Handicapping the Motivation for All 30 NBA Teams

Handicapping the Motivation for All 30 NBA Teams article feature image
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Jan 15, 2018; Los Angeles, CA, USA; LA Clippers forward Blake Griffin (32) dribbles the ball as Houston Rockets guard Chris Paul (3) defends during the fourth quarter at Staples Center. The Clippers went on to a 113-102 win. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA season is just over halfway through, and, while the Warriors mostly killed the buzz last night by beating the Cavs again and showing the playoffs are probably set in stone short of an injury, there’s still money to be made in the betting and DFS markets. To have an edge, however, it’s important to make sure you’re up on each team’s motivation moving forward. Some teams are already looking ahead to the 2018 NBA Draft, some will need to fight until the last day for playoff positioning, and some are only concerned about resting up for a run. Let’s run through each team.

Note: Projected records and probabilities courtesy of FiveThirtyEight.

The Sure Things

Golden State Warriors (36-9)

Projected Record (Rank) and Playoff Probability: 65-17 (1), Greater Than 99%
2018 NBA Draft Picks: Have their own first-round pick

The Warriors lead the league with a +10.7 net rating, and their starting lineup has a massive +18.6 net rating in 260 minutes this season. They’re in the middle of a dynasty, although they have shown a (tiny) chink in their armor, as they’ve been much worse offensively with Stephen Curry off the floor. Per nbawowy, the Warriors have scored at a rate of 125.1 points per 100 possessions when Steph plays — 10 points/100 better than the best offense in NBA history. With him off, that has dipped to 109.2. They can still win the title without him, but their room for error is much smaller. Their main goal for the rest of the regular season should be keeping him healthy.

Toronto Raptors (29-13)

Projected Record (Rank) and Playoff Probability: 57-25 (3), Greater Than 99%
2018 NBA Draft Picks: Owe their first-round pick to Brooklyn (top-14 protected)

At this point, it seems unlikely the Cavaliers will push for the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed. Per FiveThirtyEight, both the Raptors and Celtics are projected for at least eight more wins than the Cavs. That means it will be a race for the top seed, which not only brings home-court advantage throughout conference play but also most likely means avoiding Cleveland until the Eastern Conference Finals. The Raptors look to be the best team in the East this season; their +7.3 net rating easily leads the pack, and they’ve blitzed opponents both with their starters and bench. No one will believe in them until Kyle LowryDeMar DeRozan, and their crew prove it in the playoffs, but they’ll have their best chance in franchise history if they can remain healthy and lock up the No. 1 seed in the East. For what it’s worth, the Raptors have an outstanding +7.4 net rating against the top-eight East teams — easily the best mark of that group.

Boston Celtics (34-10)

Projected Record (Rank) and Playoff Probability: 58-24 (2), Greater Than 99%
2018 NBA Draft Picks: Have their own first-round pick; will receive Lakers’ if it falls between 2 and 5

The Celtics are in a similar spot: They want to get home-court advantage in the East but mostly avoid the Cavs as long as possible. Given the stakes and the fact the Celtics and Raptors are currently projected for one win apart, this looks like it’ll be a battle until the very end. One other motivation the Celtics should have is solidifying their rotation outside of their starters: That main unit, which has played 81 more minutes than any other combination this season, has rolled opponents with a +15.7 net rating. Their next two most-used lineups — ones that include some combination of Marcus Smart and Marcus Morris — have posted negative net ratings. They need to shoot for the No. 1 seed and figure out their Marci problem.

Houston Rockets (30-12)

Projected Record (Rank) and Playoff Probability: 56-26 (4), Greater Than 99%
2018 NBA Draft Picks: Owe their first-round pick to Atlanta (top-3 protected)

James Harden has been an MVP. New addition Chris Paul has been excellent fitting into the Rockets’ system. The Rockets as a team have been awesome, sitting second in the league with a +7.3 net rating. The issue, of course, is that those have largely been three different samples: Of the 1,926 minutes the Rockets have played this season, Harden and Paul have played together in just 356 of them (18.5%). In those minutes, they have been ridiculous, scoring at a historic rate of 123.3 points/100. If they’re healthy, they’re perhaps the biggest threat to the Warriors in the West. Seeding for them is much less important than their overall health — and it wouldn’t hurt for them to get some reps together, too.

