Realistic Championship Windows for the NBA's 10 Worst Teams from 2019-20
All NBA teams are either fighting to win a title or devising a strategy to open their championship window.
Yes, even the worst bottom-feeders are plotting their paths to the top.
Of course, not everyone operates on the same timeline. Some enter each season on the simple championship-or-bust scale. Others understand they are years away from even having a shot at contention, so they handle their rosters accordingly.
So, how much longer will this season's 10 worst teams—identified simply by net rating—have to wait before they're competing for the crown? We're breaking out our trusty crystal ball to determine the soonest season in which each club can realistically compete for the championship. By the way, we are generously considering the limits of what's realistic, but we aren't peddling false hopes.
Atlanta Hawks: 2022-23
In Trae Young, the Hawks have their organizational centerpiece, which is the most critical thing for a rebuilder to find. Even if he remains dreadful on defense (dead last in defensive real plus-minus this season), he's so absurdly skilled on offense that he remains a big net positive (7.3 points better per 100 possessions with him than without) and gives Atlanta its identity.
The strength of the supporting cast is to be determined, though it's certainly intriguing.
John Collins produces like an All-Star (21.6 points, 10.1 rebounds per game), although there are redundancies between him and Clint Capela, which could make it hard to find the right number for Collins' extension. The wing collection combines high floors with high ceilings, and this club gets a lot more interesting if Cam Reddish realizes his two-way potential.
Atlanta still feels one star short of contention, so this projection bakes in three years to find or develop that player while the rest of the roster keeps climbing. The missing piece could come from the draft, trades or free agency, but external assistance is required for the Hawks to soar into championship contention.
Charlotte Hornets: 2024-25
The Hornets have quietly pieced together a solid cast of complementary players who could be ready to support a star (or, ideally, stars) sooner than later. The big question for Buzz City, then, is how it snares that elite talent.
Charlotte landed the No. 3 pick in the upcoming draft, so that's the first place to start looking.
This draft class doesn't have the most glowing reviews, but LaMelo Ball and James Wiseman are worth strong consideration from the Hornets. Ball's passing and deep shooting could eventually make him a top-10 quarterback, while Wiseman's length and athleticism would be a fascinating way to attack their long-term plans at center.
But the draft is a crapshoot—especially with a class like this—so it might take a few throws at the dartboard to hit a bullseye. If the Hornets spin their tires too many times at the talent grab, though, they might look to the trade market instead. Free agency is almost certainly a no-go as they couldn't even bring marquee players to town when they had Kemba Walker doing the recruiting.
The good news is whenever that player arrives, this roster will be ready to support him.
Devonte' Graham and Terry Rozier seamlessly shift between scoring and distributing roles. P.J. Washington has all the adhesive strength of a top glue-guy. Miles Bridges lacks polish, but he's still an athletic, 6'6", 225-pound ball of clay.
If the Hornets need three years to land a star, they may only need two seasons beyond that to compete for the crown.
Chicago Bulls: 2022-23
Chicago's front office overhaul—Gar Forman out, John Paxson re-assigned, Arturas Karnisovas and Marc Eversley in—and coaching change could pay major dividends for the franchise. But it does increase the difficulty of making an accurate future projection for this team.
Does the Bulls' new brass think this core is on the cusp of playoff contention? Or would it ship out core players for picks and prospects to redesign the roster in its image? Can it even answer those questions before landing a new coach?
Given how much talent appears to be on the roster, the guess is Karnisovas and Co. will try to make it work with the current nucleus.
Zach LaVine is a walking bucket (25.5 points per game). Lauri Markkanen and Coby White have flashed that ability in stretches. Tack on Wendell Carter Jr. and Otto Porter Jr. as do-it-all support players, and suddenly you remember why preseason playoff talk didn't sound outlandish at all.
This timeline sees the Bulls battling for a playoff spot next season, organically growing one more year and challenging for a championship three seasons from now. One or two of the current players needs to emerge as an All-Star for this to come to fruition, but enough have shown that kind of upside to think it could happen.
Cleveland Cavaliers: 2024-25
Cleveland's second post-LeBron James rebuild is going no better than the first. The Cavs have the second-worst record since he headed to Hollywood in 2018 (38-109), and the skyrocketing loss column has team governor Dan Gilbert getting antsy.
