The Celtics are the favorites to get the No. 1 pick in tonight’s NBA draft lottery.
If history says anything, they probably won’t win.
Or if, you know, probability says anything, they probably won’t win.
There’s a feeling among Celtics followers that the team is cursed when it comes to the lottery. After all, every time they’ve had a realistic shot at the top pick in the draft since ping-pong balls came into play in 1990, they’ve been disappointed. They only time they’ve moved up came in the old envelope system, and that’s when a pick they owned from Seattle moved up three spots to No. 2. They used it to select Len Bias and he died before he played an NBA game, so that doesn’t exactly make the C’s luck look any better.
In the ping-pong ball era, there have been 27 draft lotteries. The winning combination came from a team with top-five odds 20 times. To hope to come away with the first overall pick with anything less than top-five odds is wishful thinking, so for the sake of looking at the Celtics’ luck, let’s look at the instances in which they did have top-five chances (all lottery history per Real GM):
2016 (from Brooklyn): Stayed at No. 3
2014: Dropped from No. 5 to No. 6
2007: Dropped from No. 2 to No. 5
1997: Dropped from No. 2 to No. 3
There’s no way of spinning that as good, but, for as disappointing as the team’s fortune has been, it’s not like it should be a surprise. The Celtics, who also had Dallas’ pick in the 1997 draft and therefore had a 36 percent chance of getting the top pick, were still unlikely to win the right to Tim Duncan. And they didn’t.
The equally heartbreaking -- albeit with a far shorter-lived heartbreak -- was the 2007 lottery, which saw the C’s go from Kevin Durant to a pre-draft trade for Ray Allen.
But do the Celtics really stand out as a team with that awful of lottery luck? Here, yes. Throughout the league, though, there’s similar . . . and certainly worse.
-- The C’s don’t come close to the misfortune the Timberwolves have experienced. Per Real GM, the Timberwolves have been slotted for a top-three pick eight times. They moved down in six of those occurrences by a total of 11 spots, including twice when they had the best chances for the top pick and dropped down.
-- Then there’s the Kings. Since 1990, they’ve been in position for a top-five six times (and top-six 10 times) and have never moved up. Overall, they’ve lost 14 spots. In the only year they Kings were in line for the top pick, 2009, they dropped three spots to No. 4.
-- The Grizzlies have been in line for the No. 1 overall pick four times and have dropped down each time: Two spots in 1996, three spots in 1997, one spot in 1999 and three spots in 2007.
--The Nuggets have moved down in each of the four years they’ve been slotted for a top-five pick. In each of the two years they had the best odds for No. 1, they moved down multiple spots (three in ’91 and two in ’98). They even lost in 2003, going from second to third, but their luck came with Darko Milicic going second to Detroit so they could get Carmelo Anthony.
-- Dallas has four times been slotted top-five and moved down in all four, including twice in back-to-back years when they had the best odds and still picked fourth and second (1993 and ’94, respectively).
Of these teams, the Mavericks and the Celtics are the only ones to win a championship despite not exactly cleaning up in the lottery. That’s been more a result of great players like Paul Pierce and Dirk Nowitzki falling in the 1998 draft.
Though they had better odds in 1997, this will be the first time the Celtics will have entered the draft lottery owning the pick with the highest odds (25 percent). If they lose, it will be the latest lottery disappointment they’ve experienced. Yet other teams with far fewer banners have certainly shared that misfortune.