The Whiteboard: Feeling good about the worst teams in the NBA

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The Houston Rockets are not good. Like, really, really not good. Their record currently stats at 1-14 and they’ve been outscored by an average of 10.7 points per 100 possessions, the worst mark in the league by a wide margin. Adjust their point differential for strength of schedule (a metric called SRS) and they’re on pace to be one of the 10 worst teams in NBA history with a decent chance of finishing with the worst record ever.

But this season was never really about wins for the Rockets and even among the mounting losses, there are reasons for optimism.

The Houston Rockets are losing games and building draft capital

With the worst record in the league, the Rockets will have as good a chance as any team of landing the No. 1 pick in a class that should yield plenty of potential stars. In addition, they’ll add another late first-rounder from the Nets or Heat, whoever finishes with the worst record. And then, of course, they have four additional first-round picks and two picks swaps coming their way over the next six NBA Drafts. It’s not the most valuable haul of future picks (more on that later) but it gives the Rockets a very good chance of adding another high-quality young player to a roster that has plenty of potential with Jalen Green, Kevin Porter Jr., Usman Garuba, Alperen Sengun, Josh Christopher and Kenyon Martin Jr., all of whom are 21 or younger.

And the Rockets aren’t the only team struggling in the standings but staring at silver linings.

The Orlando Magic have a starting lineup that’s actually working

The Magic have the worst record in the Eastern Conference and rank in the bottom five of the league in both offensive and defensive efficiency. However, they’ve gotten to watch Cole Anthony build a case for the Most Improved Player Award, averaging 19.9 points, 6.9 rebounds and 5.7 assists per game on a 55.9 true shooting percentage. And even without Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz — two injured young players with the potential to be significant contributors down the road — they’ve still found a winning lineup. Their starters — Mo Bamba, Wendell Carter Jr., Franz Wagner, Cole Anthony and Jalen Suggs — have outscored opponents by an average of 14.1 points per 100 possessions, the best differential in the league among the 11 lineups that have played 150 minutes or more. The average age of that group is 21.2 and things could look much rosier for the entire team when Isaac and Fultz return and add depth and flexibility.

The New Orleans Pelicans are watching the Lakers struggling

The Pelicans are probably in as tough a position as anyone right now. They’re a half-game ahead of the Rockets in the standings but they have the added pressure of having Zion Williamson on the roster. There were already reports that he wasn’t happy with the Pelicans and a disastrous start, for their third head coach in three seasons, would seemingly make it more likely that he eventually forces his way out. Even if that’s not the case, concerns about his weight, conditioning and the long-term health of his lower body are reportedly real concerns. However, even if they’re forced to trade him and start over they could count on a healthy return, ditto for Brandon Ingram. They have a good chance at the No. 1 pick this year. The Lakers appear to be trending downwards quickly, and the Pelicans have the right to swap picks with them next year, as well as holding the Lakers’ 2024 pick.

The Detroit Pistons still have Cade Cunningham

This was not the start the Pistons were hoping for. No. 1 pick Cade Cunningham missed the first five games of the season and has struggled mightily since making his debut — averaging 13.7 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game but shooting just 34.6 percent from the field and 25.8 percent on 3-pointers. In addition, their promising young core who played so well last season — Saddiq Bey, Jerami Grant and Isaiah Stewart — have all regressed dramatically. The good news is that development isn’t linear and a bumpy second season can often follow a strong rookie campaign and lead into a breakout third season (just look at Tyler Herro). They’ve also seen at least some signs of life from last year’s No. 7 pick, Killian Hayes, who is hitting 3s, finishing at the rim and playing respectable defense, even if he’s shooting 8-of-35 on 2-point jumpers.

And, nine games into his career, Cunningham is already showing signs of improvement. His last two games have been his best of the season and he’s going to look much, much better when some of his teammates start progressing to the mean. For example, he’s recorded 74 potential assists this season but just 35 of them have been converted into actual made baskets (47.2 percent). When some of those shots start falling for his teammates (and for him) his numbers should take a big jump and there will be a lot more space for him to attack and create as defenses are forced to adjust. He’s still an elite talent and someone who could drive the Pistons to the playoffs for years to come.


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The championship-or-bust Lakers currently sit well outside the championship picture. How much should we be worried about L.A.’s slow start?