14. Denver Nuggets (46-36)
Nikola Jokic is a joy to watch, and the Nuggets nearly reached the postseason despite Paul Millsap missing 44 games. If this talented core (Jokic, Millsap, Gary Harris, Jamal Murray) remains relatively healthy next season, there’s good reason to believe they’ll be the team to capitalize if any of the current Western Conference playoff teams fall off. Denver fans will be hoping that last year’s airball on draft night (they ended up with Tyler Lydon and Trey Lyles instead of Donovan Mitchell or OG Anunoby) was an isolated incident, and based on their recent track record (besides 2017) and scouting department, it shouldn’t be a big surprise if they redeem themselves by snagging a real steal with the final lottery pick (14th overall) in the 2018 NBA Draft. Another key to the offseason will be whether the Nuggets can retain Will “the Thrill” Barton, who managed career-high averages in scoring (15.7 points), field-goal percentage (45.2), assists (4.1), three-pointers (1.9 on 37.0 percent), steals (1.0), blocks (0.6) and minutes (33.1).
13. L.A. Lakers (35-47)
Prior to 2017-18, the Lakers endured four straight years of futility (22.8 wins per year), and they’ll forfeit their 2018 first round pick to Philadelphia (or Boston). Yet the vibes are all good in Laker-land, where Jackie Moon’s E.L.E. rule (everybody love everybody) reigns supreme. For the first time in what feels like forever, Lakers fans aren’t delusional for allowing themselves to salivate over the upcoming free agent classes. Whether they ultimately swoop in and sign a star during one of the next few summers, this young core is one that can grow together. And after essentially acing the 2017 draft (Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart, Thomas Bryant), the Lakers will also be a team to keep an eye on come June 21st (25th, 47th overall picks). Can they stock the cupboard with more sauce?
12. Phoenix Suns (21-61)
Fresh off inking a new head coach, the Suns are in an excellent position to add another young star. If I were a Phoenix fan, I’d be hoping for Luka Doncic or Jaren Jackson Jr. Possessing the rare combination of size and unselfishness, Doncic projects as a great fit with Booker in the backcourt. Meanwhile, the Suns have long been stumbling around, searching feverishly for big men. Alex Len is a free agent. Dragan Bender is still a baby dragon. Marquese Chriss has struggled to adapt. The Suns need a defensive presence besides sophomore-to-be Josh Jackson. Deandre Ayton, Trae Young and other potential star players will probably be in the mix too, though I’m far less sold on their fits with the current roster.
11. L.A. Clippers (42-40)
The Lakers look poised to snatch back the title of best basketball team in Los Angeles. But assuming Detroit doesn’t jump into the top three and keep their pick, the Clippers will own two lottery picks. There are plenty of questions facing the franchise: namely what to do with DeAndre Jordan and Doc Rivers, both of whom are about to enter the final years of their current deals. (Jordan has a player option while rumors persist that Rivers could be on the hot seat.) However, what’s clear is this: the Clippers are in the beginning stages of a slow and steady rebuilding project. Could they be trade-up candidates? Why haven’t they fallen farther in these rankings? Mr. Clutch.
10. New York Knicks (29-53)
The Knicks finally did something right, bringing in David Fizdale as head coach instead of Mark Jackson. And they have a chance to add a difference-maker in the draft (projected No. 9 overall). Kristaps Porzingis being on the shelf, potentially for the entire 2018-19 season, means New Yorkers should be bracing themselves for an epic tank job. If Porzingis really does sit out the whole year, expect the Knicks to contend for the league’s worst record. That would set them up well for 2019-20, as they could be active on the free agent market while hoping for a stud like Cam Reddish in the 2019 NBA Draft.
