The NBA Draft Lottery is Not Rigged

May 17, 2016; New York, NY, USA; Philadelphia 76ers head coach Brett Brown (right) poses with NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum after the 76ers receive the first pick in the 2016 NBA draft during the NBA draft lottery at New York Hilton Midtown. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
May 17, 2016; New York, NY, USA; Philadelphia 76ers head coach Brett Brown (right) poses with NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum after the 76ers receive the first pick in the 2016 NBA draft during the NBA draft lottery at New York Hilton Midtown. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports /

Conspiracy theories are interesting to contemplate, but the first thing that’s required to even keep the discussion going is whether the supposed motive reveals itself in the results.

A grassroots uprising of fans have been encouraging the theory that the NBA Draft Lottery is rigged, due to suspicious circumstances during the first lottery of 1985.

The lottery wasn’t weighted from 1985-1989, meaning that each of the teams that missed the playoffs had an equal chance at obtaining the 1st overall pick. The logic is that the NBA was absolutely positive that Patrick Ewing was going to be a star, and they wanted him in the biggest market available, which is New York.

Because of this weird coincidence of New York winning the “random” lottery and eventually drafting Ewing, it fueled the fire for conspiracy theorists to claim that the lottery is always rigged by the NBA to opportunistically award certain franchises players viewed as generational talents.

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The problem is that psychological gymnastics are used to piece together the “conspiracies” only after the lottery happens. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy created through the bias of looking for the existence of a conspiracy where there might not even be one. It’s seeking confirmation of something already believed to be at play.

“Well of course New Orleans won the lottery… the NBA wants to save the franchise after their ownership instability lead to the league officially taking control of them. Anthony Davis will be a franchise savior to a struggling team.” It always seems to make perfect sense, but only after it happens.

Isn’t it curious that the Los Angeles Lakers haven’t yet won the draft lottery in the recent years they’ve been terrible? They were a bottom 6 team in 2013-2014, a bottom 4 team in 2014-2015, and a bottom 2 team this past season. Yet the Cleveland Cavaliers, Minnesota Timberwolves, and Philadelphia 76ers have been the last 3 lottery winners. The “big market bias” theory completely falls apart just from that piece of evidence.

It’s unusual that while the weighted lottery has been used since 1990, the team with the worst record eligible and best chance to win has only won 5 times, and 2 of those times have been the past 2 draft lotteries held.

The Cleveland Cavaliers were tied for the best chance in 2003, and conveniently it was when hometown hero LeBron James was declaring for the draft. 2003 resonates as one of the most suspicious years to conspiracy theorists because of James’ status as the most hyped prospect possibly ever, but even this year doesn’t make much sense to claim as proof of a conspiracy.

The New York Knicks were apart of that 2003 lottery. Wouldn’t the NBA have benefited more from James playing in the media capital of the world than Cleveland? Why would they care what his hometown was?

These conspiracy theories also only hold up when the first overall pick is a “can’t miss” prospect who the NBA is 99% sure will turn into a superstar. That doesn’t happen all too often. And when they rarely do, the team they end up going to doesn’t seem like a destination the NBA would willingly choose to send a marquee star.

There’s only been a handful of players who came into the league as consensus number 1 prospects who were considered guarantees for transcendent careers. Tim Duncan went to San Antonio. Shaquille O’Neal went to Orlando. David Robinson went to San Antonio. Anthony Davis went to New Orleans. Larry Johnson went to Charlotte. John Wall went to Washington, D.C. Yao Ming went to Houston. Andrew Wiggins went to Cleveland.

None of those locations seem like ideal landing spots for elite players that the league hoped to market. The justifications always seem so flimsy, too. “Orlando was a new NBA city and the league wanted to help them out.” Miami came into the league just a year before the Magic. Wouldn’t Miami seem to be a more glamorous destination for O’Neal? They were in the lottery that same year. Why didn’t the league rig it for Miami?

Larry Johnson to Charlotte falls into that same category. Why would Charlotte get prioritized ahead of Miami by the league? Miami actually had a better chance at obtaining the 1st overall pick that season than Charlotte. 1991 is another great piece of evidence that a conspiracy involving the lottery doesn’t exist.

Washington, D.C. in 2010 moved up the lottery to get in a position to draft Wall, but this one seems to lack a motive from the league as well. Why would they care about Wall playing in D.C. enough to rig the system to get him there?

Houston also moved up significantly to draft Yao Ming, but like with D.C. and Wall, why Houston? The Knicks were in that lottery, and Chicago ended up getting the 2nd overall pick. Both those locations make more sense from an economic standpoint than Houston.

Chicago was tied for the worst record in the league that season. Why wouldn’t the league have just kept the status quo and had Yao move to a gigantic market where Michael Jordan had become a global icon? Because there’s actually a lottery system that they adhere to, and Houston won the right to pick first fair and square.

Andrew Wiggins to Cleveland also doesn’t make sense. Conspiracy theorists like to use the idea that “the league felt bad for Cleveland about James leaving.” Again, why would the league feel bad for Cleveland? It’s not like Cleveland’s success is vital to the success of the NBA. 

San Antonio has won the lottery twice and drafted 2 generational stars, but they aren’t even the biggest media market in their own state. Why would the league unfairly prioritize the success of San Antonio over Dallas? After their long period of ineptitude in the 1990s, Dallas could definitely have used some help from the league.  

The Los Angeles Clippers get an asterisk in this study just because they’ve been such an underachieving second-fiddle to the Lakers in Los Angles for so long that they don’t have the typical Los Angeles cache to be especially meaningful to the league.

These conspiracy theories of a rigged lottery system fall apart because the results don’t support the original motive.

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If the intention is to move stars to large markets through lottery coercion, then why haven’t more lotteries been won by teams in huge media markets during years with a truly peerless star coming into the league? The results just seem so random. Imagine that.