The lottery is the NBA’s silliest event. High-ranking team personnel travel across the country to sit on stage as the results are announced. They don’t even watch the actual drawing (though others do that). They just sit and grin or grimace for the cameras based on how ping-pong balls bounced in another room earlier in the night.
The silliest part: How darn important it is.
Dynasties are built in the lottery. Rebuilds are upended in the lottery. Jobs are saved and lost in the lottery.
Few lotteries have been as important as this year’s. The future of the NBA’s competitive balance could swing tonight, and highly touted Zion Williamson is only the start of the significance.
The big three reasons this lottery is particularly critical:
Zion Williamson is the quality of prospect who comes along only once every few years. He’s huge, athletic and skilled. Few college players, especially freshmen, have ever affected the game like he did at Duke.
That was the steep drop to Murray State point guard Ja Morant, who’s nearing consensus as the No. 2 prospect. Then there’s another drop to Duke forward R.J. Barrett, probably the probably the popular pick as No. 3 prospect. Then, there’s yet another drop to whomever you fancy as the fourth-best prospect in this draft.
These divisions between tiers aren’t solidified. There’s still time for movement as players work out and interview.
But, as it stacks up now, the reward for getting the No. 1 pick is far greater than the reward for getting the No. 2 pick, which is far greater than the reward for getting the No. 3 pick, which is far greater than landing somewhere in the middle of the lottery. Those clear delineations only add to the stakes tonight.
The drama doesn’t end with the high picks. A few trades involving protected picks will have major ramifications.
The Grizzlies owe the Celtics a first-round pick, which is top-eight-protected this year. Neither team wants a middling lottery pick in this weak-looking draft. If not moving into the top four, Memphis would rather convey its selection this year. Boston would rather wait, as the protections drop in subsequent years. The Grizzlies have a 26% chance of getting a top-four pick and a 31% chance they get the undesired No. 8 pick. So, that leaves the Celtics with a 43% chance of getting a pick in the 9-12 range.
Will Boston leave this lottery with an uninspiring pick from Memphis or a tempting long-term asset that could be used to, say, trade for Anthony Davis? Will Memphis enter a rebuild with the threat of losing an even higher first-round pick in a better draft, or will it get this obligation out of the way?
The Mavericks have a 24% chance of landing a top-four pick. If they get one, it’d increase the odds they send the Knicks only one of a possible two first-rounders in the Kristaps Porzingis trade. What a double whammy. In the 76% scenario, Dallas will send the Hawks a pick in the 9-13 range.
The Mavericks will eventually send the Hawks a first-rounder from the Luka Doncic–Trae Young trade. But this lottery will determine whether that pick gets conveyed this year and could dictate how these promising teams rise from the basement.
The Kings owe their first-round pick to the Celtics or 76ers. Philadelphia gets it only if it lands No. 1. Otherwise, it goes to Boston. There’s a 95% chance Boston is the first team revealed tonight, getting the No. 14 pick. But if another team shows up first, that means Sacramento’s pick landed in the top four. Though the odds still favor picks 2-4 with the Celtics getting it, the 1% chance of the 76ers getting the No. 1 pick would send this lottery’s excitement level into overdrive until the top selections are revealed.
The NBA changed its lottery setup this year – reducing benefits for the very worst teams with flattened odds and a drawing for the top four, rather than top three, picks.
I can see the new odds. You can see the new odds. Every team can see the new odds. They’re not changing next season or for the foreseeable future. The odds will remain what the odds are.
But people running teams can be irrational. How many times have you heard someone decry tanking because of how rarely the worst team has gotten the No. 1 pick? No matter how many or few times that has happened previously, the chances of it happening are unaffected.
So, this lottery could go a long way in setting a tone. If the worst teams get high picks, teams might convince themselves lottery reform didn’t go far enough and there’s still value in tanking. If the lottery features a huge shakeup, teams could be dissuaded from tanking hard.
It’s silly that it comes to that. But, again, all of this is silly.