CHICAGO – For an event that everyone admits is random chance with a low probability, with no team having better than 1-in-7 odds of winning, the NBA Draft Lottery sure had a lot of superstition going on. Virtually every team has tried its own offerings to the lottery gods, and some have tried to double down on them. Witness Cleveland winning twice in three years with good-luck charm Nick Gilbert on the podium, or the Orlando Magic on Tuesday trying to repeat every last detail from its lottery-winning night here in 2022.
Nonetheless, the NBA lottery hasn’t rewarded any superstitions quite like those of the San Antonio Spurs. Chairman Peter John Holt, the third generation of Holts to run the team, brought a lucky golden key and a 14 percent probability to the podium Tuesday and emerged with a dominant big man who changes everything. He was so excited — and had such a good viewing angle on the deciding envelope — that he let out a whoop and holler almost before deputy commissioner Mark Tatum could get the words “Charlotte Hornets” out of his mouth.
“I was lucky, I had a line of sight to where I could see Charlotte come out of the envelope,” said Holt. “So I think I jumped the gun; apologies to Charlotte and Mark. I said sorry afterwards if any of my spittle went everywhere.”
Holt is now also the third generation of Holts to land a dominant big man via the draft lottery, as San Antonio will presumably take French big man Victor Wembanyama with the first pick in the June 22 draft. David Robinson came to the Spurs in 1987 and Tim Duncan in 1997, and that combination was the cornerstone of the franchise’s five championships that followed.
The Spurs being the Spurs, they steadfastly refused Tuesday night to give away who they will pick.
“We have six weeks and we have a lot of work to do,“ said general manager Brian Wright when asked directly whom they would select.
“A lot of analysis,“ added Holt.
Gee, I wonder what they’ll do.
Needless to say, Wembanyama changes everything for the Spurs, a team that won 22 games last season while sporting the league’s worst scoring margin, finishing 29th in offense and 30th in defense. Conveniently, the Spurs moved center Jakob Poeltl for a first-round pick at the trade deadline; there was an 86 percent chance it wouldn’t look quite this prescient, but now it seems like absolute genius.
Wembanyama’s arrival also changes the Spurs’ calendar. In the midst of what seemed to be a long, painful rebuild from Kawhi Leonard’s departure, they can now pull out of that nosedive and head back toward the clouds.
Live from Paris… #NBADraft prospect Victor Wembanyama reacts to the #NBADraftLottery presented by State Farm! pic.twitter.com/YBnNQ4hgQk
— NBA (@NBA) May 17, 2023
Helpfully, the Spurs have a blank slate with which to paint around Wembanyama: Nearly $40 million in cap room, depending on other offseason choices, and only one contract commitment beyond 2024 (forward Keldon Johnson’s value extension that runs through 2027). San Antonio also sits on a gold mine of draft assets — five firsts and nine seconds are owed to it between now and 2029, plus two first-round pick swaps. Included in that are unprotected firsts from Atlanta in 2025 and 2027 as a result of last summer’s Dejounte Murray trade — the move that set the stage for this season’s reset, and has now paid off handsomely.
Beyond the 23-year-old Johnson, the Spurs have other players on a similar development track to Wembanyama and who have a good chance of being along for the journey. In particular, 2022 lottery pick Jeremy Sochan looks like a nice complement as a mobile, dynamic forward, and shooting guard Devin Vassell should fit like a glove as a 3-and-D role player. (An extension for Vasssell is likely a prime order of business this offseason.) Rookie guards Malaki Branham and Blake Wesley also showed flashes.
Thus, the question will quickly shift from how to build the Spurs back from the ashes to how quickly they should try. Would they be better off trying to take their lumps for one more season, for instance, while Wembanyama, 19, learns the ropes? They could enter the summer of 2024 with max cap room, three first-round picks (their own, a top-6 protected pick from the Raptors from the Poeltl trade, and a more speculative top-14 protected Charlotte pick), plus all their best young players still locked in on value deals.
Data visualization: Victor Wembanyama and the height of astonishing hype
Wembanyama’s presence alone eliminates the most abject tanking scenarios, but dragging their heels on the rest of the rebuild could allow the Spurs to play things out with the expiring contracts of Doug McDermott, Devonte’ Graham and Khem Birch. San Antonio could seek opportunistic trades if any come to pass, and if not, let their deals lapse into a sea of cap space. Those future picks they’re sitting on could become part of a package as well if the right player came along. There’s no law requiring them to wait until 2027 or whatever to cash in.
