Ranking the non-playoff teams by who has the brightest future

Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans

Ranking the non-playoff teams by who has the brightest future


Ranking the non-playoff teams by who has the brightest future

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With the 2020 NBA playoffs finally in full swing, we thought it’d be a good time to take a quick look at the 14 franchises outside of the postseason picture.

It’s never a good season when a team misses out on the playoffs, but some of the organizations who did miss out on them this year are much better set up for future success than others, which is particularly true for a couple of teams in the West who nearly qualified this very season.

Below, we rank the 14 non-playoff teams this year from the one we believe has the brightest future – based on assets, coaching and organizational stability – to the one with the most ominous days ahead.

14. Cleveland Cavaliers

The team with the dubious distinction of finishing last on this list is the Cleveland Cavaliers, who could be staring some rough days ahead.

For starters, one could argue that at the moment, they have exactly one asset that could be considered above average, and that’s the contract of big man Larry Nance Jr., who is signed for two more years, with each season his money owed diminishing. He’s merely the 100th-highest-paid player in basketball this year, which is solid considering he’s blossomed into a respectable role-playing piece.

Beyond that, it’s hard to find anything pretty on Cleveland’s payroll, not with an often-injured, nearly-32-year-old Kevin Love signed for three more years and making max money, or the Andre Drummond owed $28.8 million next season. The Cavs reportedly also have the intention of re-signing a fourth big man who’s an impending free agent in Tristan Thompson this offseason, something that Love fully supports:

That’s a ton of money going to four big men, three of whom would be best-served playing center in the modern NBA.

Cleveland also historically hasn’t exactly been a free-agent destination (even in the LeBron years, they struggled to lock up top guys), and that isn’t going to change anytime soon, even if they do find spending money somehow.

The Cavs would have to turn things around in the draft, but their draft record since Kyrie Irving has been pretty abysmal. There were the blatant misses on Anthony Bennett, selected first overall, and Dion Waiters, taken fourth overall, and the more recent selections of Collin Sexton and Darius Garland, who the jury is still out on.

Couple all of that with Cavs owner Dan Gilbert’s recent health troubles and you have the makings of a pretty unstable franchise at the moment.

13. Detroit Pistons

Things aren’t quite as dire for the Detroit Pistons, who at least have a couple of positive things going for them.

For starters, the recently hired Troy Weaver should do a great job as their new general manager if his history with Sam Presti and the Oklahoma City Thunder is any indication. Then again, he’s the fourth front-office member working under Presti to join a new team, and two of the prior ones, Rich Cho and Rob Hennigan, did… poorly in their new situations. And that’s putting it kindly.

Detroit also has a proven head coach in Dwane Casey at the helm, another plus, as well as a lot of cap space opening up this fall.

At the same time, the Pistons haven’t historically been a major free-agent destination and look to be initiating a full rebuild, so it’ll be interesting to see what they actually do with that money.

One major negative as far as Detroit’s future is the contract of Blake Griffin, who has had a lot of injury issues recently, is already 31, and is signed for two more years, making $36.8 million the first season and $39.0 million the one after. That’s a preposterous amount of money going to a player who isn’t close to All-NBA caliber anymore and spends a lot of time wearing a suit on the bench these days.

The Pistons’ young core also isn’t much to write home about, with just Luke Kennard standing out from that group, a player who likely doesn’t have All-Star potential.

Even so, at least Detroit has merely one bad contract on their books while owning all of their future first-rounders, so with some smart drafting moving forward, they could move their way up this list pretty quickly in the future.

12. San Antonio Spurs

The advantage the San Antonio Spurs have over the clubs they finished ahead of on this list is that they at least have two good-to-great players on their roster in LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan, who performed at a productive level this year.

Plus, Aldridge (35) and DeRozan (31) are only under contract for one more season, so if their games suffer an age-related decline anytime soon, San Antonio won’t have to worry about getting them off their books in the future. Rudy Gay and Patty Mills, two more vets on their roster, are likewise signed for just one more season, meaning the Spurs will be cleaning up their books soon.