Minnesota Timberwolves (29-16)

Projected Record (Rank) and Playoff Probability: 52-30 (5), Greater Than 99%
2018 NBA Draft Picks: Owe their first-round pick to Atlanta (top-14 protected); will receive Thunder’s (top-14)

Don’t look now, but the Timberwolves are projected for 52 wins — fifth-most, ahead of the Spurs — and have a greater than 99 percent chance of making the playoffs. They’ve been perhaps the best team in the league over the past month, leading all teams with a +10.5 net rating over the past 15 games. They’ve compiled a stupid 114.3 offensive rating during that time, and more importantly, they’ve jumped to seventh in defense. Some perspective: Those numbers would be about where the Warriors have been, and the Dubs are maybe the best team of all time. This team is good, but can they hold up? Their starting lineup has played 781 minutes, which is somehow 282 more minutes than any other lineup in the NBA. They should probably back off the heavy minutes, but that’s also highly unlikely.

Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

San Antonio Spurs (29-16)

Projected Record (Rank) and Playoff Probability: 51-31 (6), 99%
2018 NBA Draft Picks: Have their own first-round pick

On paper, it seems the Spurs have been the same old Spurs: They’re currently projected for 50-plus wins and home court in the first round. Dig a little deeper, however, and you’ll find questions that certainly need answering. The biggest is this: Are the best versions of Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge capable of playing with each other?

With Kawhi on the floor, Aldridge has taken a big hit in usage and has posted a much lower offensive rating. The Spurs’ most-used lineup —  a combination of Patty MillsDanny GreenKyle Anderson-Aldridge-Pau Gasol — has put up a solid +10.5 net rating in 155 minutes. The most-used Kawhi-Aldridge combination has posted a -5.0 net rating in 54 minutes. If they’re still working out the kinks come playoff time, they’ll be in trouble.

Cleveland Cavaliers (26-17)

Projected Record (Rank) and Playoff Probability: 49-33 (7), 98%
2018 NBA Draft Picks: Have their own first-round pick; will receive Brooklyn’s (unprotected)

On the season, the Cavs rank only above the Kings with an atrocious 109.4 defensive rating. They’ve been even worse over their past 15 games, with a league-worst 112.3 mark. This team has been incredibly mediocre this season, evidenced by their 13th-ranked +0.5 net rating, and they can’t blame it on a poor bench, as their starters have posted a -2.0 net rating. LeBron James deserves the benefit of the doubt always, and it will likely help to have a healthy Isaiah Thomas playing alongside him. However, so far even that hasn’t been true: They’ve scored just 98.1 points/100 with those two on the floor together this season, with a -22.5 net rating. LeBron is still The King, but he’ll have to clean up more issues than perhaps any of his past teams. The Cavs’ motivation is to figure out how to be good at basketball, especially on the defensive end.

The Highly-Likely Playoff Teams

OKC Thunder (24-20)

Projected Record (Rank) and Playoff Probability: 47-35 (8), 94%
2018 NBA Draft Picks: Owe their first-round pick to Minnesota (top-14 protected)

Back at the end of November, I wrote about how the Thunder were much better than their record: Their Pythagorean win total was a whopping four games below their actual win total. They’re still three wins below their expected record, but at least they’re above .500 currently at 24-20. They’re projected to be at the 47-win range, which gives them a 90-plus percent chance of making the playoffs, although they might have dug too deep a hole to get into the home-court, 4-seed range. The biggest thing for them is solidifying their rotation: Their most-used lineup — their starters — has a +11.3 net rating in 440 minutes. That is among the best marks in the league. Their next four most-used lineups have all been atrocious, however, posting negative net ratings. They’ve been particularly troublesome defensively with Andre Roberson off the court, giving up 112.0 points/100 in those minutes. They have awesome top-end talent but need better play from their role players.

