As the clock on the 2012-13 NBA season gets set to hit zeros, we're beginning to see which franchise's futures appear bright and which may be doomed to perpetual mediocrity for years to come.
Although many of the league's bottom feeders are headed for weak results in the standings this season, high lottery picks and emerging studs are reasons why we could see some turnaround throughout the league next season.
Conversely, several teams could see drop-offs in productivity as they reach peaks this season, with personnel changes looming this summer.
The Atlanta Hawks are well on their way to a sixth straight postseason appearance, but it's starting to look like Larry Drew's bunch are better suited for an early playoff exit than a fruitful run to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Once the curtain drops on the Hawks' 2012-13 season, they'll be faced with some tough choices in free agency, most notably concerning forward Josh Smith.
With the possibility lingering that the Hawks could lose Smith this summer, it would appear as if the franchise's fortunes may take a turn for the worse for a season or two.
The Hawks are also in danger of losing free agents Kyle Korver, Zaza Pachulia and Devin Harris this summer, creating several holes that Danny Ferry and the team's front office may have a hard time filling.
It defies logic, but somehow, someway, the Boston Celtics find ways to stay competitive despite their advanced age.
Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce will be 37 and 36 years old respectively at the start of the 2013-14 season, and although Rajon Rondo will return at presumably less than 100 percent after partially tearing his ACL, the team will be returning all of its key pieces.
Jason Terry has had a particularly down year, averaging just 10.4 points per game as he's attempted to adjust to a new scheme, town and head coach. Look for him to rebound in year two of his Boston experience.
Teams coached by Doc Rivers should never be counted out, and the 2013-14 Celtics will be no exception.
The Brooklyn Nets won't have much room to maneuver in free agency this summer (with more than $89 million on the books for next season, according to HoopsHype), but they'll return a solid core comprised of Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Gerald Wallace and Brook Lopez.
Throughout a season that's been filled with coaching changes and superstar shortcomings, improved cohesion in year two in Brooklyn appears inevitable.
Williams and Johnson will find ways to play off of each other more effectively, while Lopez will continue to hold down the frontcourt.
Poor Charlotte. En route to securing the NBA's worst record for the second year in a row, the Bobcats really don't have anywhere to go but up in 2013-14.
Count that as one of the very few positives of being the league's worst team.
Kemba Walker has emerged in his second season out of UConn, leading the Bobcats with averages of 17.3 points and 5.6 assists per game.
With another high lottery pick forthcoming, expect Mike Dunlap to build on his team's mild improvement this season come next November.
Many have forgotten by now, but the Chicago Bulls actually recorded the best record (50-16) in the Eastern Conference during the lockout-shortened season of 2011-12.
The Bulls are playoff-bound once again, although they've hit several bumps in the road along the way, playing without their leader and one-time MVP Derrick Rose.
Rose's return, whether it's this season or next, will propel the Bulls to new heights, as an improved offense will help take a bit of the onus off of Tom Thibodeau's stellar defense.
With All-Stars Joakim Noah and Luol Deng beside him, Rose and the Bulls should expect a surge in the win column next season.
With Kyrie Irving nearing superstar status at the age of 20, how could the Cleveland Cavaliers not improve in the Duke product's third professional season?
Set to turn 21 in 10 days, Irving has already established himself as one of the league's top five point guards, possessing a filthy handle and raw ability to score that few other point men possess.
And as Irving matures, so will his supporting cast. Dion Waiters has shown flashes of promise in his first season out of Syracuse, averaging 14.7 points per game on 41-percent shooting.
Waiters' efficiency figures to improve in year two, while the Cavs will welcome big man Anderson Varejao back after a few injury scares.
Sitting four games below .500, the Dallas Mavericks are headed for an early summer vacation, which would be the first time they've had to do so in the last 13 years.
Possessing one of the league's most porous defenses, Rick Carlisle has not been able to get much consistent production out of aging vets Shawn Marion, Vince Carter and Chris Kaman.
Dirk Nowitzki has had a down year as well, struggling to get on track after returning midseason from a knee injury.
