Victor Wembanyama will not play an NBA game this season, but his presence will tower over the league all year. Wembanyama, the 7’5 French wunderkind who rips three-pointers and puts a lid on the rim with his 8-foot wingspan, is the no-brainer choice to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2023 NBA Draft. He’s legitimately one of the most tantalizing basketball prospects ever, and is the sort of talent who would be in contention to go first overall in any draft in league history.
NBA teams have been planning for his arrival into the league for years, and now it’s finally his pre-draft season. Add in the fact that the 2023 NBA Draft also includes another potential future superstar in G League Ignite point guard Scoot Henderson, and it feels like there’s two talents worthy of going No. 1 overall in this year’s draft. That makes it a great year to be at the bottom of the standings.
While most of the league is trying to win this year, there are already some defined tankers at the start of the 2022-2023 campaign. More teams will surely join them in the middle of the year when their seasons inevitably go off the rails. These are the teams with a real shot at winning the lottery and drafting Wembanyama.
NBA teams that would rather make the playoffs than tank
12. New York Knicks
The Knicks were my pick as this year’s biggest surprise team. They added Jalen Brunson for nothing but cap space, signed an elite backup big man in Isaiah Hartenstein, and get Derrick Rose back in the lineup from injury. If the defense can get back to where Tom Thibodeau wants it, I would not be shocked to see this team make the playoffs via the play-in tournament. Getting in the Wembanyama race would mean everything goes wrong for New York: injuries to star players, stagnation from the youngsters, and Thibs completely losing the team. It’s not impossible, but it’s hard to imagine.
11. Sacramento Kings
The Kings have the NBA’s longest playoff drought. They badly want to make the postseason this year with a promising core of De’Aaron Fox, Domantas Sabonis, Harrison Barnes, and Keegan Murray. This team should be pretty good, but it’s the Kings so we know their season can always fall off a cliff. Of course, the Kings might be the one team that would actually pass on Wembanyama at the top of the draft given that they passed on Luka Doncic a few years ago.
10. Portland Trail Blazers
Portland did its best to put a winning team around Damian Lillard this year, and it’s possible this roster is good enough to make the playoffs. Jerami Grant, Josh Hart, and Gary Payton II give Portland more length and athleticism around Lillard than they typically have. It would really only take one Lillard injury or some sustained cold shooting stretches from his support cast to sink the ship, though. I’m also not sold on this defense with Dame and Anfernee Simons in the backcourt. The Blazers’ roster isn’t bad, but it doesn’t feel like they have a pathway to contention anytime soon. That’s usually the sign a team that could start tanking at midseason.
9. Washington Wizards
There’s an outline of a pretty interesting team in D.C. this year if everything goes right. Bradley Beal would have to bounce back from a down season last year, Kristaps Porzingis would need to stay healthy and play like the All-Star caliber talent that he should be, and the supporting cast (Kyle Kuzma, Will Barton, Monte Morris) have to be stars in their roles. Still, it just doesn’t seem like there’s much upside with this group. If they’re on the outside looking in at the play-in race, would they start to sell on Kuzma and others to get in the Wembanyama derby? It’s possible.
Young teams developing their foundational talent without pressure to win
8. Orlando Magic
The Magic are the trendiest preseason pick to be the young team that overachieves this season. That optimism starts with having two massive young on-ball creators in No. 1 pick Paolo Banchero and sophomore stud Franz Wagner. Add in Wendell Carter, Markelle Fultz, and Jalen Suggs, and there’s something definitely cooking here. The Magic still don’t have enough shooting, their defense is a question mark, and the lack of a true table-setting point guard will occasionally slow things down in the halfcourt. Orlando is going to be fun this year for sure, but there’s still a good chance they have decent odds at Wembanyama at the end of the season.
7. Detroit Pistons
The Pistons’ young core is so promising. Cade Cunningham is a flat-out star, Jaden Ivey will be a wonderful backcourt complement next to him with his incredible ability to get to the rim, and Jaden Duren has every physical tool you want from a modern center. The key pieces for Detroit are just going to need some time to develop and gel. The Pistons did bring on some solid veterans to help them win games in the short term (Bojan Bogdanovic, Alec Burks), but this team can still probably expect to be near the bottom of the standings. That’s perfectly okay this season.