9. Memphis Grizzlies (22-60)
The window of contention for Marc Gasol and Mike Conley could already be closed shut. There’s nothing about the 2018 NBA Playoffs that screams Gasol can still get it done at an elite level. If Rudy Gobert is getting exposed, what makes Memphis fans think Marc wouldn’t get the same treatment from the best small-ball clubs (Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, etc.)? With that being said, the Grizzlies have a top-five pick in this summer’s draft. The more things change, the more they remain the same. They’re also a good bet to rejoin the playoff field if Gasol and Conley can stay healthy. Memphis doesn’t have much in terms of talent. But it’s not as barren as you’d think. JaMychal Green is a good backup big. Dillon Brooks is a hard-nosed 3-and-D wing who will look to take the next step in his development as a sophomore. MarShon Brooks, the 25th pick in 2011 (Boston) is back in the NBA, and he went on a tear to end the year. Brooks Brothers: engage. If the goal is to win a title, the Grizzlies project to come up short, but at least they have a chance to compete now while adding a potential star building block.
8. Brooklyn Nets (28-54)
This is the last year that the Nets won’t be benefitting from their own bad record. The talent in tow is overflowing: Spencer Dinwiddie and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson enjoyed breakout campaigns. Caris LeVert continued to progress. Jarrett Allen had an impressive rookie year. Veteran 3-and-D forward DeMarre Carroll, whom the Nets were given along with the No. 29 pick (from Toronto), posted the best season of his career. Brooklyn is so far ahead of schedule, with more depth and talent than anyone could’ve expected them to have just a few short years ago. The Nets are proof that the pull yourself up by your bootstraps theory is at least partly bologna. More often than not, there’s only so much climbing that can be done without adequate resources. And the Nets have done as well as anyone could have ever imagined, especially given how badly Boston’s Danny Ainge drained them for an aging duo of future Hall of Famers (Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce).
7. Charlotte Hornets (36-46)
Signing former Spurs assistant James Borrego to replace Steve Clifford as head coach is a very solid start to a rather important offseason for Charlotte. It’s unlikely that His Airness has softened his stance with regard to Kemba Walker’s availability on the trade market, so the Hornets will likely remain a mediocre, middling team in 2018-19. Still, I’m not here to bash them for refusing to move Walker for cheap. Unless they can attach Dwight Howard or Nic Batum while netting a quality return, they might be better off letting things play out. Howard, Walker and Jeremy Lamb are free agents next summer. If the Hornets have a good showing this season, maybe keeping Kemba and retooling on the fly is in the cards. Howard, who will be 33 years old, is the most probable goner among those three. Lamb would likely bolt if Walker does and could demand a decent contract if he keeps improving. Even if we assume Walker, Batum and Howard will remain on the roster heading into training camp, this should be viewed as a transition year for Charlotte.
6. Dallas Mavericks (24-58)
The Dirk Nowitzki Era is coming to a close, and there’s little chance the Mavericks can cobble together a playoff-caliber club for at least the next few seasons. While Dallas almost always surfaces as a potential free agent destination, a slow and steady rebuild is the more likely route. If the Mavericks keep their current draft slot and select Jaren Jackson Jr. third overall, they’ll be back on the road to contention. It’d still be a long and winding one that may not lead them to Rome, but the Mavericks would at least have the coordinates punched into Waze so Rick Carlisle can relax. (Note: I wrote this bit before the recent reports. Just saying.)
5. Atlanta Hawks (24-58)
The Hawks are definitely receiving the benefit of the doubt here. This is arguably the least talented roster in the league, and with just the fourth-best odds of winning the NBA Draft Lottery to show for it, that’s not a cushy combination. This leeway with regard to their ranking has a lot to do with the fact that Atlanta is coming off 10 consecutive trips to the playoffs. That and my belief in Taurean Prince. The Atlanta Hawks are basically the blank slate of the basketball world. Without any surefire star on the squad, they can shoot for the player they feel has the most upside on draft day.
