The NBA Draft has given franchises generational players and has made it seem as if it is the best way to build a team. It is certainly the way the Orlando Magic have had success building their best teams.
The Magic have won the Lottery three times, building their franchise cornerstones that way, selecting Shaquille O’Neal, Chris Webber (later traded for Anfernee Hardaway) and Dwight Howard with the first pick.
Recently, fans and teams have picked up the idea that maximizing their chances at winning the Draft Lottery is the best way to build teams. Under Rob Hennigan, the Magic gave away the first two years after trading away Howard to try to replicate the Lottery luck the Oklahoma City Thunder experienced when they drafted Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden in successive drafts.
The extreme process the Philadelphia 76ers went through for multiple years to build that high draft capital changed how fans view their teams’ season when a championship is not in reach and eventually changed how the league conducts its Lottery system.
The NBA has always been battling the scourge of tanking and has spent a lot of time and energy trying to force teams to compete to the end of the season.
The evidence around the league and in the Magic’s recent history shows the idea the NBA Draft and Lottery are not the way to build a team. Instead, teams should focus on opportunities that they can control such as free agency and trades.
The Lottery is just that — a Lottery. Nobody would stake their entire financial future on winning the Lottery.
The NBA Draft Lottery provides the promise of a star player. But it can be a fool’s gambit to put all a team’s eggs in that basket. Just ask the Orlando Magic, whose rebuild failed to reap Lottery rewards.
Yes, some team has to win and there are still second rewards for having a poor record — the worst team in the league is guaranteed the fifth pick. But the conditions in the NBA Draft Lottery make it clear that this is a huge gamble. And teams that purposefully try to manipulate their Lottery odds often pay a steep cost and rarely get the reward for all that losing.
The worst team in the league has won the Draft Lottery just eight times in the 36 years since the league instituted the Lottery (including the Magic in 2004). The league saw the worst team in the Lottery win the whole thing four straight years from 2015-18. But it is still a fairly rare occurrence.
And that has only gotten steeper since the league changed its Lottery weighting system.
This is the main reason Orlando should not rely on the draft lottery for its salvation after this disappointing, injury-filled season.
In 2017, the NBA changed the lottery odds from the worst team having a 25-percent to win the lottery down to 14-percent. The 14-percent is also a three-way tie between the three worst teams in the league. The worst team does not even have the best odds to win the lottery anymore.
The Magic currently hold the fourth-worst record in the league, giving them a 12.5-percent chance at winning the whole thing and a 48.1-percent chance of landing a top-4 pick.
The lottery system simply does not reward the worst teams.
The 2019 NBA Draft is an example of this case as both the Minnesota Timberwolves and New Orleans Pelicans jumped to the first two picks in the draft, while the New York Knicks fell to pick three.
In a draft labeled a “two-player draft,” the Knicks fell out of the top two spots while being the worst team in the league and selecting third. Zion Williamson and Ja Morant were both off the board, which left R.J. Barrett to the Knicks.
New York has built a surprising run to the top of the Eastern Conference standings behind a shrewd signing of All-Star Julius Randle, the development of R.J. Barrett and hiring a foundation-building coach in Tom Thibodeau.
The Knicks are not fighting for home-court advantage in the Eastern Conference with their high Lottery picks leading the way.
Yes, a top pick is a surer path to contention. Zion Williamson sparked the New Orleans Pelicans to a playoff push the last two years. Ja Morant had the Memphis Grizzlies, alongside another top pick in Jaren Jackson Jr., in playoff position last year until the pandemic struck. Top picks do matter.
But they obviously do not always go to the worst teams. Those bad teams are left holding the bag if luck goes the wrong way.
The Magic have faced their share of poor luck in the lottery as well.
In 2014, where the odds still followed the old numbers, the Cleveland Cavaliers won the lottery with a 1.70 percent chance of winning. Orlando tried to position itself specifically for this draft to have a shot at Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker (who did not live up to expectations thanks to two torn ACLs) by purposefully tanking two seasons. At the time, the draft was considered a three-player draft.
But the Magic selected fourth. They got Aaron Gordon, a solid player who struggled to break through as a star, out of all that pain.
This has occurred multiple times during this current rebuild.
In 2015, the Magic selected fifth, the pick right after Kristaps Porzingis was drafted, and in 2018, the Magic picked sixth, the pick after Trae Young was drafted.
Some fans will point to a win on the last day of the season in 2018 as the reason why the Magic were not involved in a tiebreaker for the chance to select as high as third. But the Orlando Magic could have tied the Sacramento Kings with just two more wins and netted the second pick in the Draft.
This rebuild could have gone in a different direction if they would have gotten lucky, but the lottery was not in their favor.
In the end, the draft can change franchises as Joel Embiid, Jayson Tatum, Luka Donci and others have for their respected teams. Top picks are certainly a surer bet to find the stars that transform a franchise’s future.
And if the Magic were going to have a season where the bottom fell out from under them, this was a good one. Scouts are salivating over the potential of Cade Cunningham, Evan Mobley, Jonathan Kuminga, Jalen Green and Jalen Suggs. As the standings look right now, the Magic will have a good chance of getting one of these players.
But the lottery system is too luck-based to rely on the draft to get those players to build teams.
The draft should and always will be a way to pick good players but should never be the main way to build a team.
It is merely a piece of the puzzle. And if the Magic win the Lottery, that would be a huge boost to the franchise. But it is not something they should count or bet on. It is often a losing bet.
This is a year that the Magic find themselves in a tough season that might put them in a tough position to rely on the lottery. Orlando will once again have a good chance to win the lottery, but it is strongly advised they do not put their future solely on the bounces of four ping pong balls.