The Knicks winning the lottery was treated as an inevitability.
New York had the lottery’s No. 1 seed. No team had better odds than the Knicks. New York fans salivated over Zion Williamson. The Knicks sent Patrick Ewing, their last No. 1 pick and player they got by winning the initial lottery, to represent them on stage. Nearly every mock draft until last night slotted the Knicks No. 1. Reports emerged about what New York would do with the No. 1 pick (try to trade it for Anthony Davis).
Some of this was overstated. The Knicks, Cavaliers and Suns had an equal chance at the top pick. New York’s higher lottery seed would be relevant only if not getting drawn into the top four. Yet, Cleveland and Phoenix often got left from the discussion.
Some of this was innocent. There’s no other prospect in this draft whose hype nears Williamson’s, and other fan bases got preemptively excited about the idea of adding him. Using lottery seeds to order a mock draft before the lottery is just practical. The Knicks should be planning for every eventuality.
But it all created a feedback loop: Talk about the No. 1 pick, talk about the Knicks. Talk about the Knicks, talk about the No. 1 pick. And on and on, the noise amplified by the world’s biggest media market.
Lost in the hoopla: 86%.
Those were the quite-high odds New York wouldn’t get the No. 1 pick.
Of course, New York didn’t get the top pick – an expected outcome amid one of the most chaotic (and most important) lotteries of all-time.
The NBA reformed the lottery this year – flattening the odds and drawing the top four, rather than top three, picks. That didn’t ensure a wild outcome, but it increased the potential. And we got pandemonium.
The Pelicans (No. 7 seed) drew the No. 1 pick. The Grizzlies (No. 6 seed) landed the No. 2 pick. The Lakers (No. 11 seed) jumped even further, to the No. 4 pick.
Those leaps are among the biggest in lottery history.
No lottery had ever included even two teams moving five slots between their lottery seed and draft pick. The 2019 lottery had three teams move six slots.
Here are the biggest movements between lottery seed and draft pick of all-time:
With the mediocre Pelicans, Grizzlies and Lakers moving up, some awful teams had to get displaced.
And there were some truly awful teams this year.
New York (17-65), Cleveland (19-63) and Phoenix (19-63) stunk then leaned into tanking. Though lottery reform gave the three worst teams equal lottery odds, the fourth-worst Bulls (22-60) didn’t allow much cushion to win meaningless games. Every additional ping-pong-ball combination improved the odds of getting Williamson. Plus, standings within the bottom three still determined draft order if not selected in the lottery.
Before this year, the average draft position for a sub-20-win team in the lottery era was slightly better than No. 3. The Knicks, Cavaliers and Suns will pick Nos. 3, 5, 6.
Phoenix’s No. 6 pick is the worst in the lottery era for a team that won fewer than 20 games. Cleveland’s No. 5 pick is tied for second-worst. And in this weak-looking draft, it’s not as if New York should rejoice about getting No. 3.
Here’s every team to win fewer than 20 games in the lottery era (or the equivalent in a lockout-shortened season), sorted by ensuing draft pick:
All told, 11 of the 14 teams in last night’s lottery got a pick that didn’t match their seed.
The Pelicans (7 to 1), Grizzlies (8 to 2) and Lakers (11 to 4) moved up.
The Knicks (1 to 3), Cavaliers (2 to 5), Suns (3 to 6), Bulls (4 to 7), Hawks (5 to 8), Wizards (6 to 9), Hawks via Mavericks (9 to 10) and Timberwolves (10 to 11) moved down.
Only the Hornets (12), Heat (13) and Celtics via Kings (14) remained in place.
Originally, the lottery determined where every non-playoff team picked and gave each team equal odds of each pick. That system sometimes produced less movement than last night’s lottery.
Yesterday, the 14 lottery teams averaged moving 2.7 slots between their lottery seed and draft pick – the third-biggest shakeup ever.
Here’s every lottery, sorted by average movement between lottery seed and draft pick for each lottery team:
In 1993, the Magic – despite holding the lowest odds – jumped to the No. 1 pick. That produced plenty of backlash, especially considering Orlando also won the previous lottery.
In 1986, one of two years with the initial lottery system, the seven lottery teams, picked, in order of seed: 5, 4, 7, 3, 2, 1, 6. And the Cavaliers got a bonus pick to be slotted after Dallas (which owned Cleveland’s own pick) as compensation for Ted Stepien’s numerous missteps on condition of him selling the team. It was chaos.
Both situations prompted change. The NBA instituted the Stepien rule, limiting teams’ ability to trade future draft picks. The league didn’t want a team to be so hopeless, it’d need dispensation. The NBA also changed lottery rules for 1994, improving odds for the worst teams and therefore trimming odds for teams – like the Magic the year prior – that barely missed the playoffs.
Eventually, that led to an outbreak of tanking. Nobody pushed the limits further than former 76ers general manger Sam Hinkie and his Process. He, more than anyone, prompted this lottery reform.
Last night’s lottery won’t change everything.
But it worked exactly as intended.