The NBA Draft has not always been the way it is today. Starting from 1947, the Draft had Territorial Picks, where any team could could give up it's first round pick and then choose any player from the local area. The idea behind territorial picks was for teams that weren't doing well to draft a local player with a local fan base, which would help the team draw more of a crowd. The Boston Celtics used a territorial pick in 1956 to select Tom Heinsohn from Holy Cross. Boston went on to win eight championships in the nine years Heinsohn played for them.
In 1966 the NBA decided to innovate and introduced a coin flip determine the first pick of the NBA Draft. The coin flip would be between the two last place teams in each of their respective divisions. The rest of the teams would be placed in order of worst to first, win/loss record. In 1979 the coin flip made a splash. The New Orleans Jazz won the coin toss giving them the first overall pick of the NBA Draft. However, the Jazz had to give that pick to the Los Angeles Lakers for compensation of signing LA free agent Gail Goodrich. With that first pick the Los Angeles Lakers selected Erving "Magic" Johnson from Michigan State. We all know how that turned out for the Lakers, WE BEAT LA! multiple times.
The First Ever NBA Draft Lottery
In 1985, the NBA unveiled the NBA Draft Lottery, giving seven non-playoff teams an equal chance at having the #1 overall pick. The initial ping pong ball gave the New York Knickerbockers the opportunity to select Patrick Ewing from Georgetown. Ewing played for the Knicks for 15 seasons and dominated as a seven foot big man. The New York Knicks (24-58) finished in 5th place in the Atlantic Division (39 games back of first) in 1984. The Indiana Pacers and Golden State Warriors actually tied for last place in the NBA in 1984 with a 22-60 record. Check out this article from joshqpublic, for the Ewing NBA Draft conspiracy theory.
In '87 the Los Angeles Clippers finished with a 12-70 record and didn't get the first overall pick, who turned out to be Navy center David Robinson to the fourth worst San Antonio Spurs. In 1988 the Clippers exacted revenge and gave finishing with the worst overall record another chance. This time it paid off and LA selected Danny Manning from Kansas with the first overall pick.
The Weighted Lottery System
1990 brought along some change with the lottery. Teams no longer had the same opportunity to have the #1 pick in the NBA Draft. The NBA instituted the Weighted Lottery System. With there now being 11 non-playoff teams due to expansion, the team with the worst record would have 11 chances to have the first overall pick. The chances began to decrease as your record got better. For Example: The team with the worst record got 11 ping pong balls, the next team up got 10 and so on and so forth all the way up to the team with the best non-playoff record having 1 ping pong ball.
With the Weighted Lottery System, the Orlando Magic were the only team to have the first overall pick in two consecutive years. In 1992 with the second worst overall record, the Magic selected Shaquille O'Neal from LSU and followed up in 1993 with only one ping pong ball to select Chris Webber, only to trade him for Penny Hardaway and three more future draft picks. After this amazing string of luck by the Magic, the NBA made some changes:
The Board of Governors approved a modification of the Lottery system in November of 1993 that, effective with the 1994 NBA Draft Lottery, increased the chances of the teams with the worst records in the league winning one of the top three picks in the draft while decreasing the lottery chances of the teams with the best records. The new system increased the chances of the team with the worst record drawing the first pick in the draft from 16.7 percent to 25 percent, while decreasing the chances of the team with the best record among lottery teams from 1.5 percent to 0.5 percent.
Under the system, 14 ping-pong balls numbered 1 through 14 are placed in a drum. There are 1,001 possible combinations when four balls are drawn out of 14, without regard to their order of selection. Prior to the Lottery, 1,000 combinations are assigned to the Lottery teams based on their order of finish during the regular season. Four balls are drawn to the top to determine a four-digit combination. The team that has been assigned that combination will receive the number one pick. The four balls are placed back in the drum and the process is repeated to determine the number two and three picks. (Note: If the one unassigned combination is drawn, the balls are drawn to the top again.)
The Current NBA Draft Lottery
Since then, the NBA Draft Lottery has remained the same except for some additions due to more expansion teams. The 14 team NBA Draft Lottery allows for the team with the worst record to have the best chance at the #1 pick and so on down the line. In my opinion, it's an odd system. The other major leagues don't have a lottery system.
If you have the worst record, you should have the first overall pick in the draft. Blake Griffin should be playing for the Sacramento Kings next season, not the Los Angeles Clippers. Imagine if the NBA Draft Lottery never existed, where would players have ended up and would the NBA still be where it's at today. What if Magic didn't play for the Lakers? What if The Admiral played for the Clippers and not the Spurs? It's all just a bit too disturbing to think about.
Let us know your thoughts on the NBA Draft Lottery and what suggestions, if any, you have for Commissioner David Stern. I say now and forever that teams Draft order should be based on the worst overall win/loss record and go in inverse order for each round.
Thanks to Paulo C for the picture of the 2007 NBA Draft at Madison Square Garden.