Let’s Take Stock Of The Horrors Of The Brick For Vic Campaign
11:27 AM EST on December 2, 2022
The abject shittiness of the teams at the bottom of the NBA standings is starting to warp the 2022–23 NBA regular season. There are five insanely horrendous NBA teams this season, and they are doing way more than their fair share of losing. 25 of the league's 30 teams are winning at least 40 percent of their games so far this season, fattening up against a bottom five are a combined 28–82. The gap in Net Rating from the fifth-worst team in the league to the sixth-worst team in the league (4.4 points per hundred possessions) is approximately the same as the gap from the sixth-worst team in the league to the sixth-best team in the league. It's become prohibitively difficult for normal bad teams to sink into the lottery zone: The Indiana Pacers, who were expected to spend this season tanking for draft position, are three games above .500 and a respectable fourth in the Eastern Conference, having already grabbed five wins against the league's nightmare dregs. The fourth-worst team in the East today is closer by win percentage to home court advantage in the playoffs than to the team immediately behind them in the standings. The truly bad teams are exceptionally bad.
This is not yet the dismal free-falling that is a normal rite of spring, as teams are officially eliminated from playoff contention and suddenly care a whole lot more about the delicate management of minor, nagging injuries to anyone capable of lifting a basketball. It's not even clear that all of the league's really putrid teams are engaged in tanking, although a few of them very definitely are. But as the season progresses even the one or two really bad teams that are not actively trying to be bad will feel less and less of the magnetic pull of the NBA's play-in tournament and more and more of the gravity of Victor Wembanyama and Scoot Henderson, who by most accounts are two of the best prospects to enter the NBA draft in decades. At a certain point, as the gulf widens between the real NBA teams and the chum, any effort at short-term improvement will be actively counterproductive. That has always been the case for as long as the NBA has had a draft lottery; it's just, uh, not super desirable for a sixth of the league's teams to cross that point of no return before the winter solstice.
Now that the season has crossed the one quarter mark, it is time to take stock of the bottom of the league, where the willfully tanking and the accidentally horrendous will soon find themselves in a sprint for the draft lottery's best odds. Let's sort them from best to worst, by win percentage:
Win Percentage: .286 (6–15)
Net Rating: -6.5 (27th)
Are They Tanking Or What?
Not really. Or, not yet. This is a team that started this season with playoff aspirations, but injuries have decimated Charlotte's starting lineup and rotation. LaMelo Ball has played just three games. Gordon Hayward has played 11, and is now out indefinitely with a fractured shoulder. Cody Martin has played just one game. Miles Bridges, who by Win Shares and On/Off performance was Charlotte's best player on last season's play-in squad, has been away from the team since an offseason arrest for domestic violence, and is technically a restricted free agent. That's four rotation players gone from the first promising Hornets team since 2016. It will be extremely hard for the Hornets to be serious about winning basketball games while their offense is in the hands of well-meaning role-players like Terry Rozier, Kelly Oubre, and P.J. Washington, to the point that maybe they should not be serious about it at all.
On the other hand, they replaced head coach James Borrego with old man Steve Clifford during the offseason, and that's not something you do if you intend to lose. Not that Clifford is exactly the second coming of Red Auerbach—his career win percentage as a head coach coming into this season was .458, with just four playoff appearances and zero series wins—but the appeal of Clifford is that he's going to prioritize defensive effort and organization, and get his young guys playing with pride and purpose, which was an interesting prospect for a Hornets team that spent last season mostly free-styling a lot of cool dunks and three-pointers, showing great potential but also cartwheeling into a lot of avoidable mistakes. Clifford's not the kind of guy who is gonna doze on the sideline and accept losing. The last time he took over a miserable Charlotte basketball team—the Bobcats in 2013—he needed cardiac surgery. It will be hard for the Hornets to outright tank while Clifford is in charge, for the simple reason that he will tell his players to stand in tactically sound places and then will expect them to stand there.
This answer will depend entirely on LaMelo Ball's injury status. It's possible Ball's bum ankle, which reportedly will keep him out until January, is saving the Hornets from a season of fruitless mediocrity: With Bridges out of the picture, Charlotte's failure to find and develop other high-end starters and rotation players from decades of irrelevance really zooms into focus. The last all-star they drafted before Ball was Kemba Walker; the last one before Walker was Jamaal damn Magloire, in 2000. They've got enough talent when healthy to contend for a play-in spot in a deepish Eastern Conference, but that's it. They could really use another hot-shit core player, even if it's not Wembanyama or Henderson, but Ball is good enough that any healthy season is likely to put them out of range of the very best players in a given draft. Ball's lousy ankle situation may just be a godsend.
If Ball comes back and is healthy the Hornets will have an offense and will win some games, although they might already be too far out of the play-in pack to mount any sort of charge now. While Ball is away, they have the worst offense in basketball, worse than the 29th-ranked offense by a full two points per 100 possessions. I'm not saying they should go Annie Wilkes mode on LaMelo's ankle if they've still got a .286 win percentage in mid-January, but I am saying they should at least consider going Shane Stant mode. If they do embrace losing, they could try to trade veterans like Rozier, Hayward, and Mason Plumlee, although Hayward's brittle bones and Rozier's onerous contracts might make that unrealistic. Still! Imagine Ball throwing between-the-legs alley-oops to Wembanyama for the next decade. This would be a very cool outcome of the 2023 draft lottery.
