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Why the NBA Draft Lottery is More Important Than the Playoffs

The drawing isn't the season's sexiest moment, but no serious NBA fan should skip it.


Photo: Getty Images

Before the Heat and Pacers tip off in game two of the Eastern Conference Finals tonight, ESPN will broadcast the results of the NBA Draft Lottery. It’s the most important moment in the rest of the NBA season and you should plan to watch. Yes, there are still four teams playing. And yes, the lottery is conducted on a stage with a bunch of dour old men in suits. But what happens on that stage has the potential to shape the league for years, maybe decades to come. The rest of the Playoffs will, in all likelihood, see the creaky old players on the Heat or Spurs win yet another NBA title. It’s not hard to see why the ping pong balls are more important.

For the uninitiated, tonight’s NBA draft lottery is a needlessly complicated affair that uses ping pong balls to determine who picks where in next month’s draft. The worse a team was in the regular season, the better chance it has of landing in the top three. Speaking of the top three, those are actually the only picks determined by the ping pong balls. Picks four through 13 are given to the rest of the teams based on record, with the worst remaining team picking fourth, the next worst fifth, and so on. That means if the Lakers, who finished with the sixth worst record in the NBA this season, fail to land in the top three picks, they can pick no worse than ninth.

But there’s also a remote chance, 6.3% to be exact, that the Lakers get the top pick. The odds of the second or third pick are slightly better. The Bucks and Sixers have much higher chances of landing a coveted top three pick because they played with JV rosters all season. They also have a chance of missing out on the top three and falling to fourth or fifth in the draft. Unlike in years past, that’s not such big deal this time. Every team would rather draft at the top, but the fourth or fifth pick will still net you a potential All-Star. For those teams in the middle of the pack though, the lottery is make or break.

Let’s go back to the Lakers, the greatest franchise in NBA history. If they land a top three pick, they could pair future superstar Jabari Parker with Kobe Bryant as he rides off into the sunset. Worst case scenario, the Lakers pick ninth and miss out completely on a franchise changing talent.

It's the same story for the Celtics, Kings, and Pistons, whose draft slots could swing wildly based on how lucky they get. Teams like the Cavs and the Pelicans, perennial NBA bottom dwellers, have started to claw out the cellar thanks to previous top picks. Those two teams finished with the 10th and 11th worst records last season, so their chances of landing in the top three are small. But if they get lucky, and it’s happened before, they could pair Joel Embiid with Kyrie Irving or Andrew Wiggins with Anthony Davis. The chances of that happening are small, but the effect on the future of the league would be enormous.

And the future is what the draft lottery is all about. As the playoffs progress to the inevitable Heat or Spurs championship, we’re ready for the future. Bring on the ping pong balls.

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