Predicting the 5 Worst NBA Teams Next Season
Five NBA fanbases might want to avert their eyes.
Not enough is known about next season's competitive landscape to feel great about forecasting the bottom-five records. The draft and free agency have yet to take place, and at least a handful of trades will wind up rattling the Association's pecking order.
Next year's schedule matters, too. The league is reportedly aiming for a 72-game regular season that starts before Christmas, but the players are pushing to begin around Martin Luther King Jr. Day. We don't yet know the full implications of either.
If teams end up playing division and conference rivals more often, at the expense of interconference play, it will have an impact on every level of the standings. Western Conference squads would, in theory, have a greater chance of tumbling toward the bottom if they're spending even more time facing others in the Western Conference.
Still, predictions are fun. They're also not immaterial this early in the game. Not every team will undergo seismic change, and in many cases, bottom-five finishes are formulaic. Some squads are bound to be bad on purpose. Others are bad and just ill-equipped to stop being bad. One or two, of course, are less obvious and involve some heavier guesswork. That's part of the challenge.
Be warned: This group is populated predominantly by Eastern Conference teams. No apologies will be issued. Four of the five worst records came from the LEast in 2018-19. It has not progressed beyond that happening again.
It is a minor miracle the Charlotte Hornets aren't working off a bottom-five record now. Only three other teams outperformed their 2019-20 efficiency differential by a higher margin, which doesn't bode especially well for them entering next year.
Going through an entire offseason can always change things, but the Hornets aren't ideally positioned to obliterate their most recent performance. They're not waiting on a blue-chip cornerstone to explode, and whoever they take with the No. 3 pick isn't likely to immediately, if ever, incite a noticeably upward swing.
Cap space won't be a saving grace. Charlotte could have around $20 million to spend, likely arming it with more money than everyone except the Atlanta Hawks, Detroit Pistons and New York Knicks. But this isn't the offseason to have that type of flexibility.
The market isn't brimming with star power, and the Hornets aren't an A-1 destination even if building blocks were available en masse. They might get more value out of their wiggle room by serving as a contract dumping ground for cost-cutters.
Pretty much anything goes in the Eastern Conference. Most teams are one injury away from a disaster, and mediocrity in excess lends itself to unanticipated plunges from squads on the playoff bubble. Think: last season's Chicago Bulls.
This is different. Charlotte's most likely scenario entails entering the season with a rotation assembled around Devonte' Graham, P.J. Washington, Terry Rozier, Cody Zeller, Miles Bridges, Cody Martin, Malik Monk, the No. 3 pick and a notable free-agency addition or two.
That's not rosy enough to write the Hornets out of the bottom-five conversation. And that's just as well because another year of heartache basketball should position them to snag a top pick in the ultra-deep 2021 draft. A top-five selection from that class figures to do more for their big picture than any move they can realistically make in the coming weeks.
The Cleveland Cavaliers seem destined for a third consecutive bottom-five finish.
Sure, they have a path out of that torture chamber. The East is the East is the East. Collin Sexton and Kevin Porter Jr. are already good. Darius Garland's shooting did not disappoint.
Kevin Love could stick around. Tristan Thompson could, too. Andre Drummond (player option) is a lob threat and gobbler of offensive rebounds. Dylan Windler should be ready to rock. Cleveland has the No. 5 pick. Larry Nance Jr. can defend nearly every position and might unlock oddball three-big lineups that actually work.
Yes, the Cavs are not irreversibly pinned to the bottom of the standings. But an escape route hasn't exactly revealed itself.
Maybe Love doesn't get moved. He has three years and $91.5 million left on his deal, and Cleveland shouldn't be attaching assets to his contract. It doesn't matter. The Cavs will still be investing a lot of possession equity in young, inexperienced ball-handlers and playmakers. Last year's 25th-ranked offense won't suddenly surge without growing pains.
