The NBA draft is never an automatic fix for struggling teams, but one excellent night can quickly boost a franchise’s outlook and standing in the league.
Following the 2018 draft, several clubs have made a small jump in the leaguewide power rankings prior to another critical part of the offseason.
Free agency will affect the perception of several teams, especially if LeBron James or Paul George pick a new home. But ordering the league before then will reveal how much July changes the NBA hierarchy.
30. Atlanta Hawks
Atlanta had a clear emphasis on adding scoring talent during the 2018 draft, leaving the festivities with Trae Young, Kevin Huerter and Omari Spellman. For a team that ranked 25th in points per game last season, that was a necessary strategy. But between the overall low level of talent returning to the roster and overall defensive limitations of the incoming rookies, expectations should not be high for the Hawks in 2018-19. And if the front office later decides to trade Dennis Schroder for draft capital, it’s highly likely they’re headed for another early lottery pick.
29. Sacramento Kings
Marvin Bagley III immediately becomes the highest-caliber player on Sacramento’s roster. That can be perceived as both a positive and negative because he’s an immensely talented player who fits today’s NBA as a stretch forward. However, Bagley shouldn’t be viewed as a franchise savior, either. The Kings ended the 2017-18 campaign at 27-55, and Bagley alone won’t dramatically change the team’s record. Since Sacramento has already traded its 2019 first-round pick, in-house development and free agency will be the only real opportunities to improve until 2020.
28. Brooklyn Nets
Still recovering from the disastrous Boston Celtics trade, the Nets are officially entering a brighter era. Well, theoretically, at least. All of those first-round selections have been conveyed, and Brooklyn can truly start building a team. That doesn’t mean 2018-19 will be an enjoyable season, though. Once the buyout for Dwight Howard is official, the Nets will prepare for a campaign in which young players receive a bulk of the minutes. Draft picks Dzanan Musa, Rodions Kurucs and Hamidou Diallo will likely make a negligible impact this season.
27. New York Knicks
The early portion of the season won’t be kind to the Knicks. They’ll be without All-Star center Kristaps Porzingis, whose recovery from a left ACL tear likely won’t be finished until midway through the campaign. In the meantime, New York will trot out lineups centered around Tim Hardaway Jr. while first-round pick Kevin Knox adjusts to the NBA. So, yeah, the opening months won’t be pretty. Once Porzingis returns, the Knicks will at least climb out of the NBA’s cellar. But they’re destined for another lottery selection in the 2019 draft.
26. Orlando Magic
Orlando can retool the roster following the 2018-19 campaign, but the season itself presents an interesting challenge. Aaron Gordon, provided he’s re-signed in restricted free agency, is best suited to play power forward. But so is Jonathan Isaac, in addition to traditional centers Nikola Vucevic, Bismack Biyombo and 2018 pick Mohamed Bamba. New head coach Steve Clifford brings a proven defensive system the Magic desperately need after allowing 108.2 points per game last season, but the frontcourt logjam will stunt the offense’s effectiveness.
25. Memphis Grizzlies
While No. 4 overall pick Jaren Jackson Jr. should hold a regular role, the biggest upgrade for Memphis is a healthy Mike Conley. Last season, the point guard only appeared in 12 games. His presence will stabilize the backcourt, though the second unit is likely to take a hit. The Grizzlies probably don’t have the wherewithal to keep Tyreke Evans following his resurgent year. Conley, Marc Gasol and Jackson are a decent trio to build around, but Memphis’ depth is severely lacking. And the cap crunch means free agency might not help much.
24. Phoenix Suns
The Suns ultimately walked away from the 2018 draft with No. 1 overall pick Deandre Ayton and talented Villanova wing Mikal Bridges. They’ll join rising star Devin Booker and 2017 top pick Josh Jackson on a suddenly intriguing Phoenix roster. Ayton will be a Day 1 starter and an immediate upgrade from last season’s center rotation, and Bridges will provide depth behind T.J. Warren and Jackson. Since the Suns finished 21-61 in 2017-18 with a fluid rotation, an injury to Booker and no real direction, a bit of stability should lead to a 10-win increase next year.
