With the start of training camp about three weeks away, we’ve already got a decent bead on which NBA teams are going to be good this season. There’s always room for surprises, of course, but generally speaking, you can probably pencil the Warriors, Rockets, Celtics, Raptors, 76ers, Thunder and Jazz into fights for home-court advantage in the playoffs, and a broad middle class — teams like the Pacers, Bucks, Wizards and Heat in the East, and the LeBron-led Lakers, Nuggets, Pelicans, Timberwolves, Spurs and Blazers out West — into the chase for the remaining postseason spots in each conference.
And then, there are the teams who probably aren’t going to be that good: the ones embarking on rebuilding projects, banking on a bunch of young talent coalescing quickly, missing key cogs due to injury or trying to bounce back after losing a major piece. But this is the NBA, where you can always find something to love, even in a losing effort. So let’s consider which of those teams are most likely to be worth your watching while this season in our Fun Bad Team Power Rankings.
NOT EXCEPTIONALLY FUN
13. Charlotte Hornets: With apologies to Kemba Walker, who seems like an extremely good dude willing to commit to ludicrous bits and who’s a legitimate All-Star-caliber firestarter off the bounce, the pastel-paletted Hornets still scan as a blah sort of gray.
Offloading Dwight Howard opens the door to slotting plus-minus hero Cody Zeller back into the starting center spot, and to the potential return of the Hornets’ best big-minutes lineup from two seasons back, with Walker on the ball, Zeller and Marvin Williams up front, and Nicolas Batum and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist on the wings. But Zeller’s missed 59 games over the past two seasons with various injuries, and even with Howard gone, Charlotte’s still got kind of a weird logjam in the middle, with returning ex-Bobcat Bismack Biyombo and third-year pro Willy Hernangomez in the fold, and with new head coach James Borrego reportedly planning to slot 2015 lottery pick Frank Kaminsky in at center, too.
Borrego also reportedly plans to look at MKG as a small-ball power forward, in part to open up minutes in the perimeter rotation for Charlotte’s collection of young wings — 2017 draftees Malik Monk and Dwayne Bacon, 2018 first-rounder Miles Bridges, and free-agent-to-be Jeremy Lamb, who’s coming off the most productive season of his six-year career. If one or more of those swingmen take a big step forward to give Walker a creative running buddy, and if Batum (perhaps rejuvenated by the arrival of friend TonyParker) bounces back after a disappointing 2017-18 season, the Hornets could prove a more compelling watch than I’m giving them credit for. But after two straight 36-46 seasons without a major infusion of talent — and with last year’s Kemba trade rumors giving way to free-agent rumblings — I’ll need to see evidence of fun before I believe it.
12. Atlanta Hawks: You have, by now, probably read at least a handful of pieces about how Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk — previously a member of the braintrust that built the dynasty by the Bay — has taken aim at creating an East Coast outpost of the Golden State Warriors by draftingh hoped-for approximations of Stephen Curry (Oklahoma’s Trae Young) and Klay Thompson (Maryland’s Kevin Huerter), along with sweet-shooting Villanova big man Omari Spellman.
You have likely also read — perhaps on this very site! — about how Schlenk’s wheeling and dealing has helped better position the Hawks for the future by shedding the long-term money owed to point guard Dennis Schröder (and clearing the path for Young) while also adding a pair of future first-round draft picks. The Hawks started their rebuild last year, but they doubled down this summer, beginning to establish the core of what they hope will eventually be a consistent contender.
In the here and now, though, the Hawks will be one of the very worst teams in the NBA. First-year head coach Lloyd Pierce will bank on veterans Kent Bazemore and Jeremy Lin to keep his young team competitive while hoping for big leaps from forwards Taurean Prince and John Collins, and the squad’s general entertainment value will be predicated primarily on whatever flashes of brilliance Young can produce. Some nights, he’ll burn white-hot, and demand you dial up the Hawks on League Pass. But by and large, things promise to be ugly in Atlanta this season.
