Thanks to the advent of the NBA’s play-in tournament, a full two-thirds of the league now participates in some amount of postseason play after the regular season ends. For that other third, though—the worst five teams in the East and West—the next three-plus weeks are all that’s left before packing it up for a long summer.
That doesn’t necessarily mean senioritis has to set in. Even on bad teams just playing out the string, there’s still stuff to keep an eye on and get excited about—opportunities for role stretching, skill development, or just plain entertainment while we wait for the ping-pong balls to start popping.
As a committed service journalist, please allow me to share with you some of those reasons to be excited—the silver lining surrounding the drain that many of the NBA’s lottery-bound teams find themselves circling. The standings could shift by season’s end—as of press time, only four teams have been officially eliminated from playoff contention—but for the purposes of this exercise, we’ll look at the 10 teams that’d be on the outside looking in if the postseason started today. Let’s start with the East:
(All stats and records used entering Monday’s games.)
Washington Wizards: Kyle Kuzma, Exploring the Studio Space
Record: 30-40, 4.5 games out of the play-in
The feel-good vibes of Washington’s hot start had dissipated before Bradley Beal underwent season-ending wrist surgery. One bright spot, though: Kuzma doing his best to step into the yawning offensive void Beal left, showcasing both the scorer’s mentality that he flashed when he burst on the scene as a Laker and the ways he’s fleshed out the other aspects of his game since, prompting head coach Wes Unseld Jr. to recently refer to him as “our Swiss Army knife.”
Kuzma has led the Wiz in touches since Beal’s injury, and he’s averaging 19.7 points, 7.7 rebounds, and an eye-opening 5.1 assists in 34 minutes per game. He’s shooting 67 percent at the rim and 38 percent on above-the-break 3-pointers; he doesn’t draw fouls as much as you’d like from a primary scoring threat, but he’s shot 76.4 percent from the line, which would be a career high. He hasn’t just been gunning, either, dishing dimes on 23.1 percent of his teammates’ buckets—which would be a top-five mark among 4/5 types over the full season—without a dramatic uptick in his turnover percentage despite the additional responsibility.
How much all this amounts to is a matter of perspective. The Wizards have lost two-thirds of their games since Beal’s exit, supporting the contention that any team featuring Kuzma as its best player would probably not be that great. Even so, this doesn’t feel like empty calories; it feels like a player who’s worked his ass off developing a skill set taking advantage of the opportunity to showcase its diversity.
It remains to be seen how well Kuzma will fit next to new arrival Kristaps Porzingis—the pairing’s been outscored by 12 points in 105 minutes so far, but it’s early—and, if Beal does indeed re-sign in DC this summer, just how high a ceiling that core might have. I think Kuzma’s played his way into “core” consideration, though—and, with a player option looming after next season, perhaps into position to cash in if the growth continues.
New York Knicks: R.J. Barrett, Attacking
Record: 30-41, 5 games out
Between earning Tom Thibodeau’s trust on defense and developing into a 40 percent 3-point shooter as a sophomore, Barrett seemed like he could be on the precipice of making the same sort of leap that draft classmate Ja Morant has made in Year 3. A frigid offensive start nipped that in the bud, but over the past couple of months, it looks like Barrett might have quietly begun to take that step—thanks in part to a steady march to the rim:
Since New Year’s Day, Barrett is averaging 23.8 points, 6.0 rebounds, and 3.6 assists per game. And while it’s notable that his 3-point stroke has looked good—nearly 38 percent from deep on more than six attempts per game—it’s more significant that he’s been absolutely pounding the paint:
R.J. Barrett: Drive to Survive
|Drives Per Game
|Drive Points Per Game
|Drive Assists Per Game
|Points in the Paint Per Game
|Share of Shots at Rim
|Drives Per Game
|Drive Points Per Game
|Drive Assists Per Game
|Points in the Paint Per Game
|Share of Shots at Rim
|Before Jan. 1
|Since Jan. 1
Without explosive athleticism, Barrett still struggles to finish inside, shooting just 56 percent in the restricted area—well below average for a wing. But the mere act of collapsing a defense and getting the ball deep into the paint can help a team that ranks 25th in half-court offense but sixth in both offensive rebounding rate and second-chance points. And since Barrett, a 69.4 percent career free throw shooter, struggles at the stripe, it’s best to buy in bulk: Seven of his 14 career games with 10 or more free throw attempts have come since mid-January.
