For contenders, we are about to enter the stretch run of the season, where franchises with title aspirations will hope that their stars can continue to lead and that their role players will fill in the voids around them in pursuit of the 2020-21 NBA championship.
For the bottom third of the league, however, things aren’t quite as rosy, and the final few months of this campaign will mostly revolve around poor records, load management and blatant tank jobs in hopes of landing a high draft pick for the loaded 2021 class.
Regardless, we should always try to take a glass-half-full approach towards life, and for the bad teams of the NBA this season, that is no different.
Below, check out three positive takeaways – a.k.a. the good news – for the NBA’s worst teams by winning percentage in 2020-21.
Positive takeaway #1: Bradley Beal has remained committed to the team
Despite nonstop haggling from other teams, the Washington Wizards held firm in their refusal to trade Bradley Beal this season, and with good reason: If Beal is committed to the team, why should they move on from a superstar 2-guard who they developed for years? And that’s exactly what happened prior to the trade deadline, as at no point this campaign, despite serious struggles from Washington, did Beal ever indicate publicly that he was unhappy or wanted out. It’s impossible to find a bigger positive for the Wizards this season than that.
Positive takeaway #2: Russell Westbrook has looked more like himself lately
After a slow, injury-marred start to the season, Russell Westbrook has looked much more like himself for over a month now. From Feb. 20 through March 30, a 20-game stretch, Westbrook averaged 24.6 points, 11.1 rebounds and 11.7 assists nightly while shooting 45.6 percent from the floor and 34.8 percent from three, healthy marks for a player with his shot selection. Considering Westbrook is owed $44.2 million in 2021-22 and $47.1 million in 2022-23, Washington needs to hope the star point guard maintains this current level of play going forward, or risk Beal eventually asking out.
Positive takeaway #3: They have a couple of interesting young pieces
Among the biggest positives for the Wizards this year is the fact that the team’s young pieces are starting to figure things out. Rui Hachimura, for one, a former Top-10 pick for the team, is averaging 20.2 points and 7.8 rebounds over his last 10 games, shooting plus-52 percent from the floor and over 40 percent from three. First-year swingman Deni Avdija has also shown solid flashes this season, though he’s clearly going to need more development going forward.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Positive takeaway #1: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander looks like a star
If there’s one thing that’s a near certainty, it’s that the next elite Oklahoma City Thunder team will have Shai Gilgeous-Alexander manning one of their two backcourt spots. This season, the third-year guard is averaging 23.7 points, 4.7 rebounds and 5.9 assists on outstanding 50.8/41.8/80.8 percent shooting splits. Gilgeous-Alexander scores at a high level, creates for teammates, rebounds, gets to the foul line and knocks down free throws, as well as threes. Simply put, he’s an excellent offensive player and Thunder did well to nab him when they first initiated their rebuild.
Positive takeaway #2: They have a treasure trove of draft assets for years to come
Over the coming years, Oklahoma City owns up to 18 first-round picks and 17 second-rounders. They may not all convey (like the Golden State Warriors’ Top-20 protected 2021 draft pick they own, which looks unlikely to transfer to the Thunder), but either way, that’s an absurd amount of draft capital for a single team to own, and it’ll help Oklahoma City in building their next elite squad. Whether the Thunder use the picks themselves or package them together to trade for a star to place alongside Gilgeous-Alexander, Sam Presti and Oklahoma City will undoubtedly put all those draft assets to good use.
Positive takeaway #3: Mark Daigneault has the makings of a good head coach
Despite having one of the least experienced, most talent-depraved rosters in the league at the moment, the Thunder aren’t in the bottom five league-wide in win percentage this year, nor are they bottom three in net rating. A lot of that has to do with first-year head coach Mark Daigneault, the youngest head coach in the league at 35, who has been pushing the right buttons for Oklahoma City to at least remain somewhat competitive this season. Early signs so far indicate Daigneault was the right hire by the Thunder, despite the lack of fanfare around his promotion from assistant coach to head coach.