San Antonio also has very solid young pieces in Derrick White and Dejounte Murray on the roster, both of whom acquitted themselves nicely in the bubble and could be seen as building blocks for the future.

But there’s no doubt the Spurs’ outlook still isn’t exactly rosy, as they’re missing top-end talent, elite young prospects, and Gregg Popovich’s coaching days seem to be very much season-to-season at this point – his retirement may not be all that far off – so there’s just a hint of turmoil with San Antonio these days that paint a worrisome picture of their future.

11. Charlotte Hornets

The Charlotte Hornets’ future is buoyed by their relatively young backcourt, consisting of Terry Rozier and Devonte Graham, and the fact that they’re just one season away from getting a ton of bad money off of their books.

Nicolas Batum (player option) and Cody Zeller are set to become free agents again following the 2020-21 season, which will be huge for Charlotte’s ceiling as a franchise over the coming year. For a small-market team doesn’t spend much and isn’t in a destination city, having two bad deals like that on their books is a death sentence for playoff contention.

Getting rid of those two will open doors for the Hornets, they just can’t swing and miss again like they did with the French swingman Batum, or they’ll be right back to square one.

Missing on a recent lottery pick with Malik Monk also hasn’t helped matters, though he did improve some this campaign and is still just 22.

The good news is that head coach James Borrego appears to be a solid talent developer, just look at what he did with Graham this season, so some savvy drafting could help get the Hornets back into the playoff picture. Picking up the promising PJ Washington last summer was a solid start.

Better days could be ahead in Charlotte, especially if team owner Michael Jordan does some spending when Batum and Zeller come off the books.

10. New York Knicks

The New York Knicks, one of the league’s major franchises thanks to the market they play in and the team’s history, will always get meetings with major free agents.

Whether or not they’re able to sign them is what will decide their future, but judging by what’s happened over the last decade, we can only take the ‘We’ll believe it when we see it’ approach at this point.

Regardless, naming former super agent Leon Rose their team president and hiring a proven head coach in Tom Thibodeau could open a new door for the team with free agents, which could legitimately change New York’s future for the better.

The Knicks only have one truly questionable deal on their books, belonging to Julius Randle, who had an inconsistent first season with the franchise. Randle is signed for two more seasons and is making $18.9 million and $19.8 million those two campaigns respectively. Bobby Portis’ contract also might also be a bit too expensive for his level of production, but he’s got a team option on his deal which the team could use to make him a free agent this fall.

Besides that, the rest of the players on New York’s roster are making under $10 million annually.

As far as the team’s young nucleus, results are mixed. Kevin Knox has physical talent, but his first two seasons with the team have been far from impressive. He’s still just 21, though, so there’s time for him to figure things out.

RJ Barrett likewise is physically impressive and possesses skill, but the advanced metrics rate him extremely poorly based on his first-season production.

New York’s best young piece by far is shot-blocking machine Mitchell Robinson, who the team did a good job of landing in the second round.

The Knicks need to nail their pick in the upcoming 2020 draft, preferably with someone who’s effective right away as a rookie. That’d be a huge help with Rose and Thibodeau when pitching free agents, which could be how New York finally gets out of the NBA gutter.

9. Sacramento Kings

With news that general manager Vlade Divac would be stepping down, the Sacramento Kings are going to have to nail the hire to replace him, as the team does have some solid pieces to build around, they just need a competent executive to do so.

Sacramento has dynamic floor general De’Aaron Fox as their best building block, along with big man Marvin Bagley, who has been injured a lot through his first two seasons but has still shown promise. The Kings also have sharpshooter Bogdan Bogdanovic, though they have to re-sign him this offseason.

Sacramento does have two veteran players earning a lot of money in Buddy Hield and Harrison Barnes, both making north of $22 million next season and under contract for years to come, but the duo is productive enough to make them decent assets.

