Cade Cunningham’s season-ending injury isn’t going to improve the Pistons’ odds of drafting Victor Wembanyama

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Before we resume our regularly scheduled programming surrounding future No. 1 overall pick Victor Wembanyama, we should kick things off today by sending well wishes to 2021 No. 1 overall pick Cade Cunningham. The Detroit Pistons point guard will undergo surgery on his left shin that will end his season. Hopefully, he makes it back to the court at full strength next season. There are two questions we should address in the context of Wembanyama, though:

  • How much will Cunningham’s absence affect Detroit’s lottery odds? Well … probably not much. Remember, the Pistons already have the NBA’s worst record, and the bottom three share 14 percent odds at the No. 1 pick. Cunningham might have been enough to take Detroit out of the bottom-three, but the truth about young players, even top prospects like Cunningham, is often murkier. The on-off splits suggest that the Pistons have only been slightly better with Cunningham than without him since drafting him. Those numbers are obviously flawed, but in general, it’s pretty rare to see even a second-year player impact winning if he’s asked to be his team’s primary ball-handler. If there’s going to be a tangible benefit to Detroit, it likely has less to do with Wembanyama specifically than their draft order generally. Even though teams drafting first, second and third share odds at the top pick, having the worst record ensures that you can pick no lower than fifth. In other words, Cunningham’s absence, should it lead to further losing, is more of a floor-raiser than a ceiling-raiser for Detroit’s pick.
  • How often do injuries impact the race to the bottom? There are some notable examples of the team picking first getting there on the basis of injury, but it’s rarer than you’d think. David Robinson’s absence leading to Tim Duncan landing in San Antonio is the only real example of a team expected to contend landing in the top spot. The other major example would be the 2016 76ers, who won the right to draft Ben Simmons before Joel Embiid had even debuted, but it’s not as though a rookie Embiid would have made a huge difference for them anyway because even with him for 31 games a year later, they wound up in the No. 3 spot and traded up to No. 1. Otherwise, we mostly have a combination of teams that dealt with minor injuries, teams that had just traded away superstars and teams that dealt with minor injuries in the top spot.

So, for now, Cunningham’s absence probably doesn’t swing the Wemby Watch balance of power too much, but it’s a notable loss for one of the major contenders.

Wemby rebounds from dud, but Mets 92 loses 

The term “dud” here is relative. We’ve come to expect Wembanyama to wake up and walk into 25 points and 10 boards, so his 15 points and six rebounds last week in a loss to Roanne was disappointing only relative to the lofty expectations we’ve all thrust upon him as a ripe 18-year-old phenom. But, of course, he turned around and proved exactly why those expectations are indeed so high, turning in a more Wemby-like stat sheet of 27 points, 11 boards and three assists versus Monaco on Sunday. 

Mets 92, though, fell 92-85 in overtime, marking its third loss on the season and first official losing streak after dropping the game against Roanne last week. Still, Wembanyama was mostly able to thrive, once again flashing some LOL-level athleticism along the way. In particular, these two plays — a back-to-the-basket fadeaway and a gliding-through-the-air finish in transition — stood out the most.

Wembanyama as usual dominated inside the arc with easy finishes cleaning up boards and attacking the rim with ease, using his 8-foot wingspan. But for just the second time all season he was 0-fer from 3-point range, where he has excelled, going 0-of-5 from distance. He’s in something of a slump after hitting just one of his last 10 3-point attempts, a remarkable thing to say for someone who still managed 27 points.

Watching Wemby

After a tough two-game stretch vs. LNB Pro-A leading Monaco and a scrappy Roanne team, Mets 92 and Wembanyama get something of a reprieve in the upcoming schedule this week with a road trip against Paris Basketball on Saturday. Paris is 15th (out of 18) in the league’s standings having lost three of its last four games. As usual, the game will be streamed free on the NBA App. Here’s what’s on tap through the end of the month:

  • Saturday, Dec. 17: at Paris Basketball (2 p.m. ET)
  • Friday, Dec. 23: vs. Cholet (2:30 p.m. ET)
  • Tuesday, Dec. 27: at Strasbourg (2 p.m. ET)

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. Washington Wizards: There they are! There are the Wizards we know and love. They do their sneaky little “wait, are they kind of good this year?” dance every November only to fall flat in December and sure enough, we’ve arrived here again. Washington has lost seven in a row and nine of 10 after their impressive start, just as they followed a 10-3 start with a 25-44 finish a season ago. Bradley Beal remains injured, but, well, recent history suggests that might be the case more often than Washington would like this season. You can set your watch to the December Wizards. They collapse in the cold like clockwork.

6. Oklahoma City Thunder: Last week, we covered Oklahoma City’s remarkable streakiness. Well, since then, the Thunder have lost three games in a row. In 27 games thus far this season, they have a four-game winning streak, a four-game losing streak, a three-game winning streak and two three-game losing streaks. This week’s theme might be predictability. Just bet the Wizards to lose in December and the Thunder to do exactly what they did in their previous game and you’ll probably come out OK.

