The 5 most interesting things about the NBA's worst teams

With less than a month left in the 2023-24 NBA regular season, most of us have trained our attention toward the top of the standings: who will take the No. 1 spot in the West (and, with it, maybe the MVP?), which teams will secure home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, and which stars can propel their squads into the top six and out from under the single-elimination sword of Damocles that is the play-in tournament.

While those outcomes will likely remain up in the air until the season’s dying days, we do have a pretty clear picture of what’s going on at the bottom of the standings — the teams that have, for months now, been playing for pingpong balls rather than postseason seeding.

The Wizards, Pistons, Spurs, Hornets and Trail Blazers own the NBA’s five worst records and net ratings. They are responsible for this season’s six longest losing streaks — headlined, of course, by the 28-game nosedive that earned Detroit a share of the most ignominious entry in the NBA’s all-time record books. They’re all likely to have better than 40% odds of landing a top-four selection in the 2024 NBA Draft, and at least a 1-in-10 chance of picking first overall.

The rest of this regular season still has some value for this dismal quintet, though, if only to the degree that what happens in it could help inform the future; even bad teams playing out the string feature some things worth keeping an eye on … and maybe even getting a little excited about.

Let’s consider a few of them, starting with some positive development in D.C.:

Washington Wizards: Deni Avdija, doin’ stuff

It’s not easy to locate stuff to get psyched about in a season that opened with 17 losses in the first 20 games, and featured the Wiz being the first team officially eliminated from postseason contention. (You have to dig through an awful lot of viral Jordan Poole clips to find it.) But if you’re hunting for silver linings beyond Tyus Jones’ assist-to-turnover ratio (still stellar!) and Corey Kispert’s assist rate (rising!), Avdija’s play over the second half of the season qualifies.

“We’re constantly asking him to guard the best players in different positions, and we have played a little smaller at times, so he’s getting a chance to handle even more,” Wizards interim head coach Brian Keefe told reporters last month. “But [we’re] putting him in positions to attack, positions to attack the rim and make plays for himself and his teammates.”

Since Christmas, Avdija has averaged 16.1 points, 7.9 rebounds and 3.5 assists in 30.8 minutes per game. He’s shooting 55.5% on 2-point tries in that span, and 42.6% from beyond the arc on more than three attempts per game — both would be career highs. He’s getting more touches per game and spending more time on the ball than earlier in the season, and he’s doing more with them, finishing plays as the ball-handler in the pick-and-roll more often than ever and drilling a blistering 46.3% of his catch-and-shoot 3-pointers.

Typically, as a player’s usage goes up, his efficiency declines. But while Avdija is finishing 21.6% of Washington’s offensive possessions with a shot attempt, foul drawn or turnover in this stretch, he’s also posting a true shooting percentage north of .600 — both head and shoulders above his previous career bests.

Washington has played at the NBA’s fastest pace since Keefe took over for Wes Unseld Jr., taking just 11.1 seconds to get a shot up on an average possession. Avdija has been a big part of that pace-pushing, serving as a grab-and-go bruiser off the defensive glass and looking more frequently to use his 6-foot-9 frame to get into the lane. After averaging just 4.8 drives to the basket per game last season, he’s nearly doubled that since Christmas, taking nearly half of his shots inside the restricted area and making 70% of them.

In his first 240 NBA games, Avdija had scored 20 or more points 10 times. Over the last 35 games, he’s done it nine times — including a 43-point, 15-rebound explosion against the Pelicans on Valentine’s Day:

That outing raised some eyebrows, inviting at least a few questions as to whether, unbeknownst to the portion of the general public that doesn’t watch Wizards games (which is to say: the general public), there might be a secret star hiding in the District.

That’s overstating things, I think. Reasonable people can dispute the value of increased production when it comes primarily in what might as well be exhibition games; Avdija seems better suited to complementary offensive work than life as a primary scoring threat, and is a bit too turnover-prone to shoulder a significant share of the shot-creation workload for a serious team. On an unserious team, though, there are worse sins than exploration — erasing the previously drawn boundaries of your game and seeing if you can’t expand them a bit.

