The NBA is closing in on its All-Star Break and halfway point of the season. The first quarter of the season yielded some unusual results (remember when the Cavaliers were good and the Heat weren’t even in the playoff picture?), but things have begun to smooth out as of late and the standings are closer to resembling what most expected heading into the season. Now is a good time to start breaking teams up into tiers as the trade deadline and buyout market approach. Here’s we’ve broken the league down into five tiers:
1) The Favorites (2)
2) Championship Contenders if everything breaks right (5)
3) Second round ceiling unless they make a good move at the trade deadline (8)
4) Playoff Contenders (9)
5) Better off tanking (6)
Check out where your team lands in the tiers.
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Tier One: The Favorites
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There can only be two favorites. At this point in the season, for different reasons, the obvious favorites are the Lakers and Nets. The Lakers are favorites because they’re the defending champions, they have LeBron James and Anthony Davis, and an excellent roster of surrounding role players. The Nets are favorites because they have the highest offensive ceiling maybe ever, they have three of the top-10 players in the NBA, and they’re on an absolute tear as of late. Lakers-Nets would be a dream Finals matchup for basketball fans.
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Despite their recent struggles and injury troubles, the Lakers still have one of the best records in the league (24-11). They also have LeBron James, who continues to show us every postseason that he remains the unquestioned best basketball player on planet earth. And so long as Anthony Davis recovers from his Achilles strain in time to get back into peak basketball shape for the playoffs, it will give the Lakers arguably the best two-way player in the NBA anchoring their top-rated defense and creating matchup nightmares on offense. If the Lakers could add one explosive rim-protector (Marc Gasol is looking a little washed for postseason basketball) and another three-and-D wing in the trade or buyout market, they’ll be the favorites to repeat as champions come playoff time.
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With the way Kyrie Irving and James Harden have been playing lately, it almost makes you forget that their best player, Kevin Durant, has been rooting for them in street clothes the past few weeks nursing a hamstring injury. Equipped with three of the best offensive players in NBA history – all with slightly different playing styles that blend together wonderfully – as well as two offensive geniuses (Steve Nash and Mike D’Antoni) drawing up plays, the Nets look poised to redefine the importance (or unimportance) of defense in the modern NBA. The old adage that “defense wins championships” goes out the window if this Nets team (currently 26th in defensive rating) takes home the title this season.
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Tier Two: Championship Contenders if everything breaks right
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Don’t get it twisted, these second-tier teams are all excellent…they just don’t have the ceiling that the Lakers and Nets do. They need one of those two teams to suffer an ill-timed ankle roll or get cold during a pivotal point in a seven-game series. Conversely, any of these next five teams could swing a trade or discover a matchup to exploit that could lift them ahead of the Tier One teams. Or maybe they just catch fire at the right time 2009-Magic style. Sometimes the NBA is simply a make-or-miss league.
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What more can the Jazz (27-7, the best record in the NBA) do to get some respect around here?!? Relax, Jazz fans. You’re not getting into Tier One unless LeBron James or Anthony Davis gets injured for the playoffs. Sorry. That’s just the way it works when you have LeBron and AD and are coming off a title. But instead of focusing on the negatives, let’s focus on how dominant the Jazz have been this regular season. Before losing a closely contested matchup against the Clippers, Utah had reeled off 20 wins in 21 games, with 18 of those wins coming by more than 10 points. Decent teams don’t do things like that; great teams do things like that. The only concern for Utah at this point in the season is staying healthy so they can ramp back up like this for the postseason.
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The 76ers present a very interesting matchup for the Nets with Joel Embiid on offense and Ben Simmons on defense. Now that Embiid is in-shape and playing MVP-caliber basketball, there’s literally no one in the NBA that can stop him from going for 30 points and 15 rebounds in every playoff game. Against the Nets, with DeAndre Jordan and… Kevin Durant? as his primary defenders, Embiid might average 40 points and 20 rebounds. On defense, Simmons can at least slow down whichever of the Nets superstars he’s covering. Could those two matchups be enough to take down Brooklyn? Could Daryl Morey swing a deal for a hard-nosed player like PJ Tucker? It should be an exciting battle for the beast of the East.
