The NBA returns from the All-Star break tonight, which means the respective races for the playoffs or ping-pong balls are back on. In case you aren’t familiar with how the Powerless Rankings work, the number one team is the least powerful. Here we go.
14. Utah Jazz (30-28)
Winners of 11 consecutive contests heading into Friday’s matchup with the West’s seventh-seeded Trail Blazers (32-26), the Jazz boast both the best short-term and long-term outlooks among these 14 teams. Six of those 11 wins during this streak came against clubs currently in the playoff picture (Raptors, Warriors, Pelicans, Trail Blazers, and Spurs twice). And the Pistons and Hornets were not walkovers, either.
Moreover, Utah is now 19-13 with Rudy Gobert in the lineup, they haven’t dealt away any of their draft picks, and veteran grinder Jae Crowder was acquired at the trade deadline in exchange for a constantly injured young wing (Rodney Hood) that Utah’s front office was apparently hesitant to shell out the big bucks to come summertime.
Crowder, who will turn 28 in July, is on Utah’s payroll through 2019-20, and at a bargain rate ($15.1 million combined over the next two seasons). Crowder was highly-coveted by the Jazz during the summer, particularly when rumors of a Gordon Hayward sign-and-trade emerged. It’s easy to understand why. Jae embodies the Jazz’s hard-nosed, defense-first culture and fills a need, especially in the wake of Thabo Sefolosha’s injury. Crowder’s ability to cover the league’s bigger and stronger wings and spend time at both forward spots makes him perhaps the most underrated addition of this year’s trade deadline.
Lukewarm (but closer to cold) take: Pencil Utah into the playoffs and expect them to net another rotation player in the mid-to-late first round of the 2018 NBA Draft. In what projects as a dried up free agent market, especially for big men, it’s possible that Utah also finds a way to retain Derrick Favors for a reasonable price. Bottom line: Don’t sleep on the Jazz now or later.
13. L.A. Clippers (30-26)
The Clippers are 5-1 since making the blockbuster trade involving Blake Griffin and Tobias Harris. Thus far Harris has afforded DeAndre Jordan more breathing room inside the confines of the painted area, while Lou Williams continues to put forth his best Allen Iverson impression. Not only will the Clippers remain relevant in the race for the playoffs, they’ve also added a second first round pick for 2018 (as long as Detroit doesn’t win a top-three selection in the lottery).
It’s likely we had already seen the best of the Griffin-Jordan pairing, and L.A. was probably wise to admit that and move on. Whether the Clippers or Pistons (or neither or both) sneak into the postseason or not, L.A. will almost certainly possess two mid-first round picks in this summer’s draft. The Clippers’ roster isn’t stocked with as much talent as Utah’s, but L.A. is nevertheless in a somewhat enviable position: they have several solid contributors, increased financial flexibility, and plenty of pathways to contention. There is no shortage of options for how Jerry West and company will proceed. Blowing it all up is an option, and there is some incentive here since the Clippers owe the Celtics a top-four protected first round pick (which becomes a second rounder if it’s not divulged in 2019 or 2020). So it’s either host a fire sale this summer or rebuild right away on the fly.
As of now, it appears the Clippers will opt for the latter. It’s hard to blame them. It took decades for the franchise to form an ideal identity and attract a decent fanbase. Committing to a total tank in 2018-19 and 2019-20 would undo a lot of that.
12. Phoenix Suns (18-41)
Phoenix is tied with Atlanta for the worst record in the league, and by season’s end the Suns will have missed the playoffs eight years in a row. They’ve also lost seven straight contests, and appear fully committed to tanking for the final 23 games.
So why should Phoenix fans be feeling somewhat optimistic?
Well, for one, Devin Booker (21) is a scoring savant who just topped Klay Thompson in the NBA’s long distance shootout on All-Star Saturday. Secondly, the Suns are set to receive Miami’s 2018 first round pick (top-seven protected) unless the Heat fall apart down the stretch and then win the lottery. Based on no real mathematics, I’d say there’s less than a one percent chance of that happening. So the Suns should have two solid chances to strike gold this summer.
Adding Elfrid Payton at the trade deadline was a prudent move as well. He could prove to be a decent fit alongside the less defensive-minded Booker, though Payton probably won’t do much to improve the team’s offensive spacing. Hopefully his presence doesn’t deter the development of rookie forward Josh Jackson, who has looked like a new man since the new year.
Even beyond Booker and Jackson, the Suns sport solid depth along the wing. T.J. Warren (24) is enjoying a breakout campaign. Troy Daniels (26) delivers raindrops on a regular basis. And 22-year-old rookie Davon Reed’s 3-and-D skillset makes him an intriguing prospect to keep an eye on moving forward.
