One week away: The Wembanyama Era
The NBA draft lottery that has commanded the league's attention since pre-Halloween is almost here
Gregg Popovich still has a traditional phone on his desk in San Antonio in 2023 and, sure enough, some intrepid Spurs fans figured out how to reach Pop's line in March to register their dismay.
"I actually got messages," Popovich said. "Voicemails they call 'em."
The Spurs, you see, had the temerity to win a couple games after the All-Star break that a 22-60 team with an eye on draft positioning isn't supposed to win. They followed up a Feb. 28 road victory in Utah with a home triumph over Indiana on March 2 that actually amounted to a two-game winning streak. Then on March 10, San Antonio defeated best-in-the-West Denver at the AT&T Center, becoming this season's first team in 26 tries to topple the Nuggets when Nikola Jokić posts a triple-double.
The basic tone of those messages as relayed by Popovich: "What are you doing? What are you thinking? You're stupid."
The rebuilding Spurs, in the end, weren't as dumb as some of their loyalists feared. Despite those blips of success, they finished with one of the league's three worst records, ensuring that San Antonio — in this era of flattened lottery odds — shares the best chance at 14% to win next week's draft lottery along with 17-65 Detroit and 22-60 Houston.
And, yes, just to be clear: We’re really (finally) only a week away from a resolution to anticipation that has been bubbling in earnest all across the NBA map since early October. That’s when Wembanyama's Boulogne-Levallois Metropolitans 92 came to Las Vegas for a two-game series against the G League Ignite and the 7-foot-4 French phenom (who’s also listed at 7-3 and 7-5) duly wowed an entire league's worth of talent evaluators.
The anticipation is clearly getting to Wembanyama, too. On Saturday morning, NBA fans in the United States awoke to the following tweet from the 19-year-old:
Translation: “Ten days before knowing my future team. It’s really a crazy thing.”
Seven days out now, we can unequivocally call it the most celebrated NBA draft lottery since the Cleveland Cavaliers won the right in May 2003 to draft an Akron, Ohio, resident named LeBron James. The 2007 draft, when Greg Oden and Kevin Durant went No. 1 and No. 2 overall, should be up there as well, but the hype Wembanyama has generated in the heart of the social media era has really been next level ... as evidenced by the NBA's decision to make streams of numerous Wembanyama games this season available via the league's official app.
You'll surely likewise recall that the NBA announced in April that Wembanyama, before he had even spent one second in #thisleague, ranked eighth this season on the list of top 10 most-viewed players on the NBA's various social media channels.
Given all the salivating that ensued after Wembanyama rung up 73 points, 15 rebounds, nine blocked shots and nine 3-pointers over his brief Vegas residency, I was actually surprised to see the Brick For Vic tanking largely contained to the Detroit/Houston/San Antonio/Charlotte sector for much of the season. But there was plenty of tankage during the season's latter stages; one notable example was Portland's 5-19 nosedive after the All-Star break that has positioned the Blazers with a solid 10.5% shot to leapfrog Detroit, Houston, San Antonio and Charlotte (12.5%) to get Wemby.
"You always think you've seen it all and then Wembanyama comes around," freshly elected Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki said in late April while in the Philippines for FIBA's 2023 World Cup draw.
Referring to the well-circulated recent highlight (above) of Wembanyama soaring in to retrieve his own missed stepback 3-pointer to cram home a rebound jam, Nowitzki said: "I mean, who does that? You got to be skilled, you got to be quick to the ball, you got to be long. It's scary how talented this kid is."
Nowitzki actually began getting scouting snippets on Wembanyama before most of us. My piece here from mid-October goes deep on the coaching Wembanyama sought out from Holger Geschwindner, Nowitzki's lifelong shooting guru, way back in July 2021:
Nearly two years later, on top of the usual questions he gets about Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokić and Luka Dončić, Nowitzki is asked everywhere he goes for his thoughts on the European teen ... even though Dirk’s (and Luka’s) Dallas Mavericks hold a mere 3% shot of winning the top prize for the first time in franchise history.
"So long, the skill level, can dribble, can shoot," Nowitzki said in Manila when asked to break down Wembanyama's game. "Hopefully he can stay healthy. That's the only thing that can hold him back.
"I've heard he's got the work ethic, he's a smart kid, he wants to be great, he's putting in the work and we're all here to support him and see his full potential. We're all rooting for him. Hopefully his body holds up. Scary talent."
Not even Popovich, who rarely reveals anything, could deny on the last day of the regular season that those angry callers were not the only Alamo City residents prone to Dreams of Wemby.
"Sure it goes through your head," Popovich said. "I have a pulse."
