Ranking the Futures of the NBA's Worst Teams

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistApril 21, 2021

Ranking the Futures of the NBA's Worst Teams

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    Mark Black/Associated Press

    Believe it or not, every NBA team isn't still fighting for a spot in the postseason.

    Granted, it doesn't always feel that way. The play-in tournament has left more than three-quarters of the league with something to fight for over the course of the next few weeks. This is to say: It's working as intended, but the expanded fringe-posteason fracas has narrowed the field of truly bad squads.

    Sure, some play-in hopefuls aren't necessarily good. Calling them flat-out crappy just feels icky under the circumstances. Our look at the futures of this season's worst teams will therefore focus on those who have almost no plausible path to one of the 10 best records in their conference.

    FiveThirtyEight's playoff odds will be the prevailing metric for immediate hope. Any team with a sub-5 percent chance of sneaking into the postseason gets a spot in this exercise.

    Everything will be taken into account when ranking futures: current rosters, the quality and quantity of young prospects, future draft commitments, cap flexibility, front office track records, even conference affiliation.

    There is no specific window through which we're looking when taking stock of these futures. We're simply trying to evaluate teams against their chances of morphing into something special—with staying power—as soon as possible.

7. Houston Rockets

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    Troy Taormina/Associated Press

    Figuring out where to slot the Houston Rockets is a matter of juggling the theoretical appeal of future draft picks with the likely actuality of those picks.

    General manager Rafael Stone has done a nice job of replenishing the treasure chest. Houston should have two or three first-rounders this year—depending on what happens with its own selection—and controls the Brooklyn Nets' draft through 2027.

    It's also not like the Rockets roster is barren. They want for a north star, that prospect who can define their entire direction. But they have long-term keepers in Jae'Sean Tate and Christian Wood along with a nifty flier on Kevin Porter Jr., who is already paying some dividends. Their cap sheet is fairly malleable moving forward as well, even with bloated salaries for Eric Gordon and John Wall on the books. Forever-willing-to-pay-the-tax-without-actually-paying-it team governor Tilman Fertitta is no doubt happy about that.

    Still, minefields are peppered up and down Houston's long-term outlook.

    Dictating the Nets' first-round fate for seven years means only so much when the Rockets are somewhat mortgaged to the hilt themselves. They will have almost a 50 percent chance of losing their own pick this year if (read: when) they finish with one of the league's three worst records. The Thunder then control Houston's first-rounders in 2024 (top-four protection) and 2026 (top-four protection).

    Retaining this year's pick gives the Rockets a lot more immediate hope. They'd have one of the elite prospects from a highly touted rookie class and a two-year window in which they keep their firsts free and clear. Fall outside the top four of this season's lottery, and the odds of their acquiring a potential cornerstone prior to 2022-23 go waaay down.

    Having the Nets picks in their back pocket provides some cover, but not a lot. Even with injuries galore, Brooklyn isn't at risk of forking over a top-flight selection for at least a few years. So while the Rockets are not absent bright spots, much of their future is left to chance—too much, actually, for a team that resides in the unforgiving Western Conference.

6. Orlando Magic

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Do not interpret the Orlando Magic's second-to-last finish as a harbinger of doom. They only recently stripped down the roster, foisting themselves into the early stages of a total rebuild. That remains the correct move.


    Orlando is not suddenly drowning in upper-echelon draft picks and prospects. The 2021 Chicago Bulls selection (top-four protection) is on pace to convey in a nice spot, and the Magic will have a shot at top-three lottery odds. They also have Chicago's 2023 first (top-four protection), the Denver Nuggets' 2025 first (top-five protection) and all of their own future picks. That will enable them to restock their asset cupboard.

    Whether the Magic will be bad enough to land in cornerstone territory for multiple drafts is a separate matter. The returns of Markelle Fultz and Jonathan Isaac next season could fast-track them back to the middle of the Eastern Conference, a precarious position to be for a team without that it player.

    And make no mistake: They remain without that it player.

    Isaac hinted at—more like slapped you in the face with—Defensive Player of the Year upside last season. But he's working his way back from a torn ACL in his left knee and profiles as either an unknown or strictly a play-finisher at the other end. Fultz is recovering from his own torn left ACL, and though he's salvaged his career in Orlando, he has yet to show he can be the primary maestro or shot-maker of an above-average offense.

