We need to talk about the Orlando Magic. They have an 8-5 record in the month of December along with the league's eighth-best net rating. They're coming off of a 10-game stretch in which their only two losses were one-point road defeat by the Hawks and a seven-point squeaker against the Bucks. They've beaten the Celtics twice. Only the Bulls can say the same. So what's going on here? There are a few trends to keep an eye on:
- Paolo Banchero started making his 3's. After shooting below 25 percent from deep in his 20 games, he hit more than 46 percent in his next seven. The truth lies somewhere in between, but the Magic aren't exactly loaded with shooting. Banchero making 3's has a meaningful impact on their ability to space the floor.
- To demonstrate the impact of having taller shooters, Orlando is shooting over 40 percent from 3-point range as a team when Mo Bamba is on the floor in December. They're winning those minutes by 19 points per 100 possessions.
- Their defense has been boosted by poor shooting luck out of opponents. Teams playing the Magic are shooting just 32 percent on wide-open 3's in December. That's not remotely sustainable.
All of this suggests that while the Magic has structural advantages that make them better than they looked early on, they aren't about to jump into the play-in race or anything. Their success has been so predicated on shooting, both their own and their opponent's, that a regression to the mean is probably coming.
Wemby has another big week
It was a busy Christmas week for Wembanyama and his Mets 92 team, and the favorite to go No. 1 in the 2023 NBA Draft did not disappoint. In a 92-87 win over Cholet on Friday -- which Mets 92 won by overcoming a massive second-half deficit -- he seemed to shake his recent struggles shooting from 3-point line with a 4-of-8 performance from beyond the arc that helped power him to 24 points in the victory. He finished with eight boards and a pair of both blocks and steals.
Mets 92 fell short on Monday to Strasbourg 84-81, but it wasn't for Wemby's lack of trying. In a losing effort he exploded for 26 points and tallied a season-high 18 boards.
Victor Wembanyama with a monster double-double against Strasbourg:— Ersin Demir (@EDemirNBA) December 27, 2022
This includes going 12-for-12 from the line and 3 steals.
Didn't shoot the ball as well, but overall impacted the game with his defense w/o fouling (only 1 in 35 minutes) pic.twitter.com/5k2LzYT4rD
"If he's not hurt, he'll be the greatest player ever," one NBA agent said of Wembanyama this week in an article with Forbes.com. "He's the best player in [the LNB] and the level of players he's playing against are the best players in the Pac-12, the best college players, borderline NBA guys — and he's dominating," said the agent.
Mets 92 and Wembanyama are off until Jan. 6 as the league takes a mini break for the All-Star game slated for Thursday. Wembanyama and two of his teammates -- Tremont Waters and Hugo Besson -- are participating in the game. The game will start at 1 p.m. ET on Thursday and yours truly (Kyle) will be on the call through the first quarter. The game will be streamed for free on the NBA app.
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. Orlando Magic: We've already covered the Magic in depth, so I'll just add that they've got a chance to ring up a few more wins here. Their next three games are against the Pistons, Wizards and Thunder, so don't be surprised if they escape the bottom seven next week.
6. Los Angeles Lakers: It takes a special kind of incompetence to waste the run LeBron James is currently on. He racked up seven straight 30-point games on 50% shooting or better before scoring "just" 28 on Tuesday against the Magic, yet the Lakers are 3-5 in those games. That's what makes the pick the Lakers owe New Orleans so valuable. If they can't take advantage of this sort of LeBron run, what's going to happen when he inevitably gets injured?
5. Washington Wizards: The Wizards will not have a winless December after all! They finally picked up their first victory of the month on the road against the Phoenix Suns, and then took another one against the Sacramento Kings. Of course, we could point out that Domantas Sabonis suffered a hand injury in the Kings game and that Devin Booker missed the Suns game, but hey, a win is a win. At least Joel Embiid and James Harden suited up for Tuesday's win over the 76ers.
4. San Antonio Spurs: I don't expect the Spurs to remain outside of the bottom three for long. They are 5-6 in clutch games… and 6-16 in all others. Eventually, they're going to regress to the mean in close games because they're getting blown out in most of their other ones. But we've reached the point in the season in which records can't be dismissed entirely. The Spurs are winning games at a somewhat uncomfortable rate given their goal of winning the No. 1 pick.
3. Houston Rockets: Shameless plug alert: After ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported that James Harden was considering a return to Houston, about why a reunion would make no sense. Here's the short version: as we frequently cover in this space, Houston is stuffed to the brim with developing young players who love to dribble and shoot. They're not going to get to do that if Harden is on their team, and the salary he'd surely command would only make it harder for them to find new pieces that actually fit with the young guys in place.
2. Charlotte Hornets: In case you were wondering, the Hornets really haven't gotten any better with LaMelo Ball in the lineup. They're now 3-8 with him available, which translates to a 22-win pace over the full season. In other words, the Hornets are going to be picking near the top of the draft this season no matter how healthy they are the rest of the year.
1. Detroit Pistons: The Pistons are an overtime win over the Hornets away from a 10-game losing streak. Interestingly, they don't have a single player averaging even 30 minutes per game in that stretch. Detroit course-corrected quickly. The Pistons came into the season hoping to push for a play-in slot. Once they lost Cade Cunningham, they emphasized finding minutes for the young guys and tipping the rotational scales toward losses. It's working. The Pistons have the NBA's worst record.
Loss of the Week
I'm not going to talk specifically about the Lakers blowing a double-digit lead against the Mavericks. I'm not even going to harp on them for allowing Dallas to score 51 third-quarter points on Christmas. No, we're going to talk about Darvin Ham's lineups today.
With 6:44 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Lakers put Lonnie Walker IV in the game for LeBron James. Austin Reaves, Patrick Beverley, Dennis Schroder and Russell Westbrook were already in the game. In a losing effort against Dallas, Ham may have used the NBA's first-ever five-guard lineup. It went about as you'd expect it to go.
"You throw everything up against the wall and see what sticks," Ham said of the lineup after the game. It's been that kind of season for the Lakers. Maybe Ham was trying to send a message to the front office about the roster it gave him. Maybe Ham had grown so desperate that he felt he had no other choice. Maybe he's been holding onto this idea for awhile and the Mavericks just represented his first opportunity to use it. Regardless, this is probably rock bottom for the 2022-23 Lakers... at least until they hit their next, rockier bottom in a week or two.
Games of the Weak
Wednesday, Dec. 28: Magic at Pistons: As we covered earlier, the Magic have an easy slate this week. They'll play the Pistons, Wizards and Thunder in their next three.
Thursday, Dec. 29: Thunder at Hornets: If nothing else, Ball vs. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is going to be a fun individual matchup. Just try not to focus on anyone else on the floor.
Saturday, Dec. 31: Pistons at Timberwolves: We're keeping a very close eye on the Timberwolves. They've slipped below .500. They've gotten no closer to solving the fit issues caused by Rudy Gobert. Their pick is going to Utah. We started this season with Utah in the bottom seven and we might end it with Utah picking in the top seven thanks to Minnesota.