What Is A Lottery Pick In The NBA: And How The Lottery System Works


NBA Draft Lottery moment images
What Is A Lottery Pick In The NBA (Cover Image)

What is a lottery pick in the NBA? An avid basketball fan likely knows the answer to this question. A newbie on the other hand may not have a thorough understanding of what an NBA Lottery pick is or the NBA Draft lottery system in general.


So if you're ever asked the question(s), what is considered an NBA lottery pick, What Is the NBA Draft Lottery, or How does the NBA Draft Lottery work, read on, and you'll know the right answers.

What Is a Lottery pick in the NBA?

Spalding basketball with explanation of which teams has rights to an NBA Draft lottery spot
What is a lottery pick in the NBA Excerpt

An NBA Draft lottery pick is one of the first 14 selections in the upcoming NBA Draft. After the 1984 season, the NBA made changes to how the draft order is determined. The NBA Draft Lottery is a drawing to assign the first 14 draft selections. A lottery pick in the NBA is one of these draft spots initially assigned to every team that did not make the previous season's NBA playoffs.


In 1984, the same year draft changes were implemented, the NBA expanded the playoff brackets to include eight teams from each conference. Sixteen teams qualify for the NBA playoffs each season. That leaves the other 14 non-playoff teams. Each of these teams has rights to one of the 14 lottery spots.


However, playoff teams from the most recent season may acquire a lottery pick as compensation in a trade deal (unless the pick is lottery protected). Therefore, a playoff team could get one of these 14 NBA Draft lottery picks. These 14 picks are revealed during the live drawing event called the NBA Draft Lottery.


Understanding which selections in the NBA Draft are lottery picks brings us to the question of what is the NBA Draft lottery? Now let's explore what the NBA Draft Lottery is and how the order is determined.


What Is the NBA Draft Lottery?

Each Year, the National Basketball Association holds a special event ahead of the upcoming draft to determine the order of the draft picks for the non-playoff teams. The NBA Draft Lottery is an event/drawing to assign draft selections 1 through 14.


This special event has become almost as popular with fans as the player draft itself. Plus this one night event can shape the league for years to come.


Let's take a look at the evolution of this unique professional sports draft lottery and then how the NBA Draft Lottery works.


Most professional sports fans have wrestled with the notion of teams "tanking" as the regular season grinds to an end. This is a frustrating situation on many levels. The NBA used a coin-flip for nearly 20 seasons to at least add some level of chance between the worst team from either conference.


Even the NBA coin-flip, used between the 1966 and 1984 seasons, still angered some owners. The NBA coin-flip was held between the two worst teams in the league. Each team had a 50/50 chance at the top pick. There were still accusations teams were tanking.


After the Houston Rockets won the last coin-flip in 1984, the NBA decided it was time for a more inclusive system. The first lottery system in the NBA was an envelope drawn randomly out of a large drum. Each non-playoff team had one envelope in the hopper.


Every team that did not make the playoffs that season had an equal chance at the coveted number one overall selection. It helped a little, but there were owners who felt the system didn't go far enough to help the poorest teams improve.


Ahead of the 1987 lottery, the NBA actually took a step backwards towards the two-team coin-flip. The number of envelopes was reduced to three. That meant only the first three picks were determined by lottery.


The rest of the non-playoff teams were ordered according to their won/loss record. Even these early attempts to erase the desire to lose on purpose were met with skepticism. Some still assert the first lottery drawing in 1985 was rigged in favor of the New York Knicks.


Prior to the 1990 draft lottery, the NBA initiated the basics of the same lottery system the league uses today. The current lottery system in the league is weighted. That takes us up to the present system. Let's look at how the current draft lottery system works in the NBA.


How Does the NBA Draft Lottery Work?

The lottery system used by the National Basketball Association is based on the non-playoff teams' performance from the previous regular season. Weighted probabilities are used to help boost the teams with the worst records opportunities at the first overall selection.


The probabilities given to each of these non-playoff teams can be assigned to a playoff team in the event of a trade. Let's look at how the NBA Draft Lottery works today and explain the changes that have been made over the years to improve fairness.


Even the weighted system originally designed in 1990, allows for an intriguing element of chance. The eventual NBA lottery winner in 1993 exemplified the real possibility that any team could secure the first pick in the draft.


The Orlando Magic had the best record of the non-playoff teams. Despite having the worst odds of winning that coveted first selection, the Magic won the lottery and drafted number-one overall. The lottery for the NBA Draft order is determined by drawing ping-pong balls.


Balls are numbered 1 through 14. The total number of possible outcomes is 1,001. However, one combination, the 11-12-13-14, is ignored. That leaves 1,000 potential drawing outcomes to be divvied up between the 14 non-playoff teams.


The chance for each of the three worst teams in the league is the same. Each of these three worst records has an equal 14 percent chance of winning the first pick. These teams get 140 of the 1,000 lottery drawing combinations. Again, the actual team can trade their lottery pick.


Each of the balls from the first four picks is put back into the lottery machine. These balls can be drawn again. But, if they are drawn a second time, unless the team has generated a pick from a trade, they are ignored.


If one of the NBA lottery teams orchestrates a trade with another team, the team that received the pick could hold two lottery picks. Unless a team trades away its own lottery pick, it can end up with more than one selection out of the first 14. The only way an NBA team that made the playoffs can get a lottery pick is by trade.


There may still be accusations of NBA teams purposefully losing to improve their odds and hauling in the first overall draft pick. However, the lottery system used by the league helps to balance out the chances more fairly.


It is a system that still gives priority to helping the worst teams improve, but adds an element of chance for all the teams left out of the previous year's playoff field. The NBA Draft Lottery has earned its place as a fan-favorite event for basketball fans around the world.


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