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Behind the Scenes of the NBA Draft Lottery

We take a break from the four teams vying for the NBA title to bring you the 14 teams pinning their hopes on the future.

A few thoughts on the playoff interruption that is the annual NBA draft lottery …

• The best thing about the lottery is watching some of the world’s most sophisticated basketball thinkers sweat over the order in which numbered Ping-Pong balls get sucked up a tube. The absurdity hits home in the private drawing room, where a dozen media members (including me) joined team officials for the real lottery — the one that takes place an hour before the television show.

Each lottery team sends one representative to monitor the drawing. For the most part, these are men1 who have devoted their lives to studying everything about basketball: the career arcs of certain player types, the market forces of free agency, the relative importance of discrete skills. They build sophisticated models to predict everything. They are planners, control freaks.


And, yes, almost all men.

And then once a year, 14 of them have to sit in a windowless room and surrender control of their professional lives to a ball-sucking machine that doubles as the Pick 6 decider on your local news. Fourteen more have to sit behind lecterns and watch Mark Tatum, the league’s deputy commissioner, open giant envelopes holding secrets that will determine the courses of their franchises.

There is a resignation about the whole thing — a lot of nods, and sighs, and knowing smiles. They mock-judge their performances. “I held my ground!” Alex Martins, the Magic’s CEO, told me after pulling lectern duty for the Magic, who had fallen backward in two straight lotteries before last night. “I outperformed our last two years!”

Martins brought along Ping-Pong balls from the lotteries that had ultimately brought Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway to Orlando, because adults bring trinkets to the lottery. Several participants mentioned that their bosses fake-threatened they would not be welcomed back home if their team fell in the draft order. “I guess I can go home now,” a couple joked afterward.

• There are 14 balls, numbered 1 to 14, in the machine. Lou DiSabatino, the NBA’s vice-president of events and attractions, triggers the machine to suck them out one at a time, at strictly monitored intervals, until four balls are separated — making a four-number combination. You can form 1,001 four-numbered combinations,2 and the 14 lottery teams are allotted a share of those combinations based on their record.


The order of the numbers doesn’t matter, so 4-3-2-1 is the same combination for lottery purposes as 1-2-3-4. The NBA discards one combination, 11-12-13-14, to have an even thousand.

The Timberwolves had the most combos, with 250. The Thunder had the least, with just five. If your four-number combination is the first one drawn, you get the first pick.

The NBA doles out the combinations in numerical order, and when the machine spat out a “1” first, Brad Ruiter, the Wolves’ rep in the drawing room, knew he was in business. Of the 1,001 four-number combinations, 286 included the number “1.” Minnesota had 250 of those; the Knicks had the rest. When the next number — 3 — was also low, Ruiter, the team’s vice-president of communications, knew the Wolves were about to reverse a losing streak for teams that entered the lottery with the best odds. And as a lifelong Minnesota sports fan used to disappointment, Ruiter knew all about that losing streak coming into the lottery.

“I’m a Minnesota native,” he told me. “I’ve lived in Minnesota all of my 46 years, so I was acutely aware of the history.”

• Ruiter hadn’t planned to bring a good-luck charm, he told me afterward, as we were all sequestered together without any form of outside communication until the end of the television broadcast. He’s not even sure how the Wolves picked him to be in the drawing room alongside heavy hitters like Sam Presti and Rich Cho, the GMs of the Thunder and Hornets, respectively. As he was rushing to pack, though, Ruiter decided he needed to bring some token. He glanced at a safe in his office, opened it up, and yanked out the birth certificates of his two children — Griffin, 11, and Meredith, 9. He folded them up and had them in his suit pocket for the lottery.

• Minnesota’s win is refreshing on a couple of levels. We should have a moratorium now on folks parroting the historical data showing it is somehow “better” not to be the team in pole position — that the losingest team just loses again at the lottery. Of course it “loses” most of the time; there’s a 75 percent chance it doesn’t get the no. 1 pick! That’s the whole point of the lottery. But that doesn’t mean having the best odds is somehow a bad thing, a curse.

It’s also a nice counterpoint to all the outcry about Cleveland leaping from the no. 9 slot to win the lottery last season — the franchise’s third win in a four-season span of incredible luck. That kind of jump is an anomaly, but it’s also a sign that the lottery system is functioning as intended. The league conceived the lottery as a check on tanking, since the worst teams are no longer guaranteed the top picks. Move in that direction and you’re going to have cases like Cleveland vaulting up to take Andrew Wiggins and Chicago doing the same in the Derrick Rose lottery.

