Earlier this year, as I sat courtside in an empty Suns practice facility with Earl Watson, the team’s 37-year-old head coach told me about The Alchemist, a novel by Paulo Coelho that he tells his players about “if they’re frustrated with the process of things.” The novel concerns a kid who has visions of a treasure hidden in the pyramids in Egypt. “His entire journey, he’s meeting all these great people, having all these great experiences, but he’s not paying attention to the now,” Watson said. “He finally gets to the treasure and realized there is no true treasure that lasts forever. The greatest gift is the journey. Those experiences are more important than the ending.”
Watson’s point was that if the Suns win the championship someday, they’ll have a parade, but it’s the memories made along the way that the players, coaches, executives, and fans will remember. It’s the journey: Devin Booker scoring 70 points, or, as Watson cracked, “Tyler Ulis looking like he was 12.” For the Warriors, it was Stephen Curry scoring 33 against the Clippers in the 2014 playoffs. There’s a Cavs fan out there laughing about how he burned LeBron James’s jersey, then bought another one when he came home. “No one’s ever gonna talk about, ‘Remember when we was in the parade and we were going down First Street?’” Watson said. “It’s the moments that define you moving forward towards your destiny.”
That’s a hard mindset to have when every fan base wants to win now. But by embracing the present, you can find points of light in the dark. Nine teams have already been eliminated from playoff contention. Five more will follow over the remaining weeks of the regular season.
Here’s a ranking of the clubs with the 10 worst records in the league, based on how optimistic they should be (most to least) heading into the offseason, with some notes on what teams have to be hopeful about (and in some cases, how little they have to be hopeful for). Note: Take this ranking with a grain of salt, as levels of hopefulness can experience extreme volatility based on lottery results, MRI scans, and front-office shakeups.
1. Philadelphia 76ers
The above video, taken in February, features Joel Embiid and Dario Saric going one-on-one, and Ben Simmons getting some shots up. Given the injuries experienced by Embiid and Simmons, it’s gratifying to see. These are Philly’s three reasons for hope — even if one of them didn’t play a game and the other appeared in just 31. The nice thing about the Sixers roster is it can take different shapes. Robert Covington is developing into an effective 3-and-D wing, but in smaller lineups, he can slide up a position. Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot needs to get his shot fixed, but he’s shown major flashes this past month as a versatile wing. Richaun Holmes is part of an unusual class of big men who can shoot 3s, protect the rim, and rebound effectively (as listeners of The Ringer NBA Show damn well know). He can play next to Embiid in a twin-tower lineup, or act as a small-ball center next to a point forward like Saric or Simmons. Sixers fans can thank this man for their riches:
2. Minnesota Timberwolves
Karl-Anthony Towns is hope incarnate. I wrote in depth about his making the leap last month. Here’s an update on the numbers: Since January 17, the turning point of the season for Towns, the second-year big man has averaged 28.3 points and 12.4 rebounds with a 61.8 effective field goal percentage. There aren’t many players to post those numbers over a full season. With Andrew Wiggins making strides, Gorgui Dieng beginning to extend his range to 3, and Kris Dunn playing elite perimeter defense, the future is bright.
3. New Orleans Pelicans
The numbers for Anthony Davis–DeMarcus Cousins lineup pairings were ugly in early March. They’ve been better in recent weeks, largely because they are adapting to each other and head coach Alvin Gentry is using them in creative ways.
This is more beautiful than I possibly could have imagined. What plays will Gentry construct after a full summer buried in the film room? The Pelicans have two of the best big men in basketball. That alone gives them a shot at putting together something special.
I’ll never forget the moment the Boogie news broke. I was at All-Star Weekend in New Orleans, walking back from the game to the hotel with Micah Peters. We had been talking the entire time about how the Buddy Hield–for-Cousins rumors didn’t seem right because Hield didn’t seem like enough of a haul for the Kings. I had Twitter notifications turned on for Adrian Wojnarowski. Then this tweet popped up on my phone:
I read it aloud. Micah screamed in excitement. I was stoked. So were the people we were with. It was a rainy night in New Orleans. There are probably a lot of Pelicans fans who share the same memory as we do: walking down the streets of New Orleans, with puddles all over the streets, checking our phones for the news, because while Mardi Gras is great, the NBA is better.
4. Phoenix Suns
The Suns are in full tank mode now after accidently winning three straight games to kick off March. They’re playing the youngest starting five in NBA history — a perfect recipe for losing by 28 points to the Nets. But that’s OK, because these kids need and deserve opportunities. When I interviewed Watson in January, he said, “It’s important for [Marquese Chriss] to continue taking steps forward. He has a unique gift. It’s time for him to take that next step in February, March, and April just like did Devin did last year.”
That’s precisely what’s happening now. Chriss is one of the most athletic forwards in the NBA, and he’s learning the game right before our eyes. T.J. Warren still needs to extend his range, but he’s looking the part of a complementary scoring presence. Tyler Ulis is posting a tremendous 4-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio since the break. Devin Booker scored 70 freaking points. No one realistically went into this season expecting the Suns to compete for the playoffs. All they could ask for was development, and that’s precisely what they’re getting.
