- Which rebuilding NBA team offers the least amount of hope? With seven terrible teams separating themselves from the pack, we rank the league's most pitiful reboots.
The raging discussion this week over superstars sitting out nationally-televised games has served to illustrate a major double standard between the NBA’s haves and have-nots.
When Stephen Curry and LeBron James each sat out a Saturday showcase game on ABC, commissioner Adam Silver reportedly responded with a sternly-worded memo encouraging owners to consider the business implications of those no-shows. Meanwhile, also-rans like the Lakers and Suns have proceeded with ultra-tanking measures, shutting down veterans like Luol Deng and Eric Bledsoe with a month or more remaining in the season and there’s no outrage or official response to be found. If one of the league’s A-listers needs a blow in a meaningless March game prior to a taxing run through June, it becomes cause for a rethinking of the league’s schedule and a full-throated character assessment from some corners. But a cellar dweller putting its experienced players on an extended sabbatical so that it can punt the season and play for lottery balls will go largely unrebuked.
Analysts and commentators who scream “Think of the fans!” when ticket-buyers pay to see LeBron James but get James Jones have a point. But if any fans are truly aggrieved in March, it’s season ticketholders who purchased 41 regular-season home games only to see their favorite team turn 10 or more of them into developmental scrimmages.
This year, thanks to a draft class that includes a number of projected franchise players at the top, the blood in the streets is running particularly deep. The Lakers have lost 14 of their last 15. The Kings are 2-10 in their last 12. The Suns are 1-7 in their last eight. Even the Knicks—the delusional “Hopefully I’ll start shooting threes in the playoffs” Knicks—are 2-7 in their last nine.
All told, Basketball-Reference.com and ESPN.com projections both have seven teams—the Nets, Lakers, Suns, Magic, Sixers, Knicks, and Kings—with less than 0.1% of a chance to make the playoffs, even though the eighth seeds in both conferences are currently below–.500. In other words, nearly a quarter of the league’s 30 teams are hopelessly going through the motions in March. As for their fans? If they’re smart and/or cynical, they’re cheering each loss, reveling in the minor triumphs of Skal Labissiere and Dario Saric, refreshing Tankathon.com, poring over tape of Markelle Fultz, and hanging on LaVar Ball’s every word. Yes, these measures help pass the time until May 16’s lottery drawing. No, they don’t represent a particularly glamorous life.
To be clear, the seven teams with no shot to make the playoffs this year aren’t created equally. Some boast budding stars like Kristaps Porzingis and Devin Booker while others are completely bereft of core pieces. Some have war chests of assets to froth over while others are haunted by past trades. Some have generated genuine positive momentum while others are the freaking Nets.
With that in mind, let’s rank the NBA’s seven “no chance this year” rebuilding teams in terms of hopelessness. The seven teams will be listed in order of least hopeless to most hopeless.
7. Genuinely Hopeful: Philadelphia 76ers
After all these years, the Sixers are on the verge of emerging from the rebuilding conversation and they might already be above water if Joel Embiid had managed to stay healthy for 60 games instead of only 31.
Let’s put aside Embiid’s remarkable 99.1 defensive rating and insane per-36 numbers as well as Dario Saric’s “I’ll take it if no one else wants it” run at Rookie of the Year. The best reason to buy into the Sixers right now is that 2016 No. 1 pick Ben Simmons is the most underdiscussed impact player in the league. The last time he played in a game that counted? March 12, 2016 for LSU. By the time the 2017-18 season opener rolls around, that will mean he’s been off the radar for nearly 20 months. Remember, this is a player who arguably received more acclaim out of high school than either of this year’s top pick options, Fultz and Lonzo Ball, and one who demonstrated elite vision during his brief Summer League stints. There are obvious questions about his non-shooting, cross-positioning on offense/defense and how to best construct lineups around him, but Simmons should still enter next season as the Rookie of the Year favorite. Importantly, he’ll have multiple proven pieces surrounding him so he won’t be thrown entirely to the wolves.
There’s no excusing Philadelphia’s poor handling of Nerlens Noel and there’s obviously no “undo” button that can turn 2015 No. 3 pick Jahlil Okafor into Porzingis (No. 4) or Booker (No. 10). Nevertheless, Philadelphia enters the lottery with a chance at two top picks and swap rights with the Kings. The best-case scenario is an absolute bonanza. The worst-case is another strong chip to add to the slowly-but-surely emerging Embiid/Simmons/Saric core. With reasonable health for Embiid and Simmons, a charmed run at the 2018 playoffs is a distinct possibility.
Those worried that Embiid will perpetually battle injuries are right to raise the possibility of serious heartbreak: Indeed, Philadelphia’s short-term outlook is entirely reliant on Embiid graduating from the training wheels of minutes limits and rest nights. While the Sixers’ newish front office regime is still a wild card and Simmons still must prove the prep school hype was justified, this franchise turned the corner in terms of hopelessness during its strong January push. There’s a lot more work to be done but the outline of a team with a very high ceiling is approaching on the horizon.
