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The Wemby Watch Rankings

Which NBA team is most likely to tank its way to Victor Wembanyama? We examine 10 cellar-dwellers with big dreams and little hope of winning this season.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

One story line guaranteed to consume this NBA season is the maddening yet understandable race to the bottom. Victor Wembanyama, a 7-foot-4 French 18-year-old prospect whose ceiling may redefine what it means to be a superstar, is a lock to be the no. 1 pick in the 2023 NBA draft like the sun is a lock to rise tomorrow morning.

Before he can even block a shot, drill a 3, or generally thrive on U.S. soil as the manifestation of what would happen if Kevin Durant, Rudy Gobert, and Giannis Antetokounmpo had a baby, Wembanyama’s influence (and seemingly endless wingspan) will cast a shadow over the NBA. What looms ahead is, without hyperbole, a watershed moment for every organization in the league—the one that wins the right to draft him and the 29 that don’t.

The league attempted to disincentivize deliberate failure by reforming its lottery back in 2019. The highest probability any one team can now have to land the no. 1 pick—and thus Wembanyama—is 14 percent. The three lowest basement dwellers are awarded those odds. So, chances are slim relative to what they once were, but they still are not low enough to defer a large handful of dreamers that are more than happy to disregard their own dignity: 0-82 is socially acceptable when two or three wins can cut your edge by 5 percent.

Knowing several teams will glean little regard for competitive spirit as they spend the next several months either digging their way out of a self-made hole or stumbling into one with no intention of escape, here’s a ranking of the 10 teams most likely to land Wembanyama, and the unprecedented expectations that come with him.

10. Washington Wizards

The Wizards are 16th in my colleague Zach Kram’s All In-dex, an appropriate reflection of their never-ending pursuit to be ordinary. They won their first game against the lowly Pacers, but Rui Hachimura’s preseason production might still be the no. 1 thing this team has to be excited about as it embarks on another hopeless journey.

Glance at this roster and there are several genuine NBA names who’ve put together real careers they can be proud of. But altogether, the talent level isn’t inspiring enough to justify Bradley Beal’s stated pursuit of championship contention. To the tune of $251 million through 2027, this offseason Beal infamously re-signed with the only team for which he’s ever played. He’s 29 years old with not much of a postseason resume to speak of.

If he sticks around and stays healthy, the Wizards may be just good enough to qualify for the play-in. That’s a worst-case scenario for everyone involved. But if Beal finally gets fed up, demands a trade, and lets Washington sink to the bottom, it’s a win-win.

(Free Beal. Free Beal. Free Beal. Free Beal. Free Beal. Free Beal. Free Beal. Free Beal. Free Beal. Free Beal. Free Beal. Free Beal. Free Beal. Free Beal. Free Beal. Free Beal. Free Beal. Free Beal. Free Beal. Free Beal. Free Beal. Free Beal. Free Beal. Free Beal. Free Beal. Free Beal. Free Beal.)

9. Detroit Pistons

Wembanyama + Cade Cunningham + Jaden Ivey + Saddiq Bey + Jalen Duren + a 3-point-stroking Beef Stew may be curtains for every other team trying to compete for a title between 2025 and 2035. For now, though, Detroit has its sights on qualifying for the play-in. Their best players might be babies, but teams trying to tank don’t trade for veterans like Bojan Bogdanovic, Alec Burks, and Nerlens Noel.

8. Charlotte Hornets

Things could go south quickly for the Hornets, particularly if/when the organization takes every precautionary measure imaginable with LaMelo Ball’s sprained ankle. They need to play the long game, because everything in their immediate future is shaping up to be catastrophic. A lost season for Ball would give him and the franchise some much-needed direction.

After winning 43 games and getting shellacked in the play-in by 29 points, Charlotte came into this season with a “new” head coach and without its reigning 24-year-old leading scorer. In July, Miles Bridges was charged with three felony counts of domestic violence and child abuse. Then earlier this week, James Bouknight, their first-round pick in 2021, was arrested and charged with a DWI after police found him unconscious in his car with a gun in his hands on his lap.

