to the Cavaliers.
Tortured Lottery Losers
In an existence spanning nearly three decades, the Minnesota Timberwolves have never moved up in an NBA draft lottery. In fact, the total net pick change for the organization sits at -18 slots. Considering the T-Wolves franchise has made the playoffs just eight times in its 27-season history (and not since 2004), that alarming lack of lottery luck has left the fan base listless.
Fortunately for Timberwolves fans, though, Minny didn’t move down a year ago when a 16–66 record netted them the best odds at the No. 1 overall pick. We can certainly consider that lucky, because the Timberpups added a new young wolf to the pack in Karl-Anthony Towns—who won Rookie of the Year honors in convincing fashion. The numbers indicate Towns is the NBA’s next great big man.
And while it’s undoubtedly unfortunate that the Timberwolves have never moved up in a lottery, they made the most of falling back two spots back in 1995. That year, Joe Smith, Antonio McDyess, Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace all came off the board before Minnesota’s selection at No. 5 overall.
The Wolves picked gangly power forward Kevin Garnett out of Farragut Career Academy High School. That’s how you make the most of poor luck.
The Kings certainly aren’t strangers to the draft lottery process, having missed the postseason for the past 10 seasons (cycling through eight coaches over that span). Since 1985, the Kings have possessed 20 lottery picks. They’ve netted a pick change of -12 draft slots with them.
The only time the Kings ever moved up in a draft lottery was back in 1989, when they leapfrogged up five spots to No. 1 overall and selected Pervis Ellison from an incredibly weak class. Ellison played only 34 games in a Kings jersey before being shipped to the Washington Bullets in a three-team trade almost exactly one year after he was drafted.
Sacramento has moved back in five of the last eight lotteries.
Additional Lottery Takeaways
The Spurs and Cavs earned our nods as the luckiest lottery teams—one for going three-for-three in terms of moving up and the other for consistent big wins in the lottery. But what teams experienced the biggest lottery wins of all time?
Since 1985, three teams have moved up eight spots thanks to Lady Luck (including the aforementioned Cavaliers). Two others rocketed up eight spots. If you hover over each bar in the visualization, you can see which player was selected with the subsequent picks—and there are some big names.
The Orlando Magic picked Chris Webber (before trading him on draft night for Anfernee Hardaway), the now extinct Seattle SuperSonics grabbed future Defensive Player of the Year Gary Payton and the Chicago Bulls selected future MVP Derrick Rose. That shows you just how powerful luck can be in the scope of the lottery.
Still have yet to see your favorite franchise represented? The PointAfter visualization below shows each franchise’s total pick change since the draft lottery was instituted in 1985.
Phoenix Suns fans may feel like luck has never been on their side, since the team hasn’t moved up in a lottery since 1987, but jumping up five spots that year helps their historical standing by total pick change.
If you look at the data a little differently, however, it may paint a clearer picture. The following visualization pits the number of an organization’s lottery picks against its total pick change. The size of the bubbles is representative of each team’s average pick change per lottery pick.
The Timberwolves’ front office should really stock up on four-leaf clovers, rabbit’s feet and horseshoes.
On the other hand, fans around the league should fear the Spurs when (if?) they find their way back to the draft lottery.