2017 NBA draft lottery primer: What you need to know

Ball Don't Lie

The 2017 NBA draft lottery takes place in New York City on Tuesday, cementing the order of selections for the first round of the June 22 NBA draft. (Until the NBA’s general managers get to wheeling and dealing with draft-night trades that completely change the face of the proceedings, anyway.) Here’s what you need to know to be fully prepared for this year’s edition of the NBA’s annual pingpong-a-palooza:

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1. When is the 2017 NBA draft lottery?

The 2017 NBA draft lottery takes place on Tuesday, May 16, 2017, at the New York Hilton Midtown in New York City. The results will air on ESPN at 8:30 p.m. ET before Game 2 of the Western Conference finals series between the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs. It’ll also be available on the WatchESPN app.

Again: Before the game, not at halftime.

The actual drawing of the pingpong balls, though, happens earlier. We’ll explain that in a bit.

2. Which team has the best chance of landing the No. 1 overall pick?

The NBA employs a weighted lottery system, meaning the team with the worst record has the best odds of receiving the top pick. This year, that was the Brooklyn Nets, who finished a league-worst 20-62. EXCEPT!

Celtics general manager Danny Ainge smiles like a man who knows he’s got the Nets on call waiting. (AP)
Celtics general manager Danny Ainge smiles like a man who knows he’s got the Nets on call waiting. (AP)

The Boston Celtics, who went 53-29 this season and finished with the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, own the right to swap first-round picks with the Nets as a result of the 2013 draft-night deal that sent Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry to Brooklyn. Then-Nets general manager Billy King swung that deal in hopes of building a veteran-heavy, championship-level squad that could go toe-to-toe with the LeBron James/Dwyane Wade/Chris Bosh Miami Heat. That, um, didn’t work out so well, which is why I just described Billy King as “then-Nets general manager.”

Because the Nets finished with the NBA’s worst record, their draft pick can’t fall any lower than fourth. Because the Celtics finished with the NBA’s fourth-best record, their pick was locked in at 27th among 30 spots in Round 1. So Boston exercised the swap option and will take the higher pick.

The Celtics’ worst-case scenario, then, is coming away from Tuesday with the No. 4 pick. The best-case scenario is winning the lottery and earning the right to make the first overall pick come June.

Ainge’s foresight and the Nets’ cratering have put Boston in the enviable position of having the chance to add a game-breaking young talent to the core of a conference finalist. The Celtics already boast one of the sport’s most explosive scorers in Isaiah Thomas, a do-everything max-contract big man in Al Horford, an All-Defensive Team wing in Avery Bradley, and a slew of versatile pieces to carry out head coach Brad Stevens’ game plans. This could be the home-run swing, though — the selection that sets the Celtics up to contend for years to come.

The Celtics have a 25 percent chance of winning the No. 1 pick. Here’s a full breakdown of the odds of picking in the top three for all 14 non-playoff teams:




#1 Pick

#2 Pick

#3 Pick

Brooklyn Nets (to Boston Celtics)






Phoenix Suns






Los Angeles Lakers






Philadelphia 76ers






Orlando Magic






Minnesota Timberwolves






New York Knicks






Sacramento Kings






Dallas Mavericks






New Orleans Pelicans






Charlotte Hornets






Detroit Pistons






Denver Nuggets






Miami Heat






3. How have past trades and pick swaps affected this year’s lottery?

For starters, there’s that 2013 swap that gives Boston the best odds of landing the top overall pick and drops the Nets down to the No. 27 spot in the first round. (The Celtics aren’t done reaping the rewards of the KG/Pierce trade, either; they’ll get Brooklyn’s unprotected first-round pick next year, too. It truly is the gift that keeps on giving.)

The next biggest lottery-shakeup storyline involves the Celtics’ longtime rivals on the left coast, the Los Angeles Lakers. LA enters Tuesday’s drawing with the third-best odds of earning the No. 1 overall pick, and a 46.9 percent chance of landing a top-three pick.

That means they’ve got a 53.1 percent of falling outside the top three, though. That would be very, very bad news for the Lakers.

