Every year, each team tries to convince its season-ticket holders that it can win the championship. We all know that that is a fairy tale in a league where talent always wins out, but it doesn't mean that every franchise doesn't have a shot to win the title five years from now.
The balance of power can shift quickly in the NBA these days, and any team that makes a few savvy moves can start contending (just ask Memphis).
Of course, the Kings, Raptors and Cavaliers of the world may seem eons away from a ring. They probably are. But if they follow these three steps, even they will be a lot closer to hosting a parade than they are today.
Step 1: Hire a GM who understands the value of players relative to the value of salary cap flexibility. Fortunately, in Danny Ferry, it looks like this has already been accomplished.
After a first-round playoff exit last season, the writing on the wall turned into a blaring siren that a team built around Joe Johnson, Al Horford and Josh Smith had run its course. Ferry came in and began to clean house, moving Johnson's millstone contract for spare parts and cutting bait on Marvin Williams.
Step 2: Let Josh Smith walk.
Some team is going to be willing to overpay Smoove next season. If it's the Hawks, they're probably in trouble.
While his talent and versatility far outweigh his negatives, there will likely be more value in rejuvenating the franchise with other assets—especially if Smith's former AAU teammate wants out of L.A.
Step 3: Convince Dwight Howard to sign.
While most think retaining Smith would increase the odds that his friend Howard would come to Atlanta, the better team could be built around Dwight, Horford, Jeff Teague, Lou Williams and Kyle Korver.
It's certainly a long shot (and trading Horford for picks while retaining Smith and signing Dwight could also make a good squad) but if Howard really is interested in making a title run in the next few years, he might want to consider such a scenario. If he did, his new team would immediately be as good as—or better than—any team besides Miami in the East.
Step 1: Sell, sell, sell.
Re-signing Kevin Garnett to keep the ol' band together may have made sense after the team took the Heat to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals, but that was a wounded Miami team.
The desire to make one last run at the title by marrying themselves to two more years of KG—and "shoring up" the rotation by giving Jeff Green an insane contract—is only going to delay the inevitable and make the transition to the franchise's next era more painful.
It's time to accept that this team can't win the championship and sell the high-salaried players for any assets Danny Ainge can get back.
Step 2: Build around the back court.
With Rajon Rondo on the league's best contract and Avery Bradley playing on a rookie deal, the Celtics have an opportunity to pivot towards the future without backsliding to the bottom of the league.
The transition will be difficult given all the extra contracts hanging over the roster, but if they can get out from under even just KG and Jason Terry next summer, they will be well positioned to rebuild.
Step 3: Develop the rookies, keep drafting well and make a big trade.
The Celtics being the Celtics, they will always be on trade away from contention. So as Ainge prepares to make his next major deal, it becomes critical to ensure that guys like Jared Sullinger and Fab Melo continue to develop and retain their trade value.
The same goes for the next draft or two. And with guys like Courtney Lee and Brandon Bass around, Boston may be able to flip a few prospects for a productive front court veteran who will help Rondo and Bradley bring this team back towards the conference elite just as Dwyane Wade's legs are falling off.
Step 1: Stay the course.
This roster looks like it will never have enough to win it all. But the salary situation means the front office has almost no leeway to add pieces without giving up too much. So the plan must become surrounding the team with good coaches and a drama-free environment that helps it improve from within.
Step 2: Draft exquisitely.
The starting lineup is solid, but the Nets will need to fill out a viable rotation to get past Miami.
Sure, the Heat have enough top-tier talent to scrape by with the Norris Coles and Joel Anthonys of the world playing significant minutes, but Brooklyn will need better production from its eighth man to win a title. They hope MarShon Brooks, Andray Blatche and Mirza Teletovic can add that second-unit certainty, but the results remain mixed thus far.
The reality is that they will need at least one young player to show up and create some huge playoff moments.
Step 3: Pray Brook Lopez keeps getting better.
With Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Gerald Wallace and Kris Humphries, we basically know what we're going to get.
Brook remains the wild card. There is some evidence he can become a dominant offensive force, but consistency has been the issue. They will need to see a lot fewer three-game stretches of futility for Brooklyn to say hello to a ring.
Step 1: Don't stop the youth movement.
With Kemba Walker and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, this team may have stuck gold. Who knew Walker was this good?
The team must stay on this path, eschewing middling veterans and instead letting the "Bobkitties" nickname become accurate for its players' average age instead of their harmlessness.
