All season, we've tracked the rather strange lack of tanking ahead of a draft class that features arguably the best prospect of the past 20 years. As of this writing, only the Rockets are on pace to win fewer than 20 games, and a number of teams we expected to lose aggressively like the Jazz, Pacers and Magic have all been significantly better than expected for at least meaningful stretches of the season. Teams obviously want Victor Wembanyama, but they aren't exactly going out of their way to get him.
That philosophy seemingly extended into the trade deadline. Almost every year, at least one team uses the deadline to intentionally fling itself down the standings. A year ago, the Portland Trail Blazers gave away CJ McCollum, Larry Nance Jr., Robert Covington and Norman Powell so they could finish the season on a 6-27 run that landed them Shaedon Sharpe. A year earlier, it was Orlando that took the tumble after it dealt Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon and Evan Fournier to jump into the top five.
No team took such a drastic step this season. We expected Toronto to fill that void, but the Raptors turned into surprising buyers. Portland gave away Josh Hart and Gary Payton II, but those were largely luxury-tax decisions. Brooklyn is way too high in the standings to tank now, and even if the Nets could tank their way to the top of the draft, their roster right now is too strong to allow it. The same, to a lesser extent, is true of Utah.
Instead, this deadline gave us a series of smaller moves. The five worst teams jockeyed for position a bit, but this deadline was otherwise notable for the moves that the worst teams didn't make. So after our check-in across the pond, we'll use this week's Wemby Watch to consider how the 2023 lottery will be shaped by the deadline.
Mets 92, Wemby snap two-game skid
A two-game losing streak vs. Roanne then Blois pushed Mets 92 down the LNB Pro A standings two games back of Monaco, but Wembanyama willed him and his team's way back into the win column this week. Facing a Dijon team that limited him to 16 points in January -- his sixth-lowest scoring total in a game this season -- Wembanyama exploded for 29 points, nine boards, four assists and a pair of blocks in a 93-86 win.
Victor Wembanyama gets Mets 92 back on the winning track with 29 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 blocks and some ridiculous highlights as usual for the future No. 1 pick and French league MVP. pic.twitter.com/l376LEbQ1f— Jonathan Givony (@DraftExpress) February 10, 2023
Leaders Cup games on deck
The Leaders Cup games -- an annual competition for the best teams in the LNB Pro A -- will start this week for Mets 92 as an in-season reprieve to the regular-season grind. Mets 92 faces LNB Pro A-leading Monaco on Wednesday at 1:00 p.m. ET then Lyon Villeurbanne in the quarterfinals round on Friday at 3 p.m. ET. Mets 92 lost its only meeting against Monaco this season, 95-82, though Monaco is coming off a rare loss earlier in the week to Bourg-en-Bresse.
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. Chicago Bulls: I wish I could explain to you why the Bulls stood pat at the deadline. They came no closer to achieving their uninspiring goal of reaching the playoffs without paying the luxury tax, but they took no step towards holding onto their top-four protected first-round pick, either. The didn't even solve their offseason contract dilemmas. The Bulls are roughly $42 million below next season's projected tax line, but that doesn't include new deals for Nikola Vucevic, Coby White or Ayo Dosunmu. Maybe the Bulls can keep all three and duck below the line, but it probably would've made sense to move somebody just to ensure their status as a non-taxpayer next year.
6. Indiana Pacers: The Pacers finally, mercifully took Myles Turner off of the trade market when they gave him a long-term extension, but beyond him, there just wasn't an obvious trade candidate on the roster. Chris Duarte is too good to give up on for nothing. Everyone else is on a value contract, and the Pacers, organizationally, refuse to tank. Injuries pushed them into the lottery organically, and they're content to remain where they are.