San Antonio Spurs
Win Percentage: .273 (6–16)
Net Rating: –10.0 (30th)
Are They Tanking Or What?
Yes. The Spurs weren't very good last season—only good enough to heroically deny the Lakers that final Western Conference play-in spot—and then during the offseason they dealt away Dejounte Murray, who may not be as good as he thinks he is but is for sure way better than anyone else on San Antonio's roster. Everyone knew the Spurs would be crud this season, but it's still somewhat jarring to see a Gregg Popovich-coached team stink quite this bad. They've spent November on a spectacular slide down the standings, losing 14 of their last 15 games, including their last nine in a row. For the first two weeks of the season it seemed like the Spurs might be pulling a Pacers and just competing a little bit too respectably to truly fall into the toilet. Now it is clear that they are the worst team in the NBA by a decent margin. They have the NBA's worst defense and second-worst offense. They stink.
There's no one on the roster who you'd say is definitively Good. Keldon Johnson and Devin Vassell are interesting and young, and both are averaging over 20 points per game this season in vastly expanded roles. Jeremy Sochan is handsome and possibly cool. I would not bet on any of these young guys developing into stars—by definition very few NBA players ever do—and in the meantime, while Popovich is letting Johnson and Vassell audition for the role, the Spurs are just a breathtakingly bad basketball team. They puked away a 17-point lead Wednesday and lost to the Oklahoma City Thunder, which is bad enough except that the Thunder were playing without Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who is their one (1) good player. The Spurs are pretty much What Has Happened to explain how the horrible Lakers are now within four games of .500, after the latter swept three games over the former in a six-day period.
The Spurs have a couple of decent veterans in their rotation, none of whom are good enough to keep the team afloat but all of whom could find roles on teams higher up in the standings. Jakob Poeltl is a very good rim-protector who can function as a screener and finisher in the right lineups. Doug McDermott is an efficient shooter and floor-spacer. Josh Richardson stinks but in a reliable way. Respectable veterans have no real value on a team that hopes to lose, and even if they're not preventing the Spurs from getting where they're hoping to go, it still probably will make more sense to trade these guys away, in exchange for whatever meagre, marginal returns are available.
FiveThirtyEight projects the Spurs for the fourth-worst record by season's end, and here it is important to note that the three worst teams share the best odds of landing the top pick. A Spurs team that is currently 10 points worse per 100 possessions than its opponents might eventually find it advantageous to be 15 points worse, as the season progresses and the worst teams go into full sludge mode.
Win Percentage: .250 (6–18)
Net Rating: –8.0 (29th)
Are They Tanking Or What?
Yes, although it's possibly a reluctant tank. The Pistons have some core pieces in place already. Cade Cunningham rules, and like LaMelo Ball might be good enough as an offensive centerpiece to edge the Pistons toward respectability. The Pistons got in on Utah's offseason teardown and scooped up Bojan Bogdanovic, and then extended his contract in late October. Not that 33-year-old Bogdanovic is considered part of the team's future core—he definitely is not—but the Pistons of one month ago clearly did not view Bogdanovic's excellent play as running counter to their goals. And, indeed, he is still kicking ass: Thursday an ultra efficient performance from Bogdanovic led the Pistons to a stirring overtime win over the visiting Dallas Mavericks.
But Cunningham is out, shelved indefinitely by an extremely unfortunate shin injury. When he's healthy and on the floor, the Pistons will want to give him every opportunity to thrive, and they will want him to be great with those opportunities, up to and including leading them to the play-in and beyond. Without him, they're just kind of hoping that rookies Jaden Ivey and Jalen Duren learn and improve and do not break apart into a thousand pieces. Thursday night's win notwithstanding, the Pistons are mega-crud, and each time Bogdanovic leads them to an unexpected victory—they've also surprised Utah and Denver recently, and on the road—they move just a little bit away from a more realistic goal for this season, which is to maximize their draft lottery odds. God knows they're not making the play-in.
This will depend somewhat on Cunningham's availability, but it's important to note that even if he's well the Pistons are probably nowhere near good enough to reverse course. They've got the second worst projected record in the NBA, according to FiveThirtyEight, and that's despite having a relatively easy road ahead, according to the website Tankathon, which uses cumulative win percentages of remaining opponents to determine strength of schedules. But with the Spurs plummeting and the Hornets soon reaching a point of inflection, it may eventually behoove the Pistons to lean into this a little more than they already have, painful as this might be for the 19 Pistons fans left on Earth, all of whom are somehow participants in Defector work chat.