Step 2: Continue not listening to anyone.
This team didn't go from laughingstock to upstart by taking the advice of others. Instead it "wasted" its two top-10 picks in the 2011 Draft on a NCAA champion who couldn't translate to the NBA (Walker) and a too-raw project from the Congo (Bismack Biyombo). Then they hired a college assistant coach who would be tuned out by professionals.
Just like everyone said they shouldn't.
Step 3: Don't try to get good too quickly.
Charlotte's three most important players have a combined age of 61 and a combined salary of just $9 million. The team also has no significant long-term salary problems.
As the current larger contracts continue to fall away, management needs to spend wisely and not commit its expanding cap space to middling veterans long-term—something the franchise has been too willing to do in the past.
Maintaining spending discipline until somebody worth paying comes along, combined with more solid drafting, could turn the Bobcats into one of the best teams in the East by 2015.
Step 1: Cross their fingers.
If Derrick Rose returns from his knee injury and can be 100% entering next season, there isn't much in the way of Chicago again being a title favorite.
Step 2: Amnesty Carlos Boozer. And soon.
Owed $15 million for his services this season and another $32 million over the next two years, Boozer is a financial burden that, if not waived, will prohibit the Bulls from adding much of anything to their roster until the summer of 2015. It's time to cut ties with an aging player who is a major liability on the defensive end.
Step 3: Improve the bench.
Losing Omer Asik, Kyle Korver and Ronnie Brewer from the team that finished the lockout season with the league's best record was a huge blow. Even when Rose is fully back, the team will be much worse off than it was.
These weren't irreplaceable role players—and the Boozer money will help—so it will be more about finding the right guys in free agency than chasing flashy names. A guy like JJ Redick or David West—if convinced to sign for below their market value—could make all the difference.
Step 1: Test Dion Waiters.
The recent Kyrie Irving injury has made the Cavaliers virtually unwatchable.
But it may be a blessing in disguise, as it will give management a chance to see if Waiters will be good enough to give Cleveland one of the league's best back courts upon Irving's return.
Step 2: Trade Anderson Varejao.
This season is toast, and as much as having Andy around to help teach others how to play would help, you just can't retain an asset with this much value. It's time to cash in his current talents for those that will help out when the team actually has a chance, namely picks and promising players on rookie deals.
Step 3: Draft your backup center's brother.
The Cavs already have Tyler Zeller. Now they need his younger brother Cody.
If the team can get a top-three pick, it will have a decision to make as to which elite big man to draft (Nerlens Noel or Rudy Gobert may prove better options by next June). But they do need to go big.
Kyrie is the perimeter All-Star every team dreams about. A similarly skilled big man is what they need.
Step 1: Don't rush Dirk back.
When Nowitzki first went down to injury, it didn't sound that serious. But as his weeks on the sideline have piled up, this has become a situation that must be handled carefully.
There is nothing to rush back for. Dirk should only come back when he is 100%.
Step 2: Woo Dwight.
As the Lakers' season continues to be shrouded in controversy, scrutiny and hype, Howard may be looking for an out next summer.
Everyone knows Mark Cuban wants him in Dallas. All that's left to do is convince the big fella.
Step 3: Re-sign Darren Collison and find some defensive specialists.
The Mavs were gifted Collison last summer and can't afford to lose a viable starting point guard who can add some youth and energy to an aging roster.
Similarly, the team's rotation will only have—in Dwight and Shawn Marion—two players known to play any defense. They will need more than that to have a chance in the West.
Step 1: Develop JaVale McGee.
Like it or not, Nuggets fans are likely stuck with JaVale and his antics for the foreseeable future.
That is both a blessing and a curse, but if the team plays its hand right and finds a way to help him reach his maximum potential, they could have one of the most athletic big men the league has ever seen manning the paint on both ends of the floor.
Step 2: Trade Danilo Galinari and Andre Miller.
There aren't many teams that have fared well trading Dre—mostly because GMs seem to underrate him as much as fans do. But this year's team isn't winning anything and needs to be better positioned for the future.
The other path that makes sense is following through on what the wallet told us this summer: the team is committed to Ty Lawson and McGee. It only makes sense to re-sign Andre Iguodala as well, leaving Miller (too old) and Gallo (arrested development) as the assets to move now.
Step 3: Embrace the pace.
