NBA draft lottery: Inside secret room where picks are decided

The Atlanta Hawks -- with 3% odds! -- won the NBA draft lottery for the first time in franchise history. Jeff Haynes/NBAE via Getty Images

"Can you imagine if this happened last year?"

That was a common sentiment in the private lottery drawing room, where about three dozen people give up their laptops and cell phones and sequester themselves to watch the real lottery about an hour before the televised version.

A year ago in Chicago, with Victor Wembanyama atop every draft board, you could feel the tension among the 14 team officials -- one for each lottery team -- in that drawing room. Everyone knew the stakes. Everyone was on edge. The usual small talk before the drawing was stilted and fidgety. Even the media members and NBA staffers in attendance were nervous.

This year, it was borderline casual. There is no consensus No. 1 pick, though several team officials and agents gathered in Chicago for the draft combine told ESPN that center Alex Sarr is the one player most likely to fall in the top two or three of almost every team's draft board. Beyond that, it's chaos. Team officials expect several teams might investigate the return for trading down a few slots -- only to have trouble finding a trade partner eager to deal meaningful assets to move up.

In the weeks leading to Sunday, even officials from teams who stood to potentially lose their first-round picks depending on the luck of the draw -- the Toronto Raptors, Utah Jazz and Golden State Warriors among them -- seemed indifferent to the results.

But the lottery has a way of delivering anxiety, and you could feel it ripple around the room after an NBA staffer pressed a button to suck the first three numbered pingpong balls from the classic air-powered lottery machine the NBA uses for this theater of the bizarre. The machine holds 14 balls, numbered 1-14. The league draws four in sequence, creating a four-digit combination. There are 1,001 such possible combinations. All combinations but one (11, 12, 13, 14) are assigned to one of the 14 lottery teams, with the teams at the bottom of the standings owning the most combinations.

In a four-page packet provided to each team representative, the combinations are listed in numerical order with the numbers flowing from lowest to highest (1, 3, 8, 12, for example). But the order in which the balls emerge does not matter; if you own that four-number combination, it belongs to you regardless of whether the 12 or 8 ball is the first one pulled. (Legend has it one high-profile GM from the past 20 years did not understand this, and thought for a few seconds his team had lost out because of the order in which the four balls emerged, when his team in fact had won the lottery.)

The Detroit Pistons and Washington Wizards, the teams with the two worst records last season, each owned 140 of the 1,000 combinations. The Warriors -- the lottery team with the best record -- owned only seven.

The worst teams own most of the combinations featuring 1, 2 and 3. When one of those numbers rises from the machine, the suspense ends for most of the room.

The first three numbers pulled Sunday were, in order, 6, 10 and 14 -- all high-ish numbers. The ensuing 10 seconds -- if you are lucky enough to get them -- are the most delicious part of the lottery. For those fleeting moments with all high numbers out, something like half the teams have a chance at the No. 1 pick. Team officials rifle through their packets of combinations, searching for the fourth number that would win it for them.

At that moment, seven teams (by ESPN's informal count) owned combinations featuring 6, 10 and 14 and thus had a chance to win the No. 1 pick: the Atlanta Hawks, San Antonio Spurs (again?), Raptors, Wizards, Memphis Grizzlies, Portland Trail Blazers and the Brooklyn Nets -- who, of course, did not own their pick, having traded it without any protection to Houston in the James Harden deal in 2021.

The last ball came up: 13. The Hawks had defied the odds, winning the No. 1 pick despite coming in with a 3% chance of doing so. And thus came the whispering: Imagine the scene if this kind of leap had happened last season?

But Atlanta's winning immediately triggered a wave of speculation, in that drawing room and outside of it, about what the Hawks might do with the pick -- and how rising to No. 1 might impact Atlanta's offseason approach to gauging the trade market for either Trae Young or Dejounte Murray.