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Probably the most interesting thing about each of the NBA’s five worst teams

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Just past the quarter-mark of the 2022-23 NBA season, we’re still figuring out which teams merit consideration as top-shelf, true-blue championship contenders. (The Celtics, Bucks and Suns: sure. Everybody else? Various levels of TBD — though we now have our eyes on you, Pelicans.)

We do have a fairly clear picture, though, of the have-nots — the teams playing for Ping Pong balls quite than postseason seeding.

The Magic, Rockets, Pistons, Spurs and Hornets own the NBA’s worst records and net rankings. This isn’t surprising, in fact. Houston, Orlando and Detroit were the league’s three worst teams last season, too. After going an almost-respectable 34-48, San Antonio traded its only All-Star. Charlotte’s best returning player has played only three games, its second-best player didn’t return and its highest-paid player just keeps suffering injuries.

Whether pursuing it intentionally or dragged there by fickle fate, these teams are rebuilding; within the grand scheme of franchise management, the remaining of this season has value for them only insofar because it informs the long run, and largely when it comes to the way it impacts their possibilities of drafting Victor Wembanyama, Scoot Henderson, one in every of the Thompson twins or one other shiny young thing at the highest of the 2023 NBA draft.

“Largely,” but not entirely. The season isn’t actually over, in any case; even bad teams playing out the string still feature stuff value maintaining a tally of … and possibly even getting a bit of enthusiastic about. As a committed service journalist, please allow me to share one such reason to remain tuned — the silver lining surrounding the drain this anguished quintet finds itself circling. We’ll start within the Motor City — though not with Killian Hayes, despite his heartening recent uptick in form.

Detroit Pistons guard Jaden Ivey brings the ball up the court throughout the first half against the Dallas Mavericks on Dec. 1, 2022, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Detroit Pistons: Jaden Ivey, attacking the basket

The one upside to Cade Cunningham’s ongoing issues with a stress fracture in his shin is that it opened the door to see what Ivey, the No. 5 pick within the 2022 draft, could do given more time with the ball in his hands. One answer? Explode.

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Ivey’s averaging 14.7 drives per game since Cunningham went down — fifteenth within the NBA in that span. Granted, they’re not at all times the best plays; he’s shooting just 37.5% on those forays into the paint. At this stage in his development, though, results matter lower than process, and the best way Ivey’s maneuvering his way into dangerous positions offers a ton of hope for greater and higher things within the years to come back.

The hiccup-quick, heart-stopping first step that terrorized opponents within the Big Ten has translated to the professional level. Even when opponents give him some cushion, Ivey just turns it right into a runway, blasting off the starting line to realize the sting and showcasing the acceleration to beat retreating defenders to the rim. Sometimes, he mashes the gas pedal to the ground with malicious intent, desirous to barrel straight into the body of a shot-blocker to complete with either hand, or to only cock that thing back and take a look at to bang on a dude. (That’s whenever you really see those pre-draft Ja Morant comps.)

Other times, though, Ivey shows the capability to take a bit of off the fastball. He’ll snake the pick-and-roll, take a few low dribbles as he surveys the ground, and work his way right into a floater — a shot he’s only making at a 30% clip so far, but a vital one to have within the bag against dropping big men. He’ll change the pace on his approach, slithering his way into slick one-hand-gather scoop layups, or using his footwork and adaptability to search out alternate angles of attack after the primary one’s been shut off. He’s primarily been trying to rating, passing on just 36.7% of his drives since Cunningham’s injury, but he’s not an unwilling passer, and he’s got the vision and touch to make a wide range of feeds — kickouts to the corner, pocket passes slipped through two defenders, dump-offs to rolling big men after drawing the eye of a shot-blocker, and more.

Ivey’s future will more than likely be determined by his ending, especially from beyond arm’s reach of the rim; he’s shooting just 29.8% on attempts outside the restricted area. But touch might be refined and jumpers might be developed; the sort of electricity Ivey brings to bear can’t. The ambition that the 20-year-old shows in attempting to make something out of nothing off the bounce, the flexibility to create benefits for teammates with dribble penetration, and, truthfully, the undeniable fact that he’s attending to the rim so often in any respect on a spacing-starved team that sits in the underside third of the league in 3-point makes and 3-point accuracy — those are the sorts of things you possibly can construct around. Pair a defense-collapser like that with an orchestrator like Cunningham, and surround them with some more shooters, and Detroit might just have the beginning of something pretty fun.

Orlando Magic: Bol Bol getting the prospect to prove he belongs

An important development for the Magic is No. 1 overall draft pick Paolo Banchero immediately looking like a foundational offensive player — nearly 22-7-4 and eight free throws an evening, and he just turned 20. Probably the most interesting might be Franz Wagner establishing himself as a legit high-volume playmaker to pair with Banchero, too. By way of reasons to tune in, though? It’s got to be Bol — son of the legendary Manute Bol, a former top prep prospect who hadn’t really played much since entering the NBA in 2019.