Magic Johnson is now the Lakers’ president of basketball operations. (Getty)
Magic Johnson is now the Lakers’ president of basketball operations. (Getty)

If the Lakers’ pick doesn’t land in the top three, though, it goes to the Philadelphia 76ers, thanks to a pair of past trades — the 2012 deal that sent Steve Nash from Phoenix to Los Angeles, and the 2015 three-way dance that shipped Michael Carter-Williams to the Bucks, Brandon Knight to the Suns, and that protected future selection to Philadelphia. (If LA keeps its pick this year, it will then owe its unprotected 2018 first-rounder to Philly.)

On top of that, if the Lakers send their first-round pick to the Sixers this year, they’ll also have to ship their 2019 first-rounder to the Orlando Magic, to satisfy the terms of the August 2012 deal that made Dwight Howard a Laker. (Which, given that the Lakers won zero playoff games with Howard on the team, that Dwight’s on his second team post-L.A., and that the Lakers have had four of the worst seasons in franchise history since his departure, didn’t work out so hot.) If they keep the pick, though, the Lakers will only be required to send the Magic their 2017 and 2018 second-round picks this year — a far, far preferable outcome.

The Lakers have dodged protected-pick bullets in each of the last two years, hanging onto the selections that allowed them to pick D’Angelo Russell and Brandon Ingram rather than having to convey their pick to the Sixers. Will the odds favor them yet again?

NBA Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum (L) announces the results of the 2016 NBA Draft Lottery in New York, New York. (Getty)
NBA Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum (L) announces the results of the 2016 NBA Draft Lottery in New York, New York. (Getty)

Other trade-related info to know:

• If the Sacramento Kings’ first-round pick lands in the top 10 and ahead of the 76ers’ own choice, the Sixers have the right to swap picks and take the higher selection, thanks to the July 2015 trade that sent Nik Stauskas, Jason Thompson and Carl Landry to Philadelphia to clear up salary cap space so the Kings could go free-agent shopping. If Sacramento’s pick falls between 11 and 30, though, Philly’s swap rights go bye-bye, and Sacramento’s obligation to the Sixers does, too.

• If the Kings’ pick lands at No. 11, though, it goes to the Chicago Bulls, thanks to a complicated multi-year sequence of events that SB Nation’s Tom Ziller broke down last year. The odds of that happening are very, very small — 1 in 12,483, according to the draft-lottery-odds calculator at Lottery Bucket — but it’s still possible.

• If the Pelicans’ pick lands outside the top three, it will go to the Kings to satisfy the terms of the DeMarcus Cousins-Buddy Hield trade consummated on the night of the 2017 NBA All-Star Game.

• Add up the previous three possibilities, and there’s a very small but very grim prospect that Sacramento fans will have to sweat out. If three teams leapfrog the Kings, bumping them down from the No. 8 spot outside the top 10 … and if one of those teams is the Pelicans, and if New Orleans can jump all the way up into the top three … then the Kings would wind up with no first-round draft picks, despite entering Tuesday night in line to make two top-10 selections.

Again: a super-small chance, about 1-in-21,191, according to Lottery Bucket. But these are the Kings.

Past trades impact the draft order outside the lottery, too:

• The Portland Trail Blazers will get the Memphis Grizzlies’ selection (20th overall) thanks to three deals: a 2013 trade between the Grizz and Cleveland Cavaliers; the 2015 trade that saw Cleveland send two future first-round picks to the Denver Nuggets for Timofey Mozgov; and the February 2017 trade that made Mason Plumlee a Nugget and the immortal Jusuf Nurkic a Blazer.

• The Nets will pick 22nd overall thanks to the Washington Wizards, who sent their 2017 first-rounder to Brooklyn in exchange for scoring swingman Bojan Bogdanovic.

• The Toronto Raptors will take the No. 23 pick, which originally belonged to the Los Angeles Clippers, but got shipped to Milwaukee in 2014, and redirected to Canada along with the second-round pick that became Norman Powell on the night of the 2015 draft in exchange for point guard Greivis Vasquez.

• The Magic will take the Raptors’ 25th pick, which Toronto sent Orlando for big man Serge Ibaka back in February.

