Blow. It. Up. They are NBA Twitter's three favorite words, but they tend to be far less realistic than critics want to accept. Fans think in terms of the championship binary. They want teams to either be directly competing for one or rebuilding toward that end. Owners treat winning as a spectrum. Championships are nice. Turning a profit is a necessity. Get most owners a couple of home playoff games while avoiding the luxury tax and they're going to be pretty happy.
Unsurprisingly, this kind of inertia tends to keep teams together well beyond their expiration date. There might be a dozen teams that need to be blown up in a given season. We're lucky to see one or two teams actually pull the trigger. So let's look through the standings now and attempt to figure out who should and shouldn't push that big red button and start over again. We'll rank all 30 teams, starting with the NBA's least flammable and working our way up.
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Tier 8: Explosive-free zone
30. Boston Celtics: Boston takes the cake as the NBA team least in need of a blow up due to its obvious talent, youth and valuable contracts. The Celtics are as well constructed as an NBA team can realistically be.
29. Milwaukee Bucks: The Bucks could stand to get a bit younger. Khris Middleton (31), Jrue Holiday (32) and Brook Lopez are all nearing the end of their primes, and there really isn't an in-house plan to replace them for the second part of Giannis Antetokounmpo's title window. But who cares? The Bucks will be among the favorites for the next few years at least, and they can figure out the future when it arrives.
28. Denver Nuggets: The injuries are a little scary and they could use a bit more defense, but the Nuggets have a two-time MVP that doubles as the NBA's most durable player. We're still four or five major injuries away from panic time.
27. Cleveland Cavaliers: Get a couple of wings in the door and watch the titles roll in. Wings don't exactly grow on trees, but 90 percent of the team-building here is done and the core four are all 26 or younger. The idea here will be to work the margins for one or two more role players. If they can do that, they can compete for the next decade.
26. Memphis Grizzlies: Can Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. stay healthy? If so, we're done here. Even if they struggle to do so, the Grizzlies have enough draft picks to trade for another major piece if they want.
25. New Orleans Pelicans: Same concern as the Grizzlies, but with the caveat that Zion Williamson is a bit riskier than Morant, CJ McCollum is older than Desmond Bane and the Grizzlies are probably slightly better positioned to spend deep into the tax. Either way, they're both looking at adding to existing cores, not destroying the ones they have.
Tier 7: They've already blown up
24. Oklahoma City Thunder: They blew it up three years ago and have already done most of their rebuilding. Assuming Chet Holmgren is healthy next fall, they could easily rise into that first group. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has been so good that opposing teams can't even leak false trade rumors about him anymore. He's going to be the face of a contender in Oklahoma in the very near future, and all of those leftover picks from the last blow up will be spent supporting him.
23. Orlando Magic: The Magic made one of the great blow-up trades in NBA history at the 2021 trade deadline. Excluding the Otto Porter Jr. cap filler, literally every asset they got back for Nikola Vucevic is currently more valuable than Nikola Vucevic: Franz Wagner is a star, Wendell Carter Jr. is one of the NBA's best young centers and Chicago's 2023 first-rounder is looking very good right now. Pair all of that with likely rookie of the year Paolo Banchero and the rebuild here is in great shape.
22. Detroit Pistons: They've made a few strange veteran acquisitions in recent years, but none of them represent meaningful setbacks to the long-term goals. Bojan Bogdanovic is ultimately going to be a good example of trade arbitrage, as the Pistons got him without giving up a first-round pick, but will get one when they trade him. Nerlens Noel and Alec Burks don't affect their long-term cap outlook. The Marvin Begley contract was odd, but small enough to be ultimately harmless. They're just waiting for another high lottery pick at this point. Pair that guy with Cade Cunningham and Jaden Ivey and you've got the makings of a strong up-and-comer.
21. San Antonio Spurs: You can't blow up a team that has nothing. There's nothing flammable. The most expensive Spur would be the sixth-most expensive Clipper. Just cue the "stop, stop he's already dead" meme.
