With a great draft class headlined by potential superstars like Andrew Wiggins, Julius Randle, Aaron Gordon, Marcus Smart, Dante Exum and many others on the way, the race for a top pick should be downright competitive in its non-competitiveness, if that makes any sense at all.
Let me clarify: Tanking could reach unparalleled levels this year.
We've seen the early warning signs from multiple teams (playing middling veterans to boost their trade stock, strange rotations, trades for injured players) and we've only just begun.
This is going to get ugly, but in the NBA, ugly can be beautiful. Let's handicap the chase for lottery balls by narrowing it down to the primary bottom-feeding teams and those on the brink of entering the fray.
All salary data courtesy of HoopsWorld.com.
Toronto Raptors: It only feels like a matter of time before the Raptors get something in return for Rudy Gay, but a full-scale rebuild could also be in order if things get bleak enough. Just get some players in there who will give poor Jonas Valanciunas the ball already, for goodness' sake.
Milwaukee Bucks: Milwaukee will never be bad on purpose, as Howard Beck wonderfully explained here, but injuries and Larry Drew's odd rotations may cause the Bucks to stumble into a good draft pick on accident.
Charlotte Bobcats: So far, so good. Kemba Walker has looked great and the role players for the Bobcats have stepped up. I'm very skeptical they can keep this up, though. It should interesting to see what management does if the wheels start to fall off.
Orlando Magic: Out of this group, I might believe in the Magic the most. Jacque Vaughn is still playing veterans a little too much (Jason Maxiell?), but this is a pretty impressive young frontcourt that will get even better once Tobias Harris comes back healthy. Will the temptation to chase a playoff spot raise the asking price for a guy like Arron Afflalo? This will be worth revisiting in a few weeks.
Denver Nuggets: Yikes. Rough start for rookie head coach Brian Shaw. The Nuggets are all over the place in terms of identity. The return of Wilson Chandler should help, but if this doesn't turn around soon, there are some attractive trade pieces to move here.
Los Angeles Lakers: There's been a lot of debate over whether the Lakers should tank or not, but this roster might be bad enough to accomplish that all on its own. Mike D'Antoni's offense will look great in spurts, but this defense should keep the Lakers firmly entrenched in the lottery. No need to rush back to this mess, Kobe.
Future Positional Needs: SF and PF
The Phoenix Suns, very quietly, have a lot of pieces in place for the future.
Eric Bledsoe can hold down either guard spot and put up eye-popping numbers with great defensive play. Goran Dragic, still only 27 years old, is a pretty solid two-way point guard as well. Miles Plumlee looks like a nice frontcourt piece in the early going, the Morris twins are competent and Alex Len could be a good player if he can get healthy.
Are the Suns world-beaters right now? Of course not, and they should still have a pretty rough season despite the talent on the roster.
But the future is really bright here. Bledsoe is a legitimate franchise building block, there are no damaging long-term contracts on the books and the Suns could have six(!) first-round picks over the next two drafts.
Free Agency: It's possible the Suns dip into free agency next season, as currently they only have $23.6 million guaranteed on next year's books.
If Channing Frye accepts his $6.8 million player option and the Suns match what should be a max (or close to max) offer for Bledsoe in free agency, the cap room should shrink to an amount that's probably not worth using at this stage in the game.
Draft Targets: Andrew Wiggins, Julius Randle, Aaron Gordon or Jabari Parker would probably be the best combination of talent and fit. If Dragic were to get dealt at some point, big guards like Dante Exum and Marcus Smart could be interesting next to Bledsoe, so long as their jumpers improve.
The only unlikely pick would be a project center, as Len and Plumlee probably have that spot locked down.
Future Positional Needs: SF
The Sacramento Kings aren't tanking, but the losses should pile up anyhow. There are movable assets and plenty of depth in the backcourt and frontcourt, but this team lacks consistency, both from an energy and a production standpoint.
There are just too many players on this team who run hot and cold, and that's going to make new head coach Mike Malone's job awfully tough. From the perspective of the players, sharing playing time and losing is pretty much the worst-case scenario.
We'll see if the Kings can find a trade that consolidates some of these young assets into an established piece, but for now, this defense can't stop penetration and is relying on DeMarcus Cousins as an anchor. That's a problem.
Free Agency: Help isn't on the way here anytime soon, at least in terms of cap space. Even without qualifying offers to Isaiah Thomas, Greivis Vasquez or Patrick Patterson the Kings have about $51 million in salary guaranteed for next season. Unless all three of those players are revoked, Sacramento will have essentially no cap room.