6. Maybe More Hopeful Than It Seems: Los Angeles Lakers
Honestly, making the case against the Lakers is easier than making the case for the Lakers. Jeanie Buss and her brothers are about to go on “Judge Judy” to determine the future of the franchise. New president Magic Johnson has years of inane tweets casting doubt on his player evaluation skills. New GM Rob Pelinka has never run a team. Beloved and universally-respected PR man John Black was recently deposed without warning (How often do the words “beloved and universally-respected PR man” ever appear together these days?). The players generally react to defense as if it’s a life-threatening disease. Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng are near the top of every “2016’s most regrettable contracts” lists. Presumptive point guard of the future D’Angelo Russell has stalled a bit in year two and Brandon Ingram, easily the roster’s most untouchable piece, needs another two solid years to physically develop.
Well, the preceding paragraph wound up being twice as long as expected. However! There are legitimate bright spots. First, Jim Buss had none of the skills required to run a basketball operations department and had to go. He’s gone. Second, the Lakers needed fresh blood in their front office after multiple off–seasons worth of mistakes. They’ve got that. Third, Ingram remains a blue-chip wing prospect despite some predictable rookie stumbles. Fourth, the Lakers have done everything possible to tank their way into position to retain their top-three protected pick. That’s a good sign they won’t continue to be blinded by backwards-looking pride or a false sense of entitlement.
In recent years, market and prestige haven’t helped the Lakers land major free agents. But thanks to Walton, the steady accumulation of lottery picks, and the possibility of a great pick in a strong draft this year, LA is closer to having its ducks in a row than it’s been in years. Johnson and Pelinka should enter this summer with a “Nothing to lose” mentality. Try selling Blake Griffin on being the Lakers’ version of Russell Westbrook after years sharing the stage with Chris Paul. Make major runs at trading for Paul George or Jimmy Butler. Test the trade markets for Russell and Randle, especially if they keep their pick.
As with all of the teams on this list, there’s a very realistic and incredibly depressing worst-case scenario. For the Lakers, that’s losing their pick to the Sixers, striking out on the stars in both free agency and trades, settling for another summer of adding placeholders in July and spending the next two seasons playing pathetic defense only to find out that Russell isn’t going to become a top–10 point guard and Ingram caps out as an awesome third option rather than a true alpha. That could all happen and it would be nothing short of excruciating for a fan base that has already suffered through four of the worst seasons in franchise history back-to-back-to-back-to-back.
Still, none of the seven franchises is better positioned for a quick fix through the targeted addition of a proven All-Star than the Lakers. That hope, even if it’s felt like fool’s gold in recent years, keeps them ahead of the next five teams on this list.
5. Almost Hopeful On A Good Day: Phoenix Suns
Phoenix’s chief selling point right now is sheer friskiness. In Year Two, Booker has scaled his scoring and improved his three-point percentage to league average even though he’s still just 20. He’s also shown a willingness to take game-deciding shots and stand up to older players when things get chippy. Marquese Chriss has logged a hefty number of developmental minutes in a starting role as a teenage rookie. Dragan Bender, another teenage lottery pick, hasn’t done anything but the clock really isn’t even ticking yet. That trio alone isn’t enough to get excited about but Phoenix owns all of its own first-round picks, has multiple future firsts coming from Miami, possesses significant cap flexibility this summer and a quality trade chip in Eric Bledsoe, and has multiple veterans—Tyson Chandler and Brandon Knight—who could theoretically be moved for something at some point down the line.
Even if Booker continues his steady ascension and forms a positive pairing with Bledsoe next year, there are plenty of hurdles to overcome. The biggest is GM Ryan McDonough, who 1) played an instrumental role in building a contender in Boston by trading Isaiah Thomas to the Celtics for peanuts, and 2) provided life to the post-Dwyane Wade Heat by shipping Goran Dragic to South Beach. Here’s McDonough’s view of those 2015 transactions, which landed Knight, at the time: "We feel like we got the best player in the trade, coming or going." Yeah, that didn’t age well. For the record, Knight lost his starting job and ranks 454 out of 458 qualified players in Real Plus Minus this season. McDonough’s other major moves – chasing and whiffing on LaMarcus Aldridge, buying high on an aging Tyson Chandler, torpedoing his locker room by trading Marcus Morris, hanging ex-coach Jeff Hornacek out to dry—don’t exactly inspire confidence.
There are plenty of other concerns. Former lottery pick Alex Len needs a new contract this summer and he’s not very good. Bledsoe, now 27, should really be fed up with Phoenix’s nonsense at this point. Chandler, 34, doesn’t make any sense with their timeline but the cupboard behind him is largely bare. First-time coach Earl Watson remains a question mark. The Suns have a bottom-five defense and no real reason to believe they’ll be markedly better next season. The organization hasn’t made the playoffs since 2010 and will struggle to land top free agents given that track record and the extreme youth of its core.
