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The NBA’s Quarter-Mark Tank Race: Houston, Detroit, and San Antonio Leading the Way

We checked in on the Victor Wembanyama NBA Draft sweepstakes at the NBA’s quarter pole. In the preseason, we had seven teams that were expected to compete in the “Brick for Vic” race. To refresh your memory, those teams were: the Detroit Pistons, the Houston Rockets, the Indiana Pacers, the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Orlando Magic, the San Antonio Spurs, and the Utah Jazz.
We added The New Orleans Pelicans (via the Los Angeles Lakers) and the Charlotte Hornets to the list of teams at the quarter-way point of the regular season. This created a group of nine teams competing for the fewest ping pong balls in the 2023 NBA Draft Lottery.
As a reminder, teams are no longer required to tank their way to the bottom. The lottery odds give each of the three worst teams a 14% chance of getting the first overall pick. As of this writing, some of the teams listed above are bad, but none are unwatchable due to nightly lineups of fringe NBA players. There’s still half a season left, so it could happen, but it hasn’t yet.
We can, however, update our race a little. Let’s see how each team is doing in the “Winless for Wemby” competition.
(Note: All records and projections are as of games played through January 10. The projected records are based on 538’s RAPTOR model. Tankathon provides the remaining schedule strength.)

Rockets of Houston

10-30 is the current record.
20-62 is the projected record.
Remaining schedule strength:.506, ranking 13th in the NBA The Rockets remain a strong contender for the bottom three and a 14% chance at the top pick. Houston is a young team that could get even younger if they trade Eric Gordon (their only veteran) before the trade deadline. They don’t have any major injuries to deal with, but the Rockets are simply a bad young team.
With a relatively difficult schedule the rest of the way, Houston is still expected to finish in the bottom three when we reach the three-quarter pole.

The Detroit Pistons

11-33 is the current record.
22-60 is the projected record.
The remaining schedule strength is.491, which ranks 24th in the NBA.
Outlook: The Pistons and Rockets are tied for the NBA’s worst team. Detroit’s defense is terrible, and their offense is even worse. That’s a recipe for a lot of bad basketball. Cade Cunningham and Marvin Bagley’s injuries have hampered their ability to field competitive lineups on most nights.
In comparison to the majority of the teams on this list, Detroit’s remaining strength of schedule is quite weak. That will hurt them in the race to the bottom three. However, the Pistons are so bad that it probably doesn’t matter. And if they don’t trade Bojan Bogdanovic and/or Alec Burks before the trade deadline, Detroit will be the NBA’s worst team.

Spurs of San Antonio

13-28 is the current record.
25-57 is the projected record.
The remaining schedule strength is.501, which ranks 15th in the NBA. San Antonio frequently appears to be a tanking team. They sit their veterans frequently, and some of their best players have missed significant time as well. However, it does not appear to be intentional, at least in terms of injury. Keldon Johnson and Devin Vassell both require development time but are dealing with legitimate injuries. It could be draft positioning if Jakob Poeltl, Josh Richardson, and Doug McDermott miss games. However, the Spurs continue to play hard every night.
The Spurs were hesitant to make in-season trades until a year ago. They did, however, move some players a year ago and could do so again before the deadline. If Poeltl and Richardson are unlikely to be re-signed this summer, it may be time to consider trading them. If that happens, San Antonio will be very close to securing a spot in the bottom three.

Hornets of Charlotte

11-31 is the current record.
27-55 is the projected record.
Remaining schedule strength:.492, tied for 22nd in the NBA This was not supposed to be the Hornets’ season. They were determined to be a competitive team. However, LaMelo Ball has missed 24 games, Gordon Hayward has missed 21 full games and parts of several others, and even Terry Rozier III, who is normally a gamer, has missed 10 games. That would be difficult for any team, but Charlotte lacks the depth to handle those kinds of absences.
The Hornets’ schedule is relatively light the rest of the way, but it won’t matter. Charlotte, like the others, will be bad regardless of who they play if they move a few productive vets or bench them for their kids. Consider them firmly in the running for the 14% lottery odds.

The Orlando Magic

16-26 is the current record.
28-54 is the projected record.
The remaining schedule strength is.516, which ranks fifth in the NBA.
Outlook: When the Magic won six straight games in early December, they thought they were out of the Wembanyama race. Orlando has gone a respectable 5-6 since that streak ended. The Magic have finally recovered some guards, which has made a significant difference. They may be as close to full health as they’ll get this season over the next few weeks as other players return from injury. This will help them stay competitive in games. Unlike some of their fellow lottery contenders, this team isn’t bolstered by a slew of trade-candidate veterans.
One of the NBA’s toughest remaining schedules will almost certainly doom Orlando. The Magic will be competitive, play hard, and lose a lot of games. They will almost certainly not lose enough to finish in the top three of the lottery. That’s fitting for a Magic team that, with the exception of last year, consistently drafts fifth or sixth overall.

Thunder of Oklahoma City

18-23 is the current record.
33-49 is the projected record.
.489 remaining schedule strength, tied for 25th in the NBA Outlook: This is where our preseason predictions of bad teams deviate. This season, the Thunder haven’t been bad. Gilgeous, Shai- Alexander is a legitimate celebrity, and their other young children are rapidly improving. Mark Daigneault is an excellent coach, and Oklahoma City plays with zeal. That’s a recipe for winning a slew of unexpected games.
The Thunder are only 1.5 games out of the Western Conference Play-In Tournament as of this writing. That’s close enough for OKC to say, “Why not?” and make a postseason run. They have a fairly favorable closing schedule. Unlike the six teams ahead of them, the Thunder appear to need some serious lottery luck to have a chance at drafting Wembanyama.

New Orleans Pelicans (via Los Angeles Lakers), Indiana Pacers, and Utah Jazz

These three teams have been removed from the list of “Vomiting for Victor” challengers.
The Pacers are simply outstanding. They’re far more likely to finish in the top six in the Eastern Conference than they are to be in the lottery. Indiana could add some talent with nearly $27 million in cap space available at the trade deadline. They will almost certainly be permanently removed from this list.
The Pelicans aren’t going to get lucky and have the Lakers tank for them. At least, we don’t believe so. Los Angeles has begun to improve, and Anthony Davis’ return is expected in the coming weeks. Given that the Lakers have no reason to tank, they will continue to push until they are eliminated. The talk in New Orleans now revolves around trading this pick for win-now help rather than hoping for the Basketball Gods to smile upon them again in Zion-like fashion.
The Jazz just keep showing up. A few times, it appeared that Utah was on the verge of entering the lottery. They then sort of band together. Who knows what Danny Ainge will do when the clock strikes midnight? Utah has a plethora of intriguing veterans available for trade, but they appear to enjoy playing well. At this point, even if the Jazz drop out of the Play-In race, they won’t drop far enough to be considered for Wembanyama.