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Stat of the Week: NBA Lottery history

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How have the balls dropped in the NBA Lottery in years past?

NBA: NBA Draft Lottery Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

This edition of Stat of the Week focuses on the history of the NBA Draft Lottery. How often does the team with the most combinations retain the first pick? Do the teams with the worst odds ever jump into the top three? Is there a BEST position to fill in the lottery? Are the Denver Nuggets in trouble of dropping to the 14th pick? Let’s find out.

(I must preface this by saying that the NBA Draft lottery odds are the exact odds are all that matter. I am simply looking at historical trends, and none of the added numbers reflect actual odds, just what has occurred to this point.)

The first draft lottery occurred in 1985, a year in which the New York Knicks won, declaring that they would select center Patrick Ewing out of Georgetown THAT NIGHT. There were many questions on the legitimacy of that lottery selection, but a closer look at the odds each team possessed paints a different picture. Every team had the exact same odds of procuring the first overall selection, and with only seven teams in the lottery that year, the Knicks possessed a 14.29% chance of landing the first pick.

Now, compare that to today’s lottery odds: the team with the first overall pick has a 25.0% chance of obtaining the first pick, while the third overall pick has a 15.6% chance of acquiring it. If the team with a 15.6% chance landed the first selection, nobody would be up in arms over it today. It just so happens that the Knicks had the third worst record in the 1984-85 season, so them winning the lottery wouldn’t have been egregious at all.

Whether it was actually rigged or not is questionable, but the Knicks had just as strong of odds as every other team that year, and the lottery actually didn’t weight the odds of certain teams until the 1990 lottery. Here is how each position in the lottery has fared to this point, courtesy of RealGM.com.

Position in Lottery Moved Up Stayed the Same Moved Down
1st 0/27 5/27 22/27
2nd 2/27 3/27 22/27
3rd 7/27 5/27 15/27
4th 9/27 3/27 15/27
5th 11/27 5/27 11/27
6th 5/27 12/27 10/27
7th 3/27 16/27 8/27
8th 4/27 18/27 5/27
9th 2/27 22/27 23/27
10th 1/27 24/27 2/27
11th 1/27 25/27 1/27
12th 0/22 21/22 1/22
13th 1/22 21/22 0/22
14th 0/13 13/13 0/13

It’s a bit difficult to tell with all of the data, so here are the important points:

Which position has moved up most frequently?

That would be the fifth position.

In 27 seasons of doing the draft lottery, the fifth position has moved up 11 times. Based on the lottery odds, the fourth selection would make the most statistical sense in moving up, but the fifth position has moved up two more times. The most recent drafts in which the fifth position has moved up:

  • 2010 - The Washington Wizards selected John Wall first overall
  • 2007 - The Seattle Supersonics selected Kevin Durant second overall
  • 2006 - The Toronto Raptors selected Andrea Bargnani first overall
  • 2002 - The Houston Rockets selected Yao Ming first overall

Mostly big hits, one major miss.

How often is the first selection retained?

In 27 lotteries, the first selection has gone to the team slotted first in draft odds just five times, good for 18.5% of the time. This is slightly under the statistical probability for the selection, which has spent most of its time as a 25% chance. The time a team slotted first overall has been the most screwed by the lottery? That would be your Denver Nuggets. During the 1998 lottery, the Nuggets had nearly a 36% chance at the first overall pick due to the introduction of the Vancouver Grizzlies and Toronto Raptors. Instead of winning the first pick, Denver, having won just 11 games the prior season, dropped all the way down to the third pick.

Still, the first selection has been just fine most of the time. They retain a position in the top three over 74% of the time, by far the highest of any draft position.

The top 3 odds are based on the current odds for the lottery, but the trend is still pretty clear: always try for a top five slot if possible, even if it’s just the fifth slot in the lottery. The value of being first versus being second is drastic, and anywhere below eighth is just asking for trouble.

What does this mean for the Nuggets at 13th?

It means a move up is very unlikely, plain and simple.

Out of 22 possible lotteries (due to less teams partaking in the early stages) the 13th slot was only selected once. The Charlotte Hornets, the team in the lottery with the best record at 26-24, was selected third. The team went on to add point guard Baron Davis, who helped the Hornets return to the playoffs and eventually contribute to the “We Believe” Golden State Warriors.

The 13th slot has never moved down, seeing as the 14th slot has never moved up. This is good news for the Nuggets, though it wouldn’t surprise anyone for them to break that tradition.

It will be big news if a team at the bottom of the lottery moves up, and while it’s incredibly unlikely based on the actual odds and the picture history paints, anything is possible. If I was a betting man, I would bet on the Orlando Magic jumping into the top three at some point, while the Boston Celtics (by virtue of the Brooklyn Nets) stay and the Los Angeles Lakers drop out. That would have major implications this year, and I’m sure LaVar Ball will be thrilled.