Power Ranking Every NBA Franchise over the Last 5 Seasons

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistNovember 6, 2020

Power Ranking Every NBA Franchise over the Last 5 Seasons

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    These are not your regular-season NBA power rankings.

    Weekly real-time looks at the league's pecking order are subject to recency bias and, oftentimes, the wild swings that come with it. Stretching the criteria to a half-decade changes the methodology. One scorching-hot stretch or anomaly season still matters, but it's not going to change everything.

    This bigger-picture evaluation will lean on NBA Math's rolling team ratings (RTR), in addition to other harbingers of performance. The final tallies take into account the following returns:

    1. Average RTR over the past five years
    2. Peak 82-game RTR (average of the best 82 scores, each of which represents a 10-game stretch)
    3. True RTR peak (the single best 10-game stretch)
    4. Overall winning percentage
    5. Playoff appearances
    6. Championships

    Finding z-scores for each of the six categories and weighting them equally—aside from titles, which will double in weight—lets us juggle sustained team success, the absolute peaks of performance and postseason accolades.

    This approach is not Teflon. It looks exclusively at on-court performance and doesn't factor in draft and trade track records, along with team goals. Some squads weren't trying to win for much of the past five years. This also doesn't weight the competitive discrepancy in the East and West. Not all above-.500 records and playoff pushes are created equally.

    Potential shortcomings and issues will be addressed whenever necessary. But this is first and foremost an assessment of on-court results. Contributing factors and context will be part of each explanation, as will evaluations of every team's immediate outlook.

    One last thing to remember: Singular seasons can be tipping points, but they are not be-alls. This exercise takes stock of the past five years in total. Recent success does not trounce past failures. And yes, this is a thinly veiled reminder meant almost exclusively for Los Angeles Lakers fans.

    Now, we rank.

30. Phoenix Suns

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Team Score: minus-9.43

    A qualm right off the bat.

    OK, maybe not a qualm—more like a sense of unease. Having the bottom spot go to the Western Conference is a little unsettling. The level of competition is generally higher. Metaphorical brownie points should be baked into the fold.

    This feels much better when viewing the Phoenix Suns and the No. 29-team-that-won't-yet-be-named as members of their own tier of half-decade crumminess. Plus,  the former has done little to deserve our sympathies prior to this season. They have averaged one head coach per season over the past five years—seriously—to go along with the league's lowest winning percentage.

    Phoenix's future, to its credit, is brighter than at least a handful of squads that place higher. Devin Booker is now an entrenched top-25 player, Deandre Ayton is an operable jumper away from entering the elite-big discussion, and the supporting cast has started to take effective shape.

    Whether the post-bubble Suns deserve the benefit of the doubt is debatable, but barring a complete implosion—read: Booker trade demand—their next five seasons should be better than the last.

29. New York Knicks

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    Team Score: minus-9.26

    Not-so-flattering fact: If you consider that the Knicks hired Tom Thibodeau prior to the end of 2019-20, they've technically employed six head coaches over the past five years. Good times.

    The New York Knicks' appearance in the bottom two is hardly a surprise. Avoid the No. 30 slot is itself a win. Playing in the Eastern Conference definitely results in a tiny win-percentage boon—only Phoenix has a worse record—and having Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis for a share of this time span no doubt helps its peak stretches, even if only slightly.

    Finishing second to last also passes the anecdotal sniff test. The Knicks' revolving door of head coaches coincides with their continued appetite for short-circuitry. They either can't bring themselves to stick with a rebuilding model over the longish term or don't have a distinct vision in the first place.

    Drafting Porzingis at No. 4 in 2015 is the closest they've come. Injuries and limited upside as a self-creator rendered him an imperfect, if impossible, primary building block. But he was at least a starting point they acquired organically, a centerpiece they actually had on the roster. Their decision to trade him, while defensible in a vacuum that doesn't account for the return, represented another pivot into OPPT (Other Peoples' Players Territory).

    Emerging from this stalled state of despair won't be easy. New team president Leon Rose deserves a chance to show this franchise will operate in a different, more coherent manner, but even the best-laid plans won't diminish the breadth of work awaiting him.

28. Sacramento Kings

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    Team Score: minus-7.03

    Sacramento has a bit of New York in it. The push to accelerate its position is unendingly urgent. Process hardly ever wins out over patience.

    That's incredibly dangerous in the West, where mediocrity isn't, unlike the East, rewarded with playoff contention but instead years-long setbacks. Unrealistic views of your place in the pecking order are crippling. Seemingly harmless moves—like signing Vince Carter, George Hill and Zach Randolph in the same offseason (2017)—can mutate into disasters.

    It doesn't help that the Kings have not parlayed high lottery selections into standouts. They've controlled five top-10 picks since the 2015 draft, a cache of assets they've turned into: Willie Cauley-Stein (No. 6 in 2015); Bogdan Bogdanovic, Skal Labissiere, Georgios Papagiannis and a 2020 second-rounder (received via trade for No. 8 Marquese Chriss in 2016); De'Aaron Fox (No. 5 in 2017); Harry Giles III and Justin Jackson (received via trade for No. 10 Zach Collins in 2017); and Marvin Bagley (No. 2 in 2018).

    Even the most favorable reviews must term this a mixed bag. Fox and Bogdanovic are the lone hits, and only one of them, in Fox, is cornerstone material. Most will harp on Bagley over Luka Doncic (No. 3) in 2018—and deservedly so—yet that one decision wouldn't be enough to rescue the Kings from these doldrums.

    Improving over the next five years is at once eminently possible and difficult. Sacramento has plenty of NBA talent on its roster right now but is on the precipice of getting wildly expensive. Harrison Barnes and Buddy Hield are already getting paid while both Bogdanovic (restricted) and Fox (extension-eligible) are up for massive raises.

