NBA Teams That Must Discover an Identity Before Next Season
For certain NBA teams, the remainder of the season is just an exercise in development. For a few more, that hour is drawing near.
Accepting defeat will never be an easy thing, but it will be the fastest way to achieving success for this group of teams. They have struggled through much of the 2012-13 season without a true identity. In the search for one, most have already lost this season.
A lot of things weigh into forging an team-wide identity. Continuity counts for something, so the contract lengths of your important players carry a lot of clout. Developing an identity has to do with sacrifice. Individual players give up minutes or numbers in order to help a team play as one, for the greater good.
There also has to be an overall plan. The heads of the franchise must have a blueprint they are following in order to reach a goal. Without the blueprint there is a very limited chance a team will find their identity.
Without an identity, teams float about, winning on individual talent. That is very rarely enough to win at an acceptable level. If these teams want to sustain success, they'll need an identity by next season.
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The identity appears to be right there for the Minnesota Timberwolves to grab, but they have failed to do so for a second consecutive season.
Injuries were largely the culprit in 2012-13. Particularly extended absences of Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio and Brandon Roy complicated what should have been an exciting season up north. Now another valuable season on the shorter-than-you'd-think contracts of Love and Rubio is gone with nothing to show for it.
They have fallen to 22-39 this season, and Love still isn't on the floor to help with development. Come the offseason, Minnesota will have more decisions to make concerning Andrei Kirilenko (player option) and Nikola Pekovic (qualifying offer). Both have had impressive seasons, but have also had their bouts with injuries.
These injuries have definitely hampered the Timberwolves' ability to develop a team identity. They have the talent on their roster to compete for a playoff spot, but Love's inability to stay on the floor is becoming concerning. Since playing 81 games as a rookie, he's missed 85 games over three-plus seasons.
Love needs to be fully healthy to develop the final stage of chemistry with Rubio before next season. Only then can they become a leading one-two punch. The rest will fall into place and an identity can be forged that will get this team to the 2014 postseason.
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It's hard to believe the Dallas Mavericks will want to waste another year of Dirk Nowitzki's fading prime.
That is essentially what they have done in 2012-13, loading up on a strange assortment of mediocre players with short contracts. Now Nowitzki will be on the last year of his current deal when he takes the floor next season.
What isn't known is who will be lining up alongside him. Rookies like Jae Crowder and Jared Cunningham should be back. So will Vince Carter for one more year. They can also keep Shawn Marion for one year at $9 million if they so choose. However, that is about it in terms of meaningful players under contact for 2013-14.
Pretty large decisions will have to be made about who to target in free agency, as well as what to do if O.J. Mayo (player option) and Darren Collison (qualifying offer) want new deals. The identity will be remade around this version of Nowitzki, but no one man can make a successful identity.
Dallas is 30-33 now, still just three games out of a playoff spot, but that ship is sailing farther and farther out of sight with each Los Angeles Laker win.
Once this season is completely out of reach, focus should be set on next year's roster construction. Nowitzki turns 35 this summer, and Dallas won't get many more years out of him as a franchise centerpiece.
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Injuries again curtailed what could have been a very important season of development for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Courtesy of some major missed time by Kyrie Irving and Anderson Varejao, the Cavaliers still have little in terms of an identity moving forward. Year two of the Irving era came in with a lot of promise, but exits with mostly the same questions. Can the player who has missed 30 of a possible 130 games in his career, and is out for another month, stay on the floor long enough to lead this team to the postseason?
By the end of the 2012-13 season, Irving will have missed a quarter of his first two seasons in the league with a variety of ailments. He is one of the NBA's most electrifying guards when healthy, but his consistent absences make it hard for Cleveland to build an identity around him.
This offseason will be incredibly important to the development of that identity with the Cavaliers. This is a young team that Irving has been tasked with leading. He'll need to keep this unit tight over the summer in hopes of hitting the gate running next season.
They have a decent bunch of talent returning next season including rookies Dion Waiters and Tyler Zeller, and much-improved big man Tristan Thompson. Varejao should be healthy, and the Cavaliers will knock off about $10 million worth of Luke Walton and Daniel Gibson.
Cleveland's identity hinges on Irving buying into a leadership role and remaining on the floor to see it through.
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2012-13 was a series of unfortunate events for the Philadelphia 76ers.
They pulled off the undesirable feat of going from a burgeoning second-round playoff group, to an identity-less lottery team.