Positive takeaway #1: Their backcourt is young and very promising
The most promising takeaway for the Cleveland Cavaliers this season has been the play of their young backcourt, featuring Collin Sexton and Darius Garland. The energetic Sexton is putting up 24.0 points and 4.3 assists this season while hitting 38.5 percent of his threes while the sharpshooting Garland has taken a clear step forward in his second career campaign, averaging 16.6 points and 5.7 assists while shooting 39.6 percent from beyond the arc. Most importantly for Cleveland, the duo isn’t just talented but also meshes well together thanks to their differing skill sets.
Positive takeaway #2: They got Jarrett Allen for next to nothing
He may not be locked up long-term quite yet, but the Cavaliers have one of the most promising young big men in the league on their roster in Jarrett Allen and, most impressively, they were able to get him for next to nothing as part of the James Harden deal, giving up just Dante Exum and a 2022 first-round pick (via the Milwaukee Bucks) to nab the athletic rim-runner. The shot-blocking, play-finishing Allen, alongside Sexton and Garland gives the Cavaliers exciting pieces in three different positions, all of which fit together well. That’s good work by Cleveland.
Positive takeaway #3: Their bloated salary cap isn’t anywhere near as ugly as it has been in years past
In 2021-22, the Cavaliers only project to have one bad contract on their books, belonging to Kevin Love, who will be owed $31.3 million next season and is signed through 2022-23. Outside of that, Taurean Prince might also be ever so slightly overpaid at $13.0 million next season, but even accounting for those two players, Cleveland’s books are as clean as they have been in a long while, something that indicates the future is starting to look brighter for the Cavaliers.
Positive takeaway #1: Jerami Grant is living up to his big contract, and then some
When the Detroit Pistons agreed to terms on a three-year, $60.0 million contract last offseason with Jerami Grant, many wondered if it was an overpay, as Grant had never been much more than a role player in his career. Grant has proved every naysayer wrong with his play this season, though, as he’s posted a borderline All-Star campaign averaging 22.8 points and 4.8 rebounds while providing the team with versatile multi-positional defense on the other end. In Grant, still just 27 years old, Detroit has a potential cornerstone on their hands, or even an elite potential trade chip if they decide they’re not close enough to seriously competing over the coming years.
Positive takeaway #2: Saddiq Bey looks like a steal for them
With the 19th pick in the 2020 first round, the Pistons took Saddiq Bey after an impressive two-year career at Villanova. The selection has worked out extremely well for the club, as the first-year forward is averaging over 10 points and four rebounds nightly in his rookie campaign, to go along with a very tidy 38.5 percent three-point mark.
Positive takeaway #3: Their books look cleaner long-term
By 2022-23, the Pistons project to have a much cleaner salary-cap situation, with just one player set to have an eight-figure contract by then: Grant, who has proven to be worth the money this year. After Grant, Mason Plumlee will be their next highest-paid player that season, but considering how solid he’s been this year and where Detroit is in their rebuild, there’s a good chance he’s next in line to get traded by the Pistons for more draft capital. The rest of Detroit’s salary cap by then projects to be filled by players still on rookie deals, and depending on how they pan out (Bey and Isaiah Stewart already look solid), that could have the Pistons in a solid position in just two seasons.
Positive takeaway #1: They have finally fully embraced the rebuilding path
After years of being mired in mediocrity, much to the frustration and chagrin of their fan base, the Orlando Magic finally decided to go all-in on a full rebuild this year by trading their three best players – Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon and Evan Fournier – for a good amount of draft capital, as well as for a potentially interesting player, who we’ll discuss more in just a bit. Now, Orlando might (probably, will) struggle for at least a couple of seasons, but at least they have a path towards contention again, building through the draft as most small-market powers do, and as they’ve done in the past.
Positive takeaway #2: Wendell Carter Jr. could be a potential building block
Instead of taking just draft assets, which can be hit or miss, as their return for trading their three best players, the Magic also took back a more established player, albeit still young and proven, in Wendell Carter Jr. Carter has looked solid early on for Orlando, even going off for 21 points, 12 rebounds and one block in just his third game with the club, and could be an interesting piece for the Magic moving forward, especially considering he’s got a modernized game for a big man and is merely 21 years old, despite his two-plus seasons of NBA experience.
