Today’s NBA has shown that a franchise’s worst sin may not be losing games, but existing aimlessly. The 76ers have been an internet-wide laughingstock, but they’ve shown the potential to eventually ascend to contention. That’s exciting enough to make their place near the bottom of the Eastern Conference palatable. What may be worse is watching teams like Memphis and Chicago stumble around the lower halves of their respective playoff pictures without any plan to improve. A lack of direction makes futility seem endless. Aimlessness is crushing. And there is no place in the NBA that seems more aimless than the eighth seed in the Western Conference.
There are seven teams in the West that are seven or more games above .500, all with designs to win with the rosters they have constructed. But the Nuggets, at 25–31 and in the conference’s eighth spot, sit atop a pile of six teams separated by 3.5 games, which would likely benefit more from adding Frank Ntilikina or De’Aaron Fox (or, certainly, Lonzo Ball) than by getting bludgeoned by Golden State. When a losing team commits to a playoff push, it indicates that on the pros-and-cons legal pad of the franchise’s future, the tangible rewards of the lottery were outweighed by the psychological benefits of a “winning” season. That hardly ever actually ends up being the case. More often, a late-season push by a team doomed to be postseason fodder is the result of an overeager coach attempting to prolong employment, or a delusional owner.
But among the six teams within striking distance of the West’s final spot, there must be at least one that should want a shot at the Warriors. Let’s go team by team and find out which franchise, if any, should be doing its best to win now.
Don’t Even Think About It: Sacramento
Before Sunday night, there may not have been a better first-round matchup for the Warriors than the Kings, if purely for entertainment purposes. Sacramento beat Golden State in overtime earlier in February. In their rematch last Wednesday, Draymond Green was ejected in the first half for arguing after being called for fouling DeMarcus Cousins. The two have some bad blood, and combining that animosity with their cities’ proximity could have made for an amusing, if not very competitive, series.
But, oh, how things have changed. Now that they’ve dealt Cousins, the Kings are in contention for the worst roster in the NBA and may never be a hot free-agent destination. The obvious solution to Sacramento’s problem is to build through the draft, but if the Kings’ pick lands outside of the top 10 this year, they will lose it to Chicago. If the Kings are going to lose, it’s best for them to lose big, but not too big, because that same pick has a second stipulation: If it is a higher top-10 pick than Philly’s, then the 76ers have the option to swap. The two teams are separated by only 2.5 games at the moment, so this is a real possibility that the Kings need to be aware of. Sacramento’s active roster has no young stars in need of playoff exposure, so a failed postseason run will only make it more difficult for the franchise to improve in the near future. Before the trade, strictly on the grounds of morale, there was a decent case to be made for the Kings to try to make the playoffs; it has been 11 years since Sacramento last made the postseason. But now, even the most delusional Kings fans can see that it’s time for a rebuild. Hire Hinkie and embrace the tank.
Eh, It’s Probably a Bad Idea: Portland and Dallas
Portland can be fun, and the dynamic backcourt of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum can give any team trouble on the right night, but riding their starting guards seems to be the Trail Blazers’ plan for the next few years, and if this year is representative, that plan is a losing one.
The team’s third-leading scorer for much of the season was Mason Plumlee, who now plays for Denver. And the second- and third-highest-paid players on the payroll, Allen Crabbe and Evan Turner, are combining to average barely 20 points per game and have two of the worst net ratings on the team, but will continue to wreak havoc on the Blazers’ cap for the next three years. The losses of LaMarcus Aldridge and Wes Matthews were always going to drop Portland from contention; last season’s unexpected success served as an oasis. Unfortunately, GM Neil Olshey took it as something other than an outlier, and what the front office has done in response has planted the franchise firmly onto the mediocrity treadmill. With six players signed to meaty deals through the end of the 2019–20 season, Portland no longer has the cap flexibility to be a destination in free agency. Unfortunately, many of the premier prospects in this year’s draft are guards, and the Blazers certainly don’t long for another backcourt scorer. But the draft field is deep, and the players expected to fall in the late lottery, like Duke’s Harry Giles and Michigan State’s Miles Bridges, are long frontcourt players who could become a healthy complement to Lillard and McCollum. Being in the lottery would likely serve the Blazers better than an early postseason exit.
