Celtics Blog

The Boston Celtics’ Long, Tortured, NBA Lottery History

You needn’t look any further than Tommy Heinsohn’s face to determine how the Celtics had done in the 2007 NBA Draft Lottery. Heinsohn sat in as the representative of a Boston team that went 24-58 in 2006-07, second-worst in the league. The Celtics entered the night with a 19.9 percent chance at the top pick and a 55.8 percent chance at a top-three pick. They left with the fifth pick and a look from Heinsohn that would make Bennett Salvatore jealous.

The Celtics’ most recent foray into lottery land wasn’t their most infamous, however. Ten years earlier, Rick Pitino’s Celtics came into the lottery with a 15-67 record (thanks, M.L. Carr) and the best chance at landing the top pick. Expansion franchise Vancouver had the league’s worst record but was ineligible to pick first. With a 27.5 percent chance of landing the No.1 overall pick and Wake Forest center Tim Duncan there for the taking, the Celtics ended up with picks No. 3 and 6. Duncan went to San Antonio, and the Celtics, who selected Chauncey Billups and Ron Mercer, wouldn’t crack a .500 record again for the next four seasons. So much for the shamrock.


Since the advent of the modern lottery system in 1990, the Celtics haven’t picked higher than third. The year after the Duncan debacle, Boston lucked out by getting Paul Pierce with the No. 10 pick. If they hadn’t hit on Pierce as a franchise player, who knows how much worse the tailspin could have been.

The history of the lottery system is one of trial and error. It started with a simple coin flip. Between 1966 and 1984, the NBA’s system of awarding draft position consisted of the worst teams in each division flipping a coin to determine the top pick. Remaining first-round picks were determined in reverse order of win-loss record. If the two worst teams happened to be in the same division, that second-worst team was out of luck, barred from even getting a shot at the No. 1 overall pick.


The league moved to a lottery system in 1985 when accusations began to surface that some teams were intentionally trying to lose games to secure a better pick. The horror.

The name of each of the non-playoff teams was written on an envelope and picked at random, meaning teams had just as good a chance getting the No. 1 pick as the 5th or 10th pick. While a true lottery, that system led to inevitable complaints as well.

Today’s weighted lottery system pits the 14 non-playoff teams against one another. The teams are ranked in reverse order of their win-loss record and then given a certain number of “chances” at the top pick. The No. 1 team in terms of losses has a 25 percent chance at the top pick, the No. 2 team a 19 percent chance, etc. Here’s how the top 10 breaks down:

1. 25 percent chance of receiving the #1 pick
2. 19.9 percent chance
3. 15.6 percent
4. 11.9 percent
5. 8.8 percent
6. 6.3 percent
7. 4.3 percent
8. 2.8 percent
9. 1.7 percent
10. 1.1 percent

As far as Boston’s 10.3 percent chance at the top pick and 33.4 percent chance of a top-three pick, Celtics managing partner Steve Pagliuca says he’s hoping for luck but isn’t stressing too much about where the ping pong balls fall.

“Danny [Ainge] has been great at picking anywhere,” Pagliuca said in a phone interview. “We should get a good player no matter which pick I end up with.”

Pagliuca will represent the team on lottery night in a tie given to him by Celtics patriarch Red Auerbach.

If there’s one good thing about the Celtics’ lottery history it’s that they’ve picked good years to be terrible. Kevin Durant was available in 2007, Duncan in 1997. This year’s class features several players, Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker among them, whom teams deemed worth tanking for. More than any shamrock or lucky tie, the third time might be a charm. In a town that prides itself on the luck of the Irish, it is, at least, one more chance to tempt fate.


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