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The Clippers (24-12, 3rd in the West) are quietly having a nice season this year, but like the Milwaukee Bucks, no one is taking them all that seriously after their epic playoff collapse in the bubble last summer. Interestingly enough, the Clippers once again have a top-five offensive rating (117.7 points per 100 possessions) in the NBA this season, and a top-three net rating (plus-6.0 points per 100 possessions), but have seen their defensive rating drop from fifth-best (107.6 points per 100 possessions) to 15th-best (111.7 points per 100 possessions). Does this tell us anything about their chances this postseason? Maybe, maybe not. But the slippage in defense is worth paying attention to as we near the trade deadline – could we see a long-time Clipper like Lou Williams get dealt for a more defensive-minded player? Could we see Ivica Zubac be shipped out in favor of a more athletic, small-ball center?
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After spending the entire 2019-20 season as the NBA’s title favorites, the Bucks suffered yet another collapse in the playoffs and are now in the same “prove it” category as title contenders this season as the Clippers. However, unlike the Clippers, the Bucks aren’t playing as well this season as they did last year (21-13, 3rd in the East). Are the Bucks struggles a product of them trying new things like using Giannis Antetokounmpo as a screener and testing out different lineups? Or are they a product of a bigger problem? Unfortunately for Bucks fans, we won’t get the answer to that question until the playoffs. Milwaukee still deserves to be in this tier of contenders though because they have three players (Giannis, Khris Middleton, and Jrue Holiday) that we know will bring it in the playoffs.
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It may seem odd to include a team that currently sits in seventh place in the Western Conference in this tier of contenders, but any team with Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray deserves the benefit of the doubt. We’ve seen both of them take their games to another level in the playoffs in back-to-back seasons now, and there’s no reason to believe they won’t be as deadly of a duo on offense as any in the NBA when the postseason begins. Moreover, you have to look at the whole picture when assessing the Nuggets’ championship odds as they’ve had a number of injuries and Covid-19-related games missed by important players (for example, Michael Porter Jr. has missed 10 games). Therefore, assuming Denver gets healthy and starts to get rolling before the playoffs, they’re going to be a tough out for any opponent.
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Tier Three: Second round ceiling unless they make a good move at the deadline
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These next eight teams should make the playoffs this season. In fact, at least one of them will make the second round of the playoffs. However, if any of these teams want to be serious contenders, they’ll take a big gamble this trade deadline and throw their hat into the second tier of contenders. Can Bradley Beal be had? What about Zach LaVine? Or even Karl-Anthony Towns? Moves around the edges of the roster will help a little, but without a home run swing, it’s unlikely that any of these squads are playing in the conference finals this summer.
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Though their record (17-17) doesn’t suggest that they belong in this tier, the defending Eastern Conference Champions deserve the benefit of the doubt, especially considering how ravaged by Covid-19 their roster was earlier this season. Now that Jimmy Butler, who missed 13 games, is back and playing at a high level, Miami has started to get things rolling again and has won six straight games. Bam Adebayo has been a constant all season and has improved from last season (19.5 PPG, 9.7 RPG, 5.5 APG), so the Heat have that working that for them as well. Even if they end up being a six-, seven- or eight-seed, no opponent will want to have to battle a crunch-time lineup of Goran Dragic, Tyler Herro, Butler, Duncan Robinson, and Adebayo come playoff time.
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What do you know? Chris Paul showed up to Phoenix this season and suddenly they’re one of the best teams in the Western Conference. He’s the Point God – it’s just what he does. CP3 isn’t just doing it with his overall production (16.4 PPG, 9.0 APG, 49-39-96 shooting splits), he’s turning the Suns, previously an up-tempo team (10th in pace last season), into a half-court team (29th in pace this season). Why is he doing that? Because he’s 35 years old, but more importantly, because that’s how you have to score the ball in the playoffs. The Suns’ roster as currently constructed has two stars (CP3 and Devin Booker) and two good young players who could potentially become stars (Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges). The in-season development of the latter two could determine the team’s ultimate playoff ceiling.
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Despite missing CJ McCollum (19 games missed) and Jusuf Nurkic (20 games missed) for more than half of the season, Damian Lillard and the Blazers (18-14, 6th in the West) have managed to keep humming along as a good team in the Western Conference. Lillard has been spectacular this season, averaging an MVP-like stat line (29.8 PPG, 8.0 APG, 45-38-94 shooting splits), while making his customary insanely clutch plays seemingly every night. Now that the Blazers have some strong depth at the wing position (Gary Trent, Robert Covington, Derrick Jones Jr., Carmelo Anthony), they could be a stealth contender if McCollum returns and continues playing like he did before he was injured and Nurkic returns to his form from early in the bubble last summer.
