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The big 2022-23 “Tanking for Wemby” campaign has been largely, surprisingly and refreshingly interrupted with three full weeks left in the regular season.
Victor Wembanyama has been as great as advertised, pumped up by many as the best prospect in eons — in the same class as Tim Duncan and LeBron James, without much hyperbole. Scoot Henderson has been spectacular for the G League Ignite, proving to be far more than a consolation prize, particularly in a guard-heavy game.
Traditionally, that would inspire ugly and rampant tanking, a slog from the start of November to now — with so many coaches and executives giving the media and fans the “you know” wink-wink nod about developing players when everyone knows it’s a blatant attempt to game the lottery system.
And while there are teams who would definitely love for a frozen envelope holding their logo to be selected in a couple months — Detroit and San Antonio to name a couple — what has come to bear has been competitiveness.
Oklahoma City, especially with the summertime injury to 2022 No. 2 pick Chet Holmgren, was supposed to join the lottery fray. One more useless season and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander would’ve been holding a hostage note, begging for his release back to the real NBA.
But they look ready to take off the training wheels and still have draft picks in tow.
Utah tore it all down and considering the market isn’t rife for free agents, going through the draft seemed like the prudent route after the trades of Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert.
But, competitiveness and draft positioning be damned, at least for now.
To hear Monty Williams talk about the Phoenix Suns’ lack of respect from the officials, one would think we’re already in the throes of a hotly contested playoff series.
But we are.
The playoffs, in a sense, have already begun.
It feels like every night there are multiple games with critical playoff implications across the board. Teams trying to get into the play-in tournament, teams trying to escape the one-game elimination gauntlet, teams jockeying for home-court advantage.
Sneeze and the standings will flip. It’s been a delightful and jumbled mess of a finish to an uneven season, which should bode well for playoff unpredictability in the spring months.
Of course, the season has been marred by injuries to an All-NBA team of star players and all-time greats. James, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Zion Williamson and, most recently, Paul George.
It’s been a number of things that has aided in this season looking and feeling far more NFL-like than the usual two-team coastal monarchy it’s been over the last decades. Flattening the draft odds has helped — the worst three teams get an equal 14% chance at the top pick compared to the old system when the worst team had a 25% chance.
But perhaps the biggest factor has been the play-in tournament. A cynical eye can claim it’s an ass-saver for general managers and coaches to present to their superiors as proof of competitiveness. But with the lack of an untouchable team aside from the Milwaukee Bucks, most teams feel they have a chance, once they get in.
But they have to get in, first.
Without the play-in, there would be a battle for the eighth seed between Atlanta, Toronto and Chicago, but it wouldn’t be as vigorous. Indiana and Washington are also outside the club trying to get in — with the Orlando Magic being the only team in true no man’s land.
The Miami Heat are trying to catch the Brooklyn Nets for sixth place to avoid the play-in and perhaps set up a rematch against the team they knocked out last spring in the semifinals, the Philadelphia 76ers.
The only thing that looks settled for certain is the 4-5 matchup between Cleveland and the recently surging New York Knicks — as in the battle for the team who acquired Donovan Mitchell against the team that was supposed to get him but didn’t.
Everything else in the East is up for grabs, including the top seed. The Bucks know they can win in anyone’s building but the taste from last May’s Game 7 in Boston still stings, because it’s more likely a deciding game at home would’ve produced a different result.
It’s similar in the West, if not more uncertain and definitely more intriguing. Every team is flawed and as a whole, the West is mediocre, particularly compared to previous decades of talent dominance.
But excellence can take a back seat to games feeling like they matter — intense contests every night. The Lakers could be the scariest team of all if James can be a reasonable version of himself when and if he returns — and we’re talking about a Lakers team that’s still under .500 and barely inched ahead of Utah and New Orleans into 10th place with a win over Phoenix on Wednesday night.
It’s a tall task to drop an impossibly big piece like James into the new-look Lakers and predict a smooth transition, especially in playoff basketball, but who wants to really take that chance?
Again, we’re talking about 10th place here.
Phoenix could finish anywhere between fourth and eighth with a small slide — two games separate the Suns and Thunder. The Clippers want first-round home court advantage, as well as the champion Warriors, who despite their modest two-game road streak would much rather be in the friendly confines of Chase Center than anywhere else.
Just like in the East, only the Spurs and Rockets have been eliminated from playoff contention and are assured of being in the 14% square with Detroit. Similar to Orlando, Portland isn’t all the way out of contention but sits 3.5 games behind the Lakers.
The NBA schedule used to have two dead spots in it, right before the All-Star break and right after teams start ramping up for the playoffs or powering down.
But with the season starting earlier and many teams being at or over the 60-game mark by the break, it’s turned the last several weeks into a full-blown sprint.
The talk of load management has gotten quieted as each game carries a heavier weight and it’s harder to rest when your peers aren’t.
It doesn’t lessen the importance of the draft lottery — it’ll be life-changing for one or perhaps two teams, and it could actually be Orlando or Portland or whomever gets left out of the play-in.
And it’ll be an exciting day in May.
But until then, it’s good to see some competitive integrity where it didn’t seem like many would be incentivized to even try.