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Preseason Cower Rankings

Which teams are best positioned to battle San Antonio for a crack at Victor Wembanyama to start the year? What meetings may swing lottery odds the most?

Sam Presti Press Conference Photo by Zach Beeker/NBAE via Getty Images

So it’s come to this. Thanks to the recently revised lottery odds, the three worst NBA teams this season will each earn a 14% chance at selecting projected generational talent Victor Wembanyama this summer and, after toiling in the trenches of play-in contention, the San Antonio Spurs find themselves firmly in that mix.

To look at it another way, those teams will get a 52.1% shot at Wembanyama, Scoot Henderson (probably), and whatever other 2 prospects emerge as favorites among a highly touted class. Because it does project to be such a strong group, it’s a good year to be bad — even if you end up on the 47.9% side of things — and it’s handy to get ahead of how bad you’ll be in the way the Spurs have, by investing more than ever on youth, development and moving win-now pieces for additional draft assets.

We’re a long way out from the draft lottery, but it feels safe to say the Spurs will be among that 14% chase given where they are and their ability to cull the roster even more by moving some of their core veteran pieces at the deadline for more assets.

Tier 1: Day 1 14ers

Utah Jazz (24.5)

Vegas likes Houston to be a little worse than Utah, but I think they underestimate Jazz GM Danny Ainge’s resolve, as well as Utah’s ability to get worse by moving on from, well, basically anyone on the roster that can return value. Whatever long view the Spurs have adopted, Ainge likely has a longer one, which could lead to more cynical moves that improve their lottery odds.

The Spurs have 8 games against Utah and Houston this season, 5 of which occur after the trade deadline and 4 of which take place between February 25 and March 5. That timing may favor Utah, the only team that is completely divested from improving in some way as the year rolls along, but injuries or hot play could also play into things.

Scheduled meetings: Dec 26 in SA, Feb 25 at UTAH, Feb 28 at UTAH, Mar 29 in SA

San Antonio (Vegas over/under: 22.5)

Your Spurs head into this season with the worst statistical odds at winning the 2023 title but tied for the best to select Wembanyama — which is more or less by design after the moves at the trade deadline and over the offseason. Suffice to say the Spurs front office took a good look at where it has been the past few years and knows what it takes (note the ‘superstar’ point in the quote below) to get back to title contention.

The Spurs haven’t set the world on fire in preseason, but the offensive system has shown flashes of propping up a young group that’s still coming into its own. Mix in a leap from Devin Vassell and San Antonio may not only be blown out in fewer games than some people will think, they could steal a few Ws from good teams when the shots are falling.

And yet, it’s hard to look at the team’s schedule and pencil in many wins. With many stars returning from injury, the league feels as stacked as ever, and that should track with the Spurs’ long-term goals.

Houston Rockets (23.5)

The Southwest Division rivalry takes on a new slant, with 2 likely cellar dwellers playing 4 potential swing games a piece against each other. The Rockets have more lottery talent than San Antonio, including this year’s 3rd pick, Jabari Smith, and last year’s 2nd pick, Jalen Green. I’m not sure either team sweeps the season series, but ending up on the right side of 3-1 could make a big difference in the standings, not to mention tie-breaker implications.

Scheduled meetings: Dec 8 in SA, Dec 19 at HOU, Mar 4 in SA, Mar 5 at HOU

Tier 2: It’s a matter of time

Oklahoma City Thunder (23.5)

Many may dispute OKC’s exclusion from the top tier, but hear me out. Even with Chet Holmgren’s injury, the Thunder have enough talent to scrap most nights, and my guess is the front office won’t mind losing in a more organic fashion before resorting to extreme measures. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (once he’s back), Josh Giddey, Luguentz Dort and Kenrich Williams are formidable anti-tank pieces.

At any point, Sam Presti could push the giant red button at his desk that puts SGA (back) on the IR, trades Dort, rests Giddey, and plays Aleksej Pokuševski 35 minutes a night. But it feels like it takes a more concerted effort to be as bad as they would ideally want to be.

The Spurs and Thunder see each other 3 times this year, 2 of which will be in Oklahoma City. Advantage Spurs. Your move, Presti.

Scheduled meetings: Nov 30 at OKC, Dec 27 at OKC, Mar 12 in SA

Indiana Pacers (23.5)

Tyrese Haliburton finished 2nd on the Kings in Win Shares last season and 1st in vibes, despite being just in his 2nd year and being moved at the trade deadline. An injury to him throws this whole take off, but he should be a rising tide for a team playing in a dubious division. The Pacers should have no illusions of contending, but bottoming out doesn’t seem to come naturally to the franchise. A Russell Westbrook trade could shake things up, however.

The Spurs’ lone visit to Indy is early in the season, which may favor the Pacers as San Antonio still figures out how to operate in a post-Dejounte Murray world.

Scheduled meetings: Oct 21 at IND, Mar 2 in SA

Tier 3: Should back into a tank

These teams should finish ahead of the Spurs in the standings, but anything could happen.

Charlotte Hornets (35.5)

The Spurs kick off their season opener against the Hornets without LaMelo Ball, a break of sorts amid an otherwise tough early schedule. Still, Charlotte’s three-headed monster of a healthy Gordon Hayward, Terry Rozier and Kelly Oubre could It may also bear noting that the Spurs are invested in the Hornets’ success (they own a protected pick that conveys outside the top 16 this year, top 14 the next two seasons).

Scheduled meetings: Oct 19 in SA, Feb 15 at CHA

Orlando Magic (26.5)

The Magic will gut out some games because of their high-end young talent, and others because they’re huge. They still won’t be great, mostly because of their guard play and inexperience, but they deserve to be in the next tier and could surprise some people this year.

Scheduled meetings: Dec 23 at ORL, Mar 14 in SA

Detroit Pistons (29.5)

I love the Pistons’ young talent and would understand them being favored in both matchups versus the Spurs. I’d take their over on the season and wouldn’t be surprised if they exceed expectations this season, even if it comes with fan complaints around the Spurs passing on Jalen Duren.

Scheduled meetings: Jan 6 in SA, Feb 10 at DET

Washington Wizards (35.5)

They’re definitely splitting the season series.

Scheduled meetings: Jan 30 in SA, Mar 24 in WAS

Tier 4: Someone has to soak up those Ls

Not threats to lottery seeding, and with intentions to compete, but it just takes one ping pong ball to come out with a top-4 slot.

Sacramento Kings (33.5)

New York Knicks (38.5)

Portland Trail Blazers (39.5)

Chicago Bulls (41.5)

Los Angeles Lakers (45.5)