6. Houston Rockets
The Rockets already have a lot of talented young pieces that fit well together. Jalen Green could be a future scoring champ, Jabari Smith Jr. is an ace three-point shooter at 6’10, Alperen Sengun is slow-footed but creative interior scorer and passer, and Tari Eason has the size, athleticism, and motor to do all the dirty work. The Rockets are building the outline of a competitive team, but there’s still no urgency to maximize their wins this year. Either Wembanyama or Henderson would vault this core into serious long-term contender status.
The favorites to land Victor Wembanyama in the NBA draft
5. Charlotte Hornets
The Hornets have hit a perfect storm of misfortune coming into this season. Miles Bridges is off the team and out of the league after horrifying domestic violence allegations. LaMelo Ball is already hurt. Last year’s lottery pick James Bouknight has his own legal trouble. The Hornets will probably defend better than anyone expects after bringing back old coach Steve Clifford, but there’s a glaring lack of wing scorers and talented bigs on the roster. Can you imagine LaMelo feeding Wembanyama for the next 10 years? This might actually be the most fun Wemby landing spot.
4. Indiana Pacers
The Pacers historically loathe to tank, but there’s almost no way this roster is going to be in the middle of the pack in the Eastern Conference this year. Tyrese Haliburton is a wonderful young point guard to build around, and No. 6 overall pick Bennedict Mathurin should be a terrific complement to him as an athletic scoring guard with deep shooting range. For now, veterans like Myles Turner, Buddy Hield, and T.J. McConnell will give Indiana a chance to be competitive on the right night, but it only takes one midseason trade for this team be something close to an automatic L in every game.
3. Utah Jazz
The teardown of the Utah Jazz is in full swing, but there’s still more work to do. Top executive Danny Ainge sold off his two best players, Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell, just in time to get in the Wembanyama race. The Jazz are loaded with future first round picks, and there’s a chance they can add more with a bunch of competent veterans still on the roster. Mike Conley, Jordan Clarkson, Lauri Markkanen, and Malik Beasley are just a few of the players contenders could be interested in this season. When they get traded, the Jazz will fall even further down the standings. This roster is a blank slate right now, and it’s no secret that they have their sights set on Wembanyama at the end of the year.
2. Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder have seemingly been planning for Wembanyama longer than any other franchise. Ever since OKC traded away Russell Westbrook and Paul George in the same offseason, their eyes have always been on building a long-term contender through the draft. After two straight straight seasons at the bottom of the standings, OKC is set up for one final tank year to go after Wembanyama. No. 2 overall pick Chet Holmgren is already out for the season, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is starting the year with a sprained knee. There’s a good talent base in place here that also includes Josh Giddey and Lu Dort, but the Thunder pretty transparently have no plans to win this season. This has to be the final year of the tank, whether they land Wembanyama or not.
1. San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs made their decision to tank in the offseason when they traded their best player, 26-year-old point guard Dejounte Murray, to the Hawks for three first round picks. Without Murray, San Antonio’s roster just doesn’t make a lot of sense. Devin Vassell and Keldon Johnson are promising young veterans, and Jakob Poeltl is a good defensive center, but there’s a glaring lack of facilitators and scorers around them. No team in NBA history has been better at the strategically planned one-year tank than the Spurs, who once used it to land Tim Duncan. Wembanyama is the same type of mega-prospect entering the league. If the Spurs get lucky enough to have the ping-pong balls bounce their way again, another generational big man will be on its way.
One mystery team with a shot at Victor Wembanyama
The New Orleans Pelicans, who own the Lakers’ unprotected draft pick
The Lakers have two top-15 players with LeBron James and Anthony Davis. The rest of the roster looks absolutely atrocious, though, with no shooting and little defensive talent around their two superstars. The Pelicans have the right to swap first round picks with the Lakers this year from the Anthony Davis trade.
Imagine the Lakers missing the playoffs, winning the lottery, and giving up the rights to Wembanyama to a surging Pelicans team. What a world that would be.