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The Dubs don’t belong in this category as currently constructed, but including them is purely out of respect for the greatness of Steph Curry (29.5 PPG, 6.4 APG, 5.4 RPG, 48-41-94 shooting splits). They’re also included here because they happen to have one of the best trade packages to offer if Bradley Beal were to become available before the deadline (James Wiseman, T’Wolves top-3-protected 2021 first-round draft pick, and other first-rounder picks). It’s unclear if the Warriors would be willing to sacrifice their future in that manner this season, but it’s certainly possible, so they’re here in Tier Three despite only being 19-16 and 8th in the West.
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After having to adjust to an inconsistent lineup due to injuries and Covid-19-related absences, Luka Doncic and the Mavericks seem to be finally hitting their stride now that Kristaps Porzingis and Josh Richardson are healthy and back into game shape. While Dallas doesn’t have the elite offense they had last season (they were no. 1 in the NBA last season in offensive rating and only no. 12 in the NBA this season), their defense should be better equipped to get important stops late in playoffs games than it was last summer. For that reason, and because they have the NBA’s next pantheon-level player in Doncic (28.8 PPG, 9.4 RPG, 8.8 APG), the Mavs will always be a threat in the playoffs.
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Including the Celtics (17-17, 5th in the East) in this tier of teams is based solely on trust in their roster talent, but current on-court play, because they’ve been pretty bad as of late (6-9 in their past 15 games). Kemba Walker hasn’t been the same All-Star-caliber player that he was in the first half of last season ever since his knee injury (which ironically was aggravated during last year’s All-Star Game). Will he ever return to form? Even if he does, the Celtics still need to swing a deal for an upgrade over the Tristan Thompson-Daniel Theis frontline because that isn’t going to cut it in the postseason. Adding a nice big to Boston’s two young All-Star forwards, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, would give the Celtics a fighting chance in any series.
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This is another “out of respect” inclusion in Tier Three. After nearly making the Conference Finals last season, the Raptors (17-17, 5th in the East) struggled out of the gate this year. Part of that is probably due to their having to play in Tampa Bay instead of Toronto, part of it is probably because their roster is lacking a high-level shot-creator at the wing position – Pascal Siakam is a nice player, but you can’t give him the ball at the end of games and expect him to score at a high clip in isolations. That said, a lineup of Fred VanVleet, Kyle Lowry, Norman Powell, Siakam, and Chris Boucher (or OG Anunoby) is a pretty formidable five-man group and would make any opponent nervous in the postseason.
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After enjoying a strong start to the season, the Pacers (15-17, 9th in the East) have slipped a bit since the Victor Oladipo-for-Caris LeVert trade. And that makes sense because Oladipo, despite being a shell of the player we saw in the 2018 playoffs, was still a positive contributor, and LeVert, who is a very nice player, is recovering from cancer and hasn’t appeared in a game for Indiana yet. It’s unclear if LeVert will play this season, and even if he does, it’s unclear how limited he’ll be. Thus, assuming TJ Warren returns from his injury and is close to the player he was in the Orlando Bubble, the Pacers will have a very solid roster built around Warren, Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon, and Myles Turner, but unless they swing a big deal at the deadline, will have a second-round ceiling at best.
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Tier Four: Playoff Contenders
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A playoff berth would be considered a successful season for any of the teams in this tier. All nine of these teams have young talent and promising futures, so getting those young players’ playoff experience would be huge for their development. Unlike the teams in Tier Three, these teams are better off staying pat or only acquiring a cheap veteran or two at the trade deadline (unless it’s a team like the Pelicans trading all of their draft capital for Bradley Beal) as sacrificing their future for this season would be a poor strategy.
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After poking fun at the Hornets for being on a hamster wheel of mediocrity for the past few years, I never imagined that I’d be calling the Hornets the most entertaining League Pass team in the NBA this season, but here I am. LaMelo Ball has jolted this listless franchise with a bolt of energy that few players are capable of doing. His love of playmaking has been contagious, Gordon Hayward’s return to All-Star form has given Charlotte a legitimate go-to player late in games and Terry Rozier’s shot-making has been a sight to behold when he catches fire. It’s all resulted in the Hornets (16-17, 8th in the East) being legitimate playoff contenders in the East. If they could find a way into the postseason, the Ball-to-Miles Bridges “Airbnb” alley-oops will have casual fans invested in this team in a way that was previously unimaginable.