And that's fine. It's part of rebuilding. And make no mistake, Cleveland is rebuilding. Housing a mix of veterans doesn't change its course. Nor will free agency. The Cavs will be operating only with the mid-level exception unless Drummond elects to explore the open market.
Leaning even further into their reset profiles as the more likely scenario. Even if Love stays put, Thompson could sign with a contender, Drummond's expiring contract is a salary-dumping magnet and every team looking for affordable help up front should be calling about Nance. The chances of the Cavs beginning next season with this roster as it stands—let alone finishing it that way—are next to nil.
At the same time, their inclusion doesn't boil down to what they haven't done yet.
Too many Eastern Conference teams within their competitive vicinity are on the come-up. Charlotte, Detroit and New York may purposely linger, but Atlanta (budding core and cap space), Chicago (coaching) and Washington (John Wall's return) all enter the offseason better for wear. Left alone, Cleveland doesn't have the runway to drastically improve upon its dead-last conference finish.
Ticketing the Pistons for the doldrums doesn't actually sit all that well. They just finished with the fifth-worst record in the league while injuries ripped through their roster, most notably impacting Blake Griffin (18 games) and Luke Kennard (28 games). They are a run of better health away from repositioning themselves as postseason hopefuls.
Kudos to anyone who's willing to bet on ideal availability from Griffin or Derrick Rose. That should be too flimsy of a limb for most. The knee tendinitis Kennard battled this year also doesn't incite many warm and fuzzies.
Equally important: Detroit's trek out of its win-loss torpor is predicated on the team remaining intact and actively seeking improvements. That's hardly a guarantee. The Pistons have more cap space than almost the entire league—close to $30 million if Tony Snell picks up his player option and they renounce Thon Maker—and have, historically, been suckers for a good seven-seed chase. But this offseason feels different.
As the Detroit Bad Boys' Lazarus Jackson said on the Hardwood Knocks podcast (37:59 mark):
"The Detroit Pistons are, in fact, rebuilding. They don't want to tell you that because they would like to sell season tickets. And they would like not to tell you that because, I think, the association of tanking in a lot of fans' minds is the full [Philadelphia] 76ers rebuild teardown, where you win 13 games a year and everyone's miserable all the time. But they are rebuilding.
"When Troy Weaver, the new general manager of the Detroit Pistons, was hired, the word he used was 'restoration.' So that is what we are calling it. It is not rebuilding. It is not tanking. It is a restoration of the team. But a restoration, by any other name, is 30 wins."
Without flagrantly tanking, which Jackson noted the Pistons just won't do, they will be subject to high-variance outcomes.
But the path to 30 wins doesn't have to include trading Griffin—a difficult proposition without including asset buffers—or letting Christian Wood walk. It is a matter of investing time in Sekou Doumbouya, Bruce Brown, Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk and the No. 7 pick, resisting the urge to max out Fred VanVleet in free agency, funneling money instead to fliers and projects and perhaps unloading Kennard or Rose.
Trading Andre Drummond to the Cavaliers at last February's deadline didn't necessarily signal anything profound for the Pistons. It was first and foremost an admittance they didn't want to pony up for his $28.8 million player option.
The Weaver hire was more telltale. It hinted at more of an organizational open mind—the type of understanding that probably doesn't augur a controlled demolition but won't fight, at least this year, to keep Detroit out of the basement.
New York Knicks
Nothing short of a trade for Chris Paul stands to dramatically improve the Knicks' place in the East—or the league as a whole. This isn't meant to be an insult or Knicks-for-clicks fodder. It's just a fact.
New York can have more cap space than any other team if it pleases, but to what end? This year's free-agency class doesn't include players who double as outlooks unto themselves.
Signing Fred VanVleet would appreciably elevate the Knicks' point guard situation and overall offense, but it doesn't assure them of a march up the standings. His arrival wouldn't necessarily instruct their immediate trajectory. His skill set is scalable, capable of fitting within whatever roster New York trots out next season and beyond—young, win-now or something in between.