23. Dallas Mavericks
Dirk Nowitzki is coming back for season No. 21, and the German legend will be mentoring a potential international star. The Mavericks acquired Slovenian guard Luka Doncic on draft night, sending the rights to Trae Young with a 2019 first-round choice to the Hawks. Doncic will step into the lineup next to Dennis Smith Jr., so Dallas has settled its backcourt of the future. The rotation is uncertain because the Mavericks have plenty of cap space, so they could either make a splashy trade for DeAndre Jordan or even seek a bad expiring contract in a trade that brings a 2019 pick.
22. Chicago Bulls
We’re not saying the Bulls are a guaranteed playoff contender, but there’s a foreseeable route. Zach LaVine, as long as he’s re-signed in restricted free agency, should be available for more than 24 games. Lauri Markkanen is a promising stretch 4, and Kris Dunn might’ve found an ideal role. The questions are how active Chicago will be in free agency and the levels of production from incoming rookies Wendell Carter Jr. and Chandler Hutchison. Though the Bulls are still in rebuilding mode, they’re not terribly far from competing for the postseason.
21. Charlotte Hornets
Charlotte is trapped in cap purgatory. That’s part of the reason Dwight Howard is no longer with the team, so the Hornets could dip under the luxury tax. However, they sorely lack the flexibility needed to truly improve the roster. In other words, it might be time for a teardown. The starting lineup led by Kemba Walker should keep Charlotte out of the basement, but the All-Star guard’s future with the franchise is uncertain. If the Hornets decide to trade Walker — who may leave in free agency next summer anyway — they could plummet in the power rankings.
20. Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers recently acquired Marcin Gortat from the Wizards in exchange for Austin Rivers. That might’ve been the signal DeAndre Jordan is headed out the door. As the roster stands, Los Angeles is a borderline playoff threat if the roster stays healthy. Patrick Beverley and Danilo Gallinari combined for only 32 appearances last year. Recent draft choices Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jerome Alexander pad that depth. But if Jordan is on the move, whether the Clips add expensive spare parts plus draft picks or rotational pieces will decide their 2018-19 outlook.
19. Detroit Pistons
What you see is what you get with the Pistons. They have no meaningful money to use in free agency, so the primary hope for improvement is based on what fired Raptors coach Dwane Casey brings. Otherwise, it’s a question of whether Detroit can build a functional second unit. The reserves posted the sixth-lowest field-goal percentage among NBA benches last season, according to HoopsStats.com. Andre Drummond and Blake Griffin are a tantalizing duo in the frontcourt, but 2017-18 showed that won’t be enough to lift Detroit into the playoffs.
18. Miami Heat
As constructed, the Heat should make the playoffs. But they’re woefully unprepared to accomplish anything beyond a first-round exit. The talent level simply isn’t commensurate to the team’s massive payroll, and trying to move an ugly contract like Hassan Whiteside’s $24.4 million or Tyler Johnson’s $19.2 million would probably involve attaching a draft pick. Miami shouldn’t want to do that, either. The likely conclusion is the Heat enter 2018-19 with largely the same rotation, and it’ll be a year of simply waiting for the inevitable elimination.
17. Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers are trending upward. Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Lonzo Ball are a terrific foundation on which to build — unless you can acquire LeBron James. Then you go get LeBron James. Should he choose to leave Cleveland for Los Angeles, it would immediately become an upper-tier team in the Western Conference. The Rockets and Warriors would still be a level above, of course. But if LeBron doesn’t sign, the Lakers must hope that decision comes quickly enough to keep all options open — most notably Paul George and Julius Randle.
