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Has the draft lottery worked out as planned? Here’s what past winners can tell us about the process

The NBA draft lottery attempts to create an element of luck while still helping struggling teams land top talent. Does it work as intended?

James and Stern shake hands
LeBron James who was selected by the Cleveland Cavaliers shakes hands with NBA Commissioner David Stern during the 2003 NBA Draft at the Paramount Theatre at Madison Square Garden on June 26, 2003 in New York, New York.
Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

The 2021 NBA draft lottery will be held June 22 to determine the order of the 2021 NBA draft. The NBA has had to conduct business in a different manner over the last two seasons due to the pandemic but the lottery remains a staple in the process.

The NBA intends to not only help struggling teams get top talent with the lottery, but also create an element of luck and drama. This has generally curbed the idea of intentionally tanking a full season for a higher draft pick, but the Philadelphia 76ers tested that idea thoroughly. Teams still put themselves in a position to land a high selection, but the lottery shows there are no guarantees.

Here’s a look at the past 20 lottery winners and their chances at landing the top pick prior to the drawing.

2020: Minnesota Timberwolves (3rd best, 14 percent)
2019: New Orleans Pelicans (tied for 7th best, 6 percent)
2018: Phoenix Suns (best, 25 percent)
2017: Brooklyn Nets (best, 25 percent)
2016: Philadelphia 76ers (best, 25 percent)
2015: Minnesota Timberwolves (best, 25 percent)
2014: Cleveland Cavaliers (9th best, 1.7 percent)
2013: Cleveland Cavaliers (3rd best, 15.6 percent)
2012: New Orleans Hornets (tied for 3rd best, 13.7 percent)
2011: Los Angeles Clippers (8th best, 2.8 percent)
2010: Washington Wizards (5th best, 10.3 percent)
2009: Los Angeles Clippers (2nd best, 17.7 percent)
2008: Chicago Bulls (9th best, 1.7 percent)
2007: Portland Trail Blazers (6th best, 5.3 percent)
2006: Toronto Raptors (5th best, 8.8 percent)
2005: Milwaukee Bucks (6th best, 6.3 percent)
2004: Orlando Magic (best, 25 percent)
2003: Cleveland Cavaliers (tied for best, 22.5 percent)
2002: Houston Rockets, (5th best, 8.9 percent)
2001: Washington Wizards (3rd best, 15.7 percent)

In six of the last 20 lottery drawings, the team with the best odds of landing the top pick ends up doing so. Like I mentioned earlier, tanking is no guarantee of getting the top selection. However, 11 of the past 20 winners had the third-best odds or better to get the No. 1 draft selection. So there’s still some merit to what the 76ers did, which was to give themselves the best chance of consistently landing the best young players.

Only six teams have won the lottery having less than the fifth-best odds with the Pelicans being the most recent to do so. They were able to take Zion Williamson with their stroke of luck. The Bulls landed lottery gold in 2008 despite having only a 1.7 percent chance to do so, getting hometown hero and eventual league MVP Derrick Rose in the process.

The lottery often sets the foundation for struggling teams to get better over time, but it can occasionally kick-start a contender. The Orlando Magic landed back-to-back No. 1 picks in the early days of the lottery with the second selection happening due to losing a tiebreaker with the Indiana Pacers for a playoff spot. That pick eventually turned into Penny Hardaway and more first-round selections, helping the Magic reach the NBA Finals just six seasons after becoming an expansion franchise.

Of course, the lottery only slots teams in draft positions. It doesn’t guarantee the team with the top pick lands a future Hall of Famer. There are rarely sure things like LeBron James when he went to the Cavs in 2003.

The Rockets, Pistons and Magic all have an equal chance at landing the top selection in the 2021 NBA draft. Based on the last 20 lottery drawings, there’s a 55 percent chance one of these three teams will be picking first.