Not every team is in position to build a championship contender in one offseason, but every franchise has a plan for improving in some sense, both through free agency and the NBA draft.
The draft comes first, though, and a lot of what happens in free agency will be dependent on the decisions teams make in selecting college talent.
For teams like the Philadelphia 76ers and Atlanta Hawks, finding players to replace potential departing talent could be the difference between long-term sustainability and years of futility.
Philadelphia and Atlanta aren’t alone, though. While most teams will have some difficult decisions to make starting July 1, every franchise in the league is looking to build on its long-term plan. Those plans begin on June 27 with the NBA draft.
Let’s take an early look at projections for the first round, highlighting a few selections that drastically improve that team’s chances of fielding a stronger unit next season.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers: Nerlens Noel, C, Kentucky
There’s little chance the Cavs don’t pull the trigger on Nerlens Noel with the first overall pick. Despite his limited sample size and devastating knee injury last season, the Kentucky center has more upside than any player in this draft.
Those factors also make Noel a risky prospect, though. He’s a freaky athlete with tremendous shot-blocking ability and defensive prowess, but that athleticism could suffer as a result of playing on a surgically repaired knee.
Should the seven-footer pan out, however, Cleveland will have a tremendous foundation on which to build. With Anderson Varejao and Tristan Thompson already in place in its frontcourt (along with the talented duo of Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters in the backcourt), Noel’s future success could propel Cleveland back into playoff discussion in the Eastern Conference.
2. Orlando Magic: Ben McLemore, SG, Kansas
Orlando has plenty of potential on its roster, but the key to both short-term success and long-term sustainability is adding as much young talent as possible, regardless of position.
With the second selection, the Magic won’t have a difficult decision. Whether the Cavs select Noel, Ben McLemore or a third party, the Magic can draft the highest player on their board—in this case, McLemore.
The Kansas guard is the most talented pure shooter in this class, often compared to Ray Allen because of his picturesque form and quick release. With ideal size for the 2 guard position in the NBA, Orlando will acquire a scorer who can do a lot of damage from behind the arc.
3. Washington Wizards: Otto Porter, SF, Georgetown
Otto Porter is an ideal fit for the Wizards. With John Wall and Bradley Beal already in place in their backcourt, Porter can be the perfect complementary piece.
The Georgetown forward is a do-it-all baller who plays excellent on-ball defense and moves well without the ball in his hands. Washington shouldn’t consider many other options here. Porter is the right pick.
4. Charlotte Bobcats: Anthony Bennett, F, UNLV
Anthony Bennett will benefit from his versatility and athleticism. For many of the teams selecting in the early portion of the lottery, positional needs are abundant.
Wherever Bennett plays (whether the 3 or the 4), he stands to see plenty of playing time on one of the most depleted rosters in the NBA.
5. Phoenix Suns: Victor Oladipo, SG, Indiana
Victor Oladipo is one of the safest picks in this entire draft. He doesn’t have the tremendous upside of a player like Noel or McLemore, but he is extremely talented at the defensive end and possesses a tremendous long-range jumper—two areas at which Phoenix desperately needs to improve next season.
6. New Orleans Pelicans: Trey Burke, PG, Michigan
New Orleans has more talent on its roster than its 2012-13 record would indicate. Without many glaring positional needs, the Pelicans can choose to add the best player still available in this draft and continue building on a young but talented roster.
7. Sacramento Kings: C.J. McCollum, PG/SG, Lehigh
Sacramento needs to add another scoring option to its backcourt. While C.J. McCollum’s size and positional ambiguity may force him to slide in the lottery, there’s no denying his tremendous scoring ability.
At 6’3”, it remains to be seen where the Lehigh product ends up in the NBA. It’s likely whichever team selects him will use McCollum in a combo-guard role in his formative years.
8. Detroit Pistons: Shabazz Muhammad, SF, UCLA
Muhammad isn’t great at creating his own scoring opportunities, but he’s still one of the best scoring forwards in this draft. Detroit isn’t too many pieces away from being a contender, but it still needs a perimeter scorer to solidify an offense that struggled far too often this season.
9. Minnesota Timberwolves: Cody Zeller, C, Indiana
Minnesota needs a high-percentage shooter to pair with Ricky Rubio, but there aren’t any guards available here that warrant a top-10 selection. As is typically the case in that situation, Minnesota can opt to select the highest-rated player on its board, and there’s a good chance that player is Indiana’s Cody Zeller.
10. Portland Trail Blazers: Alex Len, C, Maryland
Alex Len has the talent to warrant an earlier selection, but a stress fracture in his left ankle may scare away some teams hoping to cash in on his potential. The Trail Blazers are in desperate need of another physical frontcourt presence, though, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to them pull the trigger on the Maryland center with this pick.
11. Philadelphia 76ers: Kelly Olynyk, C, Gonzaga
No matter which big man they select here, there’s little doubt the 76ers will opt for some frontcourt help with the No. 11 pick. Andrew Bynum may not be back next season and Philadelphia doesn’t have much depth to speak of at either the center or power forward positions.
12. Oklahoma City Thunder: Michael Carter-Williams, PG, Syracuse
With two picks in the first round, Oklahoma City will be able to find two players who can add some much-needed depth to its roster. There isn’t a player available here who will warrant immediate starting time, but Michael Carter-Williams will go a long way toward augmenting a backcourt that struggled mightily without Russell Westbrook on the floor.
13. Dallas Mavericks: Dennis Schroeder, PG, Germany
Dennis Schroeder has elicited a lot of hype in the pre-draft process. At 6’3”, he has the size, athleticism and ball-handling skills to be an excellent NBA point guard. With a backcourt in desperate need of some young talent, Dallas won’t have to look very far to find a pro-ready guard at No. 13.