16. Washington Wizards
Thanks to the All-Star core of John Wall and Bradley Beal along with Otto Porter Jr., Washington has the talent necessary to make the playoffs. So far, though, the offseason has been uninspiring. After shipping Gortat to Los Angeles, the Wizards are now extremely thin down low. They added wing Troy Brown Jr. in the draft, so it’s critical the frontcourt is addressed in free agency. Yet Washington only has the taxpayer mid-level exception to offer. Unless the Wiz part with Beal or Porter to land a big-name center, the team’s upside is limited.
15. Portland Trail Blazers
Portland surged to a third-place finish in the Western Conference last season but failed to win a game in the first-round series against New Orleans. Similar to Miami, the Blazers are ill-prepared to advance further as built yet are also capped out. That’s due to glaring contracts for Evan Turner, Moe Harkless and Meyers Leonard, and none of those expire until after the 2019-20 campaign. Plus, recent additions Anfernee Simons and Gary Trent Jr. won’t provide much initially. Portland will be a high-scoring, inconsistent team next season.
14. Milwaukee Bucks
The upcoming decision with Jabari Parker is fascinating. Yes, he’s a young, talented scorer who could provide 20 points per game in an ideal situation. He’s also a player with two major injuries in only four seasons who clashed with the outgoing coach. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the undisputed star and could carry Milwaukee — but he’s a fan of Parker. The Bucks, who added knockdown shooter Donte DiVincenzo in the draft, may be content to rely on its returning roster in 2018-19 unless an opportunity to add DeAndre Jordan presents itself.
13. Indiana Pacers
Not only has the Paul George trade worked out wonderfully for the Pacers, they’re approaching July as a sneaky-good landing spot for free agents. Indiana has plenty of cap space to fortify the Victor Oladipo-led roster — one that nearly eliminated LeBron and the Cavs from the 2018 postseason. The Pacers can seriously pursue free agents Will Barton, Tyreke Evans and Marcus Smart, and they recently drafted UCLA guard Aaron Holiday. Indiana can make a considerable leap in the rankings if free agency brings favorable results.
12. Minnesota Timberwolves
There could be trouble brewing in Minnesota. Andrew Wiggins’ massive extension kicks in this summer, yet he’s reportedly not happy with his role — and Jimmy Butler might not be a fan anyway. Rumors have surrounded Karl-Anthony Towns, too. This 47-win team seems to not be in a great spot organizationally. Until any transactions take place, the Timberwolves have a high-floor, low-ceiling roster, and draft picks Josh Okogie and Keita Bates-Diop don’t move that needle. They’ll be a playoff team but certainly not a Western Conference contender.
11. Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder want to keep Paul George in town, and a short-term contract might be the eventual route. But returning to his home state and joining the Lakers — perhaps next to LeBron — surely is appealing for George. Fortunately for OKC, the core of the roster otherwise remains intact. The biggest free-agency discussions are around Jerami Grant and Raymond Felton, and Andre Roberson will return from his season-ending injury. With or without George, the Thunder are a top-eight team in the West. They’d prefer not to lose another superstar, though.
10. New Orleans Pelicans
Perceptions of the Pelicans vary considerably. After all, following the Achilles injury to DeMarcus Cousins, they finished the regular season 21-13 and swept the Blazers in the first round. Do they really need to re-sign him in free agency? Anthony Davis says yes, but the front office isn’t as confident. Even if the Pels keep Cousins under the max, they’ll easily exceed the salary cap. Adding further reinforcements — second-round pick Tony Carr hardly qualifies — will be challenging, especially if Rajon Rondo stays via the midlevel exception.
9. Denver Nuggets
Denver is headed for an expensive year, but it’ll be worth the price. Gary Harris’ extension hits the books, and Nikola Jokic is headed for a max contract as a restricted free agent. Additionally, the Nuggets will likely exhaust every avenue in hopes of re-signing Will Barton, who’s been a key contributor for three seasons. If the team keeps the band together alongside Paul Millsap and Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. is healthy, the franchise will be in excellent position to end its five-year streak without a postseason appearance.
