How the New Orleans Hornets Won the NBA Draft Lottery

by May 31, 2012

Despite the inevitable and annual round of “CONSPIRACY!” charges from the lunatic fringe (and, to be fair, NBA players themselves), the Draft Lottery is a legitimately random affair. was in the room last night when the lottery balls were drawn, and describes in great detail how the Hornets came out as big (if surprising) winners: “The balls are drawn from one of those air-powered lottery machines more than an hour before the television broadcast of the lottery, in a room open only to officials from the 14 lottery teams (one from each) and a few media members. Everyone in the room must surrender mobile devices and slip them in yellow packing envelopes, and no one is allowed to leave until ESPN’s telecast is over. […] Each lottery team is assigned a batch of four-number sequences, of which there are 1,001 in total, all involving various combinations of the numbers ‘1’ through ’14.’ The league assigns the sequences chronologically, so that the Bobcats, the team with the best odds of winning the lottery, got the first 250 sequences — all containing the number ‘1.’ The Charlotte sequences started with ‘1-2-3-4’ and went up to ‘1-7-12-14.’ Though the Wizards, the team with the second-best odds, also had some sequences containing a ‘1,’ the odds were very high that if a ‘1’ came up at all among the four ping-pong balls on Wednesday night, the No. 1 pick would belong to the Bobcats. The machine whirred the balls around for the required 20 seconds and spit out the first number — a ‘6.’ Ten more seconds of scrambling passed before a ‘4’ emerged. Hornets general manager Dell Demps scanned a worksheet of his team’s sequences and noticed that at least a few were in play after the ‘6-4’ drawing. New Orleans had the fourth-best odds of winning the top pick — a 13.7 percent long shot — meaning many of its sequences contained a ‘4.’ A lower number, Demps knew, would shift the pick elsewhere. After the mandatory 10-second pause for the remaining 12 balls to bounce around inside the machine, a league official drew out the next ball — a ‘9.’ Demps was in business. So was Jeffrey Cohen, vice chairman of the Cavaliers. If the final ball was marked with a ‘3,’ the Cavaliers would win the lottery for the second straight season. A ‘7,’ Demps knew, would give the Hornets the top spot. Ten more seconds passed, and a man with his back to the machine raised his hand, indicating that the official in charge of the machine should have it suck up the last ball. ‘I was just thinking, ‘Come on, seven! Come on, seven!’ Demps said after the drawing. The ball surfaced: a ‘7,’ only the way it came out, it initially looked like a ‘1.’ Demps slumped in his chair for a second. ‘I couldn’t tell,’ he said. He then looked more closely and was sure it was a ‘7.’ He was getting excited. ‘But then I just told myself I had to wait for them to announce it.’ That came a few seconds later: The Hornets had won the No. 1 pick. Demps responded with a fist pump underneath the table.”