Losing to Win: Playing the Odds at the NBA Draft Lottery

With the NBA Conference Semifinals getting underway this week, most of the league’s attention is focused on the professional version of college basketball’s “Final Four” as we inch closer towards crowning the 2013 NBA champion. But for 14 teams stuck watching the playoffs at home since mid-April, the biggest prize of the offseason will be determined by a random set of 1000 ping-pong balls in a private room in New York City this evening.

The Orlando Magic—fresh off their first season of the post-Dwight Howard era—have a 25 % chance of landing the top pick in this year’s draft after finishing the season with a 20-62 record. The Magic outlasted the lowly Charlotte Bobcats for the worst record in the league this season, as their one extra win “cost” them a 19.9 % chance of securing the number one overall selection come June 27.

The Bobcats know, however, that Orlando’s extra 51 ping-pong balls really do not mean all that much when it comes to the quirks of the NBA Draft Lottery system. Last year Charlotte held the best odds to win the lottery after winning a mere seven games during the lockout-shortened season (record-low .106 winning percentage) but were beaten to the top spot by the New Orleans Hornets Pelicans. Adding insult to injury, remember that the Hornets used to be Charlotte’s original NBA team before packing up and leaving for the Big Easy.

The Bobcats have played the lottery in all but one year of the franchise’s short existence and have never won the top pick. Meanwhile, a team such as the Cleveland Cavaliers has won the lottery twice in the past decade, with 22.5 % odds in 2003 and with a mere 2.8 % odds in 2011 (Cleveland’s 2011 lottery-winning pick came via a mid-season trade with the L.A. Clippers instead of with the team’s own pick that had the second-best chance to win).

This brings us to the real question that four or five teams surely ask themselves every year: is tanking really worth it? For example, the Cavs and the Washington Wizards entered the month of March with similar records of 20-38 and 18-38, respectively. However, over the season’s final month and a half, Washington won 11 games while Cleveland won only four. As a result, the Cavs finished with the third-worst record in the league while the Wizards finished with the eighth-worst record.

If the season had ended on March 1, Washington would have been third in the lottery pecking order. Their late season surge cost the team 121 lottery ping-pong balls, dropping their odds at the number one pick from 15.6 % to a mere 3.5 %.

However, the Wizards could probably care less about that extra handful lottery balls and are more than happy with the positive momentum generated by their young core at the end of the year. They should know it is dangerous to rely on the lottery: in 2012 Washington had the second-best chance to win the lottery (19.9 %) but fell all the way to the third slot. Yet in 2010 the Wizards had the fifth-best odds at the top spot (10.3 %) and still won the rights to pick John Wall number one overall.

In fact, since 2000, the team with the fifth-worst record (10.3 % chance at the top slot) has won the lottery three times. Meanwhile, the worst team has only won twice during that span (2003 Cavaliers and 2004 Magic) and has fallen outside the top three on four separate occasions (2001, 2006, 2007, 2009).

The average “seed” for the top pick during that time period has been amazingly high 4.7. The ninth-worst Chicago Bulls are the “best” team to ever win the lottery, with odds of only 1.7 % to get the first overall pick (and hometown hero Derrick Rose).

It will be interesting to see if this year’s lottery sticks to probabilities and makes the Magic a winner like it is supposed to or if fate will bounce in the direction of an improving team like the Wizards. Or maybe, just maybe, our small sample size will hold true again and the fifth-worst team will come out on top. Who might that team be?

New Orleans.

Get ready for the conspiracy theories David Stern, may the odds be ever in your favor.

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Posted on May 21, 2013, in NBA and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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