So Close Yet So Far...From Number 1

By Danny Radical

So close, yet so far away from the #1 pick: Why raw
numbers, not percentages, should define the NBA
draft lottery

By Speedy Pete


The NBA draft lottery has always been interesting to determine the picks order at the top of the

draft. All non-playoff teams get to be a part of it, and are eligible to rise or fall at any point in the

draft, unlike the NFL or MLB. However, for the last 4 years, the team with the best percentages
has gotten the #1 pick. While it is all random chance, you would think that once in a 4-year span
that they would pull out the third worst or fourth worst team to pick #1.

Now in 2014, there was a major outlier where the Cleveland Cavaliers, who had the 12th best odds, somehow got the #1 pick, which turned into Andrew Wiggins and eventually a trade for Kevin Love. The Cavaliers
also got it in 2013, having the third best odds.

However, besides the Cavaliers, there hasn't been that team lately that has risen into the #1 pick. And personally, I believe it has a lot to do with the percentages discrepancy. A 6% difference is a big difference between the 1st and 2nd
and then the 2nd and 3rd place teams, and it just doesn't make any sense. Not every year
comes out with the 7-win Charlotte Bobcats (that was a lockout season, but still), but rather a
bunch of teams that fail to win 20 games or get barely over.

Why should one team be punished just for winning 1 more game a full 6% or even 12%? It just doesn't make any sense. And if you're going to hold a lottery, I would make it so it becomes more random, because if not you
might as well just do it straight on like the NFL.


So my proposal to fix this problem and get more randomization in this draft is as such: make it based off raw numbers and not percentages by adding more ping-pong balls and basing it off of the standings in terms of games ahead and games back. So taking this year, the Phoenix Suns had the worst record in the league at 21-61, and the Memphis Grizzlies were one game behind at 22-60. The Memphis Grizzlies, as a result of being penalized 6% for winning one more game, had their odds fall to the 19%, and as a result fell to the 4th pick. While I do believe that certain
franchises have bad luck when it comes to either staying put or falling in the NBA draft, I still support the randomization aspect of that.

The point I'm getting at is rather than getting separated by that much, I'd rather see it separate by an amount of ping pong balls, and a much larger amount indeed. I say that because the larger amount of total balls there are, the closer the discretion of the percentages get, and that is what I am trying to accomplish here to create a more random lottery. As it stands right now, there are only 14 balls in the machine representing a variety of different combinations.

While those combinations are all different, it doesn't usually represent a great difference in drop offs that could occur because the percentages are so high. As a result, the team with the #1 percentage have gotten it easily the last 4 years. So my recommendation is instead doing it where there are more ping pong balls, so the difference comes down to numbers.


So then, in terms of the remaining teams' amounts, you would stack them up based on how many games back they are. So if the Suns (21-61) were to get 25 ping-pong balls, the Grizzlies (22-60) would then get 24. Rather than being separated by a full 6%, now being back 1 game only separates them by about 0.3%, which makes much more sense. In terms of teams that are tied, I would just give them the same amount of ping-pong balls, and delete any tiebreakers that would be necessary. In this kind of setting where there's a lottery, I don't think it makes any sense to have tiebreakers divide your percentages by that much, especially if two teams are tied for the worst record. In terms of this year, the Atlanta Hawks and Dallas Mavericks were tied at 24 wins a piece, and the Chicago Bulls and Sacramento Kings were tied at 27 wins a piece.

Those teams, in my system, would just get the same amount of ping-pong balls, rather than having to break the tie with the playoff tiebreaker structure that the NBA uses. And like I said with the earlier picks, being three wins back of the worst team shouldn't automatically drop you back 12% from the #1 overall seed, which is in the case of the regular structure. Because honestly, even though the Suns had the worse record, they still have more talent in my opinion
than the Hawks do. The Suns shouldn't be gifted with that much better of odds to grow your team due to that. I'm not advocating for a talent-based draft, but I'm saying certain teams getting luckier due to pick discrepancy and percentage differences is still not good. Now obviously, it will still be hard for a team picking in the back half of the 14 teams to still get a Top 3 pick or #1 overall pick in my system, but at least it will give them a stronger chance due to the #1 overall
pick not having overwhelming odds. The first team out of the playoffs this year was the Denver Nuggets, who stood at 46-36. According to the traditional system, they had a 0.5% chance to land the #1 pick. While it is still not insanely high, my system gives them a 1.99% chance to land the #1 pick. While that would be the luckiest thing in the world, it's the way the lottery is structured, so you have to give it a chance to happen.

