With NBA Free Agency ready to kick off, NBA fans and insiders alike are buzzing about the possibilities of a team that can contend with the mighty Warriors. It seems that everybody is craving a team that can handle the firepower of the Hamptons Five. While the NBA has earned a reputation for being too top heavy and lacking parody, the playing field has quietly evened out more than it has in previous years.
After the NBA Draft, the “bottom” of the NBA has taken a huge step in the right direction towards being competitive. Over the last 5 years, the team with the worst record has had somewhere between 10 wins (Sixers in 2015) to 21 wins (Suns in 2017). You have to go back to 2006 to the last time the worst team in the league had at least 21 wins.
Let’s take a look at who could possibly own the worst record in the league come next April. Out of the 14 teams that missed the playoffs, The Nuggets, Lakers, Pistons, and dare I say.......Mavericks feel the most ready to contend for a playoff spot. Out of the remaining 10, I would like to focus on seven: The Suns, Hornets, Kings Nets, Grizzlies, Hawks, and Magic. Let’s take a look at whose process we should be trusting.
Phoenix Suns - 2017 Record: 21- 61
You can’t talk about the bottom of the NBA without starting with the defending undisputed champions of the lottery. The Suns started last season with a dynamic duo of Devin Booker and Josh Jackson. While one exceeded expectations the other is still working out some parts of his game. Devin Booker has the ability to score from anywhere, on anyone, at anytime. This is why he should play a huge role in the Suns future for, what they hope to be, many years to come. Josh Jackson has all the upside in the world and still projects as a very useful 2 way wing, but he still needs to develop consistency with his 3 point jumper to take his game to the next level. According to basketball-reference.com, Josh Jackson shot 38% from 3 in college but just 26% his rookie season in the pros.
On top of their already solid starting 2, the Suns landed 3 potential starters for their future lineup in the first 31 picks during the 2018 Draft. Ayton will be an immediate contributor, at least on the offensive side. Mikal Bridges will serve as a player with a championship pedigree that can be plugged in as a 3 & D player and contribute at the 2 or 3. While I don’t think Mikal is a “World - Beater” by any means, he has a very high floor and should be very solid at the next level. Elie Okobo is a very safe pick as well. While the Frenchman doesn’t excel at any one thing, he is a combo guard with a 6’8 wingspan that can shoot. He hasn’t always played point which is why some scouts question his decision making at times and have called him turnover prone. While I do believe they will be slightly held back by the lack of a playmaker at the point position, I think these changes are enough to keep them above 30 wins in the next year and will be enough to tempt people like me to check them out on NBA League pass.
Prediction: 33 Wins (+12 wins)
Charlotte Hornets - 2017 Record: 36 - 46
Ahhhhh Charlotte, where bad players go to get good contracts. Charlotte has been rumored to be shopping Kemba Walker, potentially to the Cavs for newly drafted PG from Alabama Colin Sexton and Jordan Clarkson. I really like this trade for both sides, no matter what happens to LeBron in free agency. Letting Kemba, who is on a great $12 million contract, leave without getting anything would be yet another blemish on the resume of the GOAT, owner Michael Jordan.
On draft night they added Miles Bridges who is an athletic wing. At the NBA level he would be a small 4 or a big 3, similar to a Jae Crowder. I don’t see Bridges in the Rookie of the Year race but I do think that he will provide around 25 good minutes off the bench.
I’m a big fan of Malik Monk’s game offensively and athletically, and could see him being similar to J.R. Smith (All game 1 jokes aside). The problem is they have Nicolas Batum collecting a $24 million paycheck ahead of him on the depth chart and Jeremy Lamb fighting for minutes too. I hope Charlotte can do the right thing and develop Monk by giving him as much playing time as possible. I do think this team is a couple years away from being a playoff team, but a potential young core of Colin Sexton (assuming a trade), Malik Monk, and Miles Bridges is a good start.
