An In Depth Look At The Draft Lottery

The lottery determines the first three picks of the draft. A lottery is run for the first pick, then the second, then the third pick. Picks 4 through 14 are then determined by Win-Loss record with the worst record of the 11 remaining teams getting the 4th pick. The second worst record of the 11 remaining teams gets the 5th pick and so on. The lottery applies only to the first round as the second round is based on Win-Loss record. The current lottery system has 1,000 outcomes divided up among the 14 teams with the highest seed receiving the most chances (250) to earn the number one pick. The current lottery system with 1,000 different outcomes has been in place since the 1994 draft lottery, giving us 20 years of data to work with. The odds to obtain each pick for each seed are shown in the table below.


After only 20 years of data, it’s not abnormal that the odds haven’t worked out perfectly (amazing!). Based on 1,000 simulations the odds should be very close to the numbers listed in the first graph. However, with only 2% of the simulations done (only 980 years to go!), the results will be all over the place. The table below shows where each seed has picked over the past 20 years. You may have to click on this one to view it easier.


A lot of interesting numbers show up in that table. Most notably the 3rd seed has picked 1st 6 times and the 5th seed has picked 1st 4 times while the 1st seed has picked first only twice. The second seed has picked 4th nearly half of the time (9 of 20). After going through all these numbers the most baffling thing to me has been the 5th seed (along with the 1999 draft lottery, we will get to that later). By rule the 5th seed cannot pick 4th. Half the time the 5th seed has picked better than 4th and half the time the 5th seed has picked worse than 4th. After 20 years, being the 5th seed seems to be really advantageous. The 5th seed is wide open because it is not a favorite to receive any of the picks. The 1st seed is favored to get the 1st,2nd,3rd, and 4th picks. The 4th seed is favored to get the 5th pick. The 6th seed is favored to get the 6th pick. Like the 2nd and 3rd seed, the 5th seed isn’t a favorite to receive a certain pick. After staring at this 5th seed conundrum for a while I added up where each seed picked over the past 20 years and took an average, the results are below.


These results show the 5th seed had the highest positive variance (+1.2) picking at an average of 3.8. Not shockingly the 1st seed had the worst variance (-1.65) since it can only pick at 1 or worse. Another interesting note from this table is that the 3rd seed (3.3) has picked higher than the 2nd seed (3.55) and the 5th seed (3.8) has picked higher than the 4th seed (4.25). I thought maybe one of the reasons this was happening was because if there is a tie in record between two teams, the lottery takes an average of the chances between the tied teams and splits them evenly. In the 2010 draft lottery the 76ers and Pistons had the same record so their chances were split evenly (53 each). See the table below.



In order to see if this was why the results have been skewed, all the chances over the past 20 years for each seed were added up and averaged. These ties had basically zero affect on the odds. The "real" odds to pick 1st for the past 20 years are shown in the table below.



Going through the past 20 years of data I compiled a list of the least likely odds that came true. For entertainment purposes I put the players taken with each pick in parentheses to show the differences in talent and why a higher pick really does matter in most cases. As stated earlier the 1999 draft lottery was crazy. Charlotte was the 13th seed (Corey Maggette) and landed the 3rd pick (Baron Davis) with a whopping 0.73% chance. This has been the least likely occurrence to happen so far. Also in the 1999 draft lottery the Raptors went from the 11th seed (Trajan Langdon) to the 12th pick (Aleksander Radojevic) with a 3.9% chance. Another odds buster in the 1999 draft was the Sonics going from the 12th seed (Aleksander Radojevic) to the 13th pick (Corey Maggette) with only a 1.8% chance of occurring. There is still a lot of ho hum about the lottery being rigged and the main argument is the Bulls acquiring their hometown boy with the first pick (Derrick Rose) when they were the 9th seed (D.J. Augustin). There was a 1.7% chance of this happening and these are the second lowest odds to have come to fruition. Now for some Milwaukee love :) and hate :( . In 2005 the Bucks were the 6th seed (Martell Webster) and landed the 1st pick (Andrew Bogut) with a 6.3% chance of this happening. However in 2007, the Bucks were the 3rd seed (Al Horford) and landed the 6th pick (Yi Jianlian) with a 4.1% chance. YES A YI JIANLIAN REFERENCE I DID IT!!!!! Other notable odds busters:

2011 Clippers (Cavs) 8th seed (Brandon Knight), landed 1st (Kyrie Irving), 2.8% chance

2013 Wizards 8th seed (Kentavious Caldwell-Pope), landed 3rd (Otto Porter), 4.8% chance

2007 Blazers 7th seed (Corey Brewer), landed 1st (Greg Oden), 5.3% chance

2001 Clippers 8th seed (Desagna Diop), landed 2nd (Tyson Chandler), 3.38% chance

2000 Nets 7th seed (Chris Mihm), landed 1st (Kenyon Martin), 4.4% chance

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