Why Does the NBA Do a Draft Lottery? Let's Break It Down

A team with only a 3 percent chance of winning the lottery literally won the lottery.

Brandon Charles - Author
By

May 13 2024, Published 2:15 p.m. ET

2024 NBA Draft Lottery stage
Source: Getty Images

Losing isn’t good for anyone. While a high draft pick can change the long-term trajectory of a team, it’s always a gamble when you’re playing the lottery. The lottery is chance. That's the entire point of it.

Article continues below advertisement

The NBA instituted a draft lottery in 1985. With the Houston Rockets winning the 2024 NBA draft lottery, a team with 3 percent chance of winning the No. 1 spot, it’s a great lesson for every team thinking about tanking.

NBA Commissioner David Stern at the 1985 NBA Draft Lottery
Source: Getty Images

NBA Commissioner David Stern at the 1985 NBA Draft Lottery

Article continues below advertisement

Why does the NBA do a draft lottery? Before there was a lottery, there was a coin toss.

Somewhat ironically, the Houston Rockets are one of the reasons there is a draft lottery. They were one of the two last teams to flip a coin for the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft when the system was a coin toss. From 1966 to 1984, the flip of a coin determined who received the top choice in that year’s draft. The two teams in last place in each respective conference called it. The team that won the coin toss won the No. 1 pick. The other team received the second pick.

For the remainder of the draft, the rest of the first-round was determined by the win-loss record.

While this was ultimately fair, it incentivized losing, tanking. Since 1985 the NBA draft lottery made it a lot more interesting for both teams and fans.

Article continues below advertisement
2024 NBA Draft Lottery odds, adjusted as the lottery progressed
Source: Getty Images

The lottery as we know it has been used since 1990.

From 1985 to 1989 every team that didn’t make the post-season had an equal chance at winning the No. 1 pick. Since 1990 the NBA has used a weighted system. While the 1985 to 1989 system was statistically more fair, it didn't really help the teams at the bottom of the standings. The current system does its best to help the worst while disincentivizing complete tanking.

Article continues below advertisement

The current lottery gives teams with the worst record for the previous season the best odds at winning the lottery. For example, the Detroit Pistons and Washington Wizards had the worst records of the 2023–'24 regular seasons, with a .171 and .183 winning percentage. Each team had a 14 percent chance of winning the 2024 NBA draft lottery. The Houston Rockets, a team that barely missed the play-in game tournament with a .500 record, had a 3 percent chance of winning the 2024 NBA draft lottery.

Atlanta Hawks office at the 2024 NBA Draft Lottery
Source: Getty Images
Article continues below advertisement

The lottery is fun for most and heartbreaking for few.

While the Rockets' NBA draft lottery win was statistically improbable, it's not the most improbable NBA draft lottery win. The 1993 Orlando Magic won the No. 1 pick with 1.52 percent odds and the 2014 Cleveland Cavaliers and 2008 Chicago Bulls won the number one pick with 1.7 percent odds.

Those drafts helped one franchise become one of the most popular teams in the sport (the 1993 Magic pick led to the team-up of Shaq and Penny Hardaway), a future MVP (the Bulls drafted Derrick Rose who won the 2010–'11 MVP), and an NBA Championship (the Cavs traded their draft pick Andrew Wiggins to the Minnesota Timberwolves in exchange for Kevin Love, a centerpiece of their 2016 title run).

Advertisement
More from Distractify

Latest NBA News and Updates

    Opt-out of personalized ads

    © Copyright 2024 Distractify. Distractify is a registered trademark. All Rights Reserved. People may receive compensation for some links to products and services on this website. Offers may be subject to change without notice.