The competitive lifespan of an NBA franchise is delicate. A team’s championship relevance depends on many factors, including the front office’s competence, coaching staff, and the totality of star power on the court. “Poverty” in the NBA sense can be defined by the corrosion of the team’s ethics and business method.
The line between poverty and purgatory is a razor’s edge. Many franchises teeter between the two while balancing front-office scandals while placating superstar talents (see the Boston Celtics and Brooklyn Nets). But typically, there are a few agreeable metrics to label a franchise “poverty.” The term can be misleading and assumed to mean a team is broke concerning talent, available cap space, or draft capital. Those factors contribute, but it’s more about the moral and existential quandaries that haunt a team on and off the court. We’ve collated the franchise that has fallen off the ethical cliff while also headed towards internal implosion to find out who has earned the title of being a poverty franchise.
Because of coastal proximity, franchises like the Los Angeles Lakers, Clippers, Miami Heat, and Golden State Warriors can have prolonged success as free-agent destinations. Smaller markets depend on the draft and calculated trades to stay competitive but can see their window slam shut when their star seeks a more cosmopolitan city. For years, the league’s poverty franchises were the usual suspects, the New York Knicks, Minnesota Timberwolves, and Sacramento Kings. These three teams were the benchmark of NBA poverty, racking up losing records and squandering young talent and draft picks while mired in on and off-the-court controversy. But all three teams have turned a corner over the last couple of years towards competence and mediocrity, one tier above poverty in Dante’s NBA Inferno. This list will pinpoint which three teams, due to recent on-the-court and off-the-court failings, have taken their place as poverty franchises.
Controversies: Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you are well aware of the internal destruction the Brooklyn Nets have faced on and off the court. The age-old adage “a fish rots from the head” couldn’t be more true anywhere but in Brooklyn. It all starts with Joe Tsai, who has quickly cemented himself as one of the worst owners in the NBA. Tsai’s mishandling of his franchise can be most notably felt in the Kevin Durant trade demand, Steve Nash’s hiring, and Kyrie Irving’s suspension/reinstatement. Tsai, owner and operator of China’s cheap Alibaba company, has been accused of excusing human rights violations, yet has acted as a moral authority concerning Irving’s controversial statements on the Hebrews to Negroes film he shared on his social media. Tsai’s incompetence trickles down, as most things rotten do, to his front office, coaching staff, and roster, who have appeared off-kilter, dysfunctional, and an abject failure.
Squandered Talent: It seemed like a cheat code when the Nets had Irving, Durant, and James Harden (pictured) on the roster at one time. But it only lasted for less than 82 games, as Harden never meshed with Irving’s personality or lack of availability for not taking the COVID-19 vaccine. So Harden was traded last season for a Philadelphia 76ers package that included another malcontent in Ben Simmons. Believe it or not, things got worse from there.
From the moment Durant gave the Nets’ front office his trade demand, it was only a matter of time before it was acted upon. And sure, he rescinded it after the Nets realized no team was willing to give up their entire roster to make a trade work. Instead, Durant wanted former head coach Steve Nash and current GM Sean Marks fired. Nash was eventually let go after the team started poorly, but Marks remains firmly in place. The Nets have turned their season around somewhat. But with the team strapped with tradeable assets, a rookie head coach in Jacque Vaughn, and Irving remaining a ticking time bomb, it’s not hard to imagine Durant asking out again at some point. And when he does, all the good vibes of the 2019 free-agent haul which netted them Durant and Irving will be long gone.
Terrible Trades: This category begins and ends with the assets lost in acquiring and then trading Harden. When he was brought over, the Nets gave Houston their 2022, 2024, and 2026 first-round picks and four first-round pick swaps in 2021, 2023, 2025, and 2027. They also gave up two core members of their young squad, Jarrett Allen and Caris LeVert. Allen has become an All-Star in Cleveland. Harden only lasted a combined season in Brooklyn before being shipped out to Philadelphia, which brought back a solid role player in Seth Curry and the 76ers’ 2022 first-round pick (unprotected) and 2027 first-round pick (protected). Oh, they also got the much-maligned Ben Simmons (pictured). Harden was undoubtedly the best player in the trade, and the Nets gave up way too much for him to begin with, leaving their draft cupboards bare and so much riding on Durant and Irving staying happy and healthy. The future is dark in Brooklyn.