11. Sacramento Kings: There are some interesting pieces in Sacramento. De’Aaron Fox struggled with his shot as a rookie, but did show a flair for the dramatic. Bogdan Bogdanovic came over from Europe and instantly established himself as one of the Kings’ best players — which might not be saying much, but still — and, quiet as it’s kept, Buddy Hield averaged 14.5 points per game and shot 41.6 percent from long range over the final three months of last season.
Harry Giles finally took off his medical redshirt at Las Vegas Summer League and offered a reminder of why he was once the No. 1 prep player in the country. No. 2 overall pick Marvin Bagley III, perhaps the most dominant player in college basketball last season, joins the fray. Whatever your feelings about his approach to take-backs, Nemanja Bjelica is a pretty good floor-spacer; hope springs eternal for raw bigs Willie Cauley-Stein and Skal Labissiere.
There’s some talent here … I’m just not sure I believe that general manager Vlade Divac has much of a plan in place to get the most out of it, that head coach Dave Joerger will consistently find the right lineup combinations on a big-heavy, wing-light roster to reliably compete, or that what the Kings put on the court most nights will merit a must-watch slot on your NBA menu.
(Also, it’s typically not a great sign when the most notable thing about your franchise at press time is that a former executive “is suspected of siphoning off $13.4 million from two of the team’s top sponsors … to purchase beachfront property in Southern California.”)
10. Orlando Magic: Speaking of big-heavy rosters: what most bears watching in Orlando is how new head coach Steve Clifford mixes and matches in a frontcourt rotation featuring re-upped 2014 lottery pick Aaron Gordon, 2017 lottery pick Jonathan Isaac, 2018 lottery pick Mo Bamba, longtime starting center Nikola Vucevic and journeyman Timofey Mozgov, imported as the cost of doing the business in jettisoning the disappointing Biyombo.
Whatever the Magic may one day hope to be depends to a gigantic degree on figuring out whether Gordon (who looked like a star in the making at times last season), Isaac (limited to 27 games by injury, but with the potential to be a game-changer on both ends of the court) and Bamba (who pairs the longest wingspan the league’s ever measured with the possibility of an inside-out offensive game) can fit together up front. That could depend on how well all of the above can shoot the ball to space the floor and prevent defenses from packing the paint, and on what kind of service they get from their guards this season. With a long way to go before any of the three are considered bankable shooters, and with the trio of D.J. Augustin, Jerian Grant and Isaiah Briscoe slated to be on the ball, Orlando’s massive future might wind up slogging through an ill-fitting and awkward present.
POTENTIALLY PIQUING OUR INTEREST
9. Chicago Bulls: I’m not sure exactly how the Bulls’ young pieces — likely cornerstone second-year forward Lauri Markkanen, highly regarded rookie center Wendell Carter Jr., newly minted $80 million man Zach LaVine, hometown hero Jabari Parker, point guard Kris Dunn — will fit together. That’s especially true on the defensive end, where LaVine, Parker and Markkanen all have a ways to go before they can be considered quality NBA stoppers (or even stallers). I’m also unsure a full season of LaVine and the introduction of Parker, both of whom like to dominate the rock, is what the doctor ordered for an offensive scheme predicated primarily on ball and player movement.
I do know, though, that I’m interested in what an offense with three potential 20-point scorers can produce, and how many games the Bulls will wind up playing in the 120s due to a combination of offensive talent, an elevated pace — who, as coach Fred Hoiberg told ESPN’s Zach Lowe, Chicago plans to try to run like hell with all those young (and surgically repaired) legs — and what could be a near-total inability to regularly generate stops. The Bulls probably won’t be any good this year. They could be a pretty decent watch, though.
8. Detroit Pistons: You’re within your rights to criticize this placement, whether because A) the Pistons might not actually be bad this year, and B) the Pistons have made one playoff appearance in the last nine years and have spent most of the post-Flip Saunders era as one of the league’s most reliably boring teams. (In fact, you’re within your rights to criticize every entry on this list, as it is a subjective collection of thoughts presented on the Internet!)