5. Los Angeles Lakers
I’ve never been a Julius Randle fan. I get the appeal: He’s a brick wall on wheels, a rebounding magnet, and someone who can handle the rock. But his poor feel for the game, lack of effort on defense, short arms, and poor jumper made him a non-lottery talent in my eyes. I felt, unless he landed in the right situation with the right coach who could fix his weaknesses, he’d end up just another guy.
Luke Walton might be that right coach, and the Lakers could soon be that right situation. Before the season, Walton spoke about growing Randle into a Draymond Green role, and maybe he was on to something. We’re seeing the signs. Randle brings the ball up the floor, runs a little pick-and-roll, and, when his motor is running, he’s able to switch to defend the perimeter. “Sometimes I’m like, ‘Holy Lord, he’s figured it out, and the rest of the league is in trouble,’” Walton said of Randle in January. “And there are other times when it’s like, ‘Wow, what was he looking at right there?’”
Randle still needs to put the pieces together. The bulky big man isn’t skilled enough to have the offense run through him, and his physical limitations put a cap on his defensive potential. He needs to find a way to make himself valuable on offense when the ball isn’t in his hands, so it’s crucial that he can become a competent shooter from 3. Randle began heating up from beyond the arc in March, going 10-of-26 on triples since March 1:
If Randle can keep defenders honest and force them to close out hard, it’ll open up lanes to enhance his existing strengths: attacking and playmaking. I’m still not sold on Randle, but if that shot comes around, I’d love to be proved wrong.
6. Dallas Mavericks
Chandler Parsons said last summer it was “shocking” the Mavericks let him walk. The Mavs instead opted to sign Harrison Barnes to a four-year max contract of equal dollar value ($94.4 million). Barnes has flourished, averaging 19.5 points in his first year as a primary option, while Parsons struggled, got injured again, and looks like an albatross contract for Memphis. Is this the kind of shock Parsons had in mind?
Barnes is scoring a hair over one point per possession in the half court this season, which ranks in the 79th percentile of all players, per Synergy. That’s damn good for a player who only knew a complementary role for the Warriors. He’s excelling at what he always has, but he’s doing it at a higher volume — exploiting switches in the post, scoring in one-on-one situations, and making plays as a pick-and-roll screener. And he’s still playing his typically versatile defense too.
Barnes might not be the star successor to Dirk Nowitzki, but he’s primed to fill an important role as the second or third piece. The Mavs have a shallow talent pool, with nine former undrafted free agents on the roster. There are fun surprises like Yogi Ferrell and Seth Curry, but for the most part, this is a roster without many sure things moving forward outside of Barnes and rim protector Nerlens Noel.
For Barnes to make the leap from good to great, he’ll need to make strides in two areas: passing and shooting off the dribble. Barnes has a robotic feel for the game, so I wouldn’t bet too much on him becoming a playmaker, but the latter is a possibility. Barnes shoots 41.9 percent on dribble jumpers from 2-point range, per SportVU, which is relatively average. He’s poor once that shot extends to 3, though, hitting just 28.6 percent from downtown. He’s already a solid shooter off the catch, so it would do wonders for his game to add that dimension.
7. Sacramento Kings
Kings fans were so disgruntled after the DeMarcus Cousins–for–Buddy Hield trade that they turned /r/Kings on Reddit into a Lion King page. The tone of the forum has since changed. “I was heated after the trade. I felt like the franchise was set back 10 years,” wrote booojangles13. “That was my knee-jerk reaction, and now I realize it was ultimately probably for the best. Buddy has overall been looking good, Skal is getting his opportunities, and it’s a new future ahead.” Very succinct, booojangles13! Hield is averaging 14.4 points with a 42.5 3-point percentage since arriving in Sac, and is blossoming into a true pick-and-roll playmaker. Just like Steph.
Willie Cauley-Stein is channeling prime Tyson Chandler. Skal Labissiere appears to be a major steal. Georgios Papagiannis is going through real growing pains, but it’s better than riding the bench like he was during the Cousins era. The Kings washed their hands of Boogie, and found out the kids were all right. They don’t need to make short-sighted trades (like Rudy Gay) or fake-flashy signings (like Rajon Rondo) just to build around a volatile franchise player.
8. New York Knicks
It says a lot about the state of the Knicks that their starting point guard suffering a season-ending meniscus tear is greeted as just another drop in the misery bucket. The self-labeled superteam has been anything but super, aside from its cornerstone. Kristaps Porzingis improved in virtually every offensive area of his game this season. He saw more minutes, and his efficiency got better. He became more consistent from 3-point range, and improved when finishing around the rim. The 7-foot-3 Latvian’s defense and rebounding must get better, but there’s little reason to think he’s not New York’s franchise player.