Before this season, Avdija profiled as a “D-but-not-really-3” player, one you’d have to squint to see helping a real team in a real way. The version we’ve seen over the past three months, though, combines scoring efficiency, rebounding, passing and usage at rates similar to some of the NBA’s best big wings — all while continuing to be a plus defender across multiple positions at age 23. You don’t have to squint too hard to see that version mattering on a team of consequence — including, maybe, the next competitive iteration of the Wizards.

Detroit Pistons: Cade Cunningham, shining through

Listen: I can’t blame you if you tuned out the Pistons right around New Year’s Eve, after they’d beaten the immediately-post-OG Anunoby-trade Raptors to end their 28-game losing streak. That was the most newsworthy thing this Detroit team was going to do this season, and we’ve all got a lot on our plates.

What I will say, though: If you haven’t caught Cunningham much over the past couple of months, you’ve been missing out. Because all that hype coming out of Oklahoma State? Turns out maybe it was warranted:

Detroit’s miserable first half of the season doubled as something of a referendum on the No. 1 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft: on why such a highly regarded prospect was so widely panned by most advanced statistical metrics; on why he struggled so much to finish inside and generate free-throw attempts; on whether those struggles should be laid at the feet of a dismal, spacing-starved developmental context failing Cunningham, or pointed to the possibility that Cunningham isn’t the transformational talent that Detroit thought it was drafting.

Cunningham hasn’t been able to transform the Pistons by himself over the past three months. (You’d need a higher-powered hooper for a job that big.) He’s done his level best to transform the conversation around him, though, averaging 22.9 points, 8.0 assists and 4.5 rebounds in 32.9 minutes per game since mid-December, shooting 52% from midrange. Perhaps most importantly, for a Pistons team desperate for more outside-shooting punch — and for a ball-handler who, as a result of that lack of floor spacing, faces a ton of defenders ducking under ball screens against him in the pick-and-roll — Cunningham has found his range, shooting 22-for-58 (37.9%) on pull-up triples in that span.

“You look at what Cade is doing right now — he’s one of the hottest players in the second half of the season,” Mavericks head coach Jason Kidd recently told reporters. “You can see he’s shooting the ball at a high rate, he’s scoring the ball, he’s being aggressive, and you can see he’s comfortable with what he’s trying to get to.”

Cunningham’s stepped-up self-creation and shot-making haven’t come at the expense of looking to get his teammates involved. Since mid-December, he ranks 10th in the NBA in both points created per game via assist and potential assists per game, trailing some guy named LeBron James in both categories. The only players getting rotation minutes who’ve had a higher assist rate than Cunningham in that span? Tyrese Haliburton, Luka Dončić and Trae Young.

That’s decent company for a primary playmaker. So is this: The kind of numbers Cunningham’s been posting for the last three months — that level of scoring, facilitating, rebounding, shooting efficiency and usage? That’s stuff that only a dozen players ever have managed over a full season. They range from multiple-time All-Stars to Hall of Famers.

Cunningham faces a hell of a long journey to go from “carefully curated Stathead query” to “All-Star/Hall of Famer” in his own right. The first step was staying healthy enough to play really well for an extended period of time. Check. Next up? Get the organization around him to raise its level to meet the new one he’s playing at.

“With how the league is, we reward winning,” Cunningham recently told reporters. “People are going to say everything I’m doing is empty and meaningless until I win games. That’s what I plan on doing.”

Charlotte Hornets: Brandon Miller, working anywhere

For all the uproar that attended Miller saying before the 2023 NBA Draft that Paul George was his GOAT, and for all the jokes that followed — jokes, to be clear, that I enjoyed very much — it’s probably, all things considered, pretty good for a young player to place an extremely high value on being able to:

  1. Do virtually everything on a basketball court at a high level;

  2. Do it all in a way that allows you to fit in any kind of system or scheme; and

  3. Do it to a degree that can make pretty much any kind of team better.

That, after all, is what has made George one of the most decorated players of the last decade and a half: nine All-Star berths, six All-NBA selections and four All-Defensive teams; one of only 34 players ever with more than 17,000 points, 5,000 rebounds, 3,000 assists and 1,000 steals; a surefire future Hall of Famer. And while Miller’s an awful long way from all that … that sort of high-end versatility might just be what the Hornets have in him.