Miami Heat (25-18)

Projected Record (Rank) and Playoff Probability: 45-37 (9), 88%
2018 NBA Draft Picks: Owe their first-round pick to Phoenix (top-7 protected)

Somehow, some way, the Miami Heat are currently projected to sneak into home-court advantage in the first round over the Washington Wizards. What’s odd, however, is that the Heat have been awful at home, posting a -1.9 net rating there (ranked 24th in the league) versus a 0.0 mark (eighth) on the road. At this point they have almost no chance of keeping their pick, which is going to Phoenix if it falls No. 8 or later. They should push for home-court advantage and the No. 4 seed, which will also put them on the other side of the bracket from the Cavs. One of their biggest questions is figuring out their frontcourt rotation: Most of their best lineups include Kelly Olynyk and his shooting, but when he’s played with Hassan Whiteside they’ve been outscored by 4.8 points/100. Miami has a top-10 defense this year, but should they sell out more to their shooters?

Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Battling for the 5-8 Seeds

Milwaukee Bucks (23-20)

Projected Record (Rank) and Playoff Probability: 44-38 (10), 76%
2018 NBA Draft Picks: Owe their first-round pick to Phoenix (top-10 protected)

There are currently seven teams projected for 43 wins, which means it’ll be a bloodbath ’til the end for the No. 8 seed both in the East and West. This is how much each game matters: Yesterday the Bucks had a 69 percent chance of making the playoffs and sat 16th in the NBA in projected record. After last night’s win over the Wizards, they jumped to 10th in projected record and now own a 76 percent playoff probability.

The Bucks are clearly pushing for the playoffs with MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo, who, by the way, dropped a 20-20 game last night. They will be one of the safest teams in terms of minutes and motivation down the stretch, which is good for fantasy purposes. When they’ve kept a tight rotation with their main guys, they’ve been outstanding offensively:

Further, they seem to be better against inferior competition. Against top-eight teams in the East, they’re just 7-10 and have a poor -3.0 net rating. If they catch a tanking team at the end of the year, they could put up huge games.

Washington Wizards (25-19)

Projected Record (Rank) and Playoff Probability: 43-39 (T-11), 71%
2018 NBA Draft Picks: Have their own first-round pick

Again, things are tight: The Wizards had an 86 percent chance to make the playoffs last night but dropped to 71 percent today. They’ll likely still make it, but they should be considered underdogs to have home-court advantage in the first round. They own the eighth-best net rating at +2.0 — much higher than the Heat’s mark, in fact — but are projected for two less wins than Miami. What gives? It comes down to clutch performance: Miami has been the second-best team in clutch situations, posting a +26.2 net rating. Washington has been terrible, posting a -9.8 net rating and a 48.7 percent true shooting mark. Perhaps they need a lineup shift: When they’ve played Kelly Oubre instead of Markieff Morris, they’ve blitzed teams, posting a stupid +18.5 net rating in 193 minutes. They’re gunning for the No. 4 seed, but they’ll need to work out their clutch woes if they intend on grabbing it.

Detroit Pistons (22-20)

Projected Record (Rank) and Playoff Probability: 43-39 (T-11), 73%
2018 NBA Draft Picks: Have their own first-round pick

The Pistons are an average team, posting a -0.2 net rating on the season; they’re projected for 43 wins, which would be tied for the sixth seed in the East. Still, it’s a bit odd how they’ve done it: Each of their top-six lineups — every one that has played more than 32 minutes on the year — has posted a highly negative net rating.

They’ve largely been surviving with their bench, which has posted a +3.1 net rating — the seventh-best mark in the league. The Pistons are clearly gunning for the playoffs with Stan Van Gundy, and they’re likely to make it. That said, remember these marks when the Pistons are matched up versus the Cavs in the first round.