• The Blazers will take the Cavs’ 26th pick, which they got from Cleveland in January. Portland gave back the Cavs’ 2018 first-rounder — which they’d received last year as payment for taking Anderson Varejao’s contract off Cleveland’s hands — to help facilitate the Cavs’ trade to import Kyle Korver. (You’re not allowed to trade away your first-round draft pick in consecutive years, so Cleveland needed to have its 2018 pick back to be able to give the Atlanta Hawks a 2019 first-rounder.)

• The Lakers will take the Houston Rockets’ No. 28 overall pick, which Daryl Morey packaged with Corey Brewer and sent to Magic Johnson in exchange for Lou Williams.

• The Utah Jazz will take the Golden State Warriors’ No. 30 pick, completing the terms of the 2013 deal that allowed the Dubs to clear up the cap space to sign Andre Iguodala. That worked out pretty OK for Golden State.

4. Who’s in the running for the No. 1 spot?

The top prospect on just about everyone’s board appears to be Markelle Fultz, who earned First-Team All-Pac-12 and Third-Team All-America placement in his lone season at Washington, despite the Huskies going a disappointing 9-22 on the season.

The 19-year-old averaged 23.2 points, 5.9 assists, 5.7 rebounds, 1.6 steals and 1.2 blocks in 35.7 minutes per game. He can create shots for himself and others out of the pick-and-roll, get to the rim and pull up confidently from three, and work off the ball as a catch-and-shoot option alongside another ball-handler. He’s 6-foot-4 with a near-6-foot-10 wingspan and the tools to become a quality defender at either backcourt position. Athletic playmakers with size who can handle, shoot and pass are rare and valuable, and Fultz has the potential to be a difference-maker right away.

Some other notable prospects who will likely hear their names called early on draft night:

Lonzo Ball: The 6-foot-6 UCLA point guard lacks Fultz’s sheer athleticism and burst to the rim, but made his bones in Westwood with preternatural court vision and playmaking gifts. In his lone year on campus, Ball helped lift the Bruins to a 31-5 record, UCLA’s most successful season in nine years, thanks in part to all-around contributions — 14.6 points, 7.6 assists, 6.0 rebounds, 1.8 steals in 35.1 minutes per game — that merited unanimous First-Team All-American honors.

He believes he’s a better floor general than Fultz, better equipped to lead a team. (Like, say, the hometown Lakers?) Whether he’s right — and whether he’ll be able to consistently deal with elite athleticism or get that unorthodox jumper off against NBA defenders — remains to be seen. What we do know, though, is he’s the only 2017 draftee with his own signature shoe, and man, is it great. Don’t believe me? Just ask Lonzo’s dad. As you may or may not be aware, he enjoys sharing his opinions.

Josh Jackson: There’s a lot to like about a 6-foot-8 swingman who stuffs the stat sheet like Jackson did during his lone year at Kansas, averaging 16.7 points, 7.6 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.7 steals in 31.8 minutes per game on his way to the Big 12’s Freshman of the Year award. The 20-year-old Jackson showcased tantalizing upside as a slasher and supplementary playmaker on offense, as well as rare gifts as both an on-ball and team defender that would seem to make him a perfect fit for an NBA in which you can never have too many versatile, athletic perimeter stoppers.

Prospective suitors will have to do their due diligence, however, on allegations that Jackson threatened a Kansas women’s basketball player with physical violence while vandalizing her car last December.

Jayson Tatum’s last game at Duke was a second-round NCAA tournament loss to South Carolina. (Getty)
Jayson Tatum’s last game at Duke was a second-round NCAA tournament loss to South Carolina. (Getty)

Jayson Tatum: The smooth-scoring Duke forward bounced back from a preseason foot injury to justify the hype that he generated as one of the top prep recruits in the country. Tatum was the second-leading scorer for Mike Krzyzewski’s Blue Devils, averaging 16.8 points and 7.3 rebounds in 33.3 minutes per game. He’ll need to develop his floor game — he averaged more turnovers than assists in Durham — and add some muscle to his 6-foot-8, 205-pound frame to be able to withstand nightly battles with the bruising wings the NBA has to offer, but Tatum’s knack for getting buckets should still make him plenty enticing to teams near the top of the draft.

