NBA Teams in Make-or-Break Seasons
Sometimes, you can see an NBA team's pivot point coming from a mile away.
Last season's Utah Jazz were a prime example. A year ago, the Jazz were coming off a league-best 52 wins and five straight playoff disappointments, and it was obvious that a sixth consecutive postseason flameout would induce changes—potentially big ones. The team that had competed (but not contended) for a half-decade would get one more chance to prove it could get over the hump.
Flash forward to the present, and Utah is unrecognizable, the roster blasted apart by trades designed to maximize draft equity in the first year of an aggressive rebuilding effort. Four starters, including three-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert and 26-year-old perennial All-Star Donovan Mitchell, gone. Head coach Quin Snyder, who ran up a .585 winning percentage in eight seasons while engineering the league's best offense and defense (different years, but still), also departed.
It can happen that fast.
This year, a handful of teams are in similar positions. Not all of them are as accomplished as the since-demolished Jazz, and failure may not bring about a Utah-level overhaul. But each enters the season with the clock ticking for one reason or another.
These are 2022-23's make-or-break teams. Get to know them now. If things don't go to plan, they won't be around for long.
When you go into a season a few weeks removed from a superstar demanding a trade and then giving ownership a them-or-me ultimatum regarding the head coach and top executive, it's a good indication that the ground isn't firm underfoot.
Kevin Durant will suit up for a Brooklyn Nets team he tried to leave and then reorganize to his liking, in that order, and he'll do so with human question marks Ben Simmons and Kyrie Irving as his prime running mates. The level of talent and financial investment in Brooklyn would have been enough to create one of the most delicate environments in the league without any of the palace intrigue. The added strain of KD's one-two-punch power grab means this season will be played on a knife's edge.
Irving is in the final year of his deal, by the way, a status solidified by the unusual scenario of an in-prime superstar opting in because he knew he wouldn't find a suitable offer on the market. Brooklyn couldn't even trade him for fair value, no surprise after several seasons of unreliability, injury and personal time away from the team. One gets the sense it'll take something close to a career year and out-of-character model behavior from Irving for the Nets to do anything but laugh at the prospect of another long-term agreement.
Not only that, but no one seems to know the contract status of general manager Sean Marks after offseason reports of an extension were refuted by team insiders.
The final year of Steve Nash's contract is 2023-24, and teams tend to avoid allowing head coaches to reach lame-duck status. For all intents and purposes, Nash, like Irving, is on an expiring deal. If he doesn't preside over a season that meets expectations—which, for a roster this talented, might mean reaching the Finals—he'll almost certainly be looking for other work next summer.
The Nets barely made it to opening night intact, and they belong atop the list of teams that might be blown to bits midway through the season. If they don't stabilize, win a ton of games and project some unity, this costly superteam experiment won't get a chance to run it back.
Nobody expects much from the Charlotte Hornets, and that's the problem.
Since being reanimated as the Bobcats in 2004, the franchise has just four winning seasons and three playoff victories. Led by tight-fisted ownership that has never paid the luxury tax but also refuses to tank, the Hornets are practically purpose-built to hover around the league's soft middle. That has to change this season.
For Charlotte, the way up is down. With Miles Bridges out indefinitely after being charged with one felony count of injuring a child's parent and two felony counts of child abuse, while LaMelo Ball nurses a sprained ankle that'll cost him games to start the year, the Hornets should seize the moment to suck. Conditions aren't ideal for a deliberate trip to the bottom of the standings since at least four teams out West—Houston, Oklahoma City, Utah and San Antonio—are looking to nose-dive. But the Hornets roster without Bridges and Ball isn't much better than any of those teams.
If the Hornets can abandon their annual pursuit of 40 wins and steer all the way into the skid, they've got a great chance to finish with one of the league's three worst records. That "achievement" would give Charlotte a 14 percent chance at picking first in the 2023 draft and the franchise-altering option of selecting Victor Wembanyama.
Not all make-or-break seasons are about finding immediate success with the threat of roster annihilation hanging overhead. The Hornets should instead feel the urgency to capitalize on their best chance in years to fail.
The alternative Charlotte has so often chosen feels absurd. What possible long-term gains would this team make by gunning for a play-in spot in a preposterously deep Eastern Conference? Getting high-leverage reps for a core of young players has value, but only if more than a handful of them look like keepers. With last year's lottery pick James Bouknight coming off a dreadful rookie year further marred by an arrest on charges of driving while intoxicated days before the tipoff of the 2022-23 season and no up-and-coming talent to speak of besides Ball, the Hornets don't have high-end prospects worth developing.
This might be their best chance to win a race to the bottom. Miss out, and Charlotte will be stuck on the same irrelevant path it's been stumbling along for two decades.
Los Angeles Clippers
This is year four of the Kawhi Leonard-Paul George partnership with the Los Angeles Clippers, a long stretch by superstar team-up standards. Strangely, though, those two aren't the ones who've reached a crossroads. It's the rest of the very expensive, very deep roster around them that will be subject to change if the championship expectations that arrived with PG and Kawhi go unmet for another season.
