November 26, 2022

Welcome to Wemby Watch! While the majority of the NBA recently embarked upon an eight-month journey towards the Finals, the league’s seedy underbelly has kicked off a very different sort of quest. Their goal? To lose as many games as humanly possible. Why? To give themselves the best possible chance to land Victor Wembanyama.

And just who is Victor Wembanyama you ask? Well, if you’ve ever thought to yourself, Sure, Kevin Durant is pretty good, but imagine if he was like half a foot taller. Wembanyama is essentially what you’d get. He’s a 7-3 center currently playing in France that will be eligible for the 2023 NBA Draft next June. For years he has been widely considered the best draft prospect since LeBron James in 2003. And then, in early October, he came to the United States and dropped 36 points, 11 rebounds, four assists and four blocks on No. 2 prospect Scoot Henderson and the G-League Ignite in one of the greatest performances by a teenager in the history of basketball.

Every general manager and owner in the NBA saw it. Every single one of them would like to watch him repeat those types of feats in their uniform next season, and for many seasons to come. But, of course, only one team will see that jersey (likely) fly off shelves, and only 14 teams will have a chance to turn that dream into a reality on lottery night next May. 

Throughout the season, we’ll be tracking those teams on a weekly basis. Which team is in pole position to land the No. 1 pick? Who has a difficult (or, for our purposes, easy) schedule coming up? Who is doing the most to … let’s say … tip the odds in their favor? And as all of this is unfolds, what is our favorite French superhuman up to on his current team? Is anyone stateside mounting a case to unseat him atop the draft board? Follow along each Wednesday as we attempt to answer these questions and more!

Wembanyama staying hot overseas

It wasn’t just in the United States where Wembanyama was hot on the court. Sure, 37 points and 36 points in back-to-back games, respectively, against the G League Ignite and potential No. 1 pick contender Scoot Henderson in a pair of exhibition contests in early October was great. (To say nothing of how remarkable it was to do that in his first games on U.S. soil with dozens of NBA decision-makers looking on.) But that’s increasingly just looking like par for the course for him on his new Mets 92 team this season.

It’s early in the season, but despite playing fewer than 30 minutes per game through five games, Wembanyama is averaging a career-best 18.6 points per game and adding 8.0 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game to boot. He’s coming off a dominant five-block outing Friday against Blois Basket 41. His reported 8-foot wingspan just completely suffocated the opposing team — and Mets 92 cruised to a 113-88 win to improve to 4-1 on the season.

Where Wembanyama has really shined and made progress this season — outside of his length and disruptive defense, which has always been a force — is his offense. He opened the season with a 23-point, 10-rebound outing in September then tallied a season-high 24 points last week in a win over Le Mans. 

His performance has been noticed.

“I think he’s something that we’ve never seen before,” Minnesota Timberwolves star Rudy Gobert, who shares an agent with Wembanyama, said earlier this week. “I’m excited to keep watching him grow and [to see] what he’s gonna turn [in]to. He’s unique, something the world has never seen. He’s taller than me, longer than me, can space the floor, he can pass. But he also wants to play defense, wants to be a very good defender. And he just loves to win. That’s what I really like about him. He’s not just there to be cute, he’s playing to win. He’s a great kid.”

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. Utah Jazz: I came this close to bumping Utah entirely and sticking the Lakers at No. 7 (don’t worry, we’ll touch on them a bit later), but the previously unbeaten Jazz held their spot after a surprising Monday loss to the Houston Rockets. If the Jazz play like they did in their first three games, though, they won’t be on this list for very much longer. I wondered before the season if Utah was simply too talented for the rebuilding year it was seemingly aiming for by trading Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert. Those concerns now appear warranted as Lauri Markkanen is angling for the Most Improved Player award and Twitter darling Jarred Vanderbilt continues to wow us with his defensive brilliance. If Danny Ainge isn’t careful, he’s going to stumble into the play-in round.

6. San Antonio Spurs: Not all 3-1 starts are created equal. We’ll discuss San Antonio’s rollicking Friday victory over the Pacers shortly, but for now, let’s just say the Spurs haven’t been quite as impressive as the giant-slaying Jazz. But those who doubted Gregg Popovich’s capacity to lose should feel vindicated right now. He’s fully leaning into the youth of his roster as the Spurs rank third in the NBA in pace through four games. The more notable concession? After years at the bottom of the league, the Spurs rank in the middle of the pack in terms of 3-point attempts. Popovich might still be sporting his caveman beard, but his offense is finally entering the 21st century. 

5. Detroit Pistons: Cade Cunningham was so good down the stretch last season that it’s easy to forget that he just turned 21. He’s not going to shoot below 40% from the field for the remainder of the season, but Detroit’s play-in vision relies on Cunningham pushing for an All-Star berth. Thus far, he’s looking more like your typical second-year No. 1 overall pick. The flashes are there, but on a night-to-night basis, a backcourt built around a rookie and a sophomore is just going to struggle to find points consistently. The Pistons rank just 28th on offense thus far this season, and until that changes, Detroit will begrudgingly find itself on Wemby Watch.