New Orleans Pelicans (22-20)

Projected Record (Rank) and Playoff Probability: 43-39 (T-11), 75%
2018 NBA Draft Picks: Have their own first-round pick

The Pelicans have a lot of money invested in this Jrue HolidayAnthony DavisDeMarcus Cousins core, and they’re motivated to get into the playoffs. With a projected record of 43-39, they have a 75 percent chance to sneak in. The Pels, Nuggets, Clippers, and Trail Blazers are all projected within four wins of each other currently, which means they’ll be fighting until the last day not only for a playoff seed but also to avoid the No. 8 seed and a first-round matchup death wish against the Warriors. Among the top-eight teams in the West, the Pels own the worst net rating (-4.6) against those teams. They’ll be playing huge minutes throughout the rest of the season, but you’ll likely want to target them in good matchups. Brow has drastic DFS splits against sub-.500 teams (+5.0 Plus/Minus on DraftKings) versus above-.500 ones (-2.9), and Boogie has similarly stark splits when playing as a favorite and a dog.

Denver Nuggets (22-21)

Projected Record (Rank) and Playoff Probability: 43-39 (T-11), 77%
2018 NBA Draft Picks: Have their own first-round pick

The Nuggets have a 77 percent chance to make the playoffs, and they’ll likely be fighting for that down to the last week. The Nuggets have been solid this season, although it’s been a bit surprising how they’ve gotten things done. Over the past 15 games, for example, they rank seventh in defensive efficiency, allowing just 102.4 points/100, but only 22nd in offensive efficiency, scoring 104.8 points/100. Paul Millsap is reportedly nearing a return near the All Star break, and their starting lineup was excellent with him, posting a +12.0 net rating. They could have growing pains acclimating him back to the lineup, although they certainly need to get him up to speed to really compete down the stretch: With Nikola Jokic and Mason Plumlee on the floor together this season, the Nuggets have posted a -1.7 net rating. Against the top-eight teams in the West this year, Denver has come away with a disappointing -4.5 net rating. They need Millsap.

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

LA Clippers (22-21)

Projected Record (Rank) and Playoff Probability: 43-39 (T-11), 77%
2018 NBA Draft Picks: Have their own first-round pick

Perhaps the best story of the season is that the Clippers, who until last week were without five of their top-seven players to start the year, are somehow 22-21 and have a 77 percent chance to make the playoffs. Their most-used lineup — what they want their starters to be in Patrick BeverleyAustin RiversDanilo GallinariBlake GriffinDeAndre Jordan — has played just 147 minutes together. They’ve been great during that time, posting a +8.3 net rating, but it’s clear this team needs some time to jell before the playoffs if they want to make a splash. Beverley is out for the season, and that starting lineup with Milos Teodosic in his place has played only seven minutes this year; they’ve posted a -54.0 net rating. They will certainly want to avoid the Warriors in the first round, so look for them to continue to play hard throughout the rest of the season — whoever is on the floor.

Philadelphia 76ers (20-20)

Projected Record (Rank) and Playoff Probability: 43-39 (T-11), 73%
2018 NBA Draft Picks: Have their own first-round pick; will receive Lakers’ if it is No. 1 or 6-30

The 76ers aren’t incredibly complicated: When Joel Embiid is on the floor, they’re one of the best teams in the East, posting a net rating of +9.4. When he’s off the floor, they’re one of the worst teams in the league, posting a -8.2 net rating. Their top lineup — a combination of Ben SimmonsJ.J. RedickRobert CovingtonDario Saric-Embiid — has legitimately been one of the best five-man units in the NBA, posting a ridiculous +17.6 net rating in 301 minutes. It’s a mystery what is going to happen to first overall pick Markelle Fultz this season or even beyond, but it is clear the 76ers want to make the playoffs this year. In order to do that, they need to make sure Embiid is healthy and ready to go at the end of the year.

Indiana Pacers (24-20)

Projected Record (Rank) and Playoff Probability: 43-39 (T-11), 73%
2018 NBA Draft Picks: Have their own first-round pick

The Pacers have been all over the place, starting the year slowly in October and coming on hot recently:

Victor Oladipo has been one of the best stories of the season, having a career year back in Indiana. The numbers state that he’s been very important to the Pacers, as they’ve posted a +6.6 net rating with him on the court versus a -7.2 rating with him off. However, it’s unclear how noisy that stat is, as most of the difference has been on defense. And that’s exactly where the Pacers have struggled, ranking 20th and allowing 106.6 points/100. Their best chance at having a stout defense is the continual maturation of Myles Turner, who can’t seem to get healthy and is out at least four more games. They’ll need all hands on deck, as they’re currently projected to be right in that scrum of teams in the 6-9 range in the East.

