The NBA’s teams are not all created equal, with some teams hoarding power and some grasping wildly at straws. How should the league be ranked from powerful to powerless?
The NBA is going to have a lot of bad teams this upcoming season.
We say that every season, I am sure, and perhaps this season is just like any other. The Western Conference, to be honest, has only a handful of bad teams, and most of those have a clear plan of execution. Perhaps only Phoenix is doomed to be both bad and not on a highway to relevance. Even Sacramento seems to know what they’re doing.
Out East, however, things are vastly different. In a conference where eight teams will make the playoffs, only seven seem remotely competent and ready to play postseason basketball. Multiple teams tore it down this summer after losing stars, and their path forward is much less clear. When the Brooklyn Nets start to look appealing, you know the conference is in trouble.
At the top are an increasing number of contenders, although each stands at least a half-step below the Warriors. The middle class is a large group of teams heading up or heading down, and thus come with a number of questions. And which team will unexpectedly make a leap? Which one will come crashing down?
Starting from the top, we will rank the NBA’s teams from powerful to powerless. With the offseason all but wrapped up, how have teams moved up and down the list since the last time The Lottery Mafia took a look? We begin in Oakland; where will we end up?
Set It In Stone
30. Golden State Warriors — Here at The Lottery Mafia we offer your first opportunity to buy Golden State Warriors 2018 NBA Championship gear. Available now! Get a discount if you order your 2019 and 2020 gear in the same order. This team got better this offseason. Seriously, it’s like they’re light-years ahead or something…
29. Boston Celtics — The Celtics get the nod over the other teams in this tier because they have long-term control over a young core. While no one seems capable of beating the Warriors right now, the Celtics are at least co-favorites to win the East this season and should become sole favorites starting next season regardless of where LeBron James plays. Kyrie Irving raises their postseason ceiling without question, and Gordon Hayward is somehow still underrated.
28. Cleveland Cavaliers — I’m not picking against LeBron until he fails to win an Eastern Conference playoff series. But he has to start getting old sometime, and with Isaiah Thomas’ health uncertain and a new balance to find with Kyrie’s departure, this team has some question marks. Next season, when both James and Thomas are free agents, those questions become that much bigger.
27. Houston Rockets — The fit concerns are overblown in Houston, where Chris Paul and James Harden will both help each other. But Houston has to prove it can truly battle with the big boys before they rise any higher. Cool the hype just a bit, guys.
Superstars and Solid Squads
26. Oklahoma City Thunder — Paul George is an incredible player, the only player since the Boston Big 3 to truly push LeBron in the East. He adds another dimension to this team, one they haven’t had since…well, since Kevin Durant left. George is no Durant, but the supporting cast with Patrick Patterson, Steven Adams and Andre Roberson may be better than it was when Durant was around.
25. San Antonio Spurs — I know, I know, doubt the Spurs at your own peril. But given their offseason moves I wanted to move them further towards the bottom of this list. They locked into an aging core and handed out way too much money to Pau Gasol. But Kawhi Leonard might be the best player in the league next season, and they’re the Spurs, so they don’t fall far.
24. Minnesota Timberwolves — Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns is a true superstar pairing, and Andrew Wiggins is perfectly cast as the third banana. This team still has issues with depth, defense, and how Thibs will manage the rotation. But the potential is there for a truly great team, and in a year or two they will probably rank closer to 30.
23. Washington Wizards — There seems to be some sort of glass ceiling above the Wizards, preventing them from breaking free into the Conference Finals. Like a lower-profile East-coast version of the Los Angeles Clippers. But with Wall, Beal and Porter locked up for the next few seasons, this team has the star power to push their way through to the third round.
22. Milwaukee Bucks — If Kawhi Leonard is poised to win his first MVP next season, Giannis Antetokounmpo has next. A generational talent and athletic marvel, Antetokounmpo is at the center of a defensive scheme crafted around his strengths, with a roster tailor-made to match. This team could be mediocre next season, or they could be really good, but overall they are on the way up.
21. Denver Nuggets — Denver has found a way to truly stand out, somehow creating the best offense and the worst defense. By adding Paul Millsap, this team has a chance to improve their greatest weakness without sacrificing their greatest strength. A top-5 offensive finish and a defense better than 24th is progress, and means a postseason berth.
20. Toronto Raptors — Analytical projections are brutally dismantling the Raptors’ chances of contending in the East this season, slotting them fourth, fifth, eighth or even worse in the conference. The lack of better teams below saves them, as does the probability that one of these young players pops. If they don’t, Lowry-DeRozan-Ibaka is a core with name appeal but huge flaws.
19. Utah Jazz — After losing Gordon Hayward, the Jazz pivoted and recovered admirably. They added a number of pieces that will keep them afloat without damaging their future. If Derrick Favors can be the player he was in 2015, this team can stay in the playoffs and put a scare into a higher seed.
18. Los Angeles Clippers — In a similar boat to the Jazz, Los Angeles is not left in shambles after losing their superstar. Blake Griffin is still very good, and the pieces they added around him give this team the depth it never had with Paul in town. Now Doc Rivers has to prove whether he’s a great coach or simply good at making people think he is.
17. Miami Heat — Fresh off a historic run to finish the season that fell just shy of the playoffs, the Heat saw their top offseason targets all fade away. Thus they brought back last year’s squad, plus Kelly Olynyk, to try to recapture the magic. I am skeptical, but good coach + good culture + terrible East = playoffs, so the Heat should keep playing past 82.
