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What to watch for at the 2021 NBA Draft Lottery

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NBA: NBA Draft Lottery Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

On Tuesday night, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s future will be monumentally shifted by an event the Thunder themselves have no control over: The NBA draft lottery.

While the Thunder notably improved their chances at getting a top pick with some stellar tanking down the stretch, in the end, it will all come down to the ping pong balls.

So what should Thunder fans be hoping to see as this arcane event proceeds? Glad you asked.

How can I watch the draft lottery?

The 2021 NBA draft lottery will air on ESPN at 8:30 PM on Tuesday, 6/22.

How does the draft lottery work?

The fourteen teams who did not make the playoffs are ranked, from worst record to best, 1-14. The actual lottery drawing only determines 1-4; after that, the remaining teams not selected will draft in order of record.

Here’s how it works in practice: the Rockets, Pistons, Magic, and Thunder have the four worst records.

If, when the drawing happens, the Rockets were selected first, the Pistons second, the Magic third, and the Thunder fourth, then the remaining 10 teams would draft in order of record behind them.

However, every team has a certain chance of jumping into the top 4- the worse your record, the better your chance of jumping up.

So if, for instance, the Sacramento Kings (ninth-worst record) were drawn for first place, the Hornets (11th worst record) were drawn for second place, the Raptors (seventh-worst record) were drawn for third place, and the Pacers (13th worst record) were drawn for fourth place, then the Rockets would pick fifth, the Pistons sixth, the Magic seventh, and the Thunder eighth.

What are the Thunder’s odds?

With the fourth-worst record in the league, the Thunder has a 45.1% chance of being drawn for one of the top four spots and an 11.5% chance of getting the no. 1 pick, per the invaluable Tankathon.

That might feel low, but the highest chance any team has of getting the top pick is 14% due to the NBA attempting to disincentivize tanking (oops). The Rockets, Pistons, and Magic each have a 14% chance.

Can the Thunder get any other team’s picks?

Indeed, which is where things get fun.

Due to the Russell Westbrook-Chris Paul trade, the Thunder will receive the Rockets pick if it lands outside the top four.

The Rockets, as mentioned, have the worst record in the league.

The worst pick the Rockets can receive is no. 5, which will happen if four other teams (possibly including the Thunder) leapfrog them in the lottery.

There is a 47.9% chance the Rockets pick lands outside the top four, meaning there’s a 47.9% chance their pick goes to Oklahoma City.

If the Thunder receives this pick, it is guaranteed to be the fifth pick; the Rockets can do no worse than fifth, and if the pick is one through four, the Rockets will keep it, and the Thunder will instead receive the Miami Heat’s pick.

The Heat made the playoffs and are thus not part of the lottery; their pick is guaranteed to be No. 18.

The Thunder also now have the Celtics pick as a result of the Al Horford trade. That pick, too, is outside the lottery and is guaranteed to be no. 16.

What’s the worst-case scenario for the Thunder?

The worst the Thunder’s own pick can be is #8. That would only happen in a scenario described above, where four other teams were selected for the top four picks, and the Rockets, Magic, Pistons, and Thunder were all bumped down.

However, if the Thunder were pushed down to 8, that would mean Houston is guaranteed to have fallen outside the top four, and thus their pick would go to OKC. If OKC gets the no. 8 pick, it’s also getting Houston’s no. 5 pick.

The true worst-case scenario is that the Magic, Pistons, and Thunder get bumped out, but the Rockets stay in the top 4.

In that case, OKC would get the #7 pick, as well as Miami’s no. 18 pick.

Still, a nice thing to have, but not what you would hope for after the miserable 2020-21 season.

What’s the best-case scenario for the Thunder?

In the absolute best case, the Thunder’s 11.5% chance hits and the receive the no. 1 pick, AND Houston falls to no. 5.

The Thunder could wind up with the no. 1 and no. 5 picks in a stacked draft class.

What are the odds of that?

I can’t believe you’re making me do the math.

This is an example of dependent events - if the Thunder gets the no. 1 pick, that makes the Rockets more likely to get the no. 5 pick because it means the Rockets can’t get the no. 1 pick themselves.

Take away the 14% chance of Houston getting the no. 1 pick, and their odds of getting the no. 5 picks to go from 47.9% to 54.7%.

Multiply 11.5% 9the chances of OKC getting the no. 1 pick) by 54.7% (the chances of Houston getting the pick given that OKC got the first pick) and you get 6.29%- the Thunder’ chances* of securing the no. 1 and no. 5 picks.

*I took probability a long time ago, so that I might be wrong about this, but I’m pretty sure this is right.

So what should I want to happen while I’m watching?

The actual draft lottery is not televised and happens before the TV broadcast.

What you watch on TV is announcing those results...in reverse order, with commercial breaks at key moments, to build the drama.

So the broadcast will start by announcing the no. 14 picks, then the no. 13 picks, etc.

What OKC fans are rooting for here is chalk’ for the team with the 14th best odds to get the 14th pick, the 13th team to get the 13th pick, etc.

If a team doesn’t appear in its designated spot, that means they jumped into the top four.

So, for instance, the Pacers have the 13th worst odds. If it’s instead announced that the Spurs (12th worst odds) have the 13th pick, that means the Pacers jumped into the top four.

For the Thunder to get their absolute best outcome, they need one team to jump into the top four to displace the Rockets.

But the more teams that jump into the top four, the more likely the Thunder are bumped out.

The tensest moments for OKC will be when picks five through eight are announced.

The Thunder’s own pick will be eighth at worst, as discussed above.

So really, your rooting interest is for the Thunder to go as long as possible without having their name announced.

The announcement of the fifth pick will be particularly tense if OKC hasn’t already been called - in theory, the Thunder or Rockets could end up with the fifth pick.

The best outcome is OKC’s name is not called for picks four through six, and then the Rockets are announced as having “won” the fifth pick, which they will then immediately fork over (a pleasure doing business with you, fellas).

There’s usually a drama-building commercial break before the top four picks are announced.

If the Thunder still haven’t had their pick announced by then, the rooting interest remains the same - I hope they don’t get called until the very end when the no. 1 pick is announced.

What else should I know?

This is a nerve-wracking event to watch!

If you’re a big Thunder fan, your happiness will in some way be affected by this event, which you have no control over.

Of course, that’s also true of, y’know, watching the actual games.

But there’s a different vibe to hoping your favorite player hits a shot and waiting for your team’s name to be announced.

The good news is OKC can survive a less-than-perfect outcome in this draft.

General Manager Sam Presti has accumulated a metric ton of future draft picks. There’s more than one great player in this draft, and the Thunder already has several promising young players.

Did that calm you down? No? Cool, me neither. Let’s do this thing!