The NBA Draft Lottery is supposed to disincentivize tanking, somewhat, by making it so that you cannot absolutely insure yourself of the top pick by losing. Regardless of how much losing you do, you only have a 25% chance of getting the first overall pick, if you are the worst team. Part of that formula, then, is that some teams outside of the worst in the league will get the top pick.
Here is a quick summary of the position in the standings, and how many times each has won the lottery to get the top pick, since 1990. Before that, the early lotteries were straight-up lotteries where every team had an equal chance. In 1990, the NBA went to a weighted system to give the worst teams a better chance. In 1994 (as we’ll get to in a bit) the weights changed. Eventually, the league expanded to 14 teams now part of the lottery. Here’s how many times each position has won, and the expected number of wins based on the odds.
With slight variation, the chances mirror the expected results, though NBA fans will certainly have their conspiracy theories in a given year.
You’ll notice down there the one team who finished outside the bottom 10 who got the top pick: Orlando in 1993. The franchise had already won the top pick the year before and selected Shaquille O'Neal, and the Orlando Magic went 41-41 in his rookie season. They had the worst odds, then 1 in 66, of getting the top pick. Orlando parlayed that pick (Chris Webber) into a trade with Golden State for the 3rd overall pick and several future picks.
Even though the lottery system inherently has this as a possibility, the reaction to that result was mostly anger and shock. Gregg Popovich, then an assistant GM with Golden State, described the room when Orlando was revealed to have the first overall pick. “There was total silence. Absolute dead silence for about three seconds.” Minnesota Timberwolves GM Jack McCloskey, who had the 2nd best odds, said “It’s a joke. A complete joke. Orlando getting the number one pick is not what this draft–or any draft–is meant to be.” Dallas Mavericks GM Norm Sonju, following the Mavericks’ league-worst 11-71 record, said, “It kind of defeats the purpose of using the draft to build the weaker teams.”
Plenty of angry ink was spilled about the lottery system after Orlando hit the longshot, and it likely would have melted computer connections today. “From sea to blankety-blank shining sea, they are weeping, wailing, howling, and scowling over that one despicable ping pong ball,” wrote Bob Ryan.
Eventually, the calls to drop the lottery resulted in a tweak wherein the worst team got better odds, and those near the bottom, like Orlando, saw the chances drop below 1% of getting that top pick. That said, while any one of those teams is a longshot, it’s going to happen again (assuming the system stays in place long enough). This year, the Heat, Pistons, Hornets, Nuggets, and Pelicans have a collective 3.7% chance of getting the top pick.
That equates to once every 27 years. This marks the 28th year that the weighted lottery is in place. One of these years we’ll get another Orlando Magic situation, and everyone will melt down all over again.