It’s far too early in the 2022-23 NBA season to look at the standings and draw sweeping conclusions about which teams are headed for the postseason and which are lottery-bound.
Still, Victor Wembanyama‘s impending arrival casts a long shadow over this season — having even an outside shot at landing the best NBA prospect since LeBron James may prompt some struggling teams to pivot to tank mode midway through the year rather than pushing for a play-in spot.
Since any prolonged slump could make a team’s fans wonder if tanking for Wembanyama is the smartest play, it’s worth noting up front which clubs would and wouldn’t realistically have a shot at him if they finish in the lottery. A team could go 0-82 and still have a 0% chance of drafting Wembanyama if that team has already traded away its unprotected 2023 first-round pick.
Here are a few of the unprotected draft-pick swaps and trades worth keeping in mind as the 2022-23 season progresses:
The Lakers have faced a challenging set of opponents during their 0-4 start and seem likely to bounce back sooner or later, at least to some extent. But if you’ve watched the team look inconsistent and out of sorts on offense while making three-pointers at a record-low rate, you can’t be blamed for wondering if it might be in the franchise’s best interest to tank for a shot at Wembanyama and reload for next season, when Russell Westbrook‘s $47M cap hit comes off the books.
Unfortunately for the Lakers, that’s not an option. As part of the Anthony Davis trade, the Lakers gave the Pelicans the ability to swap first-round picks in 2023. So, if the Lakers miss the postseason and win the draft lottery, that No. 1 overall pick would go to New Orleans, not L.A.
The Nets haven’t looked much better than the Lakers so far this season. They’re off to a 1-4 start and have the NBA’s worst defense (120.2 defensive rating), with new addition Ben Simmons looking uncomfortable on the court. Again, it’s unlikely they’ll play this poorly all season, but if things continue to go downhill, would tanking be an option for the Nets?
Brooklyn’s draft-pick situation is an unusual one. Theoretically, the Nets could secure the No. 1 pick in 2023, but only if Philadelphia misses the playoffs and wins the draft lottery, since Brooklyn controls the Sixers‘ pick.
The Rockets have the ability to swap their own first-rounder with the Nets’ pick, so if Brooklyn finishes in the lottery and the Sixers don’t, the highest pick the Nets could get would be No. 2 overall (if they and the Rockets earned the top two spots via the lottery).
Given that the Rockets are a good bet to be at or near the bottom of the NBA’s standings, a poor season from the Nets would still probably ensure a strong draft pick, even if they have to swap picks — but it wouldn’t give them a shot at Wembanyama.
The 1-4 Sixers haven’t looked right so far this season, especially defensively. There’s too much talent on the roster for them to continue losing games at this rate, but it’s worth noting that they won’t have their first-round pick at all in 2023. That first-rounder will be sent to the Nets, unless it’s worse than Brooklyn’s and Houston’s picks, in which case it will be rerouted to the Jazz.
Like their Staples Center co-inhabitants, the Clippers have a first-round pick in 2023, but it’s not guaranteed to be their own. As part of the Paul George trade, L.A. gave the Thunder the ability to swap first-rounders in 2023.
The odds of the Thunder finishing ahead of the Clippers in this year’s standings are virtually nil, but this swap is still worth mentioning on the heels of Oklahoma City defeating L.A. in consecutive games this week. Both teams are currently 2-3.
The Timberwolves and Bucks have both traded away their 2023 first-round picks without protections. Minnesota’s pick is headed to the Jazz, while Milwaukee’s will be sent to the Rockets.
If the Wolves and Bucks live up to their expectations this year, those picks should land somewhere in the 20s and be well removed from the Wembanyama sweepstakes.
Several more 2023 first-round picks will likely change hands next spring, but all of the rest of the traded picks for ’23 have some form of protection on them. For instance, Chicago’s 2023 first-round pick will likely be sent to the Magic, but it has top-four protection, so if they were to win the draft lottery, the Bulls would keep that pick.
A full list of the traded 2023 first-round picks can be found right here.