We’ve spent plenty of time this season covering the conspicuous lack of tanking in a season the entire basketball world expected to be full of it. Well, the wait is over. Tanking has begun, and it’s largely been relegated to three teams:
- The San Antonio Spurs were on a 16-game losing streak before Tuesday’s victory over a Utah Jazz team so thin at guard that it needed to give Kris Dunn, whom they signed eight days ago, 26 minutes.
- The Detroit Pistons, who have not beaten a team outside of the bottom four in the standings since Jan. 26.
- The Houston Rockets, who have suddenly started pulling their best player, Alperen Sengun, out of fourth quarters despite largely being without primary ball-handlers Jalen Green and Kevin Porter Jr. You’ll be shocked to hear that they scored 68 combined points in the three fourth quarters they played before Tuesday’s blowout loss to Denver.
Make no mistake: the tank is officially on, and these teams are racing to the bottom. But there’s almost nothing any of them can do to increase their odds at Victor Wembanyama. The three worst teams all have an equal 14 percent chance at the draft’s top prize. The fourth-worst team in the NBA, the Charlotte Hornets, almost seem to be locked in with their 12.5 percent chance as they have 20 wins, five up on Detroit and San Antonio’s 15 and six behind the Orlando Magic’s 26. The Spurs, Pistons and Rockets will likely end up being into your bottom three.
All they’re competing for is positioning, which does have some inherent value. The worst team can pick no lower than fifth. The second-worst team can pick no lower than sixth, and the third-worst team can pick no lower than seventh. That obviously means a fair bit if lottery night doesn’t go their way, yet it’s a relatively meager prize to play for considering just how ugly their basketball has been over the past month or so.
Charles Barkley weighs in on Wemby
Following a 22-point, 17-rebound, six-block game vs. the Czech Republic, the Inside the NBA crew — led by Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith — reacted to Victor Wembanyama’s production and his prospects moving forward. Smith and Barkley fell on different sides of the spectrum.
“He’s a special talent because of his ability to handle the ball and shoot the ball at that size,” Smith said.
“Yeah, but everybody wants this kid — it looks like he’s great — but you really can’t tell until he gets to the NBA,” Barkley responded.
“Only one of them was great right away, and that was LeBron,” added Barkley.
Jumping from the European level to the NBA level has at times been a major adjustment for prospects and a hurdle that has occasionally been impossible to bridge. But plenty of players — including Mavericks superstar Luka Doncic — have made the leap and been wildly successful in doing so. That’s what Smith thinks Wemby will do.
“The way he scores, even in the European game, is very similar to the way he’ll be scoring in the NBA,” said Smith. “There’s been eras where guys have had to change their game and add something to it. This kid shoots the 3, handles the ball, gets into areas of the floor, 7-foot-5 he can shoot over you.”
“I don’t agree with all that,” Barkley shot back. “I think it’s going to be a huge adjustment.”
Wembanyama has been hyped as the best prospect since LeBron James two decades ago and those comparisons have not slowed, especially not since James described him as an “alien” last year. That was a welcome nickname from Wembanyama, who last week said he liked the alien nickname and preferred it to the cliche “unicorn” moniker.
“First of all, I’m really glad he said that because I didn’t like to be called a unicorn,” Wembanyama said. “I like it because it’s just something not from this world. I like being called an alien, yeah. It’s really what I’m working to be — something unique and original.”
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. Oklahoma City Thunder: Remember in Good Will Hunting, when Ben Affleck tells Matt Damon that the best part of his day is the short window when he thinks he might not see him because it means he might’ve gone on to something better in life? That’s how I feel about putting the Thunder back in the bottom seven. I never wanted to see them here again. They deserve so much better than this. But they’re 0-4 since the All-Star Break and we haven’t seen Shai Gilgeous-Alexander since their heartbreaking loss to Utah last week. Until they string a few wins together and launch themselves back into the play-in race, they’re stuck here in the bottom seven.