Cleveland winning so often was strange, but if you let any system of semi-randomized chance play out over a long sample size, there will be crazy little streaks sprinkled in — the proverbial “eight heads in a row” during 500 coin flips. If, I dunno, the Pistons had won the Wiggins lottery from the same no. 9 slot last season, I doubt there would have been much moaning.

• As I reported from the summer league in July, the league introduced an odds-reform proposal that would have made Cleveland-style leaps more likely by cutting the chances for the worst teams. The proposal was an anti-tanking measure clearly aimed at the Sixers, and it didn’t get the required supermajority in an October vote. Kiki Vandeweghe, the league’s senior vice-president of basketball operations and last night’s drawing room MC, told me the discussion has been tabled for now.

“I don’t see anything happening in the immediate future,” Vandeweghe said. “We will continue to study it.”

A group of (mostly) small-market teams lobbied against the proposal, fearing it would remove their best avenue for acquiring a franchise player right at the moment of a salary-cap explosion that would give glamour-market behemoths unprecedented cap room. No one knows how the new TV deal bonanza will affect the league’s revenue-sharing formula. There was just a sense that too much change was coming at once, and that the changes in the aggregate might favor the top free-agency destinations.

I’m not sure that’s the case, but the proposal failed and the league — despite real concern about the perception of tanking — doesn’t appear in a rush to force it down anyone’s throat.

• The Sixers have given themselves as many shots as possible to catch some lottery luck, but they just can’t grab it. Philly officials said afterward they were happy they didn’t move down — hi, Knicks! — and that they never let themselves hope for the dream scenario of snagging the nos. 1, 6, and 11 picks. Philly fans on Twitter made “OneSixEleven” a hashtag, since the Sixers would have received picks from the Lakers and Heat if they fell outside the top 5 (L.A.) and top 10 (Miami).

Philadelphia GM Sam Hinkie told me he knew about the hashtag, but that he also knew about the infinitesimal odds. “They were just so tiny,” Hinkie said. “I was teasing Scott [O’Neill, the Sixers’ CEO] about it: Why don’t we just wish to be 9 feet tall? That’s not gonna happen either. Why get your hopes up? There’s all sorts of things I would like that have a 1-in-500 chance of happening, but I don’t tweet about many of them.”

• The lottery goes fast. Vandeweghe congratulated the Wolves and the drawing went on, with the next four-numbered combination — 6-8-4-11 — belonging to the Lakers. That was the only surprise of the night, and it was nothing compared to some of the mega-leaps we’ve seen before. The next four-numbered combo came up Minnesota again, and the league discarded it. Then came Philly, and, boom, it was all over.

The finality is jarring. It adds to the ridiculousness of the atmosphere. A massively important event that warps the league’s power structure is over in the time it takes a scout to write the first sentence in a report on some Latvian teenager.

• There is another layer of absurdity that follows, when you watch a TV show build suspense around results you already know. We gathered around the TV, anticipating the reaction of Knicks GM Steve Mills when New York popped up at no. 4 — two spots below its starting place. When Mills despaired, pockets of the room erupted in laughter.

• Heather Cox drew the biggest laugh of the night when she prefaced her mini-interview with Vlade Divac by saying she didn’t want to bring up the Kings’ sad lottery history, and then immediately informing Divac this was Sacramento’s ninth straight lottery trip. The room went crazy.

• There was some good-natured ball-related drama in the drawing room after the lottery. Ruiter wanted at least the four balls from Minnesota’s combination, but he had also heard a rumor that a team official in some prior year had somehow absconded with all 14. Ruiter wanted them all, but he would settle for balls 1, 3, 6, and 7. One problem: the Lakers’ combination also included no. 6, and John Black, the Lakers PR man and drawing room monitor, was interested in taking home their four balls.

But there was more! Brad Shron, Philly’s in-house counsel, also wanted the no. 3 ball to mark where the Sixers had finished. Shron grabbed the ball and shouted to Ruiter, “We’ll give you the ball if you give us the pick!” Ruiter laughed, and I’m not entirely sure how the ball drama finished up.

• The Suns had Alex Len behind the lectern, and he told me before the lottery that they had promised to fly him back on a private jet if Phoenix jumped into the top three. No word on whether Len found his way to the Port Authority bus station after the game.