Prediction: 34 Wins (-2 wins)
Sacramento Kings - 2017 Record 27 - 55
With the entire world knowing Ayton was going first overall, draft night really started at the number two pick. The Kings essentially had to choose between Luka and Bagley. After locking in their future backcourt last year with De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield, they decided to go with the big man out of Duke, Marvin Bagley. At age 19, Bagley’s offensive skill set is well polished. He is excellent in transition, with the spin move, and on the second bounce. Where he lacks is on the defensive side. I believe that this was a large part of why Coach K had to implement the zone defense last year. His inability to switch to defenders in the man to man defense exposed him. He has, however, shown enough flashes of good defense to be optimistic that he can be a good defender at the next level. I would expect Bagley to have an immediate impact and put up 16 pts and 10 boards a game in his rookie season.
The great news for Kings fans is that they have 7 players on rookie contracts, giving them a window of opportunity. Having contributing young players on rookie contracts could change the tide for Sacramento, who have traditionally been a market that has been avoided. Next offseason their player with the most guaranteed money is Bogdan Bogdanovic at $8.5 million. A team that recently had Vince Carter and Zach Randolph stealing playing time from the youth seems to have turned a new leaf. Sacramento will still be the fourth best team in California for another year, but the new look Kings could have a royal future.
Prediction: 31 Wins (+4 Wins)
Brooklyn Nets - 2017 Record: 28 - 54
Brooklyn is still suffering from the heist that Danny Ainge pulled on them. They got rid of Mozgov’s terrible contract but took on Dwight Howard’s. The good news is that the Nets have been rumored to buy out Dwight, setting him free to sign for a contender in need for a big man that ruins locker rooms. Buying him out would give Jarrett Allen the space and playing time that he needs to flourish and for Brooklyn to see if he is their guy moving forward. Let him work on his ability to switch out to the perimeter and his face up shot and you could have a dominate man in the low post. They also have D’Angelo Russel who 3 years ago was a consensus top 3 prospect. I do wonder what would have happened if Russel would have stayed out of Swaggy P’s personal life and continued on with the Lakers. Maybe he stays on the Lakers and with the #2 pick they select Jayson Tatum or Josh Jackson to go along with Brandon Ingram. At any rate, Russel still has what you want from a franchise guard. He’ll never be the most athletic guy on the floor or a lock down on-ball defender, but he has good length to defend passing lanes and can knock down jumpers with the best of them.
According to Spotrac, Brooklyn only has just over $25 million in guaranteed contracts for 2019 with an additional $5 million in dead cap from Deron Williams, and only $4 million guaranteed for 2020. Mix that cap space in with being in a New York market and you have a recipe for some big free agents over the next 2 summers. Big names like Kyrie Irving, who is a free agent in 2019, and Karl-Anthony Towns who is a free agent in 2020, both grew up around the Brooklyn area. The future is finally looking up for the laughing stock of the NBA but that future is not 2018. They didn’t add enough this offseason to make an immediate impact and for that reason they will still struggle and finish near the bottom of the league.
Prediction: 28 Wins (+0 Wins)
Memphis Grizzlies - 2017 Record: 22 - 60
Despite owning the second worst record in the league last year, Memphis Grizzlies owner Robert Petra believes his team is capable of winning 50 games next season. A lofty goal to set considering it is more than double the win count from the year before. While it’s unlikely, the future of their roster made a huge step forward by selecting Jaren Jackson Jr., the big man from Michigan State with the 4th overall pick. JJJ is the prototypical big man in the NBA, giving you excellent spacing with almost 40% from 3 point range in college. He’s also an elite shot blocker, averaging nearly 6 blocks per game per 40 minutes, and can switch to any defender and lock them down. While Jaren’s fit with Marc Gasol has been questioned as they both play away from the rim, there is no rush because Jackson Jr. is only 18 years old.
