What is the NBA Draft Lottery?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 23 November 2019
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The National Basketball Association, or NBA, draft lottery is a method of choosing new players for teams before each new basketball season in the United States. The system is weighted so that teams that have performed poorly in the previous year are more likely to receive high draft picks, giving them a good shot at getting one of the best new or newly available players. The draft lottery was first instated in 1985, and has gone through several changes to make it better and more fair.

Originally, the draft was a simple drawing held for the first seven picks in the NBA draft. The teams participating in the lottery had the seven worst records of the previous season. This was altered quickly, as the difference between the worst record and the 7th worst record could be considerable, and the draft started using a weighted system that gave the bottom teams the best chance at a high draft pick. In 1992, the NBA draft lottery began only choosing the top three draft picks, with the remaining being chosen in ascending order of record. This way, the team with the lowest season record could pick no lower than fourth in the draft.


There are 14 pick positions in the NBA draft lottery; one for each of the 14 teams that did not make the playoffs of the previous season. Some teams have been accused of manipulating their draft status once it becomes apparent they will not make the playoffs. In order to receive better odds of a high draft pick, teams may bench their best players and have even been accused of conspiring to lose games. These tactics may alienate many fans, who feel cheated that their home team isn’t trying hard on purpose.

Today, the NBA draft lottery is held in May of each year under close supervision. 14 balls numbered 1-14 are placed in a standard lotto ball machine and whirled around, eventually spitting out four balls. The lottery teams each have an assigned list of combinations; teams with lower records have more combinations assigned to them. Whichever team possesses the combination that comes up is the winner and gets the first draft pick. The second and third picks are chosen in the same manner, and team records then determine the remaining draft places.

Draft picks become more complicated as they can be factored into trade deals between teams. A team desperate to get a player from another franchise will sometimes offer future draft picks to the other team. This can result in a high performing team getting an early draft pick, further strengthening their bench.

The NBA draft lottery is a complicated way to deal with a complex system. Despite the moaning of many fans that their team was robbed of a good pick through nefarious officials, the proceedings are usually quite civil and the results amicably accepted. Certainly a step up from being a coin toss, the NBA draft lottery attempt to instill some fairness into the league, to allow poor teams to improve and keep games exciting and close in score.


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