Orlando Magic NBA Draft Preview: How the Lottery works

The NBA Draft Lottery is Tuesday and the ping pong balls will fly. Mandatory Credit: Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports
The NBA Draft Lottery is Tuesday and the ping pong balls will fly. Mandatory Credit: Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports /

The big day for the Orlando Magic and the 13 other teams that missed the Playoffs is nearly here.

Tuesday night the NBA Draft Lottery will take place and potentially change the futures of several franchises.

This draft in particular is one front offices around the league have been waiting for with potentially five star-level players. And that is before teams get to the surprises that are inevitable over the course of a NBA Draft.

The Magic essentially sold off their playoff-capable team once it was clear they could position themselves for a pick at the top of this draft. Along with the other young players on the team, the Magic clearly hope this will be the foundation for a new era that could deliver the team its first championship.

Orlando put itself in a really good spot too. The team finished with the third-worst record in the league giving the team a 14.0-percent chance of winning the NBA Draft Lottery and a 52.1-percent chance of landing in the top four.

Everyone has been doing spins on Tankathon since the season ended (and probably before) to begin dreaming of Lottery victory Tuesday.

The NBA Draft Lottery is coming Tuesday and the Orlando Magic have their lotto tickets ready hoping to turn up a franchise-changing player.

That picture though is not quite how the Lottery works.

As great as Tankathon is, it is an oversimplification of the Lottery process. Yes, the percentages are the same. But it skips all the steps that actually go into the lottery process.

It is easy to forget just how the Lottery works. And while that process is conducted behind closed doors, the actual Lottery process gives a different perspective on the odds the team has and what teams are hoping for when they get into the room.

It is not simply spitting in the odds to a computer and waiting for it to spit things out. The actual Lottery is a much more involved and tedious process.

Never seen the Lottery actually work? The NBA actually published the Lottery proceedings after the fact for several years. Here is last year’s Lottery:

Back in the original Lottery, they had every team’s name on an envelope put into a drum and drew — thus the belief of the “frozen envelope” in the original Lottery.

By the time the Magic arrived on the scene, they tried to tip the scales against the better teams a bit more and refined the process. They went to ping pong balls and titled the odds. When the Magic won the NBA Draft Lottery in 1993, they had a one ping pong ball with their name on it out of 62.

When Orlando, who lost a playoff spot on the third tiebreaker to enter the Lottery, won the right to draft Chris Webber, the league looked to make the odds greater for teams that just missed the playoffs.

That is how the league got to the current system. Instead of team names in the hopper, the league puts ping pong balls numbered 1 through 14 in. They then draw four numbers.

That four-number combination is what wins the Lottery. And the league repeats this process until the first four picks are drawn.

What the Magic and every team in the league was fighting for in the Lottery proceedings is the number of combinations they receive in the Lottery.

The numbers 1 through 14 can create 1,001 unique number combinations. All but one of those numbers is assigned to the teams that miss the playoffs. That last one is thrown out and unassigned.

So the Magic, by virtue of the evened Lottery odds for the final three teams, receive 140 number combinations. In this case, the third set of 140 combinations. Essentially any combination with a “1” will likely go to one of the three worst teams in the league.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

The way the odds work out the Rockets win the Lottery if a 1 and 2 are drawn or a 1 and 3 are drawn.

Low numbers are good if you are a Magic fan. But not too low.

The Magic will win the Lottery with any combination that includes a 1, but no number lower than 11 (except for the final combination including a 1 and a 10 — 1-10-13-14) and any combination that includes a 2 and a 3, 4 or 5 — plus the first combination with the lowest two numbers as a 2 and a 6 (2-6-7-8).

Two is the Magic’s favorite number on Tuesday.

Last year’s winning combination was 2-4-5-13 which delivered the first pick to the Minnesota Timberwolves. They had the third-worst record in the NBA last season and the top odds to win the Lottery.

They were in the same position as the Magic are in this year’s Draft Lottery. That 2-4-5-13 combination is the 67th of 140 number combinations the Magic hold in this year’s Lottery.

The biggest leap last year came from the Charlotte Hornets, who won the third pick as the eighth-worst team in the league with a combination of 5-7-11-12. That five was the last number drawn too.

If it had been a 6, instead of a 5, the Washington Wizards would have won the Lottery. If it had been a 13 or 14 instead, the San Antonio Spurs would have jumped up.

It is completely true that one number has the potential to change a franchise’s fortunes. And a the end of the day, almost every team has the same 1 in 14 chance of drawing that final ping pong ball they need.

Of note too, the Magic will be cheering hard to make sure a 5 along with a 7, 8 or 9 are not the two lowest numbers drawn. The Chicago Bulls own every combination with a 5-7 or 5-8 as the lowest numbers drawn along with every 5-9 except the final one — 5-9-13-14.

There will be a lot of sweating in that Lottery room until the numbers are finally drawn.

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This will all happen behind closed doors. In a non-COVID year, league officials, representatives from each participating team, league accountants and select media would observe the actual Lottery. They would then remain sequestered in the room the Lottery takes place until after the show on ESPN completes airing.

The only people who would observe the Lottery and leave that room are the NBA officials and accountants who deliver the sealed envelopes to the stage for air on the broadcast. The broadcast is the first time the results are revealed publicly (and the video of the actual Lottery is released shortly after the broadcast ends on the NBA’s media pages and social media outlets).

The whole process takes about 10 minutes. It is not a very entertaining process. The league dictates very specific times for the balls to jumble after each draw and time between draws from the air drum lottery machine. Plus, they draw the first pick first which eliminates the drama.

And, of course, there is the chance of repeat winners. Obviously, no team can win the Lottery twice.

The Magic obviously are in the advantageous position with 140 number combinations. They can cheer hard for low and high numbers at the start and just need a few low numbers to pop up to put them in the top draft spot. And with four cracks to get into the top four, it is a coin flip that their numbers will get called.

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But it is all out of their hands at that point. The Lottery is truly random and nothing anyone can properly prepare for.