The season looks set to continue for 22 of the NBA’s 30 franchises, but competitive play is over for the eight that had zero chance of reaching the 2019-20 playoffs.
Sure, not even receiving an invite to Orlando suggests that these teams’ end-of-season grades will be low, but for some, there is light at the end of an admittedly cloudy tunnel.
Let’s take a look at four of the eight and where things went (mostly) wrong.
Charlotte Hornets: B-
If you honestly thought the Charlotte Hornets were going to have won 23 games at the start of the season, I bet you figured it would have been part of a full 82-game schedule.
But with 17 games left to play, technically, the Hornets were the best team to not be invited to Orlando.
For many years, the Hornets overly relied on one good player. But when they shifted Kemba Walker last summer, the move freed up space for a more egalitarian style offense that let a couple of young guards shine.
Terry Rozier probably still isn’t quite worth the three-year, $56 million contract he started this year, but he averaged 18 ppg, 4 rpg and 4 apg, with Win Shares not dissimilar to the likes of Buddy Hield and Jamal Murray. Alongside Rozier was Devonte’ Graham, who averaged 18, 3 and 7, and became the dark horse leader of this young squad.
And that’s key here. Sure, they still have some eroding veterans with ugly contracts, but Bismack Biyombo will say goodbye this summer while Nicholas Batum’s contract lasts one more year.
All of a sudden, one of the worst-constructed teams in recent years is winning more games than you thought they would with a decent young core that also includes Miles Bridges and PJ Washington. And they’ll have no player earning more than $15 million outside of Rozier after next season.
The wins are not there yet, and they might not make the playoffs in 2021 either, but you can see this team finally turning things around.
Chicago Bulls: D-
Not everyone was sold on the Chicago Bulls in the 2019-20 season previews, but you could see the allure of the young talent that had been assembled.
However, despite several promising youngsters, little thought was given to the roster construction. Plus, the pile-up at the guard positions—that were intended to create competition and bring out the best in people—just gave Zach LaVine no reliable second ball handler.
The results were messy, to say the least.
LaVine’s talent won Chicago a few games, but his insistence on trying to win them by himself probably cost the Bulls as many. One reason for him doing so is his begrudging relationship with head coach Jim Boylen, who made questionable decisions all year.
He also aggravated his players so much the previous season that the team developed a leadership committee to work with him on communication.
Still, what results Boylen could have achieved with this roster will always be questionable.
A few sparks flew with Coby White while Kris Dunn showed he can play defense, Tomáš Satoransky had some good minutes at point, and Lauri Markkanen was solid once returning from injury.
But none of them really shined enough to increase trade value or show they are worth keeping around. Wendell Carter Jr. and Otto Porter Jr. both struggled with injuries at inopportune times as well, and the group just never got to play together.
And when you look at the list of similarly-positioned or sub-par players behind them, the future doesn’t look like it’s getting better anytime soon. At least there’s a new front office and the hope for a new coaching staff on the horizon.
Cleveland Cavaliers: D
It’s tough to recall anything good about the Cleveland Cavaliers this year. Before we even get to the court, 23 basketball players received salary, according to Basketball Reference, with an additional two on two-way contracts. In total, 21 players actually got on the court, for at least a minute, in one of the 65 Cavaliers games.
Yet, the Cavs’ G League’s Canton Charge could have been just as competitive.
The makeup of the roster generally sucks, with veterans on inflated contracts who clearly don’t want to be there for a rebuild that is underway. The John Beilein experiment was an absolute disaster, and though things seemed noticeably less dysfunctional (on and off the court) once JB Bickerstaff was promoted.
Thankfully, the franchise has also at least been able to identify some useful elements for the future.
Take Collin Sexton. At 6’1″ he has been incorrectly used as a point guard for two years now. He has been trying to learn on the fly but doesn’t possess the natural instincts of a floor general.
While his stature might be small, he showed flashes alongside Darius Garland this season—who also experienced plenty of growing pains of his own. But Sexton has shown he can be unleashed as a score-first shooting guard that has a natural ability to find the bucket.
Garland looks like he could be a good piece, though being a rookie starting point guard is not an easy task. His assist-to-turnover ratio is not good, but this year’s offense wasn’t designed well for the roster.
And Kevin Porter Jr has also shown signs of talent that could keep him in the league for many years.
Really advanced drive from Kevin Porter Jr. Puts his man in jail (backs into him after taking the screen to disrupt him further) Hesitates and finishes on the left hand side of Embiid. Many very surprised how willing and effective he's been as a driver (76th percentile at rim) pic.twitter.com/kNPYVW2WAr
— Joe (@HulbertJoe) June 15, 2020
Minnesota Timberwolves: C-
At least the Minnesota Timberwolves have a direction now. The Andrew Wiggins experiment didn’t work. Somehow the Jimmy Butler thing was weirdly successful but completely unsustainable: They made the playoffs last season despite him crushing the souls of his teammates.
Now the franchise has brought in a good friend of Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell, to console him.
They very literally blew up the roster at the trade deadline, moving on from more than half their players. While moving Jeff Teague was no great loss, Robert Covington, Wiggins, Gorgui Dieng, Shabbaz Napier and other pieces were shuffled to other teams.
The roster is now being built around the Towns-Russell combo while taking fliers on young former Denver Nuggets Malik Beasley, Juan Hernangomez and Wolves G-League callups Naz Reid and Jordan McLaughlin.
Towns might be the most talented offensive big in the league, and he has good physical assets to be a good defender. He just has not put them to any use for extended stretches so far during his career. Towns can play equally effective offense on the outside, into the mid-range and down in the post, and this versatility will provide a good threat for Russell whether he’s driving to the lane or working the perimeter to launch a three.
Head coach Ryan Saunders might not be hugely experienced, but he is liked and seems to have runway to learn on the job. If he can grow with his star players, they might be back in playoff shape within a couple of years.
Huw is a TBW staff writer who grew up in Wales and currently lives in England where he coaches a local basketball team. He loves all sorts of basketball: men’s, women’s, wheelchair, international, good and bad. He has bylines with the NBA/WNBA’s UK broadcast rights partner Sky Sports, has featured on Sporting News covering FIBA events and is a Lead Writer with UK-based basketball website and podcast Double Clutch. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram @coach_huw where he often posts about how Tim Duncan was the best player of his era.