by TRINI ANDREW
The NBA is divided into the haves and have-nots. Unlike the NFL and MLB, the path to making the playoffs is actually very easy as long as GMs eschew quick fixes and practice restraint and good drafting. If you have a good coach and three good veterans you have more than a fighting chance of making the playoffs. Half of the teams in the league literally make the playoffs every year so there is hope for a lot of teams, especially since the NBA landscape has changed so much this past offseason. With few exceptions (mainly due to shorter contract lengths), teams in the NBA simply aren’t tanking as much. Teams are now afforded the luxury of simultaneously attempting to make the playoffs and later jettisoning their veterans mid-season if plans go awry. Let’s take a look at the gentrifying neighborhoods of the NBA.
UTAH, MIN, DEN, ORL, MIA, NO, PHI, IND
The Jazz are the only team in this category who actually made the playoffs last year and were rewarded with a first-round sweep from the Warriors for their troubles. They lost two important pieces in Gordon Hayward and George Hill and have replaced them with Ricky Rubio (the wizened, tougher older version) and Donovan Mitchell, who is already one of the more exciting scorers in the league. The Jazz should make the playoffs as long as Rudy Gobert stays healthy. They have a good mix of veterans and young players. They are defensively oriented and a veteran team that lacks a marquee scorer but should grind out enough wins to make the playoffs. They are also equally suited to pivot to tanking if they fall out of the playoff picture as they have a lot of useful veterans on cheap or expiring contracts.
The T’Wolves are almost certain to return to the playoffs after a 14-year absence. However, the mere fact that they haven’t made the playoffs for that long is a cause for concern. They were also in this category last year and indeed started off strongly before cratering and ended up in their familiar bottom of the table position. Head Coach and GM Tom Thibodeau decided to shake up the team and bring in veterans Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson, Jeff Teague and Jamal Crawford to complement holdovers Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Gorgui Dieng. The Wolves have been transformed from one of the youngest to one of the oldest teams in the NBA in one offseason. As long as they commit to the defensive end (which they curiously have yet to do in the Thibodeau era) they should comfortably make the playoffs.
This is a pleasant example of why teams do not need to tank while also revamping their squad. The Nuggets have cycled through would be saviors in recent years (Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried, Jusuf Nurkic) and have finally settled on Nikola Jokic as the player to rightfully build their franchise around. Faried, Wilson Chandler and Will Barton are useful players who are still on the team but for the Nuggets to make the playoffs, their young players must improve rapidly and quickly. The signing of Paul Millsap (who is still one of the best two-way players in the NBA) was a signal to the rest of the league that the Nuggets are ready to compete. Gary Harris has developed into one of the best young players in the NBA. The Nuggets desperately need either Jamal Murray or Emmanuel Mudiay to stamp their authority on the starting PG spot and permanently resign the loser to the bench, albeit in an important role providing depth.
I’m a loyal Orlando Magic fan. Each offseason, I have had numerous calls with my friends and family asserting that this year is the year we make the playoffs. Then the Magic typically have a poor start to the season, makes some ill-advised mid-season trades, improve in the last month of the season and give me false hope. Last season was no different but there was definitely a different look to the Magic team after they traded Serge Ibaka for Terrence Ross. The Magic are a young, fast and athletic team and they have gotten much more comfortable behind the 3-point line. Frank Vogel is a very good coach and continuity is key for the young players’ development. NBA players do not get worse if you stop paying attention to them and for the last few years, the Magic was bad and boring. Nikola Vucevic should be vying for an All-Star berth this year and he could be joined by Aaron Gordon who has finally begun to earn the Blake Griffin comparisons since he was moved to the PF positions late last season. Elfrid Payton is really the X-factor for the Magic as he’s capable of having a low points triple-double in any game. DJ Augustin provides great cover and 3-point shooting behind him. Their lottery pick Jonathan Isaac will be a good contributor but they will only make the playoffs if Jonathan Simmons thrives in an increased role coming over from San Antonio.
The Heat decided that the second half of last season was not a fluke and tied down James Johnson and Dion Waiters to long-term contracts. The signing of Kelly Olynyk and drafting of Bam Adebayo should give them much needed inside out versatility in the frontcourt for when Hassan Whiteside gets in his feelings or foul trouble. The Heat are a well-coached team that still has trouble shooting the three. They will need Goran Dragic and Josh Richardson to stay healthy and be at their most efficient to return to the playoffs. Justise Winslow needs to find a position and shooting ability quickly before he becomes permanently planted to the bench. Hassan Whiteside could potentially be trade bait if the Heat falls out of contention.
