1. Jokic “the Joker” and the mile-high Nuggets.
2. Dame and the backcourt terror called the Trail Blazers.
3. Anthony Davis aka “THE BROW” and the buzzing…? swooping* Pelicans.
4. Boogie Cousins and the royalty in Sacramento.
5. Kit-KAT and the terrifying T-Wolves.
6. Ol’ Dirk and the fightin’ Mavs.
7. D’Angelo Russell and the upstart Lakeshow.
8. Baby Booker and the scorching Suns.
What do these eight teams have in common? Other than the fact that six of them have some high-quality youth, these are the eight worst teams in the Western Conference. They also have surprisingly similar records.
Just 5.5 games separate the worst in the West from the No. 8 seed bound for the playoffs.
What does this mean? It means each squad has a chance to gain serious playoff experience for their young talent and each has a chance to tank for a top pick in a loaded draft class. Is the temptation of Markelle Fultz, Josh Jackson, or Lonzo Ball enough for one of these teams to contradict their moral compasses and follow General Hinkie into the depths of the league?
First category: “The No Needs”
Minnesota and Denver
Bottom line, these two teams are loaded with young talent. They both have cornerstones to build around. And both of them could afford to make a serious push while settling for a fringe top-10 pick that nets them a great prospect in this deep draft class.
The Timberwolves have the more interesting question here since they currently have questions in the form of Ricky Rubio at point and a dearth of clear-cut options in the top of this draft. Minnesota is a mere two games out of the bottom of the barrel. Tanking has to be a tempting option for them, but to Minnesota, here is my plea: Go for it. In this draft, Dennis Smith, Jr. could be falling .Even if you miss in this playoff hunt, a promising floor general is a very feasible get in the bottom half of the lottery. At this point playoff experience is far more important for KAT, Air Lavine, and Andrew Wiggins. Not only are they ready, but your coach is uber-competitive and was rumored to be thinking about dealing one of these three priceless assets out of frustration to expedite the process. Compete, compete, compete. Like Philadelphians, these fans need to give up the habit of looking to the bottom for the future and start building through winning.
Denver has an easy decision in front of them. If the playoff race ended today, they would be the lucky ones heading to San Francisco. They’ve got a tough fight ahead of them to hold onto a narrow lead keeping them in the playoff fold, but that battle is absolutely one worth fighting. This team has oodles of potential starpower in Emmanuel Mudiay, Jamal Murray, and Gary Harris. All built around one very definite star who goes by, “the Joker”. Nikola Jokic could very well be looming over Porzingis in potential, and Jokic is showcasing why Faried and Nurkic could both be on the block. This team has all the makings of a top-3 team in the West come 2019 and this writer for one would like to see them acquire some playoff experience before they get to that point.
Second category: “The No Hopes”
Sacramento and Portland
Interesting cases here. Both could use one of the studs coming into the league at the top of this draft. And both have serious constraints limiting their ability to attain them. First up, Sac-town, USA.
Not only does Sacramento have an owner whose sole item on his bucket list is making the playoffs as an eighth seed, but they also have a superstar on the roster considering whether or not to re-up with them soon enough. If only these were the worst of their problems, I’d say don’t go for it. Tank. Enjoy another top-10 pick. Try not to pick another center. Unfortunately that’s not all there is to it. Sacramento has so graciously decided to offer their pick up to Philadelphia in the form of a pick swap. As the 76ers hit their stride, it’s becoming more and more likely that the Philly pick lands outside the top 10. I.e., Sacramento has very little motivation to bomb out and remove any qualms Philly has about gaining as many wins as possible.
Portland is perhaps the most interesting case. They should have the sense that they need a high pick to get out of the dreaded middle range. And in any other year, 19-27 would easily be contending for a top-5 pick. Unfortunately this isn’t any other year. They’re currently just one game out of the eighth seed and have little chance of falling with either one of Dame or CJ “smooth city” McCollum dawning the uniform on a nightly basis. These two backcourt studs are more than enough to keep their playoff hopes alive and be firmly entrenched in the playoff picture. Which is unfortunate considering their contract situation, incurred by a series of rash signings that seemed like they were meant to be traded at the deadline. Well that ship has sailed. Nobody wants Evan Turner or Allen Crabbe for those price tags. Good luck finding another star, Portland.