Thibodeau still keeps Barrett mostly tethered to Julius Randle in his rotation, somewhat limiting his opportunities to initiate. When given chances to fly solo lately, though, he’s shown some awfully interesting flashes, averaging just under 29 points and five assists per 36 non-Randle minutes in 2022. (Those facilitation numbers might look even better if Obi Toppin, Immanuel Quickley, Quentin Grimes, and Cam Reddish weren’t shooting a combined 5-for-45 from 3 off of his passes since the calendar flipped.)
The project of seeing whether Barrett could develop into a no. 1 playmaker understandably hit the back burner once Randle started playing the best basketball of his life. But with a more-valleys-than-peaks encore casting doubt on Randle’s primacy, it seems like the right move would be to put the ball in Barrett’s hands, surround him with shooters, and see if all that rim pressure can’t produce a diamond. That might not be the path Thibs chooses if he sticks around. But it might be New York’s best path to home-brewing a bona fide star.
Indiana Pacers: Finally Trying a Proper Rebuild (or Something Like It)
Record: 25-47, officially eliminated
That’s a testament to an organizational philosophy predicated on the perennial pursuit of the postseason. (What a concept!) But it’s also a really long time to rely on refreshing your roster in bits and pieces—some throw pillows and a new accent lamp here, a Jeremy Lamb and a Justin Holiday there—without ever remodeling the whole thing.
I’m not sure the Pacers decided on their current course of action so much as they were tossed on its shores by injuries—Malcolm Brogdon, Myles Turner, and T.J. McConnell have missed 114 games; Caris LeVert and Domantas Sabonis combined for 25 more before their trades; T.J. Warren hasn’t played since December 2020—and diminishing returns for the Sabonis-Turner pairing, which continued to perform respectably, but had come to feel stale. Continuing down that path likely would have meant more teams that topped out at Pretty Good and exited in the first round of the playoffs. Being really good again—like the Reggie Miller years, the Jermaine O’Neal years, the Danny Granger and Paul George years—would require something more drastic.
And so: a rebuild, or something like it, oriented around newcomer Tyrese Haliburton—who’s averaging 17.4 points on 50/41/81 shooting splits to go with 9.1 assists, 4.3 rebounds, and 1.9 steals per game since his arrival—and what will likely be Indy’s highest draft pick since taking Rik Smits second in 1988.
Those cornerstones, plus veterans Turner, Brogdon, and Buddy Hield (18-5-5 as a Pacer, even with some chilly shooting), rookies Chris Duarte and Isaiah Jackson, two more picks in the top 31, and about $24 million in projected salary cap space give the Pacers plenty of raw material with which to build something new. Whether it’ll be enough to crack the upper crust of an increasingly competitive East is anybody’s guess. It’ll be different, though. Sometimes, that’s almost as important.
Detroit Pistons: Oh, Right: Cade Cunningham Was the No. 1 Pick
Record: 19-52, officially eliminated
My Ringer colleague Kevin O’Connor recently highlighted the degree to which Cunningham has turned it on in March, but what should be even more encouraging for Pistons fans is that Cade’s been on this upward trajectory for months now. He’s averaging 18.3 points, 5.6 assists, and 5.5 rebounds per game since January 1, shooting better from the field, and the 3-point arc, and showing off the composed all-court game that makes him such an appealing centerpiece to build around in Detroit:
Cunningham can’t legally buy a beer for six more months, but he’s already commanding the offense like a seasoned vet. The Pistons have scored nearly eight more points-per-100 with him on the floor in 2022—roughly equivalent to the gap between an average offense and the league’s worst.
The difference Cunningham can make has become particularly apparent late in games, when he uses his combination of size, strength, quickness, patience, and court vision to consistently get where he wants to go on the court and create clean looks. Since the start of the year, Cunningham has scored or assisted on 40.7 percent of Detroit’s fourth-quarter points when he’s on the court. He ranks in the top 10 in crunch-time scoring since the start of February, helping spark a handful of late comebacks and surprising wins.
The late push might not be enough to propel Cunningham to the top of the Rookie of the Year ballot (and maybe not even into the top three). It should, however, have Pistons fans extremely excited to see what more experience—and more surrounding talent—can do for a player who already looks like the real deal.