The aesthetic similarity to PG leaps off the screen: 6-foot-9 with a 7-foot-2 wingspan; a patient, almost languorous pace to his game; frictionless springs getting off the floor, whether slicing to the rim in transition or pulling up for a midrange J in the half-court. Smooth, smooth, smooth.

Sixty-odd games in, though, it’s the functional resemblance that’s most exciting. Need him to spot up off the ball while your high-usage playmaker — say, a healthy LaMelo Ball — initiates the action? Miller’s already knocking down 38.6% of his catch-and-shoot 3s. Need him to stay active on the weak side, make himself a threat as more than just a standstill option? He’s averaging 1.7 points per possession finished as a cutter, 1.2 points per play curling around a dribble handoff and just under a point per trip working off an off-ball screen — below-average on that last one, but a pretty good start for a 21-year-old in his maiden voyage in the big league.

“He’s kind of made for today’s NBA,” Hornets head coach Steve Clifford recently told reporters. “Positional size. He could guard in college — one through four — for a really good defensive team. He was a range shooter and made big shot after big shot playing for a good team. But I would say the other thing — which is hard to find — is his decision-making. When he’s open, he shoots it, when he’s not, he moves in and cuts. And you don’t teach that. Players do that naturally, or they don’t.”

Miller has looked pretty natural in a higher-leverage role, too. With Ball sidelined since late January by an ankle injury, and with Terry Rozier now plying his trade in South Beach, the Hornets have leaned harder on their No. 2 overall draft pick. Miller’s touches, time of possession and usage rate have all increased significantly from earlier in the season. His assist rate is up, his turnover rate is down, and his shooting efficiency — admittedly not exactly burning up the charts to begin with — has mostly held steady despite the additional workload, as he’s averaged 19.1 points, 4.6 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 2.0 combined steals-and-blocks in 33.7 minutes per game over the last two months.

Add it up, and it looks like the stuff stars are made of — even if Miller’s not one just yet. He still needs work as a shot-creator, whether generating and cashing looks for himself in isolation on the wing, or reading out layers of coverage to set up teammates coming off the pick-and-roll. And as silky as that midrange pull-up is, you’d like to see someone with his length and athleticism make a more concerted effort to get to the rim (where he’s taking just 18% of his shot attempts this season) and the free-throw line (only just 1.8 attempts per game since the All-Star break) more often. He needs strength, seasoning, experience — y’know, the typical recipe for turning a 21-year-old talent into a bona fide contributor on a winning team.

It might take some time for the Hornets’ new owners and new head of basketball operations to establish the foundation on top of which you can build such a winning team. Whichever direction they choose to go, though — and whatever style of winner they want to try to build — Miller feels like the sort of player who can not only help make sense of it, but also thrive within it.

PORTLAND, OREGON - FEBRUARY 25: Deandre Ayton #2 (L) of the Portland Trail Blazers shoots under pressure from Brandon Miller #24 of the Charlotte Hornets during the second half at Moda Center on February 25, 2024 in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Soobum Im/Getty Images)
Portland's Deandre Ayton and Charlotte's Brandon Miller are showing positive signs. (Photo by Soobum Im/Getty Images)

Portland Trail Blazers: Deandre Ayton, reminding

If you were the sort of kind-hearted teacher comfortable grading on a curve, you might charitably grade the first year of Portland’s post-Damian Lillard era as an incomplete.

The Blazers have lost more player games to injury this season than any Western Conference team besides the Grizzlies, according to research provided to Yahoo Sports by Jeff Stotts of In Street Clothes; nearly every member of its expected rotation has missed major time, and those absences have often overlapped. The young core that general manager Joe Cronin hopes will lead Portland back to relevance — Ayton, Anfernee Simons, Shaedon Sharpe and No. 3 overall draft pick Scoot Henderson — has appeared together in only five games this season, making it all but impossible to render any definitive judgments about how the pieces might best fit together.

