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The Other Side of the Victor Sweepstakes
How the NBA's race to the bottom could benefit the Blazers
Last night, while the entire NBA world was watching the Victor Wembanyama-Scoot Henderson battle in Las Vegas, I was at the Moda Center watching a preseason game between the Blazers and Jazz.
One of those two teams will be very much in the mix for the most anticipated lottery since at least Oden-Durant and maybe longer. The other will not.
While that game was going on, and I was paying as much attention as a preseason game warrants, I was seeing the highlights from the Victor-Scoot game come in on my timeline and had the same reaction as everybody who was there or watching it on TV. The idea that Wembanyama is a cross between Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kevin Durant isn't ridiculous or hyperbolic at all. I'm no draft expert and have never pretended to be one but this seems like a case where even the most skeptical people of this sort of hype don't really have anything to say.
The second reaction that's been shared all over the league is that we've never seen a tank war like the one we're going to see this season. If you thought the epidemic of teams sitting healthy players with made-up injuries was bad before, the idea of a chance at Wembanyama is even more of an incentive. This one goes beyond the Zion lottery, the Anthony Davis lottery or the aforementioned Oden-Durant draft in 2007. This is the Cavs and Grizzlies tanking for LeBron, or the Spurs and Celtics tanking for Tim Duncan.
Just off the top of my head, in addition to the Jazz team the Blazers played last night, the teams in the mix will be Indiana, Houston, Oklahoma City (Sam Presti can't have been too upset that this year's No. 2 overall pick, Chet Holmgren, will miss the entire season with a foot injury) and San Antonio. Young teams with recent top picks like Detroit and Orlando are ostensibly trying to win, but it would be easy for them to pivot at some point from fighting for a play-in spot to trying to augment their young cores with a truly generational talent. Charlotte and Washington haven't stripped everything down like the Jazz and Spurs have, but they just don't have the talent to have a realistic playoff shot.
In other words, what the Blazers did last year after the trade deadline could be what as much as a third of the league does over the next seven months.
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Portland will not be one of the teams doing this, even if they get off to a bad start. They already played the "Damian Lillard takes a gap year" card and just made a bunch of win-now moves this summer. But with the playoffs as their goal, the race to the bottom could be a benefit. In the part of the calendar after the Feb. 9 trade deadline, when the fire sales will be complete, they have five games against the Jazz-Spurs-Rockets-Thunder group of teams that have already telegraphed their intentions for this season. They have four more against teams that are all but locks to be in the lottery. Their early-season schedule is brutal, but if they can survive until Christmas at or around .500, there will be plenty of easy wins to pick up as many of the teams they play actively go the other direction.
That's to say nothing of what could happen between now and the trade deadline. Blazers GM Joe Cronin has already hinted publicly that there will be more moves coming to perfect the roster, whether that be now or in the future. Around the deadline, they will be buyers, not sellers. And it could be a buyer's market—even besides the bad teams already listed, inevitably a playoff hopeful will have a major injury and decide this is the year to go all-in on a 2022 Blazers-esque one-year tank and sell off quality role players for cheap.
Victor Wembanyama will not be wearing a Blazers uniform anytime soon. But what looks to be an unprecedented race to the bottom can still turn into a perfect situation for them.
Our recent podcast guest Mike Vorkunov of The Athletic just published a great profile of new Blazers assistant GM and former ESPN draft analyst Mike Schmitz, including some insight into the process behind the Shaedon Sharpe pick. Worth a read.
Not Blazers- or NBA-related, but I highly recommend this podcast interview with my good friend and former Athletic colleague David Alter, who covers the Toronto Maple Leafs. He and I have had a lot of the same things happen to us in our careers over the last five years and become very close in that time, and this deep dive into his journey to where he is now can be related to a lot of different fields.