Orlando Magic: Seeing Markelle Fultz on a Basketball Court Again
Record: 19-53, officially eliminated
After a 14-month layoff to rehabilitate a surgically repaired left ACL, Fultz is finally back in Magic blue, attacking the rim, and providing a fresh injection of energy into Orlando’s second unit:
The Magic are limiting Fultz’s exposure as he works the rust off, keeping him below 20 minutes in each of his first nine appearances. He’s been shot out of a cannon in that curtailed court time, though, averaging nearly 18 points, 10 assists, and six rebounds per 36 minutes.
After his haunted tenure in Philadelphia, we might never see him become the sort of long-ball launcher he was back in college—he’s attempted just seven 3-pointers since returning—but he’s looked comfortable raising up for jumpers, whether pulling up around the foul line or fading along the baseline. He’s not shying away from contact inside, either, averaging about four free throw attempts per-36 and shooting 78 percent on them.
Even passable shooting could make Fultz a heck of a player, given how much juice he brings in the other facets of the game. He’s got the Magic playing at light speed—105.4 possessions per 48 Markelle minutes, which would lead the league in pace by a mile—and getting out in transition much more frequently. He’s helping in the half court, too, with head coach Jamahl Mosley toying with putting Fultz to work in the pinch post, where he can use his 6-foot-4, 209-pound frame to bulldoze his way to the rim, collapsing the defense for a dump-off or kickout, or work his way into a smooth turnaround J.
It’ll take some time to figure out how Fultz meshes with Cole Anthony, rookie Jalen Suggs, and R.J. Hampton in a crowded backcourt, and which combination of all those young guards works best next to the rapidly improving Wendell Carter Jr. and excellent rookie Franz Wagner. But his healthy return brings a dynamic element Orlando sorely needed, and the possibility of brighter days ahead in Central Florida.
And now, the below-the-fold teams out West:
San Antonio Spurs: Clarity, and Tangible Growth
Record: 28-43, 2.5 games out
It’s never fun to move dudes who play their ass off on defense and who seem hardwired to make Winning Plays™ rather than hunt their own highlights. Trading Derrick White at the deadline did provide a benefit, though—a couple, in fact.
In the longer term, White fetched the Spurs a top-four-protected 2022 first-round pick and the wholly unprotected right to swap selections with the Celtics in 2028—which could prove quite a coup if Boston finds itself down bad come the end of the decade. In the here and now, though, moving on from White—who ranked fourth on the Spurs in usage rate, third in field goal attempts per game, and second in frontcourt touches and time of possession—removed a combo guard from a rotation teeming with them. It also gave the chefs who remained in a less-crowded kitchen a bit more freedom to see what they could cook up.
Dejounte Murray, Keldon Johnson, Lonnie Walker IV, and Devin Vassell have all gotten more touches and shots since White (and fellow vets Bryn Forbes and Thaddeus Young) moved on last month, and they’re doing plenty with them. Murray, a deserving first-time All-Star and the franchise’s lone established cornerstone, has stepped even further into the spotlight, averaging 25.1 points and 9.7 assists per game since the trade deadline. Johnson has continued his growth from a straight-line driver who was primarily a downhill bowling ball into a more versatile offensive threat, one capable of flirting with averaging 20 while maintaining his 3-point efficiency.
Vassell, a reedy 21-year-old whose defensive aptitude still outpaces his offensive game as a sophomore, has cemented himself in the starting lineup. He’s also increased his assist rate in chances to serve as a complementary playmaker, showing more calm and craft on the ball. Walker—a restricted free agent this summer, after San Antonio didn’t extend his rookie contract before the season—has blossomed in an expanded sixth man role, averaging 16.3 points in 24.8 minutes per game, shooting 75 percent at the rim and 38 percent from deep.
And sophomore point guard Tre Jones and rookie curio Josh Primo have both seen their minutes and opportunities tick up, too; everybody’s getting more chances, more development opportunities, more room to grow. And it’s all coming in games that (kinda-sorta) matter, within the context of an earnest attempt to make the play-in tournament. That stretching and experimentation might not bear fruit right now. If the trend lines for all of Pop’s bright young things keep pointing skyward, though—and if San Antonio gets a little bit lucky in the draft lottery—it could very well pay major dividends as soon as next season.