    If the Kings aren't careful—or realistic about their place in the West—they'll end up shelling out championship-contender money for a roster that may peak as a top-10 seed.

27. Brooklyn Nets

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    Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

    Team Score: minus-5.80

    Feel free to rage against the Brooklyn Nets' finish.

    They have a bottom-three record over the past half-decade, but that says more about the hand inherited by general manager Sean Marks upon his arrival in 2016. Brooklyn has since, for the most part, conducted business like a methodical organization and found plenty of impact players late in the first round (Jarrett Allen) or on the fringes of the NBA (Joe Harris, Spencer Dinwiddie).

    On-court results don't take cultural reinventions under advisement. Nor do they factor in the Nets appealing to both Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Their standing would be buoyed if both appeared in more than a combined 20 games during 2019-20.

    Relative to what the Nets were working with—minimal asset equity—their current position, however fragile while hinging on two stars with complicated health bills, qualifies as overachieving.

    How far up the ladder those feel-good vibes could theoretically vault them is a matter of preference. On-court results matter, and the Nets only have a pair of first-round exits and one above-.500 season on their half-decade resume.

26. Chicago Bulls

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    Team Score: minus-4.98

    The bottom five seems a touch low for the Chicago Bulls. Jimmy Butler was on the roster for two full seasons of this stretch, both of which saw Chicago finish .500 or better.

    Dig deeper and it starts to track. The Bulls topped out at 42 wins and made just one playoff appearance. Some of their peaks were fairly high—their top 10-game apex ranked 19th—but they've steered into lows, both incidental and deliberate, since moving Butler in 2017. Only the Knicks have a worse record over the past three years.

    Murky availability from key players adds a beyond-their-control air to this finish. Zach LaVine, Wendell Carter Jr., Lauri Markkanen and Otto Porter Jr., among others, have all missed significant time since the 2017-18 campaign. But the Bulls haven't pieced together a consensus make-sense roster at any point over the past half-decade. Better health in recent years probably wouldn't spare them from a bottom-seven or -eight spot.

    Chicago's outlook is less damning, though hardly assuring.

    LaVine, WCJ, Markkanen (extension-eligible), Coby White and this year's No. 4 pick give them a base off which to build. Executive vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas is a colossal upgrade over Gar Forman and John Paxson, because obviously. Ditto for head coach Billy Donovan compared to Jim Boylen.

    But the search for a long-haul focal point endures. Maybe it's White. Or, much less likely, Carter. It definitely isn't LaVine or Markkanen. And until the Bulls find that top-20-esque player, they'll maintain their unfinished form.

25. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Jim Mone/Associated Press

    Team Score: minus-3.95

    Zero surprises here. The Minnesota Timberwolves have turned in just one season above .500 and one playoff appearance since 2015-16—the lone full year they had Jimmy Butler (2017-18) and managed to rattle off 47 victories.

    Many will use this as an indictment of Karl-Anthony Towns' stardom. It isn't. Not entirely, anyway. The Timberwolves have yet to surround him with capable or sustainable sidekicks. They have counted Butler, Zach LaVine, Ricky Rubio, D'Angelo Russell and Andrew Wiggins as one of his top-two teammates at any given point. That's too much turnover near the top of the franchise—and not enough talent.

    Minnesota has no guarantees of a much better outlook moving forward. Its fate is firmly tethered to the Russell-Towns duo, which has logged all of 61 possessions together. The offense will hum around those two, but the Timberwolves need to properly flesh out the defensive talent.

    A lot hinges on the development of Jarrett Culver and what they do with this year's No. 1 pick (keep or trade?). Russell and Towns are already on max deals, and they owe their 2021 pick to the Golden State Warriors (top-three protection). Culver and No. 1 are the extent of the home-run swings they have left in the tank.

24. Orlando Magic

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    Kim Klement/Associated Press

    Team Score: minus-3.89

    Though it seems as if the Magic have slogged through mediocrity for roughly forever, a bottom-seven finish implies their past half-decade has been even worse. And it has. Orlando has just one above-.500 season and two first-round exits over this span—a borderline shock given the East's forgiving landscape and the number of high lottery picks the team has held.

    Failing to parlay those selections into blue-chip cornerstones gets to the heart of the Magic's sub-middling finish. They've drafted inside the top seven three times over the past five years. The end results: Mario Hezonja (No. 5 in 2015), Jonathan Isaac (No. 6 in 2017) and Mo Bamba (No. 6 in 2018).

    Lackluster returns on previous top-five choices are also part of the calculus. They took Victor Oladipo at No. 2 in 2013 and eventually flipped him with Ersan Ilyasova and Domantas Sabonis (No. 11 in 2016) for Serge Ibaka, who they eventually turned into Terrence Ross and the No. 25 pick in 2017 (Anzejs Pasecņiks, who they also traded).

    Aaron Gordon is hardly a bust, especially when measured against the rest of the 2014 class, but he's not the building-block archetype you're hoping to get out of the No. 4 spot.

    Essentially, this is what happens when a team opts against full-tilt resets and settles for the ceiling available to any franchise that counts Nikola Vucevic as its best player.

23. New Orleans Pelicans

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    Matthew Hinton/Associated Press

    Team Score: minus-3.63

    Finishing so comfortably inside the bottom 10 is nothing if not a major disappointment for a team that employed Anthony Davis in four of the past five seasons. Then again, the New Orleans Pelicans didn't really have him for that long.

    Last year is a wash. Davis requested a trade about halfway through the season and didn't play a full-time role following February's deadline. Some will argue that shouldn't matter. Fair.