    Cole Anthony, Mo Bamba, Wendell Carter Jr. and Chuma Okeke are all under the age of 23, but they don't have the look or feel of directional prospects. The Magic's young-player hodgepodge is more impressive than that of the Houston Rockets, but it's still just that: a hodgepodge. They need to hit on this year's picks or see Isaac round out his offensive game without missing substantial time before their outlook gets two thumbs up.

5. Detroit Pistons

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Like many of the other teams leading up to this point, the Detroits Pistons do not have their guiding-light prospect. Jerami Grant isn't young enough—and much of the luster from his start faded before he started missing games—and nobody else on the roster is remotely established enough to earn that could-be label.

    Killian Hayes comes closest, a reflection of both his draft placement last year (No. 7), age (19) and limited sample size (14 games). Right hip issues have cost him most of his rookie season and what few appearances he has made aren't enough to render a profound verdict on his future.

    But Hayes has tantalized for stretches. Throw out the efficiency and there is visible feel. He is crafty when getting defenders on his hip, exudes patience in traffic and has tossed some artful passes. His perimeter clip will recover. He's hitting 50 percent of his two-point jumpers since rejoining the rotation.

    What the Pistons lack in other headliner-types they make up for with rock-solid depth. Isaiah Stewart never stops working. Saddiq Bey has more ball skills to plumb than your usual three-and-D prospect. Hamidou Diallo is hitting threes (on minimal volume) since coming over from the Oklahoma City Thunder.

    Saben Lee is 6'2" but goes at the rim and challenges guards at the other end like he's 6'8". His 7-of-13 clip on catch-and-shoot threes intrigues for smaller lineups. Josh Jackson continues to prove he belongs an NBA rotation.

    Operable depth is not a form of direction. And Sekou Doumbouya's sophomore campaign has done nothing to inspire confidence. He was far from a rotation staple before his recent brush with injuries. But the Pistons have four rookies who warrant further exploration, some veteran presences to tide them over (Grant, Mason Plumlee), another top draft pick coming down the pipeline and ultra-flexible books for the next few years. They won't have to send the Houston Rockets a first-rounder unless they get really good, really fast.

    No, Detroit's situation isn't the rosiest. It's also far from the worst. That the front office appears to have the stomach for a more gradual reset matters, too. Failing disaster, the Pistons have set up their future to turn on a whim—for the better.

4. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Andy Clayton-King/Associated Press

    Congratulations to the Minnesota Timberwolves on being impossible to place.

    Nudging them higher isn't especially hard. Karl-Anthony Towns is still only 25 (seriously) and the best player on any of the rosters that make a cameo here. Acquiring that top-25ish star is the goal of any rebuild, and he arms Minnesota with a top-10 to -15 talent. That's huge.

    The Timberwolves supporting cast also isn't devoid of intrigue. Trading up for Jarrett Culver in 2019 so far looks like a mistake, and bringing back Ricky Rubio has, at best, done little to nothing for the bigger picture. But Anthony Edwards is making a late surge for Rookie of the Year honors and retains his magnetic upside. If he steadies his shot selection and improves his off-ball defense, he has the talent to be Towns' primary sidekick.

    For the record: D'Angelo Russell hasn't fallen outside that discussion himself. He and Towns still don't have a real sample size; they've played 11 games together since last season's trade with the Golden State Warriors. And for all Russell's faults, the framework of his skill set offers undeniable value. Strong pick-and-roll decision-makers who can knock down off-the-dribble jumpers always have a path to net-positive impact.

    Adding another frontline partner beside KAT remains mission critical, but both Jaden McDaniels and Naz Reid are shaping up to be excellent finds. Malik Beasley balled out this year prior to his suspension and left hamstring strain. A five-man core of DLo, Beasley, Edwards, McDaniels and Towns makes a lot of sense on paper—and hasn't played a single second together this season.

    And yet, Minnesota is up against the mother of all caveats: the top-three-protected pick it owes to Golden State.