Denver has a built-in home court advantage, and they should literally push this as much as they can. Few teams in this league will be able to run with Lawson, Iggy and McGee.
And if the rest of the roster is filled out to increase this advantage, the Nuggets will have a chance to win any playoff series.
Step 1: Burn it down.
Greg Monroe is the only player that GM Joe Dumars should go out of his way to retain.
The litany of bad decisions clogging up his salary cap are beginning to dissipate, however, so if he can unload some of the decent-but-overpaid players and kick start this rebuild, the team may have a fighting chance in a few years.
Step 2: Make a decision on Brandon Knight.
After Monroe, Knight is the obvious prize on this roster. But is he really the guy you want to build around?
The better option may be pairing him in a trade with, say, Rodney Stuckey or Jason Maxiell to entice some other mid-rebuild team to part with their picks.
Step 3: Draft well.
Detroit will be getting some good picks of its own the next few years and should be doing everything it can to acquire a few more.
The team knows all too well what happens when you blow a draft—ask Darko—and it must make better decisions in the years to come. It's the only path to title contention. No major free agent is signing a deal to play in Detroit with this roster.
Step 1: Stop stepping on cracks and walking under ladders.
The health situation in Golden State is dire, and it will be difficult for anything to improve until its players' ankles do.
Step 2: Stop being idiots, turn into geniuses.
Amnestying Charlie Bell remains one of the most puzzling decisions any NBA team has made in years, and the result is Andris Biedrins' rotting corpse stinking up the Warriors' locker room.
Now, management needs to not only stop making bad decisions but come up with a way to solve a seemingly solution-less puzzle: Next year, Steph Curry, Andrew Bogut, David Lee, Richard Jefferson and Biedrins will account for almost 100% of the team's salary cap, and no player seems movable. Until the team figures out how to get out from under some of these commitments, there seems little leeway to get better.
Step 3: Pack your bags for San Francisco.
With so much money tied up in players who clearly won't win them a title, this team is truly trapped in mediocrity for a few more seasons. But fans can look forward to a time when a bigger market—combined with a willingness to spend—may lead to a win total more in line with how much the team pays out in salary.
Step 1: Sign Josh Smith.
With James Harden and Jeremy Lin manning the guard spots, this team needs a high-level front court player.
Combined with Omer Asik, Smith can create a dominant interior defensive force while adding the needed versatility and scoring punch on the other end.
Step 2: Re-ignite Linsanity.
Lin can't find a way to put the ball in the basket, and Kevin McHale needs to find ways to make use of his talents with the ball in his hands. With the offense so often dominated by Harden, this will remain a delicate balance, but this team will need both of them to be great to have any shot at the title in the years to come.
Step 3: Have Kevin McHale teach the post players to score on the block.
The issue with Josh Smith has always been the possessions he wastes by shooting too many long jumpers. Especially in Houston, where Harden likes to do some of that himself, that would really hamper the offense.
Instead, McHale needs to show tape of himself to Smith—as well as Asik and Terrence Jones—to show him ways to score down low.
Step 1: Hope Paul George becomes an All-NBA player.
The Pacers seemingly locked themselves into mediocrity by signing Roy Hibbert and George Hill to large, long-term contracts this summer.
At this point, the only hope for them to ascend any further in the near future lies with George becoming a lot better—and fast.
Step 2: Re-sign David West.
Since they're probably stuck with the roster they have, Indiana may as well keep the whole thing together and hope the team can continue to improve from within.
As Danny Granger returns and Hibbert pulls out of his slump, the team will just have to recapture the proficiency it showed last season and grow from there. Because there is no quick road to rebuild even if they did decide to burn the roster down.
Step 3: Find a diamond in the draft.
There seems to be little chance that the players currently under contract will ever lead the Pacers to a title. So this squad needs to dig deep and find someone great in the draft.
They missed an opportunity to reach for a potential star last year by drafting Miles Plumlee. They can't afford to make any such risk-averse picks in the coming years.
Step 1: Fire Vinny Del Negro.
I don't like advocating for anyone to lose their job, but enough is enough.
This team now has legitimate championship hopes this season, and Chris Paul may not have another five elite years left in him. Carpe diem.
Step 2: Be prepared to waive Lamar Odom and trade anyone who gripes about playing time.
While having too many rotation players may seem like a good problem, there could be chemistry problems once Grant Hill and Chauncey Billups return.
