Pop Cultural Conspiracy Theory Hour: Is the NBA Draft Rigged?

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75% chance this team doesn’t get Wiggins.

Tonight is the NBA draft lottery. Instead of the simple “worst team goes first” model used by the NFL, there’s an element of chance to the NBA draft as the worst team only has a 25% chance of going first.

The claim first arose in the 80s, when the New York Knicks won the first pick. The envelope containing their logo, however, could be identified through its bent corner – leading to speculation that NBA Commissioner David Stern knew that envelope contained the Knicks logo and intentionally chose the large-market team.

Later the NBA switched to a different lottery system and refuse to show the draw. Further conspiracies surround the Cleveland Cavaliers being selected first, choosing Akron-born LeBron James, and the long-shot Chicago Bulls selecting native Derrick Rose first in 2008. And the then League-owned New Orleans Hornets (now Pelicans) were picked first in 2012. And that’s why the Bulls, Cavaliers and Pelicans are just swimming in championships today! Is the NBA draft rigged? Why won’t they allow cameras in?

They do, actually, and if they’re rigging it they’re doing a bad job. A video the NBA posted of the draft lottery shows the process: 14 balls are placed into a tumbler and four of them drawn. These four form a four or five digit number. Each team not in the playoffs is given many number combinations: 250 for the worst team, 5 for the least worst. They then pick for two more teams before allowing the rest of the draft to proceed in inverse order of record.

Why do the worst teams rarely win? A 25% chance of winning means a 75% chance of losing. It’s far more likely for a team to lose the draft with those odds than win first pick.

As the video shows, they can even pick the same team’s numbers multiple times and have to do it over again. How could you even rig such a random process, where the selection isn’t even done by people but automatically?

The NBA does show off the process on their website.

Why not show it in the open? What’s more dramatic – Adam Silver opening an unknown envelope and announcing the winner on stage, or a bunch of people slowly picking table tennis balls out of a tube and announcing numbers? Sometimes having to redo draws until they get a new team?

But let’s be honest. It’s not that the draft is rigged to fit certain narratives. People construct narratives to fit their idea that the draft is rigged. In a satirical article, Dan Feldman points out that you can build a narrative that “proves” it’s rigged in favor of any team.

No, the NBA draft lottery is not rigged. The only proof in the modern form of the lottery is people trying to invent reasons for the draft to be rigged for the winner – and you can do it with any team, if you want to.

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