6. Sacramento Kings
The Kings have done a lot of dumb things. When they fired head coach Mike Malone, replaced him with Ty Corbin, and then excused Corbin in favor of George Karl, it made for five coaches over five years. That’s no way to build momentum around their premier center DeMarcus Cousins, especially when you consider that the team has paired him with an even larger number of starting point guards over that period. Having Cousins — a top-ten talent — on the roster is a great start to something good in northern California, and so was the hire of Karl. But the Kings have a lot to prove before we recognize them as moving in any one direction.
5. Orlando Magic
The Magic have a lot of young, exciting talent in Elfrid Payton, Nikola Vucevic, Victor Oladipo, Tobias Harris and more. But when they fired coach Jacque Vaughn, it raised questions. Not so much about why Vaughn was fired, but about why the move took so long. The Magic have consistently been one of basketball’s worst teams since Dwight Howard left town in 2012, and there’s been a lack of progress despite the collection of some good, if unseasoned, pieces through the draft. That the exhausting Scott Skiles has been named as a potential replacement for Vaughn in the fall isn’t exactly encouraging, and Magic fans are left wondering if their front office knows how to make anything work.
4. Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers have one thing on their side: history. They’re one of the most dominant sport organizations in world history, and there’s no shortage of talented young men who grew up with stars in their eyes for Kobe, Shaq, Magic, Kareem and the rest. But with mastermind owner Jerry Buss gone and his kids running the show, many are starting to wonder whether there’s any plan in place for the Lakers that goes beyond “hey, free agents will want to come here.” At some point, general manager Mitch Kupchak has to prove he isn’t merely a pawn of the directionless Jim Buss, and make some moves that point to a brighter future.
3. Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets showed some self-awareness at the trade deadline, dealing away JaVale McGee and Arron Afflalo for some more future-oriented goods. They’ve also got one of the best young big men in the game: Jusuf Nurkic. But they’re still a mishmash of okay talent that lacks cohesion, with a head coach who can’t communicate with them in Brian Shaw. Denver has a chance to restart this summer and go all-in on a fire sale — but until they do, what we’re looking at is a team stuck in the mud.
2. New York Knicks
Phil Jackson hasn’t exactly proved his skeptics wrong as the Knicks’ top executive yet. He’s looked out-of-touch in the modern NBA, lacking an understanding of the commodity exchange game that general managers must play to stay competitive. Most of the core he inherited is gone via trade already, and hardly anyone can see what value the zen master got back for his departed roster. Clearing the deck may be of some currently invisible value, as the Knicks’ culture has long been broken, but there’s still no indication that Jackson can build a happy house over the earth he’s scorching, and do it around a possibly declining — and probably overpaid — Carmelo Anthony.
1. Brooklyn Nets
The Nets balked at the trade deadline, failing to unload any of the onerous contracts that have sent them into the NBA’s financial cellar with a team that’s struggling to compete for a low-end playoff spot, in a historically bad Eastern Conference. Brook Lopez, Deron Williams and Joe Johnson are all still useful players, but each has been beset with injuries and undue expectations, and none of them seem to be exactly blossoming under old-school head coach Lionel Hollins. Owner Mikhail Prokhorov has shifted his focus from winning, to trying to turn his team back into a profiting one after sinking them into the cellar by giving general manager Billy King too much money and freedom to work with. The Nets are without quality draft picks, elite talent, or optimism.
— John Wilmes