Who's the Best Worst Team of the 2013-14 NBA Season?
Even the NBA's have-nots still have something to be proud of—and some more so than others.
With the league's better half eyeing the playoffs, the rest are already thinking about the draft. But if they played their cards right, this season has been about more than tanking. Lessons can be learned in hard times. Young teams have a better feel for what they have and what they still need. Rebuilding teams have a better sense of whom they'll be building around.
The Los Angeles Lakers remember just how badly they need Kobe Bryant.
For the rest of us, there are takeaways as well. Setting aside teams with records above .400 (a bar the New York Knicks have surpassed for now), it's come time for a reverse power ranking of sorts.
Records aside, who's the best of the worst?
9. Philadelphia 76ers
Let's just say it's been a forward-looking season for the Philadelphia 76ers. The here and now couldn't be more irrelevant to the organization's plans—with the lone exception being that losing now should yield dividends later.
In June to be exact.
When the 2014 draft rolls around, the Sixers will be well-situated. That hasn't been their only goal this season, but it's been a pretty obvious one. Meanwhile, rookie Michael Carter-Williams has earned the opportunity to prove himself a worthy building block on a roster that still needs another two or three.
Philadelphia gutted its formerly solid rotation with an eye to tomorrow, but that "tomorrow" is still three years away at the very least. It will take this team some time to acquire the pieces Philly needs, and it will take some additional time to season those pieces adequately.
Ugly as this season has been, next season probably won't be much better. Nerlens Noel will functionally be a rookie, and the season at large will likely be dedicated to bringing along similarly raw talent acquired through the draft.
Optimism aside, the Sixers are awful right now. Not even Evan Turner remains to serve as one of the few bright spots. Nor does Spencer Hawes and his near double-double average. The good players on a bad team have been replaced by Earl Clark and second-round draft picks.
To be completely fair, Thaddeus Young is still one of the best young forwards in the game. But you know you're in trouble when he's also your leading scorer.
The real silver lining this season has been Tony Wroten's quiet emergence as sixth-man candidate of the future. And when that's the silver lining, it speaks volumes about how bad things really are. Just about anything that looks like talent is cause for celebration in times like these.
8. Milwaukee Bucks
Injuries have made life especially difficult for the Milwaukee Bucks. This wouldn't have been a playoff team either way, but things probably look worse than they actually are.
Brandon Knight has proven to be a capable shoot-first point guard, and O.J. Mayo could still be the solution to completing the backcourt if he returns to the form he displayed in 2012-13 with the Dallas Mavericks. Meanwhile, the roster boasts a promising young frontcourt including Larry Sanders, John Henson and Ersan Ilyasova.
With this season serving as an opportunity for guys like second-year forward Khris Middleton and rookies Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nate Wolters, the Bucks clearly have their sights set on future success and short-term draft riches.
That became abundantly clear with the deadline trade that sent Gary Neal and Luke Ridnour to the Charlotte Bobcats in exchange for Ramon Sessions and Jeff Adrien, a move that ultimately saved the Bucks a little money while marginally thinning the backcourt rotation.
Though their record may suggest otherwise, the Bucks are still far ahead of the Sixers in laying a foundation for better days ahead.
7. Los Angeles Lakers
These are dark times for the Purple and Gold. On the one hand, we've been reminded just how dependent this club is on its best player—but that's not even the scary part. The really terrifying takeaway is that not even Kobe Bryant could have fixed what went wrong for the Lakers this season.
This defense is somewhere between apathetic and just plain pathetic, giving up over 130 points on an unthinkably regular basis—including three straight times in March. Head coach Mike D'Antoni will blame the team's effort and competitive instincts, and more than a few onlookers will blame D'Antoni himself.
And that's illustrative of just how bad things really are. This is a team with systemic problems, problems that a key addition or two probably wouldn't fix.
