Inside The Numbers: How The Draft Lottery Actually Works

Wonder howing the lottery is a valid question and hey, we have an answer! This was found on the official Celtics site, affiliated with I’m aware that Boston is the enemy, but this article contains some great information. This information is pulled from a Q&A with Celtics Assistant General Manager Mike Zarren about the NBA Draft Lottery, which happens on Tuesday, May 20th.

So, let’s get to it!


Q: So what actually happens at the draft lottery?

MZ: Fourteen ping-pong balls, numbered one to fourteen, are placed in a bin. It turns out that there are exactly 1,001 possible four-ball combinations when you have a set of fourteen. Each team in the lottery has been assigned a set number of combinations of any four of the balls, for a total of 1,000 combinations. (The 1,001st combination belongs to no team.) The number of different combinations assigned to each team depends on that team’s record; teams tied at the end of the regular season split evenly the total combinations allotted to their two positions, with one team getting one more combination in the event the total is odd. Then, an independent accountant, witnessed by a representative from each lottery team, draws four balls out of the bin, and whichever team is assigned that combination gets the first pick in the draft. (If it’s the 1,001st combination, the balls are replaced and drawn again.) After the first pick is determined, the balls are replaced, and the process repeated. If the new combination belongs to the team that already won the first pick, the balls are replaced & drawn again. The next different team whose combination is chosen gets the second pick, and then the whole process is repeated again for the third pick. After those three picks are set, the remaining teams are set to pick in inverse order of record, with ties being broken by a drawing to be held this Friday. The accountants mark down who gets each pick, and place a card bearing each team’s logo into an envelope bearing the number of that team’s pick. The envelopes are then brought out on stage, where they’re opened in front of a live TV audience, at which point we all find out where each team is drafting.

So, let’s break that down a little bit. Basically, there are 14 balls placed in a bin, with 1,001 combinations possible out of these balls.  The teams with the worst record(s) have the largest amount of possible combinations that come out of the four-balls that come out. A representative of a team will draw four-balls out and whatever team has that combination, wins the lottery. This process is repeated again after the balls are replaced, for every selection.

That’s a really in-depth breakdown by Mike Zarren, which is an awesome inside look of how the ping-pong ball process actually occurs. Below is a chart which details the complete 2014 NBA Draft Lottery probabilities for every lottery team (via

lotto odds

Most people are aware that the Sixers have the second best probability at the first overall pick, but this is a great graphic for all of the visual learners out there. It’s important to note that the Sixers have no dark red in their probabilities, which means that the Sixers first lottery selection cannot fall any lower than fifth overall.

Looking at the New Orleans Pelicans pick, it has around an 80 percent probability of staying at No. 10 and a 10 percent chance of falling to No. 11.

Many people aren’t aware of the intricacies of the lottery and how it actually works. This is a detailed proccess and one that will decide the future of the Philadelphia 76ers franchise. The details are now unlocked and all Philadelphia has to do is wait a few more days until all is revealed.

Trust in Hinkie.

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