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How the NBA Lottery Works and Cleveland Cavaliers Odds

Things most people don't understand: 1) how freakin long Anthony Davis' arms are, 2) how the NBA Lottery works.
Things most people don't understand: 1) how freakin long Anthony Davis' arms are, 2) how the NBA Lottery works.

Remember those long, lonely nights in February when you were watching the Cavaliers get stomped by some random team? And all you could to comfort yourself was "yeah but think of the ping pong balls!"? Well, now it is finally about to pay off.

The NBA Draft Lottery is May 30th, 2012 also known as, tomorrow. The Cavaliers ended the season with a record of 21-45, tied with the New Orleans Hornets for the third worst record in the league. The Cavs then won the ensuing coin flip against the Hornets to take a very small edge in the odds. Normally, the 3rd slot has a 15.6% chance of winning and the 4th slot has an 11.9% chance. Since the Cavs and Hornets tied, however, those odds are simply divided evenly. The Cavaliers have a 13.8% chance while the Hornets have a 13.7% chance.

What exactly does this mean? How does the lottery work? What is the meaning of life?

All of these are good questions and I hope to be able to answer at least two of them. The lottery is a sneaky little invention from the NBA to try to limit obvious tanking. Back in the day, when a guy like Hakeem Olajuwon or Patrick Ewing were going to be the number one pick, teams would likely see that and go "shit, we're out of the playoffs, let's get a superstar player!" They would then tank for the worst spot and and try to get that player. It made for crappy games and such, so the NBA fixed that by installing the lottery.

A common misconception is that the lottery is used to determine the entire draft order. On the contrary, it only really determines the top three picks in the draft. Each team is given a number of combinations out of the 1000 total. The team with the best odds (Charlotte) has 250 combinations. Cleveland has 138 combinations. The team with the worst odds (Houston) has 5 combinations.

Here are the odds for each team in the lottery:

Charlotte Bobcats: 25%

Washington Wizards: 19.9%

Cleveland Cavaliers: 13.8%

New Orleans Hornets: 13.7%

Sacramento Kings: 7.6%

New Jersey Nets/Portland Trailblazers: 7.5%

Golden State Warriors: 3.6%

Toronto Raptors: 3.5%

Detroit Pistons: 1.7%

New Orleans Hornets (via Minnesota): 1.1%

Portland Trailblazers: 0.8%

Milwaukee Bucks: 0.7%

Phoenix Suns: 0.6%

Houston Rockets: 0.5%

The Holy Knights of the NBA Lottery then use some cool mechanism and pick a combination using pingpong balls. Whoever owns that combination gets the number one pick. They do this for the second and third picks as well (obviously if you've already been chosen, you can't win again). Once the top three picks are determined, the draft order goes as you would expect, in reverse order of record.

For example, the Cavs had the second best odds last year. Then, two teams jumped ahead of them -- the Clippers pick (which the Cavs owned) and the Utah Jazz pick. That means the #2 slot got pushed back two spots to the #4 slot. Therefore, the Cavs ended up with the #4 pick in the draft (Tristan Thompson).

Does that make sense? Seriously, let me know if that needs clarification and I'll do my best in the comments section. It took me a little while to understand the first time it was explained to me.

What does this mean for the Cavaliers? The simplest thing is that the Cavs have a 13.8% chance of winning the first pick and the right to draft Anthony Davis. If you're the eternal optimist, then you can stop reading here -- that's all you need to know. If you are familiar with the luck of Cleveland sports teams, you might want to keep reading.

The important thing you need to know is that the worst they can possibly get is the 6th pick in the draft. If three teams slotted below the Cavs jump into the top-3 picks, then the Cavs fall all the way down to 6th. That means that there is the possibility that Cleveland picks anywhere from #1 to #6. Here are the chances of each of those possibilities.

Cleveland gets first pick: 13.8%

Cleveland gets second pick: 14.3%

Cleveland gets third pick: 14.5%

Cleveland gets fourth pick: 23.8%

Cleveland gets fifth pick: 29.0%

Cleveland gets sixth pick: 4.6%

So, the Cavaliers have the best chances to get the fifth pick in the draft, despite being slotted third. Weird how that works. Those are the odds that we're looking at. There is a 42.6% chance of the Cavs drafting in the top-three and getting the chance to grab Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, or Bradley Beal. There's a higher than 50% chance that the Cavs end up in the 4th or 5th spot and have to settle for Harrison Barnes, Andre Drummond, or somebody else.

The odds aren't exactly in our favor, but it's a lot better than if we had mindlessly pushed for wins in late March. So do whatever you have to do. Wear your lucky socks, drink your lucky beer -- whatever. Remember: positive vibes and what's not to like??