What Will the NBA Landscape Look Like 1 Year from Now?
Andrew Wiggins, Julius Randle, Jabari Parker, Marcus Smart and Aaron Gordon, among others, comprise what's being touted as the greatest draft class since 2003, one that's primed to shake up the league's power structure.
The summer of 2014 is when big-market franchises and big-time players will take center stage, and here's a primer of what to expect.
Perennial Powers: Eastern Conference
While playoff contenders in both the Eastern and Western Conferences will fluctuate due to the influx of new talent in the 2014 draft class, I see the top of the NBA pyramid remaining stable for at least another two or three years.
The focus of the summer of 2014, aside from the breathtaking talent that is Wiggins, will be on James and the Miami Heat.
James has the ability to exercise an early-termination option in his contract, and one would think that the King would exercise said option if for no other reason than to re-up with Miami for a new max contract. Point being, I find it hard to believe that James will bolt from the Heat, especially if he, Wade and Bosh are able to three-peat next season.
Should James stay, one wouldn't imagine Wade and Bosh bolting. Perhaps Pat Riley will decide he wants to pursue a younger, more prototypical center to replace Bosh and combat the Indiana Pacers' size. But given the massive success the Big Three have had in such a short span, why would they split up after just four years together?
Staying in the East, Central Division powers like the Pacers and Chicago Bulls figure to remain primary threats to the Heat's supremacy.
Indiana, in particular, should be reloaded headed into the 2014-15 season.
Paul George will be a restricted free agent next summer and is a candidate for a max offer sheet from contenders throughout the Association. But Indiana should match just like it did with Roy Hibbert. Even if it means dipping into the luxury tax a bit, a core consisting of Hibbert, George and David West is among the league's best.
In the Windy City, the Bulls will have the guts of their roster returning in 2014-15, headlined by Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah. According to Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, the Bulls have discussed a contract extension with impending free agent Luol Deng. Assuming the Bulls can work out a deal for their defensive maven and minutes-eater, the big question mark hanging over Chicago will be the future of Carlos Boozer.
The Bulls still possess the ability to exercise their amnesty provision. Next summer, they could feel compelled to rid themselves of the remaining one year and $16.8 million on Boozer's deal. Should the Bulls do so, there's always the chance they decide to aggressively pursue a trade for a power forward like, say, LaMarcus Aldridge, according by CSN Northwest's Chris Haynes.
In the Atlantic, the Brooklyn Nets have a shade under $90 million committed in salaries for next season, according to HoopsHype. Paul Pierce will be an unrestricted free agent, and based on how this season goes, he could be staring at retirement or one final contract.
As far as significant additions in 2014 go, the Nets appear to be hamstrung from a financial standpoint, though that didn't stop owner Mikhail Prokhorov from inking countryman Andrei Kirilenko to a two-year, $6.5 million contract.
Perennial Powers: Western Conference
No how matter how you slice it, the Western Conference is loaded. From annual staples like the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder to up-and-comers in Golden State and Houston, the depth of the Western Conference is astounding.
And let's not forget the Memphis Grizzlies and Los Angeles Clippers. That makes six legitimate title contenders out West.
The summer of 2014 may not hold much in the way of major acquisitions for these six teams, but that's just fine, because most took care of their business this summer.
Golden State went out and acquired the versatile Andre Iguodala, while Houston bolstered its frontcourt with the addition of a certain three-time Defensive Player of the Year.
Those moves may not be enough to overtake the Spurs, Thunder or Clippers as Western Conference favorites, but the current makeup of the conference has ensured that the West will remain the superior conference for the foreseeable future.
Looking at the Rockets more closely, it's clear that they'll be viewed under a microscope for the duration of Dwight Howard's stay in H-Town.
The Rockets differ from the Spurs and Thunder in that they're not yet a proven commodity. Sneaking into the playoffs and stealing two games from the Thunder last season was nice and all, but with the trio of James Harden, Howard and Chandler Parsons, the Rockets will need to win multiple playoff series each of the next four years in order to validate their status as contenders.
