Tonight marks the 31st time the league’s worst 14 teams will gather together, in order to determine which lucky franchise is granted the rare opportunity to select first in the annual NBA Draft.
The odds-on favorites to win the distinction are the Minnesota Timberwolves – a 16-win squad who will continue to rebuild around franchise players like forward/guard Andrew Wiggins and guards Ricky Rubio and Zach LeVine. They hold a 25.0 percent chance of winning the first-overall pick in a draft loaded with talented big men.
It is the one luxury afforded to the team with the league’s worst record, but it does not guarantee the draft’s top pick. To be sure, the lottery system was first implemented in 1985 to discourage teams from the frowned-upon practice of “tanking” – losing for the sole purpose of gaining a better position in the league’s next draft.
Subsequently, the draft lottery is just that – a game of chance that doesn’t always favor those with the greatest chance to win. As a matter of fact, according to this nifty chart, the No. 1 pick was awarded to the team with the NBA’s worst record only three times: The Los Angeles Clippers (17-65) in 1988, the New Jersey Nets in 1990 (17-65), and the Orlando Magic in 2004 (21-61).
But, like all lotteries, anything can happen – the Timberwolves could strike it rich for the first time in 11 years; or maybe the Oklahoma City Thunder (45-37) can be the first team in history to win the top pick with a winning record. If the last five lotteries say anything, it will certainly attest to the fact that it can be just as unpredictable as any other sporting event.
Let’s take a look at the most recent NBA Draft Lotteries:
Draft Winner:Washington Wizards – t-4th-worst record (26-56)
Worst Team:New Jersey Nets (12-70) – finished with 3rd-overall pick
Synopsis: New Jersey was on pace, for most of the 2009-2010 season, to break the record for worst record in an 82-game season in league history, set by the 1972-1973 Philadelphia 76ers (9-73). Despite dodging the dubious distinction, they were three games clear of the Minnesota Timberwolves for worst record in the league.
Additionally, with prospects like PG John Wall and C DeMarcus Cousins from Kentucky, they were in position to make a huge impact pick. However, both the Washington Wizards and Philadelphia 76ers (27-55) jumped the hapless Nets for the first and second picks, respectively. Wall went to D.C., Ohio State SG Evan Turner went to Philadelphia, and New Jersey settled for Wake Forest PF Derrick Favors – a talent they would give to the Utah Jazz as a result of the Deron Williams trade.
Draft Winner:Cleveland Cavaliers (via Los Angeles Clippers) – 8th-worst record (32-50)
Worst Team:Minnesota Timberwolves (17-65) – finished with 2nd-overall pick
Synopsis: Despite fielding a starting lineup with four former top-five picks, including All-Star forward Kevin Love and recent draftee Wesley Johnson, the T-Wolves could never get everything to click under head coach Kurt Rambis. It cost Rambis his job, and Minnesota was starting from scratch – but, with the best shot at the No. 1 pick and dynamic players like Duke’s Kyrie Irving in the draft pool, things were liable to turn around.
However, their shot at Irving was ousted, as the Los Angeles Clippers – considered a longshot with a 2.8% chance of winning the lottery – jumped everyone to grab the top spot. Unfortunately, that pick wasn’t theirs – as a result of the Baron Davis trade, the Clips gave it to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
While the Cavs could begin to build around Irving, in the year following the unceremonious departure of top player LeBron James to Miami, the Wolves settled for Arizona’s Derrick Williams. He was traded to the Sacramento Kings in 2013, after falling out of favor with Minnesota.
Draft Winner:New Orleans Hornets – t-3rd-worst record (21-45)
Worst Team:Charlotte Bobcats (7-59) – finished with 2nd-overall pick
Synopsis: In a lockout-shortened season, no team would end up with a worse record (by winning percentage) than the hapless Charlotte Bobcats. Since their inception into the league as an expansion team in 2004, the franchise experienced only one season over .500 up to that point, in the 2009-2010 season (44-38). But they hit a new low in the 2011-2012 season, finishing at a waste-barren 7-59 – their .106 winning percentage setting a new record for lowest ever in NBA history.
If anyone deserved a top pick, it was the Bobcats. And with franchise-changing players like Anthony Davis and Bradley Beal there for the taking, it could make the paltry 7-win season worth it. However – and rather ironically – it would be the team that originally relocated from Charlotte, the New Orleans Hornets, that would win the right to draft the standout center from Kentucky.
The Bobcats would have to settle for Davis’ Wildcats teammate in small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist – a pick that would help Charlotte reach the playoffs in 2014.
Draft Winner:Cleveland Cavaliers – 3rd-worst record (24-58)
Worst team:Orlando Magic (20-62) – finished with 2nd-overall pick
Synopsis: After the Magic, coming off of a playoff appearance in 2012, started the season at 12-13, the team would go on to lose 28 of their next 31 games – a shocking collapse that would allow the higher-ups to use the rest of their season to develop their young talent. Finishing with a mere 20 wins, they were forced to look forward to a 2013 draft class that, to date, has actually left little to be desired.
While they would lose out to a team that had already won the lottery two years prior – the Cleveland Cavaliers – they may have gotten the better of the deal, using their second overall pick on dynamic Indiana guard Victor Oladipo. As for the Cavs? They inexplicably chose UNLV forward Anthony Bennett – a player rated somewhere in the late top-10 – over talents like Kentucky’s Nerlens Noel and Maryland’s Alex Len.
Draft Winner:Cleveland Cavaliers – 9th-worst record (33-49)
Worst Team:Milwaukee Bucks (15-67) – finished with 2nd-overall pick
Synopsis: After losing a number of talented players from the previous year’s squad – including dynamic scorers Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis – the disjointed squad started the season 2-13, and never won two games in a row or more for the entire campaign. However, there was no shortage of franchise-changing talent in the 2014 NBA Draft class – that included Kansas standouts Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid.
However, for the third time in four years, the unbelievably lucky Cleveland Cavaliers – a squad would later acquire former franchise player LeBron James – won the top pick.
It was an occurrence that had much of the internet whispering “conspiracy” – a venerable “make-up move” after the fallout from The Now-Infamous Decision. In any case, Milwaukee fell to the No. 2 slot, and they would go on to choose Duke talent Jabari Parker.
So, good luck to you, Minnesota – perhaps you will break the trend of worst-record teams missing out on the first overall pick.