Third category: “The Free Agent Finders” (aka the maybe tankers)
Los Angeles and New Orleans
Now these two franchises each have a little something special to attract the kind of talent they need to expedite their rise. Not only that, but they also have the cap space to throw money around this summer and make a deal. However, each has limitations as well, condemning them to this No-mans land middle ground of the tank attack.
Los Angeles is constrained by the first rounder they owe Philadelphia if they fall outside of the top-3. Sitting at fourth, they could have decent odds of keeping this pick if they pass the likes of Miami or Phoenix. Unfortunately for LA fans, these are not great odds. Miami and Phoenix have absolutely zero incentive to start winning, and much of Miami’s starting lineup probably won’t put on a jersey for another game this season. At five games out, a playoff berth is pretty unlikely. But man, imagine if they made it. That means one of Julius Randle, D’Angelo Russell, Larry Nance Jr., or Brandon Ingram probably turn up post-All-Star break. And L.A. is starting to look like a serious free agent destination once again. Without the weight of too many major contracts, they could have serious cash to throw around. Without the stein of abysmal records season after season, they would have the hype to inspire more than disdain from the likes of LaMarcus Aldridge and Kevin Durant.
New Orleans’ fate feels like it rests on the humble shoulders of Jrue Holiday. NOLA sits three games out of the bottom of the West, but may not need another superstar if Holiday continues to regain the form that made him the youngest All-Star in 76ers history just four years ago. With Anthony Davis continuing his ascension to the top of the superstar ranks, Holiday simply becoming the Robin to his Batman would be enough to make serious playoff runs and attract a Chris Paul type this offseason that would make them the scariest backcourt in the NBA. Of course, the Pels would have to find a way to clear a lot of cap room, but it’s worth dreaming about. With Buddy Hield continuing to improve and the value of a top-10 pick (provided they miss) so high this year, this team could take a shot and feel good about its chances in the lottery or try to keep Golden State from sweeping them in the first round (a pretty high acclamation). Or they could go for a surer future route, and sink to make sure they have another valuable young asset in the fold to pair with the likes of Davis, Holiday, and Hield. Either way, 2021 is a deadline they don’t want to miss. So better think carefully before taking either of two very doable options.
Fourth category: “The Panzer* Division”
*Old German Tank
Phoenix and Dallas
These teams have the same choice to make, but they come from very different situations. Phoenix is currently among the bottom three clubs in the NBA and should stay there. Selling off Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight would be a good first move and from there I would do anything possible to add a Josh Jackson or Markelle Fultz to their potent young core of Marques Chriss, Dragan Bender, and Devin Booker. They have some of the rawest young talent in the NBA and should be looking to add to it through the draft this offseason. Dallas comes from a much sadder situation that doesn’t bode well for the future. This team absolutely needs to call it quits on the season and rack up some digits in the loss column ASAP. That’s AS SOON AS POSSIBLE if you don’t know what that stands for Mr. Mark Cuban.
The push to stay in the fifth seed in the West was admirable. But this team is not built for now or the future. They arguably hold worse prospects than any team outside of Brooklyn. Luckily, they have one thing going for them. Cuban outsmarted every one of the other GMs this offseason with the Harrison Barnes signing. Talk about a close call. Without that 26-year-old forward, Dallas would be destined to a status similar to the Nets for the next few years. However, with Barnes, Wes Matthews, the remnants of D-Will’s career, and decent young lads like Justin Anderson on the wing, one young stud puts this team back in the picture as a free agent destination. A high draft pick is the way to get there, and the only thing standing in the way is Wesley Matthews hitting buzzer-beating game-winners. Find a way, but get to the bottom and hope for a top pick not named Josh Jackson to form a duo with Barnes for years to come.