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Here’s why the NBA’s draft is a game of chance

Andy Uhler May 15, 2019
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Zion Williamson #1 of the Duke Blue Devils looks on against the Michigan State Spartans in the East Regional game of the 2019 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Capital One Arena on March 31, 2019 in Washington, DC.
Patrick Smith/Getty Images

The New Orleans Pelicans won the number one pick in the NBA draft lottery Tuesday. In about a month’s time, the Pelicans will likely pick Duke’s Zion Williamson, who analysts say is so good he’ll transform the team immediately.

In last night’s lottery, all 14 teams that didn’t qualify for the playoffs had at least a shot to take home the big prize (though some, of course, had a much greater chance than others).

There’s a good reason why the NBA makes its draft a game of chance.

One player can mean everything

NBA teams can only field five players on the court at a time.

“One great player can make a huge difference,” said Jonathan Jensen, who teaches sports management at the University of North Carolina. “In 2003, Lebron James took a Cleveland Cavaliers team, that really had no other good players, all the way to the NBA Finals.”

Lebron’s success translated into lots of cash for the Rust Belt, said veteran basketball writer Tommy Beer.

“If you look at the impact that Lebron James has had on the GDP, so to speak, of northeast Ohio and Cleveland, in particular, it’s a remarkably dramatic impact,” Beer said.

Lottery makes tanking less attractive

The impact of one player can be so great, teams could be tempted to play badly on purpose for a chance at winning the top pick. That’s bad news for the league.

“People pay a lot of money to purchase tickets to watch an NBA product, and they want the best possible product on the floor,” said Beer.

The NBA knows this, and that’s why it’s tried to prevent “tanking” by giving all not-so-great teams a chance to win the lottery — not just the worst team.