20. Houston Rockets: They're the Spurs, but two years further along the tank timeline. They could trade Eric Gordon, but literally every other player on this team to have played 400 or more minutes this season is 22 or younger, so it's safer to keep one adult in the room.
19. Indiana Pacers: Tyrese Haliburton and Benedict Mathurin are the only definitive keepers, but the Pacers could really go in either direction with Myles Turner. If they want to extend him, he's still only 26 and could be the center for a competitive team built around their two young guards. If they want to trade him and extend the rebuilding phase a bit longer, that works, too. They could even keep Turner and trade some of their spare draft capital for another core piece if they wanted to, with Indiana alum OG Anunoby making plenty of sense if Toronto ever makes him available.
Tier 6: Hold the line
18. Los Angeles Clippers: If the Clippers stay healthy, they can win a championship. If they blow it up, they'd need to get four first-round picks back for Kawhi Leonard and Paul George just to get back to neutral considering their ongoing obligation to Oklahoma City. The upside to blowing it up is therefore minimal. It's not worth closing a championship window to get back to neutral when just waiting it out and trying to contend with the current group will get them there in a few years anyway. Leonard and George just aren't reliable enough anymore to net packages that would make blowing it up worthwhile.
17. Philadelphia 76ers: Even if the 76ers don't win a championship with their current core, they have a very easy out in the summer of 2024, when Joel Embiid, P.J. Tucker and Tyrese Maxey (presumably) will be their only players under contract. If James Harden doesn't prove worthy of a contract extension, the Sixers can just retool this team with cap space two summers from now. If they're really patient, they can wait out the 2025 cap spike knowing that both Embiid and Maxey will have signed pre-spike extensions. Ultimately, as old as this team is and as many picks as it has given away, the path to re-tooling is just too clear to justify trading away the core of a contender.
16. Phoenix Suns: Even if you believe the Chris Paul championship window is closed, Devin Booker, DeAndre Ayton, Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson are all 26 or younger. The move wouldn't be to blow it up. It would be to take Paul's partially guaranteed contract, attach several first-round picks (and the Suns still have all of theirs at their disposal) and go find a younger point guard. Heck, this could be done on a smaller scale using the expiring salaries of Jae Crowder and Dario Saric. So sure, a long-term Paul replacement is needed here, but the bulk of a very good team will remain in place.
Tier 5: Wait it out
15. New York Knicks: These two teams are in similar structural positions as the three above them, but without the immediate championship equity. In both cases, it's more a matter of "when" that equity will develop than "if." We all know the plan by now. The Knicks have slowly built up a supporting cast for a star (or two) to be named later. They have the picks to go get that star. We're just waiting to fill in the blank. Would it make sense to trade the resurgent Julius Randle should an offer come along? Yea, probably. He's the most sensible salary filler in the building aside from Evan Fournier, and his fit with another high-usage ball-handler (especially now that Jalen Brunson has proven indispensable) isn't ideal, but overall, things are looking peachy in the Big Apple.
14. Dallas Mavericks: Nothing that happens this season, short of a Luka Doncic injury, actually matters. The Mavericks have no intention of winning this season. This is a gap year. They're running out the clock until June, when they will hand a top-10 protected first-round pick to the Knicks that officially completes the Kristaps Porzingis trade. When that time comes, they will be free to offer some team the full boat, four unprotected first-round picks and three unprotected swaps, for the sidekick that Doncic desperately needs. All they need to do now is tune out the noise for six more months. Just get to the summer with those picks intact and the plan starts to make sense again. And if they figure out which of their current role players might make sense on a team with Doncic and Eventual All-Star X? All the better.
Tier 4: What are we trying to do here?
13. Golden State Warriors: We know the two-timeline approach doesn't disqualify the Warriors from championship contention because, well, they just won the championship. But with Jordan Poole's extension kicking in next season and all reports indicating that the Warriors don't intend to pay a half-billion dollar payroll, they're going to have to pick a lane by this offseason. At least one of Poole, Andrew Wiggins, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green likely needs to go. That's not a complete blow-up, but it's a necessary move of consequence.
