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Beating the odds: unlikely winners of the NBA & NHL draft lotteries give the Royals a smidgen of hope

If it happened for the Pelicans and Rangers, why not the Royals?

NBA: Golden State Warriors at New Orleans Pelicans Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Under Rob Manfred’s colorful tenure, Major League Baseball has gone under quite the makeover with several changes coming to a field near you in 2023. But there’s another change happening off the field that’s on the horizon, and it’s one that’s been occurring in the NBA and NHL since the early nineties.

A draft lottery.

Next year’s draft will be the first where the MLB team with the first pick gets it based not on the team’s record or what league it plays in* but because of, so to speak, how the ball bounces.

*In an attempt to keep separate the American League and National League (much like having their own commissioners and the Junior Circuit adopting the Designated Hitter), the first overall draft pick didn’t always necessarily go to the team with the worst overall record, but instead alternated between the leagues each year from 1965 to 2004.

The teams with the three worst records have a 16.5% chance of selecting first overall, the fourth-worst 13.2%, and the fifth-worst 10%. After that, every team that doesn’t make the playoffs has at least a 0.2% chance of picking first.

As of this writing, on September 14th, the Kansas City Royals have the sixth-worst record in the majors, and thus have the sixth-best chance at selecting first overall, at 7.5%. Additionally, the Royals have an 8 % chance of selecting second overall.

The first two picks in next year’s draft should be doozies: LSU outfielder Dylan Crews, who may have gone first overall in this most recent draft, had he been eligible; and Arizona prep outfielder Max Clark, who’s younger than Crews and may have a higher ceiling though it will take him longer to reach the bigs.

While a 7.5% chance of picking first overall isn’t great, Royals fans should note that eight NBA teams have won the lottery with worse percentage chances. Four NHL teams have gone from outside the top five to win the lottery and another two went from fifth to first.

As Cleveland manager Lou Brown told his team in Major League 2 (albeit about winning streaks): “It has happened before.”

But as the renowned, um, analyst and therapist Tobias Fünke also noted in Arrested Development:

Here’s a rundown of NBA teams that won the lottery with chances less than the Royals are facing:

  • 1993 Orlando Magic won the lottery with just a 1.52% chance. This came just a year after already winning the lottery and drafting Shaq. The Magic took timeout-caller extraordinaire Chris Webber but then dealt him to the Warriors for Penny Hardaway and picks.
  • 2008 Chicago Bulls won the right to draft Derrick Rose out of Memphis despite just having a 1.7% chance heading into the lottery. Rose won Rookie of the Year and then the MVP two seasons later but knee injuries slowed his career.
  • 2014 Cleveland Cavaliers drafted Kansas star Andrew Wiggins after winning the lottery with just a 1.7% chance. Cleveland then dealt him to Minnesota as part of the deal to acquire Kevin Love.
  • 2011 Los Angeles Clippers won the lottery, but had already traded the pick to the Cavaliers in a salary-dump move. The Clippers had just a 2.8% chance of this happening. Cleveland selected Kyrie Irving.
  • 2000 New Jersey Nets went into the lottery with only a 4.4% chance of winning, but win they did, later selecting Cincinnati’s Kenyon Martin first overall.
  • 2007 Portland Trail Blazers jumped the line with a 5.3% chance. They bet (wrongly) on Greg Oden. The Seattle SuperSonics took Kevin Durant with the next pick.
  • 2019 New Orleans Pelicans won the big prize of selecting Duke’s Zion Williamson first overall despite holding a mere 6% chance.
  • 2005 Milwaukee Bucks took Andrew Bogut after winning the lottery with 6.3% chance.

Now the NHL, where it’s happened less, and also which is pretty stupid, as you’ll see (though the stupidity has all but been removed):

  • 1995 Los Angeles Kings entered with the “7th” seed to win the lottery. But they won. Due to the rules, though, the Kings could only move up a maximum of four spots. So...they won?
  • 1999 Chicago Blackhawks went from 8 to 1, but again, due to the rules, could only pick as high as fourth overall.
  • 2007 Chicago Blackhawks went from 5 to 1. As mathematicians all over the world can tell you, that means that got to pick first! They took Patrick Kane, a key component to their three Stanley Cups won between 2009-10 and 2014-15.
  • 2011 New Jersey Devils went from 8 to 1 but really from 8 to 4 because #math.
  • 2017 New Jersey Devils won the lottery again, but this time got to keep the first overall pick since they had the fourth-worst record in the league.
  • 2020 New York Rangers went from FOURTEENTH to first overall and got to keep the pick. However, this was a one-off “two-phase lottery” that won’t happen again. And their “prize” kind of sucks.

Based on the above, there is hope for the Royals to jump to No. 1 or No. 2 in the 2023 draft. Maybe not a lot of hope, but nonetheless, it exists.

At this stage of the season, with a .401 winning percentage and eliminated from contention to the moon and back, maybe it wouldn’t hurt the team to improve its odds in the lottery.

After all, the Royals are only a half-game “back” of the Reds for the fifth-worst record (2.5% better chance at the No. 1 pick!) and 2.5 games back of the Tigers and Pirates, which would put them right in the thick of things for the first overall selection.