Countdown to the Lottery: What Is The Lottery?

Well, the season is over. The playoffs aren't, but given that our Jazz aren't playing, who really cares? What does that leave for us less-than-fortunate fans? The draft. And, for the second straight year, the involves paying attention to the mystical beast known as the lottery. Back when Stockton-to-Malone left the Jazz, we visited the lottery three straight seasons. And by "we visited the lottery," I mean that Kevin O'Connor got to take a trip out of Utah and smile on national TV. Now, here we stand years later, taking our second straight trip back to the lottery. Last year, we went thanks to Isiah Thomas and the New York Knicks. This year, its a thank you to both to the Nets and our own incompetence. So, well, we might as well enjoy this time. Other fans have the playoffs and David Stern's face; we have the lottery and Kevin O'Connor's. Who wins?

So, what exactly is this lottery? I read a short story once…

No no no. That is a good, albeit not-so-happy, story. This is something different. Generally not-so-happy for us (more on that on a later date), but there is a small chance. Actually, if you think about it, the short story could describe it pretty well - though not exactly as painful. And a chance does exist - just ask the Orlando Magic from the early '90s.

The lottery is pretty much David Stern and co. wasting some perfectly good ping-pong balls. They are all numbered, one through fourteen. Four balls randomly are pulled out of a machine, giving you four numbers. Four balls, out of fourteen … there's a lot of different combinations. Order doesn't matter, so 1-2-3-4 is the same as 3-4-1-2, and so on. That brings the number of combinations down a bit - to 1001. Of these 1001, one combination (11-12-13-14) has not been assigned to a team. The others are assigned to teams based on season ending record. The Pesky Timberwolves, via having the worst record in the league, have 250 of the 1000 combinations assigned to them. The Cavs are next, with 199 combinations. And so on down the list - the Jazz come in 6th (75 combinations) and 12th (7 combinations). The 6th pick is interesting - it was decided by a coin flip. The flip was won by the Kings, giving them 76 combinations; it went to flip because the Kings and Nets tied for the 5th worst record. Normally, 88 combinations go to the 5th worst team and 63 to the 6th worst. So the two teams finishing at 24-58 already gave the Jazz a slight boost, giving us 12 more combinations than we'd have otherwise had with the pick.

If you want to know more, Wikipedia has some stuff. There is also a chart that has the percentages of each team for each for the 14 positions.

So all 14 teams are ordered by the ping-pong balls?

No. Yes. Well, kind of. (Confused yet?) The lottery balls only decide the first three teams. Everyone else is pretty much set in stone - it goes in reverse order of record. If the lottery numbers give, in any order, the top 3 teams (Minnesota, Cleveland, Toronto), the those teams pick in the order that the balls came out. If a combination assigned to the Cavs is the second one that comes out of the machine, then they pick second. If it comes out first, they pick first. And the same if it comes out third.

Well that's boring. Why do I care?

Because rarely do the top 3 picks go to the "top" 3 teams. Last year, for example, the 5th and 6th teams (Washington with 103 combinations, Philadelphia with 53 combinations) moved up to the 1 and 2 spots. In 2009, the 6th team (Memphis) had 75 combinations and picked 2nd. In 2008, the 9th (!) team (Chicago) got the first pick (and Derrick Rose with it) despite having just 17 of the 1000 combinations. In 2007, the 7th team (Portland) picked 1st after having 1 of their 53 combinations come out of the machine (Minnesota, 6th, also had 53 combinations). Seattle, 5th, ended up picking 2nd, despite having just 88 combinations.

So the Jazz could theoretically move up and it wouldn't even be odd. In fact, since moving to the 1000 combinations in 1996, the worst team has picked first twice. A 5th or lower team has found itself picking first 6 times, with the lowest being those 9th team Bulls in 2008. And 'Magic' has happened before the 1000 combination system was implemented as well. In 1992, Orlando found itself with the 2nd worst record - and with that, 10 of 66 possible combinations for the first pick. Luck went their way, and they ended up with Shaquille O'Neal. The next year, the Magic just missed the playoffs - giving them the 11th worst pick and just 1 out of 66 possible combinations. And they won it again! So there's always a chance, as small as it may seem.

Fine fine, not too boring. Talk about the Jazz, not the 1993 Orlando Magic.