Fortunately, the Lakers are in position to more or less blow things up this summer. The only guaranteed returns are Kobe Bryant, Robert Sacre and—barring a change of heart—Steve Nash. The problem is that the organization will still owe well over $30 million in salary between Kobe and Nash alone. So the spending spree will be tempered by the need to actually fill out a roster with semidecent talent.
Looking at individual performances alone, you might be sold that much of that talent is already in a Lakers uniform. Nick Young has had a fine season. Jordan Farmar has proven lethal beyond the arc. Jodie Meeks scored 42 points against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
It's the defense that's nowhere to be found, though. It will either take new personnel at the very top or a radical roster overhaul to change that culture. That's one of the few things Kobe Bryant can't do all by himself.
6. Orlando Magic
Thanks to general manager Rob Hennigan, the Orlando Magic are doing all the right rebuilding things. That shouldn't be a surprise given his history with the OKC Thunder and San Antonio Spurs, models of sound management in their own rights. Hennigan—still just 31 years old—learned a few lessons along the way, and that's already yielding dividends for the Magic.
There haven't been splashy signings, and trade routes haven't been explored beyond necessity. Instead, we've seen a commitment to making the most of a roster's talent and grooming young pieces such as Victor Oladipo, Nikola Vucevic, Maurice Harkless and Tobias Harris.
That may not strike you as Thunder-like talent in the making, but it's a solid start for a club still reeling from Dwight Howard's departure in 2012.
Even more impressively, head coach Jacque Vaughan has this team playing with an identity—pushing tempo and scoring three more points per contest than the 2012-13 iteration. Those expecting an overnight turnaround have been predictably disappointed, but there's little doubt Orlando is getting better.
Its soon-to-be-improved win total proves as much, but so too has its ability to hold its own against some very good teams—posting 112 points against the Spurs in March and even pulling off narrow back-to-back victories against the Thunder and Pacers in February.
Much of the improved performance can be attributed to Vaughan's success meshing his young core together with veterans Arron Afflalo, Jameer Nelson and Glen Davis. The absence of star power has given Orlando a definitive ceiling in terms of short-term potential, but there's a flip side to that which could become increasingly important over the next few seasons.
Orlando isn't spending big money just to be a middling team. Howard's exit (along with the old managerial regime) paved the way for a more cautious approach to team-building, one that relies on the draft and gradual evolution rather than the often elusive prospect of immediate results.
5. Utah Jazz
Two caveats are merited in any discussion of how bad the Utah Jazz are. They are very, very young, and they play in the Western Conference. Those caveats only go so far, though.
Utah should be further along in its rebuild. Its insistence on keeping Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap through the ends of their contracts slowed the inevitable need to blow things up. The determination to remain on the margins of the playoff hunt meant the Jazz also remained on the margins of the draft lottery, drafting an Alec Burks or Shabazz Muhammad instead of their top-five counterparts.
Utah still needs a featured scorer who'd allow Gordon Hayward to settle into a more fitting complementary role. It needs more depth along an otherwise very solid front line. And most importantly, this roster just needs time to develop. Big men Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter will grow more accustomed to facing starting-caliber talent, and rookie point guard Trey Burke will get used to running an NBA offense.
All this will happen in time.
For now, though, the Jazz are suffering through the initial phases of a rebuild, and it could take another two or three years before they turn the corner.
4. Boston Celtics
The big asterisk next to the Boston Celtics' record of 23-46 is that Rajon Rondo didn't return to the lineup until halfway through January. His presence hasn't turned the season around by any means, but it's worth noting that the roster underwent something of an overhaul during his absence. No one should have expected these Celtics to develop chemistry overnight, least of all with the constant threat of further roster moves looming.
Still, this isn't a very good team. A team led by a complementary scorer like Jeff Green isn't playoff-bound, with or without a healthy Rondo.
There are reasons to be hopeful. Jared Sullinger has established himself as a legitimate draft steal in his second season out of Ohio State. Rookie center Kelly Olynyk has earned 19.3 minutes a game and looked solid in the process. Avery Bradley has dismissed any notion that his third-year emergence was an anomaly.
