NBA draft lottery working, just not for worst teams


NEW YORK (AP) — Here’s a little lottery math for you.

With the NBA’s worst record, the New Jersey Nets actually had a better probability of picking fourth in the draft than first.

The Minnesota Timberwolves will be No. 4, which is exactly where the odds said they should be, despite starting in the No. 2 spot in the lottery.

Got that?

“Somewhere there’s some mathematician from MIT and this all makes sense to him or her,” Timberwolves president David Kahn said. “It doesn’t make sense to me as to why we were supposed to be No. 4 in terms of the greatest odds.”

That’s the lottery: sometimes criticized, often confusing and apparently here to stay.

The Washington Wizards won Tuesday’s event and the Nets ended up third, the sixth straight year the team that needed the most help didn’t get it. So it’s easy to say the system doesn’t work.

Except the lottery wasn’t set up to help bad teams get better.

It was created so teams couldn’t get the No. 1 pick just by losing on purpose to finish with the worst record. That’s why no matter what Nets fans were saying after their disappointment, the league can counter that no overhaul is necessary.

“For us, it works well,” commissioner David Stern said before the lottery. “It’s taking care of the main reason for which it was enacted.”

The team with the worst record hasn’t won the lottery since 2004, when the Orlando Magic eventually selected Dwight Howard. The Nets shrugged off their loss, with new owner Mikhail Prokhorov noting Wednesday that Michael Jordan was a No. 3 pick.

Not everyone can remain calm, however. Jerry West, then running the Memphis Grizzlies, was fuming after his team had the worst record but tumbled to fourth in the 2007 lottery, missing the chance to make the call on the Greg Oden-Kevin Durant debate.

“I understand why the process was implemented, meaning I understand the need to police teams that at the end of the season aren’t trying,” Kahn said. “But having said that, I see the flip side, too. I think this would always be much worse where if this was one of those years that there was truly a transformative player at No. 1 as there have been a mere handful of times.”

The lottery has undergone several changes since it was first used in 1985. A weighted system was implemented in 1989, and it was further tweaked starting with the ’94 lottery to give the worst team an even better chance of winning, after the Magic vaulted to the top spot in ’93 despite barely missing the playoffs.

That was one of Orlando’s three wins with senior vice president Pat Williams representing them. Just don’t ask him to describe how he’s been so lucky.

“I have a masters, two doctorates, I’ve written 62 books, but if you ask me how that lottery thing works, my brain would explode,” he said.

Even without that luck — the Magic celebrate their success with a pingpong ball in their trophy case — Williams said he would support the lottery, calling it a “temptation defuser” for those teams who might otherwise tank, as Houston appeared to do late in the 1983-84 season. (Williams said the Rockets “not so subtly basically packed it in for the last month.”)

“You felt sorry for the Nets yesterday,” Williams said Wednesday. “You say that doesn’t seem right, but in the overall picture for 25 years, this thing is designed to make teams play hard all year.”

The Nets had a 25 percent chance of finishing first, yet a 35.8 percent chance of landing at No. 4. The Timberwolves had a 31.9 percent chance of ending up fourth, far better than the 18.8 percent odds of staying at No. 2 with a 15-67 record that was better only than New Jersey’s 12-70 mark.

The other two teams that started the night in the top four also fell back. Sacramento slipped from third to fifth and Golden State went from fourth to sixth.

Kahn wasn’t complaining, having previously said he’d be prepared for whatever happened. But the Wolves could hardly be blamed if they were bitter, having now fallen in more than half of their 13 lottery appearances. The Kings have lost ground two years in row, falling to fourth in 2009 when they had the best shot at No. 1 — though they did end up with Rookie of the Year Tyreke Evans.

Yet for whatever anger it occasionally creates, it seems the system will stay. Stern said little came from a presentation on the lottery by league president of operations Joel Litvin to the league’s board of governors last month.

“There did not seem to be any appetite for a change at this time,” Stern said.