The Mavericks find themselves in a similar, if less promising, scenario. Harrison Barnes and Matthews, both signed until at least 2019, do not present the same upside as Portland’s dynamic duo. And from there, the picture for Dallas only darkens. Dirk Nowitzki’s eventual retirement looms, and the rest of the roster is a combination of forgotten veterans and relatively unheralded young players. Deron Williams and Andrew Bogut, two of the team’s most prominent players, are both aging and injury-prone, they both become free agents after this season, and neither factors into the team’s long-term plans. I have no idea where the Mavs intend to go in the coming years, and Mark Cuban and Donnie Nelson probably don’t, either.
Dallas could certainly benefit from a steep drop into the lottery, but a playoff matchup with Golden State 10 years after the crushing loss to the “We Believe” Warriors would be a compelling end for Dirk and a glowing conclusion to a stuffy season for Mavericks fans. The Mavs, like the Kings, would likely also be best off embracing the tank, but we all need to throw practicality out of the window and have fun sometimes. Follow your bliss, Dallas.
Yes! This Looks Promising: Minnesota and Denver
There may not be any phase in the life of a franchise more exciting than when a team decides it’s time to pull out of a tank. For a young and unproven team, every win is still fun. This rare moment, before expectations have set in and when there is only upside and potential, is where the Timberwolves and Nuggets are right now.
We are all well acquainted with Minnesota’s story. It has arguably the league’s most promising young talent in Karl-Anthony Towns, a dynamic wing in the increasingly confident Andrew Wiggins, and an improving third scoring option in the freakishly athletic Zach LaVine. This is a team full of League Pass darlings. The Wolves’ point guard situation is murky, and the potential addition of Derrick Rose, whose pricey contract expires at the end of the season, could provide little clarity. Kris Dunn has continued to collect dust on the bench (and disappoint on the court) and seems to be far from ready to take the starting role. The Minnesota front office will need to find a creative solution to round out its starting lineup next season, but perfecting a rotation is a concern for a team making a championship push, not one trying to get a first taste of postseason competition. For now, things are still simple.
That’s what made LaVine’s recent ACL tear particularly heartbreaking. Just as it was Minnesota’s time to put on blinders and start winning, a critical part of its core was sidelined. LaVine’s injury will make the playoff push much more difficult but it shouldn’t change the team’s objectives. The Timberwolves, who haven’t made the postseason since 2004, are the only team riding an active playoff drought longer than Sacramento’s, and if that pattern continues, the lack of meaningful playoff reps threatens to stunt Towns’s and Wiggins’s growth. In the grand scheme of things, this obviously isn’t Minnesota’s season, but it ought to be a building block to contention a few years down the road.
Denver’s core is not quite as flashy as Minnesota’s, but it carries similar promise. Nikola Jokic has transformed into a stud, and youngsters like Jamal Murray and Juancho Hernangomez are becoming more reliable with every game. The team’s veterans, including Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler, have shouldered enough of the scoring load to allow the younger players to come along at their own pace, but both will come off the books by 2019. That flexibility leaves the future uncertain; Denver’s front office will have work to do to fill out the roster around Jokic. But it’s easier to replace an aging vet than to move a journeyman on an oversize contract.
Denver has a viable core already, and, like Minnesota, it will benefit from some time in the spotlight. Tim Connelly can figure the rest out later.
Missing the Playoffs Would Be a Colossal Failure: New Orleans
Generously, the Pelicans have approximately four NBA players on their roster. But two of those players are the best two big men in the league. The modern NBA hasn’t seen a duo like Anthony Davis and Cousins, and if the combination is effective, New Orleans has finished the hardest part of the team-building process. Once the superstars are in place and a franchise starts winning, role players in search of a ring will come. Plus, Cousins will be a free agent in 2018, and if this Pelicans experiment hasn’t found a direction by then, he’ll surely be headed elsewhere. There’s no time for detours.
We’re in a post-Process world. It’s not always clear that winning is in a team’s best interest, but there’s no doubt here. Forget about a rotation. New Orleans should want to see just how far Boogie and Brow can take it.