    Finishing with one of the league's three worst records will give the Timberwolves barely a 40 percent chance of keeping that selection. Retain it, and they get to add another prospect with a franchise-pillar ceiling. Send it to the Warriors, and they're instantly at risk of becoming stuck. Talk about high-variance outcomes.

    Without this year's pick, internal leaps become Minnesota's most likely path to title contention. Edwards gives off that level of sheen. Does anyone else? Landing franchise-altering players in free agency is off the table. The Timberwolves don't forecast as a cap-space team anytime soon and aren't a hot free-agency destination anyway. They could dip further into their well of first-round selections and strike a trade but need more than draft equity to net a star. Do they explore what Edwards and future picks can get them over the offseason?

    Looming over all of this is Towns' own future. He has three years left on his deal without any team options, giving Minnesota some time. But "pre-agency" has become a thing—sometimes as early as two years ahead of a player's foray onto the open market. Failing a major breakthrough by the end of next season, the Timberwolves might be faced with some ridiculously difficult choices unless they find Towns' loyalty knows no limits.

3. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    Feel free to staunchly oppose the Cleveland Cavaliers' higher-end placement. I'm bracing for the blowback.

    Cleveland's absence of a surefire best-player-on-a-ridiculously-good-team cornerstone is glaring. But it is not without options.

    There is more to Collin Sexton than meets the eye. It doesn't matter that he's not a floor general. He isn't supposed to be and the Cavaliers don't use him that way. Plus, for all the complaints along those lines, he has improved his feel for playmaking on the move. He is more combo guard than not.

    Beyond that, he continues to elevate his scoring impact. Only 10 other players are clearing 24 points per game while matching or exceeding his efficiency inside the arc (51.6 percent) and behind it (37 percent). And among that group, just three players own a higher free-throw-attempt rate: Kevin Durant, Joel Embiid and Karl-Anthony Towns.

    For so long it felt like Sexton was the Cavaliers' lone crack at an All-Star mainstay. Darius Garland is quietly entering the chat. His entire season is flying too far under the radar, but he's been tearing it up since the middle of March, in particular, averaging 19.7 points and 6.5 assists while downing 38.9 percent of his pull-up triples and putting constant pressure on defenses in the lane.

    Garland and Sexton are not without long-term depth around them, either. Dylan Windler's career has consisted of one injury after another, but the Cavaliers have found what looks like a hallmark wing defender in rookie Isaac Okoro, whose utility will increase exponentially once he finds his offensive niche.

    Larry Nance Jr. is on the older side for a rebuilding squad, but he remains one of the league's most well-rounded frontcourt players when healthy. Jarrett Allen has flashed higher passing IQ since coming over from the Brooklyn Nets and should be worth whatever Cleveland pays him in restricted free agency for his back-line defense alone. Fliers on Dean Wade and Lamar Stevens are not without potential reward. A healthy Kevin Love suddenly becomes useful next season if Cleveland is good.

    Add another lottery pick to this nucleus, plus the capacity to spend some money this summer and next (depending on what happens with Sexton's extension eligibility), and the Cavaliers have the asset equity necessary to make dramatic strides over the next couple of years. That potential progress mushrooms tenfold if Garland and/or Sexton finds another gear.

2. Sacramento Kings

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    Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

    Reconciling the Sacramento Kings' future is a mental tug-of-war. They have the top-end talent to rather easily be the best team from this group next season. They also have enough ambiguity on their hands to beget a full-scale teardown or involuntary implosion.

    Extremely apropos of the Kings? Definitely. That doesn't make it any less unsettling. Sticking them this high amounts to stepping out on a limb. De'Aarron Fox and Tyrese Haliburton assuage some of the reticence and are the forces driving Sacramento's second-place finish.

    Fox has been a one-person wrecking crew for much of this season and especially volcanic since just before the All-Star break. He's averaging 29.2 points, 6.9 assists and 1.8 steals while converting 57.7 percent of his twos over his past 22 games. His three-point clip waxes and wanes, but he's getting to the line at a decent clip and defenses are still forced to guard against his jumper. He's shooting 43.8 percent (23-of-55) on step-back triples for the season.