12. Los Angeles Lakers: The Lakers need to do something, because right now they have a team with limited short-term and long-term upside. The correct approach would've been trading Russell Westbrook and their draft picks in the offseason. They didn't do that. But they can't go in the other direction yet because LeBron James can't legally be traded until the offseason and Anthony Davis is injured. If the plan was never to trade picks, you could argue that the Lakers should've blown it up over the summer, when Davis and James would've fetched the best return, but the Lakers are vain enough to keep James with no intention to contend if it means watching him break the all-time scoring record in their uniform. Ultimately explosives of some sort are necessary here, but James and Davis are still All-NBA players. They should be trying to trade their way into contention, not out of it. Blowing it up only makes sense if they refuse to capitalize on the window James and Davis create. That might be a choice they made months ago, though, and if it is, it makes far more sense to tear this thing down over the summer than it would to try to half measure their way into the second round next season.
11. Miami Heat: The Heat get (and deserve) far more credit than the Lakers, but their situations are fairly similar. Their team, as presently constructed, is not good enough to win the championship. That is what the team was built to do. In a perfect world, they'd go up. If they could trade all of their remaining draft capital and some young talent for another star, they'd do it. But, well, that didn't get them Donovan Mitchell, and it likely won't get them the next star to hit the market. The alternative would be to get out of the remaining three years on Jimmy Butler's deal now while they have the chance. Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro are still young. The assets they'd gain from a Butler deal could be used to build a new winner around those two. If another star isn't coming, trading Butler is probably their best long-term option. Given his durability concerns, they might not have the chance a year from now.
10. Brooklyn Nets: The Nets have won seven games in a row as of this writing. That sort of optimism is somewhat remarkable in light of the last year or so they've endured, but there's just so much reason to believe that this is a mirage. Their plus-2.7 net rating is still somewhat suspect by contender status, and that's backed up by their unsustainable 12-3 record in the clutch. Speaking of unsustainable, the Nets are shooting a mind-boggling 51.8 percent on mid-range jumpers, and before you say "but Sam, they have Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving!" I'd point out that 51.8 percent is such a historic outlier that no other team in recorded NBA history has made more than 47.4 percent over a full season. Even the 2020-21 Nets, with Irving, Durant and James Harden, shot just 46.3 percent.
But say you're willing to ignore those red flags and genuinely believe the Nets are title contenders again. This group of players is so explosive that if the front office doesn't decide to blow things up, the roster will light the fuse itself. Do you trust Durant, Irving and Simmons to stay healthy for six more months? That trio played in just 308 combined games over the three previous seasons, not including this one. That's roughly 45 percent of the regular-season games their teams played in that span. Do you trust Irving not to ignite another controversy?
That's the real dilemma facing the Nets. At this moment, their play has granted them the leverage to move Durant for something close to fair value. There's no telling how long that leverage lasts. When the season ends, they have to make a decision about whether or not to re-sign Irving. That's as close to a no-win scenario as any contender can get. Bring him back and you've not only endorsed the prior actions you tried to condemn, but opened yourself up to anything else he might say or do moving forward. Let him go and you simply lack the resources to replace his talent. None of this matters if the Nets can win the title here and now, but the odds of that, even for a true favorite (as the Nets learned in 2021) are relatively low. This might be their last window to blow it up properly and get a head start on the next era of Nets basketball. As well as the last few weeks have gone, I'd advise them to take it.
