Remember a few weeks ago when the Utah Jazz and San Antonio Spurs sat atop the Western Conference while the Nets and 76ers languished below .500? Yeah, turns out that was just some early-season randomness. With more than a month of basketball in the books, the NBA is finally beginning to normalize. The Warriors have climbed to .500. The Jazz are no longer the NBA’s best offense. Even the feel-good Sacramento Kings have lost three in a row.
This was largely predictable. Even if Victor Wembanyama wasn’t available, teams are rarely able to sustain abnormal performance for more than a few weeks. So from here on out, expect the race for Wembanyama to center around a few teams that will spend the next five months jockeying for position. We hope you like reading about the Pistons and Rockets, because everything they do from now until April likely will be defined by how it impacts their lottery odds.
Another game, another 30-burger
It’s becoming something of a routine for Wembanyama to go nuclear and lift his team into the win column, so in no surprise this past week, he did exactly that for Mets 92 in their game against SLUC Nancy Basket, going for 30 points, a season-high 15 rebounds, three assists and a pair of blocks in a 92-78 win. Mets 92 improved to 8-1 on the season and extended its winning streak to eight heading into December.
Wembanyama has been as good — and maybe better — than advertised for Mets 92 on the season. He now leads the league in scoring, rebounds and blocks and is impacting winning to boot, with his team sitting at first-place in the standings.
Mets 92 will be back in action on Dec. 2 with a showdown against Fos-sur-Mer and at Roanne on Dec. 6. These two games — in fact, all of Wembanyama’s games this season — will be streamed free on the NBA app.
Dec. 2 — Fos-sur-Mer, 2:30 p.m. ET
Dec. 6 — at Roanne, 2:00 p.m. ET
Fos-sur-Mer has a host of recognizable names from the college circuit including former Clemson standout Gabe DeVoe and ex-TCU standout Garlon Green, the younger brother of longtime NBA veteran Gerald Green, who leads the team in scoring on the season. Roanne rosters its own star power led by former Ole Miss star Stefan Moody and former Kansas standout Silvio De Sousa.
Race to the bottom
Each week, we’ll rank the seven teams likeliest to earn the coveted No. 1 slot on lottery night. These rankings will take current record, recent performance, upcoming schedule and injuries into account to subjectively rank the NBA’s worst teams.
7. Oklahoma City Thunder: Earlier in the season, we covered OKC’s tendency to start fast and finish slowly. It’s too early to say that’s happening again this season, but the Thunder have now lost five of their past six and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, an early-season MVP candidate, has quietly shot below 41 percent from the field and 23 percent from 3-point range in that span. Six games is not enough to draw any meaningful conclusions, but through nearly a quarter of the season, the Thunder rank 22nd in 3-point percentage and dead last in defensive rebounding rate. Those are the numbers of a lottery team, not a play-in team.
6. Los Angeles Lakers: The Lakers might’ve escaped the bottom seven with a win against the Pacers Monday night. But L.A. squandered a 17-point lead, and so here they are. They had won five of their previous six games, though three of those Ws were against the aforementioned Spurs and another was against the aforementioned Pistons. Still, Anthony Davis is playing like an MVP, Austin Reaves and Lonnie Walker are blossoming as high-end role players. And then… well… we’ll get to the Pacers game in a little bit. For now… Lakers gonna Laker.
5. Charlotte Hornets: It is genuinely amazing that the Lakers could have the single worst five-game shooting stretch in NBA history … and still not have the NBA’s worst offense by the end of November. That honor belongs to the Hornets, scoring a putrid 105.9 points per 100 possessions. Granted, the absence of LaMelo Ball is largely responsible for that dip. Charlotte has scored over 110 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor, but this is a team paying Terry Rozier and Gordon Hayward (who, you’ll be stunned to hear, is injured) over $200 million on their total contracts combined. Asking for something better than the worst offense in basketball feels reasonable.
4. Orlando Magic: The Magic have never played a boring game. They’ve lost 16 games, but 10 have been by single digits, and the blowouts have typically boiled down to one horrific quarter, such as Saturday’s 133-103 loss to Philadelphia, which was largely the result of a 31-13 second quarter. The Bol Bol train is leaving the station, as he’s averaged over 17 points per game over his past seven, and Paolo Banchero’s return to the lineup just gives them another scoring giant. If you insist on subjecting yourself to bad basketball, then do yourself a favor and watch the delightful Magic.
3. Detroit Pistons: Two weeks ago, we used this space to mock Killian Hayes’ offense. Well, in his past seven games, he’s shooting 43.5 percent from deep while averaging over seven assists per game. The Pistons are 2-5 in that stretch, and with Cade Cunningham injured, they can’t ask for much better, but progress is progress.