It might seem as though the Suns are light years away from fielding a competitive basketball club, and there’s some truth to that. Nevertheless, Phoenix isn’t as powerless as their current standing indicates. They are probably still at least a couple years away from returning to the playoffs, but trading Eric Bledsoe and starting anew was long overdue. I’m sold on the Suns’ rebuild.
11. L.A. Lakers (23-34)
Long ago, the Lakers coughed up a first round draft pick, which they will finally convey here in 2018. But that’s the only bad news here. L.A. absolutely crushed the 2017 NBA Draft, adding Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart and Thomas Bryant. The Lakers also acquired a 2018 first-rounder from Cleveland in exchange for Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance, so the team that netted at least two steals in last year’s draft now has two selections this summer (the second being Denver’s second-rounder).
Well-positioned for the future, L.A.’s front office needn’t worry about much besides scouting until Luol Deng’s contract expires. Brandon Ingram has flipped the bust label on its back and restored faith in the franchise, while the rookie class has been better than anyone (besides LaVar Ball) could’ve expected. (And this coming from someone who rated all four of them very highly.)
No matter what anyone says, the Lakers and Clippers will likely be among the teams that pursue LeBron James this offseason. It’s probably not going to come to fruition for either of them. However, that they even remain in the rumor mill regarding James suggests there’s some validity to their respective standings in this edition of the Powerless Rankings. I haven’t heard any of these other 12 non-L.A. teams being linked to LeBron on a regular basis.
10. New York Knicks (23-36)
Injuries are very bad. We should ban them. Hopefully Kristaps Porzingis can return stronger than ever and resume his quest to become the league’s top unicorn. He is the only reason the Knicks trend more towards powerful than powerless in these ranks.
In less depressing news, New York has lost eight straight games, thus improving their odds for the upcoming NBA Draft lottery. Porzingis is by far their best player on both ends of the floor, and his absence for the rest of the year could result in a free-fall of epic proportions. The good news is that unlike the Knicks of old, they currently own all of their future first round draft picks. It’s especially crucial considering that New York is capped out and can’t accomplish much in free agency for the foreseeable future.
If the losing continues down the stretch (and there’s no reason to assume it won’t), the Knicks will have a chance to add another highly-rated prospect to the core of Porzingis (22), rookies Frank Ntilikina (19) and Damyean Dotson (23) and young veteran Tim Hardaway Jr. (25). There’s much work to be done in the Big Apple, but the presence of Porzingis promotes optimism.
9. Chicago Bulls (20-37)
Chicago finessed a first round pick (top-five protected) out of New Orleans in exchange for a stretch-4 who struggles on defense (Nikola Mirotic). There are currently seven teams with worse records than Chicago, but the Bulls are only three games ahead of the 18-41 Hawks and Suns. The Bulls would find themselves closer to the top of this list if I had more faith in Lauri Markkanen’s defense or could forgive them for selling Jordan Bell to the Warriors, but alas, ninth is not bad.
Chicago has gotten lucky on lottery night before (Derrick Rose, 2008), and it could always happen again. Aside from Marvin Bagley, most of the top prospects project as quality complements next to Markkanen, Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn. In a center-heavy draft, the Bulls would be wise to target a defensively-gifted big man like Mo Bamba. Jaren Jackson Jr. is the perfect fit.
Perhaps the most underrated part of Chicago’s promising outlook is the wing depth. Justin Holiday, who turns 29 in April, stepped up and played the best basketball of his career while LaVine was sidelined. David Nwaba has made a name for himself. Both could be keepers. But there will be legitimate trade interest in a 3-and-D veteran with a championship ring who appears to be peaking (Holiday), and Nwaba could command a decent salary as a free agent this summer.
Whatever happens (or doesn’t happen) for Chicago in the post-Jimmy Butler Era, it will be interesting to watch it all play out.
8. Atlanta Hawks (18-41)
I have my doubts about whether the Hawks will find a good deal for Dennis Schröder. Kent Bazemore (28) is probably their most attractive trade chip at the moment, and Atlanta should be working the phones in the lead up to (and during) the draft.
Tied for last place with Phoenix, Atlanta is one of eight teams (along with the Suns, Kings, Magic, Mavericks, Grizzlies, Bulls and Knicks) who shouldn’t be blamed for prioritizing losing down the stretch. With only a five-game difference between Atlanta and New York, even a short winning streak could disrupt the Hawks’ plunge to a guaranteed top-five pick.
With a top-five selection in 2018 (plus first-rounders from Minnesota and Houston), the Hawks could kickstart their rebuild. Funneling time to John Collins and Tyler Dorsey should be a priority for the remainder of the year. Taurean Prince has carried a heavy load and played through injuries. Atlanta shouldn’t push him too hard, as he’s already made significant progress.