That overarching uncertainty has left plenty of questions unanswered, and has left Blazers fans grasping for slivers of silver linings. The 20ish-game stretch where Sharpe looked poised to explode before suffering an abdominal injury that eventually required surgery. Simons coming off a torn thumb ligament to average 28 a night on 40% 3-point shooting in December, before that gave way to an up-and-down 2024. Solid base hits on the fringes of the rotation: defensive stalwart Toumani Camara, indefatigable energy big Jabari Walker, floor-spacing center Duop Reath. Right now, though, the brightest spot is probably Ayton once again resembling the kind of difference-maker in the middle that he once was for the Suns, and that the Blazers hoped he could be when they brought him in.

After his rocky end to his tenure in the Valley, Ayton got off to a rocky start in the Pacific Northwest, averaging a whisper-quiet 13.1 points per game on underwhelming efficiency during a first few months that, as Jason Quick of The Athletic reported, “were defined by tardiness and tantrums, according to team sources.” (And apparently, among other things, by a suboptimal sleeping environment.) But after missing 15 games with an extended bout of right knee soreness — well, most of them were about the knee, anyway — Ayton’s gotten ramped back up again, averaging better than 20 points and 12 rebounds per game on 63% shooting.

He’s still not attacking the rim nearly as much as you wish someone with his physical tools would; more than 60% of his shots have come outside the restricted area, according to Cleaning the Glass. He is feasting on the interior looks he does get, though, and has been scorching from midrange, while also putting in engine-room work on the other end, with rebounding, steal and block rates that would be his best since 2021, when he played a significant role in the Suns making the Finals.

“I think we’ve unlocked him,” Blazers head coach Chauncey Billups said earlier this month, according to Sean Highkin of The Rose Garden Report. “We’re getting the best version of him. He’s been a monster.”

And while Ayton’s never profiled as a Rudy Gobert-level paint-patrolling menace, he’s brought some of that monstrousness to the interior. Blazers opponents have shot 56.1% at the rim when Ayton’s defending over the past two months, according to Second Spectrum’s tracking — 20th out of 129 players who’ve defended at least three up-close shots per game in that span.

“I’m honestly going into these games, I’m trying to do everything,” Ayton recently told reporters. “Not only do my requirements, my role for this team, but do a lot more and that’s where I’m at. I’m more dominant. People like to laugh at it, but it’s the truth.”

Add it up, and the Blazers have been nearly six points per 100 possessions better with Ayton on the floor than off of it during this stretch. That’s not enough to make a bad team good; it might be enough, though, for Billups and Co. to at least grasp at the hem of respectability.

A revitalized and engaged Ayton — one who can turn something like 20% or 25% of Portland’s possessions into efficient offense, who can body up opposing bigs on the interior, and who can dominate control the defensive glass — provides a sturdier baseline against which to measure growth and development. The Simons-Henderson lineups that have been vomitous on the whole? They just about break even with Ayton on the floor. A Blazers defense that ranks 24th in points allowed per possession this season? It’s been about league-average in Ayton’s minutes, and elite in the limited minutes when he’s shared the court with hyperactive wings Camara and Matisse Thybulle.

I’ll grant that “just about break even” and “about league-average” don’t exactly inspire hosannas. It’s better than nothing, though — especially down the home stretch of a murky and disappointing campaign, and especially as you look toward trying to ensure the picture gets a little clearer next season.

There are still a ton of unanswered questions in Portland: how Simons, Sharpe and Scoot will fit together; how the rotation and offensive pecking order should shake out; whether any of the three of them can blossom into the kind of accelerant who pushes the rebuild into the next phase through sheer force of will; whether to keep or shop veterans Malcolm Brogdon and Jerami Grant; what Robert Williams III’s status is after missing the bulk of a second straight season with a knee injury; etc. If what we’re seeing from Ayton now doesn’t stick — if this is, as Dave Deckard of Blazersedge suggests, more of a context-dependent aberration than a new normal — then he’ll only add to the confusion. The version we’ve seen over the past couple of months, though, could help Blazers brass get closer to clarity on what they’ve already got, what they still need, and what they might be able to sacrifice to get it.

