2021 NBA draft lottery: How it works, odds for No. 1 pick


The NBA draft lottery -- which takes place this year on June 22 at 8:30 p.m. ET -- isn’t quite as simple as a bunch of bouncing ping pong balls with tiny team logos printed on them.

While that process might be more simplistic and make for a compelling live television drawing, it could also increase the likelihood of big market conspiracy theories -- like the infamous “Frozen Envelope” that many still believe helped the New York Knicks land Patrick Ewing in 1985.

Instead, the draft lottery involves a complex numerical system and many layers of security to ensure that each team gets its rightful chance of obtaining the top pick.

Doing so, and earning the option to draft Cade Cunningham or Evan Mobley or Jalen Green, could put a franchise that has fallen on hard times back on the path toward contention. 

The stakes are high, making the draft lottery a one-day postseason atmosphere for non-playoff teams.

Here’s how it all works:

How does the NBA draft lottery actually work?

Teams in the lottery need more than just a lucky bounce to get the top pick. They need four lucky bounces. 

A series of 1,000 four-numeral lottery combinations are divided among the 14 teams that failed to qualify for the postseason, including those who were eliminated during this year’s inaugural play-in tournament. 

Each team is assigned a collection of four-number combinations, with the teams owing the three worst regular-season records in the league receiving the most. The number of combinations assigned to the remaining lottery teams decreases gradually based on record, with random drawings used to determine tiebreakers for teams sharing identical records:

1. 140 combinations

2. 140 combinations

3. 140 combinations

4. 125 combinations

5. 105 combinations

6. 90 combinations

7. 75 combinations

8. 60 combinations

9. 45 combinations

10. 30 combinations

11. 20 combinations

12. 15 combinations

13. 10 combinations

14. 5 combinations

Those combinations are used to determine the first four picks in the draft during the lottery. The 14 ping pong balls in the drum are numbered 1 to 14, forming 1,001 possible combinations (the combination 11-12-13-14 is not assigned). One number is drawn after the other in 10-second intervals. The team with the combination that matches the first four drawn numbers is awarded the first pick in the draft. For example, the Minnesota Timberwolves won the 2020 draft lottery with a winning combination of 5-13-2-4.

After the combination for the first pick is drawn, the ping pong balls are placed back into the drum, and the drawing process is repeated three times to determine the next three picks. If the same team is drawn more than once, the balls are returned to the drum and another selection is made. 

The remaining lottery picks (5 through 14) are then assigned in inverse order based on regular-season records, meaning the team with the worst record in the league can pick no later than fifth.     

When does the actual NBA lottery drawing take place?

Shortly before the draft order is revealed during the national broadcast.

The drawing is held in a private room at the site of the broadcast with NBA officials, a member of the accounting firm Ernst & Young, a media member, and representatives from each lottery team present. So yes, at least one member of the organization that wins the first pick is aware of the victory before the broadcast. 

How Adrian Wojnarowski or Shams Charania have been stopped from tweeting the draft order before the broadcast remains a mystery. Perhaps cell phones are not permitted in the drawing room? 

So who puts the team logo cards in those big envelopes?

This seems like an important job. Putting a team logo card in the wrong numbered envelope could cause a live TV disaster and subsequent controversy. 

That responsibility is in the hands of an outsider who is unaffiliated with the NBA. After the drawing is completed, the rep from Ernst & Young places the cards into the envelopes, seals them and delivers the stack to NBA deputy commissioner and chief operating officer Mark Tatum. 

Tatum soon tears open the envelopes on national television as front office executives and NBA fans watch in suspense, hoping to see any logo other than their team’s.   

Which team has the best odds to win the 2021 draft lottery?

Houston (17-55): 14.0%

Detroit (20-52): 14.0%

Orlando (21-51): 14.0%

Oklahoma City (22-50): 11.5% (won tiebreaker over Cleveland)

Cleveland (22-50): 11.5%

Minnesota (23-49): 9.0%

Toronto (27-45): 7.5%

Chicago (31-41): 4.5% (won tiebreaker over Sacramento and New Orleans)

Sacramento (31-41): 4.5%

New Orleans (31-41): 4.5%

Charlotte (33-39): 1.8% (won tiebreaker over San Antonio)

San Antonio (33-39): 1.7%

Indiana (34-38): 1.0%

Golden State (39-33): 0.5%

Which teams are at risk of surrendering their 2021 lottery pick?

Some teams really, really want to have one of the top picks in the draft. 

If the Houston Rockets’ pick drops outside of the top four, the pick will be swapped with one of the first-round picks belonging to the Oklahoma City Thunder as part of the Russell Westbrook trade. The Rockets have a 47.9 chance of getting the fifth pick.

If the Minnesota Timberwolves’ pick isn’t in the top three, it goes to the Golden State Warriors as part of the Andrew Wiggins-D’Angelo Russell trade. 

The Chicago Bulls’ pick goes to Orlando if it falls outside of the top four as part of the Nikola Vucevic trade.

Which player has the best odds of being selected first overall in the 2021 NBA draft? 

That would be Cade Cunningham, per PointsBet

The Oklahoma State guard is listed as a -500 favorite to be selected with the first overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft. He is followed by USC center Evan Mobley at +750, Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs at +900, and the G League’s Jalen Green at +1000.

Winning the top pick requires futility, perhaps a little tanking and luck. Making the right pick is another challenge all together.

Editor's note: All odds are provided by our partner, PointsBet. PointsBet is our Official Sports Betting Partner and we may receive compensation if you place a bet on PointsBet for the first time after clicking our links.

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