In 2018 and 2020, the Seattle Storm won WNBA titles behind a homegrown “Big Three” of Sue Bird, Breanna Stewart and Jewell Loyd. All three are former No. 1 overall draft picks and have played their entire careers in Seattle, and they currently rank second, third and fourth in franchise history in win shares.
Bird, Stewart and Loyd’s sustained success is a prime example of how WNBA lottery picks can build a foundation for years — decades, in the case of 41-year-old Bird — to come. And that is exactly what the lottery was designed for: It gives the worst teams the best odds at the top pick, which helps them acquire players who can make them more competitive and, in theory, promote parity within the league.
Under the current lottery rules, the four teams that do not make the playoffs are all in contention for the top four picks, and a random drawing determines the top two picks by assigning odds based on the records of the previous two seasons. That means that the fourth-worst team can get lucky and snag the first pick, and the worst team can fall as far as third. That might not seem like a big deal, but in 2015, it was the difference between No. 1 pick and future All-Star Loyd and No. 3 pick Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, who averaged just 12.5 minutes per game in six seasons and was out of the WNBA in 2021.
So, which teams have seen the lottery balls fall in their favor — and what has that meant on the court? To answer the first question, we calculated a “pick improvement” score for each lottery team in every draft since 2011, which was the first with only the 12 current franchises. We did this by subtracting the actual pick each team received from its expected pick based on its odds of hitting each lottery position.
We also looked at the impact of players taken with those lottery picks based on team results in the season after the lottery and individual performance throughout their tenure with the franchise that drafted them. For these analyses, players who were traded before their rookie season were excluded because they were no longer with the franchise that had been lucky or unlucky in the lottery.
Which teams have been lucky in the lottery?
Eight of the 12 WNBA teams have been in the lottery at least three times since 2011 — and the Dallas Wings have participated a league-high eight times.
|Team||No. Lotteries||Avg. exp. pick||Avg. pick||Avg. Pick Improvement|
|Los Angeles Sparks||1||3.40||1.00||+2.40|
|Las Vegas Aces*||5||2.27||1.60||+0.67|
|New York Liberty||5||2.60||2.40||+0.20|
Based on their name and geography, perhaps it’s not surprising that the Las Vegas Aces have seen the chips fall in their favor the most consistently. Their average pick improvement of 0.67 in five lotteries is easily the highest of any team that has participated more than twice; the New York Liberty (0.20) are the only other team with a positive pick improvement across more than two lotteries.
The Los Angeles Sparks, Minnesota Lynx and Phoenix Mercury have been lucky in a different way: Each of those teams unexpectedly got the No. 1 pick in their lone lottery appearance this decade and cashed in on that luck to draft a generational talent who helped them avoid the lottery in years to come. The Lynx drafted Maya Moore in 2011, the Sparks selected Nneka Ogwumike in 2012, and the Mercury got Brittney Griner in 2013.
On the other end of the spectrum, the WNBA’s two worst teams in 2021 are also the teams that have had the worst luck over the past decade, as the Atlanta Dream and Indiana Fever have seen their four lottery picks end up an average of 0.6 spots worse than expected. The Washington Mystics (-0.54) have not been much luckier.
In fact, the Mystics got one of the biggest raw deals of the decade in 2013, which was famously billed as the “3 to See” draft because of anticipated stars Griner, Elena Delle Donne and Skylar Diggins. The Mystics’ expected pick was 1.8, but they wound up with the fourth pick, resulting in a “look of frozen horror” on the face of Mystics president Sheila Johnson.
Does lottery luck translate into wins?
It’s complicated. Since 2011, lottery teams have had an average winning percentage of .300 in the season that got them the lottery pick, which roughly works out to a 10-24 record in a 34-game season. In the season after that lottery pick, their average winning percentage was .393, which equates to about three more wins in 34 games. But that improvement could simply be explained by regression toward the mean — the FiveThirtyEight WNBA Elo prediction model would expect a team that finished one season at .300 to end up in the neighborhood of .400 the following season.
Either way, the addition of a single lottery pick often wasn’t enough to push a team into the playoffs in that player’s rookie season. Just 12 of the 33 lottery picks who stayed with the teams that drafted them appeared in the playoffs as rookies. Those playoff teams had already been somewhat better in their pre-lottery seasons than the non-playoff teams, with winning percentages of .340 and .277, respectively. The following season, the eventual playoff teams boasted a .571 winning percentage compared to .291 for the non-playoff teams. That is a massive difference — about 9.5 games in a 34-game season — and it likely reflects not just the addition of the lottery pick, but also player development, better health and/or free agent acquisitions.
