The NBA is entering the stretch run, and the teams at the bottom are sinking further into the depths. Who is the most powerless team in the league?
Surviving the Ides of March as an NBA fan involves finding the silver linings. At the top of the standings, teams jockeying for playoff positioning provide captivating theater. Especially this season, when each playoff race features unprecedented tightness from the third seed down.
But for fans of lottery teams, the oft-neglected group just playing out the string as the playoffs float out of reach, you have to find a silver lining. Why stay engaged? Why go to games, or tune into League Pass, or keep waving that foam finger despite having no hope?
The ultimate silver lining has exploded into the league’s biggest storyline: the Tank Race. Usually, the bottom of the standings have one or two teams that have lost more than others, but not this year. This season, every team at the bottom has at least 18 wins — but no more than 24.
Seven teams are bunched together between 18 and 21 losses, meaning the final games of the season have surprisingly massive import. Win a game or two, and a team such as the Orlando Magic tumbles from a top-three pick to seven or eight. With lottery rules changing next season, this is the last great chance to tank into the best pick.
Looking at the lottery, we find three tiers. There are teams on the fringe of the playoffs, teams in the tank race, and teams in the middle of purgatory. Los Angeles, Detroit and Charlotte are in no-man’s land, caught in between. Can they use this time to prepare for the future?
The Powerless Rankings start with the team holding the most power, in a shocking position outside the playoffs but with plenty to like moving forward. The rankings will end with the most helpless team, the one holding the fewest cards and with the likelihood of messing up even their tank. We will rank 15 to include the virtual tie currently in place at the bottom of the West bracket.
*(Editor’s note: Stats and standings accurate as of the morning of March 16, 2018)*
15. San Antonio Spurs (39-30)
It feels like the sky is falling for San Antonio, who would miss the playoffs if the season ended today. They have played postseason basketball for 20 straight seasons, and watching from home seems wrong, no matter the injury issues they have dealt with.
But the reality is that the Spurs could use a lottery talent, and so if Kawhi Leonard does not return (or at least not in time) and the Spurs miss the playoffs, they can add a more talented player than is usually available to them in the late-first round. And consider that the last time San Antonio missed the playoffs, they drafted the greatest power forward in NBA history.
14. Los Angeles Clippers (37-30)
After losing Chris Paul and J.J. Redick this offseason, and Blake Griffin around the trade deadline, any success out of this team is pure frosting. Doc Rivers is playing with house money in coaching this collection of brittle ballers and misfit toys into a potential playoff squad. They are tied with San Antonio in the loss column for the eighth spot, and with every team but Utah playing a battle royale schedule down the stretch, it’s anyone’s game.
13. Denver Nuggets (38-31)
As the season winds down, the Nuggets are locked into a tight playoff battle to see who qualifies for the final postseason berth… wait, haven’t we seen this before? Last season, the Nuggets were in a nearly identical position; that time, they were battling with Portland for the eighth seed in the West. A year later though, it’s an eight-team tussle for the last six spots, and Denver is currently on the bottom rung.
The offense has been great, with Nikola Jokic orchestrating and Jamal Murray taking the leap forward the Nuggets were hoping for. But the defense has not achieved much improvement over the last year, even with the addition of Paul Millsap. They have a good young core and plenty of hope for the future, but they may need to make some tough decisions — including evaluating their head coach — if they miss the playoffs yet again.
12. Los Angeles Lakers (31-37)
Julius Randle has developed into the league’s premier bulldozer, borrowing the mantle from LeBron James. He is simply unstoppable inside, with the strength and determination to dominate a defender. Lonzo Ball is playing strong team defense, diming up teammates and even draining three-pointers. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Brook Lopez are playing well despite being lame ducks. Brandon Ingram has taken a step forward (yes, Nate Duncan, he has). Everywhere you look this roster is being utilized and developed.
The playoffs were never a realistic goal, but head coach Luke Walton has to be pleased with where they are. The Lakers are 7-3 in their last 10 games, and if they were in the East could conceivably make a run, but in the West that ship has sailed. Now his role is to showcase the young, cheap talent enough to show max free agents that L.A. is the place to be.
11. Memphis Grizzlies (18-50)
The 2017-18 Memphis Grizzlies have lost 19 games in a row. 19!! It’s almost impossible to lose that many consecutive games — your team is bound to get hot, or the other team gets sloppy, or something happens. 19 straight is such a masterful accomplishment of tanking that it should be recognized.
