How Fair Is the NBA Draft Lottery System?

Stephen Cho@stephench0Contributor IIIApril 26, 2012

I wonder how much that pick costed?
I wonder how much that pick costed?

Eight lottery picks in the past eight years hasn’t seemed to do much for the Charlotte Bobcats, but it has turned other franchises across the league upside down. Back to back lottery picks in ’08 and ’09 were the only lottery picks the Thunder organization has ever had in it’s short existence, but judging on the way things are going, they won’t need another one for a while.

And yet, while we’ve seen lottery picks like Russell Westbrook (fourth pick) and James Harden (third) emerge as some of the greatest players in the game, other lottery picks like Kwame Brown and Adam Morrison have proven to better at warming benches rather than playing professional basketball.

In fact, I could probably name over twenty lottery pick-busts in the past five years, just off the top of my head: Enes Kanter, Jonas Valanciunas (who?), Jan Vesely, Marcus Morris, Cole Aldrich, Xavier Henry, Larry Sanders, Jordan Hill and pretty much his whole draft class (Johnny Flynn, Terrence Williams, Austin Daye, Earl Clark, etc.), Joe Alexander…you get my point.

Investing in a player on draft night is much like investing in a stock in finance—the system works on a high risk, high reward system regularity.

Nonetheless, whether you’re a fan or a GM or a coach or a player, nobody is going to turn down a lottery pick. Nobody is going to say no to the next Melo or D-Rose or Blake Griffin. As it should be, a majority of the members of the Hall of Fame were drafted in the lottery, so talent and potential certainly do not lack.

But how fair is the NBA draft in all realness? Starting with the suspicious draft of 1985, where the Knicks received the first overall pick “by chance,” not everybody has given into the concept of completely equal chances when drafting. The fact that the lottery balls are now selected in a private room with no company only reinforces the assumption of a fixed draft.

Concrete jungles where dreams are made of, there's nothing you can't do- now you're in New York....
Concrete jungles where dreams are made of, there's nothing you can't do- now you're in New York....Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Why not air the selection of lottery balls on TV? That’s my question. For one, the program would get higher TV ratings, and secondly, teams like the Timerwolves might, for once, believe they can actually get a top pick. (In 14 years of being in the lottery, they have never gotten a first pick. Suspicious.)


The lottery has always been aired on national television, with each of the fourteen teams with picks bringing in their own respective representative and each team carrying its own storyline/history. And whether it’s a profound coincidence, or if the draft is actually rigged, the stories have seemed to have more importance than the actual teams lately.

The boy with neurofibromatosis disease who granted the Cavs (2.8 percent chance of winning) a top pick in perfect timing (a little too perfect if you ask me), as LeBron had just left the summer before. The grandma who represented the Wizards and landed her team a first pick weeks after her husband passed away. The Bulls (a 1.7 percent chance of winning the first overall pick), who the NBA wanted to revive for a while now, captured the rights to Derrick Rose, who eventually led the team to be the beasts of the east.

As a current high school student, I’m part of the generation that witnessed the recession and downfall of the NBA Dunk Contest first-hand.

Once the most exciting part of the entire NBA season, let alone All-Star Weekend, the Dunk Contest has quickly transformed into a staged act and more of a costume party than a competition for the league’s highest flyers. Unless the lottery/draft system is revised soon, it’ll find itself having the same fate as the dunk contest.

In all fairness, the NBA most likely started to change the dunk contest for the entertainment of the fans. I hope they know it’s not working.


With that being said, the lottery should be fun to watch later in May, as fourteen struggling teams try to animate their franchises. Out of those fourteen teams, it isn’t hard to guess which team carries the biggest story line: the New Jersey Brooklyn Nets.

As David Kahn so accurately put it, “This league has a habit, and I am just going to say habit, of producing some pretty incredible story lines...As soon as the 14-year-old kid joined us, we were toast.”

Referring to the child who suffered neurofibromatosis when he said “the 14-year-old kid,” Kahn could not have been more correct. Data actually goes to show that the team who earns the top pick is usually not projected to get it. In fact, 89 perfect of the time, a team that’s not the worst team will get the first pick, which only further proves the conception of a rigged, breaking news-friendly draft

In the eighteen years of using the current lottery system, the team with the worst record has only been awarded the pick twice. 2/18 = 0.11%.

In the midst of relocation, free-agency drama, players that want to leave (why would somebody possibly want to leave the Nets???), and disappointment for the past 35 years, the Nets look to have a fresh start in Brooklyn. None of the other teams participating in the lottery are involved in a situation as big as that of the Nets, which means the team has pretty big shot at the first overall pick.

So, next month, when the Nets miraculously get Anthony Davis, just smile and act like it was luck. For David Stern’s sake, just do it.