He’s playing in Orlando now, and when he does, it’s hard to take your eyes off him. As the good Kelly Dwyer recently put it, with Bol, “It isn’t the peak. It’s every thing happening after that.”

That, friends, is a 7-foot-2 man beating closeouts on the arc and pushing the rock the length of the ground. Shaking defenders with impossibly deep crossovers and ending with soft-touch floaters. Coming off the screen and dribbling into pull-up jumpers.

Weaving through traffic, drawing two, and dropping the ball off to cutters. Initiating within the drive-and-kick game, throwing lefty lasers to the corners.

A wacky, waving inflatable tube guy with patience, poise and a dribble package. Jack Skellington, dripping with sauce. Confidence, baby: confidence.

And why shouldn’t Bol feel confident? Dude averaged slightly below 21 and 10 on 56% shooting at Oregon before breaking his foot; the sport’s been there, just waiting for the prospect to indicate out. It’s coming in Orlando, where early-season injuries opened the door for Bol to play more minutes in 2022-23 than he did in his first three pro campaigns combined; he has responded by averaging 12.9 points, 7.7 rebounds and 1.9 blocks in 27 minutes per game.

Bol is converting 84.5% of his tries on the rim, as you may expect from someone who can get rim without jumping. But he’s got legit touch, too, shooting 55.1% from floater range and 46.2% on above-the-break threes. The Magic are scoring 1.1 points maybe on plays where Bol drives to the basket, in accordance with Second Spectrum — fortieth out of 196 players with at the very least 50 drives. They’re scoring 1.27 points maybe when he attacks in isolation — seventh out of 130 players to go one-on-one at the very least 25 times.

Bol’s bundle-of-Twizzlers physique still leaves him at risk of getting bull-rushed on the inside. Opponents are shooting 68.5% on the rim when he’s the closest defender, just ahead of D’Angelo Russell and Derrick White, which is just not exactly what you’re on the lookout for in a primary paint protector. Coach Jamahl Mosley has identified a nifty solution: Don’t ask him to try this! Orlando has mostly used Bol at power forward next to either Wendell Carter Jr. or Mo Bamba, and he’s looked more comfortable helping from the weak side, using his 7-foot-7 wingspan to swat 6.7% of opponents’ 2-point tries — the fourth-highest block rate within the NBA.

Given the prospect to get real minutes and a consistent spot in an NBA rotation, Bol hasn’t looked like a sideshow attraction or a mere curiosity. He’s been an actual contributor; Orlando has actually outscored opponents by 2.5 points-per-100 in WCJ-Bol minutes. That’s pretty nice production from someone you’re paying just $2.2 million, with a non-guaranteed deal for next season — the type of scratch-off-ticket windfall that affords Mosley and the Magic front office more optionality as they put together lineups replete with forever-armed kids. We’re hearing, in any case, that not possible giants who can do all of it are very in without delay.

“Everyone talks in regards to the Victor dude from France,” Banchero recently told Mike Scott of HoopsHype. “I’m not trying to match them, but Bol’s 7-foot-2, shoots threes, brings it up the court, makes passes and blocks shots. I feel like people sort of ignore him, but Bol’s a freak of nature.”

Houston Rockets: Jalen Green, a playmaker-in-progress

It became clear in a short time that Green, the No. 2 pick within the 2021 NBA draft, wasn’t going to have any problem scoring. After a slow start featuring numerous bricked jumpers and an incredible many losses, the sunshine began to come back on for Green, who averaged slightly below 21 points per game on .592 true shooting after the beginning of February. The buckets have continued to flow in Yr 2, with a dip in shotmaking buoyed a bit by more trips to the free-throw line — Green’s on pace to develop into the ninth guard ever to average at the very least 20 a game before turning 21, joining some pretty august company.

No one who watched Green torch defenders on the grassroots circuit or show tantalizing flashes for the G League Ignite doubted that he’d find a way to fill it up within the show, though. The questions focused on whether he could get stops on the NBA level and whether he’d turn into the sort of facilitator who could contribute to offensive possessions with no need to complete them himself. While we’re, let’s say, very much still waiting for an affirmative answer on the previous, the sophomore has began to provide some glimmers of supporting evidence on the latter.

Green has averaged 4.7 assists per game for the reason that start of November, nearly double his rookie mark, notching the helper on greater than 23% of Houston’s baskets. Not many players have posted an assist percentage that prime this young over a full season; hardly any of them were wings who didn’t really play point guard. (Kevin Porter Jr. occupies that role in Houston, at the very least nominally, leading the best way in touches and time of possession while Green slots in second as an off-guard.)

