1 Bright Spot for Every Bad NBA Team This Season
The NBA's worst situations aren't all bad.
Many of them, in fact, aren't technically bad all.
Contending for a top-10 conference seed suddenly has value in the era of the play-in tournament, and pretty much every team remains within striking distance of cracking that territory this early into the season. Win-loss returns are also extra noisy this time of year, particularly now, with night-to-night rotations being heavily impacted by players entering the league's health and safety protocols.
Ipso facto: We're not about to call the Dallas Mavericks, Miami Heat or Toronto Raptors a "bad team." They have all disappointed thus far, sure. But their letdown parties must span half the schedule before they're considered a status quo.
Rather than go by the standings alone, we'll use FiveThirtyEight's 2021 playoff odds to identify the league's most unflattering situations. All five teams with a sub-10 percent chance of making the postseason will be thrust under our microscope.
But don't worry. This isn't another lengthy explanation of why they're doomed. It's instead a chance to celebrate what's going right—and why it matters.
Detroit Pistons (1 Percent): Jerami Grant's Evolution
Both the Detroit Pistons and Jerami Grant were laughed at for syncing up over the offseason. The Pistons invested fringe-star money in a thought-to-be three-and-D specialist. That supposed-to-be three-and-D specialist turned down an identical payday from the much, much better Denver Nuggets to overextend himself amid a hailstorm of losses.
This pairing isn't so funny anymore.
Like, at all.
Grant is averaging a career high in points (23.7) and assists (2.9) while grabbing defensive boards at a more suitable clip. Somebody needs to put up numbers on a team that, despite logging a sizable number of crunch-time minutes, profiles as a non-factor in the Eastern Conference playoff discussion. But Grant isn't haphazardly stat-stuffing.
His 40.2 percent clip from three is another personal best and comes on career-high volume. His 47.8 percent conversion rate inside the arc is his lowest since 2015-16, but the context of his role has changed so much that this dip is actually impressive.
Just over 23.4 percent of Grant's two-point makes last season went unassisted. That share has roughly doubled this year, ballooning to 45 percent. He has already finished roughly as many isos in 2020-21 (51) as he did during 2018-19 and 2019-20 combined (52). Meanwhile, his 1.12 points per possession in these situations this season ranks sixth among every player who has burned through at least as many.
It isn't quite clear what Grant's leap means for the Pistons' big picture. He has two more years left on his contract after this one, and they forecast as more than two seasons away from contention. But whether he's part of the next good-to-great Detroit squad doesn't matter. His performance now is rendering him a net-positive asset on a deal that was initially considered a blatant overpay. That's a huge win.
Minnesota Timberwolves (1 Percent): The Non-Marquee Youngsters
Having Karl-Anthony Towns is its own bright spot for the Minnesota Timberwolves. He remains closer to a top-15, if not top-10, player than top 20. But he's missed most of this season—first because of a left wrist injury and then because of COVID-19.
Silver linings have been available in short supply among Minnesota's main attractions as a result. Anthony Edwards is slashing 44/50/92 over his last five games, but five games is five games is five games. Neither Malik Beasley nor Jarrett Culver nor D'Angelo Russell is blowing expectations out of the water. Both Ricky Rubio and, prior to entering the league's health and safety protocols, Juan Hernangomez have mostly been alarmingly bad.
Go deeper down the roster, and some feel-good stories start to emerge. Absences galore have forced Minnesota into rotation roulette, and some of the non-marque youngsters are taking advantage.
Naz Reid has been a revelation. He's unafraid to let 'er rip, unless it's from mid-range, and is canning more than 40 percent of his three-point attempts. Opponents are shooting seven percentage points below their season average when challenging him inside seven feet.
Jaden McDaniels has scrapped his way into the regular rotation. He can disappear on offense and is converting just 40 percent of his looks inside the arc, but he's getting feistier on the glass and flying around on defense. The 54.1 percent success rate he allows at the rim is a team-best among Minnesota's everyday players.
Jarred Vanderbilt remains an energy drink in bodily form. His motor can be chaotic, which is sometimes to his detriment. But he's a per-minute lightning rod who has dished out almost as many total assists (32) as Edwards (37) despite substantially less playing time.
Even Jaylen Nowell has looked serviceable since becoming more of a rotation staple over the past week or so. His outside shooting is all over the place, but he's hitting his threes at a higher clip and still downing 59.3 percent of his twos.
None of these players forecast as franchise saviors or a third wheel to the Russell-Towns pairing. The Timberwolves' trajectory is blurry. They have no clear path to title contention, and their future is further shrouded by the top-three-protected pick they owe to Golden State this season. Still, it's always nice to get pleasant surprises on the margins. They may not have concrete building blocks, but they have long-term depth.
