Basketball. Is. Back. I’m ranking all 30 teams and slotting them into tiers. Today, we’ll look at the teams eyeing the future. These are the franchises that would just simulate the season if they could in order to get to the draft lottery and the summer. But real life isn’t a video game, and real basketball will be played. Fortunately, even most bad teams have a lot to get excited about.
That’s what makes this season different. There are only a handful of teams in the West without any chance of making the playoffs, and virtually every team in the East could grab an honorary playoff spot as the 8-seed. It’s the first year in a long time when there’s not an overwhelming Finals favorite, or any clarity about which 16 teams will make the playoffs. So what happens in games during the long regular season will really matter. We’re going to get a season with twists and turns, more big trades, and lots of drama.
On Friday, we’ll look at teams that could rise or fall. Then on Monday and Tuesday, we’ll look at the teams most likely to make deep playoff runs and my season predictions. For each franchise, I’m offering up what I think will be the major talking point, story line, or theme that will hover over the team for the next nine months. Let’s get started.
30. Charlotte Hornets
Head coach James Borrego has said that Terry Rozier will probably play around 34 minutes per game, which is coachspeak for “we are tanking the hell out of this season.” What other choice do the Hornets really have? They have the worst roster in the NBA. It’s gonna be an ugly year, though tanking sure beats being stuck in the dreaded middle. The Kemba Walker era created wonderful memories, but it’s time for the Hornets to start thinking about tomorrow. The team was going nowhere. They’ll have high lottery odds whether they tank or just straight up suck. Miles Bridges and PJ Washington have talent, and I’m not giving up on Malik Monk. But this team needs to find a new face of the franchise in the draft. If only they could skip to the draft lottery.
29. Washington Wizards
Bradley Beal signed a two-year, $72 million extension with the Wizards on Thursday morning, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. It comes as something of a surprise when you look down the Wizards bench and see John Wall wearing street clothes while he recovers from a ruptured Achilles. Or you look at the floor and see Beal surrounded by a bunch of misfits and castaways. Or you realize that every contender would have loved to add him to its lineup. But Beal’s decision is a sign of loyalty to the franchise and to his longtime backcourt partner, Wall; signing this extension aligns his contract with Wall’s through the 2022-23 season.
New Wizards general manager Tommy Sheppard had resisted trade offers for Beal, and for good reason. He’s only 26 and has gotten better every season. Even if his skills stay the same, he’s a top-25 player in the NBA. Beal can plug into any system with any type of star player because he’s so adaptable. Have a ball-dominant player? Beal can stroke spot-up 3s, run off of screens, cut, and serve as a secondary ball handler. Need a go-to scorer? Beal can do that, too, as he showed last season when he ran more pick-and-roll and used more isolations after Wall was sidelined.
Beal was coveted because of his adaptability, and teams across the league were hoping he would become available. His decision to re-sign changes the trade landscape. Teams looking to make a big move to swing the title picture will have to look elsewhere, but there are few, and possibly no, high-impact players like Beal available on the trade market. Instead, Sheppard and the Wizards will be able to build around Beal, Wall, and rookie lottery pick Rui Hachimura. Beal’s decision gives the Wizards more time. That’s all they could ask for.
28. Cleveland Cavaliers
Much of what’s true for Washington is true for Cleveland, except Kevin Love lacks the same value that Beal has. He’s older, has more years remaining on his contract, and has suffered more major injuries. He is not in the same class as Beal as a player, though he can still make positive contributions with his shooting, playmaking, and rebounding. The Cavaliers are interesting with or without Love. They have frisky prospects like Darius Garland and Collin Sexton; it wouldn’t shock me if by the end of the season, Garland is an All-Rookie player. And, speaking of rookies, don’t sleep on rookies Kevin Porter Jr. and Dylan Windler. The Cavs could be a fun bad team!
27. Phoenix Suns
The rap on Devin Booker is that he’s a ball hog who puts up big stats on losing teams. He didn’t help himself by throwing a fit over getting double-teamed during an offseason scrimmage. But at this point, Booker is underrated. After playing exclusively as an off-ball shooter at Kentucky, Booker has rounded out his game and can now threaten defenses as a shot creator.
Booker isn’t a pure passer, though, so Phoenix sought a point guard this offseason. The Suns had hoped to land D’Angelo Russell but ended up settling for Ricky Rubio, signing him to a three-year, $51 million deal. I was a bit puzzled by the choice; three years seems like too much since Rubio isn’t an ideal fit next to Booker because he struggles as an off-ball shooter. But it’ll be fascinating to see what a pure point guard can do to reveal a more well-rounded side of Booker, while also hopefully creating easier shots for Deandre Ayton.
This play got me very excited. The Suns ran a double screen with Booker popping and Ayton rolling, then Rubio throwing the lob. Maybe Rubio’s veteran experience could be an aggregate positive for the Suns if he’s helping Ayton develop and reviving Booker’s dormant skills. If the rest of Phoenix’s young roster—Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson, and Dario Saric—makes strides, then they could still be the Bright Future Suns after all.
26. Memphis Grizzlies
The lack of hype around Ja Morant is a bit weird. I get that he’s on a small-market team. I get that he didn’t play in summer league. I get that he’s not Zion Williamson. But, dude, have you seen this guy pass?
Morant is such a shifty ball handler, and he’s so smart. He consciously jumps here to make the defender contest his shot, except he’s not shooting. He jumped to bait the defender, freeing up Jaren Jackson Jr. for a dunk. This is advanced stuff. One more pass, please:
I mean, come on. Morant goes behind the back then soars in the air while palming the ball and fires a bull’s-eye to Kyle Anderson, who swings the ball to Dillon Brooks. Brooks misses, but at least he had an open chance thanks to Morant’s ludicrous pass.
