Nine NBA teams have at least 50 losses already this season. Not all of them are flat-out tanking, but they might as well be. Rarely in modern NBA history has such a large collection of squads — damn near one-third of the entire league! — looked so pitiful so regularly.
While most of these hideous clubs are likely a couple years (at least) from the NBA playoffs, it’s likely that a couple of them will be better next year. There are also different levels of awful at play here: some of the franchises lack hope entirely, while others have reason to dream of a better near-term future.
With that in mind, we set about ranking the upside of each of the nine disastrous clubs. There isn’t a set timeline in mind — consider the exercise more an exploration of which franchise you’d prefer to run, all else (ownership, market, resources) being equal. Keep in mind that the NBA Draft Lottery in May looms large, as well.
The biggest factors are young talent, salary cap outlook, and hulking problems looming on the road ahead.
Speaking of which ...
The Magic are tied for the second-worst record in the NBA right now. If this holds in the final week, Orlando will pick in the top six and add that piece — barring a trade — to a core consisting of ... uh, Jonathan Isaac. That’s it.
The hulking problem looming on the road ahead is Aaron Gordon’s restricted free agency. Orlando has been hideous throughout Gordon’s career. Giving him a bag is both necessary and completely questionable. Gordon isn’t the problem this year — he’s been very good at times, in fact — but you have to wonder if Orlando’s development of him is a sunk cost at this point.
The rest of the roster is totally disappointing. Isaac has immense promise, but he hasn’t played much due to injuries and being quite raw.
The upside that goes unaccounted for here is the new front office led by Jeff Weltman, one that seems unattached to the roster (see the Elfrid Payton trade) and ready to make some moves.
But dang, the Magic need a lot of moves to be competitive.
The Nets try hard, seem well-coached, and have the nova of an identity. Unfortunately, the Nets do not have a 2018 lottery pick. That’s huge because the 2018 draft class looks excellent. Brooklyn has its 2019 pick — finally! — but the 2019 draft class looks underwhelming at this point.
The upshot is the Nets will likely be really bad again in 2018-19, with at least something to look forward to at the end of the season. But rookies, even good ones, rarely turn bad teams into good ones immediately, so there are probably two more really rough seasons ahead for Brooklyn, if not more. The Nets could make a move or two to cut that short, but they don’t really have the assets at this point beyond cap space.
The Kings have some really nice pieces, led by Bogdan Bogdanovic, Buddy Hield, and De’Aaron Fox. But none of them are obvious future all-stars, and a couple other prospects worth getting stoked about in the past — Willie Cauley-Stein, Skal Labissiere — have stalled a bit. A rehabilitated Harry Giles and a 2018 lottery pick should help.
What won’t help is the 2019 NBA Draft. The Kings owe their pick to the Sixers no matter where it lands. Sacramento doesn’t have the juice to radically improve this summer, so the Kings are likely going to have a Nets-like wasted 2018-19 season where they are bad without a prize of the end of the suffering.
We are no closer than we were a year ago of finding out how good an NBA player Harrison Barnes can be. The Mavericks have exhibited as much as any team how quickly a franchise can fall into a void. It’s just 82 games of nothingness interspersed with brief moments of lucidity and brief moments of joy.
Barnes is definitely an NBA starter, Wesley Matthews is still a player, (though he could opt out this summer), Dennis Smith has juice, and Dirk Nowitzki will forever be fun to watch. This 2018 draft matters a ton, and there’s a darn good chance that the 2019 draft will matter too, because there doesn’t seem to be a realistic path for Dallas to climb out of the muck in one summer.
The Hawks are a beautiful, ugly mix of overpaid veterans and mysterious youths. Dennis Schroder and Kent Bazemore have lost their luster without excellent teammates, and John Collins and Taurean Prince’s upsides are still being explored. Really, Atlanta needs more NBA-level bodies. Perhaps it’s part of the tanking strategy, but a lot of the Hawks’ minutes have gone to non-NBA players.
