NBA ‘all-in’ tiers: Who is focused on the present, the future or is stuck in between?
When the Minnesota Timberwolves pulled off a blockbuster trade to land Rudy Gobert from the Utah Jazz, the three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year wasted no time declaring his intentions for his new franchise.
“I came to take this team to the Finals,” Gobert said during his introductory news conference in July.
As Timberwolves coach Chris Finch added, “It’s the perfect fit at the perfect time.”
In other words, the Timberwolves have gone all-in.
So, what does it mean to be “all-in” in today’s NBA? And is there more than one definition?
It turns out that, in fact, there can be. Not every team can — at least realistically — dream of lifting the Larry O’Brien Trophy at the end of each NBA season. The NBA, as much as any sport, is stratified from a talent standpoint that keeps all but a handful of teams from truly being championship-quality.
But that doesn’t mean teams aren’t all-in on a variety of different goals when each season begins. Here’s an effort to try to quantify what direction all 30 NBA teams are headed in and what goal they are trying to achieve, starting on opening night, Oct. 18.
After analyzing each franchise’s roster, salary-cap projections and draft picks, here’s a breakdown of what “all-in” looks like, with the 30 teams fitting into seven tiers that, as the 2022-23 season approaches, should define success or failure.
All-in on … a championship this season
Teams (6): Brooklyn Nets, LA Clippers, Miami Heat, Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers, Phoenix Suns
These six teams can realistically dream of an NBA championship in 2022-23. In addition, they all have something else in common: a shelf life. All but the Suns have mortgaged multiple future draft picks in order to win a title in 2023, while one of Phoenix’s most important players next season (Chris Paul) will turn 38 during the 2023 playoffs.
Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Miami have stars who should allow them to be competitive for a long time (Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid and Bam Adebayo, respectively). But given the Bucks have traded several future picks and have two co-stars (Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday) in their early 30s, while the 76ers and Heat are relying on a pair of mid-30s stars in James Harden and Jimmy Butler, respectively, there could be a time limit on their status as true contenders.
The Clippers might have an argument to be in our next group below, but they’ve given away their first-round draft picks for the next four years — and did so last year, as well, which turned out to be a lottery pick with intriguing upside (Jalen Williams) — and are built around a pair of stars in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George who are entering their mid-30s and have extensive injury histories.
Meanwhile, the uncertainty surrounding the futures of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving clouds Brooklyn’s future. But they are still part of the roster, which means there’s little doubt of what the expectations will be if that remains the case in mid-October.
All-in on … a championship over the next five seasons
Teams (4): Boston Celtics, Denver Nuggets, Golden State Warriors, Memphis Grizzlies
How can last season’s NBA finalists land outside the group of current championship contenders? By contrast to the first tier’s teams, which have depleted their resources in pursuit of instant success, the Celtics and Warriors managed to get to the Finals while keeping an eye on the long-term plan.
The title-winning Warriors’ approach perhaps best epitomizes this group. Although Golden State has one of the league’s oldest cores, led by the four-time champion trio of Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson, the Warriors owe one future first-round pick (in 2024) and are developing the foundation of their next team with recent lottery picks Jonathan Kuminga, Moses Moody and James Wiseman while still winning now.
The Celtics have shown a willingness to trade away future picks, including a top-1 protected first-round pick headed to the San Antonio Spurs in 2028 from the Derrick White deal, and they’ve done so in pursuit of players who can support an extended run built around mid-20s stars Jaylen Brown (26 in October) and Jayson Tatum (24).
The Grizzlies vaulted into this tier ahead of schedule: Memphis is one of the youngest teams to finish in the league’s top two in regular-season wins. With a core of Desmond Bane (24), Ja Morant (23) and Jaren Jackson Jr. (22), the Grizzlies’ window is wide open. There’s a little more urgency for the Nuggets and two-time MVP Nikola Jokic, who will turn 28 next season. Denver’s other core players are younger, allowing the Nuggets to remain long-term contenders despite trading away multiple future first-rounders.
All-in on … playoff success
Teams (4): Atlanta Hawks, Chicago Bulls, Minnesota Timberwolves, Portland Trail Blazers
Each of these teams has sacrificed future draft capital in an effort to become more competitive today. While none of them is seen as a realistic championship competitor, a trip to the second round of the playoffs undoubtedly will be regarded as a successful campaign.
While Atlanta reached the Eastern Conference finals in 2021, trading three first-round picks for All-Star Dejounte Murray was not only an indication of Murray’s talent but an acknowledgement the Hawks are more representative of the team that lost in a lopsided five games in the first round in 2022 than the one that won two playoff series the year before.
Chicago hasn’t won a playoff series since Tom Thibodeau was the coach, and it has made the postseason twice in the past seven seasons. Having assembled a veteran-laden roster — and having traded away multiple first-round picks — the Bulls, like the Hawks, would be happy to win a playoff series.
The Timberwolves have won just two playoff series in the franchise’s 33-year history. Trading a mountain of draft picks for Gobert should make being a true championship contender the barometer for success, but simply any playoff success would do.
Portland, meanwhile, is still trying to build contending teams around Damian Lillard, as exhibited by re-signing Jusuf Nurkic, trading for Jerami Grant and inking Lillard to a massive two-year extension. A first-round playoff series win would be viewed as a massive step forward.
All-in on … finishing .500
Teams (3): New York Knicks, Sacramento Kings, Washington Wizards
In contrast to the four teams above, the expectations are a bit lower for three squads hoping to return to the playoffs.