With several expiring contracts on the books (Kaman, O.J. Mayo, Elton Brand, Anthony Morrow, Dominique Jones and many more), the Mavs will have plenty of money to blow come summertime.
Mark Cuban won't be shy when it comes to spending on big names, so expect Dallas to return in 2013-14 with renewed vigor, primed to compete with the conference's elite.
What's not to like about this Denver Nuggets team? They've got a high-flying offense, and when their defense is in sync, they're one of the toughest teams to compete with in the entire NBA.
The key to the Nuggets' improvement in 2013 will be the team's defense, which ranks 25th in the NBA in opponents' points per game and 12th in defensive rating, according to Basketball-Reference.
If Andre Iguodala picks up his player option ($15.9 million for next season, according to HoopsHype), the Nuggets will return their best wing defender. Kenneth Faried will continue to hold down the paint, but at 6'8'' will continue to need size alongside him to help defend bigger bodies.
Strong defense means more opportunities to run in transition and pick up easy buckets, something the Nuggets are quite adept at, as they rank first in the NBA in fast break points per game, totaling 19.8 a night, according to TeamRankings.
Call me crazy, but I'm hopping on the Detroit Pistons bandwagon in advance of this summer, when the team figures to improve yet again.
According to HoopsHype, the Pistons only have $35.17 million in committed salaries on the books for next season, giving them plenty of room to wheel and deal in the offseason.
The team's frontcourt is stable, with the obscenely talented duo of Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe causing matchup nightmares for opponents.
Should Joe Dumars convince point guard Jose Calderon to re-up with the team in the offseason, the only things the Pistons will be missing are quality wings.
Kyle Singler's been steady in his first full season with the team, but Lawrence Frank could use some more athleticism on the perimeter to help better space the floor.
Don't get me wrong—the Golden State Warriors are a playoff-caliber bunch, and I like them to qualify for next year's postseason as a six or seven seed, but I see their record dipping slightly in 2013-14.
The Warriors shocked the NBA universe, securing a record of 21-10 through the season's first two months, with their defense holding opponents to an average of 99.25 points per game in that span.
Those defensive numbers are by no means great, but they're far superior to the averages of 101.3 and 109.4 points per game that the Warriors allowed in January and February. The recent numbers, as opposed to the early-season ones, strike me as more reflective of the team's defensive capabilities.
A team that's loaded with offensive weapons will always be a threat in the Western Conference, but until Andrew Bogut returns for an extended period at full strength and David Lee learns how to competently defend in the post, the Warriors will be a fringe contender.
How savvy is Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey? He's made moves to acquire prized assets such as James Harden, Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik, and the team still only has a shade over $38 million in committed salaries on the books for next season, according to HoopsHype.
Although Chandler Parsons has certainly earned himself a pay raise, the Rockets will have ample cap space to go out and make a move to acquire a big name, whether it be Josh Smith, Dwight Howard or Andrew Bynum.
With flexibility galore and established pieces at key positions, look for the Rockets to be one of the hottest preseason picks in an improved Western Conference next season.
The Indiana Pacers are headed for the 50-win summit, and assuming they reach the mark, it will be the first time they've accomplished the impressive feat since the 2003-04 season.
Frank Vogel's team has set a high bar for what Pacers fans should expect in the years to come, but the team may struggle to sustain that prosperity next season.
Versatile power forward David West is set to hit the open market this summer as an unrestricted free agent, while Danny Granger's long-term health is a dark cloud that continues to hang over the franchise.
Indiana will undoubtedly find themselves in the playoff picture again next season—it just won't be as a division champion.
With so many players' contracts set to expire at season's end, the Los Angeles Clippers could take on a drastically different shape next season.
With the odds of Paul re-upping with the Clippers looking nearly certain, the team will need to shift its focus to several other impending free agents, most notably Lamar Odom, Chauncey Billups and Matt Barnes.
Billups has become the perfect stopgap at the 2-guard, providing veteran leadership and immaculate floor spacing.
Barnes' qualities as a pesky perimeter defender will certainly help his case to return, while Odom's the biggest wild card of the three.
