Despite objections from executives like Atlanta Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk, who wanted his players to be able to finish the season, the eight teams with the NBA's worst records were not invited to the Disney bubble, bringing an abrupt end to an incomplete season for each of them. You need look no further than the team's winning percentages to see that their seasons didn't go as hoped, but we're not here to talk about their failures.
We're here to talk about their successes, which are sometimes difficult to focus on for rebuilding teams suffering loss after loss throughout the year. Each of the eight teams whose seasons are officially over have something to be proud of, so let's take a look at their silver linings, and how they affect the franchises moving forward.
Charlotte Hornets (23-42)
Silver lining: Devonte' Graham's breakout
For all intents and purposes, the Hornets had a successful season despite their record. Most sportsbooks had their win total over/under set at around 23.5, and they got there with 17 games left to play this season. While PJ Washington proved to be a strong draft pick at No. 12 and Miles Bridges showed signs of improvement, the biggest revelation and reason for hope in Charlotte is the emergence of Devonte' Graham as a bucket-getter and playmaker. The Hornets paid Terry Rozier $57 million to be their point guard for the next three seasons, but Graham made it clear early on that he is the team's best option to run the show.
After averaging just 4.7 points in 15 minutes per game as a rookie last season, Graham exploded with a team-leading 18.2 points and 7.5 assists per game this year, while making 3.5 3-pointers at a 37 percent clip. He was a knock-down shooter, producing 1.182 points per possession in spot-up situations, good for the 86th percentile according to Synergy Sports Technology. But Graham also showcased an ability to hit 3s off the dribble, becoming one of just nine NBA players this season to shoot over five pull-up 3-pointers per game. He made 34 percent of them, putting him on par with players like Luka Doncic, D'Angelo Russell, Trae Young and Kemba Walker. Graham's 1.032 points per possession on dribble jumpers put him in the 84th percentile league-wide, according to Synergy, and he proved that he only needs the defense to relax for a split-second to bury a 3-pointer out of the pick-and-roll.
The rebuild is just underway in Charlotte, but they've clearly found a keeper in Graham.
Chicago Bulls (22-43)
Silver lining: The Coby White experience
Not a lot went right in Chicago this season, as evidenced by their recent front office overhaul and possible search for a new head coach. Lauri Markkanen might want out and Wendell Carter Jr. can't seem to stay healthy ... but this isn't about negatives! On the plus side, Zach LaVine finished his season as the 12th leading scorer in the NBA at 25.5 points per game, increasing his 3-point volume to over eight attempts per game while maintaining a strong 38 percent clip. The most intriguing development, however, came from rookie Coby White, who was in the middle of the best stretch of his young career and had just entered the starting lineup at the time of the shutdown on March 11.
In his final nine games of the season, White averaged 26.1 points, 4.4 assists and 4.2 rebounds on 48/43/90 splits while making nearly four 3-pointers per game. A streak shooter in the truest sense of the term for most of the season, White was beginning to prove that he could become a reliable offensive option for a Bulls squad that finished with the second-worst offensive rating in the league at 105.8 points per 100 possessions. Of course it was a tiny sample size, but during White's nine-game hot streak Chicago was plus-21 in net rating with him on the court with a robust 114.3 offensive rating, compared to a paltry 94.5 with him off.
He also showcased some strong vision and playmaking ability, particularly out of the pick-and-roll.
White may go back to his streaky ways once next season rolls around, but the new Bulls brass has to be excited with the potential he displayed toward the end of the year.
New York Knicks (21-45)
Silver lining: Potential NBA record-holder Mitchell Robinson
It's hard to take away many positives from this season for the Knicks, who fired head coach David Fizdale after a 4-18 start and endured numerous public relations nightmares en route to the league's fifth-worst net rating. Lottery picks Kevin Knox and Frank Ntilikina had less than encouraging seasons, while rookie RJ Barrett's offensive efficiency was downright awful (16th percentile at 0.832 points per possession, according to Synergy). But hey, one of the Knicks could enter the all-time NBA record books this season! And for something good, no less!
Second-year center Mitchell Robinson could the NBA's all-time leader in single-season field goal percentage after making 74.2 percent of his shots this season -- considerably higher than Wilt Chamberlain's 72.7 percent in 1972-73, the previous record. However there are still questions as to whether Robinson's 253 field goals will be enough to qualify him for the record given the uneven number of games teams will have played at the season's conclusion. Vivek Dadhania did an excellent job breaking down all the possibilities for Daily Knicks, so we won't get into the details.
Even if Robinson doesn't end up getting the record, however, he still deserves to take a bow. I know, I hear you already ... "He can't do anything but dunk, right?" Well actually, he did take one shot outside the paint this season ... which he unfortunately missed. But to answer your question, yes, 185 of his 253 field goals this season were of the dunk variety.
