The entire premise of this running column revolves around the inevitability of tanking. While it hasn't been quite as prominent this season as many expected, it certainly still exists. It is possible, if not likely, that the team that lands Victor Wembanyama will be one of the teams that took, or will take before the trade deadline, decisive action meant to weaken their 2022-23 roster for the sole purpose of increasing their odds on lottery night.
How does Wembanyama himself feel about that? Well ... not great, apparently. "Tanking? It's a weird strategy," Wembanyama said in French in a recent interview with French newspaper Le Parisien. "I find it unreasonable, and I try not to think about it." Fortunately for Wembanyama, he probably won't have to think about it much once he arrives in the NBA. Unfortunately for him, that might not be the best thing for him. Teams that land prospects like Wembanyama have historically performed terribly in the drafts that have followed.
Let's turn the clocks back two decades. If you want to know why the Cleveland Cavaliers failed in their first attempt to build a champion around LeBron James, the draft is the easiest answer. Normally, when a team picks No. 1, they're still pretty bad for a few years and so they can support that top pick with more young talent from the next couple of draft pools. But LeBron was so good that Cleveland wound up picking No. 10 overall after his rookie season. They missed on Luke Jackson. That was the last lottery pick of the first James era. They only made three more first-round picks before he left in 2010 altogether largely because they devoted their draft capital to trading for veterans.
The New Orleans Pelicans took that approach to a new level with Anthony Davis. Amazingly, in his entire New Orleans tenure, the Pelicans did not keep a single first-round pick through the end of that player's rookie season. They either traded the picks beforehand or did so during the season.
The Dallas Mavericks, meanwhile, gave up the only chance at a lottery pick they've had during the Luka Doncic era in the trade that landed Doncic in the first place. Dallas missed the playoffs in 2019. They got in during the 2019-20 season and haven't looked back. Yet Doncic's roster is extremely undermanned by championship standards largely because the Mavericks couldn't draft another star for him.
All of this is to say that Wembanyama probably doesn't have to worry about his own team tanking once he gets to the NBA. He'll be too good to let them. But he'd better hope that the team in question already has some young talent, because they won't be adding much of it through the draft once he's stuffing stat sheets.
Wemby wins All-Star MVP
Mets 92 was off this week for the LNB Pro A's All-Star break, but Victor Wembanyama? Well, there's no rest when you're the focal point of the production. And that's exactly what he was on Saturday in the league's All-Star game. He declined to participate in the dunk contest but he was a participant in the 3-point contest -- which he bowed out of in the first round -- and a standout in the game itself to absolutely no one's surprise. His final line of 27 points and 12 boards helped him earn MVP honors for the game. Oh, and for good measure he helped his All-Star France team emerge victorious over the All-Star World team, which was his lone stated goal entering the game.
Wembanyama blazing new trails and breaking new records is at this point a regular part of his routine on the international scene so in keeping with that tradition, he went and did it again in the All-Star game by becoming the youngest MVP winner in the All-Star game in the history of the Pro A.
Mets 92 and Wembanyama will be back in action on Friday as play resumes post-All-Star break with a home game against Wembanyama's former team, ASVEL. Wembanyama signed a three-year deal with the club in 2021 but opted out of the final two years to join Mets 92 earlier this year, setting up what should be a nice storyline to follow as the league enters the second half of the season.
- Jan. 6: Mets 92 vs. ASVEL (2:30 p.m. ET)
- Jan. 13: Mets 92 at Dijon (2:30 p.m. ET)
- Jan. 20: Fos-sur-Mer (2:00 p.m. ET)
The Jan. 6 meeting vs. Mets 92 features a showdown against former Tennessee star Yves Pons, who won the All-Star game dunk contest in the LNB Pro A last week. Sharpshooter Nando De Colo, a 3-point contest participant alongside Wembanyama, will also be part of the opposing ASVEL team facing Mets 92.
Race to the bottom
Each week, we'll rank the seven teams likeliest to earn the coveted No. 1 slot on lottery night. These rankings will take current record, recent performance, upcoming schedule and injuries into account to subjectively rank the NBA's worst teams.
7. Chicago Bulls: Getting to seven was no easy task this week. The Bulls, Lakers and Wizards are all .500 or better in their last 10. The Timberwolves are in the running, but an impressive win over the Nuggets Monday gave them a bit of breathing room. Ultimately the Bulls and Lakers tied for the worst record among the four, but the Lakers earned the tiebreaker partially because they have James and partially because, as we'll soon cover, the Bulls suffered this week's worst loss.
