Expectations — they are cruel beasts.
Politicians in the midst of presidential campaigns have to manage them. Professional sports organizations must meet them or face the wrath of fans, accompanied in many cases by internal grumbling from players and even other employees.
Any assessment of an NBA team’s season must be conducted in relationship to preseason expectations. This is necessary not because preseason expectations should have the final say in determining the course of a season, but because they represent the NBA community’s general sense of where teams stood after months of offseason restructuring (a lot more for some than others). Naturally, the first two-thirds of the regular season should also affect the ways in which teams are evaluated, but the tension between the past and present — not jettisoning one component in favor of the other — represents the best way to go about this exercise.
This piece will look at the worst-case scenarios for various teams over the course of the second half and (where applicable) the playoffs. One more note is warranted before we begin: In most cases, a simple failure to meet expectations will be used to determine the nightmare scenario for an organization. However, in a few cases, what might seem to be a positive result on the surface could be more negative in reality… and vice-versa. Some teams in this league would be better served to miss the playoffs entirely, instead of getting pounded by a No. 1 seed in the first round. If some ambiguity exists in terms of a worst-case occurrence, an added note or qualification will be mentioned.
Here we go. Keep in mind that some scenarios won’t require much of any explanation. For other organizations, life is much more complicated… partly (if not substantially) because the trade deadline isn’t yet a past-tense event.
Let’s start at the top of the food chain and work our way downward in the composite league standings:
1. GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS: A worst-case outcome is anything less than a repeat championship. Period. The jury should be unanimous here.
2. SAN ANTONIO SPURS: The second-best team in the NBA would accomplish a great deal by merely getting to the NBA Finals. Yet, it’s true that a loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers would sting. Should a Finals appearance and a loss be considered a worst-case scenario? That’s a little too harsh, in light of the Cavs’ win over San Antonio in Cleveland on Jan. 30.
Anything short of the NBA Finals would be a huge letdown, although if the Spurs play Golden State well in a memorable six- or seven-game series, no one (who is rational and reasonable) would really have too much of a complaint about San Antonio’s season. The Spurs would be remembered as the 1972 Milwaukee Bucks, a great team which simply got stuck behind an even greater one.
3. OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER: With the Spurs and Warriors in front of them, the Thunder — highly desirous of a first title and a second NBA Finals appearance — can’t be expected to make the West Finals. They have a legitimate chance, but “expectations” put San Antonio and Golden State first. As long as OKC puts up a really good fight in the second round (likely against the Spurs), there shouldn’t be too many regrets for this organization.
4. CLEVELAND CAVALIERS: Championship or bust. When you fire your coach in the middle of the season, you up the ante. Yes, losing in the NBA Finals would objectively not be a bad result at all, but certain moves alter the world as we know it. Losing before the Finals would obviously be an apocalyptic experience for the Cavs, but merely losing in the Finals would be more crushing than it has been for other runners-up through the years.
5. TORONTO RAPTORS: It’s tempting to think that failing to win the East (and beat the Cavs) will be a disappointment, but the fact that the Raptors have never made an East Finals should make it a lot easier to set expectations at a lower level. Getting to the East Finals is the goal; anything less would rate as a bitter disappointment.
6. LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS: The same as the Thunder. The organization’s aim is to win titles and at least crack the last four (something it has never done), but in light of the West’s two behemoths, it would hardly be a letdown relative to expectations if the Clips gallantly lost a seven-game second-round series to Golden State (or San Antonio).
7. MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES: First, can you believe the Grizzlies have the seventh-best record in the league? That fact might outwardly suggest that Memphis has to make the second round. Well, with the Clippers likely waiting in a first-round series, it’s harsh to expect a series win from an aging core that’s on its last legs. Memphis leads the eight-place Utah Jazz by only 4.5 games. Just don’t miss the playoffs, Grizz. Then you can start over.
8. BOSTON CELTICS: Here’s where scenarios become simpler and lack a need for extended explanation. The many teams bunched together in the East would all love to make the East Finals instead of Toronto, but they’re all flawed enough that a second-round appearance seems a lot more in tune with what’s possible. The bar should be set here: As long as any of these East teams don’t fall to the 7 or 8 slots (meaning a first-round series against Toronto or Cleveland), a first-round loss would indeed be brutal. “See Boston” is a reference you’ll get in several instances as you move down this list.
