With a potentially loaded NBA Draft class looming, which teams are most likely to sacrifice the 2022-23 season for a brighter future?
Gregg Popovich has a legacy of incredibly blunt comments and he was completely on brand during Spurs media day, saying: “Nobody here should go to Vegas with the thought of betting on us to win the championship…probably not going to happen, but that’s not the point.”
We all know that not every team enters the NBA season with the same goal — some are chasing a title, some are chasing growth and some are chasing ping pong balls. But teams aren’t always candid about where their focus lies, even if it’s painfully clear to outsiders.
The 2023 NBA Draft is already shaping up to be loaded with two potential No. 1 picks so intriguing that a pair of nationally televised exhibition matchups have already been organized. But this draft class is more than just Scoot Henderson and Victor Wembanyama. Ausar and Amen Thompson are twins with other-worldly athleticism. Dariq Whitehead, Nick Smith Jr., Cam Whitemore could all be elite on-and-done and there is plenty more depth in the class to obsess over.
The three NBA teams with the worst records will have equal odds at the No. 1 and we can already peg a few teams who could be headed in that direction. Here they are as I see them, divided into tiers.
A disaster waiting to happen: Nets, Knicks, Magic, Trail Blazers
The Nets could have homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Or they could stumble early and end up trading Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant to try and save a fractured locker room. Everything feels like it’s on the table for them.
The Knicks and Trail Blazers both enter the season with playoff aspirations but I’m skeptical. I don’t think Jalen Brunson really moves the needle that much for New York and I think their true talent level is much closer to last year’s 37-45 finish than 2020-21’s 41-31. The Trail Blazers look okay on paper but they are still going to face deficits of talent and depth against so much of the Western Conference. A few injuries or disgruntled rotation players on either side and things could get ugly in a hurry.
It might not take a catastrophe for the Magic to fall to the bottom of the standings, but I think they’re going to be frisky this year. Jalen Suggs should be much better this season, Cole Anthony and Wendell Carter Jr. are solid pieces. Terrence Ross is a veteran microwave. Jonathan Isaac could finally be healthy and Markelle Fultz will be back before too long from his broken toe. Franz Wagner is a future star and Paolo Banchero could be as well. They’re still the Orlando Magic, so maybe it just doesn’t work but I think they’re deeper than the teams below them.
To tank or not to tank: Pistons, Pacers, Thunder
All three of these teams have young rosters with the pieces to at least theoretically push into the low 30s for win totals and keep the dream of a play-in berth alive deeper into the season. In each case, the teams will have to decide how much they value the developmental experience of chasing a play-in spot for their young players versus the added value of a high draft pick.
The Pacers have the clearest choice to make. They will likely have three picks in the upcoming draft (their own, Boston’s and Cleveland’s) and could chase additional draft capital by trading veterans like Myles Turner and Buddy Hield. Keeping those players makes them more competitive but likely reduces the value of their own pick.
The Pistons have plenty of young talent and Cade Cunningham seems like the kind of young player ready to move from just putting up numbers to really generating an impact in the standings. They also have some veterans like Nerlens Noel and Alec Burks who could be flipped for young assets or held to try and chase a play-in spot.
The Thunder will be without Chet Holmgren for the season but Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is a star and development from Lu Dort and Josh Giddey could make them competitive in the standings with teams in this tier. They have just their own first-round pick this season and after a few years of rough sledding, they could risk alienating players like Gilgeous-Alexander if they lean too far into one more swing at the No. 1 pick.
The frontrunners: San Antonio, Utah, Houston
The Spurs and Jazz have both intentionally cleaned out their rosters and are clearly looking at a down year and a chance at one of the top picks in the draft. The Spurs have just a single pick but the Jazz have their own, Minnesota’s and the least favorable of the Nets, Rockets and 76ers. There is nothing to complicate their decisions. They don’t have the talent to compete and there is nothing realistically on the horizon that could change that during the season.
The Rockets could conceivably end up in the tier above, with the Thunder and Pistons, with equally compelling young talent. They just seem, to me, a little more unfinished and more likely to trail in the standings, eliminating the lure of trying to push for a play-in spot.
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Players and coaches comment on Robert Sarver, Ime Udoka, Anthony Edwards situations
Media day was the first time most reporters had a chance to inquire with players about a slew of negative situations that hit the NBA recently. Those situations relate to Suns owner Robert Sarver (suspended for a year and fined for workplace misconduct including racist and misogynistic language), Celtics coach Ime Udoka (suspended by the team for an inappropriate relationship with a coworker), and Timberwolves guard Anthony Edwards (anti-gay comments).
These aren’t fun situations to talk about, but if you follow the NBA it’s important you’re aware of these quotes.
Fun moments from NBA media days
OK, with the bad stuff out of the way, let’s appreciate the fun of media day!