The optimistic view here is that Phoenix is in the early stages of a very traditional youth movement: Booker has all the shots he needs to stay happy and he’s in position to receive a max rookie extension for his patience, the young pieces are being given as many minutes as they can handle, the major locker room headaches are gone, the cap-clogging deals for Chandler and Knight are of manageable size, and they have the mechanisms (Bledsoe, picks, cap space) to add serious talent this summer. Meanwhile, the pessimist’s view wonders whether McDonough is the guy who should be driving the car during such a crucial roster-building time and questions whether his biggest recent bets, Chriss and Bender, might take an agonizingly long time to turn into dependable contributors.
To boil this down: It’s incumbent upon McDonough to prove this summer that the Thomas trade won’t go down as the defining move of his tenure. That’s both a tantalizing and a scary thought, given the flexibility and spending power at his disposal, but at least the Suns have a chance to take this mess into a more promising direction.
4. Hopeless: New York Knicks
Everyone can agree that Kristaps Porzingis is a lighthouse in a blinding ocean storm, a sole beacon giving legions of Knicks lovers reason to keep fighting back against the surging waves of despair. He’s skilled, smart, confident, fan-friendly, competitive, driven, coachable and efficient. He does really important things—create shots, shoot threes, defend the rim—well and he’s still just scratching the surface. He’s a strong bet to make the All-Star team next year.
But it takes far more than one guy to make this work and Porzingis has—to keep the maritime imagery going—anchors tied to all of his limbs. His left arm is held down by James Dolan and Phil Jackson, an owner who can’t keep his mouth shut when he’s wrong and a president who won’t speak no matter how badly his plans go awry. His right arm is shackled by Carmelo Anthony, an aging star (on some nights) whose presence has marginalized Porzingis in the franchise’s planning process and delayed a badly-needed full-scale rebuilding effort. His left leg is tied up by Joakim Noah, whose $72 million contract was arguably last summer’s worst deal due to his diminished health and effectiveness. And his right leg is clamped by a huge hole at point guard, which never should have been filled by Derrick Rose or Brandon Jennings and which might not be addressed in suitable fashion this summer.
Throw in Hornacek, a coach who continues to placate Jackson with Triangle talk, and a roster stocked with middling veterans who aren’t in position to grow with Porzingis and it starts to feel like the Unicorn is being put through the NBA’s version of the American Gladiator’s Eliminator. Which of these obscene challenges to his progress will eventually trip up Porzingis? How long can he last? On the bright side, at least Willy Hernangomez is a pretty good sidekick.
The Knicks will remain in a hopeless state until they can offer convincing evidence that they’ve learned from their past mistakes (selling out for stars, avoiding rebuilding efforts, overpaying name players to chase the No. 8 seed) and/or made the necessary moves (trading Anthony, stockpiling prospects) to ensure Porzingis can grow in a more unfettered fashion. Is either scenario plausible if Dolan remains stuck in his ways, Jackson continues clinging to the past, and Anthony remains committed to prioritizing life in the Big Apple over a late-career shot at a ring? That was meant as a rhetorical question but the answer is a strong “No.”
Just for the sake of mid-March dreaming: New York’s best shot at a narrative-flipping summer involves winning the top pick, drafting a point guard, selling Anthony on a trade, ditching Rose, giving up on the Triangle for good and spending next year force-feeding Porzingis for 82 games. Reality butted in halfway through that last sentence to scream, “Keep dreaming.”
3. Depressingly Hopeless: Orlando Magic
Orlando’s motto should be: “Failing to live up to zero expectations.” No one ever expects anything from the Magic and yet, year after year, they find a way to be a strong disappointment. This year was especially depressing, as a new and proven coach (Frank Vogel), somewhat splashy off–season moves (Serge Ibaka, Bismack Biyombo), and multiple former lottery picks (Aaron Gordon, Mario Hezonja, Elfrid Payton) all fell flat to one degree or another. Instead of competing for a playoff spot and eying Ibaka as a long-term franchise guy, Orlando is in the Southeast Division basement again having already given up on Ibaka at the deadline. The only question now is whether GM Rob Hennigan, who has been open about his frustration with his team’s lack of progress, will call a press conference to fire himself.
The front-office situation is what makes the Magic’s future particularly grim. Moving on from Hennigan has been a long-overdue decision, given his abysmal draft and trade records, but that requires a full reset. This organization has already cycled coaches in recent years and has had an unhealthy amount of roster turnover, losing numerous quality pieces like Tobias Harris, Victor Oladipo and Moe Harkless along the way. Dumping Hennigan will inevitably lead to another housecleaning and reevaluation of the existing young pieces, pushing back Orlando’s timeline even further. Hennigan’s replacement will either need to strike an awkward partnership with Vogel or, in an even more damaging situation, eye yet another coaching change to install his own candidate. There’s no way this transition plays out quickly or smoothly, and there are plenty of prospects already in the fold whose development could be harmed in the process.
