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Nearly every NBA team was good, is good or will be good.
Teams often follow a general lifecycle. They’re young/bad then prime/good then old/bad then start over at the beginning. Teams usually advance through each stage quickly enough that rosters overlap.
But not every team. There are a few special teams – teams that have been nowhere and are going nowhere. I call them Teams of Despair.
The rules for being a Team of Despair (TOD):
1. It has no players remaining from the franchise’s last playoff team.
2. It has no players who will remain until the franchise’s next playoff team.
There have been 46 Teams of Despair in NBA history.
We don’t know which teams will qualify as a Team of Despair until after the fact, usually years later. But we can track which teams are in danger of joining this inferior group.
Here’s a history of Teams of Despair entering last season. What changed since?
All seasons are listed by their ending year.
Off the hook
Denver Nuggets (2019)
In their first season without a member of their 2013 playoff team, the 2019 Nuggets had the Western Conference’s second-best record. Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray should have Denver off TOD watch for a long time.
Brooklyn Nets (2018-2019)
It seemed likely some young members of these Nets teams – D'Angelo Russell, Jarrett Allen, Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson – would make the playoffs in Brooklyn. It happened more quickly than expected.
Orlando Magic (2015-2019)
The Magic finally made the playoffs after Dwight Howard‘s departure. Long-time Orlando players Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon and Evan Fournier keyed the postseason run and got five years of teams TOD clearance.
Los Angeles Lakers (2017)
This is the Lakers’ first Team of Despair in their storied history. What a pitiful era between Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. The Lakers have the right idea now: Build a championship contender around LeBron. (Their execution has left much to be desired.) That strategy has meant prioritizing veterans over youth, including Ivica Zubac and Brandon Ingram, who were the last remaining Lakers from 2017. For some reason, the Lakers dealt Zubac to the Clippers just before last season’s trade deadline. Ingram went to the Pelicans in the Anthony Davis trade.
Sacramento Kings (2016)
The Kings have missed the playoffs the last 13 years, in part, because they didn’t commit to a direction. They drafted young players in an attempt to rebuild. Then, they signed veterans to win sooner. The veterans weren’t good enough to get Sacramento to the playoffs, and the pool of young players wasn’t strong enough to build around. Those issues could be changing soon, but the 2016 Kings were a great example of this era. A rookie in 2016, Willie Cauley-Stein never found staying power in Sacramento and signed with the Warriors this summer. A relatively expensive signing the same season, Kosta Koufos was fine but not much more. Now, he’s playing in Russia, and the 2016 Kings are a Team Of Despair.
Phoenix Suns (2015)
The Suns’ long rut was bound to produce a Team Of Despair. The big question: How many? Phoenix trading T.J. Warren to the Pacers clinched 2015 as a TOD. Incidentally, that silly trade – the Suns attaching the No. 32 pick to dump Warren – increases their odds of placing more teams on this list.
Still in limbo
New York Knicks (2018-2020)
Kristaps Porzingis was supped to bridge the Knicks from Carmelo Anthony’s 2013 playoff team to their next success. But with Porzingis on the Mavericks, New York’s hopes of avoiding TOD status are hanging by a thread. Only Frank Ntilikina and Damyean Dotson remain from the 2018 Knicks.
Los Angeles Lakers (2018-2020)
The Lakers will make the playoffs with LeBron James. (Right?) So, I wouldn’t worry much about the 2019 and 2020 teams. (Right?)
But only Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Alex Caruso remain from the 2018 Lakers. If Los Angeles doesn’t make the 2020 postseason, those three could be moved before the following season. Still, it’s highly likely either the Lakers make the 2020 playoffs or at least one of those three stays and the Lakers make the 2021 playoffs.
Phoenix Suns (2016-2020)
Poor drafting and a front-office change that sparked major roster turnover has left three Phoenix teams with only one hope to escape TOD status: Devin Booker. Only he remains from the 2016, 2017 and 2018 Suns.
Booker should eventually lead Phoenix to the playoffs. But the Suns are a longshot this season, and the West is always tough. He will be an unrestricted free agent in 2024, and though it seems crazy to set that countdown clock for just making the playoffs, this is Phoenix.
Sacramento Kings (2017-2020)
The Kings have something positive going, and it’s remarkable how quickly they built up. Buddy Hield is the only remaining member of the 2017 team. Only Hield, De'Aaron Fox and Bogdan Bogdanovic remain from 2018. It’d be quite disappointing if Sacramento doesn’t make the playoffs with Hield, but he’s only one player, and he can become a restricted free agent next summer.
Memphis Grizzlies (2020)
The Grizzlies lost the final members of their 2017 playoff team this offseason, trading Mike Conley to the Jazz and Chandler Parsons to the Hawks. But Memphis has a bright future with Jaren Jackson Jr. and Ja Morant. It might take a while, but it’d be quite surprising if nobody from this team makes the playoffs with the Grizzlies.