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History of the NBA Draft Lottery


The NBA Lottery has been around since 1985, when Commissioner David Stern implemented this system as a way to deter tanking and have a competitive balance for the NBA. With basketball being such a star-driven sport, it has been clear throughout the decades that a single player can become a turning point for a struggling franchise, and that is where the value of picking high in the Draft becomes a priority.

Before the lottery was adopted, draft order was determined from worst to best records, which became a huge incentive for bad teams to punt on full seasons knowing that a reward was certain. The lottery has helped fix that to a certain point, because even as teams still intentionally tank (see 2013-14 Sixers), they know that they still have no guarantees of landing the top pick.

The lottery system has been tweaked a number of times up to its current form, where all 14 non-playoff teams get a number of Ping-Pong balls depending on their regular season record, with the worst teams getting more chances to get a better pick. Only the first 3 spots are determined by the lottery, with the rest being arranged by records, from worst to best.

The system is far from perfect, and with new Commissioner Adam Silver promising to look into new ideas to make the process more just, its days may be numbered. However, as flawed as it may be, it is also important to remember that the Lottery has been an essential part of the modern NBA, with just a bit of luck changing the course of the league time and again.

With the Cleveland Cavaliers improbably winning the lottery for the third time in four years, despite only having a 1.70% chance of doing it, they will have a great chance to rebuild with an exciting player like Joel Embidd, Andrew Wiggins, or any other prospect from the loaded class of 2014.

With this in mind, today we take a look at the past teams that had the luck of earning the #1 pick and what they did with it. Also, at least we can say that tanking has not been the way to go, as only 4 teams with the league´s worst record actually won the Lottery. 

Year

Team

Record

Pick

1985

Knicks

3rd worst

Patrick Ewing

1986

Clippers*

7th worst

Brad Daugherty

1987

Spurs

4th worst

David Robinson

1988

Clippers

worst

Danny Manning

1989

Kings

6th worst

Pervis Ellison

1990

Nets

worst

Derrick Coleman

1991

Hornets

5th worst

Larry Johnson

1992

Magic

2nd worst

Shaquille O'Neal

1993

Magic

11th worst

Chris Webber

1994

Bucks

2nd worst

Glenn Robinson

1995

Warriors

5th worst

Joe Smith

1996

Sixers

2nd worst

Allen Iverson

1997

Spurs

3rd worst

Tim Duncan

1998

Clippers

3rd worst

Michael Olowokandi

1999

Bulls

3rd worst

Elton Brand

2000

Nets

7th worst

Kenyon Martin

2001

Wizards

3rd worst

Kwame Brown

2002

Rockets

5th worst

Yao Ming

2003

Cavaliers

worst

LeBron James

2004

Magic

worst

Dwight Howard

2005

Bucks

6th worst

Andrew Bogut

2006

Raptors

5th worst

Andrea Bargnani

2007

Trail Blazers

6th worst

Greg Oden

2008

Bulls

9th worst

Derrick Rose

2009

Clippers

2nd worst

Blake Griffin

2010

Wizards

5th worst

John Wall

2011

Clippers*

8th worst

Kyrie Irving

2012

Hornets

3rd worst

Anthony Davis

2013

Cavaliers

3rd worst

Anthony Bennett

2014

Cavaliers

9th worst

TBD

*both these picks were sent to the Cavaliers

As we can see, even as getting the top pick should be the ultimate advantage when building a team for the future, the picks have varied from franchise-altering to absolute busts. Despite the advantages of picking first, only one franchise has been able to win a championship with their own pick, as the Spurs did it with David Robinson (1988) and Tim Duncan (1997).

Some of them were lost to injuries (Yao Ming, Greg Oden), while others ended up blossoming elsewhere (Shaq, LeBron). Some fell just short of glory (Ewing, Iverson) despite multiple individual accolades, while others were absolute failures (Olowokandi). The jury is still out on a few (Bogut, Rose), while some are still developing their talents (Irving, Griffin, Wall), but in the end we can all be sure that despite the lottery or whatever system the NBA decides to employ, the draft will remain a year-to-year mystery for all involved.

Sometimes a team will pick Oden over Kevin Durant, or maybe even Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan (fans in Portland can now cry). There is just too much luck involved in the process, and it all starts with a few Ping-Pong balls.

 



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