JBL Division Division Power Rankings + Team Ponderings Pt. 2
- By Austin Simpson, Day 1, 2024
The Central has had strong and weak teams in the past. The Jailbirds, Kings, and even the Mustangs have been competitive. The Vipers and Colonels are still looking to build a winning culture, but could be very close this season. I see the Central as a poor overall conference in 2023, that can move into the top conference conversation in the next two years. That mainly depends on the rebuilding teams of Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Louisville, who have 3 of the top 4 picks in the upcoming draft.
The Pittsburgh Vipers have had a rough history; never really gaining any traction – they hope bringing in a more experience and respected GM will turn things around. Regardless they were a pretty bad team last year. In fact they had the 2nd worst net rating, behind the Nashville Stars who were tanking for their future. Did I say tanking? I meant focusing on their undeveloped young players. Pittsburgh also tied with the Colonels for worst defensive rating in the JBL. When I look at this team I think “Where are your players?” and “Why would someone leave the Las Vegas Scorpions for this pile?”. Sure Kendrick Hill is a good player and Treyvon Miller looks like the starter of the future for Pittsburgh, but outside that they are a little bare. The acquisition of Pace LaGarde was a great move and the Vipers hold the #4 selection in the draft where they can grab a great, young player. Even if I have great confidence in the new GM to turn this around it will be a long rebuild, hell Tyler Davis has 3 years and $84M left on his deal. Andrew (Kings) GM said it best, the Vipers are pulling the Central down. This team will likely start at a slow rebuild, but how much patience does RKG have? If the line was at 1.5 seasons for the rebuild in Pittsburgh, I’m betting the under.
The Louisville Colonels also had a bad team last year. 3rd worst net rating and tied with the Vipers for worst defensive rating. The only difference between the Vipers and Colonels, is the Colonels have some good players. I love what Louisville has done in the offseason so far – trading #5 + future Tritons 1st for #3 and Randall Dozier (in aggregate). Pretty amazing haul right there. I think we will be looking at GMotY for the Colonels in 2024. This team can trot out a starting line up of Kuberka/Knox/Akele/Dozier/Bogdanovic and that doesn’t include their #3 pick. They will likely have their pick between Colton Gregory, Eric Greely, and Keyshawn Benjamin. If I were them I’d be looking to grab Gregory, but I may be infatuated. I think the biggest question for Louisville is what other moves will they make? Louisville will likely look to trade Kuberka, but I’m not sure what return they will be able to get for a 35 year old PG making $23.5M.
The Detroit Mustangs were the lucky winners of the JBL Lottery. They now have the ability to select a future JBL All-star in Josiah Robinson. After workouts were released, it seems like Robinson is the clear cut favorite and a no-brainer for Detroit. Putting Josiah with JaDante Hicks, Isaiah McCarty, and recently acquired Stephen Hood should put this team on the map very quickly. The Mustangs also have ~$26M in cap space to fill out the rest of their roster. All the talk in Detroit is about Robinson, so of course our question should be, can Josiah Robinson win an all-star nomination in his rookie year? Wouldn’t that be exciting! Detroit is another team that can put themselves in GMotY conversation by improving on their win total. They have the ability to get into the playoffs with the money and prospects coming their way.
The Cincinnati Kings have had back to back 50+ win seasons, but also 2nd round playoff exits as a 4th seeded team. They have a well-built team around Richmond Benson (love that contract), Latrell Mason, ‘Poke, Detrez Owens, and the crown Prince of DeMarco. That’s really only 2/3rds of their good players, and most of whom will likely improve. The Kings look poised to take over the top Central spot from the Jailbirds in 2024, but what happens when these players on rookie contracts want more money? The Kings have some decisions to make in 2025 with Owens, Thybulle, Vickery, and Foreman looking to get paid. Will they move one, or more, this season to avoid the dilemma? In my opinion the likely scenario is the Kings keep the core together try to win a championship and get knocked out of the second round.
In my first two years as the Jailbirds GM we have won 60 and 59 wins, with a 2nd round and conference final exit as a 3rd seeded team. We have not shied away from trading a pick or two to secure a backup player for contention, but that hasn’t really worked out for us. We are feeling the cap constraint more than ever and are facing tough decisions, which I’ve outlined previously. We have 5 players under contract and $20M in cap space. Rasheed Stone + DeAngelo Tarver are restricted free agents and will likely be back with the team. The question I have for myself is, can we keep this group together without having an insanely bloated bill to pay? I don’t want to lose and thus will not rebuild, but 2024 might be a year to take a step back if the $$ get too big. We have the 24th and 29th pick in the draft, where we will likely address backup positions and insurance options for our free agent players, or players in trade discussions.