Portland Trail Blazers (22-21)

Projected Record (Rank) and Playoff Probability: 41-41 (18), 54%
2018 NBA Draft Picks: Have their own first-round pick

The Blazers are currently projected for 41 wins, which would put them on the outside looking in by a single game. They’ll need every single minute from Damian Lillard, who has almost single-handedly kept their disappointing offense afloat: They’ve posted an offensive rating of 111.8 with him versus just 104.8 with him off the floor. Their starting unit has posted a stellar +13.7 net rating, but their next most-used lineups — especially ones without Dame — have been terrible. Incredibly, with Lillard and C.J. McCollum, perhaps the most dynamic backcourt in the league, the Blazers rank 23rd in 3-point rate and 21st in transition offense. It’s been a disappointing season, but DFS-wise it looks like targeting Lillard down the stretch could be a profitable move as they try to get into that eighth spot.

Could Push, Should Tank

Utah Jazz (17-26)

Projected Record (Rank) and Playoff Probability: 36-46 (20), 18%
2018 NBA Draft Picks: Have their own first-round pick

The Jazz and Hornets are teams that are likely out of the playoffs and should likely tank because they have their first-round pick. That said, the Jazz will likely continue to push, especially since Rudy Gobert started non-contact practice just yesterday. Their best strategy moving forward is to get Gobert healthy and get him reps with Donovan Mitchell, who looks to be the steal of the 2017 draft. That pairing could help alleviate the longterm concerns for the Jazz: With Gobert on the floor, the Jazz have been an awesome defense over the past couple of years. However, they’ve really struggled offensively with him on, scoring just 101.5 points/100. Given that Gobert is still a ways out, they should probably look to getting a good pick in the 2018 draft, but they’ll likely keep pushing until their probability reaches zero.

Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Charlotte Hornets (17-25)

Projected Record (Rank) and Playoff Probability: 38-44 (19), 32%
2018 NBA Draft Picks: Have their own first-round pick

The Hornets are perhaps the team most in need of tanking. They are sorely lacking for talent, and their best player, Kemba Walker, can walk after next year in unrestricted free agency. The Hornets are a mediocre team, ranking 18th on the season with a -0.8 net rating, and their already-thin rotation has been hurt not only by the loss of important players like Cody Zeller but also a month-long absence from head coach Steve Clifford. They’ve had little room for error, and thus a dud season from one of their best players in Nicolas Batum is more devastating than usual. Batum has shot just 27.7 percent from the 3-point line. When they’ve rolled with Jeremy Lamb with the starters in his place, they’ve been amazing, posting a net rating of +12.3 in 168 minutes. Still, it’s all probably too little, too late. The 2018 draft is loaded and the Hornets should likely turn in. Based on history, however, MJ & Co. are unlikely to do so.

The Billy King Category

Brooklyn Nets (16-28)

Projected Record (Rank) and Playoff Probability: 29-53 (T-25), Less Than 1%
2018 NBA Draft Picks: Owe their first-round pick to Cleveland (unprotected); will receive Toronto’s (top-14 protected)

This next category of teams are ones that are 1) not good enough to make the playoffs but 2) don’t own their draft pick and thus have no incentive to tank. The Nets owe their first-round pick to the Cavaliers (unprotected), which means they’ll continue to play hard and focus on player development despite their just almost zero percent chance of making the playoffs. The most important thing for the Nets is finding out whether their young guys are good enough to be part of the future. It seems they might have stumbled on a couple: The Spencer DinwiddieAllen CrabbeDeMarre CarrollRondae Hollis-JeffersonTyler Zeller     unit has posted a +10.0 net rating across 260 minutes. Dinwiddie has been a lovely surprise, and it will be interesting to see how they handle him when D’Angelo Russell returns to the floor.