There's something to be said for playing to your strengths, and Robinson knows exactly what he is at this point in his career offensively: a lob-catcher, rim runner and putback artist. As you might imagine, Robinson was the most efficient offensive player in the NBA of anyone making at least 200 field goals around the rim, averaging 1.503 points per possession according to Synergy. Robinson also continued his dominance as a roll man, with 1.655 points per possession in those situations. In case you're not familiar with his freakish athleticism and timing, some kind soul has compiled every one of Mitchell's alley-oop dunks from this season.
On the defensive end, Mitchell was statistically the league's best rim protector among players with a significant sample size, allowing just 0.678 points per possession around the basket while averaging three blocked shots per 36 minutes. Robinson may not make an All-Star team any time soon, but he's one of the few young Knicks who has shown significant promise early in his career.
Detroit Pistons (21-45)
Silver lining: Christian Wood finds a home
Anyone who has talked basketball with me knows how much I love Christian Wood, so we're not going to beat around the bush here. It was a horrific year for the Pistons, who elected to get rid of Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson to fully enter the rebuilding phase, with Blake Griffin's ginormous contract in tow. Wood, however, finally seems to have found himself a home after playing for five teams in his first four NBA seasons.
A 6-10 athlete with a smooth shooting stroke, Wood averaged 22.8 points, 9.9 rebounds and one block over his final 13 games, while shooting 56 percent from the field and 40 percent from the 3-point line. Granted, the Pistons weren't playing in many meaningful games over that stretch, but that doesn't diminish the skill and talent Wood displayed. He was a monster around the rim all season, averaging 1.516 points per possession according to Synergy, and his overall halfcourt offense was in the 95th percentile of the NBA at 1.162 points per possession. His combination of size, athleticism and shooting makes him difficult to guard in pick-and-roll situations, with so many options at his disposal.
He's more than capable of diving hard and finishing above the rim on one possession ...
Then popping to the 3-point line on the next ...
Wood is a free agent this offseason, but he surely did enough to end 2019-20 to earn him a substantial offer from Detroit as it figures out which direction it would like to head.
Atlanta Hawks (20-47)
Silver lining: Trae Young, Superstar
Every rebuilding team is looking for one thing, first and foremost -- a superstar to build around. Young had a promising rookie season, but the jury was still out on him becoming a franchise-altering star, and the comparisons to Doncic, whom Young was traded for on draft day, certainly didn't help. All of those questions, however, were put to bed this season as Young established himself as one of the brightest young stars in the NBA, jumping to fourth in the league in scoring at 29.6 points per game, and second in assists at 9.3. In fact, he saw significant improvement in pretty much every statistical category.
|Trae Young Improvement||PTS||AST||3P%||3PA||FTA|
If you're a Hawks fan, that chart is a thing of beauty. It's already remarkably rare to increase your scoring average by more than 10 points from your first to second NBA season, but it's quite another thing to do it with a significant bump in efficiency. Offensively, Young went from the 28th percentile at 0.89 points per possession as a rookie, per Synergy, to the 65th percentile at 1.006 points per possession this season, while his passing remained elite. He's a knock-down spot-up shooter and already one of the most deadly pick-and-roll initiators in the league (84th percentile) as a 21-year-old.
One of the most glaring improvements in Young's game was his ability to get to the free-throw line (5.1 attempts per game last season to 9.3 this season). He's the only player in NBA history besides James Harden, who's done it each of the last four seasons, to average at least three made 3-pointers per game AND at least eight made free throws. It's even more impressive given his size -- he joins Allen Iverson as the only players 6-foot-1 or shorter to average at least nine free-throw attempts per game in a single season. Whereas Iverson attacked the rim with reckless abandon, however, Young draws a lot of his fouls by using guile to bait over-aggressive defenders.
The Hawks didn't take a step forward this season in terms of their record, but Young's rapid ascent to the superstar level makes them one of the league's most promising young teams.
Minnesota Timberwolves (19-45)
Silver lining: KAT gets his running mate
The NBA free agency clock starts ticking earlier and earlier these days, but the rumblings about Karl-Anthony Towns being unhappy in Minnesota were surprising, even by NBA standards. Towns just finished his first season of a five-year, $158 million contract that expires in 2024(!), yet we heard plenty of whispers that the front office needed to so something to keep its franchise player happy. Enter D'Angelo Russell, a positional fit next to Towns as a combo guard who also happens to be his close friend, and any premature talk about a KAT trade demand has been silenced ... at least for now.