9. Sacramento Kings: Twitter user @BigRorDawg summed up the situation Sacramento now finds itself in flawlessly, so I'll let him take it from here.
the Kings are like a farmer that traded a Ferrari for a tractor. Kings fans focus on how badly the tractor was needed. Everyone else focuses on how the Ferrari is worth more than the tractor.— BIG ROR DPOG (@BigRorDawg) November 30, 2022
(still working on this theory)
The Kings gave away a franchise player in Tyrese Haliburton. That happened. It's over. But the Kings are farmers, not socialites. Their goal isn't to win the championship. It's to make the playoffs. Domantas Sabonis is going to help them make the playoffs. Now, when we say that a team should "blow it up," we usually say so due to a lack of championship equity. The Kings don't have a shred of it. While their defense has improved to 19th with a strong recent stretch, Davion Mitchell is the only player in their rotation who could be described as a consistent and undeniable positive on that end of the floor. When the spring rolls around, playoff-caliber offenses are going to torture Sabonis in pick-and-roll due to his limited mobility and the Kings are going to get knocked out fairly early. We can all agree on that. By the traditional standards of blow-up ability, the Kings might as well have bathed in gasoline. But these humble farmers have waited 17 years for their playoff crop to come in, so let's just enjoy their first run of competitive basketball in nearly two decades and worry about the Ferrari they traded for it later.
8. Portland Trail Blazers: Portland is the organic, artisanal version of Sacramento. They're above .500! The offense rules! Damian Lillard is happy in Portland! That's all well and good, and if the goal here is to just remain competitive for Lillard's sake, they're doing swell. But their 22nd-ranked defense locks them out of the championship picture. That's going to be the case until they upgrade on Jusuf Nurkic (which won't be easy given his age, injury history and $70 million contract), and even then, their reliance on small guards limits their upside. Shaedon Sharpe has looked so promising that a star trade might be feasible if the right player hits the market, but the first-rounder they currently owe Chicago is protected so heavily that they effectively can't trade another first-rounder without removing those protections entirely.
Portland has already lost playoff series to Western Conference heavy-hitters Denver and Golden State with essentially this formula. The gap between it and the true up-and-comers like Memphis and New Orleans is widening by the day. A star trade is the Blazers' only path to closing that gap during Lillard's prime. If we're being honest with ourselves, their best chance to develop championship equity in the near future would be to deal Lillard while he'd still bring back a haul and then use that haul to ensure that their backcourt of the future, Sharpe and Anfernee Simons, has the size and defensive support around them that Lillard and CJ McCollum never did.
Of course, Lillard has made it clear that he doesn't want to be traded. That has seemingly taken a trade off the table. I'd like to remind the Blazers that teams are technically allowed to trade star players whether or not they want to be traded and that they should probably act in their own self interest, but Lillard is so beloved in the Portland community that they almost certainly won't. So here we are. There are worse fates than watching a team icon lose in their first round every spring, but the price of doing so is the knowledge that everyone involved could do better.
Tier 3: Let's talk in July
7. Atlanta Hawks: I don't think it's quite time to abandon this core. Trae Young's shooting is going to eventually regress to the mean. They can find a coach with more modern sensibilities to solve the fit between him and Dejounte Murray. There's still a fair bit of young talent here. It takes a lot to justify moving off a 24-year-old All-NBA point guard. We aren't there yet. But it's getting harder and harder to deny that all of the smoke here is coming from some sort of fire. There are almost certainly Young-related problems in that locker room, and the guy who traded for him, Travis Schlenk, is no longer running basketball operations after general manager Landry Fields was promoted into his chair. Young has four years left on his contract, but due to the CBA's restrictive rules governing extensions, Murray, who has just a year-and-a-half left on his deal, will almost certainly become an unrestricted free agent in 2024. That puts quite a bit of pressure on Fields to pick a direction sooner rather than later. If things haven't gotten better by July, they're going to have to explore something drastic. For now, though, focus on tweaking the supporting cast. I hear John Collins is available.
6. Minnesota Timberwolves: Let's get this out of the way: The Timberwolves should be trying to trade Rudy Gobert today. They won't because of the sunk-cost fallacy, but those five first-round picks they gave up are gone and not coming back. The Gobert experiment isn't working. He's going to get worse with age. If they act now, they could probably get off of the last three years of his contract and pick up an asset or two in the process. If they don't do this now, they're staring down the barrel of three more max salary years for an aging center who makes life harder for their two best players. No team has ever admitted its mistake on a trade of that magnitude so quickly. Frankly, no NBA general manager has ever been humble enough to do so, and odds are, new Timberwolves owners Alex Rodriguez and Marc Lore aren't either. But the alternative here would be wasting the two All-Stars who are already in the building.
