Whenever a team does poorly, many fans of said team will point to luck as a contributing factor.
“If our first-round pick had panned out, we would’ve been great!”
“If we had just won a few more of those close games, we’d be in the playoffs.”
In the NBA, the draft lottery is one more thing to voice displeasure over. Several NBA fanbases who’ve had the misfortune of cheering for a team that rarely reaches the playoffs have complained over the years that the NBA draft lottery has been unfavorable to their team. Every fanbase loves to claim that their team is the unluckiest of all when it comes time for NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum to announce the draft order.
Every year this happens and, frankly, I’m tired of it. I’m tired of the pity party that certain fanbases try to impose on everyone else. “Yeah, we’re bad, but you should feel bad for us because we’ve gotten so unlucky with the lottery.” Well, I took it upon myself to figure out just how lucky and unlucky every team in the NBA has been in regards to the draft lottery in recent years. Let’s take a look at the data.
Over the last five years, all but six NBA teams have participated in the draft lottery at least once (quick hats off to the Celtics, Rockets, Pacers, Thunder, Trailblazers, and Raptors for being the only teams in the league to reach the postseason each of the last five years). Of the remaining 24 teams, there are 16 that have found themselves in the lottery at least three times. These are the teams we’re going to look at:
Los Angeles Lakers
New Orleans Pelicans
New York Knicks
Any team can get incredibly lucky or unlucky once or twice. It’s the teams that get unlucky year after year that we’re interested in here. Also, I made sure to include years where a team’s picks were traded away. The Nets gave away plenty of their first-round picks over the last half-decade, but that doesn’t mean they’ve been any less lucky with the lottery; they just made some awful trades.
But how are we going to determine the luckiest and unluckiest teams? The easiest method is to compare every qualified team’s average draft position (ADP) with their average league placement (ALP) at the end of the regular season. Take the Minnesota Timberwolves, they’ve missed the postseason four of the last five seasons. In those seasons, they’ve averaged the sixth-worst record in the league at the end of the regular season. In that same span, the T-Wolves have averaged the sixth overall pick in the NBA draft those years. Along with the Brooklyn Nets (averaged the 4th worst record, averaged the 4th overall pick), the draft lottery has treated those two teams most fairly.
By that metric, the three unluckiest teams over the last five years are (difference in ADP vs. ALP in parenthesis):
T1) Dallas Mavericks (-1.67)
T1) Atlanta Hawks (-1.67)
3) Washington Wizards (-1.33)
Here are the three luckiest teams:
1) Los Angeles Lakers (+2)
2) Charlotte Hornets (+1.5)
3) Memphis Grizzlies (+1)
In case you’re curious, below are the numbers for all 30 NBA teams. The columns — from left to right — indicate average odds to receive the first overall pick, average odds to receive a top-3 pick, average draft pick, average league placement, the difference between the last two, and however many years each team has qualified for the draft lottery in the last five years.
This is interesting. The three teams with the least amount of luck all made the postseason in 2020. And while the Mavericks and Hawks have been the two unluckiest teams the last five years, those two teams have had two of the best draft picks in this span when the teams selected Luka Dončić and Trae Young in 2018 — two players (later traded for each other) those teams may have passed on had they been picking higher in the draft.
At the same time, the luckiest team in the league raises some eyebrows. On average, the Los Angeles Lakers have moved up two spots compared to their league placement at the end of the regular season. The NBA lottery has long drawn the eye of many skeptics and conspiracy theorists. One of the most popular theories regarding the draft lottery has been that it has helped push narratives that the NBA wants, particularly those surrounding LeBron James. When LeBron was in Miami, lottery critics pointed to the Cavaliers’ luck in the draft lottery as a key factor in the Cavs’ ability to draft or use their draft picks to trade for star players in order to entice King James to return to Cleveland.
When LeBron James had to make another free agency decision prior to the 2019 season, the Lakers were a titillating option because of their recent draft picks. Both Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram were former second-overall picks and were key pieces in the Lakers’ trade for Anthony Davis. I’m not saying that the lottery is rigged. It’s probably just a coincidence. I’m just saying…
Back to the point, if you’re a fan of a team that’s been finding itself down in the dumps recently, just know that things could be way worse. You could be a Wizards fan. Although Washington reached the postseason in 2021, the Wizards have been one of the unluckiest teams in the NBA draft lottery recently. So the next time you try to play the “we’ve just gotten unlucky” card, make sure you check your draft lottery privilege.