The two young All-Stars hardly got a chance to play together this season due to Towns' wrist injury, but it's not hard to imagine how their versatile offensive skill sets will complement each other. Defense will be a different story, but it's one step at a time for a Timberwolves franchise looking to get back on the winning track. In the process of trading for Russell, the team also waved goodbye to Andrew Wiggins (and the roughly $95 million remaining on his contract), who clearly was not working in Minnesota for whatever reason. They had to give up a top-three protected pick in a potentially fruitful 2021 draft, but the Wolves are hoping they'll perform well enough next season that the pick will end up being in the mid-to-late first round.
Towns only played 35 games this season, but he continued his historic offensive production while increasing his scoring to 26.5 points per game and shooting 41 percent on nearly eight 3-point attempts per game -- the most-ever attempts per game by an NBA player 6-foot-11 or taller. With both Towns and Russell under contract through at least 2023, the Wolves have a strong, and hopefully happy, foundation to build around.
Cleveland Cavaliers (19-46)
Silver lining: Collin Sexton takes the next step
Like so many players riding hot streaks, Collin Sexton must have been all the more frustrated when the NBA shut down in mid-March. The second-year guard averaged 28.1 points, 4.0 assists and 1.4 steals on 56 percent field goals and 45 percent 3-point shooting over his final eight games, including a career-high 41 points against the Celtics -- and that stretch wasn't much of an anomaly. Sexton was great after the calendar flipped to 2020, averaging 23.6 points on 45 percent 3-point shooting, scoring in double-figures in all 32 games (he had three single-digit scoring games in December alone). Overall, he increased his scoring by over four points per game and his field goal percentage jumped from .430 to .472.
Sexton's future might not be at point guard, and the addition of Darius Garland may have unlocked some of Sexton's bucket-getting potential. Last year in isolation situations Sexton averaged 0.689 points per possession according to Synergy, which put him in the 24th percentile. This season that improved to one point per possession, bumping him all the way up to the 78th percentile. He also made considerable strides suppressing one of the Cavs coaching staff's most common critiques from last season -- mid-range jumpers. Sexton decreased his mid-range shot attempts from 4.5 per game last season to 2.5 this season. That doesn't happen without a determined effort, and it showed in his efficiency. As you might expect, Sexton took more shots in the paint and the restricted area in lieu of mid-rangers, while showcasing an improved floater/runner game.
Sexton may never be the distributor or playmaker the Cavs may have been hoping for when they took him eighth overall in 2018, but he showed tremendous improvement this season as a perimeter scorer.
Golden State Warriors (15-50)
Silver lining: Rookies and reclamation
The obvious silver lining is that the Warriors get Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson back next year, but let's focus on what the team gained during the 2019-20 season. I got into all of this in much more detail in , but despite the league-worst record, Golden State can look at a few players and projects with a smile heading into the offseason.
The first is rookie Eric Paschall, who was at times the Warriors' best scorer on the court -- not exactly fair to a second-round pick. But he handled it all remarkably well, averaging 14 points per game on 50 percent shooting in 27.6 minutes per game. The Warriors hope they won't have to rely on Paschall nearly as much next season, but he proved that he will be an important part of the rotation moving forward on a what could be a star-heavy, shallow roster. And then there's Jordan Poole, who had a horrific offensive season overall (14th percentile in halfcourt offense per Synergy ... woof), but looked like a different player toward the end of the season when the Warriors gave him more on-ball responsibility. The 6-4 guard averaged 14.3 points and 3.9 assists on 47 percent shooting over his final 13 games, a far cry from his season averages of 8.8 points, 2.4 assists and 33 percent shooting. Poole showed enough in the final stretch of games that Golden State should be excited about his ability to slide into the guard rotation next season behind the Splash Brothers.
The Warriors also took a stab at several reclamation projects this season, hoping a few would stick. Some didn't -- Willie Cauley-Stein, Dragan Bender, Omari Spellman -- but they struck gold with Marquese Chriss, who the team views as their potential starting center next season. After flaming out with the Suns, Rockets and Cavs over the first three seasons of his career, Chriss' role was simplified by the Warriors. His 3-point attempts went down from a career average of 2.1 per game to just 0.7 per game this season, while he focused on screen-setting, facilitating and rim-running. The result was a solid pick-and-roll option who used his athleticism to dominate in transition (1.462 points per possession per Synergy, in the 96th percentile).
Watch here as Chriss gets the rebound, yet still somehow beats everyone down court for the transition dunk.
Speaking to his playmaking improvement, Chriss tallied five or more assists six times this season, after never having more than four in a game during his first three NBA seasons.
Add in the fact that the Warriors were able to get three second-round picks from the 76ers for Glenn Robinson III and Alec Burks (who could both return this offseason as free agents), plus bringing in former No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins as the team's third scorer, and it's fair to say that overall the reclamation projects made this a worthwhile 15-win season for Golden State.