NBA Draft Lottery: So you're telling me there's a chance ...

Mike Stobe

The Denver Nuggets odds of landing a top-three pick during Tuesday's NBA Draft Lottery are slim, but not impossible.

Young-ish Denver Nuggets fans may not appreciate this, but the annual NBA Draft Lottery used to be the most highly anticipated day of the year for Nuggets fans.

From 1991-2003 - a time span that saw our Nuggets appear in the playoffs just twice - the Nuggets participated in nine NBA Draft Lotteries. Year after year, Nuggets fans awaited a savior in the form of a high draft pick hoping that their lottery days would be put behind them.  And yet despite having a top-four chance six times during that time span, the Nuggets never once landed the first overall selection and instead moved backwards in the draft lottery from where they should have been record-wise.

And thus, I learned a long time to ago not to count on the NBA Draft Lottery to go the Nuggets way and will watch Tuesday's edition (scheduled for 6pm MT) with healthy skepticism.

That said, I love the NBA Draft Lottery. Absolutely love it. I love seeing which franchise the NBA rigs the lottery for lucks into the first pick. I love seeing who represents the various NBA teams at the actual draft lottery (my all-time favorite was Brooklyn Nets president Irina Pavlova's appearance at the 2011 lottery). And I love the conspiracy theories that abound soon after the lottery is announced.

To that end, I've actually missed seeing the Nuggets participate in the lottery these past 10 years. In fact, it has been so long that a lot of casual Nuggets fans have forgotten how the lottery works. So in advance of Tuesday's NBA Draft Lottery (and our first ever Denver Stiffs NBA Draft Lottery Happy Hour), here is a quick Q&A primer:

How does the NBA Draft Lottery work?

Wikipedia offers the best explanation for how the lottery really works mathematically, but basically the NBA uses a weighted lottery randomizer to choose who among the NBA's 14 non-playoff participants gets to select first, second and third overall in the June NBA Draft. After the first three picks are chosen, the remaining 11 lottery participants get slotted according to record, with the worst-record team among those 11 drafting fourth and so on down to 14.

What percent chance do the Nuggets have of landing the first overall pick?

Because the Nuggets have their own draft lottery selection (11th overall) but also control the New York Knicks selection (12th overall) courtesy of the Carmelo Anthony trade, the Nuggets have a 1.5% chance of landing the first overall pick, a 1.7% chance of landing the second overall pick, a 2.2% chance of landing the third overall pick and a 5.4% chance of cracking the top-three altogether. Which brings me to ...

Having a 5.4% chance of landing a top-three selection certainly aren't great odds but they're better than nothing. Here's a breakdown of each 2014 NBA Draft Lottery participant and their respective chances at landing a top-three selection (courtesy of Celtics.com):

NBA Draft Lottery Odds, pre-Friday drawings.
Probability of getting:
Team # of Combos 1st Pick 2nd Pick 3rd Pick Any Top 2 Pick Any Top 3 Pick
Milwaukee 250 25.0% 21.5% 17.7% 46.5% 64.2%
Philadelphia 199 19.9% 18.8% 17.1% 38.7% 55.8%
Orlando 156 15.6% 15.7% 15.6% 31.3% 46.9%
Utah 104 10.4% 11.2% 12.1% 21.6% 33.7%
Boston 103 10.3% 11.1% 12.0% 21.4% 33.4%
LA Lakers 63 6.3% 7.1% 8.1% 13.4% 21.5%
Sacramento 43 4.3% 4.9% 5.8% 9.2% 15.0%
Detroit 28 2.8% 3.3% 3.9% 6.1% 9.9%
Cleveland 17 1.7% 2.0% 2.4% 3.7% 6.1%
New Orleans 11 1.1% 1.3% 1.6% 2.4% 4.0%
Denver 8 0.8% 0.9% 1.2% 1.7% 2.9%
New York 7 0.7% 0.8% 1.0% 1.5% 2.5%
Minnesota 6 0.6% 0.7% 0.9% 1.3% 2.2%
Phoenix 5 0.5% 0.6% 0.7% 1.1% 1.8%


So the Nuggets could end up with two top-three picks?