Besides a talent and experience deficit, Boston's troubles can also be attributed to working a new coach in—along with the psychological toll taken by Rondo's months-long absence. You can't blame this team for feeling like this was a lost season and acting like it. This is a group that's in transition, somewhere between a full-on rebuild and a hollow attempt to sneak into the postseason.
And according to Rondo, it also may be a group that's focused more on its financial bottom line than putting a winning product on the floor.
There have been small victories for this team—like a successful balance of transition defense and offensive rebounding. But the real victories have been few and far between.
3. Cleveland Cavaliers
Mike Brown's takeover was supposed to signal a new era for the Cleveland Cavaliers, and in a sense, it has. This team has experienced a unprecedented internal dysfunction that's replaced playoff hopes with sheer desperation.
Tensions have provoked the always dreaded team meetings, and questions about Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters' compatibility have persisted. As if to pay penance for the mess he played a part in creating, general manager Chris Grant was sent packing in February.
Despite the headaches, Cleveland is still a dangerous team. Its problems have more to do with falling short of expectations than failing in any absolute sense.
Acquiring Luol Deng and Spencer Hawes in separate trades was a step in the right direction. The Cavaliers needed veteran leadership and floor spacing, and they've made strides in both regards. Even so, the puzzle remains painfully incomplete.
The club remains 23rd in the league in scoring, perhaps raising questions about Brown's offensive pedigree. Excepting the need for a little extra depth, the right rotation personnel seem to be in place. More signs point to the coaching staff than toward the product left by the now-exiled Grant.
Fortunately, this is still a young team. There's time yet for those expectations to be realized.
2. Detroit Pistons
This isn't the list the Detroit Pistons wanted to find themselves on.
Coming into this season, this club had higher ambitions—playoff ambitions. Josh Smith was supposed to fortify an already-dangerous front line. Brandon Jennings was supposed to upgrade the backcourt. All of the above has probably happened to an important extent, but Detroit's collective improvement has remained incremental.
Predictably enough, Smith's efficiency has suffered (41.8 percent from the field) with his minutes increasingly coming at small forward. That will remain a problem so long as Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond command playing time at the 4 and 5 spots (respectively). So, while Detroit's in-house talent reasons to generate better results, there are fundamental problems with how the pieces fit together.
For the time being, then, the Pistons will remain among the league's underachievers. But among those underachievers, this is still a dangerous team with a lot to like. It needs to trade for a legitimate wing scorer, and it needs to add improved depth—both achievable objectives.
With the right move and a productive draft, Detroit's brighter future will materialize before too long.
1. Sacramento Kings
Believe it or not—the Sacramento Kings are on the verge of becoming a halfway-decent team.
DeMarcus Cousins has settled down and become arguably the best scoring big man in the league, Isaiah Thomas is earning himself future All-Star consideration, and Rudy Gay finally appears to have found a home.
Ben McLemore still has a few things to learn, and the power forward position remains up in the air—but this rotation is significantly better than it was two seasons ago. Young as is it dangerous, Sacramento's roster is only beginning to reveal what amounts to a lot of potential.
Defense continues to be a problem. But even on that count, there's been improvement—improvement made all the more impressive in a season where scoring has increased across the league. The Kings have the makings of a much better defensive team, though, and the right personnel tweak (along with added experience for the youngsters) could do the trick.
In short, nothing is broken in Sacramento. And that's more than you could have said for this squad a season or two ago. The improvement is largely due to the emergence of a credible Big Three, and progress to come will depend on surrounding that trio with experienced role players and depth.
In the meantime, the Kings have chalked up signature wins against the Miami Heat, Houston Rockets (twice) and Portland Trail Blazers. For a team that plays in the Western Conference, their record isn't as terrible as it looks. With distractions pertaining to moving cities now behind it and a new management team in town, the organization is finally giving fans a taste of the success to which they became so accustomed a decade ago.
It won't be good enough to make the postseason, but it's good enough to earn the title of the best worst team around.