The NBA draft lottery isn’t all about luck — teams tank for a reason, of course — but the bouncing pingpong balls do play a big role. Good or bad bounces can mean the difference between drafting a future Hall of Famer and drafting just another mediocre non-star. Before Thursday night, the Minnesota Timberwolves had firmly fit into the “unlucky” category. For its 22 previous lottery picks,1 including picks it had traded away, Minnesota had never once landed a higher pick than the pre-lottery odds said it should — and the pick was lower than its suggested pre-draft slot 12 times (or more than 54 percent of the time).
That trend has made the T-Wolves the unluckiest franchise of the lottery era. But in 2020, their luck finally changed. Although Minnesota had the third-worst record in the NBA, it won the lottery Thursday, giving it the No. 1 overall pick in October’s draft. Not only was it the first time it had ever drafted above its pre-draft slot,2 but it represented a huge departure for a team that still has dropped 15 total slots below expected over the years — the most of any team in lottery history, according to data on lottery pick changes from RealGM:
|Franchise||Lotteries||Avg. Pick||Avg. Pre-Lottery Slot||Avg. Pick Change||Total Pick Changes|
|Oklahoma City Thunder||11||8.00||9.30||+1.00||+11|
|Los Angeles Clippers||24||5.63||6.09||+0.42||+10|
|Los Angeles Lakers||8||5.88||7.00||+1.13||+9|
|New Orleans Pelicans||11||7.91||8.45||+0.55||+6|
|San Antonio Spurs||4||4.00||5.50||+1.50||+6|
|Portland Trail Blazers||7||7.86||8.43||+0.57||+4|
|Golden State Warriors||22||7.18||7.00||-0.41||-9|
|New York Knicks||18||6.67||6.12||-0.72||-13|
Minnesota’s ranking has been “helped” by the third-most lottery pick appearances of any team; only original picks of the Sacramento Kings and L.A. Clippers have been in the lottery more since 1985. But on average, the Timberwolves have dropped 0.65 places each time they’ve been in the lottery (even after last night), which also ranks fifth-worst of any team.
The Miami Heat are the unluckiest team on a per-lottery basis, falling from an average pre-lottery slot of the No. 6.91 pick to actually drafting at No. 7.82. Miami’s saving grace? It so seldom appears in the lottery — tied for the seventh-fewest times of any team — that the damage is mitigated. (Miami is also very good at finding talent outside the draft, so who needs the lottery anyway?)
That hasn’t been the case for their old rivals, the New York Knicks, who appear in the lottery relatively often (18 times since 1985) and get unlucky by an average of 0.72 pick slots on average. Yes, New York won the first-ever lottery, grabbing Patrick Ewing and launching a thousand conspiracy theories. But the basketball gods have seemingly made them pay for it ever since. Including 2020 — when they got the eighth pick despite having the sixth-worst record — the Knicks have gone 17 straight lotteries without a pick above their pre-lottery slot. During that span, their picks have moved down in seven lotteries (or 41 percent of the time), with an average pick change of -0.88 slots.
At the opposite end of the spectrum3 have been the Philadelphia 76ers, whose picks have moved up by an average of 1.00 slots per draft over the course of 18 lotteries, good for a league-best +18 pick changes. Perhaps surprisingly, none of that came in the Process era — ironically, they were slightly unlucky during Sam Hinkie’s grand experiment — but their picks moved up by an absurd average of 2.00 slots per lottery from 1986 through 1997, leading to picks that included Jerry Stackhouse, Allen Iverson and Keith Van Horn (who was immediately traded to the Nets).4
The Sixers weren’t in the lottery this year, but the Charlotte Hornets were, and they continued their own run of good luck. Pegged by the odds to draft eighth, they instead moved up five places to snag the No. 3 overall pick. It was the fourth time in their history that they had moved up at least four places in the lottery; previously, they used that good fortune to take Larry Johnson (+4 pick change in 1991), Alonzo Mourning (+6 pick change in 1992) and Baron Davis (+10 pick change in 1999!). Overall, Hornets picks have moved up 15 total slots in the lottery era, second only to Philadelphia.
I tend to think the luck element of the lottery is a feature, not a bug, since it should discourage teams from tanking — particularly after the changes put into place last summer, which flattened the expected draft value of having the league’s worst record. But the pingpong balls have certainly been crueler to some teams than others over the years. Though Minnesota’s good fortune this season is proof that can always change, the T-Wolves also prove you have to suffer through some pretty miserable basketball to give yourself enough chances for that luck to reverse.