A Lot Riding on Draft Lottery for Rockets: Four Thoughts

The Rockets are hoping to land the number one pick in the draft and perhaps get Cade Cunningham in the process.
The Rockets are hoping to land the number one pick in the draft and perhaps get Cade Cunningham in the process. Screenshot
The NBA draft is still two months away and the lottery to determine the order of draft picks is six weeks out, but as the season winds down this week for the league worst Houston Rockets, it is worth taking a peek at just what chances the Rockets have at reaching the top of the draft in 2021.

In fact, their odds are about as good as anyone's given their horrendous record, but they also have the best odds of falling the farthest, even out of the lottery altogether. Let's dig in.

The NBA lottery is not loser takes all.

Unlike the NFL, the NBA draft is weighted for all teams that don't make the playoffs. The three worst teams have the same odds of landing one of the top three picks in the draft. After that, the odds grow shorter the better a team's record. The lottery seeds the first four picks in the draft after which the remaining teams are seeded by their record. So, a team that had the best record of all the lottery teams has the worst chance of getting into the top four spots. The three teams with the worst records have the best shot. That includes the Rockets.

However, because the Rockets have the worst record, they cannot draft lower than fifth...with an asterisk the size of an asteroid (we'll get there in a moment). The odds of the Rockets landing one of the first four picks in the draft is roughly 52 percent with a near 48 percent chance they get pick number five. This is a draft that is considered to be at least seven or eight players deep, so a pick in the top five would be provide a very solid haul for any team.

The number one, however, could be a franchise changing choice.

There are years when the top pick in the draft is debatable and there's a chance that number five might be just as good as number one or better. Other years, there is one guy that is head and shoulders above everyone else. This year is divided amongst three players who easily could go in the top spot, but the guy the Rockets are no doubt salivating over is 19-year-old point forward Cade Cunningham from Oklahoma State. The Texas-born Cunningham is 6-7 and can play multiple positions including point guard. He still has some needed growth on the offensive end, but he hits 40 percent from three and is a nightmare matchup. He, along with the young core the Rockets have already drafted, could reshape the DNA of the franchise for a decade.

The Rockets must land in the top four or a nightmare scenario occurs.

Here's the real Titanic-level possibility for the Rockets. They owe Oklahoma City a first round pick this year from the Russell Westrbook trade. That pick must be the Rockets first round choice unless they are in the top four. So, if the Rockets wind up fifth (remember, there is a 48 percent chance that happens), they get the worst of OKC or Miami's first pick. Miami would currently be picking at number 20.

To be clear, if the Rockets end up with the fifth pick in the draft lottery, they will fall all the way to pick 20. It would be an absolutely disaster if, after an awful season like this, their reward was a middling late first rounder.

What about the rest of the draft?

The Rockets do have additional picks in the first round, but none currently in the second. They own picks from both Portland and Milwaukee, which could be back-to-back at 23 and 24. If they were to fall to Miami's pick at 20, there's a decent chance they have three of five picks in a row. The draft is deep enough that they could get a solid role player late in the first round, but they clearly want to be at the top, not the bottom. They also could package picks in an attempt to move up.
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Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke