Now that the Spurs season is over, the next milestone fans have to look forward to is the NBA Draft Lottery on May 16th. That’s when San Antonio will find out where their highest pick in the draft will land. The next piece in the team’s rebuild could quite literally come down to a couple of ping pong balls bouncing the right way. The Spurs will have either the second or thirst worst record in the league (depending on a coin flip tie-breaker with the Houston Rockets), which means they are guaranteed a pick in either the top six or seven.
The top prize in this year’s draft is 7-foot-5 French big man Victor Wembanyama. But what exactly is the process that will determine the lucky team who gets to select him? Is it really a powerball-like machine that spits out ping pong balls with teams’ names on them?
The short answer is kind of, but not exactly.
On the day of the lottery, 14 ping pong balls numbered 1 through 14 are put through a machine in a secure room, where select media, NBA officials and representatives of the lottery teams stand by to watch. Four balls will be pulled out of the machine to create a number combination, each number combination represents a team in the lottery. There are 1,001 possible combination that can be pulled, each team, depending on their record, will be assigned a number of these combinations that if selected, would result in them getting picks 1-4.
The ping pong balls are mixed in the machine for 20 seconds, then the first ball is drawn. The balls are then mixed again for 10 seconds in between each drawing until 4 balls have been extracted from the machine. They start this process with the number one pick, and then repeat it for picks two through four. If a team is selected more than once, the balls are put back into the machine and the process starts over again.
For example, let’s say the balls drawn create the sequence 5, 3, 7, 9. The league would look at which team is represented by the combination “5379,” whichever team has that number as a part of it’s possible combinations, will be awarded the first pick.
Getting nervous yet?
Once all the top four picks are set in stone, the rest of the lottery, picks five through fourteen, are decided by record in descending order. For example, if the Spurs are not selected in the drawings, but the Pistons and Rockets are, they would have the 5th pick. If both the Spurs, and one of the Pistons or Rockets are not selected, they would have the 6th pick. If all three teams are not selected in the drawing, then the Spurs would have the 7th pick (depending on the aforementioned coin-flip with Houston that would determine who had the second-worst record.)
Once all of the selections are made, a representative from the accounting firm, Ernst and Young, stuffs and seals the results in envelopes, then hands them off to the ESPN broadcast crew who we all see reveal the results on television. It’s a tightly run process that has little room for mischief.
The following is a list of team’s who will be included in the 2023 lottery, as well as their odds of getting into the top-4 and the #1 pick (teams with a * are still playing in the play-in tournament, and would fall out of the lottery if they make the field of 16 playoff teams):
- Detroit Pistons — 52.1% top-4, 14% #1
- San Antonio Spurs — 52.1% top-4, 14% #1
- Houston Rockets — 52.1% top-4, 14% #1
- Charlotte Hornets — 48.1% top-4, 12.5% #1
- Portland Trailblazers — 42.1% top-4, 10.5% #1
- Orlando Magic — 37.2% top-4, 9.0% #1
- Washington Wizards — 29.4% top-4, 6.8% #1
- Indiana Pacers — 29.0% top-4, 6.7% #1
- Utah Jazz — 20.3% top-4, 4.5% #1
- Dallas Mavericks — 13.9% top-4, 3.0% #1
- Oklahoma City Thunder* — 8.5% top-4, 1.8% #1
- Chicago Bulls* — 8.0% top-4, 1.7% #1
- Toronto Raptors — 4.8% top-4, 1.0% #1
- New Orleans Pelicans — 2.4% top-4, 0.5% #1
Since the NBA administered new lottery rules in 2019 that gave the bottom-three teams the same chance at the #1 pick, at least one of the teams with the highest lottery odds has dropped out of the top-4 every single year. The biggest drop was in 2019, when the Phoenix Suns dropped from the third-worst record, and best odds at #1, to selecting 6th, where they took Jarret Culver (who was traded to the Timberwolves on draft day.)
For the Spurs, the team with the second-worst record has dropped out of the top-4 twice (2019, 2020) but has selected #1 overall in the last two drafts. The team with the third-worst record has dropped out of the top-4 three times (2019, 2021 and 2022) but selected #1 overall in 2020, when Minnesota took Anthony Edwards.
Of course this is all somewhat random. Having increased odds certainly helps a team’s case at getting a higher pick, but past years have shown that it’s definitely not a guarantee. For good fun, here is a random spin on tankathon.com to see what the 2023 lottery could potentially look like:
Likely not the result Spurs fans are hoping for, but they could still select one of Scoot Henderson, Brandon Miller or Amen Thompson at this spot.