clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Basketball Gods’ 2023 NBA Draft Lottery Preview

Which NBA team truly deserves to win the lottery and draft Victor Wembanyama? With a once-in-a-generation prospect on the line, we consulted a higher power to break down the real odds.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The basketball gods are always watching, but it’s rare that we actually hear from them. As much as we may pray, call out, and gaze upward after making the extra pass, we can only guess what they’re thinking.

There is one day on the NBA calendar, however, when the unvarnished word of the powers that be comes down: judgment day, the NBA draft lottery. All season long, teams have been jockeying for position and the right to select Victor Wembanyama this June, and all season long, the basketball gods have been watching, tracking every instance of questionable load management. Each and every possession, roster move, media quote, and more from the past several seasons has been taken into account, with more recent events weighted more heavily in the final tally, according to sources familiar with the gods’ thinking.

On Tuesday night, the gods will render their rulings and award the right to draft a once-in-a-generation prospect. The NBA will commence with the ritual selection of Ping-Pong balls to reveal the order of the 2023 draft, but that is mere ceremony. In reality, the order is already set—determined after weeks of tense deliberation by basketball’s higher powers.

Their decision will dictate the futures of several NBA franchises and maybe even the league itself. But players—even 7-foot-3 wunderkinds—come and go; gods are eternal. And Tuesday night will offer a window into their will. The Ringer is here to interpret the fates for all 14 lottery teams.

The Favorites

Detroit Pistons (14 percent chance at the no. 1 pick)

The Pistons were blessed in 2021’s lottery, and they’ve assembled a team around no. 1 pick Cade Cunningham that has begun to make sense—though not enough sense for them to avoid finishing with the worst record in the league. How will the basketball gods view them? Even the Pistons’ most puzzling tendency—their powerlessness to resist the allure of anyone who plays center—assures that Wembanyama would be appreciated in Detroit, albeit amid a crowded depth chart.

Detroit’s rebuild seems to be in a pretty good spot. But sources say certain basketball gods think Detroit has already had enough help from above; look for them to spread the lottery love elsewhere.

Houston Rockets (14 percent)

The basketball gods appreciate accountability, which seems to be sorely lacking in Houston. The Rockets’ 2022-23 season was an utter mess, even compared to those of other teams at the bottom of the standings. They played disjointed basketball with no discernible system or organization. That’s all well and good for a team with designs on a third straight top-three pick, but at some point, the basketball gods want to see signs of progress and a cohesive foundation.

On the one hand, new coach Ime Udoka may help Houston build that; on the other, he was dismissed as coach of the Celtics less than a year ago for an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate—so his hire isn’t exactly a net positive in the eyes of the basketball gods. Odds-wise, Houston has given itself as good a chance as any team, but beyond the standings, its case may be found lacking come judgment time.

San Antonio Spurs (14 percent)

Gregg Popovich said recently that the San Antonio Spurs “deserve no more luck ever in the history of NBA basketball,” presumably because of their great fortune in winning two lotteries in the last 25 years and netting two Hall of Famers in Tim Duncan and David Robinson. As usual, Pop is correct. But, fortunately for Spurs fans, the draft lottery isn’t all about luck (at least, we’re pretending that’s the case), and the Spurs can present a compelling argument to the hoop immortals. With the Spurs, Wembanyama would get to learn from arguably the greatest coach of all time. And San Antonio has historically proved welcoming to both international players (including Tony Parker, who owns the French club where Wemby played in 2021-22) and generational centers (Duncan and Robinson)—not to mention international generational centers (Jakob Poeltl). Furthermore, the Spurs have cultivated a strong foundation and a cast of young complementary players just waiting for a linchpin star to bring it all together.

However, the basketball gods may worry about the acrimonious exits of San Antonio’s last two stars, Kawhi Leonard and Dejounte Murray. And for as cushy a landing spot the Spurs can offer, the gods may choose to instead humble the NBA’s model franchise of two decades and send it to wander the desert for a few more years.

The Middle

Charlotte Hornets (12.5 percent)

It’s unclear whether Michael Jordan selling the Hornets pleases the basketball gods: He’s the greatest player of all time, but he’s presided over an atrocious era in this franchise’s history. To a large extent, the draft is all about helping a team during its darkest hour. (LaMelo Ball is a bright spot, but he’s also a walking basketball sin at times.) The Hornets rallied for a feisty finishing kick to the 2022-23 season, though it might have been too little, too late. Help from the gods tends to come along when it’s ready to be received, and this team has not demonstrated such readiness. A serious team would not wear these jerseys, which prophets say the gods perceived as a direct affront; it’s hard to imagine Wemby suiting up for the CLTs.

Portland Trail Blazers (10.5 percent)

Damian Lillard is as beloved and respected in the gods’ realm as he is in this one. His leadership, his loyalty, his clutch shotmaking—the gods smile upon it all, and they observe the ongoing mediocrity in one of the NBA’s great basketball cities with appropriate concern. Lillard is getting older, and while he might trust the Blazers’ front office, the gods have been aware of their need to intervene for some time.

