Oh, you thought March Madness was confined to the college ranks? Not so fast my friend. Take a look at how things have played out this month...
- The Nuggets only have one more win than the Spurs.
- The Rockets have as many wins as the Suns.
- The Thunder have the second-best record in the NBA.
- The Blazers have the third-worst record in the NBA.
If the race for Victor Wembanyama started on March 1, we'd have to wonder how he might fit alongside Nikola Jokic in Denver or Luka Doncic in Dallas. Fortunately for the bottom of the league, lottery odds are determined by an 82-game sample, not a single month.
As such, the wild month of March has offered us some clarity on that front. The Detroit Pistons, now two wins behind Houston for the NBA's worst record, are almost assured the top slot in May's lottery. Houston and San Antonio will finish second and third. Charlotte is only a few games away from officially clinching No. 4. There's a compelling race between the 29-43 Magic and the 31-40 Trail Blazers for No. 5 now that even Damian Lillard has thrown in the towel on this season, but otherwise, we're still waiting for the play-in races to sort themselves out to tell us who will truly be in the hunt for Wembanyama when lottery night arrives.
Mets 92 and Wembanyama had the week off from action after facing ASVEL -- Wembanyama's former team -- on March 14. The Mets lost that game 86-69, with Wemby getting a double-double -- 15 points and 11 rebounds -- in 32 minutes of action. The loss pushed Mets 92 back another game in the Pro A standings to 17-7 in league play behind first-place Monaco, which has a 20-4 record.
Mets 92's stretch run to try and catch Monaco picks back up on Friday with a 3 p.m. tip vs. Le Portel, a rematch from a game earlier this season in which Mets 92 won by 10 points and Wembanyama had 19 points and six rebounds. They then have a quick turnaround to face Le Mans on March 28 in a rematch of a game Mets 92 won by five in a thriller earlier this season.
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. Indiana Pacers: Had Tyrese Haliburton avoided the ankle sprain that has kept him out the last several games, the Wizards would be in the bottom seven. Chicago, winners of three straight, is well on its way to clinching a play-in spot, and every top-12 Western Conference team has at least 34 wins compared to Indiana's 32.
6. Portland Trail Blazers: According to Lillard, the Blazers have "pretty much fallen out of the race for the 10th spot." When your own star player can admit that despite trailing the No. 10 spot by only four games, it's fair to say that your season is over.
5. Orlando Magic: The Magic are so agonizingly close. They were tied with both the Suns and Lakers in the fourth quarter of losses last week. They overcame double-digit deficits in both games but just couldn't seal the deal. If the Magic had won those two games, they'd have a real shot at sneaking into the play-in. As it stands, they're four wins behind Chicago with nine to play, so their hopes have effectively ended.
4. Charlotte Hornets: Who's ready for spoiler season? Charlotte's next seven games are all against teams fighting for play-in spots: New Orleans, Dallas (twice), Oklahoma City, Chicago and Toronto (twice). At least one of those teams is going to lose a game to the Hornets that they really can't afford to lose, but with the Hornets all but locked into the No. 4 lottery slot, Charlotte has no real incentive to lie down for them.
3. San Antonio Spurs: Sandro Mamukelashvili is one of those delightful creations of late-season tanking. He can't defend well enough to be in a winning rotation and he's probably not going to keep shooting this well from deep forever, but he's been a delight in a limited role and should stick in the NBA as a deep bench offensive big.
2. Houston Rockets: He's cooled off a bit over the past week, but Jabari Smith is averaging 18.3 points per game over his past seven games. That sort of arc was predictable. He's not a shot-creator, so his rookie season was always going to be up-and-down. Rookies tend to struggle defensively and from behind the arc, but Smith is starting to figure it out, and even if he never reaches star status, he's starting to prove so valuable at the things he does well that he should prove to be an essential part of Houston's rebuild.
1. Detroit Pistons: James Wiseman's double-digit scoring streak was snapped at eight games on Tuesday against Atlanta, but Marvin Bagley picked up the slack with 31 points of his own. If you're a fan of highly drafted big men on their second team, I'm confident you won't find a better watch than the Pistons.
Loss of the Week
Well... last week we broke down the series of trap games awaiting the Pelicans. They didn't manage to make it through Game No. 1 before picking up a season-altering loss. New Orleans led the Houston Rockets by 15 points in the fourth quarter. From that moment forward, they were outscored 30-13. The moment of truth came as Smith made the biggest shot of his rookie year, a long 3-pointer that fell with 0.1 seconds left on the clock.
🚨 JABARI SMITH JR. 🚨@HoustonRockets TAKE THE LEAD!— NBA (@NBA) March 18, 2023
Watch NOW: https://t.co/0rrSPxOHD0 pic.twitter.com/6geVKUQT4f
The loss wasn't necessarily damning for New Orleans. The Pelicans still have 10 games remaining and sit just behind the Jazz and Lakers in the play-in race. However, both the Jazz and the Lakers have the tiebreaker over the Pelicans this season, and once New Orleans finishes up this stretch against the Hornets and Spurs, the schedule gets harder. This was a loss the Pelicans really couldn't afford, but based on how they've played over the past few months, it's not especially surprising.
Games of the Weak
Wednesday, March 22: Blazers at Jazz. Portland has already bowed out of the play-in race. I think most of us were expecting the Jazz to be the next team to do so. Thus far, they haven't. This will be a good litmus test game. If Utah loses, we'll have an idea of where the Jazz are headed.
Thursday, March 23: Hornets at Pelicans. The Pelicans have already lost one of their trap games. The Pelicans and Spurs are two of their only three easy games left (along with an upcoming trip to Portland that might look harder if the Blazers can pull a win or two out of their hat in the coming days), so getting this one is going to be essential if New Orleans plans to reach the postseason.
Thursday, March 24: Spurs at Wizards. Utah's long-term outlook is far brighter, but for now, the Wizards are their Eastern Conference equivalent. We're all sort of suspecting that Washington will fall out of the play-in race for good sooner rather than later. If the Wizards can't take this one, they have no business staying in the race at all.