The problem is there’s no one else on the roster, aside from Willy Hernangomez, with a future on this team. As my good friend and Ringer teammate Jason Concepcion wrote, “They are the Salt Bae of incompetence.” Aside from Porzingis and Hernangomez, they should knock it all down and start over again:
The Knicks want to rebuild while remaining competitive; they want to promote their young talent, but won’t or can’t deal their aging vets; they say they want to run the triangle, but don’t have the personnel to do so. Some teams are zigging, some teams are zagging. Who knows what Phil is doing. To fully move on, they might need to make a change at the top.
9. Brooklyn Nets
The Nets stunk this year, but Kenny Atkinson did not. The first-year head coach is under the influence of Moreyball: Brooklyn plays at the fastest pace in the NBA, takes the fourth-highest frequency of 3s, and attempts the second-fewest midrange shots. By comparison, they attempted the fourth-most midrange shots last year and the third-fewest 3s. No player embodies this evolution more than center Brook Lopez.
Through eight seasons with the Nets, the 7-foot behemoth center had attempted only 31 triples and hit just eight of them; this year he’s racked up 363 attempted 3s and has made 35 percent of them. To put Lopez’s year in perspective, Dirk Nowitzki’s career-high attempts for a season is 390 — the all-time mark for 3-point tries by a 7-footer, per Basketball-Reference. Lopez need only to maintain his season average (5.2) to eclipse 390. It wasn’t that long ago that Dirk was practically the only big stroking 3s, now it’s weird when a big can’t space the floor.
We can only imagine what the Nets might have been had Jeremy Lin not missed most of the season due to a hamstring issue. Since Lin started playing regular minutes on March 1, the Nets are 8–10 with a plus-0.6 net rating and the league’s 11th-best defensive rating. They’re the most average team in basketball over the past four weeks, a drastic improvement over the worst team in basketball. “Just from a lineup standpoint Jeremy helps us put everyone in their position, their comfort zone,” Atkinson said, via the Boston Herald. The pick-and-roll is a crucial component of Atkinson’s system, and Lin is good at putting defenders on his back to penetrate the paint or dragging the screener’s defender to manufacture wide-open looks like these:
Lin isn’t James Harden, though, and Lopez ain’t Ryan Anderson, but the Nets are running a Rockets-lite pick-and-roll attack with the duo. Their system is largely dependent on ball movement. Atkinson spent two years as an assistant under Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer, who learned from Gregg Popovich. The influence is clear.
The Nets have had Spursian moments like this scattered throughout the season, but they’re pretty rare. Despite their breakneck pace, they rank in the middle of the pack in SportVU’s ball movement metrics, which count things like passes made and potential assists. Their struggles can be partially explained by their lack of continuity — only five Nets returned from last year’s team, and a grand total of 21 players have suited up for the team this season. But the ball sticking is more of a talent issue aside from Lopez and Lin.
Caris LeVert and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson are the emerging talents in what is an admittedly depleted cupboard. LeVert is a reason for hope: He’s a 6-foot-7 wing with guard skills. He can shoot over the top, drive the lane, or make passes off the bounce. Hollis-Jefferson is a versatile, hard-nosed defender, though his jumper needs to improve significantly. The rest of the roster is made up of players who sound like members of a computer-generated NBA 2K draft class. Nets general manager Sean Marks was dealt a tough hand. He’s using the back end of Brooklyn’s roster to kick the tires on players like Isaiah Whitehead, K.J. McDaniels, and Joe Harris, hoping one or more of them can develop into a contributor.
The Nets have two first-round picks this year: one that is subject to a pick swap with the Celtics, and another that they obtained by dealing Bojan Bogdanovic to the Wizards. There’s good talent to be found late in the first round. They could take a swing at star-fallen prospects like Harry Giles and Ivan Rabb or international prospects like Rodions Kurucs or Isaiah Hartenstein. But they’ll miss out on the stacked lotto, unless they make a trade. If I were Marks, I’d look to build a package revolving around Lopez to move into the late-lottery to mid-first range. This is a can’t-miss draft for rebuilding teams, and if the Nets spot a potential superstar slipping to the eight-to-16 range, they should pounce.
10. Orlando Magic
Magic fans should watch this Aaron Gordon highlight reel over and over again until around 8 p.m. on May 16. That’s when the NBA draft lottery takes place, and the fate of their franchise will be determined.
With the fourth-best odds, the Magic of course hope to win the lottery. They also have a pick in the 20s range due from Toronto in return for trading Serge Ibaka. Even more fun stuff could happen for Orlando. The Lakers will convey their first-round pick to the Sixers if it’s not in the top three. If that happens, the Lakers must also send an unprotected 2019 first to the Magic. The 2012 Dwight Howard blockbuster could still come back to bite Los Angeles, and the Magic could be beneficiaries.
The reason we’re talking about what could happen is there isn’t a lot of hope on Orlando’s roster otherwise. Gordon has shown major flashes. Elfrid Payton had an impressive stretch earlier in the season. Terrence Ross and Nikola Vucevic can do some stuff. Evan Fournier is useful. But the Magic don’t have that guy yet. That’s what makes the lottery and the draft so important for this club. Nobody needs an alpha more than the Magic.
Stats current as of Sunday morning.