    New Orleans was six games under .500 when he asked out. The story of that season was mostly written. But he missed the latter part of 2015-16 with injuries to his left shoulder and left knee, the latter of which required surgery. Roughly two of the past five years, in sum, were compromised by Davis' absence and departure.

    Botched win-now moves explain away the rest of the Pelicans' struggles. Investments in Omer Asik, Tyreke Evans and Solomon Hill hamstrung their flexibility and capped their ceiling, to varying degrees, for a while. The 2017 DeMarcus Cousins trade, while a justifiable gamble, went belly up when he suffered an Achilles injury.

    Fortunately for New Orleans, it appears on course for a more prosperous next five years.

    Jrue Holiday's future continues to hang in the balance, per The Athletic's Shams Charania, but winning the Zion Williamson sweepstakes and the return gleaned from the Davis trade has glitzed up the Pelicans' big picture.

    They are armed with plenty of future picks, a 23-year-old All-Star in Brandon Ingram (restricted free agent), Lonzo Ball (extension-eligible), Josh Hart (extension-eligible), Jaxson Hayes and Nickeil Alexander-Walker—on top of Zion.

22. Charlotte Hornets

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    Nell Redmond/Associated Press

    Team Score: minus-3.58

    The Charlotte Hornets are lucky to be this high. They benefit predominantly from playing a majority of their games against Eastern Conference teams. Their winning percentage over the past five years ranks 16th in the league even though they've put together just one above-.500 season.

    That 2015-16 squad looms large in this discussion. It put together 48 victories and helps give the Hornets a pleasantly-not-sucky 82-game-peak rank (21st). Both make all the difference when pitting them against franchises that have spent more time exploring rock bottom.

    Tanking is something the Hornets have yet to even do. They had the version of Kemba Walker that was an offense unto himself through four of the past five seasons. That's enough to float fringe mediocrity.

    Alternate realities in which the Hornets register a higher score are difficult to envision. Doubling down on the 2015-16 core with new contracts for Nicolas Batum and Marvin Williams didn't position them to move the needle, and the former's regression meant they couldn't even hold it.

    Uninspiring draft decisions effectively seal Charlotte's retroactive fate. Late-lottery selections cannot be deemed franchise-burying busts, but complete misses still hurt.

    The Hornets took Frank Kaminsky at No. 9 in 2015 (and apparently turned down four first-rounders from Boston to move out of that spot); traded Malachi Richardson at No. 22 in 2016 for Marco Belinelli; selected Malik Monk at No. 11 in 2017; flipped Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (No. 11) for Miles Bridges (No. 12) and two seconds in 2018; and selected P.J. Washington at No. 12 in 2019.

    Washington stands as the best outcome of the bunch. Dealing Gilgeous-Alexander stings. He and Kemba absolutely could've played together, and Charlotte's past two seasons might've played out much differently if they did.

21. Memphis Grizzlies

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    Brandon Dill/Associated Press

    Team Score: minus-3.49

    Slotting the Grizzlies inside the bottom 10 screams "flawed rankings logic!" at first glance. But the past five years didn't include any part of Grit 'n' Grind's peak.

    Memphis' two playoff berths, both of them first-round exits, came on its storied core's last legs. Mike Conley's Achilles injury in 2017-18, which limited him to 12 appearances, torpedoed an entire season. In hindsight, the Grizzlies probably held on to the Conley-Marc Gasol duo a year and a half too long.

    Meaningful change has only taken place over the past two seasons. Conley's injury-plagued 2017-18 paved the way for Memphis to draft Jaren Jackson Jr. at No. 4. Lottery luck was on the Grizzlies' side in 2019. They shipped Gasol to the Toronto Raptors midway through that season but still finished with just a 13 percent chance of nabbing a top-two pick.

    Those odds were in their favor. They jumped to No. 2 and grabbed Ja Morant, who not only simplified the decision to move Conley that summer but has also proved to be the type of player you expect to generate MVP buzz. So while he does little to boost their standing over the past five years, he figures to be a boon for their next half-decade. 

20. Detroit Pistons

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Team Score: minus-3.42

    Actively chasing playoff appearances for most of the past half-decade helps inflate the Detroit Pistons' standing. They weren't always successful; they made the postseason just twice. But four consecutive years of win totals in the high 30s to low 40s counts as enviable consistency in parts of the Eastern Conference.

    Steering into actual badness, courtesy of Blake Griffin's surgically repaired left knee, didn't noticeably impact their returns. They're too far away from 19th place to have jumped up a spot. Trading Andre Drummond sooner—and playing Derrick Rose less—could have culminated in their dropping behind the Grizzlies.

    Scouring their performance since 2015-16 doesn't reveal many potential points of substantial improvement, either. Getting more value from the No. 8 pick in 2015 would have helped, but how much of a difference does Justise Winslow (No. 10) make compared to Stanley Johnson? Taking Devin Booker (No. 13) would've done the trick, but he fell so far past them that it's unfair to designate him a full-fledged missed opportunity.

    Taking Luke Kennard (No. 12) one pick ahead of Donovan Mitchell (No. 13) in 2017 is for sure a hallmark what-if. Ditto for the Griffin trade itself. Would their performance have been better off without consolidating the assets that went into it? Or would they merely be deeper into their rebuild?

19. Atlanta Hawks

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    John Amis/Associated Press

    Team Score: minus-2.68

    Can you feel that, 2014-15 Atlanta Hawks? It's future versions of your franchise riding the coattails of that core.

    Atlanta's nucleus went unchanged in 2015-16 when the team tallied 48 victories and played into the second round. Next year's squad didn't have Al Horford but got a half-season of Kyle Korver and an entire schedule's worth of Kent Bazemore, Paul Millsap, Dennis Schroder and peak Tim Hardaway Jr. That was good enough for 43 wins and another playoff appearances.