Len also reflected a bit on all the strange drama in Phoenix this season, with the triple-point-guard thing blowing up at the trade deadline. “It was really tough,” Len said. “But I try to look at it as a learning experience. We had a lot of point guards, and then at the end of the year, it was like we had an entirely new team. It didn’t really work out for us, but we’re gonna be ready for next season.”

• The real lottery drawing is so low-tech that it gives off the feel of a cheap carnival game having an outsize impact on a billion-dollar business. After the machine retrieves one ball, league rules dictate that the rest of the balls have to bounce around inside the chamber for exactly 10 seconds before the machine vacuums up the next one.

There is no automatic priming mechanism that tells the machine to go after 10 seconds. There is no digital clock. There is an NBA Entertainment official, Kyle Yelencsics, holding a purple stopwatch and standing with his back to the machine. After 10 seconds, he raises one hand, which is DiSabatino’s signal to suck out the next ball. Yelencsics has done this for a half-decade, and he says that in his first couple of years, he worried about nightmare scenarios in which he would hit the “start” button at the wrong time or just fling the stopwatch into the air. But he’s settled into the job. He’s clutch.

• Guess what happens in case of a power outage that disables the machine? The league brings along a plastic basketball with a hole cut into the top, and in a doomsday scenario in which the machine doesn’t work, they would just pour the Ping-Pong balls into that container and have an official pluck them out by hand. The machine has never failed. Is it bad that I’m rooting for this to happen at some point?

• I caught up with Martins after the lottery and asked if the Magic hoped to hire a coach before the draft and free agency. He demurred. “We’re being deliberate,” he told me. “We’re not sticking ourselves to any sort of timeline. We’ve had an incredible amount of interest in the job.” Martins said GM Rob Hennigan will conduct the initial round of interviews, and that Martins will get involved after Hennigan narrows the pool.

• I told Michael Kidd-Gilchrist his good-luck charm — a Hornets bracelet — was not enough to appease the basketball gods. “I see that now!” he said, laughing. Kidd-Gilchrist is spending the summer working out in Charlotte with teammates, and he says he’s not stressed that Mark Price, the shooting guru who helped MKG rework his shot, has left to coach at UNC Charlotte. “I learned a lot from him, but it doesn’t affect me at all,” Kidd-Gilchrist said. “I’m just gonna continue to work hard.”

It’s a slow process. Defenders still leave MKG wide open to clog the paint, and Kidd-Gilchrist can’t sniff 3-point range. But he shot 50 percent from between 10 and 16 feet away, and 37 percent on long 2s — solid marks. It’s misleading to compare that with marks for guys like Dirk Nowitzki and LaMarcus Aldridge, who drain contested midrangers with such lethality that they draw extra defensive attention. They might shoot 65 percent on the looks defenses give Kidd-Gilchrist. But a bunch of bad shooters never nailed the first mini-breakthrough Kidd-Gilchrist appears to have made. That includes Tony Allen, the most obvious veteran comparison for MKG. “I was just so happy,” Kidd-Gilchrist said of his improvement. “All the hard work paid off.”

• The Hornets have let go three veteran scouts as part of a staff shake-up, according to several league sources.

• Philly reporters asked Hinkie whether including Joel Embiid and Nerlens Noel in the lottery process was the team’s way of signaling they were franchise “cornerstones” — and of differentiating them from another unnamed player who thought he was. The question was obviously about Michael Carter-Williams, and Hinkie cut it off to launch into an interesting monologue:

“If your question is more about a particular trade we made, and how that might make [Noel and Embiid] feel, I called them immediately as we traded that person. Immediately. I explained to them about how they should think about things — how some things spill over into others, and some don’t. That they shouldn’t read too much into these things. And I talked to them in exit interviews about what kind of program we were trying to build, and where they might fit in. And how the way they might fit has as much to do with them as it does with any grand design — with how they step into a particular void. Sometimes those voids — voids of leadership, of who the best player is, or voids in play — don’t stay open very long. Someone steps into it. They’ll have the first two chances at that, but there are gonna be maybe six more guys right behind them that will be looking to get theirs, too.”

• The lottery just isn’t the same without the Cavs. They were riotous, they wore bow ties, and they went bananas when they won. It was great entertainment.

But it’s always fun. Now, let’s get back to the playoffs, where teams are engaged in a competition they can (to some degree!) control.