Raptors Draft: What are the odds that Toronto keeps its first-round pick?

Donovan Clingan, Connecticut Huskies
Donovan Clingan, Connecticut Huskies / Christian Petersen/GettyImages

The Toronto Raptors just had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad season.

They set the franchise record for worst loss, losing to the Minnesota Timberwolves by 48 points. They lost 15-straight games down the stretch of the season, their best players all missed significant time to injury and personal tragedy, and they finished the year just 25-57 after starting the season with real aspirations of making the playoffs.

Thankfully, in the NBA and most sports leagues, there is a silver lining to having a bad season: the draft. Teams are largely ordered in reverse of how well they performed the season before, so the worse you were, the better your draft positioning will be.

In the NFL that reverse ordering is firm; the Carolina Panthers finished with the worst record and therefore have the first pick (they painfully owe that pick to the Chicago Bulls). In the NBA things are more complicated, with a "draft lottery" to determine whether teams will leap up into the Top 4 and mix up the order.

By losing the most games a team secures strong odds to stay in the Top 4, and ensures they cannot drop lower than fifth in the order. The league has lessened the advantage for the worst teams in the league to try and discourage tanking, but it's still important to be as high up the chain as possible.

It's all-the-more important for the Raptors this season, as they do not have a full claim to their own first-round pick. At the 2023 NBA Trade Deadline they traded for San Antonio Spurs center Jakob Poeltl, and in the process sent a protected first-round pick to the Spurs.

That pick is Top-6 protected for this year's draft, which means the Raptors will send it to the Spurs unless it falls in the first six picks of the draft. At the start of the season it seemed fait accompli they would convey the pick this year, but by having a disastrous year they improved their chances of keeping the pick.

Toronto ultimately had the sixth-worst record in the league this season, which gives them the sixth-best lottery odds for May's Draft Lottery. If they stay in the Top 6 after the lottery they will keep their pick; if they land at seventh or later, it's off to defend the Alamo.

Let's look at three different scenarios that could occur in the lottery and what it means for Toronto's chances of keeping its pick this year.

Scenario 1: Chalk

The Toronto Raptors landed sixth in the reverse-standings, and it is possible that everything ahead of them and behind them stays "chalk" and the Raptors stay put with the sixth pick.

How the Draft Lottery works is that each team is given a certain number of "ping pong balls" that represent their odds of leaping into the Top 4. The NBA is not drawing randomly to assign the entire order, but simply which teams are in the Top 4.

In this first scenario, all four teams that the NBA randomly selects for the Top 4 come from the five worst teams in the league. For example, the league could draw out Portland for the first pick, the Spurs for the second, the Hornets at third and the Pistons at fourth, dropping the Wizards to fifth. All of that activity would mean that starting with the Raptors at sixth, no one else in the lottery moves even one slot.

There is only an 8.6 percent chance of this happening, per Tankathon.com's draft lottery odds. That means in 91.4 percent of lottery possibilities the Raptors are moving either up or down.

Scenario 2: Leap into Top 4

While it may seem like the Raptors are in line to finish "sixth" in the draft order, what their sixth-worst record truly means is that they have the sixth-best odds of leaping up into the Top 4 of the draft order. They have a 37.2 percent chance of doing so; that means in more than one out of every three lotteries they get a Top-4 pick, which also means they would retain that pick.

Included in those odds are roughly even chances (around nine percent) of getting each of the Top 4 slots. That includes a nine percent chance of winning the first overall pick, something the franchise has not done since they drafted Andrea Bargnani in 2006.

Scenario 3: Leaped in order, lose the pick

Toronto fans won't want to hear this, but the most likely outcome for May's Draft Lottery is that the Toronto Raptors lose their pick. This would occur via this third scenario, when rather than the Raptors leaping up the order it's a team behind them being drawn into the Top 4.

In 54.1 percent of possible outcomes the Raptors fall back at least one slot, sending their pick to the San Antonio Spurs. In fact, the single-most likely individual place for their pick to land is seventh, with a team behind them such as the Memphis Grizzlies or Utah Jazz leaping up into the Top 4. They also have a 20.5 percent chance at dropping two spots to eighth. In either case, they would be sending a premium pick to the Spurs.

The 2024 NBA Draft is not considered to be a particulary strong draft, and conveying their pick this year opens up flexibility for making trades in the future. Even so, the Raptors would surely prefer to keep a top pick this season and send the Spurs a pick in the late lottery or later in a future season.

It will all come down to the NBA Draft Lottery on May 12th.

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