    Both rosters carry the Hawks outside the bottom 10. They benefit most from their true 10-game apex, which is the 12th-highest among all teams.

    Hovering around No. 20 sits right. The Hawks have neither obliterated expectations nor failed to meet them. They were rightfully critiqued for letting Horford and Millsap walk in free agency rather than moving them at respective trade deadlines, and they displayed perhaps uncalled-for urgency this past season by surrendering a first-round pick (No. 17) to acquire Clint Capela and the three years and $55.6 million left on his deal.

    At the same time, their past half-decade is not holistically uninteresting. It includes a fringe 50-win campaign, a year occupying the absolute middle and three seasons of a thoroughly entertaining rebuild highlighted most by Trae Young playing them into a more immediate sense of self.

18. Washington Wizards

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Team Score: minus-2.58

    Recency bias is liable to make this look off. John Wall hasn't played in about one eternity, the same amount of time the Washington Wizard have spent wallowing beneath 35 wins.

    In all reality, this wandering through the wilderness has spanned two seasons. Wall last played in late Dec. 2018, which is almost Jan. 2019. That's actually not forever ago. Go figure.

    Prior to that, the Wizards ran off three consecutive years of .500 or better basketball, featuring a pair of trips to the playoffs and one first-round victory. Their regular-season record over that time is tied for 12th with the Miami Heat—good enough to ferry a top-15 winning percentage for the past half-decade.

    Holster the confetti. Evading the bottom 10 isn't cause for celebration, and the Wizards have questions moving forward. Chief among them: What does Wall look like following his Achilles injury with almost two years away from the floor? And how does his performance post-recovery impact Bradley Beal's future?

    Next year could hold an immediate upswing. Or it could beckon a fuller-scale rebuild. The Wizards have merely occupied the ground in between over the past two seasons.

17. Dallas Mavericks

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    Team Score: minus-1.55

    Luka Doncic is the ultimate form of recency bias. It is hard to imagine a version of the Dallas Mavericks that wasn't sitting pretty.

    But Doncic's career is two years old. It is a baby. And before him, the Mavericks were grappling, unsuccessfully, with the end of the Dirk Nowitzki era. They mustered a first-round playoff exit in 2015-16 and then proceeded to notch under 35 wins, including one sub-25 season (2017-18), over each of the next three years.

    No one was much concerned about the latter of those three campaigns. Dallas already had Doncic and punted on the closing kick of 2018-19 by trading for the injured Kristaps Porzingis. Leaning further into its place outside the West's postseason picture positioned the organization for an accelerated turnaround. 

    That line of thinking has paid off. Doncic has entered the top-five debate after only two seasons, and the Mavericks, after playing at a 47-win pace in 2019-20, have the look of a team that's, like, half a player away from genuine title contention.

    Knowing how much Dallas' true peak works in its favor (10th place) invites reflection on what could have been—and not for the better. What happens over each of the past two seasons if the Mavericks never acquire Doncic on draft night in 2018? What if they never trade for Porzingis and were instead left to cope with the fallout from Dennis Smith Jr.'s plunging stock?

    Dallas' 17th-place finish looks low after what we just watched. Really, if one or two transactions break differently, it could be much lower.

16. Denver Nuggets

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Team Score: minus-0.98

    As if we needed any more evidence that playing in the Western Conference is tough noogies.

    The Denver Nuggets rank 12th in winning percentage since 2015-16—and a whopping fifth over the past three seasons. Their climb up the league's chain of command has been gradual, but their bright-eyes performance is hardly new or isolated to a singular season. They were the darlings of teams on the come-up starting in 2016-17.

    Emphasis on come-up.

    Denver is hit most by its missed playoff berth in 2017 and its absolute peak, which ranks 23rd relative to other 10-game pinnacles. For everything that's gone right, the Nuggets have still spent quite a bit of time establishing their footing over the past half-decade.

    Even this past season, in which they snagged the West's third seed and scrapped their way to the conference finals, was marked by Jekyll-and-Hyde stretches that, counterintuitively, featured minimal separation between one another. Put another way: Their inconsistency was consistent. It included balanced highs and lows as opposed to extremes.

    At least one or two more teams to come might seem out of place compared to how far the Nuggets tumbled. More so than any other squad, they might benefit from a measurement of playoff peaks since they're one of just seven franchises to have made a Western Conference Finals cameo during this time.

    On the flip side, they could also be dinged for some of their less-quantifiable moves, like Gary Harris' contract, taking Emmanuel Mudiay at No. 7 in 2015 and sending Donovan Mitchell to the Utah Jazz for Tyler Lydon and Trey Lyles.

15. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Team Score: minus-0.93

    Depending on how you view the past season in Philadelphia 76ers Land, this might seem too low. It's not. Their place in the half-decade food chain is a tale of two extremes.

    Only five teams have a higher winning percentage over the past three years. That's great. And grand. And makes you wonder why they didn't do more to re-sign Jimmy Butler. And wonderful. But the two seasons preceding those three matter. Philly won just 38 games during that span, the fewest in the league.

    Standout peaks prevent the Sixers from sliding lower. They have the 11th-best mountaintop ratings across both 82 games and 10 games. To be honest, hindsight doesn't show a clear path to a much better finish. This past year is far from a success, but they still played at a 48- or 49-win pace and earned a playoff bid.

    Short of grabbing more victories when they were supposed to suck—or making it to and winning the NBA Finals in 2019—they haven't feasibly left many opportunities on the table. That is, unless you believe their 2019 offseason futzing and fiddling cost them a championship in 2020.

