Victor Wembanyama is the type of guy you dream up in NBA 2K’s “create a player” mode. Only less realistic.
The 7ft 4in forward with an 8ft wingspan is as coordinated as he is large; as fluid as he is dynamic; and as skilled as he is smart. Wembanyama can do everything, from acrobatically blocking shots to hitting movement threes to dunking over everybody.
The 18-year-old Frenchman has been called the greatest basketball prospect of all time, on a par with LeBron James, who was literally hailed as “The Chosen One”. Wembanyama will be the No 1 overall pick in the 2023 NBA Draft barring unforeseen circumstances. He is projected to add upwards of $500m to the value of the franchise that drafts him and will almost certainly win them a lot of games too.
And this NBA season is going to look dramatically different because of him.
Wembanyama is so talented that some executives had already started hollowing out their teams before the 2022-23 season, trading away their best players for future draft picks that could, hopefully, be used to select the teenager.
The San Antonio Spurs traded their best player, Dejounte Murray, who at just 26 years old was named to his first All-Star team last season, for three unprotected first-round picks and a pick swap. The Utah Jazz, who were the No 1 seed in the Western Conference just two seasons ago, traded away the two players most responsible for taking them there, Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell for seven unprotected first-round picks and three pick swaps. And teams like the Oklahoma City Thunder, Houston Rockets, Orlando Magic and Detroit Pistons are already so bad that they don’t even need to make any trades to guarantee that they will be in with a chance of owning the No 1 pick next year.
All these teams are actively trying to get worse because it’s exactly what the NBA incentivizes: the teams that finish with the worst records are rewarded with the best odds of winning the draft lottery and picking at the top of the 2023 draft – the three worst teams in the league each have a 14% chance of obtaining the first pick and therefore Wembanyama. And considering that drafting a generational prospect is by far the easiest way to win a championship, it’s no wonder so many teams are trying to do it.
But this strategy leads to some truly unwatchable basketball towards the end of the season, typically in March and April, when teams begin to shoot for the bottom of the standings by trading away good players, resting their remaining veterans, or exaggerating injuries to their best young stars. This year, with Wembanyama on the market and tantalizing prospects like Scoot Henderson and Amen Thompson right behind him, the tanking could be even worse than usual.
“I can tell you for sure what Wembanyama and Scoot Henderson did [at recent exhibition games] in Las Vegas accelerated the ‘when do we pull the plug?’ timetable in the minds of owners and decision makers around the league,” ESPN’s Zach Lowe said recently on his podcast. “From like: ‘Maybe we’d kinda just bail out on the season with like 15 games to go, if that’s what we normally do’, [to] ‘Yo, we are gonna look at the calendar on January 1st and then we might decide on when to bail on the season.’”
This season has gotten off to a surprisingly competitive start, and 16 teams are within 3.0 games of a .500 record more than a quarter through the season. Yet the parity that we typically see at the start of the season almost always dilutes towards the end. In fact, executives around the league remain confident that teams that look competent now are still going to pull the plug. Already, we are seeing teams that started out hot, like the Jazz and Spurs, going on long losing streaks. If anything, more teams than ever have the potential to pull the plug and start tanking. And part of that has to do with the NBA’s reformed lottery odds.
The lottery used to be even more tilted towards the bottom until the NBA flattened the odds in 2019. Now the teams with the three worst records in the league at the end of the season each have a 14% chance of getting the No 1 pick (the chances of the fourth- fifth- and sixth-worst teams aren’t much lower at 12.5%, 10.5% and 9% respectively). The new structure could have the opposite effect to what was intended. It may actually incentivize more teams to tank, since they no longer have to be among the very worst teams in the league in order to have a chance at the top pick. And with Wembanyama up for grabs, more teams than ever may choose to tank.
“While it might look like there are only a handful of bad teams a quarter way through the season, that number could shoot up to upwards of 10 by the end of the season, with teams who disappoint early deciding to blow it up before we know it,” said Lowe.