Whatever additions the Knicks make will likely follow that motif of improving their situation without reinventing it. In the end, no matter how they handle their cap space and non-guaranteed contracts, many of their most important players will be prospects and projects: RJ Barrett, Mitchell Robinson, Kevin Knox, Frank Ntilikina, Dennis Smith Jr. and the No. 8 pick.
Completing a trade for Paul, at whatever cost, nukes this projection. He doesn't promise a postseason bid alone; that depends on the talent around him. But he is good enough to catapult New York out of win-loss obscurity entirely on his own.
Including the Knicks is a wager against his arrival. He doesn't make a ton of sense on what will invariably be a non-contender, and they're reportedly open to using their cap space, an integral asset in any CP3 deal, to take on unwanted contracts, according to SNY's Ian Begley.
Perhaps you file the two years and $85.6 million Paul is owed under that category. Eh. Undesirable deals are usually attached to assets. The Oklahoma City Thunder aren't surrendering value to unload Paul after he just made second-team All-NBA.
Failing the acquisition of another star, the Knicks aren't fast-tracked to play themselves outside the league's doldrums. That's OK. They're not at the stage of their rebuild—and for now, that's exactly what this is—in which wins matter. Having a concrete vision is more important, and finishing lower in the standings next season might actually say more about their ability to carve one out than a 10-to-20-win bump would.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Looping the Thunder into this conversation is all sorts of icky. They came oh-so-close to bouncing the Houston Rockets from the first round of the playoffs. Devolving into a bottom-five team mandates a quasi-teardown, a level of deconstruction usually not worth predicting.
Such is the state of the Western Conference. No squad forecasts as truly bad. All 15 teams, as currently constructed, will fancy themselves postseason possibilities. This will inevitably shift over the offseason and at the trade deadline, because it always does, but that doesn't mean jack now. No franchise has committed to, let's call it, their own restoration.
The Thunder have come closest. They made a coaching change after blowing expectations to kingdom come. Chris Paul's Disney World sign-off included all but his next landing spot. Danilo Gallinari, in the most 2020 move ever, is polling Twitter on where he should sign in free agency.
Reasonable minds can agree Oklahoma City appears headed for the rebuild it was supposed to enter after trading Paul George and Russell Westbrook. It might not happen over the offseason. Paul could be kept until the trade deadline. But losing him for even a half-year would be catastrophic for the offense. The Thunder scored 13.7 fewer points per 100 possessions with him on the bench.
Letting Gallinari walk in free agency or signing and trading him would subject them to a similar strain. Life without both him and Paul would be unimaginably difficult. The Thunder don't have cap space to add any more high-end shot creators, and their offensive rating placed in the 1st percentile this past season when they played without CP3 and Gallo.
Potential pivots will include returns from a Paul deal—and maybe a Gallinari sign-and-trade, as well. But Oklahoma City doesn't have to stop there. Steven Adams and Dennis Schroder are on expiring contracts and can be used to facilitate bad-money dumps.
More than that, even the best-best-best goodbye-CP3 scenario ends with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander as the Thunder's top option. He might be a future All-Star, but he hasn't developed the playmaking required to anchor a really good team. Oklahoma City's offensive rating fell to the 9th percentile in the minutes he logged without Paul.
Other teams are worth subbing in the Thunder's place. Their case gets shoddier, though it isn't invalidated completely, if they keep Paul for a half-season and bank some wins.
Any non-playoff lock is liable to get swallowed up by the West. The Sacramento Kings and Minnesota Timberwolves loom as distinct possibilities. The San Antonio Spurs can hold their own fire sale. The Phoenix Suns have eight bubble wins of goodwill built up, not an entire season's worth. The Golden State Warriors are a Stephen Curry injury away from calamity.
In the meantime, picking the Thunder is the lesser of all requisite evils. They're showing signs, however speculative, of steering away from the postseason fracas to which every other Western Conference team is presently married.
Next-Best Guess: Minnesota Timberwolves