The Bright Spot for Every Tanking NBA Team This Season
NBA teams have two commodities for sale to their fans, and they tend to be mutually exclusive.
The organizations enjoying present success, and especially title contention, are selling wins. The ones that are losing sell hope for the future, which usually comes in the form of tantalizing young players the team hopes (there's that word again) will one day form a core that allows it to sell wins.
That brings us to this year's hope-sellers. These six teams, more crudely known as tankers, aren't in position to make a playoff push and probably wouldn't have interest in that endeavor anyway.
The Houston Rockets, Oklahoma City Thunder and Orlando Magic have all made moves to weaken themselves this season, putting the focus on cleaner books, draft equity and young talent acquisition. The Cleveland Cavaliers, Detroit Pistons and Minnesota Timberwolves are also out of the mix for a play-in spot. Maybe they haven't given up on 2020-21 as obviously as those first three teams, but their priorities are similarly future-focused.
None of these teams can market present success, but each has a source of hope to keep their fans excited about what's ahead.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Jarrett Allen's Perfect Fit
In an ideal world, every NBA team would want a floor-stretching center who could overpower mismatches down low, defend the rim and survive when switched out onto smaller ball-handlers in the open floor. Trouble is, there's basically one of those guys in the entire league, and his name is Anthony Davis.
Of the various non-megastar alternatives at the 5, the rim-rolling, shot-blocking big is a solid fallback option. Jarrett Allen, whom the Cavaliers acquired for the paltry sum of Dante Exum and the Milwaukee Bucks' 2022 first-rounder, is one of the best.
Allen is a genuine deterrent inside. Opponents hit just 49.1 percent of their attempts within six feet when Allen is the primary defender, a figure bettered among high-volume paint protectors by only Jakob Poeltl and Myles Turner. For some perspective, Rudy Gobert, who's likely to win his third Defensive Player of the Year award this season, allows a 49.5 percent hit rate.
Add to that a career field-goal percentage of 61.4 percent and a defensive rebound rate that has ranked in the top 20 percent among bigs the last two years, and Allen's interior impact is clear. Next season will be Allen's age-23 campaign, which suggests there's still plenty of room for growth—especially now that he's free from a Brooklyn Nets situation that saw him continually lose minutes to established vets, despite his often superior play.
Cleveland must navigate Allen's restricted free agency this summer, but the cost of retaining him shouldn't get too exorbitant. For all his skills, Allen is still fundamentally a role player at a position the league is increasingly reluctant to lavish with big money.
For the Cavs, who have two smallish and defensively suspect guards in Collin Sexton and Darius Garland, Allen is an ideal mistake-eraser and lob-catching safety blanket. His presence should make life easier on both ends for his developing teammates, which only adds to his importance going forward.
The Cavaliers snagged a cornerstone for next to nothing, and said cornerstone has performed well in exactly the ways the organization must have hoped. That's cause for real optimism.
Detroit Pistons: The Jerami Grant Contract Looks Just Fine
The $60 million deal Detroit handed Jerami Grant this past offseason was a big bet on a role player many thought couldn't scale up his game.
Though the Pistons aren't reaping many benefits in the standings, Grant has proved doubters wrong by averaging a career-high 22.5 points per contest. As you'd expect with a huge spike in usage, the rangy forward's scoring efficiency is down. But Grant's PER is higher than ever (and above the league average of 15.0 for only the second time), while his box plus/minus is also far better than it's ever been.
Grant would still be best utilized on a good team as something other than the top option on offense, but he demonstrated the ability to create more of his own looks than anyone could have anticipated this year. If the Pistons ever acquire stars to slot ahead of him in the pecking order, he'll become an overqualified support piece. That's a good thing.
At $20 million per season, Grant is being paid like a marginally above-average starter. At the very worst, that's a fair deal. But it's easy to imagine the 27-year-old blowing past the production he's managed in a breakout 2020-21 season once someone else is ready to help him shoulder the offensive load. (Looking at you, Killian Hayes.)
Added bright-spot bonus: Saddiq Bey, who came off the board 19th in the 2020 draft, looks like a surefire rotation weapon who'll spread the floor and has the frame to hold up defensively for years to come.
Houston Rockets: Two Lottery Tickets on the Wing
The Rockets got a haul of draft picks in the James Harden deal, but they ultimately ended up with precisely zero players (unless you're abnormally high on Kelly Olynyk, Avery Bradley and Dante Exum) who'll matter to the franchise's future.
Full control over the Brooklyn Nets' first-rounder through 2027 is a powerful tool. Superteams come undone eventually, and if the Nets disintegrate at any point in the next six years, the Rockets will reap the rewards. That draft equity is Houston's best shot at a return to relevancy.