LA Lakers (15-28)

Projected Record (Rank) and Playoff Probability: 29-53 (T-25), Less Than 1%
2018 NBA Draft Picks: Owe their first-round pick to Boston if it falls between 2 and 5 or Philly for any other spot

The Lakers also have nothing to tank for thanks to a trade way back in 2012. That season they completed a sign-and-trade with the Phoenix Suns for Steve Nash, and then in 2015 the pick ended up in Philly after a three-teamer that included Brandon Knight and Michael Carter-Williams. The Lakers, like the Nets, are pretty much out of the playoffs at this point and only should look to develop their young players. And there are some very encouraging signs. Some of their most-used lineups include veterans like Brook Lopez, but the fivesome that could be the beginning of their core moving forward — Lonzo BallKentavious Caldwell-PopeBrandon IngramKyle KuzmaJulius Randle — has dominated teams, posting a massive +14.8 net rating in 96 minutes together. They obviously won’t tank for a pick, but they should absolutely prioritize getting those players on the court together as much as possible.

Start the Tankathon

New York Knicks (20-24)

Projected Record (Rank) and Playoff Probability: 35-47 (21), 12%
2018 NBA Draft Picks: Have their own first-round pick

The rest of the teams all have their own draft picks and have less than a 15 percent chance to make the playoffs. The Knicks are currently projected for the 10th pick in the draft, and they could certainly stand to move up a bit. While they have their franchise player in Kristaps Porzingis, they could use some wing help around him. Tim Hardaway Jr. is a low-level starter, and even he’s had an outsized impact on Kristaps’ efficiency: Porzingis has posted a 55.4 percent true shooting mark with Hardaway on versus a 51.9 percent mark with him off. The team has had stark splits, too: They’ve posted a 113.3 offensive rating with him on versus a 107.1 rating with him off. Michael Beasley has been a fun story and a dominant DFS player, but the Knicks should do everything in their power to put another star next to their franchise big man.

Dallas Mavericks (15-29)

Projected Record (Rank) and Playoff Probability: 32-50 (T-22), 3%
2018 NBA Draft Picks: Have their own first-round pick

The Mavericks have only a 3 percent chance of making the playoffs at 15-29 currently, but they seem to be pushing that way nonetheless. Over their past 15 games, they’ve posted a respectable +1.4 net rating, and they’re seventh in offense over that time period. The most-encouraging thing about this run is that it’s been mostly fueled by their young players: The most-used lineups with J.J. Barea and Devin Harris have posted negative net ratings, whereas Dennis Smith and Yogi Ferrell together have posted a net rating of +5.8. Lineups with those two and solid wings in Harrison Barnes and Wesley Matthews have blitzed opponents (+8.3 net rating). The Mavericks could look to make a splash at the trade deadline, or they could elect to push for a top-five pick in the next month. Building around Smith seems to be a smart decision.

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Chicago Bulls (17-27)

Projected Record (Rank) and Playoff Probability: 32-50 (T-22), 4%
2018 NBA Draft Picks: Have their own first-round pick

Everyone made fun of the Bulls for trading Jimmy Butler for Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine, but those players are looking like solid rotation guys at the moment. Their pick of Lauri Markkanen in the 2017 draft is proving prescient as well. LaVine returned to action last night, and those three young guys together played 13 minutes and posted a +64.8 net rating. Obviously that is too small of a sample size to take away anything, but together Dunn and Markkanen have posted a 110.5 offensive rating over the past 10 games. This team still needs a lot of help longterm, and Nikola Mirotic is perhaps the most likely trade candidate in the NBA, but the young pieces at least look more encouraging than they did six months ago. They mostly play young guys anyway, so don’t expect a big strategy shift over the second half of the season. They’ll let their young core go through growing pains, and they’ll end up with a top-10 pick.

Memphis Grizzlies (14-28)

Projected Record (Rank) and Playoff Probability: 30-52 (24), 2%
2018 NBA Draft Picks: Have their own first-round pick

The Grizzlies are in a very unenviable spot. They are a terrible basketball team at 14-28, and they have essentially no shot at making the playoffs. That’s terrible news given that they have a very expensive roster that should only age worse:

  • Mike Conley: 30 years old, $114 million in guaranteed money, contract through 2021
  • Marc Gasol: 32 years old, $47 million in guaranteed money, contract through 2020
  • Chandler Parsons: 29 years old, $72 million in guaranteed money, contract through 2020

Perhaps their best player this season, Tyreke Evans, is on a $3 million contract but is a free agent this summer. The Grizzlies need an infusion of young talent, and it’ll be interesting to see whether the owners recognize this and mandate that they tank for a top-five draft pick. Considering they owe their first-round pick in 2019 to the Celtics, this year is even more important. From the outside looking in, the strategy is crystal clear.