“He’s beginning to see his reads,” Rockets head coach Stephen Silas recently told reporters. “We’re doing a greater job of screening and rolling so he could make those plays, but he’s doing a bit of little bit of every thing. The playmaking is coming because of this of him playing downhill and putting pressure on the defense. Defenses are loading up on him, and for him to be unselfish enough to make plays for his teammates is great.”

The usual small-sample-size caveats a few month’s value of knowledge apply. It’s also value noting that Green’s increased playmaking usage has come tethered to a rise in turnover rate — he’s coughed it up on greater than 16% of Houston’s offensive possessions in that span. Even so: Green throwing more passes per game than last season and searching (sometimes, at the very least) to involve his teammates more often looks like a healthy development — especially on the subject of attempting to spark some chemistry within the two-man game with gifted young center Alperen Sengun:

Green’s still a shoot-first (and second, and possibly third) offensive player; when he comes off the screen, most of the time he’s trying to either sprint to the rim or create enough space to tug up for a J. The 6-foot-11, 243-pound Sengun helps create that space, and likewise has the vision and playmaking touch to make good things occur when Green finds him on the elbows or diving to the ring. Houston has found some success once they pair up; they’ve actually been one of the vital effective two-man combos within the league of late. Because the start of November, the Rockets have averaged 1.175 points maybe on Green-Sengun pick-and-rolls — sixth best out of 85 tandems to run at the very least 75 pick-and-rolls together, in accordance with Second Spectrum.

It doesn’t at all times look natural; you possibly can almost see Green fighting his natural scoring instincts to hunt down Sengun as he burrows into traffic, and Sengun at times hesitating before coming as much as set the screen as if he’s unsure whether he should just let Green go iso. Only time and repetitions can sand off those rough edges, though, and sometimes, just mashing their talents together — Green’s fast acceleration and quick-trigger jumper, Sengun’s feel for flipping screens and skill to act as a playmaking hub on the short roll, their combined capability to make plays in space — can result in some pretty great things.

There’s still a ton to determine in Houston: tips on how to maximize 2022 No. 3 overall pick Jabari Smith Jr. (getting him the ball could be an excellent start; out of 166 players averaging at the very least 25 minutes per game, the rookie is 145th in passes received), whether you possibly can construct even a competitive defense around Sengun (they’ve hemorrhaged points with him on the 5), whether the talented Porter Jr. is actually the purpose guard best equipped to get all this youth organized, etc. Whatever the long run holds for the remaining of the roster, though, how much Green grows as a playmaker will likely go a good distance toward determining how high a ceiling Houston’s offense might at some point have.

San Antonio Spurs: Devin Vassell, exploring the space

Dejounte Murray was fourth within the NBA in touches per game last season and tied for sixth in average time of possession … and the Spurs traded him this summer for a boatload of draft capital with no ready-made primary option in store to exchange him, leaving a yawning offensive chasm for Gregg Popovich’s young charges to fill. Erstwhile backup Tre Jones has performed admirably in a facilitating-first role, rating among the many league leaders in assist-to-turnover ratio (just behind big brother Tyus!), but he’s not a high-volume shooting threat. Top scorer Keldon Johnson has soaked up a big chunk of Murray’s possessions, but has seen his efficiency buckle under the burden of the added usage.

Anyone else has needed to make plays for the Spurs, and Vassell — the eleventh pick within the 2020 draft — has seized the chance to stretch out his game.

After coming off the bench for many of the first yr and a half of his pro profession, Vassell’s now entrenched as a starter on the wing, and he’s growing increasingly comfortable with a more outstanding role in San Antonio’s pecking order. The 22-year-old is averaging 20 more touches per game this season than last, spending nearly two more minutes per game on the ball, and his usage rate’s up nearly 6%.

Coming out of Florida State, Vassell entered a circumscribed offensive role that primarily tasked him with parking himself within the corner waiting for kickout passes. He’s gotten even higher at doing that — he’s shooting a blistering 48.6% on catch-and-shoot threes, fourth-best amongst 122 players taking at the very least three per game, in accordance with Synergy — but he’s expanding his game, too. Vassell has attempted nearly as many pull-up triples (33) in 19 games this season as he did in 71 games last season (41); he’s running 20.5 pick-and-rolls per 100 possessions, in accordance with Second Spectrum, up from 7.5 last season.