The Pistons have some veteran guys they could offload, chief among them Bogdanovic, who was Utah's best player during their one playoff series last season. Alec Burks, Cory Joseph, and Rodney McGruder are all alive, so far as anyone can tell, and certainly there are worse guards kicking around the league today. Somehow Nerlens Noel is on Detroit's roster—prior to discovering that while researching for this blog I am pretty sure I had forgotten that Noel even exists. The Pistons probably cannot expect to get like a Mega Haul of draft picks by dealing these guys, but the rewards for thinning out their roster and jettisoning their few semi-credible veterans would be measured in lottery odds percentage points. When there's nothing else to play for, that extra 2.5 percent chance at Victor Wembanyama starts to look mighty tempting.
Win Percentage: .238 (5–16)
Net Rating: –6.7 (28th)
Are They Tanking Or What?
Yes. God, what a miserable state they're in down there. The Rockets are working on their third straight season of winning fewer than a quarter of their games. They've got some cool young guys on their roster in Jalen Green, Alperen Sengun, and Jabari Smith Jr., but if those players are developing at all toward becoming Good it is frankly impossible to tell. Green, who is supremely talented, is the rare player whose efficiency is ticking in the wrong direction in his second professional season, in the exact same role. Sengun is a good offensive player who may ultimately be unplayably bad defensively. The Rockets are nearly 11 points better by Net Rating when Smith is off the court, which is not super uncommon for a rookie but is nevertheless discouraging in the case of the draft's third overall pick.
The Rockets opened the season 1–9, which means they've been better lately. They even won two in a row, including a perfectly respectable home win over the Atlanta Hawks. It's just impossible to believe that it will amount to anything, in part because the team is still not all that interested in winning, and in larger part because no one from the team's young core has shown any indication that they can be part of a winning team. There's some fun in watching Green and running mate Kevin Porter Jr. take turns pretending to be superstars, but far too often they look less like James Harden and more like Larry Hughes. In general it's an awful show.
FiveThirtyEight projects the Rockets to finish this regular season with 20 wins and the NBA's worst record. Houston went two years without any draft picks at all, at the end of the James Harden era, and went six years between first-round draft picks, before selecting Green with the second overall pick in 2021. As revolting as the team currently is, this is a forgivable condition for an organization that recently gutted itself of future assets in order to maximize its championship window. It's very cool and bitchin' when a team shifts painlessly from one era of respectability into another era of respectability, but the Rockets under Daryl Morey commendably threw everything at getting a title, and if the long work of clawing their way out of the wreckage of that effort's final failure includes a couple years in the toilet, so be it.
Virtually all of their rotation jobs are going to underqualified goofs, with the exception of the 29 minutes a night they're giving to poor, poor Eric Gordon. Perhaps the Rockets will finally trade him away this season, and either let him or force him to finish his career playing minutes that matter for a team that matters. Gordon's efficiency isn't what it used to be, but he's still a fine shooter and floor-spacer, and he's got one non-guaranteed year left on his contract after this one, which should make him at least a little bit attractive to good teams, even at 34 years of age. If the Rockets need to bottom out even further, dealing Gordon would probably be the lever to pull. But they almost certainly won't need it, because they are incredibly awful as currently constituted.
Win Percentage: .227 (5–17)
Net Rating: –6.1 (26th)
Are They Tanking Or What?
This adorable team. I sincerely do not think they intended to tank this season. They scored the top overall pick in the 2022 draft and used it on Paolo Banchero, who has been everything they could've possibly hoped for. They had a number of young players already in the fold who I'm sure they expected to make big leaps this season, and a couple other reasonably young guys who they probably expected to give them a little bit of professional backbone. I think the Magic thought they would be in the mix this year.
But scanning their roster, they've got a really striking number of bozos on their team, guys like Admiral Schofield and Moritz Wagner and Mo Bamba and R.J. Hampton. Jalen Suggs, who is supposed to be their lead guard of the future, is alarmingly bad. Chuma Okeke, who they selected in the first round in 2019, is possibly a worthless basketball player. They've already used 12 different starters this season. Their fun little successes, like Bol Bol and Franz Wagner, are offset a thousandfold by the number of goofs they've had to use through 22 games. They might not have been tanking when the season started, but they've lost eight of nine, they're in the league's bottom five in offense and defense, and the expected player development that was supposed to shore up a roster that was good for a combined 43 wins over the past two seasons has largely not come to fruition. Banchero might be real good, but no one is that good.
FiveThirtyEight projects the Magic to win 23 games and finish with the third-worst record in the NBA, which would lock them in with a share of the best lottery odds for a top pick. Banchero and Wagner (the good one) could conceivably drag them into periods of fleeting respectability, and there's a non-zero chance that the return of Markelle Fultz to their rotation might very dramatically improve their backcourt rotation. It's entirely possible that the Magic will become better over the course of the season, at least until Banchero hits the dreaded rookie wall. They could probably offload Terrence Ross in a trade, or just shift some of his minutes to the insanely ruined and depressing Gary Harris, if they need their guard play to somehow get worse down the stretch.
It's very fun to imagine Banchero, Bol, and Wembanyama starting together on the same team, a combined 22 feet of height and 900 feet of length, and the team somehow still needing Wendell Carter Jr. to hold down the center position. The best and only real draft luck the Magic have ever had has come when they've drafted can't-miss behemoths with game-altering physical gifts. Wembanyama would certainly fit the mold.