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Did you know that the Spurs are currently 17-12 and are leading the Southwest Division? Well, now you know. San Antonio is quietly having a nice season by somewhat bifurcating their roster. DeMar DeRozan, Patty Mills, Rudy Gay, Jakob Poeltl, and other veterans play the Old Spurs brand of basketball, make dependable decisions, and few mistakes. But then there’s also a Young Spurs component to the roster featuring a stable of athletic guards and wings Keldon Johnson, Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, and Lonnie Walker that plays a more high-flying brand of basketball. The connective glue between the two roster factions appears to be DeRozan, who has developed into one of the best playmakers in the game (7.0 APG). It’s all working for the Spurs right now and if they keep it up, they’ll be arguably the biggest postseason surprise in the West.
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Despite missing Jaren Jackson Jr. for the entire season thus far, and losing Ja Morant for eight games, the Grizzlies have managed to stay right in the thick of the playoff race (15-15, 9th in the West) in the tough Western Conference with their gritty defense (no. 9 in the NBA) and excellent player development. Will they be able to maintain this caliber of play all season? Or will they falter near the very end of the season like last year? A lot of that will come down to whether the aforementioned Jackson Jr. makes it back soon and whether Morant can make a leap from star to superstar in the second half of the season.
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Speaking of leaps, Zion Williamson is in the midst of one right now folks. While most of the media spent the first half of the year bashing Williamson for his defensive woes without actually watching Pelicans games (and seeing that he’s forced to guard threes and fours instead of centers because Stan Van Gundy plays Steven Adams alongside him), Zion began doing things we’ve rarely seen from an offensive player, like score 28.1 PPG points while shooting 65.8 percent from the field for the past 14 games. Guess what people? Young players typically stink at defense, so instead of focusing on what a player can’t do as a 20-year-old, how about you enjoy some of the things Zion does that literally no other NBA player does. This kid is special and as long as he stays healthy, he’s going to be a certified superstar and one of the best players of his generation. Appreciate greatness, appreciate uniqueness. And if Zion leads the Pelicans (14-19, 11th in the West) to a playoff berth this season, appreciate how impressive that is in only his second season, especially considering how poorly constructed the Pelicans roster currently is.
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Knicks fans have to be absolutely loving Tom Thibodeau, Julius Randle, RJ Barrett, Immanuel Quickley, and this rugged Knicks roster this season. Not because they play beautiful basketball or do anything particularly aesthetic (because they certainly don’t), but because they’re competing and scratching and clawing on every possession. In a season where most expected New York to be amongst the worst teams in basketball, this team has exceeded expectations in every way (18-17, 4th in the East). Whether they’re able to grind out a playoff berth is almost immaterial for hardcore Knicks fans because this season has raised the bar – not only are they no longer incompetent, but they’re a team on the rise and should be a legitimate free agent destination moving forward.
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After looking like one of the worst teams in the league through few games this season (0-3 with a minus-13.3 point differential), the Bulls, led by newly minted All-Star Zach LaVine (28.7 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 5.0 APG, 52-44-86 shooting splits), have worked their way back into the playoff picture in the East (15-17, 9th in the East). This recent surge leaves them in an interesting dilemma heading into the trade deadline: Will they be buyers or sellers? If it’s the former, they could probably deal the aforementioned LaVine for a King’s Ransom. If it’s the latter, they should be careful to not sacrifice the future to get into the Play-In Tournament.
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The Hawks (14-20, 11th place in the East) clearly think of themselves as a playoff contender this season as seen by their firing of third-year head coach Lloyd Pierce. Whether they truly belong in this tier is up for debate. On paper, Atlanta has a number of good offensive players like Trae Young, John Collins, Danilo Gallinari, and Bogdan Bogdanovic as well as a couple of solid two-way players like Clint Capela and De’Andre Hunter. On the court, however, they have the ninth-best offensive rating, 25th-best defensive rating, and 15th-best net rating. Those numbers suggest that they’re a fringe playoff team, but they’ll certainly have to improve on at least one end to make the postseason.
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The Kings (13-21, 13th in the West) probably won’t make the playoffs this season, but they’re at least pointing in the right direction again as a franchise now that Vlade Divac is no longer the head decision-maker. They have a young star and Most Improve Player Candidate in De’Aaron Fox (22.8 PPG, 7.4 APG), and a future star and Rookie of the Year candidate in Tyrese Haliburton (13.2 PPG, 5.4 APG, 49-43-83 shooting splits). They also have some likable and decent veterans in Harrison Barnes and Buddy Hield. They’re obviously missing that one frontcourt piece that could help them level up – they hoped it would be Marvin Bagley, but unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be working.