9. ATLANTA HAWKS: See Boston.
10. MIAMI HEAT: See Boston… unless Chris Bosh’s health becomes (remains) a serious concern.
11. INDIANA PACERS: See Boston.
12. DALLAS MAVERICKS: Rick Carlisle is a magician, and Deron Williams still has some basketball in him. Dirk is… well… Dirk. The Mavericks have clearly overachieved. As long as they make the playoffs, they should feel great about their season. A tailspin and a ninth-place finish in the West would be deeply painful, the turn of events this franchise wants to avoid.
13. CHICAGO BULLS: See Boston… with the qualifier being that if the Bulls sink to ninth or tenth place in late March, it might be better to not get the eighth seed and face a five-game mercy killing administered by the Cavs. It could be better to get on with a reboot and not prolong the misery. We’ll see.
14. CHARLOTTE HORNETS: Missing the playoffs would be a gut punch after all the work this team has done. Even then, a worst-case scenario has already occurred in many ways, with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist being repeatedly injured. Injuries are sometimes cataclysmic events. As you can see in this piece, we’re not mentioning injury-based scenarios, only outcome-related scenarios.
15. PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS: This team is much like Charlotte, minus the MKG injury. Not making the playoffs would hurt, but the organization has already surpassed preseason expectations. Other teams would be a lot more wounded by a failure to make the postseason.
16. UTAH JAZZ: Failing to make the playoffs would be awful. A young team could benefit a great deal from getting swept by Golden State. That’s a real-world education Utah doesn’t want to miss.
17. DETROIT PISTONS: The organization is definitely headed in the right direction, but failing to make the playoffs would linger through the offseason and diminish what’s been achieved to date.
18. HOUSTON ROCKETS: Regardless of the trades which might occur before the deadline, this team has to make the playoffs. Falling short would be a major embarrassment… and would make the in-season firing of Kevin McHale a lot less productive.
19. WASHINGTON WIZARDS: Failing to make the playoffs will represent a shocking result, but that’s the likely outcome for the Wizards at this point. Making a run to the No. 8 seed due to collapses from contenders — with a record of, say, 39-43 — wouldn’t necessarily be a better outcome than being a mid-pack lottery team. The Wizards do need to remake their roster, so a better draft position wouldn’t necessarily be worse than an 8 seed and an instant exit at the hands of LeBron James.
20. ORLANDO MAGIC: Yes, the Magic made a bizarre trade with the Detroit Pistons, saying goodbye to Tobias Harris, which means they’re thinking “present” more than “future,” at least to a certain extent. Yet, the future remains the measure of this organization. The playoffs will be hard to reach. The main thing for a young team is to not lose hope. A 23-29 team at the break should at least be able to get to 35 wins or so. Losing 50 (winning only 32) would definitely not reward what this team has done over the past three and a half months.
21. NEW YORK KNICKS: Who knows what this organization is doing? Moreover, the worst-case scenario of being owned by James Dolan already exists… and isn’t likely to cease anytime soon.
22. SACRAMENTO KINGS: What could be worse than to be a Sacramento Kings fan? Being a Brooklyn Nets fan… and not much else.
23. DENVER NUGGETS: An organization which seems to be figuring things out does not need to reach any specific win total. The main key is for players to continue to develop and to buy what Michael Malone is selling. A worst-case scenario would involve a player mutiny or an instance in which a player tunes out Malone.
24. MILWAUKEE BUCKS: A team facing many problems is defined particularly by its maddening propensity to play especially hard against credentialed opponents, and then not as hard against mediocre ones. A worst-case scenario for the second half is simply the continuance of this trend.
25. NEW ORLEANS PELICANS: The final six teams on our list are all united in needing to tank and get a better draft position. The problem for New Orleans: It already has 20 wins, three more than Minnesota and six more than both Phoenix and Brooklyn. The Pelicans have likely locked themselves out of the top four. They’re in something of a no-man’s land… which is a worst-case scenario in itself.
26-28. MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES, PHOENIX SUNS, AND BROOKLYN NETS: The worst-case scenario is one without a top-three draft position.
29-30. LOS ANGELES LAKERS AND PHILADELPHIA 76ERS: Falling to third in the draft would indeed be a disaster, considering how much of a prize Ben Simmons would be at No. 1, and Brandon Ingram would be at No. 2 (with the order possibly reversed).