On the court, no meaningful additions were made in free agency, and rookie big man Mark Williams can’t singlehandedly turn around a checkered defense that also isn’t likely to be saved by Steve Clifford. (Especially when he can’t crack Clifford’s rotation.)

Charlotte’s opening night roster is far from garbage, though. Even though he wasn’t healthy enough to play, Ball is a dazzling All-Star tablesetter. Gordon Hayward, Terry Rozier, PJ Washington, Kelly Oubre Jr., and Cody Martin range from solid to a few ticks above. But several teams in their conference and division got better. And Michael Jordan won’t have to be asked twice if another team calls wanting to take Hayward and/or Rozier off his books. (Those two are owed upwards of a combined $150 million guaranteed.)

It’d be wise to trade their best players, sit LaMelo, and hope on lottery night they’re able to give their franchise point guard one of the greatest presents any franchise point guard has ever received. Ball is gifted, but without a running mate on the same timeline who can eventually nudge his way into All-NBA conversations, the Hornets don’t have another clear path to a title, let alone deep playoff runs.

7. Orlando Magic

Covered in last week’s list of bold predictions, Orlando’s humongous roster may provide a glimpse into basketball’s future, with interchangeable jumbo-sized lineups that one day have the potential to make small ball obsolete. The main wonder is how successful these groups will be in reality, with upside guards like Cole Anthony, Jalen Suggs, and Markelle Fultz all expected to contribute.

Paolo Banchero is a polished, 6-10, 250-pound quarterback who spent his NBA debut carving up the Pistons with the sensibility of a 10-year veteran. In other words, he’s a ray of sunshine for this organization, the necessary lead ball handler they’ve pretty much needed forever. Meanwhile, Franz Wagner’s first season deserved more Rookie of the Year consideration (he would’ve won it in most other draft classes) and those two already complement each other so well. Wendell Carter Jr. is one of the most underrated centers in basketball and might be the best active “Gortat” screener not named Steven Adams.

Some of this positivity is abstract, though. The Magic could and likely will still lose a ton of games this year, because that’s what youth does in this league. On the surface, Wembanyama overlaps some with what Orlando already has cooking. They don’t need him the same way other organizations do. But if a roster with several skilled giants happens to add someone who represents the NBA big man’s next evolutionary step, a dynasty unlike any seen before might take hold.

6. New Orleans Pelicans

Owning the Lakers’ draft rights via a pick swap courtesy of the Anthony Davis trade is why the Pelicans crack this list. It’s a great place to be: They are already good and the Lakers are very much not.

For basketball fans who’ve long despised the purple and gold, this outcome would be hysterical schadenfreude on a once-in-a-lifetime level. The franchise that’s boasted more than its fair share of generational talent misses out on the generational talent because of a blockbuster transaction that would henceforth be viewed as one of the most polarizing in recent league history.

There’s a fascinating hypothetical wrapped in that trade’s memory: Would you rather raise one banner or draft Victor Wembanyama? If the Lakers “win” the lottery, their fans will be asking themselves that very question for years to come. A blooper reel from this season has the potential to one day resurface as a found footage horror film. V/H/S: Westbrook’s Revenge.

If Davis and/or LeBron James miss any time this season (which, hey, they will) the Lakers will slide even faster down the standings than they already have.

5. Utah Jazz

This team could very well rank first on this list in a couple months, but today they simply aren’t bad enough. Mike Conley, Kelly Olynyk, Lauri Markkanen, Jordan Clarkson, Malik Beasley, Jarred Vanderbilt, and Collin Sexton are all quality players! After their first two games—wins over the Nuggets and Timberwolves—Utah owned the second-best net rating and assist rate in the entire league.

Eventually the Jazz will get where everyone assumes they want to be by offloading at least half of these vets for…something else. Any team that just traded a pair of bedrock stars for a bunch of draft picks should head in the opposite direction as quickly as possible.

