5 NBA Teams Facing the Most Pressure This Season

Sean Highkin@highkinFeatured ColumnistSeptember 27, 2021

5 NBA Teams Facing the Most Pressure This Season

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Pressure comes in all different forms in the NBA. For some teams, it's championship or bust. For others, it's "win enough games so the coach or general manager doesn't get fired."

    Some teams just need to be good enough to keep their star player from demanding a trade.

    With media days underway, training camp kicking off this week and the season less than a month out, these are the teams with the most to prove—and the most to lose—in 2021-22. 

Honorable Mentions

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Chicago Bulls

    The new front-office regime of vice president Arturas Karnisovas and general manager Marc Eversley has gone all-in trying to get the Bulls back to the playoffs. They made a blockbuster trade at last year's deadline to bring in All-Star center Nikola Vucevic, and then they spent big this offseason on free agents Lonzo Ball, DeMar DeRozan and Alex Caruso. There's no question their goal is to return to the postseason for the first time since 2017, with Zach LaVine's free agency looming. Everybody needs this year to go well in Chicago.


    Minnesota Timberwolves

    How will last week's front-office upheaval affect Minnesota's involvement in the Ben Simmons sweepstakes? Can the Timberwolves get back to the playoffs for just the second time in 17 years? How long will Karl-Anthony Towns stick it out before asking for a trade? There are still a lot of questions.


    Sacramento Kings

    At some point, if the Kings can't get back to the playoffs for the first time since 2006, Luke Walton's job security will be in question, right? 

5. Washington Wizards

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Speculation about Bradley Beal's future has been ongoing for at least the past two years, despite the three-time All-Star consistently saying he wants to stay in Washington for the long haul. The Wizards underwent huge changes in the offseason, parting ways with Scott Brooks for first-time head coach Wes Unseld Jr. They also traded Russell Westbrook to the Lakers for several rotation players, including Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.

    For most of Beal's time in Washington, the Wizards have been either in the lottery or a low playoff seed. Expecting a deep run this year is probably unrealistic, given how top-heavy the Eastern Conference is. 

    There are a lot of teams in the same spot as the Wizards, below the Milwaukees and Brooklyns of the conference but hoping for an outright playoff berth or a spot in the play-in tournament. It seems as though Beal will stay happy as long as they're competing. But if they miss the playoffs (quite possible), expect the noise to pick up again. 

4. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    The Sixers are under an enormous amount of scrutiny both on the court and in the front office. The bold-faced headline continues to be how Daryl Morey will handle the Ben Simmons situation—and what kind of return he gets for the disgruntled star when he inevitably trades him. 

    Morey is in a no-win situation. Dragging this out means the story will continue to be a distraction, even if Simmons remains away from the team. Trading him now will likely mean something of a desperation deal to get it over with, and the value won't be what Morey hoped it would be when the offseason started. And it will fall on Doc Rivers to integrate whomever they do get in return  on the fly, probably without a full training camp.

    Even putting that mess aside, the expectations are high for the Sixers to keep pace with the Nets and Bucks atop the Eastern Conference. When healthy, Joel Embiid is in the conversation for the best player in the NBA, and they absolutely need to make a deep run while he's still in his prime. Given his injury history, there's no telling how big that window will be. 

3. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    The Lakers made yet another splash this offseason, trading a few rotation players for Russell Westbrook to form a new Big Three with LeBron James and Anthony Davis. They also added big-name veterans in free agency, including Carmelo Anthony, Rajon Rondo, DeAndre Jordan, Trevor Ariza and Dwight Howard. You've probably heard all the "most dominant team in the NBA in 2012" jokes by now.

    If James and Davis are healthy, the Lakers have to be looked at as, at worst, the favorites to win the Western Conference, and maybe even the favorites to win the title. But James has finally started to look less than invincible in the past year, and Davis has had injury issues his entire career. James has talked about wanting to catch Michael Jordan in rings, and he needs two more to do that. And we know he wants to win one more MVP award before his career is over. 

    Turning 37 in December, James is only going to have so many more opportunities to accomplish either. Every season the rest of his career will be championship or bust. 

2. Portland Trail Blazers

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    Craig Mitchelldyer/Associated Press

    Blazers President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey had a quiet offseason, signing veterans Tony Snell, Ben McLemore and Cody Zeller to minimum deals and trading one defense-focused forward (Derrick Jones Jr.) for another (Larry Nance Jr.). 

    He's betting that replacing longtime head coach Terry Stotts with Chauncey Billups will be enough by itself to vault the franchise from a solid playoff team to a real contender. He'd better hope he's right.

    The noise about Damian Lillard's unhappiness in Portland has quieted, for now. His recent Instagram posts and album interludes would suggest he isn't on the verge of requesting a trade, as had been rumored at various points since the Blazers' first-round playoff loss to Denver in June. Lillard wants to give Billups a chance to make an impact.

    But how long will that last? If they get off to a hot start, the chatter will go away completely. If they stumble out of the gate, things could get noisy again around the trade deadline. And if Portland misses the playoffs or loses in the first round again, get ready for another offseason of speculation about Lillard's future. 

1. New Orleans Pelicans

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    Zion Williamson can't become an unrestricted free agent until three years from now at the earliest. But the fact that we're even talking about that scenario this early shows the heat on Pelicans VP of basketball operations David Griffin.

    Griffin has fired two head coaches in two seasons since taking over in 2019; his newest hire, Willie Green, while very well-regarded as an assistant, has never run his own team before. Griffin's other offseason moves have received mixed reviews—trading Steven Adams for Jonas Valanciunas is an upgrade on paper, but letting Lonzo Ball walk to Chicago in free agency was questionable given his connection and chemistry with Williamson.

    And, in the background, there have been several reports of tension between the organization and Williamson's camp, the latest coming from NOLA.com's Christian Clark last week. It doesn't help matters that the Pelicans came into the past two seasons with playoff expectations and fell well short both times. That's the goal and the expectation again this season, and it won't be easy with a new roster, a first-time head coach and stiff competition across the Western Conference.

    Next offseason, the Pelicans will be able to offer Williamson a five-year max extension that could be worth north of $200 million. Most players of his caliber (Luka Doncic and Trae Young this summer; Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell and Bam Adebayo last year) sign that first extension as a formality. If the Pelicans make the playoffs and show promise, maybe Williamson also takes the money in front of him. If he turns down the extension, all bets are off. Everything has to go right in New Orleans this year.