- Believe it or not, being one of the 10 worst teams in the NBA doesn't mean your future isn't bright. So which teams have the most potential to climb from the bottom to the top in the next few years?
Here's a good midseason debate to pass the time until the All-Star break: Among the 10 worst teams in the NBA, who's got the brightest future?
This used to be an easier question to answer. For the past few years, the Sixers and Wolves were fixtures at the bottom of the league. They had future stars (Wolves) or future picks (Sixers), both of which made some measure of long-term success look close to inevitable. But the Process Sixers have stayed healthy and they're playoff-bound. The Wolves are pushing for the third seed in the West after Jimmy Butler replaced Zach LaVine to supercharge the rebuild. We're moving forward into the great unknown this year.
Who are the new bright spots at the bottom of the league? Who's ready to buy into Jarrett Allen hype in Brooklyn? Where are we with Marc Gasol and the Grizzlies? Is it too soon to discuss the Knicks? Will the Sacramento Kings ever prosper? And do you trust the Bulls?
Here are some quick, completely subjective rankings.
1. Lakers (23-32)
Technically speaking, the Lakers are a half-game ahead of the Hornets and not one of the 10 worst teams in the NBA. I'm including them in this discussion because they have the frenetic spirit of a bottom 10 team, and they'll probably finish the year somewhere in that group. And in that case ... the Lakers clearly have the brightest future of any team on this list. Between the progress of Brandon Ingram, rock solid draft picks (Kuzma, Lonzo, Josh Hart), and massive amounts of cap space this summer, this is getting real.
Generic optimism of the past few seasons is beginning to give way to real intrigue about the future here. Do they stick with the young core? Will LeBron show up? What about a trade? It's too early to say where this goes next, but each of the options is exciting for different reasons. And all of this—especially L.A. landing a top three pick in three consecutive years in which its first round pick was top-five or top-three protected—is a reminder that life is not fair and the Lakers are the closest thing the NBA has to the Illuminati. That's the real reason they should be excluded from this list.
2. Bulls (20-36)
If we re-drafted the 2017 draft, I think Markkanen would be my first pick. Jayson Tatum is very solid, Donovan Mitchell has been incredible, but Markkanen's upside is higher than anyone who was available last spring. I'm not sold on everyone in Chicago (Kris Dunn), and I have no explanation for several Bulls moves over the past few years—remember the Cam Payne experiment?—but Markkanen could be good enough to render all those concerns a moot point.
For teams at the bottom of the league, finding a bonafide superstar is the first step in any rebuild, and it's also by far the hardest trick to pull off. Look at almost every other team on this list. Most rebuilding teams spend years spinning their wheels and trying to talk themselves into Elfrid Payton. Chicago has Lauri Markkanen. Throw in a top 10 wing or big man from this year's draft, Zach LaVine growing into his role, a few more years stockpiling assets... Somehow the Bulls future is beginning to make sense.
3. Mavericks (18-39)
Pray for the internet's Mavs fans. The tanking race is heating up—the bottom eight teams are separated by three games—and while Dallas is currently sitting at number three, the Mavs are definitely the team in that bottom tier that's most likely to win a few inexplicable games down the stretch. That's been a Rick Carlisle trademark the past few years. So that's one reason to be concerned.
Still: Over the next two years the Mavs will have cap space just as the rest of the league runs out of money. Dennis Smith Jr. looks like a potential All-Star when his jumper is falling, and if they can luck into one more young star in June, the future begins to get very exciting. Here's to betting on Mark Cuban and the front office will find a way to make it happen, and again, here's to praying that Rick Carlisle doesn't turn Yogi Farrell and JJ Barea into an extra five wins.
4. Suns (18-40)
Phoenix takes the rule from the Bulls section—always bet on the rebuilding team that's found a genuine star—and really pushes it to the limit. Devin Booker is excellent, yes, and in a league that's increasingly dominated by explosive perimeter scorers, Booker looks poised to crack the Lillard/Derozan/Kyrie tier of franchise-changing guards. The problem is that there's so much to change in Phoenix.
The Suns have some decent talent up and down the roster—Josh Jackson has been very solid for the past month, Dragan Bender is showing signs of life on certain nights, T.J. Warren is continuing his years-long effort to revive the art of midrange jumpers—but that's been true for three years. When does it actually translate to winning, and how do they get there? Making matters worse, while teams like the Bulls can build confidence in the East, Phoenix is dealing with killers night after night in the West. For now, we'll put Phoenix in fourth because they have some interesting young talent, Booker should be great, and with another top five pick coming, the Suns are due for something to go right.
5. Magic (18-38)
Most of the long-term hope is built around Jonathan Isaac, and I'll admit, that may not sound super promising. Issac is still learning offense, he doesn't have a clear position, and while he showed some flashes of two-way potential very early in the year, he's been hurt for almost three months. He's like a parody of an anonymous project that draft nerds care too much about. But that's fine, I'm not asking anyone to join me on the Isaac bandwagon.