New Orleans Pelicans
The Pels (has that caught on yet?) are facing a make or break season. They have the best frontcourt in the league by far. Two expensive and functionally useless backup centers ( Omer Asik and Alexis Ajinca) and no shooting guards nor small forwards. DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis will basically need to combine for 50+ points 25+ rebounds and 6+ assists each game for them to make the playoffs. Their roster is already broken down with 1/3 of the team already suffering long-term injuries. They should be one of the teams most likely to benefit from teams buying out and releasing players later this season. They will need Jrue Holiday and Rajon Rondo to perform well in tandem and provide leadership. If/when the Pelicans fall out of contention, DeMarcus Cousins is likely to be traded as he can leave this offseason as a free agent. He is not eligible for the Super Max extension with the Pelicans. I expect the Cavaliers and Wizards to be monitoring his happiness throughout the season.
The Sixers abandoned the process the second they parted ways with Sam Hinkie and have made roster moves designed to win immediately with the signing or Amir Johnson and JJ Reddick. Joel Embiid (when healthy) has proven to be one of the best players in the NBA and has also proven to be impatient and unwilling to understand what’s best for the team. This is understandable due to him missing the first few years of his career and his age but he needs to focus less on himself and becoming more of a team player, especially when it comes to his mandated rest. Ben Simmons has been much better than expected and Dario Saric and Robert Covington continue to be effective role players. The 76ers management has curiously decided to alienate and mistreat both Jahlil Okafor and Markelle Fultz. This could potentially unbalance the team moving forward. Nevertheless, the 76ers possess enough balance to make the playoffs and will continue to improve with each passing year. They also possess the pieces to improve their team via trade.
The Pacers are the hipster’s argument for tanking. There are currently not bad enough to be in the lottery and not good enough to be a high seed in the playoffs. They traded their franchise player Paul George for Victor Oladipo and Domantis Sabonis, in a move that was widely derided. I think this was a good trade as Oladipo is a serviceable NBA player who should average 20 points, four rebounds, and four assists during his Pacers tenure. Sabonis is criminally underrated and can score inside/outside and more importantly perfectly complements incumbents Myles Turner and Thaddeus Young. The point guard duo of Darren Collison and Cory Joseph brings experience and shooting to the team. This is a team that is a low of star power but full of effective NBA players. Bojan Bogdanovic is well suited to being their third-leading scorer. This Pacers team should make the playoffs if Myles Turner continues his ascendancy. Not every team can be contenders but it is comforting to be able to watch a young team play hard and win a decent amount of games each season.
No Playoffs but improving
BKN, NY, LAL
There’s a familiar saying that goes, “GM’s tank…players don’t” and for better or worse the New CBA has sought to minimize tanking in the NBA. One of the unintended side effects of this is that we are seeing second round and undrafted players outperform their lottery counterparts. The NBA is a business and a cutthroat one at that so there’s a lot of money to be made performing well for lottery-bound teams. Since most teams employ a pace and space offensive model, they are aesthetically pleasing to watch and often steal a decent amount of games from playoffs teams during the season. These teams are absolutely not going to make the playoffs but have all the tool needed to be there in the upcoming years.
The Nets are close to finally having control of their own picks. Since hiring Sean Marks as their GM, they have made a series of under the radar moves that have improved their future considerably. They traded Brook Lopez (an expiring contract) for D’Angelo Russell and Timofey Mosgov, taking advantage of the Lakers desire to shed salary and preemptively severing their ties with Russell. DLo is one of the best young players in the NBA. He was treated terribly by an aimless Lakers front office and former head coach Byron Scott although DLo didn’t help his case by being immature off the court (more of an issue in the social media age). Questions still persist regarding his true position but he is an effortless 20 PPG scorer and if you squint hard enough you can see a future playoff team with Jarett Allen (who has shown glimpses as a rim roller and defender), Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (an all-court defender) and Allen Crabbe (a secondary scorer). The rest of Nets play well within Kenny Atkinson’s system and will be used as trade bait to get more draft picks or younger players in return. They are a potential Free Agent destination this offseason as they have the building blocks and cap space.
New York Knicks
The Knicks are another exciting up and coming team across the tunnel. They have surprised many people coming out of the gate but that should subside as the season progresses. The team is finally playing freely since they (belated) parted ways with Phil Jackson and Carmelo Anthony. This team is now Kristaps Porzingis’ and he has responded by playing at an MVP level. The rest of the teams is decidedly mediocre but to their credit have been playing well thus far. Enes Kanter is by far the best offense/bad offense center in the league and Jarrett Jack has been a good placeholder for Frank Ntilikina. Ntilikina has had a good start to his NBA career after missing most of the offseason due to injury. The contracts of Tim Hardaway Jr and Joakim Noah makes it difficult for them to acquire another star so perhaps they would be better off securing a top ten pick in next year’s deep draft.
Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers are currently in their longest stretch of missing the playoffs (four years and counting), a direct consequence of bowing to Kobe’s multi-season retirement tour. They have drafted well in the last few years but haven’t done as well of a job developing their players. Brandon Ingram appears to be firmly entrenched at SF and Lonzo Ball has been given the keys to the franchise. Time will tell if Lonzo ends up being a better player than D’Angelo Russell (he won’t). Brook Lopez and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope are essentially one-year rentals while they preserve cap space to chase marquee free agents. They have great depth at PF with Julius Randle, Larry Nance Jr and Kyle Kuzma. Kuzma may end up becoming the best player in this team. I believe this team would be better served to develop their young players rather than chasing agents. They will have to make a lot of key roster decisions to free up maximum cap space in free agency.