The Andrew Bynum trade could not have worked out worse for the franchise thus far. Philadelphia has fallen to 24-39 and are 8.5 games out of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. To say this season was a loss is an understatement.
The 76ers' identity was right there for the taking, and it was a good one. They were a super-athletic, young team that played with a defensive ferocity which would let no opponent leave unscathed. Now there is a collection of that talented youth, but they have little direction and zero interior development.
That Andre Iguodala-led, top-three defense we witnessed a year ago, has regressed to league-average, while being led by no one.
The story is one that's been repeated ad nauseam concerning Bynum. However, the upcoming facts they face now are still full of potential. Philadelphia has around $28 million coming off the books this offseason. Still, one can't simply buy an identity.
That will fall on the development on their remaining talented youth. Jrue Holiday, Evan Turner and Thaddeus Young are starting to feel like 76ers. That is the first step in forging a long-term identity for this team.
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Many were perplexed when the Utah Jazz stood pat at the trade deadline and kept their current roster intact.
The move, or lack of a move, is looking worse and worse as the Jazz fall out of the playoff picture. They've dropped to 33-31 on the year, and are now a half-game out of the No. 8 spot. Losing seven of their last 10 has allowed the Los Angeles Lakers to sneak in behind them and usurp their playoff spot.
Utah is an average team all around, but the concern is that they have an absurd amount of money and talent coming off the books after the 2012-13 season. Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap and Mo Williams will clear about $32 million from the payroll, along with a few smaller contracts, like Randy Foye and Earl Watson, running out at the same time.
Utah has had an identity for the past few seasons, and continue to have one now. They are a dominant interior team with some talented outside shooters. Unfortunately, that entire identity could change by the time the Jazz take the court this coming fall.
With all the turnover possible and all that money freed up, there is no telling what that identity might become next season.
One thing is for sure, the Jazz no longer want to be first-round fodder, which they've been for a few years now. A refocused identity for the 2013-14 season will go a long way to assuring they are a deep playoff staple in the Western Conference for years to come.
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Once again we have a team that had their identity development harmed by injury. The Washington Wizards have now floated through year three of the John Wall era and have nothing to show for it but another high lottery pick on the way.
Fortunately, it appears the Wizards nailed their top pick last year with Bradley Beal. Beal has been in a season-long improvement curve that will soon have him one of the top young scorers in the conference.
There is an inherent identity laying there to be taken by Washington with Wall and Beal in the backcourt. The Wizards will return a lot of the same players next season, barring decisions on Emeka Okafor (early termination) and Trevor Ariza (player option). That is not necessarily an appealing thing for a team that is currently 20-42 and looking at a lot of ping-pong balls.
However, Wall and Beal are just starting to develop chemistry. Given Wall's early-season absence, that is something that needs more time. The continuity the Wizards should have heading into next season will be the biggest benefit to their identity.
Right now the biggest issue with the team is that they are not scoring. Fortunately, they already have a defensive identity and are one of the league's best rebounding teams. Defense can be their identity as a young physical team. However, they must continue working offensively and identify the right perimeter types to pair with Wall. Okafor and Nene are solid bigs, but don't fully allow Wall to do what he can.
There is talent and an identity to be mined from this roster, it is just going to take work.
Hitting on their upcoming top pick wouldn't hurt either.
Los Angeles Lakers
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The Los Angeles Lakers have re-entered the playoff picture in the Western Conference.
With a 34-31 record, they have slipped into the No. 8 spot, knocking the Utah Jazz from the standings. However, is it fair to say they have found an identity, or is talent simply taking over?
It is easy to think that the Lakers should have enough talent to overcome adversity and find a way into the postseason, and that is exactly what has happened here. At least from the outside looking in, it appears no one knows who is showing up to do what each night.
Kobe Bryant will jack up 25 shots one night and get three assists, then follow it up with an eight-point, 12-assist game. Steve Nash is averaging 2.6 assists over the last five games. Dwight Howard has five free-throw attempts one night and 39 the next.
What is the identity here? The Lakers are no different now than they were when they were five games under .500. The talent has simply taken over more often, with one player going off and the rest getting out of the way.
Back-to-back seasons of this is unacceptable in Los Angeles. This will be an interesting offseason for the Lakers, as Howard's deal is up and Pau Gasol and Bryant are set to make nearly $50 million combined the last year of their contracts.
An identity must be forged before the 2013-14 season gets underway. That is the only way to assure the Lakers aren't battling for another No. 8 seed come next spring.