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How the Spurs won the NBA Lottery on a lost coin flip

The NBA Lottery system is complex enough, but the basketball gods were shining on the Spurs last night.

The time since approximately 7:27 PM CT, May 15, 2023 — when the Spurs found out they won the NBA Lottery and the right to draft generational big man Victor Wembanyama — has probably been the most euphoric Spurs fans have felt since at least May 17, 2017, when Manu Ginobili blocked James Harden in their last huge playoff moment before everything for the franchise unexpectedly started going down hill. For some, it might even require going as far back as June 15, 2014 — when the Spurs got revenge on the Miami Heat and won the most satisfying championship in NBA history — to relive this feeling.

Regardless, this is no doubt this is the happiest Spurs fans have felt in a long time, but going behind the scenes and understanding how the Spurs got here and how lucky they were in this extremely complex lottery system is even more mind-blowing. Jacob Douglas already wrote an excellent piece explaining how the Lottery works, so be sure to check it out for more detail, but here is the summation of it all:

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 its possible combinations, will be awarded the first pick.

Long story short, the Spurs’ winning number combination last night was 14, 8, 5 and 2. Those numbers may not mean much to those of us who were not involved, but remember a few weeks ago when the Spurs lost the coin toss with the Houston Rockets to determine who would have the odds of the 29th and 28th place teams? Well, apparently that loss ended up working in the Spurs’ favor. As Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronical explains, that last ball of 2 was the difference between the Spurs and Rockets — who had 14, 8, 5 and 1 — winning the top pick, all because of the coin flip.

Had the Rockets lost that coin toss and been assigned the four-number combinations that went to the Spurs, they would have had the winning lottery numbers Tuesday and the chance to pick Wembanyama.

If that did not sufficiently torment them with thoughts of what could have been, had they won one more game this past season — perhaps holding on for three-tenths of a second against the Kings or protecting a lead against the Raptors — they would have won 23 games instead of 22 and had the number combinations needed to win the lottery.

To add even more context to how much the basketball gods were smiling down on the Spurs last night, even after winning the top pick, their winning combination came up TWO more times, forcing two redraws for the fourth pick, where the Rockets ultimately ended up. In other words, the Spurs got selected three times before the Rockets did despite having only one different number.

You may still be just as confused as I am, but if you’re truly interested in seeing how it all played out (and likely getting a little more context), you can watch the entire drawing below.

Even though the top pick often seems to go where fate says it should — a French wonder man to the Spurs; LeBron James to his hometown Cavs, Kyrie Irving to the Cavs right when LeBron returns so they can win a championship; Anthony Davis to New Orleans right after Chris Paul leaves; Zion Williamson to New Orleans right as Anthony Davis leaves, etc. — no one can say a system this complex is rigged. This isn’t “big market” David Stern digging for an allegedly frozen or bent envelope to send Patrick Ewing to the Knicks, after all. This is just good, old-fashioned luck — with a little bit of destiny sprinkled in.