5. Orlando Magic: Let’s file this away as a potentially meaningful long-term development: The Magic have won three games in a row, and they’ve done so by giving 50 essentially net-neutral minutes to a lineup featuring Markelle Fultz and four basically seven-foot shooters: Bol Bol, Paolo Banchero, Franz Wagner and Moe Wagner. Fultz’s individual numbers in that span and on the season are as pedestrian as ever, but the fact that Orlando might be finding lineups that he can work within says quite a bit about their giant shooters. Properly spacing the floor with Fultz, a complete non-shooter, is no easy task. Orlando is doing it, which theoretically allows it to take advantage of Fultz’s gifts as a ball-handler. Whether he himself can make the most of this opportunity is almost irrelevant. What matters is that the Magic are proving that they can accommodate unusual players, and that opens the door to all sorts of lineup and roster-building opportunities down the line. 

4. Houston Rockets: One of the NBA’s safest streaks is at risk this season. Houston has ranked in the top five in the NBA in 3-point attempts every year since 2012, but are currently sitting in ninth. That’s emblematic of the very slight degradation of the Rockets’ offensive process that’s taken place over the past few years. They rank 26th in mid-range attempts, but were comfortably 30th last season. They rank fourth in dribbles per touch, and two of the teams ahead of them have Luka Doncic and Trae Young, and can therefore justify their heliocentrism. There’s just a whole lot of standing around as one player pounds the rock going on here. Granted, that was the case for most of their streak, but that Houston team had James Harden. This one doesn’t. It’s not a major concern yet, but it’s easy for habits to cement in young players. The longer Houston gives its ball-handlers free rein like this, the harder it’s going to fit them into a more egalitarian offense later.

3. Charlotte Hornets: It is getting harder and harder to find reasons to watch the Hornets. Normally, you’d tune in for LaMelo Ball, but he’s played three times this season. The Dennis Smith Jr. redemption was fun while it lasted, but now that he’s injured, we’re starting to get a lot more Theo Maledon than even the most hardcore League Pass devotee could ever want. They’re so desperate for offense that P.J. Washington, who had attempted 57 mid-range shots in his entire career entering this season, has already taken 49 this season. The uniforms are nice and the broadcast is excellent. That’s all I’ve got for you.

2. Detroit Pistons: We’ve already covered the major Pistons news, so for now, we’ll settle for yet another Killian Hayes update. Is the magic fading? Possibly. Back-to-back five-point outings have started to drag his recent averages back down-to-earth. With Cunningham out, Hayes fortunately won’t lack for opportunities to correct that.

1. San Antonio Spurs: Credit where credit is due: the Spurs just outplayed both the Cavaliers and Heat on the road and have now won three in a row. There are officially signs of life out of the team whose net rating is 2.5 points worse per 100 possessions than anyone else’s. Another week like that and they might escape the bottom slot. 

Loss of the week

The Wizards may have bumped the Bulls back out of the bottom seven, but that was little comfort Sunday, when the Bulls somehow managed to allow two game-winners in 1.1 seconds.

The first was relatively standard end-of-game fare. Trae Young dribbles out the clock. Coby White tries in vain to defend him. Young swishes the mid-range jumper with 1.1 seconds to play in overtime to give Atlanta the 121-119 lead.

At this point, you’d need a miracle to come back and win. DeMar DeRozan knows a thing or two about miracles. He manages to draw a three-point foul from Bogdan Bogdanovic seemingly as time expired. He sank all three. Bulls win … right?

But, and you probably guessed where this was going, time hadn’t quite expired. The officials gave the Hawks 0.5 seconds to work with. Here’s how they spent it.

The reverse finish was obviously remarkable, but just think about what it took to get Griffin the ball in the first place. When Jalen Johnson releases this ball, Griffin had just started to cut back around into open space. He’s defended by Derrick Jones Jr., who is not only bigger and longer than he is, but is so athletic that he’s competed in the Slam Dunk Contest. It took a perfect pass and a perfect finish for the Hawks to find their second buzzer-beater, and the result was one of the more devastating losses you’ll see all season.

Games of the weak

Wednesday, Dec. 14: Pistons at Hornets: Well, if the Pistons want to generate some good vibes after losing Cunningham for the season, they’re fortunate that their next game will be against the Hornets. Someone has to win this game.

Sunday, Dec. 18: Wizards at Lakers: Despite epic fourth-quarter comebacks against the Sixers and Celtics over a five-day span, those overtime losses are still registering in the standings as just what they are — losses. And don’t forget it also took an incredible shot from Austin Reaves to save L.A. in Detroit on Sunday. They may have escaped the bottom seven for now, but the gap between them and the NBA’s worst teams still isn’t big enough to avoid games of the weak.

Monday, Dec. 19: Spurs at Rockets: Savor this one, folks. It’s our last clash between the two worst teams in the Western Conference until they square off again in a back-to-back, home-and-home thriller the first weekend in March.

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