"Gilbert is turning up the pressure for the Cavs to show real improvement next season," Jason Lloyd reported for The Athletic.
Not to be the bearer of bad news, but the forecast doesn't call for relief any time soon.
Collin Sexton is the most productive player on the current roster, and he's a 6'1" scoring specialist. Kevin Porter Jr. arguably has the highest ceiling, but his potential path to stardom is long and overloaded with obstacles. Darius Garland is a theoretically dynamic off-the-dribble scorer, but he just shot 37.5 percent on pull-ups. None of Kevin Love, Andre Drummond and Tristan Thompson should be part of the long-term plans.
This is going to take a while. Five years feels long enough for anything to happen, though, and the opportunity for big leaps by Porter and Garland can't be denied. Throw another few lottery picks into the equation and this should give Cleveland time to eventually become a perennial power.
Detroit Pistons: Indeterminate
Apologies to Pistons fans for what will surely feel like a cop-out answer, but it's impossible to set a five-year ceiling for a franchise when no one knows which players will even be on the roster that long.
Even if Blake Griffin gets healthy and Derrick Rose stays that way, they can't prop up the Pistons to anything more than first-round relevance. Given the shape of the supporting cast, even that's probably a stretch. It should be a matter of time until both are hooping elsewhere since Detroit must extract assets from wherever it can find them.
Removing both from the equation, who's the Pistons' best player in three years?
Christian Wood is an unrestricted free agent, and Detroit should be careful not to overpay for a few months of big numbers on a bad team. Sekou Doumbouya didn't crack the season's top 500 in real plus-minus (504th out of 520). Luke Kennard enjoyed a mini-breakout then couldn't stay healthy and popped up in trade rumors. Svi Mykhailiuk and Bruce Brown are solid role players and probably nothing more.
Detroit has never been a destination for free agents. The Pistons are nowhere near the point of giving up assets to trade for win-now talent. They don't have a top-five pick this year and may never be bad enough to get one as long as Griffin and Rose are around.
The future is bleak, folks.
Golden State Warriors: 2020-21
The NBA's championship race wasn't open until the injury bug forcibly removed the Warriors from it. Klay Thompson never suited up this season (torn ACL), and Stephen Curry played all of five games (broken hand). Golden State went from 57 wins to 50 losses (against only 15 triumphs) just like that.
Give the Dubs healthy versions of Thompson and Curry, though, and the question isn't whether they can contend next its season; it's whether they should be considered the favorites. This season snapped a five-year NBA Finals streak in which they won 78.5 percent of their games (no one else cleared 68.0 percent) and took home three world titles.
But they still have Draymond Green, picked up some other interesting pieces (Andrew Wiggins, Eric Paschall and Marquese Chriss) and have the means to make some splashes this summer. They also own the No. 2 pick, plus they have a $17 million traded player exception and their taxpayer mid-level exception.
"I 100 percent think we can contend for a championship next year," executive vice president of basketball operations Kirk Lacob said on the Runnin' Plays podcast (h/t NBC Sports Bay Area's Drew Shiller). "If we don't, that's on us, and we gotta figure out what we're doing wrong. We 100 percent can—we will. We've got a lot of ammo now. We didn't have ammo before."
Minnesota Timberwolves: 2021-22
The Timberwolves potentially took three sizable steps toward title contention this calendar year.
The first was their trade for Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez, which, assuming both return from restricted free agency, helped flesh out a roster that wasn't particularly deep. The next was their subsequent deal to land D'Angelo Russell, a close friend of Karl-Anthony Towns. The Russell-Towns combo could be a top-five scoring tandem as soon as next season.
The final was hitting the jackpot at the draft lottery and walking away with the No. 1 pick. Even in a potentially down year for the draft, that's a big win for the franchise. Whether the Wolves spend the pick on someone like Anthony Edwards or LaMelo Ball or flip it for an established talent, this could be their ticket to building basketball's next Big Three.
