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NBA draft lottery explained: History of lottery and how it works

We look back at the history of the NBA draft lottery.

1985 NBA Draft Lottery Set Number: X31488 TK1 R6 F5

The 2022 NBA Draft Lottery is set to take place tonight in Chicago at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN. This will be the 38th lottery in the history of the league an by the end of the night, one lucky franchise will own the No. 1 overall pick in the upcoming 2022 NBA Draft in June.

How the lottery works

The lottery determines the order of the Top 14 picks in the draft and is comprised primarily of teams who failed to make the NBA Playoffs, although playoff teams have often been fortunate enough to have a lottery pick due to a prior trade. For example, the New Orleans Pelicans currently own the what was supposed to be the Los Angeles Lakers’ first-round pick as a result of the Anthony Davis trade.

The lottery is done by way of ping pong balls being placed into a lottery machine manufactured by Smart Play Company. The teams with the three worst records in the NBA each have a 14% chance at winning the lottery and the odds only lower as the records of each lottery team improves. For example, the Cleveland Cavaliers only have a 0.5% chance at securing the No. 1 overall pick, as they finished with a respectable 44-38 record in the regular season and lost in the play-in tournament.

As is the case with any lottery, all it takes is a few lucky bounces for the fortunes of a franchise to potentially change.

History of the lottery

The NBA Draft Lottery was implemented in 1985 by then new commissioner David Stern to directly curtail teams from deliberately tanking for one of the top picks.

Prior to 1985, the top pick was determined by a simple flip of a coin between the two worst teams in the league and the winner would receive the No. 1 overall pick while the loser would get No. 2. While it still wasn’t a full guarantee that the worst team would get the top selection, that wouldn’t stop teams from putting themselves in a position to have that 50/50 shot. That was case with the Houston Rockets, who bottomed out in the 1982-83 season and took Ralph Sampson with the top pick in the 1983 draft after winning the coin flip. They’d do the same the following year to take Hakeem Olajuwon No. 1 overall in 1984, prompting Commissioner Stern to overhaul the system.

Starting off with an envelope system, the NBA switched to the weighted system with ping pong balls in 1990 to give the worst team the best chance at landing the top overall selection. The league would tweak the lottery at various points over the next three decades until 2019, where they’d give the three worst teams equal odds to win the lottery at 14%.

Which teams have won the most lotteries?

There’s been a few teams who have had the fortune (or misfortune) of winning multiple NBA Draft Lotteries since 1985.

The team with the most lottery victories is the Cleveland Cavaliers at five (two of those top picks acquired by trade). Behind them are the Orlando Magic, Los Angeles Clippers, and Philadelphia 76ers, each of whom have earned the No. 1 overall pick three times since 1985.

In fact, the Magic, Cavaliers, and Sixers are the only the only teams to earn back-to-back No. 1 overall picks since the lottery’s inception in 1985. After drafting future Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal with the top pick in the 1992 draft, Orlando famously won the 1993 lottery with the lowest odds in history at 1.52%. They’d go on to draft Chris Webber and trade him for future All-Star shooting guard Penny Hardaway.

What teams are in this year’s lottery and what are their odds of winning it?

Here are the lottery teams and their odds of landing the No. 1 overall pick courtesy of Tankathon:

Houston Rockets (20-62) — 14%
Orlando Magic (22-60) — 14%
Detroit Pistons (23-59) — 14%
Oklahoma City Thunder (24-58) — 12.5%
Indiana Pacers (25-57) — 10.5%
Portland Trail Blazers (27-55) — 9%
Sacramento Kings (30-52) — 7.5%
New Orleans Pelicans (36-46) (via Los Angeles Lakers) — 6%
San Antonio Spurs (34-48) — 4.5%
Washington Wizards (35-47) — 3%
New York Knicks (37-45) — 2%
Oklahoma City Thunder (24-58) (via Los Angeles Clippers) — 1.5%
Charlotte Hornets (43-39) — 1%
Cleveland Cavaliers (44-38) — 0.5%