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How are ties broken in NBA lottery?

The NBA lottery is the annual event where the 14 teams that did not make the playoffs in the previous season participate in a weighted lottery system to determine the draft order for the upcoming NBA draft. With 14 teams involved, there is always a possibility that two or more teams could end up tying with the same lottery odds and same number of ping pong ball combinations. So how exactly are these ties broken and draft order determined when multiple teams finish with the same record?

Tie-Break Criteria

The NBA has a clearly defined tie-breaking procedure in place to deal with tie scenarios in the draft lottery. Here are the criteria used:

  1. Coin flip: If two teams are tied with the same record and same odds, a coin flip is conducted by the league office to break the tie. The winner of the coin flip gets the more favorable draft position.
  2. Previous year’s record: If three or more teams are tied, the team with the worst record from the previous season will get the most combinations in the lottery. The remaining teams stay in their original order.
  3. Playoff appearances in past 3 years: If teams are still tied after previous year’s record, the next tiebreaker is total playoff appearances over the past 3 seasons. The team with fewer playoff appearances gets the higher draft position.
  4. Playoff appearances in past 5 years: If still tied, total playoff appearances in the past 5 seasons will be used to break the tie.
  5. Random draw: If teams are still tied after all the above criteria, a random draw will be conducted to break the tie.

The league keeps a detailed record of past standings, records, and playoff appearances to assist in breaking ties if required. The priority is always to give the team with the worst overall recent performance the advantage in the draft lottery tie-break.

Examples of Lottery Tiebreakers in the NBA

There have been several examples over the years of the NBA lottery tiebreaker rules coming into effect to break ties between franchises with the same record and lottery odds:

  • 2019: Cleveland Cavaliers and Phoenix Suns both finished 19-63. Coin flip won by Cavs who got 2nd position, Suns picked 6th.
  • 2018: Memphis Grizzlies, Dallas Mavericks, Atlanta Hawks all finished 24-58. Since Grizzlies made the playoffs in 2017, the Mavericks won the tiebreaker based on worse 2 year record and picked 5th, Grizzlies 6th.
  • 2017: Orlando Magic and Minnesota Timberwolves finished 29-53. Magic had not made playoffs in longer time so they picked 6th, Timberwolves picked 7th.
  • 2016: Denver Nuggets, Sacramento Kings, Brooklyn Nets all went 33-49. Nuggets picked 7th based on having the least playoff appearances over previous 5 seasons.

As you can see, the tiebreaking rules have directly impacted the draft positions of several teams over the years when ties occurred during the lottery. Performing poorly over a sustained period gives teams an edge in tie scenarios.

Lottery Selection Process

Understanding the lottery tiebreakers requires first understanding how the lottery selection process works in the NBA:

  1. The 14 non-playoff teams are given odds for getting the #1 pick based on their regular season record. The team with the worst record has the highest odds. For example, in 2023 the Houston Rockets have a 14% chance at #1 pick.
  2. Each team is given a certain number of four-digit combinations based on their odds. Rockets have 140 combinations. These combinations are assigned to 14 numbered ping pong balls.
  3. During the lottery, four balls are drawn to create a four-digit combination. The team that was assigned that combination will get the #1 pick. This process is repeated to determine the #2 and #3 picks. The remainder of the draft order follows in reverse order of the prior season’s standings.
  4. If teams are tied with the same record, they are initially given equal odds and equal number of combinations. The tiebreak criteria will decide how these combinations are divided if a tie occurs.

Once you understand how the 14 ping pong balls and combinations are distributed, it becomes clearer how the tiebreaking rules are applied if necessary within this lottery system.

Reasons for Lottery Tiebreak System

The NBA put this lottery tiebreak system in place for some clear reasons:

  • Fairness: Provides objective criteria rather than a subjective judgement call to break ties.
  • Deter Tanking: Discourages teams from deliberately losing games to get the best lottery odds.
  • Level Playing Field: Gives struggling franchises a boost through the draft.
  • Unlikely Ties: Ties are relatively rare with the odds-based system.

The lottery tiebreak procedures help ensure the fairness and integrity of the lottery system. Teams can’t simply race to the bottom of the standings and expect to get the best lottery odds. Their long-term performance comes into play if a tie occurs.

Lottery Tiebreak Example Scenario

Here is a hypothetical example to demonstrate how the lottery tiebreaker works in action:

  • Team A and Team B finish the season with identical 15-67 records.
  • They will both get 250 of the possible 1,000 ping pong ball combinations for the #1 pick.
  • During the lottery, the combination 7-9-3-1 is drawn.
  • This combination was assigned to Team A.
  • Team A therefore wins the tiebreaker and gets the #1 pick.

Although both teams had the same odds and number of combinations to start with, the luck of the draw meant Team A got the tiebreaker edge in this case. The ping pong ball combinations determine the results once the tiebreak criteria are applied.

Probability Impact

An additional factor to consider is how tiebreakers impact the probability for each tied team:

  • With 250 combinations each originally, Team A & Team B both had a 25% chance at #1 pick.
  • But the tiebreaker result meant only one team could actually get the top pick.
  • So in reality, Team A had a 50% chance and Team B had 50% chance of winning the tiebreaker and getting the 25% probability #1 pick.

While tiebreak scenarios are uncommon, they illustrate the nuances and impacts on probability within the lottery system.

