By: Justin Lynch
Excluding contenders (Warriors, Spurs, Thunder, Rockets, Clippers, Cavs, Bulls, Hawks) and perennial bottom feeders (76ers, Knicks, Kings) here are the best and worst situations in the NBA:
1. Milwaukee Bucks
I could talk about the Bucks for 3000 words, but I will try to keep this brief. The Bucks are the only team (outside of the Timberwolves) that are not yet contenders, but have two potential superstars on the roster (Giannis and Jabari). And these two guys are both just 20 years old. In addition they have rim protection (John Henson, 24), interior scoring (Greg Monroe, 25), outside shooting (O.J. Mayo, 27, Rashad Vaughn, 18, Greivis Vasquez, 28), and enough length defensively to hang with the best teams in the NBA. They resigned budding 3-and-D guy Khris Middleton this offseason, and plan to play him alongside Giannis and Jabari in the starting lineup.
A starting lineup of MCW, Middleton, Jabari, Giannis, and Monroe is dangerous even before you factor in Vasquez, Mayo, Henson, and Bayless off the bench. The depth and versatility on both the offensive and defensive ends is unprecedented for teams not in title contention. The future of Carter-Williams with the Bucks is still in flux, mainly due to his limitations offensively, but he is a perfect fit for them defensively. Their spacing issues offensively could quickly disappear with the return of Jabari and if Giannis’ reworked jumper is a big improvement. Having Monroe as an offensive threat in the middle will help spacing on the perimeter, as well as add a much needed go-to scorer, at least until Jabari can fill that role.
The Bucks are one of the most interesting and fun teams in the NBA. They were a big surprise last year, making the playoffs after finishing bad enough to earn the number two overall pick in 2014. The Bucks aren’t there yet, but right now, this team has the potential to go on an historic run, granted they are willing to pay to keep their players.
2. Washington Wizards
The Wizards core of John Wall (24) and Bradley Beal (22) is of one the best backcourt tandems in the league. Both are very good defenders and their strengths on the offensive end complement each other well. The rest of the team’s future is unknown, but Otto Porter’s emergence this playoffs seemed to put him back into the long-term fold, after struggling most of his first two seasons. If Otto Porter can beef up a little, they can move him up to the power forward spot, where he can be a playmaking four. Considering the success the Wizards had this playoffs with Paul Pierce at the four and the draft day trade landing the Wizards Kelly Oubre, this is a scenario the Wizards front office should be rooting for.
The Wizards bigs situation is where question marks are brought up. We know playing Gortat and Nene together is not a long term solution, which is good because Nene’s contract is up at the year’s end. Gortat is under contract through 2019, but at just $13 million/year (factoring in the cap jump) he shouldn’t prevent them from offering big money to future free agents.
The Wizards are not contenders this year, and though the East is getting better, the Wizards should be in contention in the near future. They are some player development and a free agent signing away from being right there with the top teams in the NBA. Their core is in place and they are the frontrunners to pull Durant away from Oklahoma City next summer (though I believe that is unlikely to happen). Regardless of what happens with Durant, the Wizards future is bright.
3. Minnesota Timberwolves
After having the worst record in the NBA last season, Timberwolves fans should feel good about their team. They have two potential superstars in Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, as well as players who project to be solid role players. Zach LaVine was an interesting choice at 13 in last year’s draft, but he has showed good promise so far and could be good for them coming off the bench.
The Timberwolves biggest challenge is turning over their roster to their young guys. Ricky Rubio and Nikola Pekovic are both still making eight figures and, with the additions of Towns and Tyus Jones, their place on the team going forward is up in the air. Ricky Rubio signed an extension last year that will pay him through the 2018-19 season, and Pekovic’s contract will be up only a year sooner. The Ricky Rubio contract is troubling, but they can try to find a trade for him if Tyus Jones turns out to be serviceable. The Pekovic issue is a whole other issue, especially considering the shrinking place for big, slow centers in the NBA.
At the end of the day, the T-Wolves have two of the best under-21 guys in the game and will be bad enough again this year to get another lottery pick. The Kevin Love trade is looking better and better with every game and, at the very least, the Wolves have a core to build around and a plan to get to the NBA promised land.
