NBA Draft Lottery: How conspiracy theories have led the league to evolve its draft order process

Though a global pandemic pushed it a few months after it was scheduled to originally take place, the 2020 NBA Draft season is officially upon us, set to take place on Thursday, Aug. 20. The NBA is not the only sports league with a draft lottery, but it is the only sports league whose draft lottery offers the amount of intrigue that it does. Part of it is the nature of the sport where one young star player can truly be the difference between a lottery team and a team in the playoffs, so seeing which franchises get an opportunity to be in that position is exciting.

Another, more salient, part is that the setup has served as a focal point of sports conspiracy theorists.

The question of whether the NBA Draft Lottery is rigged has been around since 1985. Back then, the board of governors had just instituted a lottery system for the draft — ironically as a response to claims that the old system, where the team with the worst record in each conference would decide who got the No. 1 spot on a coin flip, was unfair. The belle of the ball in the ’85 draft was national champion and one of the greatest college basketball players of all time: Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing.

At the lottery itself, envelopes with logos of all seven of the non-playoff teams were put into a hopper, and it was spun around a few times to mix them up. Once the tumbling stopped, NBA commissioner David Stern reached his hand into the pile, and chose the winner. As luck would have it, Stern pulled the Knicks’ envelope, meaning Ewing was all but theirs for the taking.

But was it actually luck? Immediately, questions were raised over how the team with the largest media market ended up with the most coveted prospect in the draft. The conspiracy theories that were flying around focused on the idea that Stern knew which envelope to select beforehand. Some speculated the Knicks’ envelope was dipped in dry ice prior to the lottery so that it’d be cold to the touch. Others said that the envelope’s corner was intentionally bent as a signal to Stern

In the eyes of a conspiracy theorist, the logic went as such: the league, whose four-year, $91.9 million TV deal with CBS was set to expire after the season, sought to move negotiating power for the next contract in their favor by placing Ewing in the league’s biggest market.

But where some might see logic, others might see clouded judgment. This train of thought could be described as proportionality bias, which Christopher French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London, explained in 2015 to Scientific American. When something of a certain magnitude occurs that escapes immediate human understanding, there’s an innate rush to justify what happened with an explanation of an equal or greater magnitude.

In other words, people try to explain big events with big causes. 

The reasoning was used to explain conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy (the notion that his death was part of a large scale operation is easier to accept than that a lone gunman was behind it) but it could just as well apply to draft conspiracies, albeit on a lesser scale. It is probably easier to believe that the 1985 draft was fixed via frozen envelope, or bent corner, rather than that the Knicks’ 14% chance to win the lottery actually hit.

Another side that would certainly agree that clouded judgment informs the minds of those who genuinely believe these conspiracies is, of course, the league itself. When asked about a rigged draft, the late Commissioner Stern was initially a lot more light-hearted in his response back in 1985.

“If people want to say that [the lottery was fixed], fine,” Stern said that year, per Sports Illustrated. “As long as they spell our name right. That means they’re interested in us. That’s terrific.”

Over time, that good nature began to sour, as Frank Isola of The Athletic noted in his piece about Stern following the former commissioner’s death in January:

Nearly 20 years after that transformative moment for the Knicks, I asked Stern about the frozen envelope conspiracy, foolishly thinking he might laugh it off. Instead, after a brief pause, he responded as you would expect an Ivy League-educated attorney in charge of the most powerful basketball league in the world.

“You do realize you’re asking me if I committed a felony,” Stern said. “It’s ridiculous.”

But it goes beyond dismissive statements on the topic from the former commissioner. What the league has on its side is that the closest thing to evidence that any conspiracist has on the league rigging the ’85 lottery are microscopic analyses of a slowed down, Zapruder-like version of the event’s video that looks at things like little tics and breathing patterns that Stern exhibits posted on YouTube — not to mention that surely if something fishy happened that night, someone would have come forward by now. Also, the Knicks, despite being awful in recent memory, have had some of the worst draft lottery luck since they got Ewing. 

Secondly, the NBA has actively worked to address concerns brought up about the lottery, which includes conspiracy theories themselves, to ensure a more fair and transparent process.

For example, when asked whether those theories inform the NBA’s decision to upload video of the draft lottery process online — a dull procedure that’s not made for television — a league spokesman told CBS Sports, “Transparency is the main reason and that motivates so much of what we do… but certainly questions in the past about our lottery process certainly inspired our decision to create more openness.”

Moves to make a more fair draft lottery have preceded some of the more modern changes. Shortly after the Warriors, who had the NBA’s worst record in the 1984-85 season, were dealt the seventh pick of the draft, the format changed so that the team with the worst record could pick no worse than fourth. The clunkiness of envelopes were eventually swapped out for the simplicity of ping pong balls and the idea of giving all non-playoff teams an equal shot at the No. 1 pick was soon replaced with a weighted lottery system that has adjusted odds based on the league’s size and with past results in mind ever since.

This evolution has culminated into an intricate and meticulously planned setup that seems to leave no room for error on any potential tampering.

The 2019 lottery worked like this: 14 ping-pong balls (weighed, measured and certified in advance and placed into a sealed case that’s not opened until right before the lottery begins) numbered 1 through 14 were placed into a lottery machine (also certified in advance). The balls were then jumbled and drawn from the machine at two different intervals until four were drawn. The first was drawn after a 20-second mix, while the next three were drawn after a 10-second mix (the timer is a league employee who looks away from the machine and lifts their arm whenever the time elapses). The four balls represent a four-digit combination. A thousand combinations were handed out proportionally to teams based on record (there are 1,001 combinations but the final combo, 11-12-13-14, is not given out). The teams with the three worst regular season records (New York, Cleveland and Phoenix) were allotted 140 combinations, the team with the fourth-worst record (Chicago) was given 125 combinations, and so on. This selecting process was repeated two more times for the second through fourth picks in the draft. 