Right now—with Jamal Crawford playing great, Eric Bledsoe finally getting some run, Caron Butler doing OK, and Matt Barnes getting his minutes—all is well. But especially as the adversity mounts (like this current three-game losing streak), all these players may grow increasingly troubled by the long stints they spend on the bench. Management can't let that upset what seems poised to be a good run at a championship.
Step 3: Stress the defense.
This year's team has remained an offensive juggernaut, but its ascension to true contender status has been created by its now-stalwart D.
The new coach must continue to stress this to the players and ensure that the Lob City mantra is overshadowed by Defensive Rotationsville and Helpside Play Township.
Step 1: Relax.
You've already fired your coach in favor of a guy still recovering from a knee replacement.
Sure, nobody in Los Angeles is happy with a .500 record, and a two-game losing streak rekindled the "shoulda hired Phil" talk. But this team has made almost all the moves it can at this point, so everyone just needs to remain calm.
Step 2: Keep feeding magic beans to Metta World Peace.
Your starring small forward—an aging, spotty-shooting former Defensive Player of the Year—is hitting almost 40% of his three-pointers after two years of not even hitting two-pointers at that rate. Whatever it is you're telling him or putting him on the court to succeed, keep it up.
Step 3: Don't trade Pau.
This roster isn't ideal for Mike D'Antoni's system, but Gasol and Kobe have played together long enough for that to outweigh any limitations that may be created by having two 7-footers clogging up the interior.
In the past six months, this franchise has traded for the league's best center, acquired a Hall of Fame point guard, fired a coach, hired another and tried to institute two new offenses.
Don't make anymore panic moves that will create as many new problems as they do solutions. Just put your players on the floor and trust that talent will win out—as it has throughout NBA history.
Step 1: Full speed ahead.
This team has its first and best shot at a title right now. If they're smart, they won't do a thing. Everyone is finally healthy and the team chemistry is reportedly great.
Step 2: Keep your eyes peeled.
Each year, some player is bought out after a trade or waived. Miami and Los Angeles are the marquee destinations for such players, who are looking for a winning situation more than money.
Memphis exec Chris Wallace needs to make sure he is a player in this market, however. He shouldn't be looking to get rid of any players he has in a trade, but if someone valuable becomes available, he should be sending that player's mom flowers.
Step 3: Don't get hurt.
This isn't so much a plan as a hope, but injuries are what have marginalized Memphis' chances the last two years.
But Zach Randolph and Rudy Gay are both 100% this time, so the only thing that looks to be standing in the way of the title this season (other than Miami) is the training room.
Step 1: Do nothing.
Pat Riley surrounded his all-world talent with an army of three-point shooters.
The early struggles of Dwyane Wade—especially after his play for much of last year's playoffs—are a concern. Especially if the team hopes to win not two,not three, but four rings.
But this season, with LeBron playing the best basketball we have seen since Michael Jordan ruled the Windy City, the road to a title runs through South Beach.
Step 2: Keep Flash healthy.
Wade doesn't need to be MVP-like in all four wins of every Miami playoff series. But he must have a knee that is structurally sound enough to put up at least one or two stellar performances each round. Just like he did last season.
Step 3: Make shots.
Ray Allen, Rashard Lewis, Mike Miller, Shane Battier and even James Jones will get open shots in the playoffs. They just have to make them.
In the second round last year against the Pacers, the supporting cast missed way too many good looks, and Indiana took an 2-1 lead in the series. It was no coincidence that Miami started to cruise once the threes started falling.
Expect more of the same this postseason.
Step 1: Pay Brandon Jennings.
He is dynamic, getting better and, most importantly, already in Milwaukee.
Unfortunately, for teams like the Bucks, that third part is often the hardest to find, since so few NBA free agents have any interest in signing to play in Wisconsin. Even if he may demand a little more than they want to pay, Milwaukee can't afford to not pay Jennings.
Step 2: Find somebody, anybody, to take Drew Gooden.
About 15 teams have done it in the past, so I suppose it might be conceivable.
The team already (apparently) shot itself in the foot by giving Ersan Illysova way too much money. They can't have both he and Gooden miring up their salary cap. Instead, they need to dump Drew (and anyone else who isn't useful) and try to create more room to sign a useful player his summer.
Step 3: Remember the past and make only smart moves this summer.
With at least $10 million to spend this offseason (even after re-signing Jennings), Milwaukee cannot replicate its disastrous summer of 2010, when it gave Gooden and John Salmons some $70 million.