The Southeast is a division full of 40 win teams…and Nashville who will likely bottom out again in 2024. This division is hard to peg for next season because mostly all the teams could go one way or the other, depending on who they draft, sign, or trade. Very much up in the air.
The Nashville Stars had a painful 2023 season. They had the worst net rating and lowest wins total in the JBL. They also went through the turmoil of a whining diva, who was probably a little in the right, as he expressed the desire to be on another team or for the team to start winning. Nashville is a team that will be rebuilding again without question. There’s not enough on the team for them to be competitive and they are a year away, from being a year away. They got away from Craig and have a boatload of picks. Nashville owns the #2, #11, #16, #26, and #31. They have a really good opportunity to hit on some picks here. The biggest question is who will the Stars select at #2, #11, and #16 – the most important picks they own. I think they shy away from Benjamin – who wants another immature but uber talented SF. They should go best player available for all picks. Colton Gregory would be a great player to pair with Brandon Weir and someone will likely falls to #11.
The Atlanta Devils have been hovering around 40 wins the last 3 seasons on average and could see a jump towards 50 wins in 2024. They rank in the bottom 6 in defensive rating and top 8 in offensive rating. Taquan Slattery has yet to hit is peak and could be in contention for the scoring title. Atlanta will likely need marked improvements from Dominique Harmon + Cortez Ellison in order to do so. They should consider trading Marques Thomas to make room for a PG of the future in Atlanta. The player will likely come from the draft and the Devils own the 12th selection. If Devonte Hale and Jamal Johnson are off the board, who will the Devils take? Would they make a slight reach for Marcus Richardson? Will they look at backup wing? If I were them and my point guards were taken, I’d consider trading down.
The New Orleans Hurricanes have been slightly better than the Devils, and rank similarly in offensive rating and a point better in defensive rating. The Hurricanes are a team who I can see taking a step back. I’m not sure they are happy with their low seed and 1st round exits in the past few years; who would be. They have some attractive pieces in Ryan Pierce and Leon Bowen, who could fetch some nice assets to rebuild or change direction. They also have Demarr Wilson, who was one of my favorite draft picks last year (I was looking to get a late 1st round pick to get him and wasn’t able to), and Deron Bently who will likely get a solid offer next year as a restricted free agent. They are likely set at the wing position and are in need of a good point guard. With $15M in cap space I think they are a team that could look at securing that position in free agency, but don’t see a match. Maybe they throw a bid on DeAngelo Tarver, only to find the Jailbirds to match the offer. The Hurricanes are at a cross roads, which way will they go?
The Charlotte Drones had a tremendous improvement from last year – significant enough to win the GMotY award. The Drones look to take another step towards contention this season with ~$39M in cap space, where they will look to plug some holes in their front court. They are set at the PG position with Isaiah Leonard averaging 12.8 pts and 9.3 assists per 36 this past year and SG position with Raefael Williams who was a great pick with the #5 selection last year. Some of Charlottes success next year relies on how well Lucas Rush plays. He averaged 27 ppg per 36 min. last season, which was his best as a 28 year old player. Will Lucas Rush be as effective in 2024? Has he hit his peak and will we see a decline? I think so, but the young players in Charlotte will likely pick up the slack.
The Miami Cyclones found themselves at the top of the Southeast division last year with 45 wins. In fact, they have been the division favorite since the Nashville Stars fell into the abyss. The team is headlined by Kelvin Black and Josh Gamble, both All-Star level talents. It’s a great tandem to have: a great ball handling + passing point guard and an anchor in the post. Surround those players with shooters and watch out. I’d love to see Donnell Wallace in Miami with Gamble – I think that would be a fun team to watch. Miami looks to be the top team in their division again, but there are rumblings about possibly trading Black or Gamble, whom are both free agents next season. I don’t think I’d hit the reset button so quickly in Miami. Both players would bring in quite the haul if traded, but there’s $46M in cap space to be spent. Jermaine Curry will likely want a sizeable amount and is the type of shooter I think pairs well with Gamble. The down side is he’s undersized and not a plus defender. Do you pay $20M+ for a player like that, especially considering the raises Gamble + Black will want? I think the move for Miami is to keep Black + Gamble, let Curry walk and fill the team with medium sized contracts and hope you hit gold.