14. Utah Jazz: Shane Larkin, PG, Miami
For all the talk of Shane Larkin’s size (5’11”), he certainly did a lot to put those worries to rest in pre-draft workouts. The Miami point guard displays tremendous athleticism and leaping ability for his size, and also brings the kind of leadership and toughness teams look for at the point guard position.
15. Milwaukee Bucks: Archie Goodwin, SG, Kentucky
It’s unclear what the Bucks plan to do with a cluttered backcourt of Brandon Jennings, Monta Ellis and J.J. Redick, though there’s a good chance at least one of the three doesn’t return to the team next season. If Milwaukee doesn’t plan on retaining all three, adding another high-upside guard here wouldn’t be a bad option.
16. Boston Celtics: Steven Adams, C, Pittsburgh
Kevin Garnett may not be back next season and Boston needs to start planning for the future. Steven Adams is a versatile big man with a surprisingly strong mid-range jumper and the potential to be a long-term starter in the Celtics’ frontcourt in replacement of Garnett.
17. Atlanta Hawks: Mason Plumlee, PF/C, Duke
With so much uncertainty facing the Hawks this offseason, it’s hard to predict what direction they intend to go. But regardless of positional needs or offseason plans, Atlanta must take advantage of the talent still on the board in their selection a couple immediate impact players at No. 17 and 18.
18. Atlanta Hawks (via Houston): Gorgui Dieng, C, Louisville
Louisville center Gorgui Dieng is lauded for his defensive prowess, but he’s also a very capable scorer who can contribute at both ends of the floor. While his limited upside may push him down the draft board in June, Atlanta won’t hesitate to select a player who can eat up a lot of minutes in his early NBA years.
19. Cleveland Cavaliers (via Los Angeles Lakers): Rudy Gobert, C, France
What happens with this pick will depend on what the Cavs decide to do with the No. 1 overall selection.
If Cleveland chooses Noel with the first pick, Chris Grant may opt for a small forward or shooting guard who can play a rotational role in the coming season.
But there’s also the possibility Grant doubles up at the center position in hopes of a quick fix at the position. Anderson Varejao is extremely injury prone, and he also isn’t the shot-blocking defensive presence Cleveland needs at the position.
In adding two centers in the first round, the Cavs can move Varejao back to his natural position at power forward and field an extremely talented frontcourt rotation next season.
20. Chicago Bulls: Tim Hardaway Jr., SG, Michigan
The Bulls would be extremely lucky to land a guard like Tim Hardaway Jr. with this pick.
Whether Derrick Rose is on the floor or not, Chicago still needs to add a couple scorers who can provide depth and bolster a unit that wore down in trying to pick up the slack with Rose off the floor.
Hardaway is a lengthy 2 guard with a tremendous long-distance jumper. He didn’t always put it all together last season with Michigan, but he has all the talent and potential to be a terrific NBA scorer and on-ball defender.
21. Utah Jazz: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, SG, Georgia
Don’t be surprised to see Utah use both of its first-round selection on guards. The Jazz backcourt needs a big overhaul this offseason, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope will aid in those efforts.
22. Brooklyn Nets: Lorenzo Brown, PG, N.C. State
Brooklyn isn’t likely to find an immediate impact player with this pick. Depth is the name of the game, and landing Lorenzo Brown with this pick would certainly help in that department.
23. Indiana Pacers: Tony Mitchell, PF, North Texas
Tony Mitchell is loaded with NBA potential, but he put together a somewhat disappointing season with North Texas last year and needs to prove he has the drive and determination to play at the game’s highest level.
Still, Mitchell is an imposing physical presence who plays extremely gritty defense and knows how to finish at the offensive end. He’s the perfect fit for a team that thrives on tough defensive play in the paint.
24. New York Knicks: Dario Saric, F, Croatia
It’s hard to identify a position at which New York must get better next season. The Knicks certainly don’t lack perimeter scoring, but it will be difficult for them to find a player who will see a lot of early playing time with the 24th pick.
In this case, Glen Grunwald can add another scorer with a ton of potential who will need some time to develop.
25. Los Angeles Clippers: Tony Snell, SG, New Mexico
Tony Snell has all the physical tools to be a solid NBA scorer. He’s still a little raw, though, and there’s a good chance he finds his way to the bottom portion of the first round as a result.
26. Minnesota Timberwolves (via Memphis): Deshaun Thomas, SF, Ohio State
Minnesota has been hampered by injuries far too often in recent years. When the Timberwolves are healthy, there aren’t many positions of major need to address.
But every team could use another perimeter scorer, especially one who led his conference in scoring last season. Deshaun Thomas never reached his full potential with the Ohio State Buckeyes, but he’s an extremely solid pick near the end of the first round.
27. Denver Nuggets: Giannis Adetokoubo, SF, Greece
Danilo Gallinari’s late-season injury will cause some problems for the Nuggets next year. Gallinari will probably miss part of the 2013-14 season, meaning replacing some of that production through free agency and the draft will be a necessity.
28. San Antonio Spurs: Sergey Karasev, SG/SF, Russia
San Antonio has a terrific mix of starting talent and depth, and it probably won’t be looking to use the 28th pick on a player who can produce early in his career. Sergey Karasev will be a bit of a project, but the Spurs can afford to develop him for a while behind a talented group of starters.
29. Oklahoma City Thunder: Jeff Withey, C, Kansas
The Kendrick Perkins experiment didn’t quite go according to plan. Oklahoma City has to continue improving on its frontcourt, and Withey is the best option this late in the first round.
30. Phoenix Suns (via Miami): C.J. Leslie, PF, N.C. State
The Suns aren’t likely to find an immediate impact player with the 30th pick. What they can find, however, is a gritty defender who can contribute minutes in his formative years and solidify a frontcourt that struggled mightily at the defensive end this season.