    Which, well, fine. But that entails rewriting too much history. They'd also be better off if Joel Embiid appeared in more than 31 games during his first three seasons, or if Ben Simmons didn't miss his scheduled rookie year. Neither is an epiphany or manageable tweak. Their recent history is littered with irreversible uncontrollables.

    Philly's outlook might be, too. New general manager Daryl Morey takes over a roster that is set to soar past the luxury tax yet is miles from finished. Breaking up Embiid and Simmons isn't the answer, at least not yet, but the Sixers are light on complementary ball-handling and shooting without the cap space or mega-attractive assets to go out and make the most splashy moves.

14. Miami Heat

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Team Score: minus-0.19

    Props to the Miami Heat for cracking the top half of these rankings while finishing at or below .500 in two of the past five years. This is less a testament to their absolute peaks—they were 16th in both 82- and 10-game pole positions—and more so a nod toward their knack for relevance. They have consistently threaded the needle between mediocrity and contention, a middle ground our formula can get behind.

    Making three playoff appearances doesn't hurt, either. Winning a title would've not hurt even more. They finished two victories away from commandeering 11th place.

    Fast forward another half-decade and Miami should be closer to the top. A lot can happen over five years in a league where title windows tend to last fewer than three seasons, and at 31, Jimmy Butler's days among the top 10 stars could be numbered. But the Heat have the jet fuel to power through the storm that is time.

    Just so we're clear: This isn't a prediction that they'll sign Giannis Antetokounmpo. Bagging him or another star would solidify their long-term position beyond measure, but they don't want for security on their current trajectory.

    Bam Adebayo is 23 and already on the All-NBA peripherals. Tyler Herro doesn't turn 21 until January and has a deep enough offensive armory to forecast future All-Star appearances. Duncan Robinson, 26, is found money who might party-crash the top-60-to-75 player tier.

    Toss in the Heat's projected cap space this offseason and next, and theirs becomes a future worth investments of confidence.

13. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Team Score: 0.22

    Reminder to the reminder already issued: These rankings cover the last five years, not just the past season or two.

    Viewed through the aggregate lens, the Lakers' finish is closer to pleasantly surprising. Make no mistake, their lone championship campaign is doing some seriously heavy lifting.

    This past year was the only one in which the Lakers ended up above .500. Through the four seasons prior, including LeBron James' first go-round, they owned a bottom-four record, beating out only the Nets, Knicks and Suns. They'd have finished 23rd without their title.

    Forcing more subjective criteria into the equation wouldn't justify a significant leap.

    The Anthony Davis trade falls under this past season's purview, and it wasn't exactly smooth sailing. They did sign LeBron in 2018, but they also inked Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov in 2016. The former was waived and stretched and will be on the books for another two years; it took D'Angelo Russell, the No. 2 pick in 2015, to wipe the latter off their ledger.

    Brainpower is better expended surveying the Lakers' outlook. They're in great shape. LeBron turns 36 in December, but that's like 26 or 27 in LeBron years. Davis is only 27 and had a strong case for Finals MVP.

    More than all of that, the Lakers are flexible. Their war chest isn't chock full after sending so many picks and prospects to the Pelicans, but they have a shot at adding a real difference-maker this offseason. They project to have the non-taxpayer mid-level exception at a time when, like, 25 teams will be working with the same amount of money or less.

    All things being equal (or worse elsewhere), you have to like their chances when selling the opportunity to play with LeBron and AD and in Los Angeles.

12. Portland Trail Blazers

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    Kim Klement/Associated Press

    Team Score: 1.37

    Consistency is big-time in this exercise. The Portland Trail Blazers have eluded any harmful swings even though their regular-season record has varied, a level of stability that anchors a near-top-10 position.

    This past season is the closest they got to coming undone. Jusuf Nurkic was recovering from a compound leg fracture. Zach Collins barely played due to a shoulder injury. Carmelo Anthony was plucked out of an empty gym, mid-Instagram video, and inserted into the starting lineup. The Blazers entered the Disney bubble eight games under .500 and needed to go 7-2, including a play-in victory, to secure a playoff bid.

    Do not underestimate the impact of that postseason push. Finishing four games under .500 harshed the Blazers' half-decade winning percentage—they rank 11th—but just five other teams have made the playoffs every year since 2016. That six-way tie for a No. 1 postseason-berth rank amounts to a huge boost.

    Portland's capacity to tread water or improve in the coming seasons isn't under immediate siege. Damian Lillard is a top-10 player and in his prime. CJ McCollum is in the top-45-to-30 range and also in his. Collins and Nurkic will provide more net value than they did this year by, you know, actually playing.

    Something still has to give for the Blazers soon. They cannot hope to navigate the Western Conference for much longer without a semi-seismic addition. Lillard and McCollum will be entering their mid-30s by the end of the next half-decade.

    After Anfernee Simons' lamentable sophomore crusade, Portland isn't working with any appreciable youthful upside, and the wing minutes are far from set long-term. Gary Trent Jr. is a keeper, but he'll cost real money to, well, keep. He's extension-eligible this offseason and a restricted free agent in 2021.

    Taking a stick of dynamite to the Lillard-McCollum partnership isn't the answer if the Blazers are angling to make major strides. They'd need to move the latter as part of a deal for a top-15-to-20 star, and depending on the player, even that might not equate to a monster upgrade.

    Hunting for a smaller-yet-meaningful return by dangling Collins, Simons, salary filler and future picks is more their speed. What that gets them is anyone's guess. It's too much for Victor Oladipo and likely not enough for Jrue Holiday. The point stands: Aggression should be the Blazers' default mode. The Western Conference is developing beyond their waiting and seeing.