6. Chicago Bulls: Indiana gets the benefit of the doubt in the East because most of their losses came with Tyrese Haliburton injured, whereas the Bulls have simply been slightly worse than mediocre for the entire season. Now that Toronto has reasserted itself into the postseason picture with Jakob Poeltl, the final Eastern Conference play-in spot comes down to the Wizards, Bulls, Pacers and …
5. Orlando Magic: Amazingly, we can’t rule the Magic out of the playoffs yet! Since starting 5-20, the Magic are 21-17. They have a better net rating since Dec. 7 than the Warriors! They may not be a play-in team, but they’re certainly acting like one. Jamahl Mosley has tightened the rotation down to nine players, they’re playing some of the best defense in the NBA, and if Paolo Banchero ever starts making 3’s again — he’s hit only one of his last 33 attempts! — the offense might have enough juice to sneak into the No. 10 slot. On the other end of the spectrum, the No. 5 slot on lottery night is now up for grabs, creating a pretty compelling race among whichever teams fall out of the play-in hunt.
4. Charlotte Hornets: Let’s all agree to pretend that the season ended on Tuesday against Detroit. The Hornets won their fourth game in a row. Their season “ends” on a high note. Now that LaMelo Ball is injured, we really don’t have much reason to watch them except for the leaping exploits of Mark Williams. Here he is blocking a transition 3-pointer. Enjoy:
3. Detroit Pistons: Keep an eye on James Wiseman down the stretch. He had 23 points in 27 minutes in Tuesday’s loss to the Hornets. He still has a ways to go defensively, but in Detroit he actually has the space to learn on the court. The early returns have largely been positive.
2. San Antonio Spurs: It’s officially G-Leaguer Season in Texas. The Spurs converted the two-way contract of Charles Bassey into a standard deal on Valentine’s Day and now he’s giving them 15 minutes per game. Rookie Dominick Barlow, who also spent most of the year in Austin, had played similar minutes before getting a DNP-CD on Tuesday.
1. Houston Rockets: The Astros started their spring training schedule over the weekend. If Stephen Silas is seriously going to bench Sengun late in games, there’s just not much reason to continue giving them your attention.
Loss of the week
We need to talk about Detroit’s rebounding technique. Guys … what are we doing here?
That’s a pretty innocuous play in a game the Pistons were already set to lose, but you’d think boxing out would be a point of emphasis after the end of Thursday’s loss to the Magic.
Isaiah Stewart gets a swipe in on Banchero’s drive, but offers only a meek half-jump contest at the attempt. Whatever you’re going to do in that moment has to be definitive. Either play for the block or box Carter out. But Stewart lost him and it cost Detroit the game.
Games of the weak
Friday, March 3 — Magic at Hornets: This would’ve been a pretty fun game before Ball’s injury, but sadly, with the biggest star in the matchup sidelined, we can probably expect a comfortable Orlando victory to kick off our trifecta.
Saturday, March 4 — Rockets at Spurs: It’s the Malaki Branham vs. Kenyon Martin Jr. duel we’ve all been waiting for!
Sunday, March 5 — Spurs at Rockets: That’s right, basketball fans, the NBA knows we’re so excited for Spurs-Rockets that we’re getting a second dose on Sunday. If San Antonio can squeeze out consecutive losses against Houston, the Spurs might just be able to catch the Rockets for the league’s worst record. A single victory might be enough to secure the bottom slot for Houston.
France scored a big win over the Czech Republic last week in the final FIBA World Cup qualifier, and Wemby played a huge role in that. In the come-from-behind victory, Wembanyama turned in 22 points, 17 rebounds, six blocks and four steals.
Wembanyama and his Mets 92 team are off until next week during the FIBA’s final qualifying window. They are back in action Tuesday to face Pau-Lacq-Orthez in a rematch from an early-season meeting in which Wembanyama was held to a season-low 10 points in a huge Mets 92 win.
Wembanyama’s upcoming schedule
- Tuesday, March 7, at 2 p.m. ET: Mets 92 vs. Pau-Lacq-Orthez
- Friday, March 10, at 2:30 p.m. ET: Mets 92 vs. Nancy