For the Kings, merely a play-in appearance would be considered a success after 16 consecutive years without competing beyond the regular season. Though Sacramento has wisely pursued players in their mid-20s over the past year, swapping 22-year-old Tyrese Haliburton for two-time All-Star Domantas Sabonis (26) was an indication a slow build wasn’t good enough.
In Washington, re-signing Bradley Beal to a five-year maximum contract committed the Wizards to their current path of trying to surround their star with enough talent for consistent playoff runs. Washington owes a future first-rounder from the Russell Westbrook trade and is still hoping for one of the team’s recent lottery picks (Deni Avdija, Rui Hachimura and now Johnny Davis) to break through as a keeper.
This spot might be temporary for the Knicks, who would have higher aspirations if they cash in much of their stockpile of first-round picks to land All-Star Donovan Mitchell from the Jazz. As long as that deal remains a possibility, New York might not be all-in on any particular direction despite committing to long-term deals for Jalen Brunson and Julius Randle, with an extension for RJ Barrett potentially forthcoming.
All-in on … their current core
Teams (5): Charlotte Hornets, Cleveland Cavaliers, Detroit Pistons, New Orleans Pelicans, Oklahoma City Thunder
All of these teams have been content to build through the draft and as a result are anchored by at least one young star: LaMelo Ball in Charlotte; Evan Mobley, Darius Garland and Jarrett Allen in Cleveland; Cade Cunningham in Detroit; Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson in New Orleans; and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander in Oklahoma City.
In addition, all five teams have saved their stockpile of picks and/or cap space to make a bigger swing (or, in the cases of New Orleans and Oklahoma City, potentially multiple big swings).
Still, all five have work to do to join any of the above tiers. Only New Orleans among them has made the playoffs — and the Pelicans have had one winning season in seven years.
Charlotte had been building around Ball and Miles Bridges, but basketball is the least important thing involving Bridges at the moment after being charged with felony domestic violence last month. Cleveland has spent years trying to fill its wing positions and has been largely unsuccessful (and is now hoping this year’s lottery pick, Ochai Agbaji, can do his part). Detroit is banking on 2022 first-round picks Jaden Ivey and Jalen Duren becoming elite players alongside Cunningham. New Orleans needs Williamson to be able to stay on the court, for starters, while Oklahoma City is still sorting out which players will be part of its core alongside Gilgeous-Alexander.
For all five teams, this season will be about continued development of those young cores and seeing where things stand a year from now.
All-in on … well, ‘draft positioning’
Teams (5): Houston Rockets, Indiana Pacers, Orlando Magic, San Antonio Spurs, Utah Jazz
There is limited separation between some members of this group and the one above it. Houston (led by Jalen Green and Jabari Smith Jr.), Indiana (Haliburton and Bennedict Mathurin) and Orlando (Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner) have top young prospects they see as building blocks of their futures. Still, they’re likely all hoping to add one more top pick in the promising 2023 draft, featuring French center Victor Wembanyama and G League Ignite guard Scoot Henderson.
The last two teams, the Spurs and Jazz, are positioned differently near the start of what look like rebuilds. San Antonio has some interesting young players, including three first-round picks this year (Malaki Branham, Jeremy Sochan and Blake Wesley) but no long-term cornerstone.
As for Utah, as long as Mitchell is on the roster, a full-on tank seems unlikely. That could still change by the start of training camp, however, and the haul of draft picks Utah received from the Timberwolves for Gobert seems to portend a deep rebuild rather than a pivot around young players acquired in exchange for Mitchell. The Jazz also surely wouldn’t mind being able to draft another French center or American guard to replace the All-Stars who led them to the league’s best record in 2020-21.
All-in on … nothing?
Teams (3): Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Lakers, Toronto Raptors
It’s hard to gauge the overall objectives for these three teams.
Let’s start with the Lakers, who with LeBron James and Anthony Davis are all-in on winning a championship in 2022-23.
Well, not exactly.
For as long as the Lakers hang on to their two future first-round picks, have Russell Westbrook on the roster and have James and Davis surrounded by a bunch of (mostly) young players — almost all of whom are on minimum contracts — they aren’t all-in on winning now, especially after how much the Westbrook trade burned them last season.
One could credibly argue this is the right path for the Lakers and that they can’t afford to be all-in again. That puts the franchise in a strange position at the moment, especially as LeBron’s 38th birthday approaches on Dec. 30.
Toronto, on the other hand, is in almost the opposite situation. The Raptors have all of their future picks. They also have a veteran core — Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby and Gary Trent Jr., plus reigning rookie of the year Scottie Barnes — that should allow them to be competitive in the middle of the East playoff picture.
The Raptors could go in one of several directions: Team president Masai Ujiri could continue to stay the course with this group for the next year or two; he could make some moves to align the team more on the timeline of Barnes, who just turned 21; or he could push some of those future picks in to try to upgrade the team now.
Finally, let’s finish up with Dallas, which has the league’s best young player in Luka Doncic, who should be a superstar for the next decade. But despite making the Western Conference finals last season, it’s hard to see the Mavericks being a realistic threat to return there after losing free agent Jalen Brunson to the Knicks this summer.
There is the potential for cap space to deliver another star to Dallas within the next few seasons. But until the Mavs can try to take advantage of that, it feels like Luka & Co. are stuck in place.