11. Indiana Pacers

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    Team Score: 1.58

    Before anybody cries "Buuuut how?!?," please consider that the Indiana Pacers have the 10th-highest regular-season winning percentage over the past half-decade while navigating the exit of Paul George and more than one year's worth of absences from Victor Oladipo since 2017-18.

    Skeptics may now adjust their responses to "Mmm, K."

    Indiana's resolution in the face of roster turnover and injury is cherry-topped by its 1.000 batting average on playoff appearances. Only five other teams have made the postseason in every year since 2016: the Boston Celtics, Houston Rockets, Oklahoma City Thunder, Portland Trail Blazers and Toronto Raptors.

    "Holy crap" is now an even more appropriate response.

    The Pacers have their work cut out if they're going to flirt with or enter the top 10 over the next five years. They are more combustible than their run of above-.500 basketball implies.

    Oladipo will be a free agent after next season and hasn't looked the same since he suffered a right quad injury in 2018. The Domantas Sabonis-Myles Turner frontcourt can work, but it isn't yet clear whether it represents the most optimized version of the Pacers.

    The final two years on Jeremy Lamb's deal could devolve into cumbersome following his torn left ACL. Malcolm Brogdon's remaining price point (three years, $65 million) becomes a lot steeper if he's missing 15 to 20 games every year.

    Without an unexpectedly helpful move coming down the pipeline, Indiana's most meaningful addition may come in the form of head coach Nate Bjorkgren. Much about its immediate future rests on whether he can up the ante on what's already in place.

10. Boston Celtics

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Team Score: 3.13

    Tenth place feels just right for the Celtics. If anything, it comes across a touch too low.

    Boston has the fifth-highest winning percentage over the past five years, during which time its leaders in value over replacement player consist of Al Horford, Isaiah Thomas, Kyrie Irving, Jayson Tatum, Marcus Smart, Jae Crowder, Gordon Hayward and Kemba Walker. (Jaylen Brown is 14th.) That is...a lot of top-end talent.

    The Celtics only cede ground when looking at performance peaks. They are 10th in the 82-game category and 14th in the short-term 10-game department. This is mostly believable. They have ingrained themselves into the Eastern Conference contender's clique, though not without turnover.

    Three different All-Star point guards—Irving, Thomas, Walker—have cycled through Boston over the past five years. Hayward has battled injuries since arriving in 2017, including missing all but five minutes of his inaugural season. Brown (2016) and Tatum (2017) were drafted and integrated in consecutive years. The Celtics went from starting Amir Johnson to Al Horford to Daniel Theis at center.

    Their 2018-19 campaign was the ricketiest almost-50-win season in recent memory, a real pecking-order pileup featuring Brown, Hayward, Irving and Tatum plus contract-year Marcus Morris Sr. and Terry Rozier.

    Things are already looking up for the longer term.

    The offensive hierarchy isn't nearly as jumbled following the departures of Irving, Morris and Rozier. Tatum has made the leap into superstar territory. Brown is a borderline All-Star. The Celtics have issues to hash out with Hayward (player option), Walker (knees), Smart (free agent in 2022) and at center, but they're currently sitting on three top-30 players—two of whom, Brown and Tatum, are on the right side of 25.

9. Los Angeles Clippers

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Team Score: 3.20

    The Los Angeles Clippers' top-10 finish is at once predictable and not a total given. They've navigated more iterations than many of the other teams with a top-seven winning percentage over the past five years.

    Lob City lasted through the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons. Then Chris Paul orchestrated his opt-in-and-trade to the Houston Rockets. The Clippers re-signed Blake Griffin to a five-year max that same summer, a pitch replete with a mock retirement ceremony and all, but they traded him to Detroit midway through 2017-18.

    Soldiering on without a conventional star that season (sorry, DeAndre Jordan) left them on the outskirts of the playoffs. They then parlayed their late lottery selection and a late second-rounder into Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

    That year's squad still lacked a traditional superstar punch despite the play of Tobias Harris and free-agent addition Danilo Gallinari. The Clippers scraped together a playoff appearance anyway—even after jettisoning Harris to Philadelphia.

    One entertaining first-round exit later, they used Gallinari, Gilgeous-Alexander and approximately a jillion first-round picks and swaps to land Paul George from the Oklahoma City Thunder and ensure Kawhi Leonard's arrival via free agency.

    These last few paragraphs summarize like a decade's worth of moves. The Clippers crammed them, among others, into roughly three years. And they're better off for it. This past season might've been a joyless-looking slog, but they still played above a 50-win pace and came one historically bad postseason collapse from a conference finals cameo.

    George and Leonard hold player options for the 2021-22 season. That matters. But they orchestrated their arrival. They chose to be Clippers. So long as they're in town—and not donning purple and gold—this team will be within close proximity of a title.

8. Utah Jazz

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Team Score: 3.78

    Full disclosure: The Jazz checking in at No. 8 got me. I didn't see it coming. Their hamster wheel of fringe contention felt quaint, not elite or right on the cusp of it.

    Shame on me.

    Utah has played at a 50-plus-win pace in three of the past five seasons, good for a top-nine record overall. Its peaks are not explosively high, but they're lofty enough, cracking the top eight in both the 82-game and 10-game departments. Tack on four playoff berths, which only 10 other teams have matched or exceeded, and—cliche incoming—the whole really is greater than the sum of its parts.

    Climbing any higher in the years to come can neither be written off nor assumed. Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell will give them a pair of top-25 stars if they stay together. (Mitchell isn't quite there yet, but he's just 24 and working off a defining postseason masterpiece.) The rest of the core is much less of a given.

