NBA Sour Rankings: Can teams in the dumps still salvage success?

NBA Sour Rankings: Can teams in the dumps still salvage success?

As Ramona Shelburne said when she paraphrased the Los Angeles Lakers' front office stance: "You guys got yourselves into this; this is the bed that you made."

We're past the trade deadline and NBA All-Star weekend and into the season's stretch run. Aside from some leftover waivings and G League call-ups, teams have their rosters set. From here on out, it's about just playing with the guys you have. 

For the teams in this week's Sour Rankings, there's still time to adjust season goals and find a measure of success. Young rosters might hope for promising player development instead of wins. Those on the fringe of playoff contention might have the Play-In Tournament or the traditional postseason as a benchmark. Disappointing title hopefuls can salvage positivity even if they don't go all the way.

I've listed a target for each squad on the list. It might not be the ideal outcome, but the bar can at least bring some level of satisfaction to a year gone awry.

If you're new to the Sour Rankings, here's a refresher: Unlike the typical "power rankings" that repeat themselves throughout sports media, Sour Rankings are a bizarro-world counter. These rankings highlight the top-10 most frustrating NBA franchises throughout the season, and they will be updated every week to match the twists and turns of the league.

This is not merely a bottom-10 of your typical best-to-worst outlooks. You will see championship contenders and playoff hopefuls mixed in with struggling squads. Teams well under .500 may never touch the Sour Rankings because they are on track with their respective processes. Injuries, drama, transactions and generally underwhelming play will earn you a spot on this list.

The central question is ultimately this: How good should you feel about the direction of each franchise? Let's get going.

Escaping the Sour Rankings: The Oklahoma City Thunder made a brief pit stop, but Josh Giddey's brilliance and team-wide budding defense launched them right back out.

10. New Orleans Pelicans (23-36)

Zion Williamson's general situation has once again made things sour. CJ McCollum said on TNT that he has yet to speak with Williamson since being the blockbuster addition for the Pelicans at the trade deadline. The quotes raise serious questions about how Williamson and the Pelicans are handling his extended absence.

At this point, who knows if Williamson will return this season. New Orleans should be aiming to make the Play-In games behind Brandon Ingram and McCollum. The latter has gotten off to a hot start with his new team. The Pelicans are two games back of the Trail Blazers for 10th place in the Western Conference and have plenty of time to move up.

(Last week: Unranked)

9. Utah Jazz (36-22)

The Golden State Warriors and Phoenix Suns have asserted themselves as the favorites in the West. No other team, including Utah, is in a similar tier. The Jazz also didn't make any significant moves to inspire title hope at the trade deadline, and a recent five-game winning streak doesn't exactly turn the tables. Utah hasn't reached the conference finals since 2006-07, and that seems like a reasonable, yet valuable goal since the team will likely have to get through one of the two powers to get there.

(Last week: 8)

8. Portland Trail Blazers (25-34)

Anfernee Simons averaged 28.0 points and 6.0 assists while shooting 44.8% from long range over his last five games entering the break. He's been the breakout star of the 2022 calendar year, and has given a listless Trail Blazers team some life. Simons' development might be more important than any team outcome, especially if Damian Lillard does not return this season. If he can finish out the year as the dynamic offensive weapon he's becoming, Simons can show Portland why he's a long-term core piece for the next era.

(Last week: 6)

7. Sacramento Kings (22-38)

When the Kings swung on Domantas Sabonis (and to a lesser extent, Donte DiVincenzo), they basically set the goal: make the playoffs. Play-In exits won't do any good for a franchise that has not made a postseason appearance since 2005-06 and just dealt arguably its top young talent, however. Sacramento is tied with New Orleans and also two-and-a-half games out of 10th in the West. It's going to be a brawl for that last spot, but if the Kings do snag it and advance through the mini-bracket, that means the Sabonis-De'Aaron Fox pairing is worth building around.

(Last week: 5)

6. Charlotte Hornets (29-31)

Charlotte has a top-10 Defensive Rating over the past two weeks, part of this wild roller-coaster ride the Hornets' defense has been on throughout the season. The team's Offensive Rating, however, ranks 27th during that stretch. Gordon Hayward's absence dealt a tough blow to the lineup's synergy. Ultimately, this is still a young team growing into its potential. Remaining in Play-In and playoff contention is a given goal, but I'd also like to see the team find some consistency on both ends and shoot for league-average ratings or better for the rest of the schedule.

(Last week: 9)

5. Houston Rockets (15-43)

On a seven-game slide, Houston has give up a whopping 128.9 points per 100 possessions in February, nearly five points more than any other team. This is an extremely young roster that will take time to mesh on defense, but that's still extremely rough. Tanking outright is not a "goal," but record isn't exactly a concern at this stage. 

Jalen Green is averaging 16.5 points per game this month while canning 41.7% of his three-pointers. He's the face of the future in Houston, so his flashes are what the fans and front office should want to see. As long as Green demonstrates noteworthy growth this spring, things will look up for the Rockets.

(Last week: 7)

4. Washington Wizards (27-31)

Kristaps Porzingis has yet to make his Wizards debut. When he does, it marks the start of a desperate push for Washington to appease Bradley Beal and make the playoffs. The Wizards are in 11th place and currently out of the Eastern Conference postseason picture, but sit just a game back of Charlotte and the Atlanta Hawks. A Play-In appearance can't satisfy; but a playoff appearance is much easier said than done. If two of Toronto, Boston and Brooklyn don't make it to a top-six seed, making the traditional eight is going to be a tall order for the Wizards or any other team.

(Last week: 4)

3. Brooklyn Nets (31-28)

The Nets sorely needed this All-Star break to put the drama of the James Harden trade and the stench of losing behind them. Kevin Durant and Ben Simmons are still out for an indefinite period, and Kyrie Irving is still unvaccinated, so this current ragtag bunch will have to keep Brooklyn in the playoff hunt. (They did also just ink Goran Dragic to a rest-of-the-season contract on Monday as well.) This is still a title contender on paper... but so was the pre-deadline iteration of the Nets. However, the East is wide open, and fans should expect a healthy roster to go at least two rounds in the postseason.

(Last week: 2)

2. New York Knicks (25-34)

New York went 3-13 in a one-month span before the pause and promptly decided to forge ahead at the trade deadline with no changes. This doesn't bode well for a team with several veterans, but almost no hope of extending its season at this time.

Since Jan. 17, the Knicks have a 25th-ranked defense and a 22nd-ranked offense. The defense especially needs to improve for the sake of Tom Thibodeau's viability as a head coach. If it's not league-average or better the rest of the way, New York's direction will start to look a lot like the Thibodeau era in Minnesota.

(Last week: 3)

1. Los Angeles Lakers (27-31)

In the latest Hollywood drama, LeBron James kept things pretty wide open when he chatted with The Athletic's Jason Lloyd about his future. Eric Pincus of Bleacher Report also wrote that Rob Pelinka refused to trade Russell Westbrook and a first-round pick for John Wall. So yeah, there's a very obvious disconnect within this franchise.

The Lakers cannot be satisfied with stumbling their way through a Play-In bracket that James himself has gone on record hating. They have to be a top-six seed for the sake of roster durability and image. But being six games behind sixth-place Denver right now, Los Angeles may have already run out of luck.

(Last week: 1)

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