Why are they so high (low?) on the list if they are losing? It’s because losing teams receive compensation for their failure, and Memphis is almost assured at this point of a bottom-five finish and the resulting lottery odds. And next season, a healthy Mike Conley, Marc Gasol and a top-5 pick such as Marvin Bagley or Michael Porter could leap up the standings.
10. Brooklyn Nets
The Nets are one of three lottery teams without a first round pick (Detroit and Los Angeles). This means the team cannot add a high level prospect, something they could really use.
But most of the teams around the Nets are stuck encouraging or at least empowering losing games. The Nets instead can focus on winning without hurting their draft selection. They can see that their coach and GM are quality options worth retaining. And they can evaluate their bevy of young players accordingly – Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris, Jarrett Allen, Caris Levert. This team has to take some bigs strides to add talent, but there is every reason to believe the structure is in place to take those strides well.
9. Chicago Bulls (24-44)
The Bulls win too much for their own good, all but eliminating their shot at the league’s worst record by beating all of the other terrible teams. In the month of March, they are 4-0 against Tank Teams, beating Memphis (2x), Dallas and Atlanta. Lauri Markkanen looks like the real deal even in his rookie season, and Kris Dunn made sure to show doubters he was a legit NBA player. If Zach LaVine can settle into a more useful role than free-reign chucker, this team has some pieces.
The draft offers a variety of options as well. If the Bulls can float towards the top of the draft, Michael Porter, Jr. would be an excellent fit on the wing beside Zach LaVine. If not, then they would likely go for a versatile big man in Jaren Jackson, Jr. or Wendell Carter. There is plenty of talent to go around for the tanking squads. Anyone with a lottery pick in this year’s draft should come away pleased.
8. Detroit Pistons (30-38)
And cue Detroit, who has excluded themselves from such a reward. Andre Drummond is an All-Star level player, and Blake Griffin is more than that. Combined with Reggie Jackson, the Pistons have a perfectly fine top-3 in terms of talent. But behind those players are holes and weak spots, leaving the Pistons vulnerable to long losing streaks. It would be nice to add a young, cost-controlled player, but the Pistons dealt that pick to the Los Angeles Clippers. So no talent infusion, and no hope for the playoffs.
Long-term, this team almost seems to be in a worse place than many of the teams higher in the rankings. But it should also be noted that the Pistons have two All-Stars, even if they are lower-level All-Stars now. That’s what many of these teams are simply hoping for.
7. Charlotte Hornets (30-39)
An alternate reality could have seen the Hornets entering the off-season with Frank Ntilikina and two lottery picks if they had pulled the trigger on a Kemba Walker trade. Would that have been a better position? Perhaps, but it’s hard to say for sure. Walker is a very special player, and the Carolinas have really embraced him as their star.
Long-term, the team has nowhere to go. Walker is too good for the Hornets to absolutely fall apart and get a top-three pick in the next couple of seasons. But this team is capped-out and filled with mid-tier talent, without the second star for Walker nor the true collection of young talent to grow into something more. The best case for this team is that Nic Batum returns to his 2015-16 level of production, Malik Monk takes a huge step forward, and Frank Kaminsky slowly develops into something resembling a starting big man. Until then, they are stuck in the equivalent of NBA purgatory.
6. Dallas Mavericks (22-46)
As Dirk Nowitzki nears retirement and the collection of point guards Rick Carlisle has spun into gold age out of relevance, the Mavericks need to pivot into a new era of basketball. Harrison Barnes and Dennis Smith Jr. are the foundation of this new era, and both are solid pieces moving forward. Nerlens Noel was supposed to be another piece, but he has shown little this season.
Armed with their own pick and potential cap space, this team has the ability to reload quickly or play the long game. The prospect of making one last run with Dirk next season could be a nice sentiment, but it’s not realistic, so this team would be better served adding a young prospect and sliding that cap space to 2019.
5. Phoenix Suns (19-51)
That is all I have to say about Phoenix. It’s the only hope that the Suns have to hang onto after years of blowing lottery picks. Marquese Chriss looks like a bust in his second season, Josh Jackson may be nothing more than a bench player with his lack of a jumper, Dragan Bender is too slender to guard centers, Elfrid Payton’s hair will soon be so long he cannot see enough to play basketball…This front office has made a couple of strong trades, but it has otherwise stumbled consistently. If I were a Phoenix fan, I would have little reason to “Embrace the Timeline” or otherwise tune into the team.