The good news is that the Hawks will have three picks, in all likelihood, in the upcoming draft. Their own pick is currently slated to be in the top six. If the Timberwolves make the playoffs, which they should, their high-teens pick will go to Atlanta. The Hawks also will pick at No. 30 as they own the rights to Houston’s first-round selection.
All that should land Atlanta one blue-chipper and two dice rolls, if all goes according to plan. That helps. It also helps that the Hawks own their 2019 pick, so they can afford to be awful again next year.
4. Phoenix Suns
All those lottery picks, and only Devin Booker looks like a star. Josh Jackson is having a relatively quiet rookie season (though he’s come on a bit of late), the other young Suns aren’t setting off fireworks, and the same front office remains in place. The hit rate in the draft hasn’t been excellent.
But the good news is that Phoenix will get three more tosses at the dart board in June! The Suns — who have quietly lost 15 games in a row — are in line to pick in the top four with their own pick. They’ll also get picks from Milwaukee and Miami; both should be in the Nos. 15-17 range. GM Ryan McDonough has arguably been better in that area of the first round than at the top.
It goes without saying, but this is a mammoth draft for the Suns. Hit on one or two of these picks to add to Booker, and you might have something.
The Grizzlies were a playoff team with Mike Conley and Marc Gasol and a cast of role players of varying quality. The good news is that the Grizzlies should have Mike Conley and Marc Gasol and a cast of role players of varying quality next season.
The questions are: can Conley stay healthy, and will Gasol look so much older simply because he’s been worn down by this season’s hopelessness. (Will he even be in Memphis at all?). There are also questions about Chandler Parsons’ future, JaMychal Green’s status, Tyreke Evans’ future, and whether the franchise will decide to cut bait on its stars or retool around them. No one knows.
While we aren’t accounting for ownership here, keep in mind too that the Grizzlies franchise is on less stable ground than usual, which is saying something.
But Memphis is this high because it’s the only team on the list who can say that it has evidence it can be a playoff team when everyone is healthy. We’ve seen it. We just don’t know if we’ll see it again.
The Knicks land this high on the list because of two words: Kristaps Porzingis. New York was flirting with the playoffs in the first half of the season; Porzingis’ pre-All-Star injury allowed the Knicks to pivot to tanking hard.
Porzingis is the best player on any of these nine dreadful teams, and that really matters in the NBA. Even setting aside New York’s glamour status, Porzingis could be a potent recruiter in free agency: the Knicks have huge openings for co-stars, and the Latvian seems like a joy to play with.
Add in a solid lottery pick and New York could easily be in the playoff mix in the East next year.
You can tell the Bulls aren’t long for the tanking epidemic, because despite the franchise’s best interests and best attempts, the Bulls have been fighting to get out of the muck all season long. No team in memory — not even the hilarious 2016-17 Lakers — have been as inept at tanking as the 2017-18 Chicago Bulls.
The truth is that the Bulls are too good to go on a huge losing streak. They are too good to lose constantly to the Hawks, Suns, Grizzlies, and Magic. They are too good to lose by 61 points. Oh, they are capable of looking and losing ugly. Don’t get me wrong: this team is pretty bad. But they aren’t bad enough.
That’s because the roster actually has some good pieces. Kris Dunn? He’s pretty nice. Lauri Markkanen? He’s a keeper. Zach Lavine? Just don’t look at the shooting percentages. David Nwaba and Robin Lopez? Let’s just say the Hawks don’t have guys like that. Bobby Portis? He punched the Bulls’ chances of getting the worst record right in the face. (Sorry.)
The Bulls could be mediocre again in 2018-19 ... or they could be the No. 4 seed in the East. Everything is possible here.
And based on Chicago’s typical rebuild cycle, they’ll win the No. 1 pick with low odds and win 60 games within two years. Most Bulls fans will remain annoyed at the franchise nonetheless. It’s just the way it is.