    Haliburton's numbers don't leap off the stat sheet, but the kid is having an all-around impact that belies his experience. He can defend, stroke spot-ups, table-set for his teammates and disarm opponents with his guile off the dribble. Haliburton is notching a higher effective field-goal percentage on his pull-up jumpers than Fox, and no rookie in league history has ever matched his assist, steal, block and true shooting percentages.

    Richaun Holmes would give Sacramento a third face of the future...if we could say with any sort of certainty he is part of its future. He hits free agency after this season and the Kings only have his Early Bird rights. They'll need to dredge up cap space to afford him. 

    Marvin Bagley's so far lackluster career continues to hang over the team, but it's not suffocating. Tacking on another lottery pick to a core of Fox, Haliburton, Holmes, Harrison Barnes, Buddy Hield and Delon Wright can get you somewhere. Terence Davis II has looked good on the court since being traded from the Toronto Raptors, and they'll have Early Bird rights on him in restricted free agency. Robert Woodard II's time with this team should come.

    This all presupposes the Kings will keep their infrastructure intact. They won't. They'll have to move somebody to re-sign Holmes, and there's no guarantee they don't pull the reins back if he stays. This nucleus is pricing itself out of complacency without a playoff berth of which to speak, and Barnes spent a great deal of time in the rumor mill prior to the trade deadline. Everyone aside from Fox and Haliburton could be potential goners over the offseason.

    Standing pat also doesn't inspire a ton of confidence. Head coach Luke Walton has, let's say, less-than-endeared himself to Kings fans over the past couple of years. The team is at least fifth in average possession time this season, per Impredictable, but a lot of his lineup decisions seem to miss the mark. 

    All is not well in Sacramento. It's also not bad. Left untouched, the Kings roster has a higher ceiling than any other squad on this list. Putting them here is worth the risk.

1. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Finding a genuine tent-pole star around which to build is the most pivotal part of any franchise transition. The Oklahoma City Thunder already have theirs in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

    Plantar fasciitis in his right foot has kept him sidelined since March 24, but he doesn't need to log another possession to cement his trajectory. Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Nikola Jokic are the only other players averaging over 20 points and five assists per game while shooting as efficiently on twos (54.7 percent) and threes (41.8 percent).

    That Gilgeous-Alexander has married volume and efficiency as the entire basis of Oklahoma City's offense is spectacular. This is no longer someone benefiting from the presence of another alpha creator. Nor does he enjoy any sort of off-ball license whatsoever. Over 87 percent of his made baskets have gone unassisted—the absolute largest share among 433 players who have appeared in at least 15 games this season.

    This is, objectively, bonkers. So, too, is the fact SGA doesn't turn 23 until July. His bound-to-be max extension will create some unrest among those who don't consider him first-option material, but regardless of price point, he affords Oklahoma City access to dual timelines

    Ditto for the Thunder's draft-pick stash. They could have as many as 34 selections through 2027—including up to 17 first-rounders.

    The romanticism of draft picks that have yet to convey is oft-subject to exaggeration. Oklahoma City won't hit on all of its future first-rounders. But it has cobbled together an abundance of bites at the building-block apple.

    Maybe the team drafts and develops another star. Or two. Or three. Emboldened by Gilgeous-Alexander's mere existence, maybe the Thunder consolidate some of their many, many picks into a more established star on the trade market.

    Possibilities abound for this July's upcoming draft alone. Oklahoma City is a virtual lock for top-five lottery odds and could feasibly add another top-seven selection by swapping Miami's first with Houston's pick (top-four protection). Reentering the playoff conversation next season, even in the Western Conference, is not outside the realm of possibility—especially if they hold onto Al Horford or manage to flip him for actual value.

    This says nothing of the surrounding mystery boxes the Thunder have in place. Luguentz Dort is pairing his lock-down defense with more aggressive scoring and better outside shooting. Theo Maledon knows how to run an offense and will be a force if he can channel his inner scoring aggression more often. Moses Brown revels in the defensive dirty work. Aleksej Pokusevski's confidence is aspirational. Isaiah Roby knows no position (almost). Darius Bazley is perking up.

    Never mind Oklahoma City's current record. It's sitting pretty over the long haul.


    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.comBasketball ReferenceStathead or Cleaning the Glass and accurate through Monday's games. Salary information via Basketball Insiders and Spotrac.

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


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