Not surprisingly, teams that got “lucky” in the lottery by having a higher pick than expected had better winning percentages the following season and were more likely to make the playoffs. Lucky teams had an average winning percentage the following season of .427 compared to .347 for unlucky teams, a difference of 2.7 games in a 34-game season. And nine out of 19 lucky teams (47.4 percent) made the playoffs the following season compared to three of 14 unlucky teams (21.4 percent).
Which lottery picks have performed the best?
To measure this, we looked at each player’s average win shares per season during their tenure with the team that drafted them. There are caveats to this method, as there are with any method, because the total win shares recorded by a given player in a given season may not fully reflect that player’s performance.
The most obvious recent example is 2020 No. 1 overall pick Sabrina Ionescu. Her meager mark of 0.2 win shares in her rookie season was a result of a season-ending injury in her third game; it wasn’t at all indicative of her level of play or how good of a pick she turned out to be for New York.
But the question isn’t which picks turned out to be the most talented; rather, it is which picks paid off the most for their teams. Selecting players who go on to miss time to injury is just another way teams get unlucky sometimes.
|Pick||Avg. win shares/season|
With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that the players in each draft slot have collectively outperformed the players in later slots. What’s more interesting is the gaps: The difference between No. 1 picks and No. 2 picks is gigantic in comparison to the differences between No. 2 and No. 3 and between No. 3 and No. 4.
The average of 4.85 win shares produced by top picks is essentially the equivalent of 2014 Tina Charles or 2015 Angel McCoughtry. (In 2021, that mark would have finished in the top 10, between Skylar Diggins-Smith and Kayla McBride.) That’s over two full win shares better than the average for No. 2 picks, which at 2.56 was approximately a 2021 Isabelle Harrison. The third and fourth picks posted marks of 2.17 and 1.34, respectively (think 2021 Ruthy Hebard and 2021 Crystal Dangerfield).
It may not make or break a team’s outlook to slide from No. 3 to No. 4, but landing the top pick can have a colossal impact on a franchise. Beyond the difference in win shares, consider that former No. 1 picks were named MVP 11 times in the 17 seasons in which the MVP had entered the league via the rookie draft. In the remaining six seasons, the award went to a No. 2 pick four times and once to a No. 3 pick, with Jonquel Jones this season being the first ever to have been drafted outside the lottery.
We again see a heavy skew toward No. 1s when looking at the most successful individual selections. Of the eight players since 2011 who have averaged at least four win shares per season with the team that drafted them, six were No. 1 picks. The other two were No. 2 picks drafted behind one of those six:
|Player||Drafting team||Pick||Seasons w/team||WS/season|
|Maya Moore||Minnesota Lynx||1||8||7.26|
|Breanna Stewart||Seattle Storm||1||5||6.32|
|Elena Delle Donne||Chicago Sky||2||4||6.23|
|Nneka Ogwumike||Los Angeles Sparks||1||10||5.68|
|Brittney Griner||Phoenix Mercury||1||9||5.10|
|Chiney Ogwumike||Connecticut Sun||1||3||5.03|
|A’ja Wilson||Las Vegas Aces||1||4||4.98|
|Liz Cambage||Dallas Wings||2||3||4.00|
The lottery balls will bounce again on Dec. 19 to determine the order of the first four picks in the 2022 draft. Interestingly, three of the four lottery teams are the ones who have been the most unlucky over the past decade in Washington, Atlanta and Indiana, while the fourth, Dallas, has been the most frequent participant in the lottery in that span.
Will the Wings get the lottery pick that completes their rebuilding process? Or perhaps the Mystics will get revenge for their 2013 draft debacle, in which the Wings were one of the teams to jump them for the “3 to See.” The Atlanta Dream could get the No. 1 pick for the first time since 2009, when they selected former franchise cornerstone Angel McCoughtry. Or could the Fever, the unluckiest team of all lately, get the No. 1 pick for the first time in franchise history?
Whomever the luck favors this month, it’s a safe bet that we’ll see an impact on the court right away in 2022 — and potentially for another decade to come.