No Matter Who Wins, The NBA Draft Lottery Is Fixed

If Charlotte wins the first overall pick in tonight's draft lottery, it'll be because the association wants Michael Jordan to succeed and the Bobcats to draw in a market the NBA desperately wants to stay in. If Washington wins the lottery, it'll be because Ted Leonsis's son is the team's rep, and the NBA loves having young kids and old widows win. If Cleveland wins a second straight No. 1, it'll be because the league wants to amply reward them for getting screwed by LeBron. If New Orleans wins, it'll be a thank-you to Tom Benson for buying the Hornets. If the Kings win, it'll be a ploy to keep the Maloofs in Sacramento. If the Nets win, it'll help persuade Deron Williams to stay and Dwight Howard to come and create an instantly competitive team for its Brooklyn debut.

There is not a single team in the lottery that could win tonight without the NBA conspiracy theorists crying "fixed!", except maybe the Raptors, and David Stern doesn't want Anthony Davis languishing in Toronto so he's not going to let that happen.

Speculating that the NBA is rigged is a time-honored tradition, now the domain of executives as well as angry people on the internet. It's a natural urge to seek order in chaos. And the NBA, with tons of shady officiating and a league office that operates with less transparency than a Third Reich People's Court, is a natural target.

Math is hard and sometimes counterintuitive. There's a three-in-four chance the team with the worst record doesn't land the first pick, but it's still technically an upset when they don't. At Grantland, they've chosen five teams that, if they win the lottery tonight, would be evidence of a conspiracy. Those five teams' odds add up to better than 43 percent, so it would be almost as much of a surprise if one of those five teams didn't win. Probabilities also help to explain—no, totally explain—why past number ones have been almost too good a fit to be true. If teams desperate for a superstar and lagging in attendance tend to win the top pick, well, they're probably pretty bad teams and that's why they're in the lottery. It's not a coincidence that the ping pong balls give elite players to teams that have really good reasons for needing an elite player.

If so many people readily believe the draft lottery is fixed, that indicates a deeper-seated problem with the NBA's perceived integrity. A problem that's not going to be solved by having some dude in a tux from PricewaterhouseCoopers stand just offstage tonight. But the lottery itself is probably clean, if only because the league doesn't have enough at stake in sending Anthony Davis to one downtrodden franchise over another.

Unless the Nets win. Then that shit is totally fixed.