Although the team's depth may look a bit different next season, the Clips will be back and better than ever.
Although things are shaping up nicely for the Los Angeles Lakers to make a run at the playoffs, how could next year not be better than the past one has been?
The Lakers entered the season with sky-high expectations, and rightfully so. With a foursome of superstars, the Lakers were supposed to compete with the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers for supremacy in the West, but instead the Lakers continue to find themselves looking like a fringe contender at best.
The big question this offseason will center around center Dwight Howard, but it appears as if the three-time Defensive Player of the Year is leaning toward re-signing with L.A. long-term (via ESPN):
When asked if he agreed with Kupchak and thought he was the future of the Lakers, Howard said at the team's shootaround Wednesday, "Yeah, I do. We talked about it plenty of times.
"Me and Mitch have talked about that all year," Howard added. "He just told me to trust him. So I'm going to trust him and go out there and play as hard as I can to try to get a title for the team this year."
With chemistry established and their lineup healthy, the 2013-14 Lakers figure to be a significant improvement of this year's product.
On paper, the Memphis Grizzlies aren't a team you'd consider to be strikingly talented. Lionel Hollins has his guys playing a style that isn't particularly sexy, either, but the formula the team has employed is working quite well.
Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph comprise a starting frontcourt that's as talented as any across the league, while Mike Conley has grown up over the past few years, becoming a complete point guard (13.6 points and 6.1 assists per game) who's also a legitimate threat to beat teams from beyond the arc (36.7 percent shooting from deep).
Defensive stopper Tony Allen's contract is up at the end of the season, but should he choose to re-sign with Memphis, the team will return its core, one that's thrived without the inconsistent shooting of one Rudy Gay.
The rapport that the Miami Heat's star trio has established is undeniable, and the team's supporting cast continues to work themselves into suitable complementary roles.
All of the team's key assets are set to return next season, although Ray Allen does have a player option that can be declined if he so chooses.
However, it's starting to look like the only feasible situation in which Allen walks in the offseason is one in which he has a second championship ring and decides to call it quits, rather than latching on with another contender.
The Milwaukee Bucks have several big decisions to make this offseason with regards to the team's backcourt.
Point guard Brandon Jennings is locked into his stance that he'd like a long-term deal, telling Yahoo! Sports' Marc Spears that he will walk from the franchise after next season if they hit him with a qualifying offer this summer:
"If I take the qualifying offer and become an [unrestricted] free agent there is no way I am coming back," Jennings told Yahoo! Sports on Friday after practice. "There is no way."
Jennings' backcourt mate, Monta Ellis, also has a decision to make regarding his future, as he has a player option worth $11 million (according to HoopsHype) that he can choose to accept or decline next season.
That's a whole lot of money to turn down, and as ESPN's Marc Stein recently reported, many around the league believe Ellis may opt in to his contract as opposed to walk.
There's also the issue of J.J. Redick, who's set to be an unrestricted free agent once the 2012-13 season concludes.
Despite the Bucks' improvement this season, it's clear the team is still on the outside looking in when it comes to the championship conversation.
If Ellis, Jennings and Redick get more financially appealing offers to play for contenders, the Bucks could be playing with some new personnel come next season.
The Minnesota Timberwolves could see a good deal of talent depart this summer, with Andrei Kirilenko possessing the ability to decline his player option (worth just over $10 million, according to HoopsHype) and center Nikola Pekovic set to hit the restricted free-agent market.
Both players will undoubtedly garner plenty of interest from rival franchises, particularly Pekovic, who has quickly created a name for himself as one of the league's better two-way bigs.
Even if the team does lose two key pieces, it's hard to imagine the team having a worse season in 2013-14 than they have in 2012-13.
Now 18 games below .500, the T'Wolves have struggled without the presence of Kevin Love, while point guard Ricky Rubio continues to work his way back into peak shape after suffering a brutal knee injury last season.
With their dynamic one-two punch back at full strength, the Wolves will see slight improvement in the win column next season.