8. Toronto Raptors
Nick Nurse has replaced Dwane Casey, the NBA Coach of the Year. The move can be categorized as “safe,” since Nurse previously served as an assistant. Consequently, barring late changes, the Raptors will basically have the same personnel using the same style of play. While it hasn’t been enough for postseason success in the past, we can’t simply discount a roster that set a franchise record of 59 wins last year. Since Toronto is over the cap, it’ll be restricted in free-agency dealings. The Raptors are good, but great will continue to elude them.
7. San Antonio Spurs
Could there be a blockbuster trade in San Antonio’s future? Heading into free agency, Kawhi Leonard is on the roster. Because of his reported discontent, however, that might change. Whether he remains with the team will shape how the Spurs address free agency. They still have a perimeter need after snagging Lonnie Walker in the draft, and re-signing Tony Parker will simply maintain the status quo. For now, San Antonio has a formidable roster. Should the Spurs move Leonard, they could — and may need to — become a larger factor in free agency.
6. Utah Jazz
The early belief is Utah will prioritize re-signing Derrick Favors and Dante Exum. Should that happen as expected, the Jazz will be limited to midlevel and bi-annual exceptions in free agency. While not a position of strength, it’s not a weak place, either. The main reason that would change is if Paul George considers Utah. Otherwise, the Jazz — who finished fifth in the Western Conference last season — should return the entire rotation, so any additional pieces will be a bonus. Those would be in addition to Grayson Allen, the recent first-round selection.
5. Cleveland Cavaliers
As long as LeBron James is around, the Cavaliers will be the Eastern Conference’s team to beat. After four straight NBA Finals appearances, they’ve earned that title. But both Cleveland players and head coach Ty Lue are seemingly bracing for a LeBrexit. Then, the Cavs ought to embrace a thorough rebuild. Despite some perceptions, Kevin Love is still a valuable piece. George Hill’s contract is movable. Kyle Korver would probably net a decent return. Or, LeBron comes back, and Cleveland contends for yet another conference crown.
4. Philadelphia 76ers
Yes, the 76ers are interested in LeBron. Even if they don’t land The King or trade for Kawhi Leonard, Philly fans shouldn’t be worried. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are already a superstar duo, and the Sixers have tens of millions in cap space for July. J.J. Redick should be a high priority for a roster that would benefit from the spacing he provides. Otherwise, Philly could make a run at Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Trevor Ariza, Barton or maybe Smart. After adding Zhaire Smith and Landry Shamet during the draft, the 76ers can add more depth to an appealing roster.
3. Boston Celtics
Following a summer that brought Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving to town, Boston could explore acquiring James or Leonard. Unless the Celtics part with Jaylen Brown or Jayson Tatum, that’s probably not happening. The immediate priority would shift to Marcus Smart, a restricted free agent. Without him, Boston’s depth in the backcourt would be a minor — not dire — concern. Besides, this personnel group took Cleveland to seven games in the playoffs with a pair of All-Stars in Hayward and Irving unavailable. The Celtics are the early favorites in the East.
2. Houston Rockets
Is the reported tension between Chris Paul and the Rockets a real concern? Until recently, the thought of CP3 leaving Houston seemed ridiculous. Now with the Lakers eyeing LeBron and the friendship between the two superstars, it’s not so unrealistic. Should that not occur, the Rockets will be Golden State’s preeminent challenger if Paul, Clint Capela and Ariza re-sign. That would put Houston firmly into the luxury tax, but owner Tilman Fertitta is willing to pay that when competing for titles. Had an injury not sidelined CP3 during the playoffs, the Rockets might already have one.
1. Golden State Warriors
First-round pick Jacob Evans will be expected to contribute immediately unless the Warriors pluck a cast of ring-chasing veterans. They basically only have the midlevel exception to use beyond offering minimum contracts, so their options to address a legitimate depth problem are few. Without question, 29 other teams would love to find themselves in this predicament of trying to build around four All-Stars and Andre Iguodala. That doesn’t mean NBA viewers should discount Golden State’s weakness simply because the franchise has been dominant.