"Catching breaks and catching opportunities are so critical and we caught a big one for our staff, for our group," president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas told The Athletic's Jon Krawczynski. "... I couldn't be more excited about the opportunity. You yearn for the opportunity to be at the top of the draft, to have the draft collateral that we have, to be in the position that we are in."
If the Wolves ace this pick and get both Russell and Towns functioning at All-Star levels, they should crack next season's playoff field. Give them another offseason to add to and develop the roster, and their best-case scenario has them contending in 2021-22.
New York Knicks: 2023-24
Do the Knicks' built-in market advantages from residing in the Big Apple appeal to free agents? The easy answer is no since they haven't made a splash in years.
But no sales pitch will sound too strong when it's attached to a perennial loser. If New York could change its culture—a process that potentially started with the arrivals of Leon Rose and Tom Thibodeau—and form a foundation for winning, it could become the destination draw its massive market size says it should be.
The possibility of circumventing some of the rebuilding process is what moves the Knicks nearer to their championship window than the current roster deserves. They only have two relatively sure-fire keepers. One is Mitchell Robinson, who can't defend without fouling (career 5.3 per 36 minutes). The other is RJ Barrett, who posted an abysmal 40.2/32.0/61.4 shooting slash as an NBA freshman.
The Knicks have the tools to transform, though. They could add a culture-changer as soon as this offseason, whether it's through free agency (Fred VanVleet) or trade (Chris Paul). They'll gain another top-10 pick in this draft and should get an early selection in the next one, which looks absolutely loaded. They are financially flexible enough to sign stars or take on bad contracts for additional draft capital.
Now, New York could always screw this up. Or it could simply opt for patience—though that would make Thibodeau a curious hire—and take a longer road than this projection allows. Saying that, the dominoes could easily drop in a manner that puts this team on a four-year path to contention.
Sacramento Kings: 2022-23
This timeline is aggressive, and it's aggressive for a franchise that really doesn't deserve it. The Kings haven't been to the playoffs since 2006. Over half the Association qualifies for the postseason each year. It's almost an art to be this bad for this long.
But it's easy to believe in De'Aaron Fox as the engine of a good team. He can be a pace-pushing problem for opponents, and his end-to-end zip might be unmatched. Even as he accelerates, the game might be slowing down. This past season, he posed his highest assist percentage (35.3) and lowest turnover rate (14.1) of his career.
"The rest of the league hopes he better not develop a jump shot because he is going to be unguardable with his speed and athleticism," Turner Sports' Greg Anthony said, per The Athletic's Jason Jones.
Fox needs more help around him, but a big part of that equation might just be getting Marvin Bagley III going. If he could ever stay upright (he played just 13 games this past season), he offers a wildly intriguing blend of length, athleticism and skill. Give him a year to find his footing and another to kick-start his ascension, and maybe Fox and Bagley are both booking trips to the 2023 All-Star Game.
If Sacramento can develop stars, it should have the role players to support them. Buddy Hield is an elite shooter, Harrison Barnes contributes at both ends, Bogdan Bogdanovic (a restricted free agent) makes things happen offensively, and Richaun Holmes never gets outworked. Add a few defensive stoppers to the mix and maybe the Kings are fighting for the throne in 2022-23.
Washington Wizards: 2021-22
This projection is uncomfortably bullish, but the Wizards need it to work. Otherwise, they're already wasting time they could've spent rebuilding.
By holding onto Bradley Beal, they ensured they'll have an elite offensive weapon. The 27-year-old just became the 12th player ever to average 30 points and six assists. If he can marry his old efficiency with his new volume, he'll have a superstar-level impact on the offensive end.
Everything else about Washington's quick rise to contention requires some imagination bending.
Like John Wall returning to form as an athletically dependent 30-year-old on the wrong side of an Achilles tear. Or Davis Bertans returning value on whatever it costs to keep him this summer. Or Troy Brown Jr., Thomas Bryant and Rui Hachimura all consistently contributing to winning. Or the Wizards turning this summer's No. 9 pick into at least a reliable rotation player.
That's a lot of boxes to check—maybe too many for the Wizards to make this work. But if they're right about the Beal-Wall combo rejoining the top-tandem ranks and can catch plenty of breaks around their backcourt, then next season could be their springboard to 2021-22 contention.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.