Anthony Edwards has All-NBA potential. Karl-Anthony Towns was there a year ago. There is still time to put a coherent roster around the two of them. That gets significantly harder once Edwards signs his max extension this offseason. Keeping this current group together condemns the Edwards-Towns duo to the middle of the Western Conference for years to come. They have no cap flexibility or draft capital to improve with. Play this out too long and they might need to deal Towns just to salvage a future retooling around Edwards. If all of this sounds bleak, well, it should. That's what happens when you mess up the biggest trade in franchise history. There's not a good option here. We're choosing between a list of bad ones. At least moving Gobert now gives them time to figure something else out. They won't, though, and in all likelihood, that means things are going to get worse before they get better.
Tier 2: You might want to get ahead of this thing …
5. Toronto Raptors: There's nothing inherently wrong with Toronto's core. Things might look better if Scottie Barnes was having a better sophomore season, but the real problem facing the Raptors is the lack of depth. That's a fixable problem, but may not be forever. Fred VanVleet will be a free agent after the season. Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby will be in 2024. All three deserve sizable raises. While Barnes is still two-and-a-half years away from his second contract boosting his own salary, that expenditure has to inform the way the Raptors develop long-term roster plans. At their current numbers, those four players are cheap enough to surround with meaningful depth. The Raptors just haven't done a great job at it. But at their new prices? That job gets a good deal harder.
VanVleet's situation is the most pressing due simply to his impending free agency. That is what pushes Toronto into this tier: It may not even be able to wait until the summer to address his situation. If the Raptors don't plan to pay him, they need to start considering trades right away. If they do? All eyes point to Anunoby, Twitter's favorite trade candidate. He fits on all 30 teams. He also seems to want to handle the ball more often. The Raptors don't have touches to give him if VanVleet is staying. Looming over all of this is the fact that Siakam and VanVleet are seven years older than Barnes. There's going to be some prime overlap. We don't know how much.
The Raptors are less in need of a demolition than a few controlled blasts. What's the priority: the Barnes/Anunoby timeline or the Siakam/VanVleet timeline? Will they eventually decide to devote the resources currently going to one of the core four to a more traditional center? Or can they go the other way, diverting the depth concerns altogether by pooling all of their first-round picks with mid-tier salaries like Gary Trent Jr., Thaddeus Young and Chris Boucher to go for a fifth cornerstone and hope they can build a bench on the margins? There's not an obvious answer here. It just isn't the status quo. As much as we all enjoy their "everybody is 6-8" approach to basketball, the poor vibes and skill set redundancies are beginning to take a toll on the 14-18 Raptors. Fortunately, with Masai Ujiri at the helm, they are as well equipped to answer these questions as any team in basketball.
4. Utah Jazz: Remember the 2013-14 Phoenix Suns? They tried to tank and wound up winning 48 games behind Most Improved Player Goran Dragic. Two years later, they won 23 games. Something resembling that trajectory is probably what the Jazz should aim for, though frankly, they did such a good job in the Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert trades that 23 wins probably won't be realistic for a while. Still, that doesn't mean it makes sense to devote assets, and perhaps more importantly time, to this feel-good story. The entire purpose of trading Mitchell and Gobert was to get out the second-round purgatory those two were trapped in. You don't do that by, say, adding John Collins to a team led by Lauri Markkanen.
Danny Ainge knows this. He's the guy who traded Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, after all. So what's the play here? Markkanen and Collin Sexton are the only veterans under contract beyond next season, and there's slightly more urgency to move some of these guys than you might think. Jordan Clarkson has a player option for next season, and based on the way he's played, he's going to opt out of it and ask for a bigger deal. Giving it to him locks the Jazz into that treadmill. Is a Markkanen trade feasible? Well, history says yes. Remember, the Suns traded Dragic less than a year after he was named an All-NBA guard. That deal not only pushed them to the bottom of the league, but they eventually used one of the picks they received in the trade to move up for Mikal Bridges. The Jazz don't have to rush into a Markkanen trade. If he keeps playing like an All-Star, Utah would be entirely justified in keeping him.