Positive takeaway #3: Their young core, with the addition of potentially two high draft picks, should look very solid next season
With a returning Jonathan Isaac, who legitimately was having an All-Defensive season before going down last year, and Markelle Fultz, playing his best basketball in 2020-21 before getting injured himself, along with a young core featuring the aforementioned Carter and other players like Cole Anthony, RJ Hampton and Chuma Okeke, the Magic should have a very promising young nucleus in 2021-22. Orlando could also very well be adding two Top 10 picks from a loaded draft class to that core, too – one, their own, and the other, a Top-4 protected pick courtesy of the Chicago Bulls from the Vucevic trade. In all, that should give the Magic an exciting future over the coming years.
Positive takeaway #1: Karl-Anthony Towns is still producing at an elite level
The most important takeaway for the Minnesota Timberwolves this season has been the play of Karl-Anthony Towns, who, despite everything he’s been through over the past year, is still an elite big man. Towns on the year is averaging 23.9 points, 10.7 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game while shooting 49.2 percent from the floor and 40.0 percent from three. He’s one of just four players this season putting up a 23/10/4 stat line, along with Nikola Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Julius Randle, per Stathead, a list including two MVP candidates (one of them being the clear frontrunner) and the third, a star in one of the biggest markets in the league. Through it all, Towns is still Towns.
Positive takeaway #2: Their other No. 1 pick looks every bit the part
Although he had a slightly slow start to the season, 2020’s No. 1 overall pick Anthony Edwards has come on super strong lately, averaging 23.8 points, 5.7 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.7 steals over his last 16 games, and though the efficiency isn’t there quite yet, Edwards’ flashes of greatness as a confident bucket-getter have been nothing short of awesome this year. With him, Towns and D’Angelo Russell around, along with other pieces we’re about to discuss, Minnesota should be looking at a much-improved 2021-22 season next year.
Positive takeaway #3: Malik Beasley and Jaden McDaniels look like legit complementary pieces
One of this season’s breakout players, Malik Beasley is averaging 20.0 points and 4.4 rebounds this year while hitting over 40 percent of his seven-plus nightly three-point attempts. Even if those numbers take a bit of a hit with Russell set to return soon, Beasley has established himself as a very exciting off-ball scorer for the team, one that thrives as a complementary piece thanks to his spot-up shooting and cutting skills. The Timberwolves also have rookie Jaden McDaniels to be thrilled about, as the power forward has shown very promising flashes of defensive potential this campaign, the exact type of big man the team needs to place around Towns to help mask his deficiencies on the point-stopping end of the floor.
Positive takeaway #1: It looks like they got a steal in Kevin Porter Jr.
Things didn’t work out between Kevin Porter Jr. and the Cavaliers due to maturity issues with the young bucket-getter, but Cleveland’s loss was the Houston Rockets’ gain, as the Texan franchise was able to land Porter in a trade that cost them next to nothing. As a Rocket, Porter Jr. has looked like every bit of the exciting, confident scorer he was heralded to be as a prospect, putting up 15.9 points and 5.8 assists over 10 games, and considering where Houston is in their rebuild, he’ll be able to focus on his play without worrying about team results to close out this season, something that could be big for his future with the Rockets.
Positive takeaway #2: The Christian Wood gamble has paid off
Houston took a risk signing Christian Wood to a three-year, $41.0 million contract last offseason after his breakout with Detroit in 2019-20, but the gamble has paid off for the team, as Wood has looked great in his first year with the franchise. On the year, Wood has looked like the prototypical modern big man, able to space the floor and dribble around slower-footed opponents. His numbers have been strong, too, with averages of 21.2 points, 9.7 rebounds and 1.5 blocks and a solid 37.0 percent three-point clip.
Positive takeaway #3: They have three first-round picks in a loaded draft class coming up
Based on lottery odds, the Rockets are currently projected to have the second pick in the 2020 draft, along with the 23rd and 25 overall picks, a big haul that will net them three players from what’s projected to be an elite class. Just with the No. 2 overall pick, for example, Houston would be able to potentially land an Evan Mobley, whose quickness and perimeter-oriented game out of the frontcourt would fit well alongside Wood.