The Stein Line is a reader-supported newsletter, with both Free and Paid subscriptions available, and those who opt for the Paid edition are taking an active role in the reporting by providing vital assistance to bolster my independent coverage of the league. Feel free to forward this post to family and friends interested in the NBA and please consider becoming a Paid subscriber to have full access to all of my posts.
As a reminder: Tuesday editions, on this and every Newsletter Tuesday, go out free to anyone who signs up, just as my Tuesday pieces did in their New York Times incarnation.
Life at 50 …
During the regular season, 15 players combined to score at least 50 points in 25 different games, resulting in the highest total of 50-point performances in NBA history in a season that did not feature Wilt Chamberlain.
During the playoffs, we've seen three such scoring outbursts:
🏀 Jimmy Butler's 56 points for Miami in a Game 4 victory over Milwaukee.
🏀 Stephen Curry's 50 points for Golden State in a Game 7 victory at Sacramento, which accounted for the first 50-point game in Game 7 history.
🏀 And Nikola Jokić's 53 points Sunday in Denver's Game 4 loss at Phoenix, good for the first 50-plus playoff game by a center since Bob McAdoo put up 50 in 1975.
Perhaps not too surprising, given the stakes involved during the postseason, is how relatively scarce 50-point games in the playoffs remain overall. There have been only 48 in NBA annals, including the havoc just wreaked by Jokić, from a total of 32 players.
Michael Jordan, not surprisingly, has eight of the 48, including the top performance on the list with his famed 63-point outing against Boston in 1986.
The only triple-double in playoff history to also feature 50 points came from Russell Westbrook for Oklahoma City in 2017, when he rang up 51 points, 10 rebounds and 13 assists in a first-round loss to Houston.
The only playoff game in league history to feature two 50-point scorers also involved current players, when Donovan Mitchell (then with Utah) and Jamal Murray (Jokić's Denver teammate) scored 51 and 50 points, respectively, in the Walt Disney World bubble in Orlando in August 2020. That's the series in which Mitchell and Murray became the first players in league history with multiple 50-point games in the same series.
With the No. 8 Heat beating the No. 5 Knicks and the No. 7 Lakers beating the No. 6 Warriors on Monday night, lower-seeded teams are now 30-29 in these playoffs entering Tuesday’s play.
Those wins by the Heat and the Lakers gave them 3-1 leads in their respective series. Teams up 3-1 in a best-of-seven series advance 95.2% of the time (258-13 according to WhoWins.com).
James Harden's recent trip to Las Vegas before Philadelphia's second-round series against Boston came during a three-day break that Sixers coach Doc Rivers granted the team. "James called me before he went and I was like: ‘So what? Do it,' " Rivers told Heavy.com's Steve Bulpett. "Dennis Rodman went to Vegas. ... I told them to do whatever they want. He’s a grown man. I didn’t care."
In his two 40-point games in the Boston series, Harden has shot only four free throws both times, sinking 4 for 4 in each instance.
Brooklyn's Ben Simmons last played for the Australian national team in 2013 shortly before his 17th birthday. Still working his way back from a back injury that has sidelined him since late February, Simmons was not on Australia's preliminary 18-man roster for this summer's World Cup in Indonesia, Japan and the Philippines despite multiple reports last week that he has interest in returning to the international game.
Boston's Jayson Tatum was the highest American-born finisher in MVP voting at No. 4. Philadelphia's Joel Embiid (Cameroon) was the league's fifth straight foreign-born MVP after two consecutive MVPs each for Nikola Jokić (Serbia) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (Greece).
Mike Budenholzer's 58 wins this season in Milwaukee represent the fourth-highest total in league history for a coach who departed or lost his job at season's end, according to fellow Substacker Justin Kubatko. Pat Riley went 63-19 with the Lakers in 1989-90 before resigning. Phil Jackson (62-20 with Chicago in 1997-98 before resigning) and Mike Brown (61-21 with Cleveland in 2009-10 before his dismissal) are next in line ahead of Budenholzer.
A Tim Reynolds Special for The Associated Press: Milwaukee's firing of Budenholzer was the league's 286th coaching change since Gregg Popovich took over as San Antonio's coach early in the 1996-97 season.
The Stein Line is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, please consider becoming a Free or Paid subscriber. Many, many thanks to all who have already joined our community.
Hey Marc, have a Mavs question for you. IF they get extremely lucky and get the first overall pick(though history suggests they won't move up in the draft), do you think they would trade it away and get a TON in return, or would the potential of Luka/Wemby be too tempting for Mark & Nico? Part of me as a fan would want to keep the pick, but another part of me knows it's rare for players of Wemby's build to stay healthy.
Absolutely! His profit will increase too much to pass.... I have been saying for a while that the value of these franchises are too big for lower-end millionaires not to cash in. The value of that team will be much higher with Wemby