Honorable Mention: Utah Jazz (see Exum, Dante and Tower, Stifle), Orlando Magic
1. Brooklyn Nets
Since their move to Brooklyn, the Nets have paid high luxury tax bills and achieved nothing on the court to show for it. Their recent buyout of Deron Williams will rid them of most of their luxury tax issues, but that’s about all it will do. This offseason the Nets picked up Rondae Hollis-Jefferson in a trade with Portland, signed Thomas Robinson and Andrea Bargnani, and retained starters Thad Young and Brook Lopez. After that, the Nets have Joe Johnson and his expiring $24 million contract, all-rookie second team player Bojan Bogdanovic, and aging point guard Jarrett Jack.
The Nets talent is nowhere good enough to compete in the East. Their best player is the oft-injured Brook Lopez, who is not a player who can lead a team trying to win titles. Joe Johnson is on his last legs and will likely leave the team next season. At the end of this season, likely only Lopez will remain from the much anticipated lineup of Williams, Johnson, Pierce, Garnett, and Lopez just a few years ago. If the Nets were your typical NBA team they would be entering a rebuilding period.
But the Nets aren’t your typical team, and this leads us to the biggest issue. The Nets do not have their first round pick in 2016 or 2018 and get the worse of their pick and the Celtics in 2017. Without the ability to tank and lacking any real talent, it’s a dark time for the Brooklyn Nets.
2. Memphis Grizzlies
Memphis won 55 games last year, but with every passing year we come closer to the Grizzlies fall back into the NBA abyss. They resigned Marc Gasol to a 5-year/$100+ million deal, but face the impending free agency of Mike Conley, who will test free agency. Zach Randolph put up 16/10 last season and even upped his three point shooting to a career-best 35%. But Randolph’s 33 year’s old and it remains to be seen how much he has left in the tank. The same goes for Tony Allen who, at 33 also, has started to lose some of the athleticism that, in part, makes him such a good defender. With Courtney Lee and Jeff Green also on expiring contracts, the Grizzlies could be a lottery team as early as 2016-17.
But let’s talk about this season. With the arms race going on between the Warriors and Spurs, combined with the Clippers and Rockets returning key members, there seems to be no room for the Grizzlies atop the Western Conference. The Grizzlies can give anyone a series, but just simply don’t have the firepower to be considered a legit title contender. The Grizzlies will win 50+ games again and Randolph will continue to throw up double-double while not jumping more than two inches off the ground, but it will all be over soon, and I, for one, am sad about the inevitability of the end of an era in Memphis.
3. Dallas Mavericks
Deandre Jordan vaulted the Mavericks into this position. The loss (can it even be considered a loss?) of Jordan created a major hole in the Mavs frontcourt and that’s just the beginning of their issues. They just gave Wes Matthews $70 million over four years, coming off of the most debilitating injury an NBA player can suffer (torn achilles). Chandler Parsons has an opt out after the season and, for now, their point guard is Deron Williams on a two-year/$10 million deal. The Williams deal is a good deal for the Mavs, but you get what you pay for in this instance. Williams is no longer the max guy he was for Utah, he’s a borderline starter at this point in his career, especially considering the depth at the point guard position. The Mavs also owe their pick (top-7 protected) to the Boston Celtics from the Rondo deal.
The Mavs, like the Grizzlies, will win some games this season. They will fight for a playoff spot and even if they land in the lottery, the pick they convey to Boston will be in the 10-14 range, which isn’t a bad loss considering how shallow next draft is projecting to be. However, the Mavs really don’t have anything. If Wes Matthews couldn’t compete for a title with Aldridge and Lillard, he definitely can’t with Deron Williams and Dirk. The Mavs could very well land a free agent next summer, but outside of Durant, the free agent class is relatively weak. Even if Parsons opts in to his final year and Matthews returns to full health (both big if’s), the Mavs will not have the talent around them to compete. If there’s any bright side it’s that Mark Cuban is one of the best owners in basketball and he is willing to take risks and pay big money, the Mavs future may not look bright now, but the Mavs are a good enough organization to turn it around.
Honorable Mention Worst: Boston Celtics (covered in first edition of big three pod), Charlotte Hornets