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Evan Horowitz

Do the laws of probability not apply to Cleveland?

Cleveland Cavaliers minority owner Jeff Cohen displayed the ping pong ball that won the Cavaliers the top pick.Kathy Willens/Associated Press

The only reason to think that the Cleveland Cavaliers were going to win last night’s NBA lottery is that they’ve been on a streak, having nabbed the top spot in both 2011 and 2012. This time, though, the odds were 59-to-1 that Cleveland would pick first in the June 26 draft. That is, if you ran the lottery 60 times, you’d expect the Cavs to get that top spot just once. Which they did. What are the odds that a team could win the lottery in three out of four years?

In other sports, this issue doesn’t come up, because the first pick in the draft simply goes to the team with the worst record. In the NBA, things are different. Each of the bottom 14 teams has a chance, though not an equal chance. The worse your record, the better your odds.


The Cavaliers had a relatively bad record this year, but not a terrible one. There were eight teams who performed worse, which means there were eight teams that had a better chance of winning the lottery. The Celtics, for instance, were six times more likely to win the top pick. Milwaukee was 15 times more likely.

The fact that the Cavs ended the night with the top pick is itself remarkable, but what’s even more stunning is that it’s their third number one pick in four years. The odds that the Cavaliers would win three of the last four lotteries are extremely small. Not impossibly small, since the Cavs were among the NBA’s worst teams from 2011-2013, but around 200-to-1, which is lower than your chances of dying from unintentional poisoning. You could think of it as the basketball gods trying their best to help Cleveland after the crippling loss of superstar LeBron James in 2010.


Those basketball gods have been much less kind to the Celtics on lottery days. This year, the Celtics had a 10 percent chance of getting that first pick, and a 34 percent chance of being among the top three. Instead, they ended up with the sixth pick.

Being unlucky in the lottery is becoming rather familiar for the Celtics. In 2007, they missed out on what was a 20 percent chance of being able to choose between Greg Oden and Kevin Durant. Likewise, in the 1997 draft, they had a one-in-three chance of being able to pick Tim Duncan, but instead they ended up with Chauncey Billups and Ron Mercer. In fact, the last time the Celtics had the top choice in an NBA draft was 1950, when they chose Chuck Share.

Before Celtics fans get too jealous, though, it’s worth remembering that over the last four seasons, the Celtics have won 161 games while the Cavs have won just 97. So far, at least, winning the lottery hasn’t paid off for Cleveland.

Further Reading

- Nate Silver looks at how much a top lottery spot actually helps a team

- Matthew Yglesias argues that the lottery is a sideshow

Evan Horowitz digs through data to find information that illuminates the policy issues facing Massachusetts and the U.S. He can be reached at evan.horowitz@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz