Most Shocking NBA Lottery Moments in Recent Memory

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistMay 20, 2013

Most Shocking NBA Lottery Moments in Recent Memory

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    When the ping-pong balls fall, anything can happen in the NBA draft lottery. 

    Mathematically, there's a certain order in which they should drop into place, but that's obviously not always the case. History is littered with shocking moments in which teams beat the odds. 

    There's no need for conspiracy theories. It's just percentages in action. 

    The lottery has existed in its current form since 1990, when the New Jersey Nets went into the event with the best odds and left with the top pick. That wasn't particularly surprising, but it's one of the few lotteries that hasn't been full of intrigue. 

    Note: Lottery odds come from

1992: Charlotte Hornets Get Lucky for the 2nd Year in a Row

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    The Charlotte Hornets got lucky enough when they capitalized on the fifth-best odds in the 1991 lottery to land the top overall pick. Their 10.61 percent chance of moving up from No. 5 to No. 1 turned into Larry Johnson, giving the franchise a bona fide superstar. 

    Charlotte improved by five games during the 1991-92 season, and the Hornets wound up with a 6.06 percent chance of earning the top pick for the second year in a row. Seven teams had better chances, but only one came out ahead of Charlotte: the Orlando Magic. 

    The Hornets missed out on Shaquille O'Neal, but they landed Alonzo Mourning instead, giving the team yet another centerpiece. 

    For two consecutive years, Charlotte left its fate in the hands of the ping-pong balls, and for two consecutive years, Charlotte bucked the odds. 

1993: Orlando Magic Beating the Odds Bigtime

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    During the 1991-92 season, the Orlando Magic went 21-61. Not much worked out, but the prize at the end of the year was rather nice. 

    Orlando earned the second-best odds in the 1992 lottery and came out with Shaquille O'Neal, who immediately submitted a fantastic rookie season. Averaging 23.4 points and 13.9 rebounds per game, Shaq propelled the Magic to a much-improved 41-41 record, giving them the worst odds of any lottery team in 1993. 

    Did that matter? Of course not!

    Despite having just a 1.52 percent chance of a second straight No.1 pick, Orlando earned the right to pick at the top of the draft. Chris Webber was the selection, and the Magic immediately flipped him to the Golden State Warriors for Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway and three first-round picks that would turn into Todd Fuller, Vince Carter and Chris Mihm. 

    Orlando didn't need much luck to move up in the 1992 lottery, but the 1993 repeat was quite shocking. 

1999: Charlotte Is Fortunate Once More

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    During the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season, the Charlotte Hornets won 26 of their 50 games, finishing just outside the postseason. 

    Charlotte went into the lottery with a 0.5 percent chance of winning the No. 1 pick, a 0.6 percent chance of moving up to No. 2 and a 0.73 percent chance of landing the No. 3 spot. All in all, the Hornets, on average, would have moved up into the top three 1.83 times if the lottery unfolded on 100 different occasions. 

    Yet that's exactly what happened. Well, not the unfolding 100 different times part.

    The Chicago Bulls and Vancouver Grizzlies moved up to No. 1 and 2, respectively, and Charlotte followed them at No. 3. That pick turned into Baron Davis, and the rest is history.

2000: New Jersey Nets Move to the Top of a Terrible Class

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    The New Jersey Nets had the seventh-best lottery odds in 2000, meaning that they could have dropped down to No. 10 in the ensuing draft had three teams with even worse chances jumped past them. 

    Remember, the 2000 draft class would go down as one of the worst in NBA history. The top 10 picks—in order from No. 1 to No. 10—were Kenyon Martin, Stromile Swift, Darius Miles, Marcus Fizer, Mike Miller, DerMarr Johnson, Chris Mihm, Jamal Crawford, Joel Przybilla and Keyon Dooling. 

    Between them, they've made only a single All-Star game. Martin earned the lone berth in 2004. 

    The Nets had no way of knowing how lucky they were then, but they certainly do now. Despite having, at best, a shaky chance of moving up to the top spot (a 4.4 percent chance, to be exact), that's just what they did. 

2003: LeBron James Gets to Stay in Cleveland

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    If you only look at the actual odds, this wasn't the least bit shocking. After all, the team with the best odds is the favorite for the No. 1 pick, and that's the situation the Cleveland Cavaliers found themselves in during the LeBron James sweepstakes. 

    And make no mistake about it. Despite the presences of Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Darko Milicic in the draft class, this was very much the LeBron sweepstakes. 

    However, let's look beyond the odds and take a gander at the historical trends. 

    The NBA draft lottery changed formats in 1990 so that teams with worse records would have better odds at the top pick. That year, the New Jersey Nets had a 16.67 percent chance of the No. 1 slot, better than any other team. They'd capitalize on those odds and select Derrick Coleman with the first overall pick. 

    From that point on, though, teams with the best odds were cursed. 

    It wasn't until this 2003 draft lottery that the favored team came out on top. That made this result a little bit shocking, even if it wasn't mathematically surprising. 

2005-07: 3 Unlikely Winners in a Row

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    It's shocking enough when one long shot rises to No. 1, but it's even more surprising when it happens three years in a row.

    In 2005, the Milwaukee Bucks had a 6.3 percent chance of moving up from No. 6 to No. 1. They did and selected Andrew Bogut with the top overall selection.

    One year later, it was the Toronto Raptors' turn to buck the odds. Even though there was just an 8.8 percent chance of them doing so, they eventually selected Andrea Bargnani at No. 1.

    Should we stop there? Of course not!

    The 2007 lottery saw the Portland Trail Blazers enter in the sixth slot and leave with the No. 1 pick and the ability to draft Greg Oden over Kevin Durant, something they had a 5.3 percent chance of doing going in.

    Remember, drafting the Ohio State big man was a good idea at the time.

    Together, there's a 0.029 percent chance of all three events becoming realities*. And they did.  

    *This is assuming independence between the lotteries, which, if the conspiracy theories have any validity to them, might be a poor assumption. #MathJokes

2008: Chicago Bulls Somehow Win the Derrick Rose Sweepstakes

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    In the history of the lottery, the Orlando Magic have overcome the worst odds to land the No. 1 pick. That occurred when they drafted and traded Chris Webber in 1993 after having just a 1.52 percent chance of gaining the top spot. 

    The Chicago Bulls barely missed out on the title in 2008. Entering with a 1.7 percent chance of moving up to the top slot, Chicago emerged victorious and drafted Derrick Rose

    Obviously, that worked out fairly well for the team. 

    This was made even more special by the fact that Rose hailed from the Windy City and got to stay at home for the start of his professional career. 

    It was the fourth year in a row that a team majorly bucked the odds to land the top spot. 

2011: Cleveland Cavaliers Get a 2nd Top Pick

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    The Cleveland Cavaliers were virtually guaranteed to get a solid pick in the 2011 NBA draft. They had the second-best odds to land the top overall spot, so at worst, they'd end up with the No. 5 selection. 

    That worst-case scenario didn't become a reality, but Cleveland did drop to No. 4, from where the Cavs would snatch up Tristan Thompson and wait for him to develop into a quality player. 

    Fortunately, though, Cleveland still had one more pick to think about. The Cavs owned the Los Angeles Clippers' first-round pick, and LAC had a 2.8 percent chance of moving up to the No. 1 spot. 

    That long shot is what did become a reality, and the Cavaliers were given the ability to add Kyrie Irving into the mix. 

    This was certainly a shocking development, but how long will it take for it to be overshadowed by the next one? Could it be this very year?


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