Hornets and the NBA Lottery

With the Hornets officially eliminated from the playoffs, and their lottery position looking more and more predictable, it seems like a good time to take a detailed look at the NBA lottery, how it works, and what the Hornets’ chances are to improve their pick

Why a Lottery?

The main reason that the NBA uses a lottery instead of the more typical style of assigning draft picks used by the NFL is to discourage tanking. Often at the end of the NFL season, it’s clear that teams (and sometimes their fan bases) would prefer losses to wins since sometimes one or two games is the determining factor between receiving the number one pick and the number five pick.

Theoretically, let’s say that the NBA didn’t use a lottery and that this year T-Wolves and Nets were both doing horribly. In this scenario, they both are 10-71, heading into the final game of the year, where coincidentally they are playing each other. For the purposes of this let’s just remove Evan Turner from the list of potential draftees so there is one clear-cut awesome player, and a bunch of other guys who are good, but not slam-dunks.

Where is the motivation for either team to win? Clearly they would both be better off losing the game in the long term as a result of certainly acquiring the number one pick. There’s a problem though- People pay a lot of money to see pro athletes compete, and losing is pretty obviously not what they want to see. Can you imagine paying 300 dollars for a court side seat to watch two teams sit their best players and attempt to lose? It would be infuriating.

What the lottery system does is remove any concrete assurances that can be gained by losing. Sure, the loser of a theoretical game between the Nets and the Timberwolves has a slightly better chance to get the better player, but by no means are they guaranteed anything.

One might argue that the novelty of rooting for a team to lose a single game would be fun, especially if the direct result was being substantially better next year, but what happens when the team realizes with 20 games left that losing is the best option? The fans, especially those who have already prepaid for season tickets, lose. Who would want to own season tickets for a team that intentionally loses games? Athletes get paid a ton of money to perform at the highest level and the minute the fans start noticing otherwise, the image of the league suffers.

So for that reason alone, the NBA draft serves it’s purpose.

How Does the Lottery Work?

There has been a lot of confusion about exactly how the NBA determines who is picking where. One common misconception is that a team is given a certain number of balls with their name on it, with the number of balls being determined by their final record. This isn’t how it works.

In reality, there are only 14 ping pong balls TOTAL in the lottery, each numbered from 1 to 14. The balls are then picked out of a single tumbler. Each non-playoff team is given a certain number of combinations, reflected by their final record. After each team receives their number, the tumbler starts spinning for twenty seconds and then a single ball is taken out. The tumbler starts again and ten seconds later a second ball is taken out. After ten more seconds of randomizing, a third is taken, and then after 10 more seconds the last ball is taken out.

Say the balls that come out are 14, 5, 8, 2. Order doesn’t matter, so really that’s the same as 2,5,8,14. That system leaves us with 1,001 possible combinations (as opposed to the 24,024 if order mattered), of which one set of numbers is entirely disregarded. If that set were to theoretically be drawn, the draft would be cancelled. Just kidding, they would just put the balls back in and pick a new set of numbers.

The number of combinations given to each team is stated below. Number one would be the worst team in the league, and number 14 would be the best non-playoff team. The Hornets current, and likely final standing is highlighted below.

  1. 250 combinations, 25.0% chance of picking first
  2. 199 combinations, 19.9% chance
  3. 156 combinations, 15.6% chance
  4. 119 combinations, 11.9% chance
  5. 88 combinations, 8.8% chance
  6. 63 combinations, 6.3% chance
  7. 43 combinations, 4.3% chance
  8. 28 combinations, 2.8% chance
  9. 17 combinations, 1.7% chance
  10. 11 combinations, 1.1% chance
  11. 8 combinations, 0.8% chance
  12. 7 combinations, 0.7% chance
  13. 6 combinations, 0.6% chance
  14. 5 combinations, 0.5% chance


So the odds of the Hornets picking first are exactly 8/1000. Not so hot, and if they were to win, they would be the least likely team ever to do so, surpassing the incredible luck of the Chicago Bulls in 2008 who won the rights to Derrick Rose despite having only a 14/1000 chance.

Moving forward, after the first pick is chosen, they are unable to win another pick, so their remaining combinations are voided. The process repeats itself to determine the second pick in the draft.

The Hornets currently have a .9% chance to win the second pick and a 1.2% chance of winning the third pick.

One thing to note is that the odds of winning the second pick will certainly change depending on who wins the rights to the first pick. For example, if The Nets won, there would be 250 combinations out of play, so the Hornets would have an 8/750 chance of winning the second pick, or 1.07%. If the T-Wolves win the rights to the second pick, as they should, the Hornets chances of snagging the third pick jump all the way up to 8/551, or 1.45%.

Here’s something else you may not know- The lottery only goes on for the first three picks. After that the remaining teams are rewarded picks in reverse order of their final regular season records. So at the absolute worst, the Nets will be picking fourth. They just can’t possibly ball any further than that

So assuming the Hornets stay where they are in the standings, there is a 90.7% chance that they will be picking eleventh and a zero percent chance that they will be picking between fourth and tenth.

Also, if you do the math like I did, you will see that overall the Hornets have a 2.87% chance total of snagging a top three pick, roughly (but not exactly) the same odds as blindly throwing a dart at a dart board and hitting the same odd number, or a bullseye twice in a row.

For those scoring at home, the odds of the dart scenario is as follows- roughly 12/21 for hitting your first number and 1/21 for hitting that same number again. Although 2.72% isn’t the exact same as the Hornets’ chances, it’s close enough to see how unlikely it is that Hornets will be picking in the top three. It’s actually more than twice as likely that they will fall to twelfth as opposed to moving into the top three.

Don’t believe me? Check out ESPN’s Lottery Machine. How many times did you have to “play again” before seeing the Hornets in the top three?

What Will the Hornets do When They Win the Lottery?

First off, I imagine Jeff Bower would interrogate Stern, slam him against the wall, and interrogate him for a while. Then, if he was satisfied with the answers, I presume he would travel around the planet dancing with joy like this guy.

Really though, there is a certain small forward who would fit in very well with their current nucleus. His name is Evan Turner and I have to believe that if the Bees were to somehow win the number one pick, they would trade down to number two and select him, probably shedding some salary or adding another player as a result. Wall would be nice, but with CP3 being as awesome as he is, I don’t foresee the need for another star PG any time soon.

Back to Turner- His three point shooting isn’t ideal for the current system, but aside from that he’s the jsut about perfect. Awesome at creating and converting his own shots, good at rebounding and a solid defensive player already. Three point shooters can be found much more easily than star forwards.

With that being said, cross your fingers and let’s hope that the Hornets have some sort of lucky charm. In the Crescent City, lots of people practice voodoo. Hopefully they can sway the gods to reward the Bees with some lottery love.

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