The Lottery Wheel: A proposal that solves the NBA's draft issues


With the flawed NBA Draft Lottery taking place later tonight, it's time to step outside the box with a solution that would solve all of its issues.

Wait a minute. Why don't we just combine the current NBA Draft Lottery and Mike Zarren's lottery wheel proposal to fix most of the problems with the format? That's what I thought to myself months ago when my idea for remodeling the lottery first came to mind.

After months of tinkering with the data, I'm finally ready to reveal "The Lottery Wheel," my proposed solution that may fix the league's problems with the draft.

Before jumping into the raw details of The Lottery Wheel, here are some key things it accomplishes:

  • All 30 teams are included in the lottery and have a chance at a top 3 pick.
  • It seamlessly incorporates both "the wheel" and a system similar to the current "lottery."
  • Guarantees that each team will have a chance at a specific range of picks during each turn of the wheel.
  • Each team's record has no influence on which draft pick they will receive.
  • Eliminates any incentive for losing games or "tanking."
  • Removes any punishment for making the playoffs (and therefore being excluded from the lottery).
  • Doesn't discriminate against big market or small market teams.
  • The wheel, combined with the lottery, is the most fair draft overhaul proposal to date.

My "Lottery Wheel" proposal is based on Mike Zarren's wheel, as published last December on Grantland, and it draws some influences from his revised idea from March. Like the wheel, it would eliminate the current draft lottery, but my proposal is far different.

In Zarren's original proposal, a team would receive a specific first round draft pick once every 30 years, with no attention given to their draft pick. This was included because it removed the possibility of teams tanking for higher picks, or the theory that teams would rather "tank" out of the playoffs if they were the 8-seed (like Atlanta this season).

But with my Lottery Wheel, each team receives "odds" based on their positioning on the wheel. Teams would know their draft odds during the cycle because the circle continues on forever. There would still be a lottery each year around this time, but the lottery would be related to wheel position, not standings.

Every single season, a team would have specific odds based on their turn on the wheel. Before explaining further, here is a photo of The Lottery Wheel:


If a team has the best odds in their first year, they'd have 5th the next, and 20th the year after that, 8th the year after, and so on. Or, a team starting on the 8th best odds would have odds 29, 17, 3, 22, and 10, over the course of the next five seasons.

  • Click here to visually see what a three-year cycle would look like.
  • Click here to see what all 30 five-year "bundles" look like.

This is very similar to Zarren's wheel since it eliminates the link between having a bad record and getting a top pick. But it goes a step further since it also doesn't discriminate against teams that have success, because every single team will receive odds at specific spots during the cycle.

But Zarren's original proposal was a bit unfair since a team could go multiple years before receiving a high draft pick, which is why he revised his format. But with my Lottery Wheel, it goes a step further, since teams are only granted a "fixed chance" and not a "fixed pick" depending on what number they're at on the wheel. This means that every single team has a reasonable chance at a top 3 selection in the draft.

So, what are the odds? Here is the full odds chart, click it to see the photo in full size:

Here are some specific examples:

  • 1st odds: 24.7% chance at top 3 pick, guaranteed top 5 pick
  • 10th odds: 13.9% chance at top 3 pick, guaranteed top 14 pick
  • 16th odds: 8.7% chance at a top 3 pick, guaranteed top 20 pick
  • 22nd odds: 3.9% chance at top 3 pick, 96.1% chance at picks 13 through 26
  • 29th odds: 1.8% chance at top 3 pick, 98.2% chance at picks 20 through 30

After the 3rd pick is determined, teams with odds 21 through 30 won't have a chance at another selection until pick #12 is determined. This is in place to give extra value to selections 1 through 20, like any ordinary draft, but unlike the current system, there are still no guarantees since teams can slip down depending on their odds.

With the league's current lottery system in place, the team with the top odds has a 64.3% chance at a top 3 pick, and the 14th team has only a 1.8% shot. This is unbalanced, and my proposal is in line with what some league executives believe is a more simple solution (with relatively even odds).

After the first "odds" are chosen, the same lottery method to determine the actual order that is used today could stay in place, with some tweaks of course.

Currently, only the first three picks are determined using a combination of 1,000 permutations after 14 ping-pong balls are placed in a lottery machine. (Read more in-depth about this technique on Wikipedia, or by watching this video from

With my proposal, it would be a lengthier and more complicated process (number of balls would change from 14 to 30, as would the permutations depending on the pick), but I believe the extra time is worth it considering the end result would be much more fair for every NBA franchise.

This part (the physical action of the lottery, with ping-pong flying around in a machine) would need more ironing out as it is the most complicated part of the process, but that could be decided at a later time after "odds" are finalized.

Let's go over what this proposal accomplishes:

  • All 30 teams are included in the lottery and have a chance at a top 3 pick.
  • This is incredibly fair since it completely removes any possible penalties for making the playoffs or rewards for missing the playoffs.
  • Even if a "dominant team" (like the Heat or Thunder) has the sixth best odds, there is still a chance they end up with a lower pick (#10, for example).
  • Incorporates both "the wheel" and a system similar to the current "lottery."
  • A lot of NBA executives like the lottery, and understandably so. This proposal is a bit of a "middle ground" that I believe everybody will at least agree with.
  • For those TV networks (hello, ESPN), this is a huge money-maker. The 2014 draft lottery had a 2.9 overnight rating. If every team with a first round pick was in the lottery, that number could double.
  • There are no guarantees with the lottery, which removes the chief concern from Zarren's proposal.
  • Eliminates any incentive for losing games or "tanking."
  • Tanking isn't as much of a problem as people think it is, but losing is still rewarded too much. This successfully removes that reward.
  • But it also removes punishment for winning. Small market teams (like Memphis or Portland) may not have a chance to sign top free agents, but they'll still have a chance at drafting stars, even if they do have success in the short term.
  • System does not "ruin hope" for teams that lack talent on their rosters.
  • This was one of the concerns with Zarren's proposal due to the length of time between top draft picks, but my Lottery Wheel consistently gives teams common odds at a top 3 pick, as proven on the third and fourth sheets of the Excel file.

With that said, I believe The Lottery Wheel is by far the best NBA draft remodel that I have seen proposed. It successfully incorporates different philosophies (both the lottery and wheel), keeps parity alive in the league (no discrimination), and is fair to all organizations (equal opportunity).

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