5. Orlando Magic: Terrence Ross made an interesting decision when he sought a buyout from the Magic. Yes, he got himself to a contender in Phoenix, and he can showcase himself to prospective future employers in the postseason. But in the process, he cost himself his Bird Rights in Phoenix, and will now have to sign into either cap space or a cap exception to make more than the minimum next season. Financially speaking, Ross probably should have stayed in Orlando. But kudos to him for wanting a ring badly enough to leave dollars on the table.
4. Detroit Pistons: The Pistons made the best stealth tanking move possible by absorbing James Wiseman at the deadline. Not only is he the third-worst player in the NBA to have played more than 250 minutes this season, according to FiveThirtyEight's RAPTOR, but he shares a position with Jalen Duren and Isaiah Stewart, which is going to force the Pistons into ineffective two-big lineups the rest of the way. Detroit may have gotten a former No. 2 overall pick in the deal, but the real value here is in how much Wiseman might help their lottery odds moving forward.
3. Charlotte Hornets: By trading Mason Plumlee to the Clippers, the Hornets also committed to a young center. Here's the difference: theirs is actually pretty good. Rookie Mark Williams, amazingly, has the fourth-highest defensive RAPTOR rating by FiveThirtyEight at plus-4.6. He still has a ways to go offensively, but the more minutes Charlotte can funnel to Williams now, the better. The Hornets probably should have moved a few more veterans, but that at least is a significant win.
2. San Antonio Spurs: Start betting San Antonio overs. As we've covered, the Spurs might just have the worst defense in NBA history, and they just traded their primary rim-protector in Jakob Poeltl. They're going to give up a ton of points the rest of the way.
1. Houston Rockets: With Eric Gordon and Garrison Matthews now gone, there is not a single member of the Houston Rockets who has played at least 400 minutes for them this season above the age of 22. Ironically, you could argue that the Rockets should keep John Wall this time around just to have an adult in the room, but based on how things went the last time these two parties were forced together, something tells us that's not going to happen.
Loss of the week
Sadly, we might be witnessing the end of one of the NBA's most randomly one-sided rivalries. The Toronto Raptors surprisingly fired Dwane Casey in 2018. Ever since then, he has largely coached underwhelming Detroit rosters while the Raptors have won a championship and been generally competitive. Yet entering this season, Casey's Pistons were 9-3 against Nick Nurse's Raptors. Those nine wins were accumulated in three different 3-0 seasons for Detroit against Toronto. But the tide is finally starting to shift. Toronto won its first game against Detroit this season by four points, and on Sunday, a furious double-digit comeback in the final minutes came up a single point short as the Raptors escaped with a 119-118 victory.
A random Pistons loss to the Raptors doesn't mean much in a vacuum, but we have to be realistic about where Detroit is. This will be Casey's fourth straight season in the lottery, and even if injuries were the primary culprit, he's heading for the worst win-loss mark of his 14-year NBA coaching career. There is a reasonable chance that he isn't back next year and the Raptors can suddenly start treating the Pistons like a normal bad team instead of one that has their number. We're already moving in that direction with these recent Raptors victories. If Casey can't even beat the Raptors anymore, the Pistons may wonder how he plans to beat anyone else.
Games of the weak
With All-Star weekend looming there are not many game this week, but fortunately, Wednesday gives us a trio of usable options.
San Antonio Spurs at Charlotte Hornets: It's kind of amazing that we're about to see the first consistent starting stretch of Zach Collins' career. He's a former lottery pick who largely played well in Portland, but lost most of three seasons due to injury. That's not much of a reason to watch this game but, hey, maybe your favorite team needs a big man this offseason.
Chicago Bulls at Indiana Pacers: This game could prove critical to determining who finishes at No. 10 in the Eastern Conference if you assume that the Wizards will eventually collapse. (And that's usually a fairly safe bet.)
Houston Rockets at Oklahoma City Thunder: OKC has seemingly graduated from Wemby Watch, but they did trade away a valuable rotation player in Mike Muscala at the deadline. They're not trying to lose, but they wouldn't be too broken up about losing either.