The NBA lottery is a strange mix of simple, yet complicated nonsense. Before that, they used a very simple, yet far more full of nonsense, coin flip. Even more nonsense—you could bypass some draft rules simply by being in the right area of the country, and picking a guy who lived/played near your team.
So, yes, the lottery is a mess—but as they started and refined the lottery in the mid-80s to early-90s, it was cleaning up a much bigger mess.
Dallas Mavericks fans, you haven’t experienced the lottery much lately. Some of you ingrates aren’t old enough to remember the last time the Mavs had a lottery pick (1998 when they grabbed the late Robert Traylor and then sent him to Milwaukee for a foreign player nobody had ever heard of).
I was only 2 weeks old the one and only time the Mavs had the #1 overall pick (they took the great, yet mercurial, Mark Aguirre).
Since the instatement of the current lottery system in 1990, the Mavs have been in the lottery only 6 times. That’s six top 14 picks over the course of 27 years. Since 1998 the Mavericks haven’t picked higher than 16th.
All of this to say a few things:
One: We Mavs fans are spoiled rotten with winning.
Two: The Mavericks haven’t consistently had top college talent to mold.
Three: You’d be forgiven if you don’t know anything about how the lottery system works.
I can’t help you with much of the lottery—but I can at least tell you the value in what Sam Hinkie called, “The Process.”
The lottery doesn’t work the way the NFL draft works. I mention this, because I know we Cowboys fans have a pretty decent awareness of how you get your team to draft early in the first round. You lose more than anyone else in the NFL, and you get to pick first.
The NBA used to operate this way (to an extent—again, too complicated for this column), but became concerned about a non-competitive product. That’s right, way before Sam Hinkie made it cool again, the NBA created the lottery system specifically to discourage teams from tanking their way to the top of the draft.
The difference in the lottery is right there in the name. No matter how many games you lose, there’s no certainty that you’ll pick first. In fact, you have a chance (although a mathematically unlikely chance) to pick 14th.
That’s another way of saying that the 17th best team in the NBA (or the best team to miss the playoffs) has a chance (again, a mathematically unlikely chance) to grab the first pick.
Rather than dig into the way the lottery works, we’ll just say that there is a rapidly depreciating scale of likelihood that you’ll get the first pick, depending on where you fall. The worst team has a 25% chance of getting the top pick, the second-worst team has a 19.9% chance and so on.
Still confused? Ok, here’s a chart:
Now, let’s take a look at where that places teams right now (I’m writing this before the March 3rd slate of games. This means the Mavs/Lakers tonight (full preview coverage featuring Dirk to 30K here) and the Portland/OKC could flip the Mavs and Blazers):
So, as you can see, the Mavs currently have a 1.1% chance of getting the number 1 pick in this year’s NBA draft. It wasn’t that long ago that the Mavericks had 22 wins, and were in that 4th spot.
I have two ways to look at this:
- A 12% chance at the 1st pick, is a lot more exciting than a 1% chance at the top pick
- 12% is also their chance of making the playoffs despite a 4-17 start.
You can kind of understand why the Mavs are reluctant to waste a Dirk season on something that still isn’t a sure thing. If you lose, giving up on a Dirk playoff appearance, and then you still get a terrible draft pick—you’ve given up multiple opportunities for success.
Yes, this is a deep draft—so picking anywhere in the top 5 to 7 spots would still be fantastic. But, it’s worth noting that this entire lottery piece becomes a useless pocket of information if the Mavericks keep winning games.
There is a decent chance (danger?) that the Mavs leap-frog Portland and get into the 9th spot this evening. By this time next week they could overtake Denver for the 8th seed.
At that point, Team Draft Pick is going to have to weep in a corner.
Not because the Mavs are certain to make the playoffs—but because a team that sneaks into that 8th seed becomes increasingly unlikely to slide far enough to get enough of those ping-pong ball combinations in their favor.
That said: as long as the Mavs are still a viable lottery team, I’ll keep you updated with a weekly breakdown of their lottery placement.
Current Prognosis: As of March 7th, the Mavericks have a better chance of making the playoffs than they have of getting a top-4 pick. See you tonight at the game, here on Twitter and here on DB.com Boards!