Is it time for the draft yet?
These teams harbor no illusions for this season. It’s about riding the season out and snagging a high draft pick in hopes of getting DeAndre Ayton, Marvin Bagley, Luka Doncic, Mohammed Bamba or Michael Porter Jr. The season is not lost for the players as they still need the games and reps to develop into future stars in the NBA. Every future contender has to start somewhere.
ATL, SAC, DAL, PHO, CHI
The Hawks have embraced a full rebuild letting go of Al Horford, Dwight Howard, Kyle Korver, DeMarre Carroll, Paul Millsap and Jeff Teague in recent years. They are now led by Dennis Schroder or the German Rondo which is already a laughable nickname as Schroder has already proven to be a better shooter and scorer than anticipated. John Collins and Taureen Prince have established themselves as building blocks for the future. The rest of team is surprisingly old for a rebuilding team and they will certainly look to get rid of as many veterans as they can. They are giving heavy starting/rotational minutes to Ersan Ilyasova, Marco Bellinelli, Kent Bazemore, Mike Muscala and Dewayne Dedmon; none of whom have a future in a Hawks uniform but would be best served on other teams. The Hawks ultimately picked the best year to tank as they do not have much competition and a lot of flexibility to pick the best player available. They still possess enough veteran savvy to be competitive most nights.
The Kings are in the first year of a true rebuild and are full of great young talent led by Buddy Hield. They will continue to experience growing pains while they figure out their best rotation. They currently have ten players on rookie contracts. This has led them to start veterans George Hill and Zach Randolph instead of the aforementioned Hield and Skal Labissiere. De’Aaron Fox has started well and they are a more cohesive defensive team at this stage. Willey Cauley Stein is a few years away from being Tyson Chandler at his peak. The Kings will probably shop their veterans near the trading deadline to contenders.
The Mavs are starting a 39-year-old Dirk Nowitzki at Center, a position he could not defend well 16 years ago in 2001. Nowitzki is one of the best big men in NBA history and one of the few remaining stars who has only played for one team but this is definitively a terrible Mavericks team who still may not be intentionally tanking. Wesley Matthews and Harrison Barnes are good veterans who can occasionally have great stretches but should never be leading options on playoff caliber teams. Dennis Smith Jr is an electrifying young player in Russell Westbrook’s mold and the rest of the team is a mix of old and young expiring contracts. Nerlens Noel would be able to help this team more if he signed the five-year $80 million contract offered to him by the team in the restricted free agency period but now the Mavericks have no incentive to make him more attractive to other teams. There’s very little reason to watch this team apart from the occasional Smith highlight or Dirk fade away. They have loads of cap space for next year and can hopefully draft an elite big man to pair with Smith.
The Suns may have secretly harbored hopes of making the playoffs in the offseason but the season-ending injury to Brandon Knight (blessing in disguise!) and trade of Eric Bledsoe have firmly planted them in tanking status which actually is a good thing. Devin Booker is a foundational scorer and still very young. All of their good young players (Marquess Chriss, Dragan Bender, Derrick Jones and Josh Jackson are only 20). TJ Warren and Mike James have been given the minutes they deserved and they have veterans such as Jared Dudley, Greg Monroe and Tyson Chandler (who might as well start packing their bags now in anticipating of being traded). Their players simply need the games and experience to mature and will soon be playoff contenders. For now, the Suns remain a young rebuilding team and could use an elite PG to guide the franchise (paging Luka Doncic).
The Bulls have wisely decided to begin a youth movement as last year’s veteran team (Robin Lopez, Nikola Mirotic, Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo) struggling to stay fit and motivated en route to the 8th seed and a first-round exit. They might have been tempted to run it back again since they were leading the series 2-0 against the Celtics before Rondo got injured. After declining Rondo’s option, trading Butler and buying out Wade, they are left with only Robin Lopez and Nikola Mirotic for veteran leadership. These two players should not be on the Bulls team after the trading deadline as they are better served to be role players on contending teams and the Bulls need as much young talent as they can get. This a young team of players who are understandingly struggling to score. Their frontcourt of the future seems to be set as Bobby Portis and Lauri Markkanen have already shown great chemistry playing together and should become a formidable scoring frontline in the near future. We will see what the backcourt holds when Zach LaVine returns from his ACL and he will be eased back into action. Denzel Valentine, Kris Dunn, Jerian Grant and Cameron Payne are all vying for playmaking minutes. I believe that the Bulls have a good foundation and should be bad enough for the next two seasons to acquire a few high lottery draft picks. The appeal of playing in a large market and cap space should accelerate their rebuild and they can return to the playoffs in a few seasons.