Either way, the most prominent short-term decision (after they’ve finished puzzling over whom to pick at 1) is to shore up the backcourt to give Wembanyama a partner who can consistently get him the ball. (One of the wonders of watching Wembanyama in France this season was watching him play with a shoot-first point guard all season, and all the resultant money that was left on the table on lobs or pick-and-pops.)
San Antonio has a restricted free agent in Tre Jones, who manned the position last season and has the mindset of a distributor, but he’s more of a caretaker at this spot. It would shock nobody to see the Spurs pursue a longer-term solution as a pick-and-roll partner. At the very least, earmarking some of that cap room to adding more ball distributors would seem to be money well spent.
The other immediate need is a hefty post presence who can complement the rail-thin, 7-foot-4 Wembanyama against physical frontcourts. Such a player could also occasionally, um, “restore order” if opponents are too physical with Wembanyama. (Zach Collins, if healthy, may be able to play a role here.)
Finally, I’ll note that San Antonio was an anomaly in this lottery in one important respect: The Spurs are actually keeping the pick.
Aldridge: Globe-trotting Spurs are a perfect fit for all-world Victor Wembanyama
While Wright said “We’ll sit tight” when I asked how many trade offers he had received between leaving the lottery drawing and our press conference, most of the other lottery results invited near-immediate trade speculation:
- Call it the curse of the big man lottery. Charlotte is likely very happy to pick second, but the other two drafts where it picked second were the ones where Dwight Howard and Anthony Davis went first. The Hornets ended up with Emeka Okafor and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Fine players and all, but not quite the same thing.
The Hornets now will have the most interesting choice on draft night: Do they pair guard Scoot Henderson with current point guard LaMelo Ball and play pedal-to-the-medal , or might they opt for the cleaner fit of Alabama forward Brandon Miller?
And if so, would it make more sense for them to trade down to the third spot and select Miller, and let somebody who really could use Henderson move up to 2 to select him? On the other hand, would anyone believe the Hornets if they bluffed that they preferred Henderson?
If a star player were to become available, Portland could potentially offer a package of Anfernee Simons and Jusuf Nurkic as matching salary, plus the third pick. In particular, with the Blazers still full-steam ahead on their Sysyphean task of trying to build a winner around Damian Lillard, adding a guard like Henderson doesn’t seem to make much sense.
- Similarly, Houston and Detroit came into the lottery with 1-in-7 hopes of landing Wembanyama, but instead landed fourth and fifth respectively. With both teams years into painful rebuilds and each coming off a coaching change, these picks also seem likely to be available in the right deal. Maybe not quite as available as the Blazers’ pick, but the post-lottery scuttlebutt is that each could be in play.
Finally, four other notable events happened as a result of the lottery:
- Chicago will owe the 11th pick to Orlando as the result of the disastrous Nikola Vucevic trade, a deal that also cost them Wendell Carter Jr, and the pick that became Franz Wagner in 2021. The Bulls would have kept the pick if it had landed in the top four.
- Dallas’s shameless year-end tanking to keep its pick from going to the Knicks was ‘rewarded” when none of the teams in spots 11 through 14 moved up, resulting in the Mavs keeping the 10th. It would have gone of the Knicks if the lottery results had pushed it to 11th or later.
- Congratulations to the Indiana Pacers! They get the 32nd pick as a result of San Antonio winning the lottery, which flipped the order of picks 32 and 33 between Houston and San Antonio and resulted in the Pacers keeping a top-32 protected pick. That pick could have gone to Boston, who instead will pick 35th.
- Lastly … the Spurs also lost the lottery. No, really! By virtue of winning the top pick, San Antonio also knocked its own second-round pick down 15 spots, from 35 to 50. The Spurs would have picked 35 if Houston had finished the lottery in a higher position, but instead that picked conveyed to Boston.
Scouting report: What San Antonio is getting in Wembanyama
Hollinger: Top 2o prospects in 2023 draft
(Photo illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic; photos: Hector Vivas, Aurelien Meunier / Getty Images)