    Mike Conley and Joe Ingles are 33. Bojan Bogdanovic is 31. The Jazz should be better in the interim if both Bogdanovic and Conley remain healthy for 2020-21, but they may have maxed out their flexibility. They'll (probably) need to enter the luxury tax if they wish to re-sign Jordan Clarkson and spend the bigger mid-level exception, and both Gobert and Mitchell, extension-eligible this offseason, will be on new deals come 2021-22.

    In other words: Utah in the immediate term should be ridiculously good, perhaps better than in any of the past five seasons. Utah's longer term, beyond next year or 2021-22, is ambiguous.

7. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    Team Score: 4.01

    Try to resist getting angry if you're expecting the Milwaukee Bucks to be higher.

    Giannis Antetokounmpo has been Giannis Antetokounmpo for four of the past five years, but collective regular-season dominance didn't kick in until 2018-19. The Bucks were eight games under .500 from 2015-16 through 2017-18 (16th overall), over which time parts of their livelihood depended on Jabari Parker's health, Greg Monroe and Jason Kidd, among other unideal factors.

    Peak performances under head coach Mike Budenholzer, coupled with Giannis' full-tilt back-to-back-MVP eruption, spare them from drifting outside the top 10. Their 82-game pinnacle places fourth among all 30 teams, and they benefit drastically from an indomitable 2019-20. They not only played at a 63-win pace, but their simple rating system score, which ranks teams according to point differential and strength of schedule, is among the 11 highest in league history.

    The Bucks should remain on the up-and-up if Giannis sticks around beyond next season. Playoff jokes are made at their expense because they deserve them. They need to add another shot creator, and the notion that they haven't genuinely kicked around Chris Paul trade ideas, per ESPN's Zach Lowe, should get fans and back-to-back MVPs alike heated. But let's pump the brakes on rampant pessimism.

    Milwaukee may not be a title favorite as currently constructed. Giannis is still in the best-player-alive debate, and he only turns 26 in December. The next five years of his career guarantee, at worst, another regular-season bump if the Bucks do enough keep him.

6. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Team Score: 5.03

    Kudos to the Oklahoma City Thunder for gobbling up sixth place by a fairly large margin despite navigating a labyrinth of different roster makeups.

    They had Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and Steven Adams in 2015-16. Then they went to the all-Westbrook-all-the-time show in 2016-17, with spot credits from Adams, Victor Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis and a healthy Andre Roberson, among others. Then they cannonballed into a Westbrook-Carmelo Anthony-Paul George experiment in 2017-18. Then they exchanged Melo for Dennis Schroder in 2018-19.

    And then, after all that, they turned George and Westbrook into Danilo Gallinari, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Chris Paul and a kabillion draft considerations.

    Serial turnover at the top should not end with any semblance of consistency. The Thunder are an exception. They have the sixth-highest winning percentage over the past five years to go along with successive playoff berths and a fourth-place short-term peak.

    Pardon my French, but douce mere de Dieu.

    All signs point to the party being over. The Thunder parted ways with head coach Billy Donovan and have yet to hire another while all the most well-known candidates are scooped up. Chris Paul's Disney World sign-off included all but his next landing spot. Danilo Gallinari is polling Twitter on where he should sign in free agency.

    Anything can happen over the next five years. The Thunder have Gilgeous-Alexander, a legit All-Star-type cornerstone, and a ton of draft equity. Long live Luguentz Dort, too. And if they don't move Paul, they'll be staring down the barrel of another playoff berth. Overall, though, their five-year outlook isn't as rosy as the one they just wrapped up—mostly by design.

5. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Team Score: 5.79

    Moral of this story: Championships matter.

    Los Angeles Lakers fans might point out that their team didn't get a top-five fist bump for their lone title season. But the Cleveland Cavaliers of the past half-decade have something they do not: three years of regular-season dominance in the East and the playoff bids to go with them.

    Only four teams turned in a higher winning percentage from 2015-16 to 2017-18. Cleveland also placed in the top five of both peak-performance metrics (82 games and shorter terms). This is your bi-monthly reminder that the 2016-17 Cavaliers were absurdly, unfathomably good despite getting waxed by a dynasty in the Finals.

    Maintaining this position is out of the question. Cleveland has a bottom-two record over the past two seasons, edging out only the New York Knicks, and remains on the prowl for its post-LeBron James cornerstone. Even if the Cavs effectively expedite their rebuild, at least the next two years project to be ultra-tough sledding.

4. Houston Rockets

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Team Score: 5.84

    Postseason punchlines—hilarious and deserving as some might be—do not diminish the Houston Rockets' body of work these past five years. They snare top-five marks in both peak-performance categories and are a perfect 5-of-5 on playoff appearances. The Golden State Warriors and Toronto Raptors are the only teams with better winning percentages.

    Houston left most of its points on the table by failing to win a title. That's saying something about the last half-decade. And hey: The Rockets may have actually left a title on the table.

    They might have advanced to the Finals in 2018 if Chris Paul never suffered a hamstring injury and the team didn't miss 27 straight three-pointers in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors. Houston still would've needed to go through the Cleveland Cavaliers thereafter, but that is child's play compared to the greatest team ever assembled.

    Living in could-haves, should-haves and might-haves is overrated. The Rockets have pieced together a more than respectable half-decade, their most impressive feat perhaps being their willingness to go all-in while the dynastic Warriors existed.

    Looking forward doesn't engender as many feel-good vibes. Houston still has James Harden, but it also has a mushrooming payroll and aging Eric Gordon and Russell Westbrook. Losing both Mike D'Antoni and Daryl Morey in the same offseason could prove debilitating, and more importantly, no one quite knows whether team governor Tilman Fertitta will have the guts to double-down or this roster's financial calculus.