Morant’s perimeter game needs to improve, but there’s no doubt he’ll make an immediate impact as a passer. And he has juicy pick-and-roll weapons in fellow rookie Brandon Clarke, an explosive lob threat, and Jackson, who can pop or roll. We will be watching Jackson and Morant grow together for years to come. The Grizzlies aren’t ready to qualify for the playoffs, but this trio will make them one of the league’s must-watch young teams.
25. New York Knicks
Kevin Durant said recently “the cool thing right now is not the Knicks.” He’s right. The Knicks have won an average of 33 games per season this century—the worst in the NBA. A whole generation of fans has grown up with the Knicks sucking. Who could blame Durant and Kyrie Irving for choosing Brooklyn? After Plan A—landing at least Durant, if not Durant and Irving—failed, the Knicks had an imperfect summer, and they took a lot of heat for it. But despite the harsh criticism they received, their forward-thinking decisions were at least a step in the right direction.
New York didn’t waste its cap space by signing to long-term contracts players who couldn’t make it a winner, just for the sake of adding a bigger name. The Knicks added some hard-nosed dudes, like Marcus Morris and Taj Gibson, who’ll make them look at least competent as they develop their young talent. It’s all about the kids, anyway: The Knicks are building for the early 2020s, a time when their youth should be developed and still on their rookie deals. By then, an improved team and financial flexibility could make them appealing to free agents. Consider that the Knicks can enter the 2021 offseason with the following players still on their rookie contracts: RJ Barrett, Kevin Knox, Mitchell Robinson, and whoever they select using their three first-round picks in the next two strong draft classes. They could create one max slot and still retain Julius Randle and Frank Ntilikina or Dennis Smith Jr. Or they could flip some players. Or maybe they could let all three walk in free agency and sign two players instead. The point is that New York has a bunch of young talent with more coming over the next two drafts and can create a lot of financial flexibility. The Knicks are set up to be cool again, just as long as James Dolan doesn’t screw it all up.
24. Atlanta Hawks
Here’s one thing I know for sure: Travis Schlenk has real guts. You’d have to in order to make the kinds of risky moves he has since becoming general manager of the Hawks in 2017. Schlenk essentially traded Luka Doncic, Jaxson Hayes, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, and other draft assets for Trae Young, De’Andre Hunter, and Cam Reddish. It doesn’t look like a smart swap on paper, yet you analyze the current roster and it makes sense. The Hawks are building precisely the type of team you’d want to put around a transcendent playmaker like Young, with versatile wings in Hunter and Reddish, a sharpshooter in Kevin Huerter, and a bouncy big in John Collins.
Young is entering his second season but is already one of the league’s best passers. He can conduct a symphony with the players around him, in a fun, fast-paced offense coached by Lloyd Pierce. There’s no doubt this team is on the rise, and it shouldn’t shock anyone if they fight for a low playoff seed in the weak Eastern Conference.
One note of caution for a team that clearly plans to put the ball in Young’s hands a ton: Young needs to prove he’s a better shooter than his reputation would suggest. He is often discussed as a potential Steph Curry–like threat because of his propensity for firing deep 3s, but Young has never shot higher than 36 percent from 3 in college or the pros, while Curry has never shot worse than 38.7 percent. Young has soft touch on tricky layups, floaters, and free throws, so I hope he’s just a late bloomer from downtown. But it’s hard to totally buy in until he proves it.
23. Chicago Bulls
The Bulls took baby steps in recent years and have officially graduated to this tier now that they’re ready to compete for the postseason. It’s not saying much, since the East is weak. But we’re about to see what they can do with real stakes. This team isn’t too shabby, either. Say what you will about Zach LaVine’s J.R. Smith–style tendencies, but he’s a scorer who has been empowered this preseason to carry Chicago’s offense. The roster around him is coming together: The Bulls’ five best young players include talented bigs in Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr., a stabilizing two-way forward in Otto Porter Jr., and another scoring guard in Coby White. With some veterans like Thad Young and Tomás Satoransky sprinkled in, the Bulls will be in the mix for the playoffs. But here’s the most pressing question: How does Lauri fit into the offensive equation?
Markkanen isn’t a shot creator like LaVine or White. LaVine will lead the team in touches and shots this season, and if White shoots like he has in preseason, he’ll put up volume numbers. Even Porter has been empowered to handle the ball more frequently on the break and in the pick-and-roll. Porter isn’t a star playmaker, but he’s a better passer than Markkanen. Bulls head coach Jim Boylen often has to relegate Markkanen to a basic pick-and-pop or spot-up shooting role.
That’s a gross underutilization of Markkanen’s offensive talent. He can run off screens for 3s, attack the basket off the dribble, and handle the ball in the pick-and-roll. I wasn’t particularly high on Markkanen in his draft because of his limitations as a defender, rebounder, and passer. But there’s no denying his scoring potency, and it’s an open question whether there will be enough opportunity for his strengths to manifest in Chicago.
It’s only Markkanen’s third season, but he’s had problems with injuries and could stand to be more aggressive. Entering the season, it’s clear he falls behind LaVine, White, and possibly Porter in the hierarchy—which makes sense now, but may not down the line if the franchise wants to keep rising from the bottom. As promising as the Bulls are, should they invest more in Markkanen?
This piece was updated at 11:10 a.m. ET on October 17 with additional information about Bradley Beal’s extension.