4. Orlando Magic (25-57)
It seems as though it’s been a lot longer than six years since the Magic made the postseason. And based on recent memory, it sometimes feels like this franchise is six years away from being six years away from contending for a spot. With that being said, I’m very much aboard the Jonathan Isaac hype train. Freed from the small forward position, Aaron Gordon was pretty good, proving he can do more than throw down jaw-dropping dunks. Evan Fournier continues to get buckets and makes some decent plays in the pick-and-roll as a secondary playmaker. If Disney fairy tales extend beyond the local theme parks to the world of professional basketball, the Magic will be big winners in this summer’s draft. Then they’ll land either Luka Donic or Trae Young, who will almost immediately ascend to superstardom, rescuing this organization from irrelevance in the post-Dwight Howard Era.
3. Chicago Bulls (27-55)
Forgive me for not being optimistic about the Bulls. I didn’t think the Jimmy Butler trade was a good deal when it happened, and I was not exactly swayed by this season’s results. If Chicago somehow winds up with Jaren Jackson Jr., the only big man I can envision protecting and hiding a defensive sieve like Lauri Markkanen, maybe I’ll start singing a different song. But at the moment, it just doesn’t seem like this team has many, if any, true long-term building blocks. Markkanen may ultimately top out as a sixth or seventh man. Rest assured, he is not the next Dirk Nowitzki. Bobby Portis had a breakout campaign, and he could be on the rise. David Nwaba was a nice nab. Kris Dunn showcased his spunk. Veterans Rob Lopez and Justin Holiday contributed too. Nevertheless, there’s just not much to get overly excited about beyond a plethora of draft picks and the athletic lunacy of Zach LaVine. Nikola Mirotic netted what turned out to be the 22nd pick from New Orleans. What will the return be for a drop-back center like Lopez? Rim protection and mascot tackling only help so much in the postseason. Both Lopez and Holiday will be unrestricted free agents in the summer of 2019, so it will be interesting to see what Chicago does with them this offseason.
2. Detroit Pistons (39-43)
Detroit is down in the dumps. No matter how hard I try, I can’t imagine the trio of Reggie Jackson, Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond working out. And by working out, I mean amounting to anything more than an eight seed. Even if we throw out Jackson’s first two seasons, in which he shot 37-of-166 from beyond the arc (22.3 percent), he is just a 33.3 percent three-point shooter (on 1.2 makes per game) over the last five years. In a breakout campaign of sorts despite dealing with injuries, Blake Griffin sank 1.9 treys per game on 34.5 percent, draining more triples in 58 games during 2017-18 (111) than he had in his first seven seasons combined (80). Andre Drummond has made five threes through six seasons. Two of their five most accurate rainmakers (Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley) were traded. Anthony Tolliver is a free agent. Even if Luke Kennard and Reggie Bullock show steady improvement, there’s only so much those two can be expected to do to solve the Pistons’ offensive spacing concerns. And then there’s trying to find the right role for Stanley Johnson. Moreover, unless Detroit defies the overwhelming underdog odds (2.5 percent), they will cough up their late lottery pick to the Clippers. At least Stan Van Gundy is finally gone.
1. Sacramento Kings (27-55)
The Kings haven’t been to the playoffs since ’06, and with the Timberwolves earning the eight seed this year, Sacramento steps into their old shoes as the team with the longest active streak of regular season futility. It has been a dozen years since this franchise tasted even a side dish of success. Sporting just the seventh-best odds to win the NBA Draft Lottery, the Kings will likely be forced to swing for the fences from a spot they’ve whiffed at time and time again since selecting DeMarcus Cousins fifth overall in 2010. Bismack Biyombo, Thomas Robinson, Ben McLemore, Nik Stauskas, Willie Cauley-Stein, Marquese Chriss and De’Aaron Fox has been the haul. There were draft-night deals, too: Biyombo was moved for Jimmer Fredette. Chriss was sent to Phoenix for Bogdan Bogdanovic, Georgios Pappagiannis and Skal Labissiere. Sacramento has some intriguing young talent in Fox, Bogdanovic, Cauley-Stein, Buddy Hield and Frank Mason. Nevertheless, there’s really no reason to predict this club will be a contender anytime soon. The punch in the gut is the fact that Philadelphia or Boston, neither of whom really needs it, will walk away with Sacramento’s 2019 first round pick. Ouch.