Draft Targets: The Kings probably won't be bad enough to land Andrew Wiggins, but that would at least provide some karmic retribution after the whole Seattle mess. Adding a real shot-blocker and defensive difference-maker like Joel Embiid from Kansas could protect Cousins and help keep Mike Malone sane.
Future Positional Needs: SG or SF
As you see in the picture above, the Utah Jazz might already have their future starting lineup in place. Derrick Favors is already locked up, and it seems like retaining Gordon Hayward in restricted free agency will be a priority as well.
The Jazz will struggle mightily this year offensively, particularly with no scoring punch off the bench and a lack of creators in the starting lineup. Getting Trey Burke back will help in that regard, but there are massive growing pains ahead.
Through its first five games, Utah is 29th in offensive efficiency and winless. Ty Corbin is a lame duck coach, and management probably won't sacrifice the minutes for their young core by bringing in any sort of veteran help.
This team is a sneaky contender for the first pick.
Free Agency: Utah only has $27 million guaranteed next year, and the projected cap is $62.1 million. Depending on what kind of deal Gordon Hayward gets in restricted free agency, the Jazz should have max cap space.
Will they be able to lure a max player to Salt Lake City, though? Probably not. Chances are the Jazz use the space in other ways, much in the same manner they did this offseason when they took on Golden State's salary to land two future first-round picks.
Draft Targets: Utah really doesn't "need" any of the big power forwards in the draft like most of the other tanking teams do, as Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter are holding down the frontcourt spots. Shooting guard Alec Burks is probably the weak link in the lineup, so drafting a wing to start next to Hayward at either spot makes sense.
Aside from Wiggins, Dante Exum might be a great fit. He can get his own points, create for others, and share ball-handling duties with Trey Burke while helping on the defensive end as well.
Future Positional Needs: SG, SF, C
This is breaking bad.
Boston has all the makings of a completely dysfunctional team. There are unhappy veterans accustomed to playing on winning teams, there are complaints of selfish play already, there is no real leader in place and the team's acting point guard (Avery Bradley) has more turnovers than assists so far this season. If you want to see terrible body language and chemistry for 48 minutes, go watch the Celtics play.
Add in a rookie coach who seems determined to have his team play painstakingly slow despite not having the roster to do such a thing, and the Celtics probably don't have to do much else to be horrible.
This is what happens when you remove a team's entire foundation: It crumbles.
Free Agency: Unless Celtics general manager Danny Ainge really gets to work shedding a few long-term deals, max cap room won't be on the way this summer. Boston has $50 million guaranteed without the qualifying offers for Avery Bradley or Jordan Crawford, who actually might not be retained.
Dumping Brandon Bass or Courtney Lee would get the Celtics close to being able to throw money at restricted free agents like Gordon Hayward, but as it stands now, they'll be a little short.
Draft Targets: Guess who? Barring a collapse at Kansas, this is the "riggin' for Wiggins" draft. He'll be the Celtics top option.
The Celtics have a few intriguing players like Vitor Faverani and Kelly Olynyk up front, but there's no one good enough on this roster (with the possible exclusion of Rajon Rondo) from discouraging a "best player available" approach. The Celtics just need young talent however they can get it.
Future Positional Needs: SG, SF, PF
Which team is the real Philadelphia 76ers?
Is it the team that started with three straight wins or the team that got blown out of the water in the last two games?
I'll side with the latter. Defensively, the 76ers don't have the personnel to get stops. Nor do they have the personnel to score in the half court consistently.
With that said, we'll keep Philadelphia as the worst team in the league for now. There are rookie walls ahead, and the book on these young players will get out.
Of course, it's probably worth mentioning that GM Sam Hinkie will almost certainly look to deal guys like Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes while he can still get something for them in return. This is a franchise-wide tanking effort, not just a bad team.
Free Agency: Watch out for Philadelphia as a potential landing spot for two max free agents. That may sound strange, but Philadelphia is really the only team that can carve out enough cap space. It'll only have $17.3 million guaranteed on the books going into next year, and most of that ($9.4 million) is owed to Thaddeus Young. If the 76ers move him for an expiring deal this year, your ears should perk up.
There are attractive young pieces in Michael Carter-Williams and Nerlens Noel already in place and a top pick in the draft on the way. Hinkie may be able to take this either way if the right situation presents itself.
Draft Targets: The 76ers probably have the best chance at Andrew Wiggins, and he'd be a perfect addition on the wing to supplement Carter-Williams and Noel. If the 76ers miss out on the top pick in the lottery, there are plenty of enticing power forwards in this year's crop who would make Young and his salary expendable.