The Cleveland Cavaliers defied probability again Tuesday night, winning the No. 1 selection in the NBA draft lottery despite a 98.3 percent likelihood against that happening.
The Cavaliers also received the first pick in the 2011 and 2013 lotteries, beating teams with greater chances of winning the top selection.
After Tuesday’s lottery completed the Cavaliers’ three-times-in-four-years surprise, a common reaction was, “How likely is that?”
The relevant question isn’t based on the chances for only 2011, 2013 and 2014, but rather, “What are the chances the Cavaliers would get three No. 1 picks from 2011 to 2014, given their chances of winning the lottery in each year?” So we need to consider the chances of the Cavaliers winning the lottery in 2012, as well.
of No. 1 Overall Pick
To the right are the chances of the Cavaliers winning each of the past four draft lotteries.
Based on those percentages, the chances of the Cavaliers getting the No. 1 pick in three of the last four years is 0.61 percent, or about 1 in 163. This takes into account the possibility of getting any three (or all four) of those No. 1 picks – so it could have been 2011/12/13, 2011/12/14, 2011/13/14 (what actually happened), etc. – which increases the likelihood compared with some estimates that looked only at the chance of winning in specifically 2011, 2013 and 2014.
Of course, this represents only the Cavaliers’ chances of winning three of four lotteries specifically from 2011 to 2014. The chances are higher if you look at the probability of any NBA team winning three of the four draft lotteries in that span, and even higher if you look at the probability of any team winning three draft lotteries in any four-year span.
Those calculations are much more complicated, but the point is that while what Cleveland has pulled off seems quite unlikely in isolation, the chances of any NBA team having done this at some point in the history of the draft lottery are much greater.