Fans love the NBA Draft as a spectacle and great TV, but not as many people know how the NBA Draft Lottery works. The precursor to the big show is a weird ceremony with plenty of complicated rules and a ping-pong ball machine that decides the fate of billion-dollar NBA franchises. Conspiracy theories have surrounded the draft lottery for decades, which makes the event much more interesting than it has any right to be. There are good luck charms. There are sponsored suitcases.
While top draft picks can change the course of an entire organization, it doesn't always guarantee success. That said, you are guaranteed entertainment on draft day, whether it comes in the form of awkward hugs or truly terrible NBA draft suits. There's something for everybody.
In 1985, Patrick Ewing, the generational talent from Georgetown University, was the consensus number one pick. The New York Knicks badly needed a center, and the NBA likely wanted their biggest market team to improve from the dumpster fire they were at the time. This also happened to be the first draft lottery ever, and lottery teams all had the same chance of receiving the first-overall pick through a process where envelopes with each teams logo were picked out at random from a large drum in a televised drawing.
Conspiracy theorists believe that NBA officials froze the Knicks' envelope in 1985 so that when commissioner David Stern reached into the drum, he could feel which one would give New York the top overall pick. Others believe the Knicks' envelope was purposefully tossed against the side of the drum to bend its corner, making it easier to identify. Regardless of how they got there, the Knicks took Ewing at number one, and while they didn't win a championship with the big man, they did become a marquee franchise throughout the '90s.
The lottery remained largely the same throughout the rest of the 1980s, but by 1990, it was clear the random envelope picking wasn't exactly fair to the worst-performing teams. In 1990, the NBA introduced a weighted lottery system, which gave the worst teams a better shot at snagging the number one pick. The ping-pong balls came with the weighted lottery system.
While most NBA fans are familiar with the lottery ping-pong ball system, they may not know that the league also has a backup machine in case the first one breaks. But, if the second machine also happens to break or there's a power outage, the NBA has another contingency: a basketball with a hole cut in the top. An official would then draw balls by hand. Luckily, the league has never needed to use the decapitated-basketball backup, which would inevitably produce blazing hot conspiracy takes if it ever came to pass.
The draft lottery has evolved and changed since the first drawing in 1985. What started as an evenly weighted drawing for every team that missed the playoffs changed in 1990 to give a better chance of winning to teams with the worst record based on a random drawing of ping-pong balls. That ping-pong process gradually changed to become an exercise in advanced statistics.
As of 2018, the draft lottery used 14 ping-pong balls to create 1,000 four-number combinations, with 250 of the combinations (25%) going to the team with the worst record. The team with the second worst record got 199 combinations (19.9%), the third received 156 combinations (15.6%), and so on.
After four-number combinations have been drawn for the first three picks, the rest of the draft order is determined by the teams' win-loss records. This ensures that the team with the worst record in the league can draft no lower than fourth and that any non-playoff team can theoretically end up with the top pick.
The draft lottery has plenty of complicated rules and regulations, since the outcome of the lottery itself can create a power shift in the league in an instant. That's why it's surprising that the ping-pong ball machine itself has no automatic timer, even though the league rules state that the balls must bounce around for exactly 10 seconds before each selection.
So, how do they measure that time? An NBA official with a stopwatch faces away from the machine, and when 10 seconds have passed, they quickly raise an arm to signal when a ping-pong ball should be removed. Millions of dollars in potential revenue for a single team rests on one guy staring at a stopwatch.