16. Charlotte Hornets — The Dwight Howard trade was a good move, flipping flotsam for a center who fits the scheme. As was drafting Malik Monk with the eleventh pick. The Hornets are doing everything they can not to tread water on a team that missed the playoffs but is capped out. That’s the right thing to do, but now the moves have to pan out.
The Next Big Thing
15. Philadelphia 76ers — Everyone is ready to propel Philadelphia into the playoffs, and in the East that may certainly be a possibility (if you think we’re beating this whole “the East is terrible” drum too much, just buckle up). But their three best players have a grand total of 31 NBA games under their belts, Joel Embiid has not yet proven he can stay healthy, and everyone is just incredibly young. Maybe this squad needs one more season before their coronation.
Wheel of Mediocrity
14. Portland Trail Blazers — As far as roster talent and expected win totals for this season, Portland is closer to the front of the list than 14th. But they have a massive payroll that is filled with players on bloated contracts, and it will be years before this team can clear things out. They lack the flexibility or resources to truly build a team that can contend around C.J. McCollum and Damian Lillard.
13. Detroit Pistons — If Andre Drummond was the All-NBA center he was supposed to be, and Reggie Jackson was a dynamic scoring point guard, and Avery Bradley was going to stay in Detroit, this team would be in excellent shape. Unfortunately, none of those things appear to be true.
12. Memphis Grizzlies — Marc Gasol and Mike Conley are the best two-person duo of any team lower on the list — given his inconsistent play and lack of postseason experience, DeMarcus Cousins doesn’t qualify — and this organization has done an admirable job of keeping the roster glued together. But perhaps this is the time to acknowledge a rebuild is necessary.
An Intriguing Mix of Young and Old
11. Dallas Mavericks — As Dirk Nowitzki passes the torch, the stars of the future are beginning to peek through in Dallas. If Dennis Smith Jr. reaches his potential, then the Mavericks have another franchise star. Not to mention Harrison Barnes, Wesley Matthews and Seth Curry.
10. Los Angeles Lakers — Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Brook Lopez are an upgrade from terrible to adequate. Add in rookie Lonzo Ball, development from Brandon Ingram, and a roster with simply some kind of defensive effort and this team could be frisky next season. With Caldwell-Pope and Lopez becoming free agents next summer, the Lakers can win games to impress LeBron and then clear out the space to sign him.
9. Sacramento Kings — The first step in fixing the Kings was to change the culture, and they have done that by clearing out bad eggs and bringing in fresh, new talent. Now the old veterans signed have to pass on their knowledge to the next generation.
A Train Wreck, But a Talented One
8. New Orleans Pelicans — Few teams have a top-3 as talented as the Pelicans. Anthony Davis is a top-10 player, DeMarcus Cousins is an unprecedented talent in a chaotic frame, and Jrue Holiday is an above-average point guard. But there is little else, especially after Solomon Hill was lost for the season. What’s to stop Cousins from walking in a year, or Davis in three?
A Train Wreck, And a Bad One
7. New York Knicks — Kristaps Porzingis. That’s what this team needs to focus on. Because otherwise they are a roster filled with contracts paying players more than they are worth. That didn’t change that this offseason either with the additions of Ron Baker and Tim Hardaway.
Good Infrastructure, Not Enough Talent
6. Atlanta Hawks — The Hawks may be the least-talented team in the entire league, and their only shot at a star is through the draft. Unfortunately for their draft stock, coach Mike Budenholzer will coach this team up to more wins than they deserve.
5. Brooklyn Nets — Since taking over, GM Sean marks has made intelligent moves that have begun to position the team in the right direction – even with the lack of assets they started with. Now with D’Angelo Russell on board they can start to see the outlines of a future plan.
Fighting Just To Be On The Wheel of Mediocrity
4. Orlando Magic — Down the stretch last season Elfrid Payton and Aaron Gordon played the best basketball of their careers. If they can continue that progression, Jonathan Isaac turns into the defensive swiss army knife draft analysts dreamed he could be, and Frank Vogel instills a defensive backbone, this team can break .500 for a few seasons and float around average.
3. Phoenix Suns — Devin Booker is a special offensive player. Josh Jackson is a blue chip recruit. These are good things about the Suns. Chriss and Bender cost recent lottery picks and neither looks all that great. Alex Len is both a bust and unsigned, Eric Bledsoe is somehow the team’s healthiest PG, and they extended a GM who has shown zero reason to get said extension. Those are some of the bad.
Really Bad at Being Bad
2. Indiana Pacers — The Pacers avoid the top spot in the powerless rankings by virtue of Myles Turner, the best prospect of any team in the bottom-six. But they turned Paul George into large, long-term salary and no blue chip prospect/player. Then they signed players to help them compete now, which will just hurt their draft pick. They made short-term salary decisions as well. Their coach is trying to run a system that counters his own offensive philosophy, and they’ll be relying on guys like Domantas Sabonis to pop.
1. Chicago Bulls — The Bulls had a better asset than the Pacers in Jimmy Butler, who has two seasons left on his contract. They still blew their trade opportunity as well, slightly upgrading their first-round pick and adding an injured gunner and a PG bust. They have no blue chip prospect (Lauri Markkanen is talented but far from a guaranteed star), they have a lot of money committed to bad contracts, and their front office has proven its incompetence over and over.
This squad has no clear identity, and that is crippling to a team in a rebuild. No club in the league is more powerless than the Chicago Bulls.