How Does the NBA Draft Order Work? The Complete Details

Jimmy Remland
By Jimmy Remland 10 Min Read
10 Min Read

The NBA Draft order is determined through a meticulous process known as the NBA Draft Lottery. This system primarily involves the 14 teams that did not make it to the playoffs, providing them a chance to acquire the best new talent and maintain competitive balance within the league. Here’s a detailed breakdown of the key aspects and latest updates on how the NBA Draft order works.

The Basics of the NBA Draft Lottery

The NBA Draft Lottery is designed to determine the order of the first 14 picks in the NBA Draft. These 14 teams, which did not qualify for the playoffs, are entered into the lottery. This system aims to prevent teams from intentionally losing games to secure higher draft picks, known as “tanking.”

How the Lottery Works

  1. Ping-Pong Balls and Combinations:

    • Fourteen ping-pong balls numbered 1 through 14 are placed in a lottery machine.
    • Four balls are drawn to create a unique four-number combination. This generates 1,001 possible combinations, out of which 1,000 are assigned to the 14 teams, with one combination left unassigned​.
    • Each team’s chance of winning the lottery is proportional to their regular-season record. Teams with worse records receive more combinations, thereby increasing their odds of getting a higher pick.
  2. Drawing Process:

    • The balls are mixed in the machine for 20 seconds before the first ball is drawn. The remaining balls are mixed for 10 seconds between each subsequent draw​​.
    • This process is repeated until a four-ball combination is drawn, determining the recipient of the number one pick. The process is repeated for the second, third, and fourth picks, ensuring a transparent and fair selection.

Odds for Winning

The odds of winning the lottery are designed to give the teams with the worst records the best chances:

  • The three teams with the worst records each have a 14% chance of winning the lottery​​.
  • The fourth-worst record has a 12.5% chance, the fifth-worst has a 10.5% chance, and so forth, with decreasing odds for better-performing teams.

Post-Lottery Order

After determining the top four picks, the remaining lottery teams select in reverse order of their regular-season records. For example, if a team with the worst record does not receive a top-four pick, they are guaranteed the fifth pick, and this continues sequentially​​.

Historical Context and Revisions

  • Revised System: In 2017, the NBA revised the lottery system to even out the odds among the worst teams. This change aimed to discourage teams from losing intentionally to secure higher draft picks​.
  • Notable Outcomes: Historical data shows that teams like the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2014 (1.7% chance) and the New Orleans Pelicans in 2019 (6% chance) have secured the top pick despite having lower odds, showcasing the unpredictability and excitement of the lottery.

Special Considerations

  • Protected Picks: Trades involving first-round picks can come with conditions, such as protections if the pick falls within a certain range. For example, a team might trade a pick but protect it if it falls within the top three​.
  • Pick Swaps: Teams can also agree to swap picks in future drafts, adding another layer of strategy and complexity to the draft process​​.


Special Considerations in the NBA Draft Order

The NBA Draft Lottery involves several nuanced elements that add layers of strategy and unpredictability to the process. These include protected picks, pick swaps, and other contingencies developed through trades.

Protected Picks

Protected picks are a crucial aspect of the NBA Draft Lottery. When teams trade their draft picks, they often include conditions to protect their interests. For instance, a team might trade its first-round pick to another team but protect it if it falls within the top three. If the pick lands in the protected range, the original team retains the pick, and the other team receives a future pick instead. This ensures that teams do not completely lose out on high-value selections due to poor trades.

Pick Swaps

Pick swaps add another layer of complexity to the draft process. In a pick swap, two teams agree to exchange draft positions under certain conditions. For example, if Team A has a worse draft position than Team B, they might agree to swap picks if Team A’s pick is more favorable after the lottery. This allows teams to maneuver and potentially improve their draft position through strategic agreements​.

Historical Impact of the NBA Draft Lottery

The NBA Draft Lottery has a significant impact on the league’s competitive balance. Several instances in history highlight how teams have leveraged high draft picks to change their fortunes.

Notable Lottery Winners

  1. Cleveland Cavaliers (2014): With a mere 1.7% chance, the Cavaliers won the first pick and selected Andrew Wiggins. This pick later became instrumental in acquiring Kevin Love, contributing to their championship run in 2016​.
  2. New Orleans Pelicans (2019): Despite having only a 6% chance, the Pelicans secured the top pick and selected Zion Williamson, a player viewed as a generational talent, dramatically boosting the team’s profile and potential​​.

Odds Distribution Over the Years

The distribution of lottery odds has evolved to promote fairness and discourage tanking. Here’s a comparison of odds distribution before and after the 2017 revision:

  • Pre-2017 Odds:
    • Worst Record: 25%
    • Second Worst: 19.9%
    • Third Worst: 15.6%
  • Post-2017 Odds:
    • Worst Record: 14%
    • Second Worst: 14%
    • Third Worst: 14%

This revision ensures that the three worst teams have equal odds, reducing the incentive to finish the season with the worst record​​.

The Process Behind the Lottery Draw

The actual lottery draw is a highly regulated and transparent process to ensure fairness:

  1. Ball Mixing: Fourteen balls are placed in a lottery machine, and they are mixed for 20 seconds before the first ball is drawn. The process involves three additional 10-second mixes between each subsequent draw​.
  2. Combination Drawing: A four-ball combination determines the draft pick. If a team’s combination is drawn more than once, or the unassigned combination is drawn, the result is discarded, and the balls are redrawn​.
  3. Oversight and Announcement: The entire process is overseen by a representative from the accounting firm Ernst & Young. The results are then sealed and delivered to the NBA’s Deputy Commissioner, who announces them live on television.

Last Words

The NBA Draft Lottery is a complex system designed to maintain competitive balance in the league. Through a combination of chance and strategic maneuvering, teams vie for the top picks to bolster their rosters with fresh talent. Understanding the intricacies of this process, from protected picks and pick swaps to the odds and historical outcomes, provides fans with a deeper appreciation for one of the NBA’s most exciting events.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who gets to pick first in the NBA Draft?

The team that wins the NBA Draft Lottery gets to pick first. The lottery determines the order for the first 14 picks among the teams that did not make the playoffs.

What happens if you enter the NBA draft and don’t get picked?

If you enter the NBA draft and don’t get picked, you become an undrafted free agent. This allows you to sign with any team that offers you a contract.

Can a player refuse a draft pick NBA?

Yes, a player can refuse to sign with the team that drafts them. However, this can limit their options and potentially affect their career prospects.

Can anyone enter the NBA draft?

To enter the NBA draft, a player must be at least 19 years old during the calendar year of the draft and at least one year removed from high school graduation.

Has a player ever declined a draft pick?

Yes, players have declined draft picks in the past. For example, Steve Francis initially refused to play for the Vancouver Grizzlies when they drafted him in 1999, leading to a trade to the Houston Rockets.

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