The most exciting race in the NBA isn’t the one for the last few playoff spots in the Western Conference, or the one at the top of the East, or even the one to get Anthony Davis in a trade; it’s the race to the bottom, where a 14 percent chance at Zion Williamson awaits. The tankathon is not the race the NBA needs, but it’s the one that a league increasingly interested in future draft picks deserves. So, just as we did last season, we ranked the six worst teams in the league based not on record, but on how bleak their situation is at this moment. Remember: This season, the lottery odds for the league’s three worst teams are the same, so finishing third-to-last still makes you a “winner.” Without further ado, here are the NBA’s No-Power Rankings.
6. Atlanta Hawks (19-38)
The Hawks don’t belong here. They’ve been playing too well, as evidenced by Tuesday’s impressive win over the Lakers, which puts them 8.5 games ahead of the worst record in the league. Atlanta is a riddle. How do a bottom-six offense and a bottom-five defense make up one of the most enjoyable League Pass teams? The simple answer is their system, which is modeled on the Golden State system of putting a slew of shooters on the floor and playing at a lightning-fast pace. Combine it all with a core of recent draft picks—from Trae Young to Kevin Huerter to John Collins—and the Hawks are a joy to watch. The downside of their surprise success is that they may already be out of range for pole position in the Zion sweepstakes. But on the bright side, Atlanta is only good enough for fifth-to-last place, meaning it may still end up with a top-five pick and a 10.5 percent chance at the no. 1 pick, and it will get a second lottery pick from the Luka Doncic trade.
5. New York Knicks (10-46)
What the Knicks are doing right now is paint-the–Sistine Chapel–type stuff. They have lost 17 games in a row, and 30 of their past 32. Their only win since the calendar flipped to 2019 came by seven points over the Lakers on January 4 (Shame on you, Lakers). Somehow, the Knicks don’t have the worst point differential in the league—and therein lies the beauty of their tanking. Knicks games are often close. With a collection of intriguing players like the elastic Mitchell Robinson, the much-improved Noah Vonleh, and the shot-happy Allonzo Trier, they are always entertaining, but not good enough to win. Throughout their valiant climb up Mount Zion, they’ve been offloading helpful players left and right. They sent veterans Tim Hardaway Jr. and Courtney Lee to Dallas along with injured star Kristaps Porzingis. They also cast off Enes Kanter and bought out Wes Matthews, who was part of the return in their trade with the Mavericks. They kept DeAndre Jordan, presumably to make a good impression on his friend Kevin Durant, but are playing him only 26.6 minutes a game, a number that feels bound to diminish the longer the losing drags on. And they’ve recently let Dennis Smith Jr. run amok, which will help his value and keep the losses coming. The kids get minutes, the Knicks get L’s, and adding Durant seems to be in the offing. Everyone goes home happy.
4. Phoenix Suns (11-47)
The Suns are under-the-radar awful. With their games often tipping off late for an East Coast audience, you sometimes forget they exist until they play the Lakers or Warriors. Phoenix has lost 14 in a row, and before you shrug at that number given the Knicks’ gaudier total, consider the details: The Suns have a worse point differential than the Knicks, with no chance at improving for the rest of the season. The next-worst team in the West is the Grizzlies, who are 6.9 points better in differential and have 12(!) more wins than the Suns. Twelve. Whole. Wins. If Phoenix plays .500-level basketball over its last 24 games and if Memphis loses every game the rest of the way, the two teams would end up with the same record. Phoenix has the second-worst record in the league, which is good for its chances of getting another top-three pick, and maybe even the top pick again. But before the season, there was talk that the Suns wanted to compete. So much for that.
3. Cleveland Cavaliers (12-45)
Kevin Love had been sidelined since the middle of October with a toe injury before he finally made it back to the court last Friday. He played six minutes. He sat out the next game, and on Monday he played 16 minutes. This is the Cavs’ tanking efforts in a nutshell: The injury prevented Love from being dealt at the trade deadline, but he might be too good for them to play him. Cleveland currently has the worst point differential in the league (minus-10.6), and yet it doesn’t have the worst record—the Cavs are still 1.5 games behind the Suns and Knicks. It’s impossible to overstate how bad the Cavs defense has been. They are dead last in the league on D, which is already bad, but they are also giving up about three more points per 100 possessions than the next-worst team, the Suns. Powerless and defenseless. LeBron’s second era feels so far away, but yet another no. 1 overall pick looms for a Cleveland franchise that probably doesn’t deserve another stroke of ping-pong-ball luck.
2. Chicago Bulls (13-44)
Jim Boylen is trying his hardest to lift up the Bulls through blood, sweat, tears, and sprints, but he isn’t doing much better than his predecessor, Fred Hoiberg. They’re 2-8 in their past 10 games and they have the worst offense in the league over the course of the season. In an ideal world, this Bulls’ season would have gone something like the Hawks’. Young players like Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr., and Kris Dunn would have shown flashes of potential and have earned a few victories to hang their hat on, even if they did spoil their lottery odds. Instead, this season has been full of near-mutinies, five-man substitutions, a “leadership council,” and 44 losses, which is still not good enough to give them the best shot at the top pick.
1. Memphis Grizzlies (23-35)
If the Suns are festering in the dirt below the basement of the West, then the Grizzlies are still above ground. But at least Phoenix has a shot at reaping the ultimate benefit of its woe. Memphis, meanwhile, may be on the outside looking in on the Zion sweepstakes after opting to trade Marc Gasol at the deadline and keep Mike Conley. Even with Conley sitting out Tuesday against the Spurs, new addition Avery Bradley went off for 33 points and Memphis nearly won. More Conley and Bradley doesn’t bode well for the Grizzlies’ draft-pick prospects as they try to build around Jaren Jackson Jr. Memphis has no shot at cracking the bottom (top?) three, but if it takes a nosedive, it can easily get into the top five, and thus give itself a 10.5 percent chance at the no. 1 pick. The worst-case scenario quickly comes into focus once you look at the teams right behind them. The Heat, Wizards, and Magic, are all within four games of the Grizzlies, and though all are still trying to make the playoffs, most of them won’t. At this point in the season, one stretch of bad losses could make any of these teams realize they’re better off losing. The Grizzlies, who get to keep their first-round pick if it falls in the top eight, should too.
New Orleans Pelicans (25-33): The Pelicans still have Anthony Davis, so they’re not totally powerless yet, but we’re getting there fast. On Monday, they lost to the Magic by 30, and Davis finished with three points in 24 minutes. The league may be subtly forcing New Orleans to play Davis after the trade deadline to proceed with the season as if nothing happened, but instead, it’s highlighting the awkwardness surrounding the situation even more.
Washington Wizards (24-33): Currently, the most interesting thing about the Wizards is how their best player got away with what appeared to be a clear travel during a game before the NBA referees’ official Twitter account #wellactually’d everyone and said it was not, in fact, a travel, before Monty McCutchen, the NBA’s vice president of referee development and training, told ESPN’s Dave McMenamin that it was a travel. Someone take away Ernie Grunfeld’s powers and blow up this team.