Phoenix Suns (16-28)

Projected Record (Rank) and Playoff Probability: 28-54 (27), Less Than 1%
2018 NBA Draft Picks: Have their own first-round pick; will receive Miami’s (top-7 protected) and Milwaukee’s (top-10 protected)

The Suns have likely outperformed their talent so far this season: They somehow have more wins than the Grizzlies despite owning the second-worst net rating on the season behind the Kings at -6.7. They’re no doubt a tanking team, and their top strategy the rest of the year should be to have a better idea about the future of their young guys. They have a lot of lottery picks on their roster, and many of them have disappointed.

Devin Booker still shows flashes, and Dragan Bender has nice pedigree, but none of these players really look to be top options on a championship team. With the 2018 draft especially loaded with big men, they’ll need to use the rest of this season to figure out whether they want to take, say, a Marvin Bagley or a Trae Young. I’d vote best player available.

Orlando Magic (12-31)

Projected Record (Rank) and Playoff Probability: 25-57 (T-28), Less Than 1%
2018 NBA Draft Picks: Have their own-first round pick

The Magic have the same problem. They selected Jonathan Isaac in last year’s draft, and Aaron Gordon still shows flashes of upside. Should they bank on that duo being their frontcourt of the future and take a guard in the 2018 draft, or are those guys not prohibitive when it comes to selecting a position this summer. You can see the promise of a Gordon-Isaac pairing, as the Magic have been good offensively with Gordon on the court this year, posting a 111.0 offensive rating. The issue has been the defense: Gordon and Nikola Vucevic simply can’t guard the rim. Isaac, however, is the rare player who projects to be able to handle that and stretch the floor. One other big question is whether the Elfrid Payton experiment is over. His terrible -8.7 net rating on the season suggests it should be. This could be a messy tank.

Atlanta Hawks (12-31)

Projected Record (Rank) and Playoff Probability: 25-57 (T-28), Less Than 1%
2018 NBA Draft Picks: Have their own first-round pick; will receive Houston’s (top-3 protected) and Minnesota’s (top-14 protected)

The Hawks, like the Suns, are in line for three first-round picks in the 2018 NBA Draft. They certainly need an infusion of talent: They may not even have a top-end starter on their team currently, let alone a future star. They have a similar problem to the Magic in that they have a point guard in Dennis Schroder who has some upside but has yet to show consistency. He’s now 24, and the Hawks have been outscored by 5.4 points/100 with him on the floor this season — the worst mark among their starters. John Collins looks to be a good pick from last year, but it’s clear the Hawks shouldn’t pass on any player in the 2018 draft because of a player already on their roster. They’re in full-on tank mode — whether they’re actually trying to be or not — and have a great shot at the No. 1 pick.

Sacramento Kings (13-30)

Projected Record (Rank) and Playoff Probability: 24-58 (30), Less Than 1%
2018 NBA Draft Picks: Have their own first-round pick

And so the tanking begins:

 

The question is whether this move will actually hurt them. George Hill has been a disaster this season, and when he and Zach Randolph have shared the floor this year — the Kings’ most-used two-man combination at 667 minutes together — Sacramento has posted a -14.3 net rating. The Kings own their first-round pick and will be in the driver’s seat for the No. 1 pick in the loaded 2018 draft. They (hopefully) have their point guard of the future in De’Aaron Fox; getting some talent to put with him should be the key focus of the franchise at this point. Go ahead and take some shots on these guys in DFS GPPs: Fox has posted a solid 24.0 percent usage rate in minutes without those two vets, and Willie Cauley-Stein has led the team with 1.1 DraftKings points per minute.

Photo via Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports