Looking at Lottery Picks and Why the Play-In Matters for Young Spurs


With five games left in the season, the San Antonio Spurs were in control of their own destiny. Balancing on the edge of making the postseason, or missing it for the third straight year, the fanbase was and still is, divided in discussion in whether or not this is the right move for the team. Should they have taken their shot at the playoffs, or tanked the final week in hopes of landing a lottery pick in the upcoming draft?


Odds of Winning the Lottery

I’ve had several conversations with people around the city and on Spurs Twitter, and there’s a lot of belief that San Antonio needs to chase a lottery pick to get this team over the hump. Thinking like this really gets under my skin.

The amount of success that the Spurs have had in the lottery is often cited, with the team twice coming out of the process with the first overall selection. Those picks of course were David Robinson and Tim Duncan, who were the backbone of three championship teams, and the foundation of a twenty-year dynasty. Occurrences like those lotteries are the exception, not the norm.

According to ESPN, the odds of a lottery team getting the top overall pick is 14%. The worst team in the league has a 47.9% chance of falling out of the top four draft positions. While some might look at that number and like the odds of just over 50%, is all that losing really worth it?

The most recent lottery experience for the Spurs didn’t quite turn out that way. In their return to the lottery following last season, the team ended up with the 11th overall pick, which became Devin Vassell.

As the Texas Lottery slogan goes, “You can’t win if you don’t play”, and it’s the same with the NBA lottery. Also like the Texas Lottery, not everyone wins anything, and many go home empty-handed. The difference between the NBA lottery and the state lottery, however, is sometimes when you win, you still lose. That’s because there’s still the game of chance that the selection pans out.

In the last two lotteries, the team with the worst record didn’t even get the top pick in the ensuing draft. Even when they did, there are still recent-memory selections like Anthony Bennett, Andrew Wiggins, and Markelle Fultz to show that they don’t always pan out as expected. Even when they do, and an all-star is taken first overall, that doesn’t always equate with team success.

Over the last 10 years, the top three selections haven’t equated in immediate success, or even slightly delayed success by a year or two for the teams that pick them. Sure, the Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics are serious contenders now, but it’s been a while coming for both teams, and they had multiple top-three picks, not just lottery picks, and not just one.

Year1st Selection2nd Selection3rd Selection
2020Anthony Edwards (MIN)James Wiseman (GSW)LaMelo Ball (CHO)
2019Zion Williamson (NOP)Ja Morant (MEM)RJ Barrett (NYK)
2018Deandre Ayton (PHO)Marvin Bagley III (SAC)Luka Doncic (ATL)
2017Markelle Fultz (PHI)Lonzo Ball (LAL)Jayson Tatum (BOS)
2016Ben Simmons (PHI)Brandon Ingram (LAL)Jaylen Brown (BOS)
2015Karl Anthony-Towns (MIN)D’Angelo Russell (LAL)Jahlil Okafor (PHI)
2014Andrew Wiggins (CLE)Jabari Parker (MIL)Joel Embiid (PHI)
2013Anthony Bennett (CLE)Victor Oladipo (ORL)Otto Porter (WAS)
2012Anthony Davis (NOH)Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (CHA)Bradley Beal (WAS)
2011Kyrie Irving (CLE)Derrick Williams (MIN)Enes Kanter (UTA)

Where are these teams now?

The Celtics hit on Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, without a doubt. Philadelphia, who had four top-three selections in the last 10 drafts, is finally clicking and took finally landing the top pick to do so. They now sit atop the Eastern Conference at 47-23.

Bradley Beal in Washington couldn’t carry the team alone when John Wall was out, and once again with another top pick in Russell Westbrook, has the Wizards (32-38) moving, but not truly contending. In fact, only six teams that have had a top-three pick in the last decade are even a No. 5 seed or higher. Those teams are the Atlanta Hawks (40-31), Milwaukee Bucks (45-25), New York Knicks (39-31), 76ers, Phoenix Suns (49-21), and Utah Jazz (50-20).

The Atlanta situation is interesting because it isn’t Luka Doncic (fifth place with the Dallas Mavericks), but Trae Young leading the team. Utah is lead by Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, who are both with the Jazz because Enes Kanter couldn’t help the team out of the lottery.

In Milwaukee, it was the development of their 2013 selection, Giannis Antentokoumpo, that brought them to where they are, not Jabari Parker. Phoenix has had nine lottery selections in the last 10 drafts and was still a lottery team last year. This season, they’ve really benefitted from the addition of Chris Paul, who has already been an MVP candidate with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

What about the rest of the teams? Considering that the average number of wins for the 17 teams profiled here was 34.9 entering this week, and the previously mentioned six teams are doing well, the rest aren’t.

The Cleveland Cavaliers, Minnesota Timberwolves, and Orlando Magic were already eliminated from contention. They were joined this week by the New Orleans Pelicans and Sacramento Kings. Everyone else has nearly secured at least a play-in, which is exactly where the San Antonio Spurs, with a single lottery pick in the last 10 years (Vassell) find themselves.

Looking at this information, is chasing a top selection really going to help the Spurs? Would San Antonio be the exception to the rest of the NBA and see their fortunes turn around in a year or even two? If you’re going to be that patient, why not just wait on Vassell, Keldon Johnson, Tre Jones, and Luka Samanic to finish coming into their own?

Why Doesn’t Losing Work

Oftentimes, teams selecting at the top of the draft are looking for a player to progressively build a team around. Recent history, however, would show that teams have more success when the majority of the role players are already on the team, and they add a top-tier talent.

In 2020, it was the Lakers who had a rather complete team, but even a healthy LeBron James needed Anthony Davis to make the team a true contender. On the bench, the Miami Heat inserted Jimmy Butler on a playoff team to help them reach the NBA Finals. In 2019, Kawhi Leonard was plugged into a team that was already a contender in the East and got the job done. In 2017, Kevin Durant joined a Warriors team that needed the extra “oomph” to get past the Cavs.

Spreading the Wealth

The rapid movement of superstars away from defending champions, in addition to consecutive seasons where the Warriors lost Klay Thompson, has resulted in no repeating champions the last three years. Instead, they’re leaving to build success elsewhere.

Durant leaving for the Brooklyn Nets and Leonard going to the Los Angeles Clippers have seen to that. In both big-market cities, they’re following the LeBron model of constructing superteams, with almost no value on draft picks. Even the Suns traded away a number of their recent selections for Paul. He, however, was inserted into a talented roster that needed someone of a higher caliber.

Stay the Course

So rather than trying to position themselves in the draft for a lottery selection, the Spurs should stay the course. Focus on developing their current roster, and get them playoff experience. The cream will rise to the top. Like with Phoenix, a number of the rest may be traded in order to acquire a higher talent that will raise their level of play.

Thinking that the lottery will solve all the Spurs’ problems is irresponsible. Believing that real success can come from missing the playoffs is ridiculous. San Antonio may not have the market size but can build an attractive roster to attract talent. However, nobody wants to join a team that can’t make the postseason. Even more, current players don’t want to stay with a franchise that doesn’t prioritize winning.


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