It will be difficult to get any major name, but they need to find someone who can contribute in line with their compensation. The draft will also be key, and the front office needs to at least consider moving Monta Ellis if there are suitors that will offer various younger assets.
Step 1: Get healthy.
This is obvious, but it really is the only thing holding this team back from making the jump towards contenders status.
Step 2: Give Ricky Rubio the car keys.
From what we have seen, Rubio is among the most skilled passers to enter the league in more than a decade. And with shooters and finishers all around, he will be able to create instant offense.
Let him do it.
Step 3: Be patient with Rick Adelman.
This season may ultimately be disappointing given the murderer's row of injuries the team has suffered. But that will be no reason to do anything rash.
Adelman is among the best coaches in history, and he must be given a long leash over the next two to three years to help Rubio, Love and the others figure out how to excel in his system. Once they do, if team executive David Kahn can add a few supporting pieces, this squad could be scary.
Step 1: Figure out if Eric Gordon can ever be happy playing for this franchise.
His behavior over the past six months has not been encouraging, but the team needs to know if he can get over his hurt feelings to return as the scoring leader this team needs. If he cannot, figure out if there is another team that is willing to take on what already looks to be a terrible contract.
Step 2: Find a cure for ankle injuries.
In Anthony Davis and Gordon, the Hornets are ahead of many franchises on this list in that they already employ what could be two key cogs on a title team. But these guys will never reach their potential while sitting in the training room.
Step 3: Hire Stan Van Gundy.
I like Monty Williams, but the SVG offense is the quickest thing that can make this team a contender.
Davis can replicate what Dwight did defensively, Robin Lopez can play the Marcin Gortat backup role, and Ryan Anderson can be Ryan Anderson. Whether or not Gordon—a great shooter—is around or not, the rest of the roster will be much easier to fill out if you're looking for a few "D and three" guys as opposed to trying to find another superstar. It nearly worked in Orlando, and if Davis is really the force he has been billed as, it might have New Orleans sniffing the Finals in four or five years.
Step 1: Get Amar'e to come off the bench.
The Knicks, for the first time since the 1990s, really have something going right now.
They look like the only elite team in the East other than Miami, and they need to be ready to pounce if the Heat stumble. That means putting the best team on the floor—not one with internal conflict.
If Stoudemire is honest with himself, he should know that his game has slipped and that the team he returns to is one that barely needs him at all, let alone mucking up a starting lineup that has been playing great ball. NBA egos being what they are, however, convincing him of this fact may be easier said than done. But it is imperative. There is virtually no way any other GM will trade for him, and the only other option (cutting him and spreading out his remaining salary over the next five years) will hamper the team's finances too severely.
Step 2: Find a young, big man.
It is unlikely that New York wins a title this season. And Stoudemire, Marcus Camby, Kurt Thomas, Rasheed Wallace really cannot be looked at as long-term solutions.
They need to acquire someone who is more than a stop gap.
Step 3: Pray Carmelo really has figured out the game.
Anthony has spent his career being seen as underrated then overrated then underrated then overrated again. Right now, he looks to be as good as ever and if he can continue to share the ball like he has this season, he could become a great talent that undeniably helps the offense on every possession rather than one who sometimes makes everyone else's life harder.
If he can keep playing this way—and perhaps get even better—it might not matter who the team plays at power forward.
Step 1: Invent a time machine.
No contending team in recent memory has willingly done more to hurt its title chances than the Thunder did by trading away James Harden.
The financial realities of the situation are understandable and unenviable, but you can't just trade one of the league's best—and most dynamic—players for Kevin Martin and expect to remain as good as you were.
There are only so many shots at a championship for any franchise, and Oklahoma City may be among the first ever to throw one away on purpose.
Step 2: Hope Jeremy Lamb was a steal.
Lamb is the one tangible thing that can salvage the Harden deal.
If he can eventually turn into a starting-caliber player then the team may have enough fire power to get back to the Finals and win a ring.
Step 3: Don't do anything stupid.
Regardless of the Harden deal, the team still has two of the world's 10 best players on its roster, so it still has a phenomenal chance to win the city its first-ever championship.
The margin for error is just much smaller—especially in such a small market. With an owner clearly concerned about not breaking the bank, GM Sam Presti can't panic.