Plus, while this year is unique because of Wembanyama, this isn’t a one year thing for many teams. This flawed incentive structure leads to a landscape in which some teams tank for several years in a row, stockpiling draft picks and assets to set themselves up for the future without any regard for the present. For example, the Thunder are on year three of a rebuild despite having an All-NBA level talent in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and a boatload of picks they could use to build around him. And by trading their All-Stars, the Jazz and Spurs appear to be in for a lengthy rebuild even if they do draft Wembanyama.
It’s unfair to make any fanbase wait that long or to make any NBA fan watch uncompetitive basketball from as early as January, considering there will be more than half the season still to play. And worst of all, it’s unnecessary.
While it’s true that tanking to the top of the draft year after year is the easiest way to obtain a superstar and build long-term success, it’s not the only way. And it’s about time we stop falling for the narrative that executives like Danny Ainge in Utah are smart for trading All-Star level players on long-term contracts for first-round picks when that is the easiest type of trade to pull off in the NBA. We need to start asking more from well-paid basketball executives, such as finding more creative ways to build competitive teams. And there are several examples of success without tanking in the modern NBA.
Look at the Golden State Warriors, who drafted Steph Curry seventh overall in 2009, Klay Thompson 11th in 2011 and Draymond Green 35th in 2012, building a system that perfectly suited Curry’s unique talents. The Toronto Raptors won an NBA championship in 2019 without a single lottery selection on the team, using savvy trades to get Kyle Lowry, Kawhi Leonard and Marc Gasol. While the Milwaukee Bucks drafted their two-time MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo, outside the lottery places at No 15 in 2013. All three teams developed talent around the edges to support their stars, and a big part of that development was learning how to play winning basketball on winning teams. Finding gems late in the draft, making savvy trades, and developing hidden talent is difficult, but that doesn’t make it impossible.
Still, it’s hard to blame any of these tanking teams for taking the easy way out. The way the NBA’s incentive structure is set up, with the worst teams being rewarded with the best picks, it makes sense to trade your best players and to bottom out, especially with a prospect of Wembanyama’s caliber in the draft.
But what if it wasn’t that way?
NBA commissioner Adam Silver has said, “I know that many of our NBA teams are salivating at the notion that potentially through our lottery, they can get [Wembanyama], so they should all still compete very hard next season.” Later, he doubled down, saying “We put teams on notice. We’re going to be paying particular attention to the issue [of tanking] this year.”
But words aren’t going to cut it (especially words that become less meaningful after Silver announced that the NBA app will stream all of Wembanyama’s games in the French league this season). If Silver wants parity – which he said is his goal for the NBA and which would lead to a significantly more entertaining product, especially towards the end of the season – he is going to have to do something about it. And there are a few options:
Once the regular season ends, have a tournament between all or some non-playoff teams to compete for draft position, with the winner getting the No 1 overall pick.
Once a team has been mathematically eliminated from making the playoffs, place them in a different standings table in which they compete for draft position, with the best record following playoff elimination winning the No 1 pick.
Create a simple rule that disincentivizes long-term tanking, such as disallowing a team from drafting in the top-three or top-five of the lottery three years in a row, or prohibiting a team from winning the lottery two years in a row.
Relegation. Keep the lottery format as is, but have the worst team demoted to the G League, with a chance to play their way back into the NBA. The worst team would still get the highest pick, but would have to bear the financial losses of a season in the G League, while a G League team would move up to the NBA.
Of course, there are difficulties in implementing any of these ideas, and more than half of the team owners would probably have to agree on any changes to the current format. The idea of relegation is especially complicated, with Silver saying that he has considered it but that it would be “destabilizing” for the NBA – and it’s hard to imagine owners voting for something that could lose them a lot of money. Maybe the league is a few years away from relegation, but as the G League gets more competitive, more lucrative, and more international – with the Mexico City Capitanes joining this season – it could be on the cards one day.
For now, however, the NBA needs to find an immediate amendment to the current model, because the tanking that we are likely to see this season – particularly towards the end, but potentially as early as January – is going to be downright unwatchable. Or, as a friend of mine more eloquently put it after watching Wembanyama play for the first time: “the tanking is going to be diabolical.”
Hopefully, it will also be a catalyst for change.