4. Indiana Pacers

For a franchise that’s long found pride in being competitive at the detriment of their long-term success, the Pacers are actually on track to be quite bad at the exact right time. It’s not that the team is short on talent. Tyrese Haliburton is a budding franchise player who inspires, uplifts, and betters everyone around him. Bennedict Mathurin is awesome and Isaiah Jackson demands your attention. But it isn’t built to win. Myles Turner and Buddy Hield are still around but with one foot out the door. Trades seem likely, and so is the lottery.

3. Houston Rockets

I will not apologize for suggesting here and now that Jalen Green and Alperen Sengün (who somewhat surprisingly began this season backing up Bruno Fernando) can be tomorrow’s Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic.

Green is on track to be a better player than Denver’s tantalizing second option, while, even though Jokic comparisons are sacreligious, Sengün brings an aesthetic resemblance to the table. Together they’re already an entertaining tandem, but only a slice of why it’s worth being optimistic about the Rockets’ future. Some key building blocks are already in place.

Jabari Smith Jr. is compatible, steady, and open-ended as the 2022 draft’s third overall pick. He should be an immediate plus on both ends and makes as much sense next to Green as any top-tier prospect ever could. Fellow rookie Tari Eason, the newly extended Kevin Porter Jr., and Josh Christopher all have an opportunity to stick around for the long haul, too.

Meanwhile, Rockets head coach Stephen Silas believes his defense can climb from dead last to league average. We’ll see. Houston is the youngest team in the league (average age: 22.4) and may lose even more experience if they trade Eric Gordon. They exhibited no understanding of why transition defense matters in their first three games, either. Stars like Ja Morant and Giannis Antetokounmpo already wish they could play Houston every night.

2. San Antonio Spurs

Robinson. Duncan. Wembanyama? The neatness of this narrative might be even more self evident than this storied franchise’s dramatic turn toward a hyper-aggressive tank job. Two years ago, San Antonio’s backcourt was occupied by DeMar DeRozan and Dejounte Murray. Now, the two All-Stars have been functionally replaced by Tre Jones, Devin Vassell, and Josh Primo.

Josh Richardson, Doug McDermott, and Jakob Poeltl are all veteran trade candidates, and despite an early road win against the Sixers, even Gregg Popovich knows his team isn’t built to win a lot of games. The Spurs pretty much always know what they’re doing, whether at the top or bottom of the league.

1. Oklahoma City Thunder

To put any other team here would disrespect the long road Sam Presti has paved to get the Thunder where they are. He’s treated The Process like a book of motivational Vince Lombardi quotes. Oklahoma City aspires to win at the highest level. To do so, it must lose. A lot. Shortcuts aren’t allowed in a market zero NBA stars have bookmarked on Zillow.

OKC finished 28th and 30th in net rating the past two seasons, respectively, with a pair of punchless offenses that weren’t helped by the organization’s decision to eventually shut down a few of its best players. But the good news is that as a long-term basketball concept, the Thunder are no longer astray. An actual foundation and theoretical identity is starting to take shape. Beyond the injured 7-1 Chet Holmgren, Josh Giddey and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander are two large guards with dynamic, harmonious offensive skill sets that may one day resemble a championship-caliber backcourt. (Of course, given his tangible impact on winning before the Thunder are ready to do so, there’s a chance SGA is traded before we see that era materialize.)

In the meantime, there’s a lot of length—Poku, Jalen Williams, Ousmane Dieng, Holmgren, Darius Bazley, etc.—and defense is a clear priority, as proven by Lu Dort’s recently signed five-year, $82.5 million contract. Wembanyama is a great fit on any NBA team, but it’s so easy to imagine a full decade of OKC finishing first in defensive rating with Wemby’s eight-foot wingspan next to Holmgren’s 7-6 arms.

Until then, the Thunder will be outmatched pretty much every time they take the floor; unlike the Spurs and Jazz, just about every player on the roster makes sense on the ground floor of a rebuild. If Oklahoma City doesn’t finish with a bottom-three record, something went horribly wrong.