Is Anyone Surprised the Spurs Won the Victor Wembanyama Sweepstakes?

San Antonio wound up with the No. 1 pick in 1997 too: Tim Duncan

Victor Wembanyama passes the ball during a French Elite match.
Victor Wembanyama is heading to San Antonio after the Spurs locked up the No. 1 pick.

After finishing in first place in their division for two seasons in a row with former No. 1 overall draft pick David Robinson leading the way, the Spurs took a huge step back during the 1996-97 season and tumbled all the way to sixth place thanks to their 20-62 record. Coached by Bob Hill to start that regrettable season, San Antonio finished out the year with a guy by the name of Gregg Popovich running things on the sidelines.

That summer, the Spurs won the lottery and were awarded the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft, which San Antonio used to select consensus top prospect Tim Duncan. With an aging Robinson still on the team and a young star in Duncan in place, Popovich was able to guide the Spurs to a 56-26 record and a return to the playoffs. The following season the Spurs returned to the playoffs again following a lockout-shortened season and won the NBA Finals. For the next 20 seasons, Popovich and the Spurs were above .500 and qualified for the postseason, winning the NBA title an additional four times.

San Antonio’s historic streak of going to the playoffs for 22 straight seasons came to an end in the NBA’s Orlando bubble in 2020 as the Spurs finished at 32-39. “At this point, it’s been a huge success for our team and our young players, the development that we’ve talked about from the beginning,” Popovich said at the time. “We’re very happy with what’s gone on here.”

That may not actually have been true as the Spurs spent much of the next three seasons overhauling their roster and turning a contender into a pretender by waiving veteran players like LaMarcus Aldridge, Dwayne Dedmon and Danilo Gallinari, and trading away talented youngsters including Jakob Poelti, Derrick White and Dejounte Murray for future draft picks.

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In addition to letting the team build up future assets, those moves also allowed San Antonio to slip in the standings and improve the team’s odds in the draft lottery as the Spurs finished 33-39 and 34-48 before completely tanking this season (like they did to get Duncan) at 22-60 in a bid to land French prospect Victor Wembanyama.

The strategy paid off as the Spurs, who were tied with the Detroit Pistons and Houston Rockets with a 14% chance at landing the first selection, won the lottery last night to secure the Wembanyama sweepstakes. Other teams that missed out on the best prospect since LeBron James include the Charlotte Hornets (12.5% of winning the lottery) and Portland Trail Blazers (10.5%). The other lottery teams (Orlando, Indiana, Washington, Utah, Dallas, Chicago, Oklahoma City, Toronto and New Orleans) all had no more than a 9% chance of landing the No. 1 pick.

While there wasn’t a frozen envelope in play on Tuesday night like they may have been in 1985 when David Stern gave the New York Knicks the right to take Patrick Ewing at No. 1 overall, it is fairly suspect that Pop and the Spurs were able to successfully take to land Wembanyama after doing the same thing more than two decades ago to nab Duncan. It could be a coincidence, but a conspiracy theorist might take the view that the NBA didn’t want the possible future face of the league to wind up with an underachieving franchise like Detroit, Charlotte or Houston and engineered the lottery so San Antonio would win it. After all, as 22 straight seasons of making the postseason and five titles prove, the 19-year-old will be in good hands with Popovich in San Antonio.

Title No. 6 could be on the way to San Antonio soon. “They are getting a team player,” Wembanyama said on ESPN’s lottery broadcast. “I’m going to win as many games as I can. I’m trying to win a ring ASAP. So be ready.”

The 2023 NBA Draft will be June 22 in New York. Following the Spurs taking Wembanyama at No. 1, the Hornets will use the No. 2 pick, the Blazers will have the No. 3 selection, the Rockets will make the No. 4 pick and the Pistons will make the No. 5 selection.

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