Bad Hires: Steve Nash did not deserve the Nets head coaching job to begin with. There were plenty of options at the time — Becky Hammon, Sam Cassell, Chauncey Billups, and Mark Jackson — who had paid their dues and deserved a chance at the gig above Nash, who had zero experience as an assistant, much less a head coach. But the Nets went with the “vibes” hire, as Nash brought with him the culture of the mid-2000s “seven seconds or less” Suns. When you have Irving, Durant, and Harden on the same team, maintaining a winning record isn’t a problem. Nash was fine there, leaving the team with a .584 record over two and a quarter seasons. Unfortunately, he failed to balance the team’s giant egos and advance in the playoffs. Things were off from the start when Irving proclaimed on Kevin Durant’s podcast The ETCs, “I don’t really see us having a head coach,” Irving said.
“You know what I mean? KD could be a head coach. I could be a head coach.” Woof. That’s a hell of a damnation on Nash’s perceived leadership abilities. It only got worse from there when Durant demanded Nash be fired as part of his trade demands. Nash was eventually let go at the start of this season after the team started 2-5. Then, in last year’s first-round playoff matchup against the Boston Celtics, the team was swept, exposing Nash’s poor in-game adjustments, rotations, and ability to inspire stability and resilience in his team. It should be a long time before Nash receives another head coaching job, as he is better suited to bring his brand of “vibes” in an assistant capacity.
Controversies: Michael Jordan (pictured) is arguably the greatest player of all time. As an owner, he is perhaps the worst NBA executive in the league’s history. He has failed in all three arenas of team building: The draft, trades, and free agency. As a small market franchise, they never have, and will never, be a free agent destination, making trades and the draft their primary two outlets to find and retain talent. Taking Miles Bridges in 2018 was one of the top three picks the franchise has made since Jordan took over ownership in 2010. But this summer, Bridges pleaded no contest in a felony domestic violence case where he was alleged to have assaulted his girlfriend. Bridges should never play in the NBA again, and if the Hornets decide to bring him back to the team, once the controversy dies down, they never deserve to leave poverty status under Jordan.
Squandered Talent: The Hornets have never won their division, finishing second once back in 2018-19. They have finished fourth or dead last in the division in six of Jordan’s 12 seasons as owner. For a team that hasn’t made the playoffs in seven seasons, you would think they would have mined the Lottery to build a talented young core. But in actuality, taking LaMelo Ball in 2020 is the only bonafide young stud they have on the roster. This is mainly because they’ve cemented themselves in purgatory for the last few seasons; too good they miss the lottery, but too bad to make the playoffs. This has left them selecting 11th in 2017 and 2018 and 12th in 2019. Bridges, seemingly off the roster, leaves Ball alone as the lone player with star potential. The rest of the roster is a collection of past prime veterans (Gordon Hayward) and under-achieving one-dimensional players (Terry Rozier, Kelly Oubre Jr., Mason Plumlee).
Terrible Trades: The team’s worst trades have come on Draft night. This summer, they had the draft rights to Jalen Duren (pictured), a talented center who filled a huge void up front for this roster, only to trade him in a three-team trade to the Detroit Pistons for future draft considerations. To have the best big man in the Draft who played a position the team didn’t have a starting caliber player for was confounding. Even worse was the sin the team committed in 2018 when they traded the draft rights for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to the Los Angeles Clippers for Bridges. Of course, it didn’t help that Bridges turned out to be one of the biggest pieces of shit in the NBA, but also that SGA has emerged this season as a superstar with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Having SGA at the point could have modified them taking Ball in 2020, but in the worst-case scenario, they pair Ball with SGA to form one of the most dynamic backcourts in the NBA.
Bad Hires: For the Hornets, it’s more about poor firings than hirings. James Borrego (pictured) was one of the best young coaches in the NBA. When he was hired to coach the team in 2018, he was an acolyte from the Gregg Popovich coaching tree, serving as his assistant for a total of 10 years during two stints. At the time, he made history as the first Latino hired to coach an NBA team in 72 years. While Borrego missed the playoffs during his five years with the team, he hadn’t much talent to work with. The year before he was fired, he led the team to their first winning record in seven seasons while finishing eighth in the NBA in offensive efficiency. He also dragged an over-achieving roster to the Play-In tournament, where Charlotte fell to the Atlanta Hawks. To add to the postseason disappointment, the year before, they were eliminated in the Play-In by the Indiana Pacers. But there was much to be optimistic about Borrego. NBA insider Marc Stein reported that “player discipline on and off the floor” was a significant factor in the decision to fire Borrego. But with the limited talent on the roster, it seemed to have made more sense to eliminate the malcontented players (outside of Ball) rather than the talented head coach.
