Man plans, God laughs: It takes more than tanking to win the NBA's draft lottery
The draft lottery is always one of the NBA’s strangest nights of the year, and not just because 13 fan bases are left clinging to ludicrous conspiracy theories when it’s over.
The fate of players, teams, coaches, executives, and multibillion-dollar franchises hinge on the whims of ping pong balls bouncing around inside a plastic bubble, a reminder that even for those who make up one of the greatest sports entities on the planet, there’s only so much you can control.
With French phenom Victor Wembanyama long projected to be the crown jewel of the 2023 NBA draft, the San Antonio Spurs were one of a number of teams who clearly prioritized maximizing their odds in that aforementioned lottery rather than chasing wins on the court during the 2022-23 season.
After averaging 33 wins (30.7 per 82 games) over the previous three years and finishing between 19th and 22nd in the overall standings – losing in the play-in tournament in 2021 and 2022 – the Spurs traded All-Star guard Dejounte Murray to the Hawks in a deal that netted San Antonio control of up to four future first-round picks (via Atlanta and Charlotte).
For the Spurs, the move signaled a clear intention to join the teams racing to the bottom of the standings. San Antonio followed through with their plan by compiling a 22-60 record, the Spurs’ worst mark since a 20-62 record in 1996-97 helped them win the Tim Duncan sweepstakes. In winning the 2023 lottery on Tuesday, the Spurs’ decision to tank was instantly validated. But San Antonio is just one team.
Take the Detroit Pistons, on the other hand. With an injury to 2021 No. 1 pick Cade Cunningham among the many issues plaguing an overmatched roster, the Pistons won just 17 games, five fewer than any other team. But the lottery left them as the night’s biggest loser, with Detroit landing the fifth pick – the worst possible outcome for the league’s worst team.
The Houston Rockets won an April 17 coin-toss over San Antonio for the lottery’s No. 2 seed after the Rockets and Spurs finished tied in the standings. Though their odds of winning the No. 1 pick weren’t affected, the Spurs surely felt like losers that day. The second- and third-worst teams have the same odds of landing the first through fourth picks, but the second-worst team’s most likely landing spot is actually the fifth pick, and the team can pick no lower than sixth. The third-worst team’s most likely landing spot is sixth, and they can pick as low as seventh.
Unbeknownst to the Spurs, Rockets, and the rest of the basketball world, however, the set of four-number combinations that came with the lottery’s No. 3 seed included the combo that would eventually deliver the 19-year-old big man ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski dubbed, “Maybe the greatest prospect in the history of team sports.”
The Spurs needed to tank to be in this position at the end of the year, and there are likely plenty of teams feeling as though they should’ve made a more concerted effort to lose. Charlotte might be regretting the surprising defensive turnaround that spurred a 12-12 finish over the final two months of the season after the Hornets owned the third-worst record as late as Feb. 12. As the lottery passed them by, teams like the Pacers and Jazz were likely wishing they could take back their surprising starts to the season. But it’s not that simple.
The Rockets left the McCormick Place Convention Center in Chicago on Tuesday knowing that one more win would’ve been the difference between Wembanyama and whoever Houston selects with the fourth overall pick. Had the Rockets found a way to 23 victories rather than 22, they would’ve owned the lottery’s third seed and the winning combination that came with it. For a front office that watched its young team bumble and stumble up and down the court all season, imagine the agony in that realization.
Over the course of a 1,230-game season, we can cherry pick any number of games, moments, bounces, injuries, and results that led to the standings – and ultimately the lottery odds – coming together the way they did, but here’s just one to consider: Among the reasons San Antonio even ended up in a position to lose the coin-toss that netted them the lottery’s third seed (and Wembanyama) rather than the second seed is that the Spurs won their final game of the season against Dallas.
The Mavericks, for all intents and purposes, were essentially throwing their season finale as part of a late-season tank to salvage their own pick, which Dallas would only keep if it landed in the top 10 (it did). For their shameless actions leading up to that contest, the Mavs were fined $750,000, but they still needed to lose the game to salvage top-10 odds at the end of a season that had gone off the rails.
Put another way, while teams like the Spurs, Rockets, Pistons, and others were tripping over themselves all year to secure prime lottery positioning, a big reason San Antonio won the lottery turned out to be that a team with Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving on it completely imploded.
Just remember that if at some point next season you find yourself agonizing over a random victory you believe might ruin your tanking team’s best laid plans. There’s just so much more to it.
In the NBA, teams plan and the basketball Gods laugh. The Spurs are once again cackling with them.
Joseph Casciaro is theScore’s senior content producer.