No one likes to be last and I’m sorry to the Midwest division but you had 4 lottery teams and the only playoff team was the 8 seed. There were some surprises going both ways in this division and ultimately produced the lowest average wins in the JBL.
The Minneapolis Blizzards have improved each year since they were introduced as an expansion team. From 1 win, to 4 wins, and another 4 wins they are slow and steady. But if they hit 30 wins this upcoming season, is that really a positive? I thought the Blizzards were better served keeping the 3rd overall selection in the 2024 draft, but instead traded it for the #8 and a future Tritons 1st. I think the thought process for future picks is fool’s gold. You look at a team and say “wow that team was a late lottery again and their best player is going into free agency, this pick is very valuable”, but teams can change direction quickly. Picks that were once prized possessions can see a significant drop in value overnight. The Blizzards still have a few solid players. Donovan Galloway + Donovan Mobley (The Dons) look like legit players to build around. Donnell Wallace had the best season of his career, by a large margin. I did not like the sign and trade of Wallace at first, but I think it’s worked very well. Maybe I’ll be wrong about the trade down to #8, what do I know? I think the Blizzards’ 2024 season depends on Deleon Slay. Is he going to take that next step? He’s big, athletic, and has all the potential in the world for a PG – if the Blizzards vault into the playoffs it’s because of Slay’s development. The Blizzards have a large chunk of cap, ~$38M, which could bring a max level free agent. Both Mock Drafts have Minneapolis selecting Collin Webster with the 8th pick and they do need a big man. The best player available at this spot is likely Hale or Johnson, but Minneapolis has no PG need. Would a trade to division rival Kansas City for Kelvin Hawes make sense? The Blizzards certainly have some assets to get the deal done.
The Houston Lightning went from 61 wins in 2022 to 28 wins in 2023, which is a pretty significant drop. They made some trades under new management and now the rebuild is on. The Lightning still have Antoine Hall who could be extended next season at 30, or traded this season for more rebuilding assets. Houston has a good prospect in Jarell Harrison and the 5th overall selection in the 2024 JBL draft. They have the choice of SG’s Spencer Allen and Terrell Sanford, with Allen the very likely pick. Spencer Allen is likely the future of the Houston Lightning and their team should focus on that. Figure out what players would work best with him and build a strong locker room culture. Houston is likely looking at another lottery pick next year and should do what they can to have the best prospect to pair with Allen going forward.
The Oklahoma City Barons impressed many early in the 2023 season. They posted a league high offensive rating and were winning games. The team is led by Jamar Strickland, who is still posting great scoring and assist numbers, and young wing Idris Berkley. Berkley has lost some production over the past few seasons and it will be interesting to see if that trend continues. Is Berkley a top level prospect who hit his prime at 18 years old? There’s little to no way in hell that’s possible. The Barons have $34M in cap space and the #10 selection in the draft. There are many scenarios that could play out how they round out the roster. I think they need to look forward to their center of the future, but don’t see that guy in this draft at #10. Maybe they bid on Hawes as well? Although Strickland is good but he is aging much like Crooks; I can see the Barons taking a PG. Yes they do need some good defenders and Hayes projects to be that, but I think that’s a little bit of a reach.
The St. Louis Skyhawks were thought to be a playoff team before the season started and just really didn’t get the production they expected. Rubin Wingfield is still really good and Mark Hunter is heading into his prime. DeAnthony Hunter and Malik Phillips will look to improve and the Skyhawks will have $20M to spend on free agency. St. Louis has a few decisions to make. They have some solid players and can find themselves back in the playoffs. They have the #9 selection in the draft where they have been mocked to take Devonte Hale and Deon Hellums. Both are good players, but I give Hale the edge. If the Skyhawks have Wingfield, would they be best trading down or possibly out of the draft? Wingfield, Hunter and another star player who’s ready to win now would be their quickest road. Or, do they take a step back and trade Wingfield, draft Hale and rebuild while Hunter has yet to hit his prime.
The Kansas City Knights have the most excitement surrounding them this offseason because they have the best player in the JBL hitting the open market. Kelvin Hawes is in the prime of his career and is reportedly testing the market. He’s a max level All-star who can bring any team into contention, but there’s been rumors Kansas City will entertain sign and trades for Hawes. The price is likely high, but I’m sure many are willing to pay it. KC also has the 19th and 21st selections in the draft and looking to trade up. There are a few teams in the late lottery that could pair well as a partner. They could also attach Shandon James for a higher pick. The biggest question this offseason: where will Kelvin Hawes play? And if it’s not in Kansas City, what will their rebuild ultimately look like?