But the entire goal here is to land stars who can vault the Jazz into the title picture. Tanking is the easiest way to get those players. Some teams might be able to parlay the mountain of picks Ainge has accumulated into such players, but will those players want to stay in Utah? Sure, they could try to use those picks to trade up in the draft and grab those players before they're famous, but that's easier said than done. Sam Presti tried to do just that in 2021 by trading up for Evan Mobley. The Cavs didn't bite. When it comes to draft picks, quality beats quantity. Ainge's last contender was built around two No. 3 overall picks. It might take him a year or two to strip this team down far enough to get there, but he's going to do so eventually.
Tier 1: Can I offer you this lit match?
3. Charlotte Hornets: To borrow a point from the great John Hollinger, the Hornets are the rare team that does literally every element of roster-building badly. They are preposterously cheap, generally bad at scouting and perpetually fighting for a No. 8 seed. The Gordon Hayward contract made no sense at the time. Terry Rozier's deal was even more perplexing. Everybody not named LaMelo Ball should be available right now. Given this front office's many shortcomings, its only real hope of salvation is the lottery.
And. hey, if Victor Wembanyama is wearing teal next season? Things will probably work out OK. In the likelier event that he isn't, we really need to start wondering what their plan to contend around Ball really is, because on paper, he is exactly the sort of superstar who should decline a rookie extension and plan to exit Charlotte as a 2025 unrestricted free agent by means of his qualifying offer. He earns enough off the court to take the risk of declining a guaranteed max contract (and it doesn't hurt that he has another wealthy NBA player in the family), his family's history suggests that he'd rather be in a big market, and even if he wouldn't, the Hornets are giving him little reason to believe in their future. If the lottery gods don't smile on them in May, it might make sense to look into Ball trades preemptively. Better that than wait for him to force your hand later.
2. Chicago Bulls: Forget about the age, the injuries and the top-four protected picks owed to the Orlando Magic for a moment. If anyone argues that the Bulls shouldn't blow it up and should instead wait for this team to get healthy, gently remind them that the team they would be waiting for got outscored last season. The Bulls scored 9,152 points last season and allowed 9,184. Considering the age and durability concerns for DeMar DeRozan, Zach LaVine, Nikola Vucevic and Lonzo Ball, it's hard to imagine a better outcome from that quartet than playing in 76 percent of Chicago's games. That's what they did a season ago, and that best-case scenario led to a negative point-differential. That isn't a team worth preserving. Literally everyone should be on the table. The Bulls saw themselves what one great draft pick can do when they handed Wagner to Orlando on a silver platter. If they have any path to those two juicy future Lakers picks, they have to take it. Even if they don't, it's time to start gearing up for the 2024 draft. And if they, at 13-18, can sneak into the bottom four on lottery night? Then that's just the cherry on top.
1. Washington Wizards: Washington's commitment to winning 35 games instead of 25 used to be cute. It's about to get dangerous. Bradley Beal's five-year deal (no-trade clause included) is going to look ugly in a year or two if he doesn't start making 3s again. Kyle Kuzma is already planting seeds for his eventual exit, and if Washington is relying on Kristaps Porzingis to be Beal's sidekick, well, just ask Dallas how that will go. None of Washington's recent lottery picks has popped offensively. Johnny Davis has been unplayable as a rookie. Monte Morris, Will Barton and Delon Wright are here for reasons that remain unclear.
The Wizards are going to be a 20-win team in two or three years. That's going to happen. It's inevitable. They can choose to get there proactively and productively by trading Beal and Kuzma for value while they have the chance and letting Porzingis walk at the end of his contract. Or they can have tanking forced upon them when their best players age or injure themselves out of productivity. For now, the choice is theirs. In a couple of months, it won't be.