    For the foreseeable future, the Rockets seem combustible: tottering on the edge of title contention and total implosion, the latter of which would invite, if not force, a wholesale reset.

3. San Antonio Spurs

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Team Score: 6.93

    The San Antonio Spurs can be dinged for how they've managed the roster of the past five years.

    Signing Pau Gasol to that three-year, $48 million deal before his age-37 season never made sense. And then, of course, they have Kawhi Leonard's messy exit in 2018. Whether they could've done anything to salvage the relationship is one issue. The return they received for him is another.

    Accepting a package of DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and the pick that became Keldon Johnson was extremely win-now without the benefit of continued contention. That they treated Danny Green, functionally, as a throw-in salary makes it look even worse. San Antonio may have skirted a rebuild but only delayed the inevitable. Its 22-year playoff streak ended this past year.

    Still, regular-season relevance has its value. The Spurs own the fourth-highest winning percentage for the past half-decade, even after finishing 2019-20 seven games under .500. Banking four playoff berths also puts them in a semi-exclusive club. About one-third of the league has clinched four postseason appearances in the last five years.

    San Antonio gets the strongest push from its performance summits. It has the second-highest 82-game peak from the past five years—and the single highest short-term peak score, beating out even the Golden State Warriors. That is at once a testament to their play pre-Kawhi trade and a crash course in what maybe, possibly, potentially could have been if he never left.

    Expect the Spurs to fall from this pedestal over the next half-decade. They haven't taken the rebuilding plunge, but they're approaching a natural overhaul point. DeRozan, LaMarcus Aldridge, Rudy Gay and Patty Mills are all on expiring contracts, and no one quite knows how much longer head coach Gregg Popovich, 71, plans to remain on the sidelines.

    This is not to say any Spurs reset will be long-lived. Dejounte Murray and Derrick White (extension-eligible) give them a readier-made starting point than most other reboot situations. Totally bottoming gets even harder to pull off if Johnson and Lonnie Walker IV continue to show the flashes they did during the 2019-20 restart. In some form, though, San Antonio figures to withstand a drop-off from the past five years—deliberate or not.

2. Toronto Raptors

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    Team Score: 8.70

    Serving as the Cleveland Cavaliers' playoff punching bag worked out quite well for the Toronto Raptors. Incurring the LeBron James bugaboo meant they were advancing past the first or second round, which in turn inferred a certain level of regular-season success.

    Toronto's performance in the two years since he left the East has only fast-tracked its top-two case. Kawhi Leonard spearheaded a championship run. He left during the 2019 offseason, but Most Improved Player Pascal Siakam was ready to go boom once more. The Raptors held the East's No. 2 seed in both 2018-19 and 2019-20.

    Weighed in its totality, their case verges on unimpeachable. They have the highest winning percentage in the league since 2015-16. They've tallied five straight playoff appearances, none of which ended in a first-round exit. They won a title, affording them a gigantic edge over every team other than the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Lakers. And they closed with high enough rankings in peak performance—sixth over 82 games; eighth in the 10-game department—to render second place untouchable to anyone else.

    Sustaining this position won't be easy. For starters, the Raptors have barely anywhere to go other than down. But the prospect of roster turnover and a gap year, if not quasi-rebuild, looms.

    Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka and Fred VanVleet are all free agents this offseason. How married the Raptors are to running it back depends almost completely on Giannis Antetokounmpo. If he signs a supermax extension with the Milwaukee Bucks, they'll plan their future independent of him. Does that entail running it back? And for how much longer? Or might they consider a reset?

    Their outlook doesn't get much more transparent if Giannis opts against signing a supermax before next season. Preserving cap space takes precedence if he's in play. That could mean letting all of their free agents walk. Or it could mean paying VanVleet market value, trying to keep Ibaka and/or Gasol on a one-year deal and figuring out the Giannis-to-Toronto math over the 2021 offseason.

    Different scenarios abound for the Raptors, and they aren't all of the win-now variety. That's not damning. They've maxed out Siakam and have Kyle Lowry on the books through next season. They'll approach the immediate term with some trace of urgency no matter what Giannis decides. And though they'll go head-to-head with plenty of question marks regardless of how everything plays out, they've long since earned the benefit of the doubt.

1. Golden State Warriors

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Team Score: 17.74

    Gap year and all, the Golden State Warriors' grip on the No. 1 spot is cosmically, comically strong.

    No team has a higher 82-game peak—which, duh. The San Antonio Spurs, somehow, compiled a higher short-term apex, but the Warriors are a close second. They're also a tightly contested runner-up in five-year winning percentage, trailing the Toronto Raptors by seven victories...despite playing seven fewer games and just laboring through a 15-win campaign.

    Title volume renders the Warriors sacrosanct. They've won three of the last five championships. The rest of the league cannot come back from that kind of success.

    Golden State's resume won't hold its top spot for much longer—definitely through next season, failing disaster, but it'll have to rejoin the championship-contender clique to maintain pole position beyond 2020-21. That's not an unreasonable ask.

    Kevin Durant is gone. Andre Iguodala, too. The Warriors still have Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry. Thompson's recovery from a torn left ACL infuses uncertainty into the team's outlook, as does Green's drop-off in 2019-20 and a sketchy supporting cast, but the door is hardly shut on a return to title territory. Golden State owns this year's No. 2 pick and the Minnesota Timberwolves' 2021 first (top-three protection), plus the Iguodala trade exception. The bandwidth to make improvements is there if it's willing to spend.

    Most of all, the Warriors have Curry, a two-time MVP and top-five player still in his prime. He isn't done yet, so they're not, either.

           

    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference, Stathead or Cleaning the Glass.

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale), and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by B/R's Adam Fromal.

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