I’ll personally be watching how Detroit pans out, though. I want to see whether the trio of Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson — who shared the floor for all of 44 minutes last season — can be the foundation of something pretty good. I also want to see whether new head coach Dwane Casey can use his gifts as a developer of young talent to turn the likes of Reggie Bullock, Stanley Johnson, Luke Kennard, Henry Ellenson and Glenn Robinson III into a viable support structure for the Pistons’ high-priced stars.
With some health luck and internal improvement, the Pistons could be a playoff team in a watered-down Eastern Conference. But if Jackson can’t stay on the floor to help Griffin and Drummond mesh, and give the Pistons a drive-and-kick engine to make the offense go, Casey’s start in Detroit could wind up being as rocky as his predecessor’s ending.
7. New York Knicks: Some Knicks fans might have reached their end of their rope when it comes to supporting the franchise, and there’s no doubt that New York’s going to rank among the NBA’s worst teams once again this season. But there might actually be some reasons to tune into this year’s model, starting with rim-attacking rookie forward KevinKnox and athletic second-round center MitchellRobinson, both of whom opened eyes during Las Vegas Summer League, and a sizable crop of “second draft” reclamation projects, including former lottery picks Trey Burke, Mario Hezonja, Emmanuel Mudiay and Noah Vonleh.
If any of those flyers pan out, if Knox and Robinson flash, if second-year guard Frank Ntilikina can show newfound off-the-dribble aggressiveness to pair with his defensive skills, and if injured franchise player Kristaps Porzingis can make a quicker-than-expected return from his ACL tear, new coach David Fizdale’s Knicks might actually wind up being a pretty fun team to keep an eye on. And even if everything goes bust, this is still the Knicks; five gets you 10 there’ll be a fan to call an alcoholic, a legend to slander, a workplace issue to botch, or a new Straight Shot ditty to keep us talking.
6. Memphis Grizzlies: At last update, the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook had pegged the over/under number for Grizzlies wins this season at 32.5. I’ve written this a couple of times, but assuming reasonable health from Marc Gasol and the returning Mike Conley, I’m optimistic that Memphis can not only clear that bar, but maybe even hang around in contention for a Western playoff spot.
We’ve got about a decade of evidence that, when Conley and Gasol share the floor, Memphis is damn good. The Grizzlies’ summertime moves — signing playmaking forward Kyle Anderson, making a trade for solid veteran guard Garrett Temple, drafting malleable young big man Jaren Jackson Jr. and defensive bulldog Jevon Carter — suggest an organizational mandate to surround their bookend stars with tough, smart, defensively versatile players who can play up or down a spot in the lineup. They’ve got better depth and potentially more shooting on the wing than they’ve had in years past, especially if young swingmen Dillon Brooks and Wayne Selden can continue to build on what they’ve shown.
Cracking the West’s top eight won’t be easy, but if Conley and Gasol stay ambulatory, I’d wager the Grizz stay in a lot more games, for a lot longer, than they did last season. And if that bet winds up busting, and the Grizz go into the tank again … well, monitoring the trade markets for Conley and Gasol as February approaches can be its own sort of fun.
CERTAINLY WORTH A LOOK
5. Cleveland Cavaliers: You don’t get more watchable by losing the best player on the planet. But unlike the last time the Cavs lost LeBron James, this time around, the postscript promises to at least be pretty interesting. (Also, similar to the Pistons and Grizzlies, Cleveland might occupy another subsection of this list, one titled something like “MIGHT NOT ACTUALLY BE THAT BAD.”)
I’m fully on-board for finding out whether today’s Kevin Love can get back to working the offensive magic he did in Minnesota after getting a new $120 million extension to be the Cavs’ new No. 1 option. I’m eager to learn how well rookie Collin Sexton, a hard-charging defender whose primary pre-draft asset seemed to be his relentlessness, adapts to operating an NBA offense. I’m curious whether the players who never found a comfort level after arriving late in the season as LeBron’s reinforcements — George Hill, Jordan Clarkson, still-unsigned restricted free agent Rodney Hood — will approximate their previous production removed from the pressure cooker of being dropped directly into LeBron’s attempt to reverse Cleveland’s freefall.
