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Behind the Scenes of the 2022 NBA Draft Lottery

For nearly four decades the lottery has been a big night on the NBA calendar. Here is how it all went down last night.

CHICAGO — “We’re going to get this ball rolling,” said Jamin Dershowitz, the NBA’s assistant general counsel, an unintentional pun that kicked off one of the league’s most elaborate—and perhaps a little absurd—postseason events. The NBA draft lottery has been around since 1985, back when David Stern, annoyed at a handful of teams openly losing to secure a better place in the draft order, pushed through a new system. It has evolved since then, from envelopes to ping pong balls, weighted odds to flatter ones, but for nearly four decades the lottery has been a big night on the NBA calendar.

Here’s how it works: Fourteen ping pong balls are slid into a plastic container and sent into motion by air pumped through the bottom. The balls—each one weighed, measured and certified by SmartPlay, a lottery integrity company and sealed in a zip tied case—are inserted one at a time by Peter Rosenbaum, a partner at Ernst & Young. There are 1,001 possible four-digit combinations, with the three teams with the worst record—Orlando, Houston and Detroit—getting 140 apiece. The drawing itself is carefully curated: each ball is vacuumed out at precise ten-second intervals, prompted by an NBA official standing on the opposite side of the room—with his back turned.

It's just after 5:30 CT when the doors to the drawing room, located this year inside the McCormack Place Convention Center are flung open. Each team sends in one representative. They range from high ranking executives (New Orleans’s David Griffin, Washington’s Tommy Sheppard) to behind the scenes staffers (Clay Allen, the Rockets General Counsel, John Kehriotis, one of Sacramento’s minority owners). For years the NBA has allowed a few members of the media—SI was one of them—in to observe. Electronic devices, from cell phones to digital recorders, are checked at the door. Byron Spruell, the president of league operations, emcees the event, which is overseen by members of NBA security.

Once it begins, the drawing moves pretty quickly. 14 1 3 6. Joel Glass, the longtime P.R. chief with Orlando, exhaled. This wasn’t Glass’s first time in the drawing room. The last, he recalled, was in 2017, when the Magic came away with the sixth pick, which they used on Jonathan Isaac. From a backpack Glass pulled out ping pong balls from Orlando’s most successful lottery trips: 1992, when the Magic won the right to draft Shaquille O’Neal, ’93 when Orlando, picking first again, swapped Chris Webber for Anfernee Hardaway, and ’04, when lottery luck allowed them to draft Dwight Howard. As Glass, eager for another souvenir, eyeballed the ping pong balls in the case, Sheppard wrapped an arm around him. “You’re the new Pat Williams,” Sheppard exclaimed, referencing the ex-Magic exec who was on-site for Orlando’s previous lottery wins.

The drawing continued. 2 7 14 9. Sam Presti, Oklahoma City’s top exec, sat motionless. In his pocket were two rocks. One a gift from his seven-year old son, Nicholas, two years ago, another an emerald green crystal given to him by his wife more recently. Nicholas’s rock normally sits on Presti’s desk in Oklahoma. He takes it with him on walks or, in this case, whenever he needs a little luck. Presti’s last trip to the drawing room was in 2009, when the Thunder jumped up one spot, positioning the team to draft a dynamic guard from Arizona State named James Harden. This time around, Oklahoma City jumped from fourth to second, guaranteeing the Thunder, which added Josh Giddey to a growing young core last season, another blue chip prospect. As Presti noted earlier in the day, ““Luck plays a much bigger role in all of our lives than we’d like to admit.”

It continued. 1 … 12 … 6 … 3. Allen, the Rockets executive, smiled. It’s been an interesting two years in Houston. The James Harden Era ended ugly and the seasons since have been roller coasters. In the hours before the lottery the Rockets canned several members of Stephen Silas’s coaching staff (Silas was on board with the decision, a source told SI). Jalen Green, the second overall pick last season, proved he could score, but needs polish. Kevin Porter Jr. racked up numbers but what do you pay an extension-eligible player who walked out on the team during a rough game at midseason? And Houston still has to figure out what to do with John Wall. Rockets GM Rafael Stone hinted that the team would entertain offers for the pick—one exec said he sees the draft as eight-deep, with no clear No. 1—but if not it will be critical to add the right piece to this mix. “We’re really excited,” Stone said. “Whether by picking third or by trade, I think we’re going to be a more talented team this year than we were last year, and that’s exciting.”

Finally, the fourth pick. 4 7 9 10. If there was ever a team that needed a little luck, it was Sacramento, which jumped up from seventh. It has been 16 years since the Kings last playoff experience—most of the players in this year’s draft are too young to remember it—which happened to be the last season Sacramento finished above .500. There are some solid pieces in Sacto. De’Aaron Fox still has All-Star potential and Domantas Sabonis was acquired last season to provide some muscle alongside him. But the Kings need a star and GM Monte McNair, who is in the final year of his contract, may not get a better chance to nab one.

People look at the draft lottery order after the 2022 NBA Draft Lottery at McCormick Place.

It’s an odd scene after the drawing. To preserve the integrity of the broadcast, no one is allowed to leave the room. Team officials don’t really want to talk to reporters but there is nowhere to hide from them. Sandwiches were brought in. Conversations often turn to broader NBA topics. Some execs feel the draft has become too much like free agency, with agents wielding power over where a player lands by refusing to let the player work out for an undesired team or declining to make him available for a physical.

When the broadcast starts, the attention turns to the stage. Glass noted that Magic team president Jeff Weltman was originally supposed to take Orlando’s spot on the dais, only for head coach Jamahl Mosley to replace him because, said Glass, “Mosley felt lucky.” Presti assigned Collison—officially designated “Thunder legend”—to the stage, noting that Collison “guaranteed success.” “He’s going to want a statue,” says Presti. “But it won’t be of him playing. It will be of him holding up a card.”

When the lottery ends, the doors open. Phones are retrieved from packets. Team officials rush to rejoin their groups. For one night, a dozen non-playoff teams (sorry Lakers, Clippers) have hope for the future. “It’s a relief,” says Glass. “I hope I never come back.”

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