Orlando hasn’t made the playoffs since 2012 and this season’s regression makes it hard to even peg a target date for a postseason return. 2019? 2021? Amazingly, Magic CEO Alex Martins moved the goalposts back more than a decade last December when he said that he believes the Magic “will have won at least one championship” by 2030. 2030!?!
Unlike the Knicks, the Magic haven’t identified a tent post player: Gordon is the best candidate, given his athleticism and upside, but his offensive ceiling looks a touch lower now than it did when he was drafted in 2014. Otherwise, Payton is three years in and hasn’t made the leap and Hezonja is barely playing in year two. Right now, there’s a strong argument to be made that Orlando’s 2017 lottery pick is a better asset than any of the players currently on its roster. That’s an almost inconceivable position for an organization that is headed for its fifth straight lottery trip. Hopeless, hopeless, hopeless.
2. Utterly, Disorientingly Hopeless: Sacramento Kings
There were two main strains of hope for Kings fans in recent years: 1) DeMarcus Cousins was one of the most talented players at his position, and maybe he would put the right cast of teammates on his back and lead a charge up the standings, and 2) Cousins was one of the most talented players who might actually get traded, and maybe he would fetch a rebuild-launching package of assets in a deal.
Both of those strains died when Vivek Ranadive and Vlade Divac shipped Cousins to New Orleans on the night of the All-Star Game: Cousins’s true believers were left wholly unsatisfied with zero playoff appearances to show for seven strained seasons, while his doubters were left wondering whether “Buddy Hield and a top-three protected pick” was a misprint or a practical joke. Predictably, Sacramento has been terrible since the trade. That’s a good thing: Sacramento is best served by tanking so that its own pick is as good as possible and then praying that New Orleans doesn’t jump up into the top three.
Considering Ranadive’s penchant for taking bad gambles, Divac’s shaky trade record and willingness to mortgage the future in trades, Sacramento’s 11-year run of missing the playoffs and its troubles courting free agents and working out draft prospects, the Kings’ baseline of expectations is scraping rock bottom. If ownership doesn’t inspire confidence, management struggles with the basics, and the roster lacks anything close to a centerpiece and has just three or four worthwhile players and prospects (Garrett Temple, Hield, Labissiere, and Willie Cauley-Stein), what’s the plausible sales pitch to fans? The best the Kings can come up with is something like, “June’s draft is the start of a new era.”
No doubt, Sacramento’s two 2017 lottery picks represent crucial building blocks for their next three-to-five years. They need to keep and nail both picks to have any shot at being watchable in the foreseeable future. Please, don’t blame anyone who is already bracing for something to go terribly wrong.
1. Utterly, Savagely Hopeless: Brooklyn Nets
There’s a case to be made that Sacramento, and not Brooklyn, should occupy the final spot on this list. Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov has already made his big failures and suffered the consequences for them, perhaps leading him to exercise greater caution and to show greater trust in his basketball minds than Ranadive. So far, Sean Marks has played his hand in a much more conventional way than Divac. Brook Lopez brings a reliability that Cousins never did and a talent level that exceeds anyone on Sacramento’s roster. The Nets have the advantage of playing in a big market too.
Unfortunately, Brooklyn hasn’t escaped the long shadow of the Paul Pierce/Kevin Garnett trade just yet. The end is finally, mercifully in sight but true hope—in the form of a high lottery pick—is still two full years away. As a reminder, the Nets must swap their first-round pick with the Celtics this year (even if it lands in the No. 1 spot) and they must give the Celtics their first-round pick next year (again, even if it lands in the No. 1 spot). There’s no way to rationalize the double pain of incurring heavy losses for the next two years with no payoff in young talent and the jealousy that will come with watching those highly-touted prospects develop into contributors somewhere else.
In the meantime, the Nets are taking flier after flier on young cast-offs, handing over major minutes to recent draft picks like Caris LeVert and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and trying to claw draft picks back in minor trades. Those are all sound approaches, but the result remains the league’s worst record (by a mile). Trading Lopez is a possibility, but one that could very well create more problems than it solves. Given their weak talent base, there’s a very strong chance the Nets will be back in the same spot next year, even if Marks is able to use his plentiful cap space this summer to add talent via prudent signings of rotation players and/or tough-to-match offers to restricted free agents. There are just too many minutes to fill.
The old NBA adage goes “You’re either selling wins or you’re selling hope.” The Nets aren’t in position to truly sell either until at least May 2019, leaving their fans to suffer in a purgatory of despair.