What's important here is the law of averages and the theory that a team can't be in 11th place for a decade straight. Aaron Gordon is decent and Isaac could be a killer role player in the modern NBA, but this is not about logic. The bottom line is that Orlando is due for some good luck with the rest of the roster. It has to get better than it's been. This is the team that deserves Trae Young or Luka Doncic, and they have karma on their side. Also: the Elfrid Payton experiment is finally over, so things are already moving in the right direction.
6. Knicks (23-35)
[Empty stare into the distance]
On the one hand, everyone spent the past year whispering about Porzingis injury concerns that became very real last week. That makes "bright future" conversations a lot more complicated. Porzingis was the cornerstone that made all other Knicks behavior 50% less depressing. Now the Knicks are running clear-outs for Emmanuel Mudiay and Frank Ntilikina, and they've probably won too many games to make a run at a top five pick. All of this has gotten pretty sobering.
If there's any silver lining here, it could be argued that the Knicks were always going to be incapable of a patient rebuild. The Kristaps injury forces them to look to the future this year, and maybe next year, too. If Porzingis can get back to 100% by 2019, maybe this rebuilding interlude will have surrounded him with the young roster he needs. Right? Maybe? No, you're right. It's too soon for any kind of Knicks optimism.
7. Grizzlies (18-37)
With Mike Conley sidelined for the year, playoff dreams have become lottery dreams, and that's probably OK. After bottoming out this season, they plan to bring Conley back and push for the playoffs all over again next season. They're trying to thread the needle between rebuilding and contending for the next 18 months. Succeeding with this plan will require a full recovery from Conley, luck in the lottery, continued buy-in from Marc Gasol, and somehow finding breathing room in a Western Conference field that currently has 10 or 11 playoff-caliber teams. If it doesn't work next year, Memphis will have to tank all over again to keep a top-8 protected pick that could go to the Celtics in 2019.
A cynic would say that this is a lot of risk for a plan that, at best, ends in the first round of the playoffs. But the truth is that if Memphis is going to sell off Gasol for 30 cents on the dollar, that can be accomplished at any point over the next year or two. For now, there's a real chance to get lucky in June, and a chance to watch one more awesome, overachieving Grizzlies team next season. It could be worse.
8. Hawks (18-39)
The Hawks have three first round picks coming in June and John Collins has been impressive as a rookie. Beyond that, it gets dicey. The rebuild was probably the healthiest move on the board for Atlanta last summer, but it will probably take several years of patience to build anything real here. In the meantime, it won't be easy—building multiple seasons around Dennis Schroeder sounds like a threat not a plan.
The current state of the Hawks is a good argument for a team like the Grizzlies keeping their stars to run it back for an extra year or two. It's not like a scorched-rebuild suddenly infuses the team will all kinds of energy, and it really doesn't promise anything beyond lots of time waiting for the lottery every year. That's where Atlanta is until further notice. One major bright spot, though: Hot Sauce dominating randomly-selected fans is the best in-game promotion in the NBA.
9. Nets (19-39)
It's not fair that the Nets have made a series of smart gambles—Caris LaVert, D'Angelo Russell, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Jarrett Allen—only to be nearly 10 spots lower than the Bulls front office. But starpower matters, and Brooklyn still doesn't have much. D'Angelo Russell hasn't been healthy, and he's been uneven in the games he's actually played. Also, for all the shrewd gambles that have been praised along the way, there are a few Nets decisions that really don't make sense.
The Blazers bailed them out by matching that outrageous Allen Crabbe deal in 2016, and then there the Nets were in 2017, trading for him all over again. How did that make sense? And what could they have done with that space this year? We'll never know. At least the curse of that Celtics trade will finally be lifted beginning next season. Until then the Nets are the Hawks of the north, only without a first round pick. Not great.
10. Kings (17-38)
The Kings have been brutal to watch for almost 10 years, and this year has not been an exception. Skal Labissiere hype has come and gone, and unlike Orlando, the Kings play in the West, where young teams are routinely humiliated and poisoned before they ever get a chance to mature. Also, their first round pick goes to Boston or Philly next season.
All of this is why they deserve some lottery luck in May. It's really the only thing I care about in this draft. Excluding eight seasons of the Webber/Divac glory days, the Kings have been in the lottery in 21 of 24 possible years. In that span, they've moved down in the draft nine of 21 times, and moved up in the draft once (1989). So please: tank away, Kings. Nobody blames you, and everybody agrees that you deserve this.
11. Hornets (23-33)
[Watches Charlotte careening toward the 11th pick again]
[Searches for optimism]
[Watches Nic Batum go 4/13 for 11 points]
[Remembers how close they were to Anthony Davis in 2011]
[Watches Frank Kaminsky go 1/7 from three]