Washington Wizards (3 Percent): Bradley Beal Exists
Bradley Beal is single-handedly keeping the Washington Wizards' long-term outlook from collapsing onto itself—and he's doing it in more ways than one.
There is, of course, his performance on the floor. He's averaging a league-leading 35.0 points per game and 4.7 assists on enviable efficiency. He's downing 39.3 percent of his catch-and-fire treys and converting 61.1 percent of his heavily contested twos—the fourth-highest mark among every player who has attempted at least 25 such shots with a defender inside two feet of their person, trailing only Giannis Antetokounmpo, Deandre Ayton and Montrezl Harrell.
Nightly detonations from Beal alone keep the Wizards' immediate window open, even if just a sliver. The offense is elite with him on the floor, which says something amid the tumult of players missing games and underachieving. Washington might end up in a rosier place if things start breaking its way.
Maybe Russell Westbrook continues to get healthier and play better. Maybe Davis Bertans works his way into a groove after missing so much time while in the league's health and safety protocols. Maybe something gives on defense—better rim protection, colder opponent shooting, a cheapo trade acquisition, etc.
Beal at least allows the Wizards to dream, if not lust after, those better-case scenarios. And it isn't just his play. So far, it's his loyalty, too.
Most would have Washington trade Beal for a king's ransom and, at long last, hit the reset button. But he doesn't want out, according to The Athletic's Shams Charania and Fred Katz. And the Wizards have little incentive to trade him unless he does. They're still in for something resembling a rebuild with him, but he's only 27. Time continues to be on his side, and they'll have an easier time climbing out of their current pit if he's on the roster.
Perhaps Beal changes his mind. That's fine. Even then, he'd be a bright spot—the mega-appealing trade asset capable of netting Washington the requisite haul to effectively start over.
Oklahoma City Thunder (4 Percent): Shai Gilgeous-Alexander Is Making the Leap
Some might push back against the Oklahoma City Thunder's playoff odds, claiming they're too good to only have a 4 percent chance at making the postseason. Their proximity to .500 gives such theories some legs.
Their bottom-two net rating takes them away.
Not that the Thunder should care. Plumbing the doldrums was the plan. This is the beginning of their rebuild, and they're already a few steps ahead of their lottery-bound peers by virtue of having a genuine tentpole star in place: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
Awarding him that designation is no longer a reach or risk. Sufficiently piloting an offense was his next frontier entering this season, and he's conquering it. He's averaging 21.3 points and 6.3 assists while burying 57.3 percent of his twos and 37.5 percent of his threes—all career highs.
The gravity of this marriage between volume and efficiency cannot be overstated. Gilgeous-Alexander is thriving amid an appreciably harder role.
More than 83 percent of his made buckets are going unassisted, including 63.6 percent of his three-point makes—demonstrative increases over last year's marks of 70.9 and 46.0, respectively. His assists totals are not just the byproduct of the time he spends on-ball. He's using his trademark changes of pace to keep defenses on tilt and test out more difficult, less obvious passes.
Gilgeous-Alexander's turnover rate has spiked amid this experimentation, but that's the cost of functional expansion. And Oklahoma City is happy to pay it. The team's offensive rating improves by 12.6 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor.
Finding a primary cornerstone around which to anchor a franchise's future is the hardest part of any rebuild. The Thunder have found theirs.
Sacramento Kings (8 Percent): Tyrese Haliburton's Trajectory
Including the Sacramento Kings doesn't sit right when they're just a couple of games under .500 and currently riding a stretch of collectively competent basketball. But rules are rules.
Also: Sacramento's past four victories have come against struggling and lackluster offenses, and the defense continues to rely much too heavily upon unnecessary switching. This noise-making should be short-lived in a Western Conference that still features a brutally deep middle class.
On the bright side, the Kings have plenty of bright sides!
De'Aaron Fox has started going kaboom. Harrison Barnes is having a career year. Richaun Holmes is shooting approximately 2 trillion percent on baby floaters and might be the NBA's most underappreciated player. Marvin Bagley III has looked like an actual NBA player over the past few weeks.
Above everyone else, though, there is Tyrese Haliburton.
Never mind that the Kings' best stretch of the season has coincided with freezing-cold shooting from the rookie. His inaugural campaign is wildly encouraging in the aggregate. He's averaging 10.5 points, 5.7 assists and 1.1 steals on otherworldly efficiency—a 53.6 percent clip inside the arc and 40.9 percent success rate from deep. His shot-making translates across both spot-up and self-created looks, and he's already an impactful off-ball defender.
LaMelo Ball's status within the Charlotte Hornets offense may prevent Haliburton from running away with Rookie of the Year honors. Whatever. More important is what his play means to the Kings' future: that they've found their second high-end cornerstone.