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Rebuilding NBA Teams on Brink of Contention

Curtis HarrisFeatured ColumnistJanuary 24, 2013

Rebuilding NBA Teams on Brink of Contention

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    This 2012-13 season several teams in the NBA are emerging from years of mediocrity to stake their claim as legitimate competitors and contenders in this league.

    These teams have endured many years of painful rebuilding. Some still need more work to fully claim their spots as contenders. That work means a needed trade, possibly the right free agent signing, or simply letting their current rosters mature.

    Nonetheless, the groundwork has been laid and the heavy-lifting for the most part is complete. These are the teams that give hope to currently despondent fan bases that one day their GM and owner will make the right moves. Lady Luck indeed will wink at them a time or two.

    So without further ado, here are the NBA teams on the brink of contention.

Minnesota Timberwolves

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    This team has suffered many losing seasons since the departure of Kevin Garnett in the summer of 2007. This season, however, the Minnesota Timberwolves promised to contend. Acquiring Andrei Kirilenko, Alexey Shved, Brandon Roy, and Jose Juan Barea bolstered the roster’s talent. Ricky Rubio would come back from his awful ACL injury from last season. Kevin Love would continue to improve on his potent inside-outside threat.

    That was the Plan.

    Then Love broke his hand.

    Then Roy hurt his knee.

    Rubio returned but has yet to regain his former flash and flare.

    Then Love broke his hand…again.

    It’s been a rough season for Minnesota. Despite all these maladies and setbacks, Minnesota still retains a 17-22 record. It’s not a great, or even good, record but it shows that this team is on the cusp of contention. If everyone returns healthy next season, this club is definitely fighting for a playoff spot in the Western Conference.

New Orleans Hornets

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    New Orleans is currently tied for last place in the Western Conference with the Phoenix Suns. Don’t expect this to be the case much longer, though. Since Eric Gordon returned to the roster on December 29, the Hornets are 8-5. This is a much more accurate gauge of their abilities than their 6-23 record before the 29th of December.

    This team is laden with young players who are extremely good and have yet to reach their full-potential. Ryan Anderson is once again raining threes from long-range while doing excellent work on the boards. Robin Lopez has had a wonderful bounce-back campaign after his disastrous last season in Phoenix. Greivis Vasquez is showing that his breakout campaign in 2011-12 was no fluke. Averaging 14 points and 9 assists per game, Vasquez is one of the more unheralded starting point guards in the league.

    Then, of course, there’s Anthony Davis. All the other players make for an excellent supporting cast, but Davis is the man who can make the collection of talent something special. I expect New Orleans will absolutely contend for a playoff spot next season, so long as its top players stay healthy.

    And if they don’t frustrate their own rebuilding by taking awful picks like Austin Rivers, again.

Dallas Mavericks

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    Two years removed from winning the title, but currently in a malingering malaise, the Dallas Mavericks are a funny sight to see on this list.

    Their title defense has been rather unremarkable. They let defensive anchor Tyson Chandler walk away as a free agent after winning the championship in 2011. Guards Jason Terry, Jason Kidd, and J.J. Barea have all left as free agents, too. O.J. Mayo, Darren Collison, Elton Brand, and Chris Kaman have ultimately taken their places. So far, Brand has been serviceable and O.J. Mayo is playing the best basketball of his career. But their combined their output and service pales in comparison to what Dallas has lost.

    Add to this Dirk Nowitzki’s lackluster play this year and you have the Mavericks tumbling to the bottom of the West’s standings. However, Dallas’ rebuilding may be exceedingly quick. Only 5 players are guaranteed to be on the payroll next year, leaving millions of dollars for Dallas to sign better players or make a blockbuster trade.

    However, this was Dallas’ plan after winning the title. Open up cap space to chase Deron Williams and that ultimately failed. It’s a gamble that has Dallas simultaneously on the edge of contention and misery.

Detroit Pistons

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    The victim of several uninspiring free agent signings by Joe Dumars, the Detroit Pistons may finally near the end of their misery tunnel. Millions of dollars in cap space will open up this summer with the contracts of Corey Maggette, Will Bynum, Jason Maxiell and Austin Daye running out.

    Not only does that money open up for better use, but even more important is that playing time opens up for Detroit’s bevvy of young studs.

    Greg Monroe is already getting unmitigated run, but Andre Drummond is ridiculously ceding minutes to Maxiell. With the veteran forward out of the way, Drummond’s prodigious athleticism can blend with Monroe’s game to create a fierce frontcourt duo.