Yet the Blazers’ case is complicated by their 1-9 limp to the finish line in 2022-23, which successfully increased their lottery odds but drew consternation in all dimensions. The Mavericks were fined for “conduct detrimental to the league” when they sat their stars in the final games of the season, but even they hung in there for longer than Portland did! Plus, the basketball gods are immortal, which means they’re old enough to remember what happened last time the Trail Blazers used the no. 1 pick on a revelatory center.

Orlando Magic (9 percent)

After a decade of futile irrelevance, the Magic are in the gods’ good graces right now. They’ve done everything they can to curry favor. In stark contrast to teams like Charlotte and Houston, Orlando established a clear upward trajectory by going 29-31 to finish the 2022-23 season. The team has built a promising young core headlined by Franz Wagner and 2022 no. 1 pick Paolo Banchero. And given the gods’ proclivity for redemption arcs, you could do worse than starting point guard Markelle Fultz.

The biggest question with Orlando is how much is too much? They were rewarded the ultimate prize last year, and it’s rare—but not unprecedented—for the gods to give the top pick to the same team two years in a row. (The last time that happened was when Cleveland won the lottery in 2013 and 2014.) Might the gods opt for a middle approach in which they reward Orlando with a high pick, but not the highest one?

Indiana Pacers (6.8 percent)

The Ringer’s own Matt Dollinger has threatened to leave the company due to a conflict of interest if his hometown Pacers land Wemby. Sadly for the state of Indiana—and anyone yearning to see the generational big man paired up with Tyrese Haliburton and Bennedict Mathurin—the basketball gods just can’t let that happen.

In 49 states, it’s just basketball; hoops means more in the Hoosier State, but Indiana may just be too small for Wemby’s star power. Are we really going to have 30 Pacers games on TNT next year?

Washington Wizards (6.7 percent)

On Tuesday night, we’ll find out whether the basketball gods are as tired of the Washington Wizards as we are. Divine intervention may be the only way to avoid several more years of sub-.500 basketball and will they, won’t they trade chatter surrounding Bradley Beal, the last good draft pick the Wizards made.

Utah Jazz (4.5 percent)

Utah tore its team down to the studs last offseason when it traded Donovan Mitchell to the Cavs and Rudy Gobert to Minnesota. While the gods tend not to favor such drastic steps backward, it was hard to argue with the logic in this case—especially once the Jazz proved delightfully competitive in 2022-23. New coach Will Hardy managed to turn a roster of castoffs and spare parts into a whirring, coherent squad that almost reached the play-in. Alas, you get only so many chances to build around 7-foot Frenchmen, and some other teams are ahead of Utah in line.

The Long Shots

Dallas Mavericks (3 percent)

Come on, the team that blatantly tanked out of the play-in and got called out for it is not getting Victor Wembanyama. Next.

Chicago Bulls (1.8 percent)

It’s good for basketball when the Bulls are great, and the gods have a vested interest in whatever’s good for basketball. Wembanyama has true all-time-great potential, and it would be undeniably special to see him suit up for Jordan’s former team. But the Bulls have an aging core that seems stuck in the morass of the middle of the Eastern Conference, and Chicago might be the one city where the shadow of a franchise legend looms a little bit too large.

Oklahoma City Thunder (1.7 percent)

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander became a superstar last season, Josh Giddey is a passing savant, Jalen Williams looks like a star, and Chet Holmgren missed his entire rookie campaign and still may be the Thunder’s most important player. OKC’s rebuild is looking damn near complete.

In Dante’s Inferno, the fourth circle of hell is greed—and what is Sam Presti’s yearslong hoarding of draft picks if not that? A prospect like Wembanyama may have been the Thunder’s endgame all along, but that doesn’t mean their strategy will be rewarded. But fret not, Thunder fans. There are worse places to be than the fourth circle of hell, and the existing Thunder core might be good enough on its own to keep the team out of circle no. 1: limbo.

Toronto Raptors (1 percent)

What do the basketball gods think of positionless basketball? Quite frankly, the people are dying to know. Toronto spent the past few seasons going all in on wingspan, and the results were underwhelming. After an encouraging run in 2021-22, the Raptors scuffled along all of last season and finished ninth before falling to the Bulls in the East play-in tournament. In light of the past two seasons, it seems clear the Raptors need to shake up their formula.

Unless! Perhaps 8 feet of additional arms were the missing ingredient in the Raptors’ wingsplan all along. Toronto won a championship only four years ago and don’t necessarily deserve the top pick, but if the basketball gods are even half as invested in positionless basketball as Masai Ujiri is, watch out.

New Orleans Pelicans (0.5 percent)

Not even the basketball gods have ever seen anything like a Zion Williamson–Victor Wembanyama frontcourt. Surely, they must be tempted. But the Pelicans have the lowest odds in Tuesday’s lottery and are still dealing with the stench of botching the Anthony Davis era, let alone their Zion issues. Are the gods willing to throw so much muscle around for a franchise that has struggled to keep its generational talent on the floor?