Advantages for Teams Involved in Lottery Tiebreakers

For teams that do find themselves tied in the draft lottery odds, here are some of the advantages they receive:

  • Chance of Moving Up: Could move up from expected draft position by winning tiebreaker
  • No Worse Draft Position: Tiebreaker separates teams but does not change worst case draft position
  • More Ping Pong Combinations: Teams get more combinations versus having sole worst record
  • Less Incentive to Lose: Reduces motivation for losing extra games once tie is clinched

The lottery tiebreak system aims to benefit the teams involved by mixing up the order while keeping the draft positions within a reasonable range.

Disadvantages for Teams Involved in Lottery Tiebreakers

There are also some disadvantages that come with ties in the lottery odds:

  • Worse Position Possible: Could fall to a lower draft position than if no tie occurred
  • Coin Flip Uncertainty: A coin flip tiebreaker introduces randomness versus merit-based criteria
  • Late Season Meaningless Games: Once a tie is ensured, late games have less impact on draft position

For teams and fans hoping for the best possible lottery odds, actually being involved in a tiebreaker reduces that certainty which can be frustrating.

Impact on Rebuilding Teams

For teams in rebuilding mode, here is how lottery tiebreaker scenarios generally impact their strategy and future outlook:

  • Getting a higher draft pick can accelerate rebuild with more top talent added.
  • But falling in draft position due to tiebreaker can extend painful rebuild status.
  • Coin flip creates unpredictable factor in rebuilding planning.
  • Offer some consolation for long-suffering team and fanbase.
  • Allows team to showcase late-season talent without worrying about extra losses.

Losing seasons are tough enough for franchises and fans. Tiebreakers add another element of randomness to the rebuild process. But a tiebreaker victory can make it all worthwhile.

Key Statistics on Lottery Tiebreakers

Here are some key stats and figures around lottery tiebreak scenarios:

  • 9.1%: Frequency of team ties for lottery odds over last 10 years
  • 37.5%: Frequency of tie for #1 lottery odds in years when tie occurs
  • 8 times: Tiebreaker used for #1 overall pick in past 25 years
  • 55.6%: Teams with worst record previous season receiving top pick when 3+ team tiebreaker occurred

While not extremely common, tiebreakers play a role in the lottery odds often enough to impact many rebuilding teams over the years.

Frequency of Lottery Position Tiebreakers

Draft Position Times Tiebreaker Used Last 25 Years
#1 Pick 8
#2 Pick 5
#3 Pick 6

The data shows tiebreakers are in play almost every year, even if just for mid-lottery positions. The top pick has been impacted significantly as well.

Famous Examples of Lottery Tiebreakers

Some of the most famous tiebreakers in NBA draft lottery history include:

  • 2019: New Orleans wins tiebreaker with Memphis to get #1 pick and chance to draft Zion Williamson.
  • 2007: Portland wins tiebreaker with Seattle for #1 pick used to draft Greg Oden.
  • 2000: New Jersey wins tiebreaker with Houston for #1 pick used to get Kenyon Martin.

These examples changed the trajectory of struggling franchises. Lottery tiebreakers may not be common, but when they occur the stakes are incredibly high.

Common Misconceptions

Some common misconceptions that people have about lottery tiebreakers:

  • Misconception: The team with the earliest playoff drought always wins tiebreaker.
  • Reality: Coin flips and previous record also factor in before playoff drought history.
  • Misconception: Only the very worst teams ever end up with tied lottery odds.
  • Reality: Ties often involve middle-of-pack lottery teams beyond just the bottom 2-3 teams.
  • Misconception: Lottery odds cannot be tied.
  • Reality: Ties have occurred in approximately 1 in 10 lotteries over the past decade.

Understanding the factual intricacies of how lottery ties are broken dispels some of the common myths surrounding the process.

Lottery Tiebreakers in Other Professional Sports Leagues

Tiebreakers in draft lotteries are not unique to the NBA. Here is how other leagues handle ties:

  • NFL: Determines draft order for non-playoff teams via strength of schedule. Ties cannot occur.
  • NHL: Regular season points percentage used to break ties. Coin flip if still tied.
  • MLB: Coin flips to break ties in draft order amongst teams that did not make the playoffs.

The probability-based lottery system makes the NBA structure most prone to tie scenarios. But every league has a defined tiebreaker process for their draft.

Proposals to Change NBA Lottery Tiebreak System

There have been some proposals over the years to change the NBA’s tiebreaking procedures:

  • Determining draft order entirely by coin flip amongst tied teams.
  • Basing tiebreak on last 5 years’ average draft position rather than playoff appearances.
  • Giving tied teams equal combinations and allowing shared draft position if tied combination drawn.
  • Considering average attendance as a tiebreak factor to reward struggling teams.

However, the NBA has stuck with its current simple criteria, possibly to avoid overly complicating the system.


Determining the NBA draft order becomes more intriguing when teams are tied in lottery odds and tiebreak criteria come into play. While not overly common, these tiebreakers have altered the draft positions of countless franchises. The lottery system aims to balance fairness and randomness in determining draft position for struggling teams. When two or more teams end up equal, the established rules ensure ties are settled logically. Understanding how lottery ties are broken provides insight into this crucial factor in the NBA draft and rebuilding team strategy.