An NBA Draft that Wasn’t Considered Rigged

After it was announced that the Cleveland Cavaliers had won the number one overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, conspiracy theory lovers came out in droves. Most pointed to the obvious calamity Cleveland fans had experienced this previous summer with the LeBron James saga, seeing the number one pick as NBA Commissioner David Stern’s way of helping the league’s interests in that market. And Minnesota Timberwolves GM David Kahn failed to sway anyone away from those theories in his post-draft interview

Looking at the draft’s history and noting the team with the highest percentage chance has won only three times since 1990 (when the ping pong ball method was instituted) could give one cause to stop and wonder if in fact the draft is rigged, especially when one can see that the team with the lowest odds of winning the draft has won twice in that same time frame.

To dispel notions of a fixed draft, consider the following:

Though the team with the highest odds of winning the #1 pick has only one three times in 21 years, a team with the second or third-highest odds have won it seven times in the same span, including a four year stretch from 1996-99. So, nearly half the time, a top-3 team wins.

If that isn’t convincing enough, top-5 teams have won 15 out of the 21 lottery (71.43% of the time). Here’s the breakdown:

Highest odds: 3 (1990, 2003, 2004)
Second highest: 2 (1992, 1996)
Third highest: 5 (1997, 1998, 1999, 2001, 2009)
Fourth highest: 1 (1994)
Fifth highest: 4 (1991, 1995, 2002, 2006, 2010)

Note: For the 2011 draft, the eighth-highest odds won the #1 pick; it just happened to have been traded by the LA Clippers to Cleveland, who also owned the fourth-highest odds.

Take what you will from these numbers, but the majority of the time, a team with good odds has won the first overall pick. But these can’t shut the door on the theory of a rigged lottery alone.

So how can the NBA do it? Televise the selection of the ping pong balls.

It doesn’t have to be before the picks are announced; obviously, drama drives up television ratings, and Nielsen reported the 2011 NBA Draft received a 1.2 rating among viewers age 18-49, a primary targeted audience for advertisers. To the normal person, that means 2.85 million people tuned in to see who won the first pick. Why is this important? Because anything that drives up ratings makes more advertising money for the NBA and ESPN, so marketing a “never before seen inside look” at the lottery would help. Plus, social networking would help give the lottery more credibility, at least in the court of public opinion, if the age group that is most active online sees and believes seeing the ping pong balls selected.

So why not have ESPN, who airs the NBA Draft Lottery show each year, run a video of the ping pong balls chosen after the picks are revealed? Judging by how the Bowl Championship Series of college football generates so much discussion because of its flaws, perhaps leaving the way it is will turn out to be a smarter marketing plan for the NBA after all.


David Kahn post-draft interview clip:

NBA Draft Probabilities (2006 and before)

NBA Draft Odds (2007)

NBA Draft Odds (2008)

NBA Draft Odds (2009)

NBA Draft Odds (2010)

Nielsen TV ratings for Tuesday, May 17 th , 2011