6. Oklahoma City Thunder: We haven't had much occasion to cover the NBA's new Jerry West Clutch Player of the Year award, but we've got an interesting battle brewing between teams No. 7 and No. 6 on Wemby Watch. The two leaders in clutch scoring this season are DeMar DeRozan (at 104 points) and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (92). DeRozan obviously has the raw scoring edge. Gilgeous-Alexander has the only game-winning buzzer-beater of the year between them. Luka Doncic (83 points) will give the voters a playoff option if they want one, but there's a good chance the first ever West award goes to a lottery player.
5. Orlando Magic: Last week, we wrote about Orlando's surprising surge. Naturally, they followed that up with consecutive losses to the Lakers, Wizards and Pistons. So ... we were perhaps a bit premature. The future remains bright. The present is going to remain dim a bit longer.
4. San Antonio Spurs: The Spurs seemed to have settled into a state of garden variety tanking after their unimaginably miserable November. San Antonio followed up a minus-14.7 net rating in November with a more respectable minus-6.2 in December. So long as competent veterans like Jakob Poeltl and Doug McDermott are suiting up for San Antonio, they're probably not going to sink back down to their November depths again any time soon.
3. Houston Rockets: The standings suggest that the Rockets have improved a good deal during the season. After starting 1-9, they've gone a respectable 9-18 since. Just don't tell that to Eric Gordon, who said "there's no improvement" going on in Houston right now. "Same old thing all year," Gordon explained. "We have a small margin for error. … It's a lot of things. It's mindset. You got to play for one another. Do what's right by your teammates. If you do that, it'd be more fun. You give yourself a better chance to win." The truth lies somewhere in between. Houston's young players are still making young player mistakes. They're also flashing the greatness Houston expects them to one day achieve. That's what young players tend to do. It doesn't make life any easier for the veterans employed to guide them.
2. Charlotte Hornets: Do the Hornets plan to bring back Miles Bridges? It's not exactly clear. ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported in December that Bridges and the team "are gathering traction in talks on a new deal." On Tuesday, the Hornets that any negotiations have taken place. It probably wouldn't affect Charlotte this season either way, as Bridges is facing a lengthy suspension after pleading no contest to one count of injuring a child's parent, but it's a story to watch as it is one of the NBA's highest-profile cases of domestic violence in quite some time. What Charlotte decide will have ripple effects throughout the league for years to come.
1. Detroit Pistons: The Pistons are quickly becoming a barometer for what's going wrong with other teams. The Magic lost to Detroit? Okay, maybe they're not ascending as quickly as we thought. The Timberwolves lost to Detroit at home? Man ... things must really be going sideways over there. The bottom of the NBA is relatively strong compared to a typical season. All 30 teams are on pace to win at least 20 games. This is about as low a team is going to sink this season. The Pistons aren't an automatic loss on a nightly basis, but when they do win, it feels notable for their opponent.
Loss of the week
It feels a bit unfair to dedicate this spot solely to the Chicago Bulls. Their loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers Monday came down to an intentionally missed free throw that Donovan Mitchell eventually converted into the two points Cleveland needed to tie the game.
The Knicks lost to the Mavericks under nearly identical circumstances six days earlier, and before you say "Mitchell scored 71 points," I'd point out that Doncic posted a historic 60-point, 20-rebound triple-double. Both the Knicks and the Bulls lost games to historic individual performances that included an intentionally missed free throw at the end of the game.
Here's the difference: the Knicks never led by more than 12 points. Chicago led by 21. They were up 19 at the half. Cleveland didn't have Darius Garland. New York's collapse in the final seconds might have been rarer, but the Bulls had almost an entire game to put this thing away. They couldn't, and that earns them loss of the week status.
Games of the weak
Thunder at Magic, Jan. 4: Weat the time, but the last time these two teams faced off, Oklahoma City held Orlando to just four points in the last 7:26 of the game.
Jazz at Rockets, Jan. 5: We're putting the Jazz on notice. After starting the season 12-6, they've fallen to 7-14 since. That's roughly a 27-win pace over a full season. The Jazz have lost too much time to truly get to the bottom of the standings, but they can still sneak onto the Wemby Watch fringe.
Pistons at Spurs, Jan. 6: Keldon Johnson is quietly averaging 24 points per game in his past 12 appearances. That's the best reason I can give you to watch this game unless you're really psyched about Jeremy Sochan's one-handed free throws.