He has tied his hopes to Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka (who accounts for almost 80% of his salary cap), so the plan now has to be staying the course, filling out the roster with some cheap veterans and hoping that his guys can hit more jump shots than they give up.
Step 1: Keep losing.
The Magic have had three No. 1 picks since 1992, and they will likely need another to get back to being a contender in the next half-decade. Failing that, they need a few of the protected picks they received in the Dwight Howard trade to turn into gold.
Step 2: Figure out who, if anyone, on their roster is worth building around.
Moe Harkless is beginning to look like the diamond in the rough of the Dwight deal. Other than that, the team is very thin. But they need to keep giving minutes and responsibility to guys like Gustavo Ayon, Ish Smith, E'Twaun Moore and even Arron Afflalo to see what types of players they really have.
Step 3: Get rid of Big Baby and Jameer Nelson.
The Magic's front office needlessly signed both to long-term deals and, now, they are both detracting more than they are contributing.
Nelson cannot want to be in Orlando anymore, and Glen Davis is just playing such an ugly brand of basketball that it won't help any of the young players improve. Losing the dead weight (hopefully for draft picks) will also help the franchise lose more games, collect more picks and start clearing the cap room they will need to make a run at a top-of-the-line free agent or two.
That, combined with good drafting, is what they need to get back to the NBA Finals. And fortunately, their location in an income-tax-free state will always give them a decent shot at signing big-name free agents.
Step 1: Think long and hard before giving Andrew Bynum one more dollar.
This was supposed to be the season Bynum took his career to the next level to prove what he could do unshackled by Kobe and the Triangle.
Obviously, injuries have prevented that and we are seeing a general immaturity and disinterest from Bynum that was all too common in Los Angeles. But when it comes to salary negotiations next summer, the 76ers may be the winners if they let someone else take on the gargantuan financial commitment it will take to sign him.
Step 2: Don't do anything rash.
After you let Bynum walk, don't spend all your money in one place (or any on Nick Young). There won't be that much of it around in the summer of 2013 anyway, and the team might be better served by taking a step backwards and seeing what Evan Turner can do as you wait for the Jason Richardson and Spencer Hawes' deals to wind down.
Step 3: Make Evan Turner great, sign him a running mate.
If Turner can become a near All-Star, putting him next to an improving Jrue Holiday, a solid Thaddeus Young and one other very good player to be named later may be enough to contend in the East in a few years.
Step 1: Sell the team.
Owner Robert Sarver's penny-pinching ways may have already cost the team one title. It's hard to believe Phoenix will be able to build another championship-caliber team under his watch.
Step 2: Bottom out.
The notion that Michael Beasley and Shannon Brown will bring the team anywhere but to the bottom of the standings is laughable.
So fortunately, they are already well on their way to acquiring a great draft pick this summer—and likely a few more after that.
Step 3: Trade away the vets.
There is no sense to have Luis Scola and Marcin Gortat adding wins to the ledger over the next two years.
Get any picks or young players you can for them now while trying to clear cap space to make a run at a free agent. Title teams need superstars, and Phoenix has made so many bad moves in recent years that they don't even employ a potential All-Star.
Step 1: Pray and pray that Damian Lillard can continue to be this good.
Before he showed up, the Blazers looked to be in real trouble. Now, if he can keep this up, Lillard can combine with LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum to give Portland a dynamic, versatile three-man foundation.
Step 2: Fix the bench.
With one of the better blends of talent and long-term cap flexibility, Portland is well positioned to build a good roster.
The key will be bringing in some good players without overpaying. The draft will obviously be the best route, but a few savvy free agent signings could take the team to the next level.
Step 3: Dump Wesley Matthews, sign Eric Bledsoe.
The whole league may be the beneficiaries of Donald Sterling's legendary cheapness, but few teams could gain as much from acquiring Bledsoe as Portland. A Lillard/Bledsoe/Batum perimeter playing with Aldridge is a roster that could become the envy of the league in this day and age.
Step 1: Trade Tyreke Evans.
This project has run its course. Evans may have a shot to become a good player in this league yet, but he hasn't been for some time and likely never will be without a change of scenery.
Step 2: Reach DeMarcus Cousins.
The big man should be one of the best players in the game and him developing into a top-tier center is a must if the Kings are to contend. His career thus far has been discussed more for controversy than for performance, however.
This will need to change. Soon.
Step 3: Retool the roster.
