NBA Teams Facing a Decline Next Season
Regardless of how much talent is in place, no NBA team can be on the rise forever. Generally speaking, organizational direction feels more like a roller coaster than a rocket launch.
Going backwards isn't the end of the world, either. Sometimes, a step back precedes two steps forward. So, being on this list doesn't spell doom, in large part due to the general volatility of the league, but also because it's largely a subjective endeavor.
There are already projections for the future out there, and stat-based 2021-22-specific forecasts will hit the internet shortly after the season ends. But predicting the future will always involve an element of guesswork. No matter how many numbers you have to inform the take, gazing into the future requires an element of subjectivity.
Here, we'll look at some factors that could move certain teams from great to really good, really bad to terrible and a couple of moves in between.
First off, Bam Adebayo is a couple of months shy of his 24th birthday, so there may still be some development in store for him. Tyler Herro could bounce back after experiencing something of a sophomore slump, too. Duncan Robinson and Kendrick Nunn (both free agents) also have some room for improvement.
And with north of $20 million in cap space on the way, the Miami Heat could potentially secure a difference-maker in free agency.
Barring a surprise entry of Kawhi Leonard into the marketplace, though, this free-agency class might not offer someone who'll bump Miami up a level.
Then, you're looking at another year of wear-and-tear on Jimmy Butler's legs, Goran Dragic entering his age-35 season and Andre Iguodala creeping up on 40.
Running it back, for lack of a better term, is in play. And with teams like the Philadelphia 76ers, Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks seemingly at the outset of a solid run, bringing back much of the same roster would probably lead to a lower winning percentage.
We count out Pat Riley at our own peril, though. If a superstar does become available, whether in free agency or the trade market, the legendary Heat executive will likely give his team a chance at landing him.
After a few years treading water in Eastern Conference purgatory, the Orlando Magic finally decided to bottom out this season.
On March 25, they traded their three best players, Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier and Aaron Gordon, who still finished first through third on the team in 2020-21 wins over replacement player.
And while you can probably expect internal development from intriguing young players like Wendell Carter Jr., Mohamed Bamba, Chuma Okeke, Markelle Fultz, Cole Anthony and R.J. Hampton, 2021-22's winning percentage will likely look more like the one the Magic posted after the trade deadline.
That isn't necessarily a terrible thing either. Adding someone like Cade Cunningham or Evan Mobley to this core, and then getting another lottery talent in 2022 could put the Magic on track toward contention in the mid-2020s.
This isn't some kind of hate or doubt being cast on the Phoenix Suns. You'll find another team in a similar circumstance in a couple of slides. This is more about simply playing the averages.
Seasons with a 70-plus winning percentage are rare. If MVP candidate Chris Paul opts in and stays in Phoenix, he'll be in his age-36 season in 2021-22. Improving on the best campaign the franchise has had in 14 years will be hard.
Even if Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges and Deandre Ayton all get better, a few bad breaks or bounces here and there could push the team closer to 50 wins than 60 (they played at a 58-win pace this season).
An injury to CP3 (or his departure) could certainly have a negative impact, too. The Suns were better than people realize when Paul sat, and they were already on the rise before Paul's arrival, but it's hard to deny his less tangible, immeasurable influence.
His leadership and experience have now given significant winning-percentage bumps to different franchises in back-to-back seasons. If he misses a couple of months with a nagging injury or ends up in a New York Knicks jersey (just throwing it out there), it's not hard to see this team leveling off just a bit.
San Antonio Spurs
It's reasonable to argue the departure of some veterans might actually make the San Antonio Spurs better. After all, they've been better with DeMar DeRozan off the floor in each of his three seasons there.
But if you look at lineups that exclude all three of the vets who'll enter free agency this summer—DeRozan, Rudy Gay and Patty Mills—the picture looks dismal.
With all three off the floor, San Antonio was minus-11.4 points per 100 possessions (ninth percentile). That's a very specific circumstance and the sample size isn't huge, but it's fair to wonder how effective the Spurs will be if all three sign elsewhere.
It's also probably fine to lean into a year or two of struggles. San Antonio was at or near the top of the league for so long that it might be harder for that organization to acknowledge a need to start over. They're likely past that point, though.
It's time to build from the ground up. Give all the developmental minutes to young(ish) players like Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Jakob Poeltl and Keldon Johnson. See which ones look like no-brainer parts of the future, and get to work acquiring draft picks and scouting for more steals in the draft.
The whole dynasty really shifted into gear when the Spurs landed Tim Duncan with the No. 1 pick (after a David Robinson injury pretty much forced the team to tank). It's time for them to angle for lottery talent again.
Much like the Suns, the Utah Jazz may be in for a decline based purely on the fact that seasons like 2020-21 are so unusual.
They played at a 59-win pace, and their winning percentage was topped only by four John Stockton and Karl Malone squads on the franchise leaderboard.
Replicating or improving upon that isn't impossible, but it's also not likely.
Mike Conley is set to enter free agency, and he's dealt with a nagging hamstring injury for two seasons now. Bojan Bogdanovic already experienced a decline from last year to now. And though Joe Ingles just had a career shooting year, he's now in his mid-30s, too.
There's still room for Donovan Mitchell to grow, so this isn't to say Utah is bound to leave the tier of title contenders. But continual improvement in the gauntlet of the West typically doesn't happen for more than a few years in a row.