    Even with more playing time and development for Drummond, Brandon Knight, and Kyle Singler, the Pistons are still not quite on the brink of contention. They have more moves left to make than the rest of the teams listed, but in the Eastern Conference steps to contention aren’t as arduous as they first appear.

    At this very moment, Detroit is 4.5 games out of the final playoff spot in the East.

    Carpe diem, Detroit!

Milwaukee Bucks

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    The Milwaukee Bucks haven’t been a disaster in recent years. They also haven’t been a success.

    Former coach Scott Skiles routinely had the Bucks winning over 30 games a year, but that’s not quite contention and not bad enough to get a great lottery pick. However,  since removing Skiles and installing Jim Boylan as coach, the Bucks are 6-2 this season after a 16-16 start.

    The swaggering Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings have made for a diminutive starting backcourt that can explode for 30 points on any given night. The frontcourt is dominated by Larry Sanders who has turned into one of the NBA’s best shot blockers and intimidators. Off the bench, Mike Dunleavy has had an unheralded role as instant efficient offense.

    With a 22-18 record overall, the Bucks are current seventh in the East. They appear poised for a postseason appearance and with the right opponent they can score a huge upset in the first round. How long these playoff Bucks last truly depends on this offseason, though.

    The contracts of Dunleavy and Jennings both expire after this season.

    Dunleavy is a good player who can be had for a great price. Now in his 30s, he may find a home on a team better prepared to win the title now. More worrisome is if Jennings bolts. If he’s gone then Milwaukee is basically back to square one, which is the last thing this franchise needs after just one playoff appearance in the last seven years.

Houston Rockets

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    Mighty Omer Asik and the Houston Rockets have hit a mighty skid these past couple of weeks. After winning 12 of 15 games in December and early January, Houston has now lost 8 of their last nine games. With that recent skid, Houston is hanging on to the last playoff spot in the West.

    Still, this team is sitting on the precipice of contention.

    In years past, when Houston owned a 22-22 record, it seemed like a team playing above its head. The collection of good-but-not-great players maintained a remarkable cohesion that made the whole seem more than its parts.

    This year, Houston seems like a team with very good parts that fit together greatly some nights and awkwardly others. Jeremy Lin, Omer Asik, Chandler Parsons, Patrick Patterson and the gang are definitely the best collection of talent Houston has had in years. Add to this scoring-machine James Harden and Houston is legitimately a playoff team in the West.

    These new faces just need a bit more time adjusting and complementing one another. Factor in Houston's significant cap space to use this summer and you have a team that can add yet another excellent piece to this mix. This team is already dangerously good and may become "title contender great" in a couple of years.

Golden State Warriors

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    Golden State’s rebuilding surprisingly came to an end this season. After trading Monta Ellis for Andrew Bogut last season, the path finally seemed clear for the Warriors to progress. But the progress already made has been remarkable.

    Especially considering Bogut has barely played for the Warriors and is out indefinitely.

    The absence of Ellis has simultaneously allowed Steph Curry and Klay Thompson to expand and refine their play. Free agent signee Jarrett Jack has the right veteran touch to play alongside Curry without challenging Curry’s place and role on the team.

    In the frontcourt David Lee has finally returned to his fine New York form of a few seasons ago. He’s scoring, passing and rebounding as good as he ever has. His defense, while still not spectacular, has also improved under Mark Jackson’s tutelage.

    Golden State still needs an extra push to get over the hump and into true contention. Given their current cap situation that push will likely have to be the healthy return of Andrew Bogut this season or next. Conversely, the Warriors can also flip Bogut’s massive expiring contract to a team desperate to begin their own rebuilding.

    No matter how it plays out, Bogut appears to be the key to Golden State’s future.

Brooklyn Nets

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    Years and years of awful records and attendance in New Jersey came to end for the Nets this year as they moved to Brooklyn. Over the last few seasons they were able to slowly bring Brook Lopez, Deron Williams, Kris Humphries, and Gerald Wallace into the fold.

    This offseason they missed out on Dwight Howard, but swung a huge trade for Joe Johnson. These five Nets players combine to make nearly $70 million this year. Small additions and holdovers like Reggie Evans, MarShon Brooks, and Andray Blatche fill out the roster. However, Brooklyn’s fortunes will rest on one of the most expensive starting lineups ever assembled.

    The pricey assemblage solidly places Brooklyn in the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference. They can make it all the way to the conference finals given the right match ups. But are they true title contender just yet? I doubt it, but this season is a nice bump up from the Devin Harris era.

    This buzzer beat notwithstanding.

    Minus any minor signings, this Nets roster is likely the one to be around for many years. Barring any blockbuster trade for a disgruntled Lakers center, that is.

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