Sacramento actually does have some assets. They need to realize which ones to keep (Cousins, Isaiah Thomas, Aaron Brooks) and which to jettison (everyone else). By getting worse quickly they will become better faster.
And with a few good draft picks and Cousins developing into an All-Star, the Kings might be poised to make a run in four years.
Step 1: Watch the West burn.
The Lakers and Thunder are both worse than expected. The Grizzlies have so far exploited this power vacuum at the top, but San Antonio likely isn't overly concerned with the regular season. They may very well have the chance to get hot and healthy when the playoffs start and make one last run at a ring with the big three.
Step 2: Develop Kawhi Leonard.
With Tim Duncan looking spry, Manu Ginobili appears to be the first of the old guard who will break down. This means that coach Gregg Popovich will need someone who can create some offense on the perimeter other than Tony Parker.
While the spread, ball-movement-based, three-point-happy offense must remain the bread and butter for San Antonio, Pop needs to find a way to get Kawhi some on-the-job training with the ball in his hands. This team will need that experience in the playoffs.
Step 3: Be willing to tear it down if this isn't the year.
If they don't win the title this year, the Spurs can't fool themselves into attempting one more campaign with the current cast.
Keep Duncan, but this summer will be the time to move Parker when he can return the most.
Step 1: Trade Andrea Bargnani.
This experiment was fun while it lasted, but Bargs is now just languishing on this roster and badly needs a change of scenery before the team's attempt to play around his game starts affecting others.
Look for picks rather than established players.
Step 2: Build the game plan around Jonas Valanciunas.
He is the only potential star on the roster, and he looks like a guy who could be dominant on both ends. It's time to let him loose.
Step 3: Re-sign Kyle Lowry and hope to get lucky in the lottery.
With Valanciunas, DeMar DeRozan and Lowry, the team has a solid foundation, but it still will need that always critical franchise player to make everything work.
With another bad finish this season, the Raps should find themselves with another high pick. If they can turn it into a home run, the roster looks like one that might start dominating right as Miami, New York and Brooklyn head out to pasture.
Step 1: Make a youth movement.
The Jazz currently have a logjam in their front court that needs to be cleared.
Whether it is Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Derrick Favors or Enes Kanter, the team has to commit to somebody. It's an important decision that should be made carefully, but it's probably time to roll the dice on the younger, cheaper players rather than committing too much of their cap space to the veterans.
Step 2: Bottom out.
The worst thing the Jazz could do this year is make the playoffs.
Mired in mediocrity is where the franchise has been since Carlos Boozer left. They need to get a high draft pick and use it on the player who will be their star. Finding a perimeter player who can get the most out of the front court will be key.
Step 3: Hope for the rise of the East.
Like Milwaukee and Indiana, Utah is going to have a tough time ever attracting a marquee free agent.
It could have a ton of cap space this summer to go after players, but in-season trades will likely pay off more in terms of acquiring good players on good deals. Then, the Jazz need to hope that it finds the right guys and that the Lakers and Spurs fade away, the Thunder and Grizzlies stumble and the Rockets and others don't grow too strong.
Unless you think Favors is a future MVP candidate, making this team a title contender in the next four years seems impossible.
Step 1: Get John Wall healthy.
The biggest problem with the Wizards is that they really have no idea just how good Wall is. With him and Bradley Beal, they may have a championship-caliber back court, or they may just have two promising guards that ultimately provide little in terms of wins.
But they can't know—and can't decide on whether Wall will be their savior—until they get him back on the court.
Step 2: Wait.
Presuming Wall is the real deal, the team still needs to wait out some regrettable contracts before it can start improving in earnest.
Emeka Okafor, Trevor Ariza and Nene were all acquired in hopes of convincing Wall to stick around after his rookie deal. But Washington will have restricted free agent rights to their point guard, so that plan basically amounted to foolish tire-spinning.
Rather than trying to trade away the bad contracts, however, they just need to keep getting better through the draft and by signing low-salaried players until Ariza and Okafor's contracts expire in the summer of 2014. This will likely be easier than taking back whatever negative assets a partner in a trade would offer.
Step 3: Find a big man who can thrive beside Nene.
If Wall and Beal reach their potential, they will need to do so playing alongside Nene, whose contract runs through 2016 and could be a fine deal if he can ever remain healthy. And given his skill set, the team will need to find the right type of front court mate to help maximize his strengths and mask his weaknesses. That player isn't Okafor and the time to start looking for the correct guy is now.