Lets say that by some luck, the Jazz get a pick in the top 3. Either pick, lets say #12 just for fun. So now the Jazz are picking, lets say #2, instead of #12. David Stern announces the picks in reverse order, so if he gets to #12 and the Jazz haven't been announced yet then we'll be picking in the top 3. But we'll worry about that later. If the other two teams in the top 3 are from the "top" 3 teams, then everyone else, down to #11, moves down one spot. So if it goes Cavs, Jazz, Peskies, then the Raptors will pick #4 (they have the worst record of the remaining teams so they get the next pick) while the Jazz #6 pick will move down to #7 and so on. The 13th (Phoenix) and 14th (Houston) picks would remain the same. The same order would remain (Jazz #7) if the Jazz (#12) and a top-6 team (say the Kings at #5) move into the top 3. On the other hand, if two teams below #6 jump up to the top 3 (say the Jazz #12 pick and the Bucks #10 pick), then the Jazz #6 pick falls to #8. And if, somehow, three teams below #6 get really lucky, then the Jazz #6 pick will fall to #9. And sorry for the many numbers - I know I'm not Amar, but I couldn't avoid them here. His numbers are more exciting, generally, but we'll wait for his next post for better numbers. I've only got numbers going to 14. Nice, round numbers, with no decimals or anything of the sort.

What if #13 and #14 move up and the Jazz don't?

Then we cry. … In that scenario, Phoenix and Houston are both in the top 3, along with one other team. The #6 pick would become #8 (or #9 if another team below #6 moves up as well), and the #12 pick would become #14 (the last pick in the lottery).

Yikes. Okay, so when do we get to see the balls randomly pulled out of the machine?

Unfortunately, never. (Cue the "rigged" complaints.) David Stern and a group of independent auditors and team representatives all sit in a room and watch the entire process. After all is done, people gather in a room. And then, during half-time of some boring playoff game, Stern takes center stage and announces the picks in reverse order.

And what are we looking for?

Well, #14 should come up Houston. If not, it will be Phoenix, Utah or Golden State. If its Golden State, it means that Houston, Phoenix and Utah have all moved up and you can be almost certain the lottery was not rigged. Most likely though, Houston will be #14. And Phoenix will be #13. If the Jazz show up in either spot, that's bad. Assuming they don't, you move on to #12. If the Jazz come up here, then you just sigh - no lottery luck. If #12 comes and goes and the Jazz haven't shown up, then you be cautiously optimistic. The Jazz will definitely be in the top 3, which is good, but the cautious is because this appears to be a top-2 draft. Then it goes on. Ideally, the Jazz don't show up at #9 or #8 or #7. That means no one behind the Jazz has jumped them. That brings up #6, the Jazz pick from the Nets. The Jazz haven't shown up at #6 through #9, then you celebrate a move into the top 3. If they do show up at #6, then you sigh ... before remembering that the last time the Jazz had the #6 pick, Kevin O'Connor turned it into Deron Williams.

What about the numbers you skipped?

Obviously I don't know how to count. … Wait, no. That's not it. The Jazz #12 pick can turn into picks #1-3 or picks #12-14. That's it. The Jazz #6 pick can turn into picks #1-3 or picks #6-9. That's it. So, barring a trade, the Jazz will not be picking at #4, #5, #10 or #11.

So the most likely outcome is what?

The most likely is that the Jazz pick at #12 and #6, with you seeing Kevin O'Connor's "ugh, we're not moving up" face twice (at least). Unless he decides to send someone else, then you'll see someone else's face. If the Jazz do move up (or down), it is more likely to be the #6 pick than the #12 pick. And most likely, some random team picking between 4 and 9 will move into the top-3, leaving you wishing that the Jazz had that kind of luck.

So you've told us about the lottery, what next?

Man, impatient bunch aren't you? Over the next bit (up until the lottery) I'll try to break down potential targets for the Jazz (yes, I've done this before - but things have changed since mid-February) and look at other lottery/draft related stuff. Again, try - occasionally I just forget because I'd rather nap. But I have a general idea of what to post, with a couple of changes to my schedule coming because Amar has generously lent me an Excel formula I hope to do something with before getting a certain post up. ... In other words, who knows.

And when is this lottery?

Halftime, I assume, of some game on May 17th.

What do we do until then?

Well, the playoffs are still going on if that's your thing. Or you can scout for the draft - watching clips if you can find them, reading up on scouting reports, whatever - and formulating your own wish list. I've been doing that for years now - and the Jazz have never complied (maybe because occasionally I fall in love with a prospect who ends up going too early for the Jazz). But who knows, maybe one of you will be lucky (or, you know, smart enough to not fall into the trap I do).

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