7. Detroit Pistons (28-29)
Detroit is 1.5 games behind Miami (30-28) for the eight spot in the East. The Heat are just 3-9 over the last 12 tilts while the Pistons are 6-3 since their blockbuster trade was announced. If Miami can’t recover, Detroit will likely sneak into the playoffs. Detroit could even give one of the top seeds a run for their money. Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond are very good players. Reggie Bullock and Stanley Johnson are grinders built for the big stage. Stan Van Gundy has had a good coaching career.
That’s why I have a hard time saying this, but sometimes you just have to call a spade a spade: the Pistons are going nowhere fast. Reggie Jackson is simply not a fit alongside Griffin and Drummond, and R-Jax’s return to the lineup will only complicate matters just as they are starting to figure things out. Griffin and Drummond is an imperfect but impressive pairing. But once Jackson is back, it’s hard to envision how this team will amount to anything more than a bunch of misshaped puzzle pieces.
6. Brooklyn Nets (19-40)
The league’s leader in assist-to-turnover ratio is none other than Spencer Dinwiddie, who made TLM’s Best of the Rest All-Star squad and won the Skills Competition on Saturday. I’m not sure if this is a popular opinion yet, but Dinwiddie is better than D’Angelo Russell. That’s besides the point though. The point is that the Nets have been great at finding diamonds in the rough. Whether it’s robbing the opposition in trades, snagging difference-makers in the mid-to-late first round of the draft or culling the G League, the Nets are excelling. This is the final summer in which Brooklyn doesn’t own their own first-rounder. However, as part of the DeMarre Carroll heist, the Nets did nab Toronto’s 2018 first-rounder. Rest assured, they’ll find a keeper with that.
5. Memphis Grizzlies (18-38)
Ugh. Again, injuries stink, and we the people were robbed of the two-man game between Mike Conley and Marc Gasol. Memphis was capped out, but now they have a chance to add another key contributor in the lottery. The Grizzlies had made the playoffs seven years in a row entering 2017-18, and figured to remain competitive in the race until Conley went down. Now they’ll presumably have a chance to pick up where they left off in 2018-19 — but with one more blue-chip prospect.
Dillon Brooks, Jarell Martin and Deyonta Davis have been bright spots. Tyreke Evans and Andrew Harrison have blossomed. And so it hasn’t all been bad. It does feel like the clock is ticking fast though. Conley’s absence has a lot to do with Gasol’s down year, but how much longer will those two be at the peak of their powers? Is Gasol already leveling off? Chandler Parsons sure is.
4. Orlando Magic (18-39)
CAUTION! Prepare for some serious statistical cherry-picking. The Orlando Magic were 8-3 during Jonathan Isaac’s first 11 appearances. In Isaac’s 12th regular season game, he suffered an ankle injury, which all but officially ended his season. He has played in just three games thereafter, re-injuring himself in December. Regardless of whether the offensive-minded trio of Evan Fournier, Mario Hezonja and Nikola Vucevic remains in Disney long-term or not, the Magic have Aaron Gordon (22), Isaac (20) and fellow rookie wing Wesley Iwundu (23) to build around. Can Orlando continue their tanking ways and then hit a home run in the draft? It feels like their only hope after prematurely giving up on Tobias Harris and Victor Oladipo.
3. Dallas Mavericks (18-40)
The Mavericks could easily be lower on this list, especially given the recent bombshells. Without putting that stuff aside, Dallas is at least in position to land another high draft pick. Moreover, they have been good at finding talent in other areas outside of the draft as well (Yogi Ferrell, Dorian Finney-Smith, Maxi Kleber, Johnathan Motley). Dennis Smith’s rookie year hasn’t been a rainbow road by any stretch of the imagination, but he could still end up being one of the top players from the 2018 class.
2. Charlotte Hornets (24-33)
Michael Jordan is making moves. However, short of trading away Kemba Walker in the summer or winning the NBA Draft lottery, there’s not much hope for these Hornets to escape mediocrity. Charlotte is still in the race for the playoffs, sort of. The Hornets are 5.5 games behind the Heat, a massive but not insurmountable deficit. If Detroit and Miami stumble and Charlotte is able to come out on top in some close games for a change, who knows? Even still, the Hornets would likely be better off losing every game from here on out. That would require shutting down Walker and several other veterans, which isn’t happening.
1. Sacramento Kings (18-39)
Is there even a straight-face case to be made that another team needs to win the top pick in the draft more desperately than Sacramento? The Kings will send their 2019 first-rounder to Philadelphia or Boston, so they cannot afford to whiff in this summer’s draft. This is the 12th year in a row that the Kings will watch the playoffs from home, and if they don’t knock this first round pick out of the park we might as well assume they’re headed for 20 straight years of subpar basketball. For the sake of Kings fans, let Luka Doncic land in Sacramento.