Watching Anthony Davis evolve is going to be an absolute treat for NBA fanatics.
Although he's been largely overlooked in the Rookie of the Year conversation, Davis' numbers have made him worthy of consideration for the award.
According to Basketball-Reference, Davis is posting averages of 16.5 points, 10.1 rebounds, 2.3 blocks and 1.4 steals per 36 minutes, while he's shot 50.8 percent from the field and recorded a PER of 20.9.
Davis' development will occur in tandem with that of point guard Greivis Vasquez, who's evolved into one of the league's better distributors of the basketball (9.3 assists per game) in just his third season.
Set to acquire yet another high lottery pick, the Hornets figure to show some nice growth moving forward.
The 2013-14 season figures to present quite the quandary for the New York Knicks, who will enter the year with $76.4 million (per HoopsHype) in committed salary, hindering the team's ability to make any significant moves come summertime.
Amar'e Stoudemire will turn 31 shortly after next season tips off, and the slew of knee injuries that have held him out of action are starting to become a legitimate long-term concern.
On a team that's not getting any younger the Knicks' championship window appears to be quite narrow, and as they've shown us throughout much of this season, this current group doesn't possess the defensive intensity to qualify themselves as a legitimate threat to the Miami Heat.
On track to capture an Atlantic Division title this season, it would hardly be a surprise to see the Knicks finish second or third in a highly competitive division in 2013-14.
It's not hard to see which way the Oklahoma City Thunder are trending. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook will both turn 25 before next December, while Serge Ibaka will still be a pup, dominating the interior at 24 years old.
While Kevin Martin's future in Oklahoma City is uncertain, he's made it clear that he wants to make his stay with the Thunder a permanent one (via Yahoo! Sports' Marc Spears):
"This summer, hopefully everything works out here," Martin told Yahoo! Sports on Wednesday. "I haven't said that too often. But I will put it out there; hopefully I have found a home in the NBA. I love playing with this group of guys. The organization is great to me. The community has been great to me. It's the happiest I have been during my NBA career."
What's even more impressive is that the Thunder are nearly certain that they'll be acquiring more young talent through the NBA draft, as they hold Toronto's top-three protected lottery pick, which they acquired in the deal that netted them Martin.
Year one of Dwight Howard-less basketball in Orlando has been borderline unwatchable at times, but there's no doubting that Rob Hennigan has made moves that will improve his team in the long term.
Unfortunately, the Magic's short-term prospects are looking quite bleak, with no established go-to scorer (sorry, Arron Afflalo) to carry the team on off nights.
Nikola Vucevic has impressed (12.3 points and 11.4 rebounds per game) with exponentially more playing time than he saw during his rookie year in Philadelphia, but his post defense leaves plenty to be desired.
Throw in the fact that Orlando isn't a trendy free-agent destination, and it looks like the Magic may be in for a few down years before they turn things around and get better.
Things definitely changed for the Philadelphia 76ers in year one of the Andrew Bynum era—just not the way everyone thought they would.
Bynum's absence has left the Sixers with a roster full of complementary players (with the exception of All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday), the bulk of whom are unable to provide consistent output on a nightly basis.
More recently, the Sixers have lost 13 straight road games and have plummeted into the cellar of the Atlantic Division with a record of 24-39.
Considering things can't get much worse for Doug Collins' bunch, 2013-14 feels like it's a year in which the Sixers will improve slightly, even if they must do so without Bynum.
What a mess these Phoenix Suns are. With a roster that feels like it's being held together by Scotch tape, the Suns are firmly in the running for the Western Conference's worst record, as they'll attempt to fend off the New Orleans Hornets and Sacramento Kings for the dubious title in the final weeks of the season.
The Suns rank in the bottom 10 in both offensive (101.1 points per 100 possessions) and defensive rating (107.1 points allowed per 100 possessions), according to Basketball-Reference, while there's a noticeable absence of talent on the perimeter.
Michael Beasley is a walking train wreck, and the Suns still owe him more then $12 million over the next two seasons (according to HoopsHype), while Jared Dudley is better suited as a complementary shooter, not a primary one.