Portland Trail Blazers: Anfernee Simons Can Go, Man
Record: 26-44, 3.5 games out
I already tipped my cap to Simons when I named him the Most Improved Player of the Second Quarter of the season. I’d be remiss if I didn’t throw some more flowers his way, though, for how the 22-year-old maintained that elevated level of play even as trades, myriad injuries, and some (ahem) motivated deck-shuffling have played havoc in Portland.
After entering the starting lineup for good at the beginning of January, Simons averaged more points per game than Stephen Curry and as many assists as LeBron James; only three players have made more 3-pointers in 2022 than Simons. He’s made them at a scorching 42.3 percent clip, too, despite taking more than 10 per game—a level of volume and efficiency that only Steph and Dame have ever reached over a full season.
Handed the keys to Portland’s offense, Simons showed patience and craft in the pick-and-roll, and developed real chemistry with Jusuf Nurkic in the screen game. Before they both went down with injuries, the duo ran more pick-and-rolls together in 2022 than any pairing besides Dejounte Murray–Jakob Poeltl and DeMar DeRozan–Nikola Vucevic, according to Second Spectrum’s tracking data, and produced more points per chance than premiere partnerships like Trae Young–Clint Capela, Darius Garland–Jarrett Allen, and Mike Conley–Rudy Gobert.
What looked like a lost season instead, surprisingly, stayed afloat thanks largely to Simons: Portland has gone 12-15 in 2022 with him on the court and 1-6 without him. He hasn’t been out there in a couple of weeks, landing on the injured list with mild patellar tendinopathy, which puts a bit of tarnish on this particular silver lining. Once he’s healthy again, though—and, presumably, once the Blazers re-sign him in the offseason to pair with a healthy Dame, what could be two top-10 picks, and whatever talent a projected $21 million in cap space can buy—he should have plenty of opportunities to go right back to shining bright.
Sacramento Kings: The Fox-Sabonis Pair Can Score, at Least
Record: 25-48, 5.5 games out
After swinging two deals involving six teams, 14 players, and three future draft picks before the deadline, Sacramento has lost 12 of its last 17 games and is on the brink of an NBA record-setting 16th consecutive season without a playoff appearance. On the plus side: Newcomer Domantas Sabonis and incumbent point guard De’Aaron Fox have started to develop the kind of offensive chemistry that could get the Kings attack cooking in a way it hasn’t in ages.
A lightning-fast guard who can get to the rim in a heartbeat and a mauling screen-setter with the hands and footwork to finish make a ton of sense together, especially when both have the passing vision and touch to turn the defensive attention they demand into open shots for their teammates. That part of Sacramento’s vision has started to bear fruit: The Kings are scoring 1.145 points per chance on plays that include Sabonis setting a screen for Fox—the fourth-most-efficient partnership out of 150 combos that have run at least 200 actions together, according to Second Spectrum tracking.
After a sluggish first half of the season, Fox—now firmly entrenched as Sacramento’s lead ball handler—has started to come on, averaging 25.1 points on 51.1 percent shooting and 5.7 assists per 36 minutes with Sabonis on the court. The big fella, in turn, has remained his productive self while adjusting to the presence of a new attacking point guard who can collapse the defense, averaging 20.2 points, 13.3 rebounds, and 6.5 assists per 36 with Fox on the floor.
In their 360 shared minutes, Sacramento has scored in bunches (115.2 points per 100), cleared the glass better, shot the ball more efficiently, and pushed the pace—all at marks that would rank at or near the top of the league for the full season. And while any offensive approach that allows Fox to hit the gas seems wise, what’s even more encouraging is that the Kings have been excellent when things slow down, too, averaging 104.1 points per 100 half-court plays in Fox-Sabonis floor time, above what even the league-leading Jazz and Suns offenses have mustered.
That more multifaceted and mellifluous offense has come at a cost, though: Sacramento has still been outscored by nearly two points per 100 in Fox-Sabonis minutes. As my Ringer colleague Rob Mahoney wrote after the trade, finding the right fits around stars as particular (and often defensively challenged) as Fox and Sabonis isn’t easy. Balancing the roster to get that side of the ball out of the doldrums now becomes GM Monte McNair’s thorniest problem; the Kings won’t break that playoff drought unless he can solve it. For now, though, a largely rudderless team seems to have an offensive identity that makes sense and a couple of pieces worth building around. There are worse places to start.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander Might Be Next
Record: 20-52, 10 games out
The Thunder’s rebuild remains mostly imaginary at this point—a structure that executive vice president Sam Presti (whom no less than LeBron James recently lauded as the franchise’s “MVP”) will build out of the unbelievable 19 first-round picks over the next seven drafts that he’s brought under Oklahoma City’s control. But while I commend Thunder fans for keeping close tabs on which prospects Presti might pluck in 2028, we shouldn’t overlook the best building block Oklahoma City currently employs: Gilgeous-Alexander, who’s grown into one of the sport’s most elusive and effective offensive engines amid all those losses.
