Analysis: The lure of Wembanyama will see some teams tanking
Victor Wembanyama already has command of the English language, including some terms that don’t exactly show up in the 18-year-old’s French dictionary.
Among them: tanking.
The worst-kept secret in the NBA this season is that some teams aren’t exactly going to be trying their best to win as many games as possible. Instead, they’ll be using this season to develop their young players, get them some experience, while hoping to be bad enough — and then lucky enough — to win the draft lottery and the chance to select the 7-foot-3 Wembanyama next June.
“Of course, the word and the meaning of the word ‘tanking’ is kind of weird,” Wembanyama said. “And, personally, I would never want to lose. It’s a personal thing. But I really try to stay outside of it and don’t care about it.”
Nor should he. It’s out of his control. He’ll play his season in France and find out in May at the draft lottery who won the No. 1 pick. He may as well call a realtor in whatever city wins at that point, because it’s almost an absolute certainty that he’ll soon need a home there with high doorways and ceilings.
If he wants to start shopping now, these are the places he might want to study up on, based on the odds of making the playoffs posted by FanDuel Sportsbook: Orlando, Detroit, Indiana, Oklahoma City, Utah and San Antonio.
The Spurs might be the sentimental favorite. Wembanyama spent last season playing in France for a team owned by former Spurs guard Tony Parker. San Antonio was bad enough in the 1996-97 season — don’t say tanking to the Spurs — to be able to draft Tim Duncan and go on to win five championships. And this year, well, they’re not going to be good.
“I probably shouldn’t say this, but I’ll say it anyway,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said, as he leaned down closer to the microphone for extra emphasis at his team’s media day last month. “Nobody here should go to Vegas with the thought of betting on us to win the championship.”
A few days later, the Spurs — and the rest of the league — were in Las Vegas to watch Wembanyama play a pair of preseason games. He didn’t disappoint, averaging 36.5 points in those contests against the G League Ignite.
Betting on the Spurs would be a mistake. Betting on Wembanyama probably isn’t.
“I think I could be jinxing a player who hasn’t come into the NBA yet by me anointing him as the next great one,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said. “But he certainly has all the attributes of a true game-changer. … I know that many of our NBA teams are salivating at the notion that potentially through our lottery that they could get him.”
Silver then said those teams “should all still compete very hard next season.” Ha. Well, it’s more like a matter of perspective. Players will play hard; that’s a given. But some teams will simply be trying to win the Daytona 500 while on a 10-speed Schwinn. They’ll be sweaty at the end of the race, but they’re not going to be anywhere near Victory Lane.
There are many teams that would love to luck their way into Wembanyama but aren’t planning to actively try to swing the odds in their favor. There might be more teams that consider themselves to be contenders — either for the playoffs or for a championship — at the start of this season than any other in recent memory.
Yet some teams pretty much already know they’re lottery-bound.
“There’s Wembanyama, whatever the kid’s name is, sweepstakes, and then everyone else is good. … Not that anybody in the NBA would ever tank,” Dallas owner Mark Cuban said earlier this week, according to The Dallas Morning News.
That’s pretty much the deal right now. There’s the haves, the teams that are going to fight for the playoffs. And then there are the have-nots. Or in this case, the want-to-have-Wembanyama group.
Still, if a team somehow goes 0-82, even that wouldn’t overly stack the Wembanyama deck in its favor. That team would have only a 14% chance of winning the lottery, a 52% chance of finishing in the top four, and a 48% chance of finishing in exactly the No. 5 spot.
The three teams with the worst regular season records will all have a 14% chance of winning the lottery. The fourth-worst team will have a 12.5% chance, the fifth-worst team a 10.5% chance. The odds continue getting smaller from there, with the last team in the lottery — one of the teams that loses in the play-in tournament — having a 0.5% chance, or 200-1.
Somebody is going to lose a lot, then get maybe a franchise-changing win, thanks to the order of how four ping-pong balls emerge from a plastic hopper in May at the lottery.
The victor there gets … well, Victor.
For some teams, that’s the dream. So, let the race to the bottom begin.
Tim Reynolds is a national basketball writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at treynolds(at)ap.org
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