Lately, it seems like more and more NBA fans are eager for their favorite teams to trade away their stars and other veterans and tank for just a small chance to draft generational prospect Victor Wembanyama in next year’s draft. This offseason we’ve already seen a couple of teams make drastic decisions to trend in the direction of a full-on tank for Wembanyama. The first was the San Antonio Spurs who surprisingly traded 25-year-old Dejounte Murray to the Atlanta Hawks for picks last month. This came right after Murray’s first All-Star season where he led the league in steals with 2.0 steals per game, was second in triple-doubles with 13, second among all point guards in rebounds with 8.3 rebounds per game, and fourth overall in assists at 9.2 assists per game. All of those stats were career-highs as were his 21.1 points per game.
Now we’re seeing a similar situation with the Utah Jazz. The Jazz already traded away their star defensive center Rudy Gobert to the Minnesota Timberwolves for picks earlier this month. Now they’re discussing trading away 25-year-old three-time All-Star Donovan Mitchell. Despite his age, Mitchell is already one of the Jazz’s most prolific offensive players in franchise history. He currently has career averages of 23.9 points per game in the regular season and 28.3 points per game in the playoffs. Mitchell also has the most threes made in one season (232) and in the playoffs all-time (129) for the Jazz. So it’s pretty clear that he’s the real deal.
Star players like Murray and Mitchell seem like the kinds of players most teams would love to draft. Yet they’re being shopped and traded away before they even hit their primes, with the support of their team’s fanbases. But is this really the best blueprint for success?
Is It Really Worth It for Teams to Blow up Their Rosters and Tank for Victor Wembanyama?
How the NBA Draft Lottery Odds Work
Yes, getting a generational prospect like Wembanyama with his guard-like quickness and shooting ability as a seven-footer would be great for any team. But with the way the NBA draft lottery odds are designed now, it’s not as easy as it seems. Even if a team does blow things up and finish with the worst record in the league during the regular season, it only secures them a maximum 14.0 percent chance at the number one overall draft pick. So that means there’s still an 86.0 percent chance that the worst team will not get Wembanyama next year. Of that 86.0 percent chance, there is a 47.9 percent chance that the team gets just the fifth overall pick.
Now the 2023 NBA draft is supposed to be one of the deepest draft classes in a while. It could have multiple future stars outside of the highly coveted Wembanyama. The other most notable prospect is athletic point guard Scoot Henderson. But does this really make it worth blowing up a roster that still has potential?
A Look Back at the Tank Race for Zion Williamson
A great example of how poor the draft lottery odds really are is the 2019 NBA draft lottery. Multiple teams were tanking for then-generational prospect Zion Williamson. The New York Knicks, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Phoenix Suns were all tied for the top lottery odds at 14.0 percent. But it was Knicks fans in particular who bought into the Williamson hype the most and got their hopes up. However, it turned out that none of those three teams cashed in on their 14.0 percent odds. Instead, it was the New Orleans Pelicans, who had the seventh best odds for the first overall pick at just a 6.0 percent chance, who leapfrogged everyone to land Williamson.
How Does Tanking Work Out for Teams That Don’t Win the Draft Lottery
The 2019 NBA draft was also considered to be a pretty strong draft outside of the top pick. The second highest rated prospect Ja Morant was very highly coveted as well. But the Knicks, Cavaliers, and Suns who all missed out on Williamson all missed out on Morant as well. The Memphis Grizzlies who had the eighth-best lottery odds jumped up to second overall to land Morant. They did so even with just a 6.3 percent chance at the second pick.
This led to the Knicks getting the third overall pick and drafting R.J. Barrett, a very good young player. However, it already seems pretty clear that Barret has far less upside than Williamson or Morant. The Cavaliers ended up drafting Darius Garland fifth overall who just received his first All-Star Game selection as a reserve last season. But as good as he is, Garland is still a tier or two below Morant on the point guard hierarchy. Meanwhile, the Suns’, even with their top lottery odds, fell down to sixth overall where they selected Jarrett Culver. After just three seasons Culver is currently struggling to stay in the league, but luckily the Suns traded him to the Timberwolves on draft night for the 11th pick (Cameron Johnson) and Dario Saric, two serviceable role players. Overall the biggest takeaway is the current draft lottery odds lead to much more unpredictable results than most fans realize.
Elite Talent Can Consistently Be Found Outside of the Draft Lottery
Outside of the draft lottery, there is one main thing that usually separates the top franchises from the bottom feeders. This is their ability to identify quality players with star potential later in the draft and then develop them. The top teams do the work, they don’t just tank with hopes that elite talent falls directly into their laps. A lot of the teams that began tanking years ago still have very little to show for it anyways. The Sacramento Kings for example have had 16 lottery picks since their last playoff appearance in 2006. These 16 picks have landed them only one All-Star (DeMarcus Cousins) so far.
Meanwhile, the league reigning back-to-back MVP Nikola Jokic was drafted in the second round at just 41st overall in 2014, and the back-to-back MVP before Jokic in Giannis Antetokounmpo was also drafted outside of the lottery at just 15th overall in 2013. There have been countless other recent All-Star level draft steals outside of the lottery as well like Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler drafted 15th and 30th overall in 2011, Draymond Green and Khris Middleton drafted 35th and 39th overall in 2012, Gobert drafted 27th overall in 2013, and Pascal Siakam drafted 27th overall in 2016.
It’s Probably Best to Build a Team Naturally
So overall between the poor draft lottery odds and the plethora of quality talent available later in almost every draft it’s just hard to justify trading away a sure-thing All-Star to tank, especially one who hasn’t hit their prime yet. Yes, the idea of a team that disappointed last season trading away their All-Stars and veterans for picks, tanking one or two years, and landing a generational superstar prospect that can lead their franchise to a title is fun in theory. However, unless that team is already close to the bottom of the league, they’re probably better off developing the talent they already have, building up a team culture, and looking for ways to improve their team naturally through the draft and other savvy front office decisions.