Since returning to the lineup after three weeks on the shelf with a nasty ankle sprain, Gilgeous-Alexander has averaged 30.4 points per game—eighth best in the NBA after the All-Star break—on 54.2 percent shooting. He plays on a team that ranks dead last in the league in 3-point percentage, one without only one league-average long-range shooter among its 12 most frequently used players … and yet, despite playing almost exclusively in claustrophobic half-court quarters, he averages a league-leading 23.8 drives to the basket per game, consistently managing to slither through every crack and crevice in an opponent’s coverage to get into the lane.
SGA’s ability to break down his man off the dribble is the lifeblood of Oklahoma City’s offense. He can create high-percentage looks for himself; he’s taking 72 percent of his shots in the paint since the All-Star break and shooting 70 percent at the cup and 54 percent from floater range, according to Cleaning the Glass. He can look to wrong-foot defenders in search of contact to get himself to the charity stripe—only seven players are attempting more free throws per game since the break—or suck in the help defense to give his teammates the openings they need. Gilgeous-Alexander’s 7.3 assists per game are tied for 10th in the NBA since the break.
The list of players who have scored and facilitated as much as Gilgeous-Alexander has this season, while shouldering as large a workload as he has, is small—and every name on it belongs to an All-Star. The most interesting one, I think, is Ja Morant: a player with an iffy jumper but a preternatural gift for attacking the rim who has proved capable of handling a ton of offensive responsibility without committing a ton of turnovers. He has become the heartbeat of a bona fide contender; he has done so, though, because Grizzlies personnel chief Zach Kleiman surrounded him with a treasure trove of complementary talent. That’s the task facing Presti: Follow suit, and place your budding young superstar in an ecosystem capable of fostering that sort of growth. The Thunder may still be largely theoretical. SGA, though, is as real as it gets.
Houston Rockets: The Light’s Coming on for Jalen Green
Record: 18-54, officially eliminated
Given the book on Green coming out of the G League—a supremely talented scorer whose playmaking and defensive acumen needed some work—it wasn’t much of a surprise to see Green stumble out of the gate. Combine the challenge of scoring against top-flight defenders with trying to find some rhythm and consistency on a ramshackle Rockets roster, and the no. 2 pick’s early struggles—14.1 points per game on 37 percent shooting through his first 35 games, with more turnovers than assists and one of the worst defensive on/off splits on the NBA’s worst defense—were understandable.
Painful, yes—particularly as Evan Mobley and Scottie Barnes, the two players picked directly after Green in the 2021 NBA draft, hit the ground running—but understandable, and always considered to be the cost of doing business. Because if Green could just weather the storm long enough for his ability to process the action to catch up to his natural ability, there was a chance he could be electric.
May I now introduce you to a lightning bolt:
Since February 1, Green is averaging 18.2 points in 32.9 minutes per game on 47/38/73 shooting splits. He’s shooting 63 percent at the rim, up from 58 percent earlier in the season, combining that blinding first step with an increasingly tight handle to burst through tight spaces and finish in traffic.
The more defenses have to worry about Green exploding into the paint, the more space he has to get to his pull-up jumper. He’s also got the confidence and footwork to attack with a burgeoning stepback, which holds promise as a weapon he can turn to when he forces defenders to play him tighter to prevent him from rising and firing:
The real key for Green, though, is using his own scoring prowess to create chances for others. He’s made strides there, too, posting an assist-to-turnover ratio of just over 2-to-1 since February, and he’s looking more comfortable delivering the ball all over the court:
Green is still a long way from being even a net-zero on defense, let alone a positive contributor like Mobley or Barnes, but it’s worth remembering that they’re exceptions to the long-held rule: Teenagers and 20-year-olds are supposed to be bad at defense. Rather than harp too much on that, it may be worth celebrating the degree to which Green is an outlier in the other direction: Dudes this young aren’t supposed to make blowing past NBA defenders and unlocking big-league coverages look this easy, either.