4. Indiana Pacers: File this under “omens from the lottery gods:” Myles Turner missed the beginning of Indiana’s season because he — wait for it — stepped on the foot of a ball boy during warmups. Indiana’s defense has predictably ranked 25th without him thus far, but the lottery gods help those who help themselves, and the Pacers have done plenty of that already this season. Guess who led the Pacers in minutes during Friday’s three-point loss to the Spurs? No, it wasn’t blockbuster 2022 addition Tyrese Haliburton or All-Rookie selection Chris Duarte, but second-round pick Andrew Nembhard, who saw 30 minutes of action in defeat. He played well. The Spurs won the game. It’s the best of both worlds for Indiana.

3. Houston Rockets: Don’t fret, Rockets fans. You may have picked up your first victory on Monday against the Jazz, but you’ve got a rematch with Utah looming on Wednesday that will likely wind up having significant Wemby Watch implications as the season progresses.

2. Oklahoma City Thunder: Shooting is a problem for this team even in victory. The Thunder made just four of their 30 3-point attempts in Tuesday’s win over the Los Angeles Clippers. That drops them to 42-of-154 on the season, a mark just above 27 percent. It turns out the Lakers don’t quite have the market cornered on bad shooting, and OKC’s marksmanship, or lack thereof, is going to lead to plenty of losses this season.

1. Orlando Magic: Now this is how you lose. Orlando is winless through four games, but has never been outscored by more than 13 points in a game. Rookie No. 1 overall pick Paolo Banchero is posting numbers unseen for almost three decades, and Bol Bol is even getting steady rotation minutes! I defy you to find better vibes from any winless team in league history.

Loss leader

The vision for this space was to highlight cellar-dwellers finding ways to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. The Spurs didn’t quite pull that off Friday against the Pacers. Instead, the two teams pegged by Las Vegas to finish at the bottom of their conferences gave us what might be the most exciting crunch time we’ll see all season. Or the drunkest. Possibly both.

With 5:38 remaining in the fourth quarter, Tre Jones scored to give San Antonio a 116-100 lead over the Pacers. Here’s what followed:

  • 55 total points, 34 of which came from the Pacers
  • 16 Jakob Poeltl free throws
  • Six Spurs turnovers in the final 2:20

Leave it to Rick Carlisle to treat the second contest on an 82-game schedule like the NBA Finals. Rather than waive the white flag trailing by 16, he started intentionally fouling Poeltl, a career 52.2 percent free-throw shooter. Poeltl made just half of the first dozen freebies, but more importantly, Indiana made seven of its next 10 shots to cut the lead down to single digits. And then the turnovers started. We kick things off with an inattentive Devin Vassell missing the distress Keldon Johnson was in.

Tre Jones gave us the rare behind half-court charge.

The scorers table only gave San Antonio one turnover for this debacle. It really should’ve been two.

San Antonio, or, depending on your perspective, Indiana, escaped by the skin of its teeth as rookie Benedict Mathurin missed a game-tying 3-pointer in the final seconds. The Pacers ultimately walk away with the perfect outcome, a sort of proof of concept loss that shows how much fight this group has in it without depriving them of those sweet, sweet pingpong balls. We’ll cover plenty of bad losses as the season progresses. Why not start the year off with a good one?

Games of the weak

Wednesday, Oct. 26: Lakers at Nuggets

The 0-3 Lakers are officially on Wemby Watch … for another team. The New Orleans Pelicans hold the right to swap first-round picks with the Lakers, and while none of us believe they’ll remain winless forever, their opening schedule isn’t exactly forgiving. The Lakers follow the Nuggets with the Timberwolves, Nuggets again and those high-flying Pelicans. If the outside shots don’t start falling soon, there is a very real chance the Lakers begin this season 0-7. If they do? They’ll find their way into the race to the bottom entirely by accident.

Saturday, Oct. 29: Heat at Kings

In all likelihood, neither of these teams spend too much time at the bottom, but the Heat and Kings are going to spend this Wednesday a combined 1-6. Both teams have loftier ambitions, and both teams have likely losses on their schedule between now and Saturday. The Kings host the Grizzlies on Thursday, while the Heat have a brutal road back-to-back with the Blazers and Warriors looming on Wednesday and Thursday. There’s no such thing as a must-win October game, but Saturday’s loser likely leaves that game in pretty poor shape.

Tuesday, Nov. 1: Magic at Thunder

These were two of the last four winless teams in the NBA, and even though Oklahoma City picked up it’s first victory on Tuesday, the Magic still have a big fat zero in the “W” column.

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