Expect the Suns to aimlessly wander through basketball purgatory before they uncover a winning formula.
I may be in the minority, but I'm a Portland Trail Blazer optimist.
LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard and Nicolas Batum provide an excellent core for the team to build around, while Wesley Matthews provides steady shooting from the wing.
Where the team really needs to improve is on the bench, where there's a noticeable absence of depth.
Youngsters Meyers Leonard and Eric Maynor give the team some decent reliability at the backup center and point guard spots, but it's hard to argue that the Blazers have players worthy of eighth- and ninth-man rotational gigs.
If general manager Neil Olshey can make moves to shore up the team's depth, the Blazers will be in contention for a playoff spot quite soon.
Claiming that the Sacramento Kings will be better in 2013-14 isn't saying a whole lot, considering improvement could be classified by a few extra wins.
Whether the team laces them up in Sacramento or Seattle, next year feels like one in which the Kings could begin to make incremental improvements.
DeMarcus Cousins and Tyreke Evans have always possessed the potential to be a lethal one-two punch, but the maturity level hasn't quite been there.
It's asking a lot, but if Cousins can refine his somewhat reckless ways, the Kings could follow his lead, priming themselves for prosperity in the years to come.
Worse is a fairly general term when it comes to predicting success or failure, so let me be clear: The San Antonio Spurs will be perfectly fine next season—they just won't finish among the top two teams in the Western Conference.
Gregg Popovich will undoubtedly find a way to prove me wrong, but as the Spurs' core of Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Tim Duncan continues to age, the Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers will trot out younger, more explosive players who are better suited to handle the rigors of an 82-game season.
While the Spurs possess players who are better suited to compete from a mental standpoint, they're due for a modest reduction in wins sometime soon.
Securing a division title won't be difficult, but edging out the Thunder and Clippers for superiority out West will be.
An Atlantic Division title doesn't appear to be in the Toronto Raptors' future, but clinching a playoff spot does.
This offseason will allow Rudy Gay, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry to gain more familiarity with each other, while Bryan Colangelo will make moving Andrea Bargnani his primary goal this summer.
According to Yahoo! Sports' Marc Spears, the Raptors don't see Bargnani as part of the team's long-term plans:
Toronto is in need of star power since the departure of Chris Bosh and the demise of Andrea Bargnani, the former No. 1 draft pick. Attempts will be made to move Bargnani this summer for a proven scoring post player, sources said.
Should the Raptors find a way to score a veteran low-post presence who can pack a punch on defense, Dwane Casey's team will be in good shape heading into the new league year.
The Utah Jazz are in a dogfight for the Western Conference's eighth playoff spot, as they've seen their slim lead over the Los Angeles Lakers evaporate over the last several weeks.
Not only are the Jazz looking at disappointing results this season, but the same could be said for their prospects next season.
With Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap both impending free agents, it's starting to look quite evident that the Jazz will be without their full complement of bigs next season. Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter will step into larger roles, and their progress will likely dictate much of Utah's success.
There's also the issue of Utah's weak backcourt, which has leaned on a combination of Mo Williams, Randy Foye, Jamaal Tinsley, Alec Burks and Gordon Hayward to produce.
Burks and Hayward may explode eventually, but 2013-14 feels like a transition year for the Jazz.
For most NBA teams, offense comes easier than defense. As you might expect, that's not the case when it comes to the Washington Wizards.
Randy Wittman has his defense communicating extremely well, as they rank fifth in the NBA in defensive rating (102 points allowed per 100 possessions) and sixth in opponent's points per game (95.1), according to Basketball-Reference.
For the Wizards to improve (and there's no reason to think they won't, based on their 9-9 record since the start of February), John Wall and Bradley Beal will need to further develop into a dynamic backcourt.
Wall's game has the potential to grow by leaps and bounds, as he's averaging career highs in assist percentage (42.8) and points per 36 minutes (16.9 per game) this season.
If Wall improves his jumper over the summer, you should expect significant improvement out of the Wiz in 2013-14.