Issue 35: How the NBA Draft Works

Every summer (or, in the case of years where we have a pandemic, in November), the NBA holds its annual draft. This is when the best college and international players are selected by teams who hope they’ve found their next star player they can market to their fans. And if they can win a few games along the way? Even better.

For quite a while, the NBA Draft allowed players to enter directly from high school. This resulted in a number of both great and merely above-average athletes trying to make their way into the league. After all, why would you go to college when you could earn millions of dollars instead?

However, after too many teams got burned selecting players that turned out to be disappointments, the league changed its requirements in 2006. Players had to be at least one year removed from high school before entering the NBA Draft. In most cases, that meant a player would go to college, taking classes like “Faux Learning 101” and “Psyche – This Isn’t a Psych Class” until the year ended, and then he could enter the draft and go make millions of dollars.

Every once in a while, it meant a player would go overseas for a year, because you can still make millions of dollars (or close to it) while playing overseas. More recently, players are looking at the G-League (which was formerly the D-League, with the “D” standing for “Developmental,” and current Gatorade League) as an option. Salaries aren’t anywhere near what NBA players make, but it’s still a way to earn something.

The NBA regularly revisits this entry rule but it looks like an agreement isn’t on the horizon and probably won’t be until at least 2025.

Once the draft actually kicks off, each team has five minutes to make their selection. The commissioner (currently Adam Silver, previously David Stern, who would hold up a hand to his ear and listen to people booing, like a great wrestling villain) comes out from some mysterious back room and strolls up to a podium.

He’ll read the selection allowed to the crowd: “With the [number] selection of the [year] NBA Draft, the [team] selects [player], from [college or country].” Then we move onto the next team.

After the first round, the commissioner passes his duties onto the deputy commissioner, currently Mark Tatum (and formerly Silver himself). There are only two rounds nowadays, though when the draft first got started, teams just picked until there were no more prospects to select. The 1960 and 1968 drafts had 21 rounds! That’s like watching Titanic twice.

The draft order is mostly in reverse order of record from the previous season. So, in theory, the team that lost the most games would have the number one pick. However, the NBA doesn’t want bad teams tanking, or trying to lose games on purpose, so it’s installed a lottery system to randomly select the first four teams in the draft. The remaining teams are then positioned in reverse order of record. We’ll get to how the lottery works in a minute.

One of my favorite parts of the draft is watching the players celebrate when they get selected. They’re usually sitting at a huge table with family and friends, and sometimes they have lots of elaborate handshakes and hugs or, in the case of Jan Veselý during the 2011 draft, a passionate embrace with his girlfriend.

The actual draft is pretty self-explanatory once you see a few picks. The most confusing part is with trades – teams can trade draft picks up to seven years in advance, and teams treat second-round draft picks like Pogs. Sometimes, they’ll trade them four or five times before they’re actually used, so you’ll see something like, “Boston owns the 52nd pick of the 2025 NBA Draft, via Chicago, via Phoenix, via Minnesota, via Milwaukee.”

Teams will also trade players the night of the draft. This has been made very anti-climactic thanks to the immense overreporting that now happens during the draft. The television broadcast will bring on a reporter who’s let us know that the next pick will be traded before the commissioner even announces it.

Further complicating things, players wear the hat of the team that drafted them; this is especially awkward when the team immediately trades them­. Then, as they’re interviewing the player after he’s been selected, they’ll say, “Hey, guess what? You’re not on this team anymore!” They’re still wearing the hat of the team that drafted them, even though they no longer play for said team. I wonder if they get to keep the hat.

The NBA Draft Lottery

Now that you’re a pro on how the draft works, let’s look at the most confusing part of the process: the draft lottery. Every team that didn’t make the playoffs is put in the lottery, which only picks the top four teams, then the remaining teams go in the reverse order of their record.

The lottery existed in other iterations previously; the current format of picking the top four teams was only introduced in 2019. If a team has traded their pick, their odds are still consistent with their record. For example, in 2017, the Boston Celtics won the lottery, despite finishing first in the Eastern Conference. That was because they had made a trade several years ago with the Brooklyn Nets, who were good at the time but quickly became the worst team in the league. See? Those “let’s worry about it many years from now” trades sometimes come back to bite teams in the booty.

During the selection process, the NBA throws a bunch of ping pong balls in a spinner and then picks out four numbers. Under the current system, the teams with the three worst records each have a 14 percent chance to win – a possible 140 combinations out of 1,000. The fourth team has a 12.5 percent chance to win (125 possible combinations), the fifth team has a 10.5 percent chance (105 possible combinations), and the chances of winning get progressively smaller the further down the list we go. The 14th-worst team, a.k.a. the team that was closest to making the playoffs, has just a 0.5 percent chance of winning the first overall pick.

The lottery only selects which teams will have a pick in the top four; otherwise the standings are in reverse order of record from the previous season. That means the four worst teams will never fall further than four spots below where they finished in the standings, and teams that are outside of the top four can only leapfrog into the top four. Otherwise, they’ll stay where their record indicates.

For example, the Golden State Warriors had the worst record this past season, so they would be picking at fifth, at worst (thanks to the lottery, they are instead picking second). And a team like the Memphis Grizzlies, who just missed the playoffs, had a 0.5 percent chance of scoring the first pick, a 0.6 chance of snagging the second or third pick, and a 0.7 percent chance of securing the fourth pick. But if they didn’t do that, they would be locked into the 14th selection.

In 1993, the Orlando Magic won the lottery despite having just a 1.52 percent chance of doing so. Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good (or both, in this case, since the Magic were pretty good the year before). They used that pick to draft Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway, who is a joy of a person.

Also, how’s this for an added sense of security around the whole thing? The accounting firm Ernst & Young monitors the selection process, with the same sense of pride as Kevin Bacon probably had in The Bodyguard. The balls bounce around for 20 seconds before the first one is selected, then each subsequent ball is chosen at 10-second intervals. Terrific process all around.

The only part of the lottery that’s shown on TV is the selection of the teams. The deputy commissioner reveals envelopes from the 14th to the 1st pick. My favorite part of the broadcast is watching the representatives from each team; sometimes they’ll bring a lucky charm, like a toilet necklace some superfan sent them, or a used handkerchief that belonged to their last number one pick. These little knickknacks often don’t work, and sometimes you can see dreams being crushed on the air, particularly when the worst team gets a pick lower than number one.

In fact, since the weighted lottery system was introduced in 1990, the team with the worst record has only won the number one pick seven times, despite often having the best odds of winning. Looks like we’ve got something foul afoot.

Ha, I said “foul” and we’re talking about basketball. What a riot.

That’s all ’til next time. Thanks for reading!


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