4. New York Knicks (24-45)
The New York Knicks have two things going for them that keep them from the top of these rankings. First, Kristaps Porzingis is an All-Star player who fits perfectly in the modern NBA. There is no assurance he will be the same player when he returns from injury, but modern medicine continues to improve and young players are increasingly able to return at full strength. The second point in their favor is that they own all of their first-round picks (albeit none of their seconds — they got Hinkie’d), so being terrible will yield them draft capital.
The problems are what weighs them down despite those factors. They started too far behind in the tank race — i.e. Kristaps Porzingis won too many games — so a top-three pick is most likely out of reach. In addition, this organization has had missteps with almost every draft pick, from selecting a player who doesn’t make an impact to trading picks and players far too early. The front office hasn’t established itself as a place to trust. And the owner…let’s just say that no matter how many assets this team has, the future is never bright.
3. Atlanta Hawks (20-49)
Taurean Prince has been a solid wing for the Hawks, and John Collins has been a beast around the rim. Some of the back-end players on the roster have received more run in recent weeks as the tank set in, and there have been flashes. But this team is completely without a number one option, and therefore the draft is vitally important for Atlanta. Which players realistically project as the top offensive producer on a good team? Those are the guys the Hawks will go after. By sustaining incompetency and losing to other tank teams, they have held serve in the bottom three, the place they need to be.
One major question moving forward for Atlanta will be at the point. Dennis Schroder has possibly been their best player, and they committed a long-term extension to him. But he can’t be the starter on a good team — he has too many weaknesses. And there is no elite point guard for them to key into in the draft, at least not on my board — my highest point guard is Collin Sexton at 9. Next year, the point guard class isn’t any better. Does that mean they have to keep Schroder? That’s an important question for them to answer.
2. Sacramento Kings (22-47)
This past off-season, the Kings had a blueprint. They were going to sign veterans to allow them to win now and break their postseason drought, while loading up on young players to grow into contributors under the tutelage of the veterans.
Then Zach Randolph got arrested, George Hill checked out, and at some point the team realized that having 10 players on rookie deals means your team isn’t going to be very good. Oh yeah, and they don’t have their draft pick next season so they really need to get someone this summer. They began managing veteran minutes, giving larger opportunities to their young players who aren’t — surprise — very good yet. They don’t have evidence that anyone outside of De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield are starter-caliber, and neither looks like a star. Skal Labissiere has potential but is marginalized by Dave Joerger, and Willie Cauley-Stein doesn’t know how to be consistent in any facet of his game. Silver linings: Bogdan Bogdanovic looks like a solid NBA rotation player, and even when they were trying, they lost enough to be in position for a top pick. Michael Porter Jr. is the perfect fit, but this team could just use high-floor talent at any position.
1. Orlando Magic (21-48)
The Orlando Magic are a team that doesn’t make sense, except that it makes sense that they wouldn’t make sense.
Confused? So is everyone in the Magic organization. Are they going for length and athleticism? Sure, that’s why they have Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac, and why they drafted Mario Hezonja, Elfrid Payton and Victor Oladipo. But you can’t only draft length and not draft shooting in the modern NBA. Will they rectify that this season? The track record is not pretty. The Magic tend to give up on players early, only to see them blossom in other places — Oladipo, Mo Harkless, Shabazz Napier, Tobias Harris, even J.J. Redick way back when. Elfrid Payton cost the Magic two first-round picks — the lottery pick they spent and the extra pick they spent to move up. He was just moved for a second-rounder after three-and-a-half seasons of cramped spacing.
The path forward seems to be clearing the books, deciding on a core to build around, and drafting elite talent. The problem is that the books are incredibly clogged, from the $72 million they gave Bismack Biyombo to the annual overpriced contract for a replacement-level veteran point guard. They also can’t decide on their core, except that Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac are their best prospects…and play the same position. And their draft pick is slowly slipping away as they rack up wins in games they should lose (welcome to 2018, where we criticize winning). The Magic don’t have an identity on either end of the court. Can a new front office chart a course forward? They need to do something, because right now the Orlando Magic rule the Powerless Rankings.