There’s no way the Cavs can replace what LeBron provided, and their chances of making a fifth straight NBA Finals vanished as soon as he announced he was heading to L.A. By the end of the fourth year of his second term in Cleveland, though, the Cavs had become kind of stale and staid — a slightly remixed rendition of a familiar song. If nothing else, it ought to be pretty fun to watch Love and what’s left after LeBron try to play a different tune.
4. L.A. Clippers: I don’t think the Clippers will be a playoff team — nor, for that matter, do multiple early projection systems or the sharps — but I’m interested in how this roster shakes out, because it’s packed with dudes who seem like they should be getting minutes in the backcourt.
Rather than trading Lou Williams at the peak of his “Wait a second, is LouWilliams an All-Star?” hype last winter, the Clips signed the high-scoring sixth man to a three-year extension. Then, this summer, they brought back Avery Bradley and Milos Teodosic, and used two first-round picks on Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jerome Robinson, all while still having injury-plagued defensive ace Patrick Beverley on the books (albeit on a non-guaranteed contract) along with second-year pros Sindarius Thornwell and Jawun Evans. L.A. opened up some backcourt playing time by flipping Austin Rivers to the Wizards in exchange for Marcin Gortat, ensuring they’d have a veteran big man around if DeAndre Jordan skipped town (which he did), but it still seems like there’s another shoe or two to drop for the Clips.
Maybe the Clippers wind up trying to flip some of their inexpensive young perimeter assets, whether for future building blocks or as sweeteners to try to offload a pricier contract (like, say, the one belonging to Danilo Gallinari) to create even more financial flexibility in pursuit of a big fish (like, say, the one they fired their color commentator over). Maybe Doc Rivers, having watched his offense crater whenever Williams was off the floor last season, just decides to damn the torpedoes and play super-small a ton, spreading it out with uptempo three-guard lineups to gin up as much playmaking as possible.
Maybe LouWill catches fire again and starts throwing up 30 off the bench every night to keep things entertaining, and to once again spark the Clips to surprising late-season playoff contention. Maybe, in the first full official year post-Lob City, it all goes up in smoke way, way sooner than that. Whichever way things go, I’m guessing it’s going to be worth watching.
3. Brooklyn Nets: After years of patience, general manager Sean Marks and head coach Kenny Atkinson can now look at a Nets roster out from under the weight of one of the most punishing trades in recent NBA history and see the fruits of their labors: a team that plays an entertaining, freewheeling, modern style, staffed by intriguing young talents growing together following a prolonged stay in hoops purgatory.
Brooklyn’s deep in the backcourt and on the wing, with playmakers (D’Angelo Russell, Spencer Dinwiddie, Caris LeVert, Shabazz Napier) and shooters (Allen Crabbe, Joe Harris) capable of handing off roles and responsibilities within the context of possessions and matchups on the perimeter. They’ve got aggressive, energetic big men — impressive second-year center Jarrett Allen, small-ball power forward/Swiss army knife Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, summertime additions Ed Davis and Kenneth Faried — to screen, roll, clean the glass and space the floor vertically. They’ve got savvy vets (DeMarre Carroll, Jared Dudley) to help the youngsters foster good habits, a couple of bright young European wings (2018 draft picks Dzanan Musa and Rodions Kurucs) to add to the perimeter pipeline and — finally, all these years later — control of their future first-round picks back and some financial flexibility, thanks to savvy maneuvering by Marks.
The Nets play fast, share the ball and bomb 3s (only the Rockets took and made more last season), and they’ve got the recipe for a legitimate youth movement. How good they wind up being depends on whether Russell can emerge as a top-flight lead guard with a more mature shot selection, whether all those switchable wings can hold up at the point of attack, and whether Allen can become the rim-protecting spine of a defense capable of rising to league-average in points allowed per possession for the first time in more than a decade. It probably won’t happen this year, but if you haven’t watched the Nets much of late, you also probably won’t regret changing that this season.
