The NBA Draft Lottery: Which Team Should Pick First?

On May 30, 2012, the 2012 NBA Draft Lottery will be held.  Since 1990, the NBA has engaged a weighted lottery to determine which of the fourteen teams that did not make the playoffs in the previous year (or the team to which they traded their draft pick) will receive the top draft pick.  The NBA’s process of selecting which team will receive the number-one draft pick for its draft differs from that of other major sporting leagues.  Other major sporting leagues generally assign draft picks through an opposite win-loss record, meaning that the team with the most losses in the previous season will be awarded the first draft pick.

Under the NBA’s weighted draft lottery system, the NBA team with the worst record in the previous season receives the greatest number of lottery combinations (250).  The rationale behind this is that by giving the team more combinations, it is more likely that they will be awarded with the number one pick through the lottery.  However, this has not always proven true.

Over the last ten years, the following teams have been awarded the number-one pick in the NBA Draft through the Draft Lottery:

Year Team Record Player Selected
2002 Houston Rockets 5th worst Yao Ming
2003 Cleveland Cavaliers Tied for worst LeBron James
2004 Orlando Magic Worst Dwight Howard
2005 Milwaukee Bucs 6th worst Andrew Bogut
2006 Toronto Raptors 5th worst Andrea Bargnani
2007 Portland Trail Blazers 6th worst Greg Oden
2008 Chicago Bulls 9th worst Derrick Rose
2009 Los Angeles Clippers 2nd worst Blake Griffin
2010 Washington Wizards 5th worst John Wall
2011 Los Angeles Clippers (to Cavaliers) 8th worst Kyrie Irving

The chart above notes which teams received the number-one pick in each respective year, and also notes their previous season record.  Notably, only twice in the last ten years have teams ranked last received the number-one draft pick through the NBA Draft Lottery.

This fact obviously raises some concerns, especially for the first NBA Draft Lottery following last year’s NBA lockout.  One thing owners attempted to accomplish through the NBA lockout was parity amongst all 30 NBA teams.  As such, owners attempted to create salary structures and revenue sharing provisions which would allow teams in smaller markets to compete with teams in larger markets.  While market shares are one way in which a league can create parity, allowing teams across the league to draft the greatest talent possible also assists in creating parity.  Understandably, the better players that a team can draft, the more likely that fans will be energized to buy tickets and attend games.  In contrast, the worse players that a team drafts and subsequently, the worse that a team plays, the less likely that fans will purchase tickets to attend games.

Interestingly, though, receiving the number-one draft pick does not always correlate to a team having a successful season in the following year.  The following chart denotes whether the teams who received the number-one draft pick from the lottery made the playoffs in the season following the lottery:

Team Did Team Make Following Year’s Playoffs?
Houston Rockets No
Cleveland Cavaliers No
Orlando Magic No
Milwaukee Bucs Yes (Eastern Conference 8-seed)
Toronto Raptors Yes (Eastern Conference 3-seed)
Portland Trail Blazers No
Chicago Bulls Yes (Eastern Conference 7-seed)
Los Angeles Clippers No
Washington Wizards No
Cleveland Cavaliers No

Notably, only three of seven teams receiving the number-one pick in the last ten years made the playoffs in the season following the draft.  Those teams were:  the Milwaukee Bucs, Toronto Raptors and Chicago Bulls.  Interestingly, neither of the two teams which had the worst ranking and received the number-one pick (i.e., 2003 Cleveland Cavaliers and 2004 Orlando Magic) made the playoffs in the year following the draft.  The Bucs, Raptors and Bulls had the 6th, 5th an 9th worst records, respectively, going into the years that they won the lottery for the number-one pick.  Thus, one could argue that the better a team’s record is in the season before it wins the lottery for the number-one pick, the more likely it is that the team will make the playoffs.

Given the playoff history of teams who have received the number-one pick in the NBA Draft Lottery, which shows that the better a team’s record the previous season, the more likely they are to make the playoffs with the number-one pick on their roster, one must question whether the NBA Draft Lottery needs to be revamped.  This year, the following fourteen teams will be put into the lottery to receive the number-one pick in the 2012 NBA Draft:

2012 Lottery Teams Likelihood of Receiving #1 Pick
Charlotte Bobcats 25%
Washington Wizards 19.90%
Cleveland Cavaliers 13.80%
New Orleans Hornets 13.70%
Sacramento Kings 7.60%
Brooklyn Nets 7.50%
Golden State Warriors 3.60%
Toronto Raptors 3.50%
Detroit Pistons 1.70%
Minnesota Timberwolves 1.10%
Portland Trailblazers 0.80%
Milwaukee Bucs 0.70%
Phoenix Suns 0.60%
Houston Rockets 0.50%

Looking at the teams listed above, there are clearly some whose need for the talent a number-one draft pick brings to a team is greater than others. Clearly, the Charlotte Bobcats, who went 7-59 in the 2011-12 season, are the team needing the talent of a number-one pick the most.  Notably, a number of small market teams will be contending for the lottery pick.  Cleveland, which used its 2003 lottery pick to draft LeBron James in 2003, felt the sting of being a small market team when as a free agent, James decided to sign with the large- market Miami Heat.  The lottery contenders also include small market teams, the Sacramento Kings and Golden State Warriors, whose owners are seeking to relocate their respective team to a larger market.  Then, there is the team which was recently sold to new owners after being held by the NBA, the New Orleans Hornets.  Arguably, given their win-loss records last season, along with the challenges they face with respect to ownership and market issues, Charlotte, Cleveland, Sacramento, Golden State or New Orleans are the most deserving of winning the lottery for the number-one pick.

However, should analysis like this even need to be completed?  Or, would the NBA be better suited by moving to a model in which the team with the worst record in the preceding season receives the number-one draft pick in the following year’s draft?  Arguably, basing draft positions solely upon a team’s ranking would provide a more fair model which better addresses the wide-scale needs of NBA teams.

One thought on “The NBA Draft Lottery: Which Team Should Pick First?

  1. I feel there us some benefit to a weighted system. It decreases the incentive for teams to throw away the rest of the season in hopes of gaining the first pick. This past NFL season is a prime example. Colts fans were actually calling for and hoping there team would lose as many games as possible in order to ensure the first overall pick and Andrew Luck.

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