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This all took place in a guarded backroom, away from the stage where the national broadcast of the lottery announcement would take place. Team representatives and a select group of media members were ushered in and, as Ben Golliver of the Washington Post noted in his report about the 2019 event, “staffers collected cellphones, smartwatches and other electronic devices in sealed yellow envelopes.” There was a presence from the NBA’s legal team, NBA media was present to record the event so that it could be uploaded online, and there was a member from the accounting firm Ernst & Young who is, as the league puts it, “vital in the process as far as ensuring the highest integrity of the event.”

“The E&Y person is there to witness the entire program to ensure the integrity of the event. He or she will review the charts that have all the team assigned number combinations and they will review the letters of authenticity from Smart Play — the manufacturer of the machine — that the balls are the proper weight,” a league spokesman told CBS Sports. “Also, following the lottery, they witness the placement of the team logos into the envelopes and follow them until delivered to the stage,”

Again, it’s such an intricate setup that it almost seems intentionally designed to convince any skeptic that absolutely nothing but random chance decides the draft order. It’s also worth noting that this is generally a process that has been used for quite some time, save for the specific odds assigned to teams.

But it’s not like any amount of evidence could ever really deter the most dedicated conspiracists from assuming some backdoor shenanigans resulted in any year’s draft order. In the 90s, it was the league rigging it for Orlando, the new expansion team at the time, when they got two No. 1 picks in a row. To kick off the 21st century, conspiracy accusations appeared when the No. 1 spot was given to the Wizards, who had just brought on Michael Jordan as a part owner. In 2003, it was supposedly rigged for the Cavs, who got to draft local high school phenom LeBron James — and then again in 2011 when conspiracists claimed the league compensated Cleveland for LeBron leaving for Miami. Derrick Rose going to his hometown Bulls in 2008 with less than a 2% chance to go No. 1 was too good to be true, as was Anthony Davis going to New Orleans in 2012 after it was sold by the league to Tom Benson. In 2019, it wasn’t even about the No. 1 pick, but rather the No. 4 pick, which the Lakers were given with just a 2.8% to do so in order for Los Angeles to have the assets to trade for Davis.

Though if there was ever a time for conspiracy theorist to really take hold of the NBA Draft, it’d be for the event slated to take place tonight. To comply with health and safety protocols made in response to COVID-19, the lottery will be virtual, which means, as the league describes it, “all of the on-stage participants will join virtually and there will not be a team representative present for the actual drawing.”

You feel that buzzing going on in the back of your head? Those are your conspiracy senses tingling as you notice an opportunity for, well, conspiracy. A conference call leaves more room for communication issues than would happen if everyone was in the same room — or at least more room for the excuse of communication issues. The number of witnesses for the drawing itself has diminished, and a portion of the live audience normally in attendance (the team reps) has been removed entirely. 


Not only has the number of witnesses gone down, but so has the number of people involved with the lottery itself. This has major implications as, according to a 2016 study from Oxford University physicist and cancer biologist David Robert Grimes, the fewer people involved in a conspiracy, the less likely it is to go public. Grimes developed a formula in his research to determine the length a conspiracy could be kept quiet based on the number of people who would know about it. The formula was used to explain that if the moon landing was a hoax, then one of NASA’s 400,000 employees at the time of the Apollo 11 mission would have spilled the beans on it in, at most, 3.68 years. 

This formula can then be reverse engineered to conclude that since, according to the league, the number of people involved in the draft lottery has dropped from over 400 to less than 50, any conspiratorial actions that happen during the draft lottery could be kept away from the public for significantly longer. For what it’s worth, the formula dictates that a conspiracy with 418 people involved (the closest number on the chart to the “over 400” total the NBA gave) maxes out at 30 years, while a conspiracy with 125 people involved (the lowest number published in the study, and the closest to the “less than 50” total the league gave) could last up to 100 years.

Simply put, this could be the greatest opportunity for the league to get away with some sort of rigging with many of the building blocks painstakingly put in place to run a fair draft removed. But let’s be real, there are a couple different ways such a theory falls apart quickly. First and foremost, the video of the lottery that the league publishes soon after it happens could very well show that there was very little room for anything scandalous to have occurred. 

Secondly, what lays the groundwork for a good conspiracy is the motive itself. Not only does the current TV contract, a nine-year, $24 billion deal that began in the 2016-17 season, not expire for a few more years, but there is not a clear enough No. 1 pick that would make sense for the league to “manipulate” the draft order for. In the latest mock draft by CBS Sports’ Gary Parrish, he notes that the winner of the top pick will determine who gets selected first, before writing, “But there is no consensus No. 1 pick this year. And, I think, at least four players — LaMelo Ball, Obi Toppin, Anthony Edwards and James Wiseman — could reasonably be selected first. So, ultimately, it’ll likely be an eye-of-the-beholder deal.” 

The draw of these names is certainly not the same as it was last year. That’s partly because it’s almost impossible for any player in the short-term to bring the kind of hype that Zion Williamson brought to the draft last year. However, it also doesn’t help that the coronavirus pandemic shut down conference tournaments and March Madness, where players have a chance to make a name for themselves on a national stage. It’s been over five months since people have last seen these guys play.

As a result, the best opportunity for a conspiracy theory to come to life in the 2020 NBA Draft Lottery appears to have been thwarted by the very forces that created this theoretical opportunity in the first place. Perhaps there’ll be no major conspiracy this year, or perhaps I’m just not thinking hard enough about it.

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