MUST-WATCH (AT LEAST ONCE IN A WHILE)
2. Dallas Mavericks: I know we’ve talked about this, but it bears repeating:
Luka Doncic enters the NBA having played about 4,000 total regular- and postseason minutes in Spain’s top league and in the EuroLeague, the highest-caliber basketball competition in the world outside the NBA. He enters the NBA having just won domestic and EuroLeague championships with Real Madrid, as well as Most Valuable Player honors in the ACB, the EuroLeague regular season and the EuroLeague Final Four. He was arguably the best player in Europe as a teenager, and now he’s going to Dallas to team with Dennis Smith Jr. in an egalitarian offensive scheme, with stalwart wing Wesley Matthews and finally-a-Maverick center DeAndre Jordan on hand to solidify the defense, and with Harrison Barnes and the immortal Dirk Nowitzki up front to get buckets.
Dallas operated this summer like a team unwilling to spend any more time tanking, and deeply invested in returning to the postseason as soon as possible. Their chances of doing so rest on the ability of Doncic and Smith Jr. to mesh quickly and turn into a pair of young playmaking stars. Watching them get started on that path, with Jordan clearing the way and Dirk catching and firing, ought to be worth the price of admission.
1. Phoenix Suns: If it feels like the Suns are a completely different team from the one that’s barely been an afterthought in recent years … well, that’s because they pretty much are.
This is probably a good thing. It’s definitely a pretty cool one.
Outside of keeping around Devin Booker with a massive five-year maximum-salaried contract, betting that the sweet-scoring 21-year-old is the franchise player Phoenix has been searching for since Steve Nash headed to L.A., Phoenix shuffled basically everything else. In comes Igor Kokoskov from the Utah Jazz and Slovenian national team to take the reins on the bench. In come Trevor Ariza and Ryan Anderson to provide floor-spacing shooting and veteran presence, both of which could make things easier for the Suns’ boatload of young pieces.
Oh, right, the young pieces! In comes No. 1 overall pick Deandre Ayton, the first potentially elite big man Phoenix has fielded since Amar’e Stoudemire. And Mikal Bridges, imported via draft-night gamble, to be precisely the sort of plug-and-play 3-and-D wing every team needs if they intend to get serious. And French guard Elie Okobo and ex-USC guard De’Anthony Melton, a pair of draftnik darlings with the confidence to bomb away off the bounce, the court sense to make the right play in the flow, and the length to guard either backcourt spot.
Add the quartet of 2018 imports to second-year wing Josh Jackson, and all of a sudden the Suns have a 23-and-under core full of long, athletic pieces who can shoot, make plays and (theoretically) defend, augmented by Ariza, Anderson, natural bucket-getter T.J. Warren and incumbent center Tyson Chandler, all surrounding Booker, already one of the game’s most dangerous scoring threats. All Phoenix seems to be missing is a point guard to bring it all together … unless Kokoskov decides to just hand the keys to his $158 million shooting guard, like Mike D’Antoni did with James Harden, get another wing shooter/defender on the floor, and let God sort ’em out.
It would take a quantum leap of borderline unthinkable proportions for the Suns to improve from 21 wins to the thick of the playoff chase in the West, one that would see the answer to virtually every possible coin-flip question facing Phoenix — whether Ayton can man the back line of a good defense, whether Booker can be an every-play primary facilitator, whether Anderson and Ariza can provide enough spacing to give Ayton and Booker the room to do maximum damage, whether Bridges and Jackson can playing meaningful roles in the pros this quickly, etc. — come up in the affirmative. From the outside, though, it appears that this is the plan: to throw caution to the wind, try to develop all this young talent right now, and to also try to legitimately compete for the first time in a half-dozen years.
I have no idea how it’s going to work. I think it’s going to be really fun to watch, though.
An earlier version of this post incorrectly identified the national team for which Igor Kokoskov has served as head coach. Before joining the Suns, he coached of the Slovenian national team, not the Serbian team. We regret the error.
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