The Clippers' depth is the envy of the league. This is a team so rich with talent (with loads of it at the coveted wing positions, no less) that doling out playing time will be among head coach Tyronn Lue's greatest challenges. When a dozen players are worthy of rotation minutes, it's impossible to keep all of them happy. Injuries and planned rest will help Lue spread playing time around during the regular season, but that's not the portion of the campaign that matters to the Clippers.
This squad is pursuing a title, and all that depth could go to waste when rotations shrink in the playoffs. Then again, maybe having so many options is a strength. The postseason requires adjustments and flexibility, and Lue will have a broader array of choices than most coaches.
This season will determine whether quantity tops quality.
Poll fans on the identity of L.A.'s third-best player, and you'll get several answers. The cap sheet illustrates the issue: Leonard and George will earn matching $42.5 million salaries this season, while a remarkable seven teammates slot in between $10 million and $17 million. Norman Powell tops that list and is probably the safest answer to the third-best-player question, but he has competition from defensive ace Robert Covington, sharpshooter Luke Kennard and small-ball center Marcus Morris Sr. That's to say nothing of two players—Terance Mann and John Wall—making under $10 million who could easily finish the season as the most impactful force behind George and Leonard.
Champions tend to need more than two superstars and a bunch of role-fillers. If none of the many options on the Clippers roster ascend to fringe-star status, a consolidation trade is the obvious solution.
George and Leonard are the constants. This season will determine if the Clips need to switch up the variables around them.
Even if none of the events of a borderline calamitous offseason had happened, it would still feel like the Phoenix Suns' core was nearing the end of the line. Though this group isn't anywhere near Utah Jazz territory in terms of repeated playoff disappointments, the Suns have had similarly stellar regular seasons amount to nothing for two years running.
It's admittedly harsh to call a Finals trip and a second-round elimination "nothing," but the circumstances matter. Phoenix was up 2-0 on the Milwaukee Bucks in 2021 and lost four straight games, squandering what history said was an almost insurmountable lead. The Suns were just the fourth team since the NBA-ABA merger to fall short in the Finals after getting out to a 2-0 advantage. The other 18 teams to pull ahead in that fashion were able to close the deal.
Add to that the 2-0 edge Phoenix gave back in last year's conference semifinals against the Dallas Mavericks, which concluded with an absolute dismantling in Game 7. Nothing stings like letting a title get away, but a flameout like that after a 64-win season cannot have felt great for the Suns.
It's hard to imagine Phoenix resists the urge to tinker if there is a third postseason stumble this spring.
Of course, other factors are in play. Chris Paul is playing his age-37 season, which means a steep falloff could come at any moment. Deandre Ayton literally signed a contract to play for another team this offseason (which Phoenix matched), a decision that followed a benching in that fateful Game 7 against Dallas. Jae Crowder is away from the club following a trade demand, and the player the Suns prioritized ahead of him, Cameron Johnson, couldn't reach an extension agreement before the season. He'll hit restricted free agency in 2023 with a three-and-D skill set everyone will covet.
Devin Booker and Mikal Bridges aren't going anywhere, which lends the franchise some stability. But tension, awkwardness and a pair of conspicuous big-stage failures loom over the Suns—as does the impending sale by pariah governor Robert Sarver.
If this season doesn't end successfully (whatever that even means in the contender-laden West), Phoenix could look very different in 2023-24. In fact, change could come even sooner if the offseason turmoil produces a sluggish start.
The Sacramento Kings' recent moves suggest a commitment to winning now, rather than building patiently for a larger payoff in a few years. This season carries an extra level of urgency brought about by something that should never be underestimated: the motivating force of job preservation.
Sources told The Athletic's Sam Amick in May: "Kings GM Monte McNair is entering the final season of his contract and there have been no talks about a possible extension."
McNair hired new head coach Mike Brown, but another year in the lottery could mean the latter will outlast the former. That'd keep the wheels spinning on a feedback loop that has destabilized Sacramento for years. An executive hires a coach, after which the executive is replaced...by someone who wants to install a coach of his choosing. Rinse and repeat for 16 postseason-less years, and you've got the Kings' recent history.
In a league where out-and-out tanking is accepted as the wise move for teams stuck in the middle, McNair has lately operated as if the Kings were one or two pieces away from contention. It started with Tyrese Haliburton for Domantas Sabonis, and it continued with the selection of Keegan Murray, who looks ready to help right away but has a lower ceiling than Jaden Ivey, whom the Detroit Pistons gladly took one pick later. Throw in the outgoing protected first-rounder the Kings gave up to get Kevin Huerter as well.
The Kings should be exciting on offense this season, and they've got an outside shot at finishing eighth or ninth in the West if a couple of teams projected higher than them falter (hi, Lakers!). It's at least as likely that they field a bottom-three defense and grind their way to 39 wins, which probably won't be enough to get them the postseason berth they so desperately covet.
Anybody else think part of the problem in Sacramento is that ownership and management treat every year as if it's make or break?