No. The worse of the Nuggets' two picks gets shipped to the Orlando Magic as back payment for the Andre Iguodala-for-Arron Afflalo / Al Harrington trade. That's right Nuggets fans, we traded Afflalo, Harrington and a 2014 lottery pick for a one-year rental of Iguodala ... who's departure basically resulted in Randy Foye becoming the Nuggets starting two-guard.

If the Nuggets don't land a top-three pick, how high of a pick can they get?

This has been the one question that casual Denver sports fans I've spoken to recently (unlike our highly educated lottery experts here at Denver Stiffs) don't seem to get at all. IF the Nuggets don't end up in the top-three (the most likely scenario unfortunately), they can only select at 11 or worse. As noted above, once the top-three picks are determined the remaining 11 teams get slotted according to record. For example, if the Minnesota Timberwolves AND the Phoenix Suns were to crack the top-three (a near but not total impossibility), the Nuggets would end up selecting 13th - with their 14th overall selection going to Orlando as mentioned above.

Is the NBA Draft Lottery rigged?

Having seen our Nuggets lose lottery after lottery over the years has made me a hardened lottery conspiracist - but the results don't exactly add up. Yes, I thought it was quite convenient that the NBA's biggest market franchise New York Knicks landed Patrick Ewing in 1985, the NBA attendance-leading Charlotte Hornets landed Larry Johnson in 1991, the Cleveland-based Cavaliers landed the Akron-born LeBron James in 2003, the obviously-moving-to-Oklahoma-City-Seattle-Supersonics landed a top-two pick in 2007 (which became Kevin Durant, guaranteeing the NBA success in OKC for years to come), the Chicago-based Bulls landed the Chicago-born Derrick Rose in 2008, the Cavaliers got the number one pick again in 2011 just a year after James departed Cleveland via free agency and the NBA-owned New Orleans Hornets (while looking for a buyer) just happened to land Anthony Davis in 2012. All those lotteries seemed awfully fishy to me.

But if the NBA Lottery is indeed rigged, why would the NBA "reward" the small market San Antonio Spurs with the first overall pick in 1997 (which became Tim Duncan) while superstar center David Robinson was returning from injury and the marquee-yet-struggling Boston Celtics had two chances of landing the first pick that year? Wouldn't the NBA have been better off with Duncan in Boston considering the Spurs could have remained competitive with Robinson alone? And why would the NBA "reward" the Houston Rockets with the first overall pick in the 2002 NBA Draft Lottery - i.e. "The Yao Ming Draft" - even though lottery markets like the San Francisco Bay Area, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles had much larger Chinese-American populations? And in 2007, with the balance of NBA power clearly shifting to the Western Conference with huge negative repercussions for the entire league and Boston again in desperate need of a top pick, why would the NBA "reward" small market Portland with the first overall selection (which became Greg Oden, but that's a different matter)?

Point being, for every "rigged" lottery I can show you a lottery whose results would indicate no rigging took place. Since the lottery's inception in 1985 the Cavaliers have had the first overall pick four times, the Clippers and Magic three times and the Bucks, Bulls, Hornets, Wizards, Spurs and Nets twice apiece. In other words, the first overall selection has been spread around to various franchises.

But would I be the least bit surprised if the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics just happen to land top-three picks on Tuesday night? No, no I would not.

What can I do to improve the Nuggets chances of landing a top-three selection?

Join your fellow Stiffs and Nuggets fans for our first-ever Denver Stiffs NBA Draft Lottery Happy Hour, of course! We're going to gather at Jake's Food & Spirits - located at 3800 Walnut Street in Denver's trendy RiNo Art District - where two-for-one drafts will be served all night and our friends at the Nuggets will be raffling off game ticket vouchers and signed memorabilia. Since we need as much Stiffs Karma as possible, please plan on arriving at 5pm in advance of the 6pm lottery unveiling.

I repeat: we need as much Stiffs Karma as possible so please plan on joining us Tuesday evening for the NBA Draft Lottery!

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