Controversies: The organization has faced rampant sexual harassment and assault allegations for years under owner Mark Cuban. A 2018 Sports Illustrated article described the Mavs corporate culture as “corrosive” and as “a real-life Animal House” — in reference to the 1978 National Lampoon film. [Editor’s note: Former team president and CEO Terdema Ussery told SI, “During my nearly 20-year tenure with the Mavericks, I am not aware of any sexual harassment complaints about me or any findings by the organization that I engaged in inappropriate conduct.] After ex-GM, Donnie Nelson, who was with the team since 2000, was fired, he sued the team alleging that his dismissal was in retaliation for “reporting that Cuban’s chief of staff sexually harassed and sexually assaulted his nephew during a job interview in 2020,” according to ESPN. Cuban denied the allegations in an email to ESPN. (“Everything in that filing is a lie,” Cuban wrote.) No other team can compete with the Mavericks for having a fucked-up front office, all of which occurred under their owner’s legendary micro-manging. Since their 2011 Championship, the team has only gotten out of the first round once, during last season’s over-achieving Western Conference Finals run. Outside of wasting the last years of Dirk Nowitzki’s career, the Mavs are on track to squander the generational talent of Luka Dončić, as they have failed to add star-level talent around him.
Squandered Talent: No team on this list squandered a player as talented as Jalen Brunson. GM Nico Harrison doesn’t get the criticism he rightly deserves as one of the biggest bums to serve as a team’s GM. He had two opportunities to re-sign Jalen to a discounted extension and shit the bed by instead including him in trade talks, which only made Brunson feel unvalued. He eventually signed a descending $104 million, four-year deal with the Knicks on what now appears to be a value contract. With the Knicks, he is averaging career highs across the board — 21.5 ppg while shooting 49.5 percent from the field, 6.6 apg, 3.5 rpg, and 1.1 spg. On the Old Man and the Three podcast, Brunson said he was prepared to sign a deal close to $50 million for four years with the Mavs, but Harrison and the Mavs never gave that offer. The team fucked up retaining one of the few home-grown talents the Mavs had around Dončić, showing not only can they not attract star free agents, but they can’t even keep their own.
Terrible Trades: A team rarely loses both sides of a player’s trades. But the Dallas Mavericks, under Nelson and Harrison, have been equally inept in surrounding Dončić with a quality supporting cast. The Mavs had already given up two first-round picks and players to the New York Knicks for Kristaps Porziņģis. But with Brunson, KP was one of the two best supporting players Dončić has played with in Dallas. Unfortunately, neither former head coach Rick Carlise nor Jason Kidd utilized KP towards his strengths. KP also could not stay healthy. This culminated in a mid-season trade with the Washington Wizards last season where Harrison swapped one bad contract for two in Spencer Dinwiddie and Davis Bertans, two malcontent castoffs. Dinwiddie has been a stable anchor at the point, but Bertans is one of the worst contracts in the NBA as a traffic cone on defense who can only hit wide-open threes. Meanwhile, Brunson and KP are playing the best ball of their career with a new team. KP has regained his All-Star form and health, averaging 21.4 ppg, 8.2 rpg, and 1.6 spg, while shooting 37.5 percent from three. The loss of Brunson and KP, who are having the best seasons of their careers, exposes the failings of Harrison in not only adding star power around Dončić but retaining it as well.
Bad Hires: Mavs fans have resorted to calling their head coach Jason Kidd (pictured), Jason Midd, after his sub-par in-game adjustments, confusing rotations, and general stubbornness as a decision-maker. Much of this revolves around the minutes and role of Christian Wood, who they acquired in a fleece from the Houston Rockets. Wood has been buried on the bench, even though he has appeared, in small sample sizes, to be Dončić’s best running mate. As well, Harrison can easily be considered a terrible hire. The former Nike executive was hired based on his connection with players around the league but has failed miserably to surround Dončić with talent worthy of the superstar’s abilities. Only Wood has turned into a get, but even he isn’t guaranteed to resign after Kidd’s misuse of his abilities. Harrison’s fumbling of Brunson is on par with any of Nelson and Cuban’s past misfires (Steve Nash, Michael Finley, Tyson Chandler), and maybe even worse, it feels like only a matter of time before Dončić demands out.