Luckiest Draft lottery moments in sports history

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The Guardians won the 2024 MLB Draft Lottery at the Winter Meetings, securing the first overall pick for the first time in franchise history.

It was not supposed to play out this way for Cleveland. For the second year, the lottery has determined the order in which teams select in the MLB Draft. This is a stark contrast from years past, when the Draft order was based on win-loss record, with the first overall pick going to the team with the worst record in the previous season.

This year, 17 of the 18 non-playoff teams were added into the mix to potentially take the first-pick honors. Teams with lower winning percentages were given higher odds of getting pulled. The Guardians — who finished 76-86 in 2023 — had just a 2% chance of getting the first overall pick, making it one of the most unexpected Draft Lottery moments.

That got us thinking: what are some of the luckiest lottery moments in other sports? Here’s a look at some of those moments in MLB, NBA and NHL, the three prominent North American sports leagues that utilize a lottery system.

MLB Draft Lottery (introduced in 2022)

1) Guardians, 2024: 2.0% chance to earn No. 1 pick
As mentioned above, this was just the second year of the MLB Draft Lottery, so the sample is small. However, the Guardians getting the first pick was incredibly unlikely, with Cleveland having the ninth-best chance of landing the No. 1 pick at just 2 percent. Compare that to the A’s, Rockies and Royals — who had the highest odds at 18.3% each — and you can see just how unlikely it was for the Guardians to grab the first pick. Even the Reds — who had just a 0.9% chance at the top pick — ended up getting the second overall pick in the Draft.

2) Pirates, 2023: 16.5% chance of earning No. 1 pick
The inaugural Draft Lottery in December 2022 played much closer to the mathematical probabilities. As a result of having one of the worst records in 2022 at 62-100, the Pirates were one of three teams (Nationals, A’s) with the highest chance (16.5%) of picking first overall. The Nationals picked second overall, while the A’s fell to No. 6 in the Draft. The Pirates ended up selecting LSU’s Paul Skenes with the first overall pick in the ’23 Draft, while the Nationals selected Skenes’ teammate Dylan Crews.

NBA Draft Lottery (introduced in 1985)

1) Orlando Magic, 1993: 1.52% chance to earn No. 1 pick
Finishing the 1992-93 season with a 41-41 record, the Magic were the beneficiaries of some serious luck in the 1993 NBA Draft lottery. Orlando had the best record of any of the league’s 11 lottery teams — 30 games better than the woeful Mavericks (11-71). But Dallas fell to fourth as the Magic earned the top spot despite just 1-in-66 odds. Orlando, which won the lottery for the second straight year, selected Michigan’s Chris Webber with the first overall pick but traded him to the Golden State Warriors minutes later.

2-T) Chicago Bulls, 2014: 1.7% chance to earn No. 1 pick
After going 33-49 during the 2007-08 season, the Bulls had merely the ninth-best odds to earn the No. 1 pick in the ’08 draft. But they edged teams like the 15-67 Miami Heat and 20-62 Seattle SuperSonics to earn the top selection. Winning the lottery for the second time in 10 years, the Bulls chose University of Memphis point guard Derrick Rose with the No. 1 overall pick.

2-T) Cleveland Cavaliers, 2014: 1.7% chance to earn No. 1 pick
Like the Bulls six years previous, the 2013-14 Cavs finished 33-49 with the NBA’s ninth-worst record. History repeated itself as Cleveland jumped the 15-67 Milwaukee Bucks and 19-63 Philadelphia 76ers, among others, to win the 2014 draft lottery. The Cavaliers chose Andrew Wiggins of the University of Kansas at No. 1 but traded him to Minnesota two months later, well before the start of the 2014-15 season.

4) Cavaliers, 2011: 2.8% chance to earn No. 1 pick
The 2014 lottery win was Cleveland’s second improbable victory in three years. After swinging a trade for the Los Angeles Clippers’ first-round pick in February 2011, the Cavs were ecstatic to receive the top pick in the 2011 draft despite just a 2.8% chance to do so. At 32-50, the Clippers had the league’s eighth-worst record, while the Cavs themselves had much better odds at the No. 1 pick. Ultimately, Cleveland ended up with the No. 1 and No. 4 selections, drafting Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson, respectively.

5) New Jersey Nets, 2000: 4.4% chance to earn No. 1 pick
The Clippers (15-67) and Bulls (17-65) were the favorites to earn the top pick in the 2000 draft, but the Nets defied the odds. Despite finishing with the NBA’s sixth-worst record at 31-52, they ended up with the No. 1 pick after doing the same in 1990. The Nets took University of Cincinnati forward Kenyon Martin at the top of a draft class now infamous for its relative lack of overall success.

NHL Draft Lottery (introduced in 1995)

The format for the National Hockey League Draft lottery has changed multiple times since the process was first introduced in 1995 — and huge jumps weren’t always possible. From 1995-2012, a team could move up a maximum of four spots, meaning the No. 1 pick was guaranteed to go to a bottom-five team. That restriction went away in 2013, though the format has changed a few more times before the current structure debuted in 2022.

1) New York Rangers, 2020: 2.5% chance initially to earn No. 1 pick, then 12.5% chance in second lottery
This is unquestionably one of the wildest draft lotteries in sports history. Not only did the winning team have incredibly low odds, but they also made the playoffs — and nobody even knew who the exact team was when the initial draft lottery was held.

Got all that? Let us explain.

With the COVID-19 pandemic impacting the 2019-20 regular season, the NHL expanded the playoffs to 24 teams with the caveat that the first eight teams eliminated would still participate in the lottery. But with the NHL wanting to conduct the lottery before the playoffs began, they used eight placeholders in the initial lottery. On that night, “Team E” — a placeholder that had just a 2.5% chance to be selected for the top pick — was awarded the No. 1 pick. After that first round of the playoffs, a second Draft lottery was held in which all eight eliminated clubs had an equal shot to earn that No. 1 pick being held by “Team E.”

That pick ultimately went to the New York Rangers, marking the first time since 1983 that a team that made the playoffs also made the No. 1 pick in the ensuing draft. The Rangers used their unexpected No. 1 pick to select Canadian forward Alexis Lafreniere.

2) Chicago Blackhawks, 2007: 8.1% chance to earn No. 1 pick
At the time, the Blackhawks’ jump from No. 5 to No. 1 was the highest possible leap a team could make — and it couldn’t have come at a better time. The Blackhawks used the No. 1 pick to select Patrick Kane, who became a pivotal player in the franchise’s turnaround. Kane helped lead Chicago to three Stanley Cup titles, including in 2009-10 when he scored the Stanley Cup-clinching goal in overtime against the Philadelphia Flyers — the team that had the best odds to earn that No. 1 pick in 2007 but instead fell to No. 2.

3) New Jersey Devils, 2017: 8.5% chance to earn No. 1 pick
The 2017 NHL Draft lottery resulted in substantial shakeup not just for the top pick but for each of the top three spots. The Devils, who had the fifth-best odds, claimed the No. 1 pick, which they ultimately used on Nico Hischier. Meanwhile, the No. 2 pick went to the Flyers, who had just the 13th-best odds at the top pick — and only a 4.6% chance to jump into either of the top two spots. Rounding out the top three, the Dallas Stars received the No. 3 pick despite having just the eighth-worst record in the previous season. The teams with the four best odds in the lottery — the Colorado Avalanche, Vancouver Canucks, Vegas Golden Knights and Arizona Coyotes — picked fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh, respectively.

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