2. Houston Rockets / 1. San Antonio Spurs: We have a new leader in the clubhouse! Houston’s steady incompetence has given it the edge for most of the season, but the Spurs have been coming on like … what’s the opposite of a freight train? A late train? It’s a lazy rhyme but a suitable one for a Spurs team that pretended to be decent for a few weeks only to fall off of the face of the Earth over the past few weeks. The Spurs have lost 13 of their past 14 games. Their minus-10 net rating is 2.4 points per 100 possessions worse than any other team’s. Only two Spurs are averaging even 13 points per game in that stretch. This is a masterclass. The Rockets are the old stalwart, but right now, there is simply no question that the Spurs are the worst team in the NBA.
Loss of the week
The Lakers entered Monday’s game against Indiana with an insane 347-0 record when leading by 17 or more points in the fourth quarter over the past 20 seasons. With 9:59 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Lakers led 101-84. Checkmate. Game over. Let’s move on to Games of the We–
You’re kidding. Come on this is serious, you can’t …
Oh. Oh no. In less than 10 minutes, the Lakers were outscored 32-14 at home against a team playing the second night of a back-to-back to lose 116-115 to a Pacers team so eager to throw its hat into the Wembanyama ring that it spent the offseason trying to trade its second- and third-best players to these very Lakers. To most teams, it would rank as perhaps the most embarrassing regular-season loss in regular-season history. To a Lakers team that blew a 26-point lead to the lowly Thunder roughly a year ago, it was just Monday.
So how does a team blow a 17-point fourth-quarter lead at home? It starts with poor communication. The Lakers allowed six 3-pointers in the final 10 minutes. Almost all of them boiled down to defensive miscues. You can see the frustration on Anthony Davis’ face as he points out a wide-open Myles Turner and nobody goes to contest him.
This transition jumper is just as frustrating. Both Russell Westbrook and Dennis Schroder follow Buddy Hield, leaving Andrew Nembhard wide open for a 3-pointer of his own.
Of course, it’s fair to ask why Westbrook and Schroder were even on the floor together in the first place. While the Lakers don’t exactly have the sort of complementary role players that would allow for sensible closing lineups, Westbrook and Schroder’s playing styles clash aggressively. Neither can shoot. Both need the ball to be effective. Yet for a stretch of the fourth quarter, the two played with Davis and LeBron James with Troy Brown Jr., a 32.7 percent 3-point shooter this season, occupying the fifth slot on the floor. Lonnie Walker IV, arguably the third-best Laker this season and a 36.3 percent 3-point shooter on the year, did not play in the final five minutes.
In that sense, this was an organizational loss. Rob Pelinka constructed a roster with so little spacing that 14 points in 10 minutes was possible. Darvin Ham misused what little talent he did have down the stretch. The players failed to adequately communicate on the floor. The result? Well, you’ve surely seen it by now.
The Lakers managed to snatch a 12th defeat from the jaws of victory. Now they’re about to embark upon arguably the hardest stretch of their entire schedule. Of their next 18 games, 13 are on the road. Almost all of them come against teams at or above .500. The Lakers simply aren’t good enough to give away games like this. If their season falls apart in the next month, they’re going to look back at this game as the start of it all.
Games of the weak
Wednesday, Nov. 30: Spurs at Thunder: There’s a full circle theme here. San Antonio’s dynasty began when it earned the No. 1 pick in the 1997 NBA Draft and took Tim Duncan. Sam Presti came from that San Antonio front office and is widely credited with the discovery of Tony Parker. He went to the Seattle SuperSonics, where the lottery gods granted him Kevin Durant, before the franchise relocated to Oklahoma City. Now, for maybe the first time since he left San Antonio, Presti is directly competing with the Spurs for draft position.
Wednesday, Nov. 30: Blazers at Lakers: The Lakers folded a year ago after they blew that 26-point lead to Oklahoma City. If they can’t beat the Blazers at home without Damian Lillard on Wednesday, we’ll know they’re about to do the same this season. Seems like an easy win, right? Well remember, the Lakers played the Blazers without Lillard the night before last season’s trade deadline. They lost by nine to a team giving serious minutes to CJ Elleby and Greg Brown III. The Lakers are entirely capable of collapsing on Wednesday. If they do? Go make whatever season-long win total bets you can find, because it means they’re done.
Sunday. Dec. 4: Bulls at Kings: Neither team here is in the bottom seven, but we’re watching both of them very closely. The Kings have lost three in a row, and even when they were winning, their defense was a disaster. The Bulls are below .500 and have every incentive to sneak into the bottom four with a veteran trade or two as doing so is the only way they can keep their first-round pick rather than sending it to Orlando.