The team also owns all of their future first-round picks and projects to have some cap space this offseason (around $13 million if the salary cap remains the same for another year), so really, the rosiness of their future will come down to their GM hire.

There’s already solid young and veteran talent on the team, the next general manager will just need to be allowed to do his job without Kings owner Vivek Ranadive meddling, which he’s been known to do in the past.

8. Chicago Bulls

The hire of Arturas Karnisovas as vice president of basketball operations and the firing of head coach Jim Boylen raised the Chicago Bulls’ place in these rankings higher than they would have been a few months ago.

Karnisovas was able to revamp Chicago’s front office in an impressive manner, giving the team a solid group to lead them into the future. Getting the right head coach in place will be important, but with the new direction the team is going and the young talent they already have in place, they should be able to attract great candidates.

Some of the league’s top up-and-coming coaches and some who have already proven themselves in the NBA, including Ime Udoka and Kenny Atkinson, are already reportedly being considered for the job.

The Bulls’ books aren’t particularly ugly right now, with just one deal that could be considered an albatross on the roster, Otto Porter’s. Porter projects to be the 36th-highest-paid player in basketball next season making $28.5 million, a price point way too much for a player who has been injured a lot over the last couple of seasons and averaging 11 points for his career.

Besides Porter, Chicago has Zach LaVine making $19.5 million next season, a far fairer price for a borderline All-Star production-wise.

What’s more, while the Bulls’ young nucleus might lack superstar power, there are some solid pieces in that group, including rookie Coby White, floor-spacing big man Lauri Makkanen (Chicago’s next head coach first order of business has to be to get his confidence back up) and perhaps the most important piece, Wendell Carter Jr., as a skilled two-way center.

The Bulls, especially over the past six months, appear to be headed in the right direction.

7. Minnesota Timberwolves

Despite missing the playoffs the last two seasons, the Minnesota Timberwolves are a step ahead of a lot of the other non-postseason teams of 2019-20 because they have organizational stability and an unquestionable franchise centerpiece.

Ryan Saunders has a year-and-a-half of head coaching experience already despite being just 34, and though his record (36-70) is poor, he seems well-liked by his players.

President of Basketball Operations Gersson Rosas, who came over from the Houston Rockets, has also been in charge in Minnesota for roughly 15 months, and returns so far – including offloading Andrew Wiggins’ rough contract and landing key young pieces like D’Angelo Russell and Malik Beasley – are positive.

Minnesota also has burgeoning star Karl-Anthony Towns locked up through 2023-24, which is huge, because if we were to rank the best players of just the non-playoff teams, Towns would finish awfully close to the top. Even in a disappointing season this year, the Kentucky product still posted an unreal 26.5/10.8/4.4 stat line.

Towns and Russell give the Wolves a solid pick-and-roll duo to build around over the years to come, and the only other player they’re paying big-time money to, James Johnson, is only under contract from one more season, so their books are pretty clean as well.

Things may have gone south after Jimmy Butler’s departure and Thibodeau’s firing, but it wouldn’t be shocking to see Minnesota turn things around at some point relatively soon.

The only thing giving the Timberwolves a bit of uncertainty is the impending potential sale of the team by current owner Glen Taylor, who reportedly has been going back and forth on whether or not he’s going to go through with the sale.

Either way, Taylor has made it clear that whoever does buy the franchise will not be allowed to move them from Minnesota, so it should be a seamless transition between ownership groups if the sale does go through.

6. Washington Wizards

Another franchise that has struggled recently despite having some serious talent on its roster, the Washington Wizards are another team that can turn things around quickly over the coming seasons.

First off, having Bradley Beal signed through 2022-23 (player option on the final season) is huge for the franchise, as Beal has used the time with John Wall injured to become one of the very best 2-guards in basketball, capable of filling up the stat sheet in more ways than just points.