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After a pathetic start to the season, the Wizards have shown some signs of life recently, going 7-2 in their past nine games. If it’s enough to keep Bradley Beal happy enough to not demand a trade, then the Wizards have to make a run for the playoffs this season, even though they are probably better off tanking from a long-term perspective. Now, making a run for the playoffs doesn’t mean making a stupid “win-now” deal where they ship out one of their young players for a veteran on a one-year deal or rotation player with limited upside. It means exploring a couple of minor trades, developing some of their young talents like Rui Hachimura, Deni Avdija, Troy Brown, etc., and trying to feature Beal over Russell Westbrook in the half-court as opposed to playing Russ-Ball.
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Tier Five: Better off tanking
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These last six teams are all fatally flawed and are better off being sellers at the trade deadline and tanking the second half of the season for better lottery odds. The 2021 NBA Draft class is expected to have a handful of players with superstar potential as well as others with star and high-end role player abilities, so getting a better chance at drafting a kid like Oklahoma State’s Cade Cunningham will vastly outweigh winning an extra couple of games late in the season. Tank away, boys!
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As has been well-documented, the Rockets (11-21, 14th in the West) had a bizarre start to their season with their franchise player, James Harden, demanding a trade, refusing to show up to the start of training camp, then refusing to play hard in their first eight games. After dealing Harden to the Nets, and Caris LeVert to the Pacers for Victor Oladipo, the Rockets have not played well enough to contend for the playoffs, especially once Christian Wood went down with an injury. In fact, the Rockets have lost 11 straight games since Wood’s injury and are probably better off being sellers at the trade deadline and working towards next season.
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The Magic (13-21, 13th in the East) are stuck on the treadmill of mediocrity that the Hornets were running on the past few seasons. They have a 30-year-old All-Star player in Nikola Vucevic, but not much else. The shine on Aaron Gordon has dulled quite a bit. Markelle Fultz is out for the year with a torn ACL. Ditto for Jonathan Isaac. Chuma Okeke and Cole Anthony have flashed some potential, but not enough to justify making a run for the playoffs. The Magic need to deal Gordon, deal Evan Fournier, deal Terrence Ross – get some future draft capital and/or some high-risk, high-reward talent on their roster and tank for a good trade pick. Otherwise, it’s going to be more of the same in Orlando for the next handful of years.
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How the Thunder (14-20, 12th in the West) have actually been competitive this season after trading essentially every key rotation player from last year’s team besides Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is beyond me. And while a franchise should never intentionally inhibit young players from trying to win games, the Thunder may want to explore dealing George Hill and Al Horford at the deadline to put an even heavier reliance on some of their emerging talents like SGA, Lu Dort, Darius Bazley, Hamidou Diallo and others. If the kids keep winning, then shoot for the playoffs. But if they stumble a bit, then tank and try to land one of the handful of potential superstars in the 2021 NBA Draft.
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It appears as though the Cavaliers (13-21, 13th in the East) early season success was more a byproduct of them getting to have a longer training camp period than most of the rest of the league more than a byproduct of their overall improvement as a team. Now, Collin Sexton, Larry Nance, and a few other players have had nice seasons and have flashed some potential. However, as seen by their recent losing ways (they’d lost 10 straight games before their current three-game winning streak), this team isn’t really ready to compete for the playoffs like we may have thought earlier this year. There’s no shame in that – develop Sexton, Darius Garland, Jarrett Allen the rest of the year, land a potential star in the 2021 Draft, and prepare for the future.
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It must be difficult to be a T’Wolves (7-28, 15th in the West) fan these days. They have a player who should be a superstar and franchise cornerstone in Karl-Anthony Towns and another potential star in Anthony Edwards, but it feels like it’s one step forward, two steps back with this team. KAT can’t seem to stay on the court. And when he does play, his buddy, D’Angelo Russell, the guy they traded the top-3 protected 2021 first-round pick to the Warriors for, seems to always get hurt. Making matters worse, they just fired their head coach (Ryan Saunders) and weirdly replaced him with an assistant coach on with another franchise (Chris Finch), and are getting canceled for choosing Finch, over a qualified in-house minority candidate (David Vanterpool). The Wolves better hope their pick lands in the top-3 or else things could really start to get ugly in Minnesota.
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The Pistons (9-25, 15th in the East) are probably the worst team in the league…but that’s exactly where they need to be. Ironically, if you pay attention to the Pistons, they actually play really well against the NBA’s best teams. In fact, six of their nine wins have come against teams with winning records – including the Lakers, Nets, 76ers, Celtics (2x), Suns. The other two came against the Heat, Pelicans, and Magic. Not sure what that tells us about the Pistons except that their roster at least has some long-term potential moving forward.