Vassell’s scoring more effectively out of those pick-and-rolls, too, and searching far more comfortable attending to his spots off the dribble and creating shots, whether for himself or for teammates:

Vassell’s averaging 20.5 points and three.6 assists per game, shooting 41.8% from 3-point range on 7.4 attempts an evening — all by far profession highs. His assist rate has nearly doubled, but he’s remained one in every of the more turnover-averse players within the league; the list of players commandeering as large a share of their team’s possessions while coughing it up as rarely as Vassell has this season includes the likes of Anthony Davis, Jalen Brunson and DeMar DeRozan.

That individual production hasn’t translated into much collective success for a Spurs team that ranks twenty eighth in points scored per possession. However it does offer cause for optimism that Vassell’s able to efficiently shouldering a bigger creative workload — step one toward the sort of stardom some envisioned for him coming out of faculty. The trick, in fact: Maintaining those offensive gains while still with the ability to guard top-flight perimeter playmakers on the opposite end. Whether Vassell can manage that marriage stays to be seen; I’m not saying he’s the second coming of Paul George or anything. (I’m saying, though, that a Yr 3/age 22 comparison between the 2 is preeeeeetty interesting.)

Charlotte Hornets: Nick Richards, earning a spot

OK, I’m not going to lie: This one wasn’t easy. The Hornets have lost 13 of their last 17, and there haven’t been too many saving graces amid all those defeats.

Despite the very best efforts of Terry Rozier (shooting just 39% from the sector and 30% from 3-point range) and Kelly Oubre Jr. (gladly absorbing those extra possessions in a contract yr), Charlotte’s offense has been the NBA’s worst by a fairly considerable margin, effectively submarined by injuries to LaMelo Ball and Gordon Hayward. Dennis Smith Jr. got off to an incredible start, as noted in my First-Quarter Awards, but ankle injuries have derailed his bounce-back campaign. P.J. Washington’s doing yeoman’s work in an overmatched frontcourt rotation; he also just went 0-for-13 from the ground against Milwaukee. Strikes and gutters, ups and downs.

In an injury-ravaged season that feels far more hopeless than the standings dictate — Charlotte is someway only 3.5 games out of the play-in tournament? — it has, at the very least, been nice to see Richards work his way right into a real role. A 2020 second-round pick of Kentucky, Richards has earned the trust of returned-to-the-fold head coach Steve Clifford by nailing the big-man basics: screen, dive, hit the glass, protect the rim, repeat.

Just like Bol, Richards has already logged more minutes this season than he did in his first two campaigns combined, averaging 9.5 points and 6.7 rebounds in 19.3 minutes per game. He’s been a dependable impediment for defenders within the pick-and-roll, averaging 5.2 screen assists per 36 minutes of floor time — a near-top-20 mark amongst players to log at the very least 100 minutes this season. He’s been a dynamic vertical spacer within the screen game, too, shooting 65.6% on plays Richards finishes because the roll man within the pick-and-roll, in accordance with Synergy; the Hornets are averaging a wonderful 1.32 points per possession on those plays. (Looks like he’d make a fairly good dance partner for LaMelo once he gets back to full strength.)

Richards has been a significant source of additional possessions for Charlotte’s struggling offense, coming up with an eye-popping 16.2% of his teammates’ misses — the NBA’s third-highest offensive rebounding rate, behind only Steven Adams and Clint Capela — and turning that garbage into gold to the tune of three.7 second-chance points per game, tied for sixth-most within the league despite playing fewer than 20 minutes per night.

That top-efficiency ending and people extra possessions have made Richards a positive contributor for Charlotte’s offense, but with the famously defensive-minded Clifford, you earn your minutes on the opposite end, and Richards has been equal to the duty. His block and steal rates are down from last season in a bigger role, but that’s partly because he’s turned a number of the possessions where he’d leap or lunge for an out-of-area play into quieter “stay down, don’t get whistled” trips — one reason why he’s committing fouls on just 3.5% of Charlotte’s defensive plays, a robust mark for a giant man.

Being more positionally sound has helped Richards stay near the rim to discourage shots — opponents are shooting 56.1% on the rim when he’s the closest defender, fifteenth out of 66 players to defend at the very least 75 up-close tries. It’s also helped him play a more lively role in ending possessions with defensive rebounds, which he’s doing at a career-high clip.

“I believe he locks into the things that make him play well. He doesn’t worry in regards to the other things,” Clifford recently told Spencer Davies of BasketballNews.com. “He runs, he rebounds, he brings physicality, he screens, and he’s gonna turn into an excellent roller. And if he does those things, I believe he understands that those are essential skills to have on this league. It makes him unique.”

That improved focus hasn’t yet made Richards a starter, as Clifford has continued to lean on veteran Mason Plumlee. It has, nevertheless, earned the 25-year-old real minutes to strut his stuff — proof that, irrespective of how dismal the season, every night still comes teeming with opportunities for players to indicate the league at large each how much they’ve grown and the way much runway they could still have in front of them.

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