Washington only has two players making more than $10 million annually, which would be a great thing if one of those players wasn’t Wall, who hasn’t taken part in an NBA game since Christmas time… 2018. Wall’s contract is preposterously enormous, too, with the former All-Star point guard set to make $41.3 million next season, $44.3 million the year after and $47.4 million the season after that (with a player option on it, to boot).

Even when healthy, Wall would have had a hard time living up to that deal. Recovering from multiple major injuries will make that nearly impossible for the athletic floor general.

Nevertheless, if Wall can get back to at least somewhat resembling his former self, the Wizards should boast a good-to-great 1-2 punch in the backcourt depending on how Wall looks, one that could carry them back into playoff contention in the East.

The continued development of Thomas Bryant and Rui Hachimura will be important for Washington, as they could turn into the most productive teammates Wall and Beal have had with the Wizards.

Head coach Scott Brooks has been around since 2016 and is a well-respected leader with the team, so the coaching stability speaks well to their future upside as a franchise, while Tommy Sheppard has done a solid job as general manager for the club since taking over last summer.

5. Atlanta Hawks

No team owes less money towards player contracts for 2020-21 than the Atlanta Hawks, who are on the hook for merely $58.2 million next season. That’s $10 million less than the No. 2 finisher, Detroit, and over $20 million less than the No. 3 finisher, Charlotte.

In turn, that means the Hawks have the most cap space available to use this offseason, which begs the question: How are they going to use it? Especially in what’s considered one of the weaker free-agent classes in recent history? And could Atlanta become a major free-agent destination for the first time ever?

The Hawks do have one strong selling point who resides in their backcourt, Trae Young. After all, the Oklahoma product has blossomed into one of the most exciting young guards in basketball, and one of the most productive, having averaged 29.6 points and 9.3 assists this campaign.

Atlanta also has explosive power forward John Collins in the fold, and as long as he can continue to improve his durability and defense, he should continue being a 20-and-10 big man.

The team will need to help their other three other prized young pieces, Kevin HuerterCam Reddish and De’Andre Hunter to continue developing, as the two wings could be huge for the Hawks’ future if they reach their pre-draft projections.

Meanwhile, head coach Lloyd Pierce hasn’t shown much yet, and another poor season results-wise for the team could spell the end of his tenure.

More than anything, whether or not the Hawks are able to attract free agents over the coming offseasons will decide their future; if we were more sure of their ability to do so, they might have ranked higher on this list.

4. Golden State Warriors

Losing Kevin Durant would be a borderline death blow to any franchise’s hopes for postseason relevancy, and for the Golden State Warriors, it was. At least for a season.

But that was without Klay Thompson for the entirety of the year, with Stephen Curry playing just five games before getting injured himself and with Draymond Green playing the entire campaign at half-speed.

Next year should look different for the Warriors, who will get back their elite backcourt, still have a top-notch defender in Green and add the athletic wing piece they were missing without Durant.

Now, that’s not to say Andrew Wiggins will come close to matching what Durant did for Golden State, because he won’t, but Wiggins will provide the Warriors with a solid two-way wing, and if they can figure out how to get him to give full effort every game, we might see the best version of the Canadian forward yet. Really, the team won’t ask Wiggins to do much other than be a threat as an off-ball cutter, get the occasional one-on-one bucket and give full effort defensively, all things Wiggins should be able to handle.

The Warriors also have a Top 5 pick coming up this offseason, which has a 14 percent chance of being the top selection. Golden State will have options as to what they can do with that, be it take the best player available or trade it for a veteran piece, but either way, it’s a fantastic asset to have, especially for a team with that much talent on it already.

We also know the Warriors’ ownership group isn’t afraid to spend and considering they have a brand-new stadium to sell out once the pandemic is over, they’ll be even more motivated to put the best product possible on the floor.

There are also those pesky Giannis-to-Golden-State rumors that won’t go away, so all in all, the Warriors could potentially hit contender status again pretty soon.