De’Aaron Fox: The tough, fast, defensive-minded Kentucky point guard opened eyes when he torched Ball during the Wildcats’ win over UCLA in the Sweet 16, before struggling with foul trouble and the North Carolina defense in a heartbreaking last-second loss to the Tar Heels in the Elite Eight. At 6-foot-4 with an ever-revving motor, Fox has the physical tools to be an impact player on both ends at the next level … provided he can develop a jumper that connected from long distance just 24.6 percent of the time in his one year in Lexington. (Malik Monk, Fox’s high-scoring, long-range-bombing, transition-racing Kentucky backcourt partner, will also likely come off the board in the first half-dozen picks.)

Jonathan Isaac: The ACC All-Freshman selection only averaged 26.2 minutes per game on a deep Florida State team, but he showed flashes of a remarkable collection of skills in that floor time. The 6-foot-11 combo forward averaged 12 points, 7.8 rebounds, 1.5 blocks, 1.2 assists and 1.2 steals per game, and shot just under 35 percent from 3-point range on nearly three attempts per game as a freshman. He’s still reedy at 205 pounds, and he’s far from a finished product, but his combination of size, touch, feel for the game and capacity to stall pick-and-rolls and defend on the perimeter could make him an excellent small-ball center at the next level — just the kind of skilled and versatile big man that seem to become so valuable at this time of year.

Other names to remember: Dennis Smith Jr., the explosive point guard out of N.C. State; Lauri Markkanen, a Finnish 7-foot shooter out of Arizona; Frank Ntilikina, a long-limbed, 6-foot-5-inch, 18-year-old point guard who led France’s under-18 national team to a title at the FIBA U18 European Championships in December.

5. So, what does the lottery actually do?

The 14 teams in the running for picks 1 through 14 all get called “lottery teams,” but the lottery only really locks in the top three picks. Picks No. 4 through 14 are determined by inverse order of the teams’ regular-season records; teams with worse records get higher picks.

As detailed earlier, all 14 teams have at least some chance of moving up into the top three. If one of the lower-likelihood teams rises up, one of the three-worst-record teams gets bumped out to No. 4. (The Celtics, owners of the highest odds of landing the No. 1 pick, can’t fall lower than No. 4, and the Suns can’t drop below No. 5.)

This happens pretty often. In fact, there had been some type of leap in every lottery since 1996 … before last year’s drawing, which saw every selection stay exactly where the odds projected it to be for the first time in the event’s history.

The actual lottery drawing to determine those top three spots takes place before the TV broadcast, with select media members, NBA officials and representatives of the participating teams and the accounting firm of Ernst & Young attending the drawing.

Each team in the running for the top pick gets assigned a collection of four-number sequences. Each number in the sequence corresponds to a number on a pingpong ball, labeled 1 through 14. The pingpong balls all go into an air-powered machine — think of the “Grab That Dough” episode of “The Golden Girls” — that tumbles them around for 20 seconds before spitting out the first ball. Another ball gets taken out every 10 seconds until you’ve got four.

There are 1,001 possible four-ball combinations, assigned to each team in order of their lottery odds. For example, the Celtics, via the league-worst Nets, have the best lottery odds at 25 percent, so they get the first 250 combinations. The Heat, who finished with the best record among non-playoff teams at 41-41, will get only five combinations.

Whichever team was assigned the four-number combination that pops out first gets the top pick. The order in which the four balls come out doesn’t change the result; 1-2-3-4 is the same as 4-3-2-1. The balls then go back into the machine to repeat the process to determine which team gets the second pick. After the four balls are drawn and No. 2’s figured out, we start over again for the third pick.

I’m not sure I believe that watching a 13-minute video of pingpong balls being sucked up through a tube will allay the fears and anger of conspiracy theorists convinced that the NBA rigs the draft every year. Just in case it might, though: here’s what the 2016 drawing looked like.

Lots of people have suggested changes or full-fledged overhauls of the draft lottery process over the years. Despite the hue and cry, though, NBA owners in 2014 voted against changing the system. NBA senior vice president of basketball operations Kiki VanDeWeghe said last year that he didn’t “see anything imminent” in terms of lottery reform, and we haven’t heard much about it since.

That means that — for now, at least — the pingpong balls and “Grab That Dough” machine are here to stay. It’s a good thing you know all about it, then.

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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

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