The Utah Jazz's trade of Donovan Mitchell on Thursday entered a new team into the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes, so it's high time to revisit which teams could tank for the 7-foot-3 Frenchman this season.
Wembanyama is considered a generational prospect, somewhere between LeBron James and Zion Williamson — with the skill set of Giannis Antetokounmpo — and any time one of them is on the horizon, the NBA's non-contenders will stop at nothing to finish with one of the three worst records in the league and secure a 14% shot at him. Mysterious hamstring pulls, bizarre fourth-quarter lineups, late-season absences, undrafted rookie starters, it's all on the table when a franchise-altering talent is on the horizon.
And the draft class does not dramatically drop off behind Wembanyama. Scoot Henderson made waves as a 17-year-old point guard for the G League Ignite last season, and he is hardly a consolation prize. The 6-foot-7 Thompson twins, Amen and Ausur, now playing in Overtime's OTE league, round out a legit top four.
So, where will they be playing in 2023? Let's rank the eight most likely teams from bad to worst.
8. New York Knicks
Ball-handlers: Jalen Brunson • Derrick Rose • Immanuel Quickley
Wings: R.J. Barrett • Julius Randle • Evan Fournier • Cam Reddish • Quentin Grimes • Obi Toppin
Bigs: Mitchell Robinson • Isaiah Hartenstein • Jericho Sims
New York's failed pursuit of Mitchell leaves them lacking a true star once again. The $104 million addition of Jalen Brunson to a team that won 37 games last season should theoretically make the Knicks a play-in tournament challenger, but it won't be easy building chemistry with players who have been rumored in trades all summer, and that's after Julius Randle's clash with fans last season. Coach Tom Thibodeau's hardline approach has a history of wearing thin, and it wouldn't take much for the Knicks to free fall.
7. Washington Wizards
Ball-handlers: Monte Morris • Delon Wright • Will Barton
Wings: Bradley Beal • Deni Avdija • Corey Kispert • Kyle Kuzma • Rui Hachimura • Johnny Davis
Bigs: Kristaps Porzingis • Daniel Gafford • Taj Gibson
Bradley Beal is the best player on any of the potentially terrible teams this season, but that hasn't stopped the Wizards from winning 25-35 games for the past four years, and who's to say he will be on the team by season's end? Washington will give it a shot with Beal and Kristaps Porzingis as the centerpieces of a team with a .500 ceiling in the hyper-competitive Eastern Conference, and they did make some decent additions during the offseason, but banking on a healthy Porzingis hasn't worked for a handful of years, either.
6. Orlando Magic
Ball-handlers: Cole Anthony • Jalen Suggs • Markelle Fultz
Wings: Paolo Banchero • Franz Wagner • Terrence Ross • Gary Harris • R.J. Hampton • Chuma Okeke
Bigs: Wendell Carter Jr. • Jonathan Isaac • Mo Bamba
The Magic have a ton of young talent. Whether that talent can coalesce into a competitive team remains to be seen. The franchise has been so bad for so long, it's hard to learn how to win all at once. A step forward would be an encouraging sign, especially if we know early on that this year's No. 1 overall draft pick, Paolo Banchero, is a bona fide future superstar, but it wouldn't be the worst thing to nab one more high draft pick to pair with him on his rise. Second-year coach Jamahl Mosley will encourage his team to compete from the jump, but once reality of another lottery appearance settles in, the Magic are bound to hit the brakes.
5. Indiana Pacers
Ball-handlers: Tyrese Haliburton • T.J. McConnell • Andrew Nembhard
Wings: Buddy Hield • Bennedict Mathurin • Chris Duarte • Oshae Brissett • Aaron Nesmith • Terry Taylor
Bigs: Myles Turner • Jalen Smith • Daniel Theis
The Pacers can fully embrace a tanking season if they complete the long-rumored trade of Buddy Hield and Myles Turner to the Los Angeles Lakers for draft picks. Otherwise, they might be a little too frisky to finish with one of the three worst records in the NBA, especially if Tyrese Haliburton makes a leap and Bennedict Mathurin hits as a rookie. Team owner Herb Simon hasn't historically embraced tanking, but look what it did for the Dallas Mavericks when current Indiana coach Rick Carlisle finally tanked a season to get Luka Doncic.
4. Houston Rockets
Ball-handlers: Kevin Porter Jr. • Trey Burke • TyTy Washington
Wings: Jalen Green • Jabari Smith • Jae'Sean Tate • Eric Gordon • Garrison Mathews • Tari Eason
Bigs: Alperen Sengun • Boban Marjanovic • Marquese Chriss
The Rockets have an exciting young core, headlined by Jalen Green, Jabari Smith and Alperen Sengun, but none of them have proven they can in the NBA, at least not yet. Eric Gordon, Boban Marjanovic and Trey Burke aren't exactly veteran stewards of an overachieving team, either. Houston is probably two years and one piece away from making some noise, so why not pick up another high lottery pick in the meantime?
3. Oklahoma City Thunder
Ball-handlers: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander • Theo Maledon • Ty Jerome
Wings: Josh Giddey • Luguentz Dort • Kenrich Williams • Tre Mann • Jalen Williams • Aleksej Pokusevski • Aaron Wiggins
Bigs: Darius Bazley • Derrick Favors • Jaylin Williams
The Thunder appeared ready to compete this season, but the season-ending injury to No. 2 overall pick Chet Holmgren ended any outside chance they might have at pursuing a play-in tournament berth. That opens the door for Oklahoma City executive Sam Presti to chase more Ping Pong balls in the lottery. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Josh Giddey are a strong foundation, but the Thunder have shown a willingness to shut down their best players in pursuit of losses, and there's no reason they won't throw in the towel again.
2. Utah Jazz
Ball-handlers: Mike Conley • Collin Sexton • Nickeil Alexander-Walker
Wings: Jordan Clarkson • Malik Beasley • Bojan Bogdanovic • Talen Horton-Tucker • Stanley Johnson • Lauri Markkanen
Bigs: Jarred Vanderbilt • Walker Kessler • Udoka Azubuike
Jazz executive Danny Ainge made no attempt to secure a certifiable upper-echelon talent when he traded Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell for a pair of pick-centric packages. He wants to lose this season, and he will get his wish. Don't be surprised if Mike Conley, Jordan Clarkson and Bojan Bogdanovic get flipped as well, all in an attempt to expedite the rebuild with a generational talent not seen in Utah since the 1990s.
1. San Antonio Spurs
Ball-handlers: Tre Jones • Joshua Primo • Blake Wesley
Wings: Keldon Johnson • Devin Vassell • Josh Richardson • Doug McDermott • Jeremy Sochan • Malaki Branham
Bigs: Jakob Poeltl • Zach Collins • Gorgui Dieng
The Spurs won 34 games last season and traded their best player, Dejounte Murray, for draft picks over the summer, leaving 22-year-old former second-round pick Tre Jones as the team's presumed primary ball-handler. That's concerning. Keldon Johnson has shown flashes of tremendous potential, but he will have to hit his ceiling for this team to win 25 games. Gregg Popovich drove San Antonio's tank into the Tim Duncan lottery in his first year as coach, and what a bookend to his career it would be to deliver Wembanyama.
– – – – – – –