The only reason they didn’t rank higher on this list is because age is starting to catch up to them, with Curry being 32, and Thompson and Green hitting 30.

3. New Orleans Pelicans

Built around one of the best young cores in the NBA, the New Orleans Pelicans should – theoretically, at least – blossom into a Top 10 team at some point over the coming seasons.

A lot will depend on whether they’ll be able to re-sign Most Improved Player favorite Brandon Ingram, who hits restricted free agency this fall. However, considering the Pelicans own his full Bird Rights, can match any offer he signs on the open market and were the team who helped turn him into an All-Star, that should be a drama-free ordeal.

With Ingram back in the fold for the long haul and potential superstar Zion Williamson merely entering Year-2 in 2020-21, New Orleans has at least two fantastic pieces to continue to build around. The team will have to make a decision on another impending restricted free agent, Lonzo Ball, who arguably just put up his best season, but was overall pretty bad in the seeding games.

Speaking of the seeding games, the Pelicans’ poor showing in the bubble cost head coach Alvin Gentry his job, but with the well-respected David Griffin leading the team and an elite young nucleus, New Orleans should have their pick of the litter for their next coach.

With a brand-new head coach next season, Williamson, Ingram and probably Ball back, a crop of good veterans returning – among them: Jrue HolidayJJ Redick and Nicolo Melli – and over $20 million of cap space this offseason, the Pelicans have a ton of positives going for them heading into 2020-21.

2. Memphis Grizzlies

It was a tough decision between the Top 2 teams in our ranking, but ultimately, we went with the Memphis Grizzlies in this spot, which is not a knock on the up-and-coming franchise in the slightest.

After all, they have what looks like a future perennial All-Star/All-NBA type in Ja Morant coming off a fantastic rookie season, they have the perfect complementary big man for his skill set in Jaren Jackson Jr., who is consistently improving month by month it seems, and they’re set to return most of the veterans who helped guide their young core to the brink of the 2020 playoffs this season.

Beyond that, first-year head coach Taylor Jenkins proved he was up to the task of guiding a team of his own after years spent under Mike Budenholzer and has the makings of a guy who will be in Memphis for a while, while young phenom front-office member Zach Kleiman has done a fantastic job since taking over for Chris Wallace in 2019.

The one bit of uncertainty surrounding the Grizzlies is the whispers surrounding a potential move of the franchise at some point, which could be unsettling for such a young team.

Regardless, already nearly a playoff team in 2019-20, the future looks extremely bright for the Grizzlies franchise.

1. Phoenix Suns

An 8-0 showing in the bubble wasn’t the sole reason we went with the Phoenix Suns in the top spot here, but it sure didn’t hurt their case.

In the biggest games of his career to this point, All-Star guard Devin Booker once and for all proved that he’s not merely a player putting up crazy stats on a bad team, but rather a legitimate offensive maestro capable of scoring from just about anywhere and creating for others. Facing playoff intensity over those eight games, Booker put up an insane 30.5/4.9/6.0 stat line while shooting 50.3 percent from the floor and 94 percent from the foul stripe.

Of all the non-playoff teams, the Suns might have the best player in their 23-year-old shooting guard. He certainly played that way in Orlando.

Along with Booker, Phoenix’s young core also includes the promising Deandre Ayton, sharpshooter Cam Johnson and athletic swingman Kelly Oubre Jr., all of whom could – and should – take major steps forward in 2020-21.

We also can’t forget to mention the Suns’ most important veteran piece, Ricky Rubio, who gave the team the calming presence at point guard they’d been missing for so long.

Couple all of those pieces returning with an impressive head coach in Monty Williams leading them, James Jones continuing to handle business as general manager and roughly $25 million in cap space this offseason, it wouldn’t be shocking whatsoever to see Phoenix further improve their roster over the coming months and find themselves firmly within the 2020 playoff picture next year.

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