For fans who care about what happens with actual players on the court, the theoretical value of future picks is less exciting. So it's a good thing Houston connected on a couple of more tangible swings.
Kevin Porter Jr. slipped to 30th in the 2019 draft because of character concerns, and after several transgressions, a locker room outburst resulted in the Cavs basically giving him away to the Rockets for nothing. With a track record like Porter's, it'd be naive to assume off-court issues will never resurface. But sometimes a fresh start makes a difference.
Porter's work on the floor has validated the hype that pegged him as one of his draft class' most talented prospects. He's a highlight machine currently averaging 15.5 points and 5.9 assists in 30.4 minutes per game for the Rockets and projects as a valuable playmaking wing. Defense and three-point shooting are concerns, but Porter is only 20 and has every physical tool you'd want at his position. He's exactly the type of buy-low reclamation project a team in Houston's position should covet.
Toss in Jae'Sean Tate, one of the nastiest and most competitive defenders in the game, plucked by Houston after two years overseas, and the franchise has a couple of lottery tickets to add to all those incoming picks.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Clear Priorities
Anthony Edwards is inefficient but ridiculously talented. He has tremendous offensive upside, as evidenced by averages of 24.2 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game in March, his best month of the season.
Karl-Anthony Towns is one of the most complete offensive centers the league has ever seen, and D'Angelo Russell knows his way around a pick-and-pop.
Those three together should form the foundation of a top-10 offense, at worst, as long as they're together. And that bankable one-way production makes Minnesota's way forward crystal clear: The Wolves need spot-shooting, defense-first players everywhere else on the roster.
While having an undeniably obvious need makes roster construction simple in theory, the fact that every team in the league also wants those kinds of players will make things tricky in practice. It's not like 29 other teams will back off certain free agents because Minnesota needs them most.
Still, no team on this list can give the kind of simple, one-word answer Minnesota can when facing the question "What do we need?"
You've got to know what construction materials you need before you start to build. The Wolves know, beyond any doubt, what they lack.
Oklahoma City Thunder: The Hard Work Is Finished
The Thunder share some common traits with the Rockets, not the least of which being a hoard of incoming first-round picks. The key difference is Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, a young talent already producing like a star with plenty of room to get even better.
Basically, he's the kind of foundational piece teams tank to acquire in the draft.
OKC is in the enviable position of having multiple shots to add another such player while already having one on board. With a good break or two, the Thunder's rebuild shouldn't take long at all.
SGA is out with plantar fasciitis at the moment, and Oklahoma City won't rush him back to play in meaningless stretch-run games. Prior to hitting the shelf, the slithery ball-handler put together an absolutely dynamite third season. With Chris Paul gone, Gilgeous-Alexander became a full-time on-ball weapon.
The results speak for themselves: 23.7 points, 5.9 assists and 4.7 rebounds per game on a 50.8/41.8/80.8 shooting split. He's one of eight players to post a true shooting percentage above 62.0 percent with a usage rate of at least 28.0 percent this season. The other seven are All-Stars and former MVPs.
Gilgeous-Alexander leads the league in drives and points scored on drives per game, which simplifies OKC's needs. It already has a devastatingly effective creator. Now it's about filling in supporting pieces.
The hardest part of putting a team together is finding a central star. That work is already done in Oklahoma City.
Orlando Magic: Good Timing
The Magic picked the right time to rip the Band-Aid off.
Sure, it's been popular to pillory Orlando for accepting its spot on the mediocrity treadmill for as long as it did. You could argue the Magic should have leaped off it last season, or the season before, or the season before that one. But several factors made dealing Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon and Evan Fournier for draft picks the best possible play.
First, the Magic's record was 15-29 at this year's deadline, the fourth-worst mark in the league. That meant their own 2021 pick was looking more valuable than in recent seasons. Then, the Vucevic move netted top-four protected selections in 2021 and 2023 from the Chicago Bulls. That 2023 pick is far from a throw-in, but the incoming 2021 selection is the real gem. It could give the Magic a pair of shots in the top five. Even if it's unlucky in the lottery, Orlando should have two cracks inside the top 10.
You can never be sure with class-quality projections, but this year's crop looks deeper than 2020's. And now that the Magic's roster is basically populated by young and mostly unproven talent, they're free to hit the draft with a best-player-available approach.
Let's imagine an Orlando team partway through next season, with a healthy Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz, plus Wendell Carter Jr. hitting his stride in the middle, underappreciated forward Chuma Okeke thriving and Cole Anthony bringing a spark off the bench. Suppose you add Cade Cunningham or Jalen Suggs to that mix, plus someone like forward Jonathan Kuminga if he slips down into the 5-10 range.
That's a ton of young talent.
Orlando might not deserve credit for waiting this long to start over, but it's hard to deny how good its teardown timing looks now.