San Antonio Spurs: Take a friggin’ guess

As much as I’d love to be the obsessive brand of tape-grinding degenerate who can with a straight face argue that the most interesting thing about the Spurs is, like, “the way Dominick Barlow plays the cat-and-mouse game in drop coverage” or “Blake Wesley’s increased patience as he pressures the rim” or whatever. But I mean, come on, man:

You’re a sentient being reading a column about a 15-54 basketball team, so I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that you’re up on Victor Wembanyama. Even so, a brief refresher:

After making the eminently understandable decision to start Wembanyama off with a bodyguard in the form of 6-foot-11 veteran Zach Collins, head coach Gregg Popovich chose in December to shift his 7-foot-4 Holy Grail over to center full-time. A few weeks later, after having made the separate in-my-view-defensible-but-wildly-controversial decision to open the season by test-driving Jeremy Sochan as a starting point guard, Pop chose to shift gears and move Tre Jones, an actual point guard, into the starting lineup.

Since those changes, Wembanyama has averaged 22.3 points per game on 48/35/82 shooting splits to go with 10.6 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 3.8 blocks and 1.3 steals … in just 28.8 minutes per game.

Nine months ago, I wondered if it was even possible for Wembanyama to live up to the titanic hype that attended his arrival from France — for him to produce at levels commensurate with the rookie campaigns of his franchise-redefining-big-man predecessors in San Antonio, David Robinson and Tim Duncan. Well, on a per-minute, per-possession basis, Wembanyama is outproducing them both.

A season that began with what might have felt like a stunted and dysfunctional developmental context will end with our perspective on the state of the Spurs shifted: Wembanyama is the developmental context, the foundation beneath and superstructure above everything else that grows in San Antonio.

And while the discrete jaw-slackening jewels Wemby drops nightly on both ends of the floor are the most interesting thing about this franchise right now, No. 2 on that list is the fact that something is growing.

Jones, since his reinsertion into the starting lineup, has averaged 11.3 points, 7.2 assists and 3.9 rebounds per game, shooting 61.3% on 2-pointers, 41.4% from beyond the arc and 89.7% at the foul line — literally one free-throw shy of 50/40/90 shooting splits. He’s been a north-south force, driving nearly 10 times per game and taking about 70% of his shots inside the paint, and a key good-look generator for his teammates off of all that penetration. Only eight players are producing more points per possession via assist in this span than Jones, according to PBP Stats: Haliburton, Dončić, Young, Nikola Jokić, James Harden, Domantas Sabonis, the god TJ McConnell and, of course, Tre’s big brother Tyus.

One of the biggest beneficiaries of Jones’ playmaking? Swingman Devin Vassell, who’s shooting 48% off of Jones’ passes since his insertion into the starting lineup, and averaging 20.2 points, 4.7 assists and 4.3 rebounds per game on 48/39/78 shooting in this span:

For the season as a whole, the Spurs on the whole have been outscored by 510 points. Lineups featuring all three of Wembanyama, Jones and Vassell, though, are plus-174 — a mindblowing, nearly-700-point swing — with a defense dramatically stingier than the Wolves’ NBA-best unit.

That’s the exciting part: You don’t have to imagine what a functional version of this team looks like. It already exists, and the first 730 minutes of it — Wembanyama lording over the lane on defense and gliding all over the offensive end like the most imperious queen-on-the-chessboard you’ve ever seen; Vassell sprinting to his spots, drilling rhythm jumpers and taking on more playmaking responsibility; Jones pounding the paint and making sure everybody stays on time and on task; Sochan slotting in as a low-usage, high-intensity, do-all-the-dirty-work connector eager to defend anyone and everyone — haven’t just made sense. They’ve looked awesome.

With that in place, the world is the Spurs’ oyster; San Antonio’s braintrust can move confidently in any roster-building direction. Feel like taking a home-run swing on an upgrade over Jones at the point? You’ve got the overflowing draft-pick coffers and salary cap space to do it. Want to sit tight and prioritize continuity? You’ve already got Jones on a bargain contract for next season, and can continue to give minutes to the Barlows, Wesleys, Malaki Branhams of the world. See a prospect in the draft you think might expedite the process? You’ve got a high lottery pick, and potentially two top-seven selections, to add to the mix.

Teams this bad rarely have this many avenues to improve and this much evidence that they’re already onto something. Then again, teams this bad rarely have a Victor Wembanyama. They haven’t made very many of those. Not on this planet, anyway.