Chandler Parsons’ contract has handcuffed this team from making any moves this offseason. There is a good possibility they lose unrestricted free agent SG Tyreke Evans, leaving a large gap in the backcourt next to the veteran Mike Conley. While Conley is a solid PG, he has only played in 56% of his games over the last 3 seasons leaving the backcourt in the hands of Andrew Harrison and Ben McLemore. This is the part where you panic if you are a Grizzlies fan. To make matters worse, they lose their pick if they do win 50 games because their pick is top 8 protected? Who would do such a thing? Who would steal a potential late lottery pick from this poor Grizzlies team? None other than Danny Ainge of course. While this team is expecting 50 wins, they have all the reasons in the world to throw in the towel this year, keep their pick, stockpile talent, and look forward to 2020 when Gasol and Parsons combined 50 million comes off the books.
Prediction: 27 Wins (+5 Wins)
Atlanta Hawks - 2017 Record: 24 - 58
The Hawks are fresh off drafting the much hyped Luka Doncic, then immediately trading him for the greatest showman of the draft, Trae Young. While it will be interesting to see how this trade plays out over the next 10 years, I believe both teams got what they wanted for their specific rosters. Trae Young was the pick everybody talked about, but quietly one of my favorite picks of the entire draft was Kevin Huerter with the 19th pick in the 1st round. Kevin is 6’6” SG out of Maryland that shot 42% from 3 and 60% of all his shots were from 3 point range. Huerter finished in the 88th percentile for D-1 Player in spot up situations. This is where he makes his money. While everybody is saying Trae Young is the next Steph Curry, Kevin Huerter has been modeling his offensive attack after Klay Thompson. Kevin’s downfall is that he is nowhere near the lockdown defender Klay is. While his height is great for shooting over defenders, he doesn’t have a long wingspan. Their 3rd key piece is the second year big man John Collins. John is playing at his best when he has his back to the basket in the low post. His lack of passing ability should be compensated by Trae Young’s elite level facilitating. Mix these 3 with Taurean Prince who played 30 MPG for all 82 games last season, and you have a core that has good upside.
I think Dennis Schroder gets traded before the trade deadline this season, but the first half is spent getting their bright young star ready for the NBA. Because of this, Atlanta will struggle all year and 2 Chainz will have to wait another year for his team to make the playoffs.
Prediction: 26 - 56 (+2 Wins)
Orlando Magic - 2017 Record: 25 - 57
The 2017 regular season was anything but magical for Orlando. They moved on from Elfrid Payton and handed the keys to D.J Augustin, who is not the answer. Many thought they would snag the best available point guard at the #6 spot in this year’s draft. I believe they took the best available player by selecting Mo Bamba, but he is thrown into an already packed front court. Bismack Biyombo is 25 years old and has $34 million owed to him over the next 2 years. I would be shocked if they can find anybody willing to take that contract without shredding some decent draft pick. With such a need for scoring I don’t think giving up draft picks now is the right move. Bismack was only playing around 18 MPG last season while Nikola Vucevic was getting around 30 MPG. Nikola Vucevic, who is 27 years old, will be an unrestricted free agent next year after collecting nearly $13 million this year. I would expect Orlando will want Bamba to get around 20 - 25 MPG meaning that not all mouths will be fed.
Their biggest star, Slam Dunk Magician, Aaron Gordon will be a restricted free agent this year. Teams like the Pacers, Knicks, and Kings have been linked to giving Gordon a large offer, possibly even a max. Orlando will be at a crossroads, do they tie up max money in a player who over his four year career averages 16 pts, 8 reb, and 1 ast per 36 minutes? Watching their best player walk for nothing would be a heartbreak but so would a max contract to a player that has never been voted an All-Star. Could they be grooming Jonathan Issac to take over for Aaron? Isaac is definitely a lockdown defender but struggles, only having shot 38% from the floor in his rookie outing. I don’t see a clear plan for Orlando’s front court and I don’t see much promise from the backcourt leaving me to believe this year will be a big struggle. The Magic might truly be the most amusing attraction in Orlando and my favorite to be crowned worst in the NBA for the 2018 season.
Prediction: 24 - 58 (-1 Win) and the best chance at the #1 overall pick
Let me know in the comments below who’s future you’re excited about and who you think ends up with the best chance at winning the lottery.