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Optimism Ranks – The Criteria

I have been thinking a lot about the poor squads who have not been invited to “complete” their seasons in Orlando. Not only were they bad this year, the “Eradicated Eight” teams won’t even be given the chance to run out the ground ball and complete their (shortened) season like the rest of the league does. Fans of these squads won’t be conjuring up any wild dreams of being good next year after a hot 4-1 season finish. There will be no final homestand to watch their recent draft pick catch fire and average 20 ppg, as the eight teams already eliminated from the playoffs have been removed from the eight game sprint to the finish line.

While I don’t really feel bad for these teams (the best one was 23-42), I do question whether these teams and their fan bases have anything to look forward to. After all, the Eight  do have a long way to look forward, since there will have been over nine months since their most recent game (‘Chicago Bubble’ rumblings aside) when they finally tip off again for the  2020-21 season. 

With all that in mind, I have developed a ranking system to help determine which teams have the brightest outlook. Which of these inspire hope for the near future? By going through the criteria for each team, I have dissected exactly what fans of these teams should (or shouldn’t) be hanging their hats on as they eagerly anticipate their respective squads finally rejoining the Association. 

There are many elements you could argue are important to a team’s future, but I believe the seven I have chosen encompass the essentials for diagnosing a team’s outlook. Some of these certainly matter more than others, so I gave additional weight (3 tiers of importance) to the more important categories. While the formula I created has not been vetted through centuries of blood, sweat, and labor, I believe it provides an accurate depiction of how much each category matters, as is explained below. 

Prospects – I drew a light line at 24 years of age. While this is generally more of a baseball angle, I think the importance of legitimate prospects is growing in the NBA. You can dream of becoming the next 2015 Warriors or 2012 Thunder if you hit on some recent draft picks (think Jokic and Murray a few years back) that have showcased their upside. However, if Kevin Knox and Frank Ntillikina were two of your latest picks, you might be asking yourself why you grew up near Manhattan. This category was weighted in Tier 1 (of 3), as I don’t think it’s a secret that the NBA is a talent-driven league. If you have some top young talent secured on the roster, you definitely have a sturdy foundation upon which to build your house of optimism. Tier 1

Recent Performance – This one I would say definitely weighs on the minds of fans, but certainly matters the least on the court. Objectively speaking, we of course have to admit to ourselves that the Kings not making the playoffs last year has no bearing on how they will perform in the upcoming year. At the same time, if I’m a fan of Sacramento and I haven’t seen a playoff appearance since Andrea Bargnani and Adam Morrison’s rookie seasons, I’m going to have to confess that right off the bat I don’t like our chances to qualify next year. Additionally, I think we’ve seen some examples where a losing culture seems to snowball year over year (see: Kings, Wolves, Knicks). Tier 3

Star Power – What drives hope better than having a rock solid (super)star to hitch your wagons to? I don’t think it’s an accident that teams built around stars have dominated the majority of the league’s history. On the extreme end, we have seen LeBron completely transform teams to contenders overnight, but to a lesser extent, Damian Lillard, Luka Doncic, Joel Embiid are guys who have done wonders for completely flipping a team’s outlook. Having a superstar gives your franchise a building block to fill out around and provides a very tangible way for fans to drum up excitement. Tier 1

Free Agent Destination – Can this team attract top-flight free agents? No doubt it is impossible to know the specifics of each pending free agent’s decision calculus, but certain teams and cities have a history of successfully recruiting the big fish. Miami and Los Angeles instantly come to mind as fan bases that will always have this (seemingly) permanent edge. If everything else is looking like a disaster, there is always a chance that the next 27 year old star (or two) will get wide eyes for relocating, if only for the improvement in living conditions or business opportunities. Milwaukee and Minnesota are two squads who won’t be focusing their optimism on the legs of luring future free agents.  Tier 2

Overall Organizational Competence – This is a bit of a catch all for ownership, front office, coaching, public relations and other odds and ends. Does the front office seem to be signing the right type of players? Are they hitting on draft picks? Does the owner egregiously duck the tax even when striving for a title (Hello, Houston)? Does the owner get into public squabbles and make routine blunders (Dolan!)? Sometimes you just get the feeling that nothing certain teams do will end up working or making sense. Conversely, you have little doubt that the Spurs will “Spur” their way into relevance each year, or that Pat Riley will conjure up some savvy maneuvers down in Miami. Tier 2

Roster Flexibility – Does this team have a bogged down cap sheet? Are there bad contracts that can’t be moved (without decimating other assets)? An example of a team without flexibility would be the 2017 Lakers just months after inking Deng and Mozgov to a combined 4 years 136M. Teams who do have roster flexibility could either be a team with a bunch of cap space, like the Hawks this year, or a team who has very tradeable players under contract that could painlessly be offloaded to make another future trade or signing work under the salary cap rules.

This category received the lowest weight, as great teams generally do not really need a ton of flexibility if they are ready to win now and have their core in place (such as the Warriors). In addition, a bad team could have all of the flexibility in the world if they simply didn’t have solid players in tow, but not having good players to put on the court doesn’t exactly get them too far. Tier 3

Draft Assets – This is perhaps the least important in the immediate future, but very important for long term optimism. For teams who are already good and out of future cap space, future draft picks are valuable both to make any upgrades via trades, as well as fill out the roster with low-cost prospects. The Lakers currently are very hamstrung in the trade market because of all of the future picks (including deferrals and swaps) they sent to the Pelicans for Anthony Davis.

For teams who aren’t any good, their picks have even more value near the top of the draft. You do not want to be in the dreaded situation that the Nets found themselves in after handing four  years of 1st rounders to Boston. Brooklyn did rebound incredibly from this, but at minimum, the perception of their future was incredibly bleak while putting up a few dud seasons and not even having their draft picks as compensation. Tier 3

Overall Indexed Score

I applied a weight to each criteria by tier described above, and totaled up each team to provide an overall ranking. As this is the inaugural set of this ranking project, the totaled number alone doesn’t really mean anything, so I adjusted them to an indexed score, where the maximum (perfect) score would be 100, for ease of reference.

Now that the table has been (not-so-briefly) set, we will unveil the rankings and write-ups two teams at a time throughout the series.

Sam Johnson

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