Also, there is the way the Top 3 system has been structured. Personally, I believe it is unnecessary and it would be much more random to do it straight on. However, if it were to stay, you would have to structure that element of the lottery similarly as well. I say this because once again you have the same issue where the difference in percentages is very high between teams that are often times separated by one game. The Phoenix Suns came in with a 64.2% chance to land a Top 3 pick, while the Memphis Grizzlies, again only one game better, had a 55.8% chance, which turned out to not go in their favor as they landed #4, not that I think it will matter because I believe they have more talent than a lot of those other lottery teams. And then between 2 and 3 there is a dropoff of 13.2% between the Grizzlies and the 24-win Hawks and Mavericks, which shouldn't happen being that they finished just 2 games apart. Like they do in the regular lottery, they can decide the Top 3 picks in a separate lottery. However, I personally believe that idea is silly being that it only improves the odds of those Top 3 teams once they know, and would limit randomization even more. So if they were to keep it, I would structure it as such. However, I think the most random way to solve this draft lottery is to just do it straight on and not categorize Top 3 picks to enhance odds.


And lastly, I think it will solve the problem Adam Silver had with certain teams notably tanking. While I think it was wrong of Silver to fine Mark Cuban the amount he did when he believed the Mavericks were tanking, I get why Adam Silver would complain about such a thing. Less fans will go to games, and quality of play and effort will go down throughout the league, which definitely will leave some concerns. So with my proposed theory, where teams would only get a certain amount more of ping-pong balls than the next highest team, I don't believe you will see as much of an issue with teams showing little effort. And you definitely wouldn't get games like you saw late in the season with the Chicago Bulls and the Orlando Magic where it seemed like neither team wanted to win the game in the last minute.

While I have nothing against benching regular starters to experiment with young players or even the general notion of tanking some games, Adam Silver is warning teams about this issue and how it can't keep happening for the authenticity of the game. On a side note, I believe that has a lot to do with why the Dallas Mavericks got snubbed in the regular lottery, falling from 3rd to 5th. But again, would you really tank for one or two more ping pong balls in a pool of 300? It's easy to do in a pool of 14 where everything is based on combinations, but in a pool of 300? Anything can happen, and one or two less balls, while it might hurt a little, won't have a drastic impact on your odds. And with that, while I still think tanking will exist in parts of the season, there will be less teams doing it, and it definitely won't look as obvious. And while I don't think Silver should be giving out ridiculous fines, he does have a point where teams are revealing themselves, and I think approaching the draft this way, either straight on or including the top three differences, will be much better to limit this issue as a whole. So with that in mind, here is how I would have structured the lottery in this year's draft and the differences revealed:

Team Record Regular % My Number of
Ping-Pong Balls
My %
1. Suns 21-61 25% 31 10.3%
2. Grizzlies 22-60 19.9% 30 9.96%
T-3. Mavericks 24-58 13.8% 28 9.3%
T-3. Hawks 24-58 13.7% 28 9.3%
5. Magic 25-57 8.8% 27 8.97%
T-6. Kings 27-55 5.3% 25 8.3%
T-6. Bulls 27-55 5.3% 25 8.3%
8. Nets (to Cavaliers)
28-54 2.8% 24 7.97%
9. Knicks 29-53 1.7% 23 7.64%
10. Lakers (to 76ers)
35-47 1.1% 17 5.65%
11. Hornets 36-46 0.8% 16 5.32%
12. Pistons (to Clippers)
39-43 0.7% 13 4.31%
13. Clippers 42-40 0.6% 10 3.32%
14. Nuggets 46-36 0.5% 6 1.99%

Lotteries are supposed to be random. Your odds of winning a scratch-off card are slim to none. Your odds of picking the right ball out of 100 are exactly that 1 in 100, and isn't based on what kind of person you are. Shouldn't sports' draft lotteries be the same way. If teams are bad and are close in record, shouldn't they be closer? So of the two percentage lists, which one would seem like a better chance for randomization and actual differences in order rather than the
worst team always getting the #1 pick with a 6% difference? Yeah, that's what I thought.