The true wild card in all of this is the Los Angeles Lakers, but they'll be getting their own special breakdown later on.
Stock Up: Young Squads in the East
Even if the Cleveland Cavaliers fail to bring LeBron James back home for a reunion tour, they should count themselves as one of the Eastern Conference's six or seven best teams heading into the 2014-15 season.
Kyrie Irving is on the brink of superstardom, and pending the development of supporting pieces like Dion Waiters, Anthony Bennett and Tristan Thompson, he should have the Cavs in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
Among the East's other young, promising squads are the Orlando Magic and Washington Wizards.
The Magic are loaded with young assets—Victor Oladipo, Nikola Vucevic, Tobias Harris and Moe Harkless. And if they finish as one of the conference's worst teams yet again (player development does take significant time, after all), they will presumably acquire a high enough draft pick to add to their stocked talent pool.
The Wizards fall more in line with the Cavs, in that they possess enough pieces to contend for a playoff spot this season. According to CSN Washington's J. Michael, Washington is also looking into an extension for former No. 1 overall pick John Wall:
Wall, the No. 1 overall pick in 2010, is eligible for up to a four-year, max contract with the Wizards in addition to the final year remaining on his deal that will pay him $7.45 million next season. If he's named the franchise's designated player, Wall can get five years.
If the Wizards cannot reach an agreement with him by Oct. 30, talks will have to be tabled until after the 2013-14 regular season.
With Bradley Beal and Otto Porter by his side, the Wizards and their fans should take pride in knowing that their streak of five consecutive years of missing the playoffs should soon be snapped.
And then there are the Philadelphia 76ers. If you were given the opportunity to get in on the ground floor and buy 76ers stock right now, I'd recommend you do so.
General manager Sam Hinkie came in and blew things up with a trade that sent Jrue Holiday to the New Orleans Pelicans in exchange for Nerlens Noel and a 2014 first-round pick. And while the move appeared like a questionable one at a first glance, there's no denying that it was a calculated play that will have the Sixers contending in the long run.
As a result of dealing Holiday, the Sixers will find themselves among the league's five worst teams in 2013-14.
If there's such a thing as implicit tanking, Hinkie is aiming to pull it off this season.
Hinkie has the Sixers in prime position to acquire a top-three draft pick, one which could lead to the selection of Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker or Julius Randle. But it doesn't end there. The Sixers also possess the New Orleans Pelicans' first-round selection, one which could conceivably be a back-end lottery pick given the strength of the Western Conference.
So while it may have been difficult to deal a 23-year-old All-Star in Jrue Holiday, the Sixers are now armed with two 2013 lottery picks (Noel and Michael Carter-Williams), two first-round selections in the strongest draft class since 2003 and an abundance of cap room.
Thanks to Hinkie's savvy dealings, the Sixers could very well be the league's most promising team in a years' time.
Stock Up: Sleepers in the Western Conference
Jrue Holiday's Pelicans have an uphill climb ahead, but given the collection of talent they've assembled this summer (Tyreke Evans and Holiday) to complement Eric Gordon, Anthony Davis and Ryan Anderson, they have put themselves in a comfortable position to improve steadily over the next two years.
If the criteria used to judge the strength of a division is the number of playoff teams it produces, then the Northwest Division was the weakest in the West last season. Only two Northwest teams (Oklahoma City and Denver) qualified for the postseason, as opposed to three in the Pacific and Southwest.
Don't expect that to become a lasting trend, though. The Portland Trail Blazers and Minnesota Timberwolves are small-market powers on the rise.
Portland, buoyed by the presences of Damian Lillard, Nicolas Batum and LaMarcus Aldridge, have the talent, and now the depth necessary to qualify as a seventh or eighth seed for years come. And in a stacked conference, that's not an accomplishment that should be looked down upon.
Factor in a bench that's been strengthened by Dorell Wright, C.J. McCollum and Thomas Robinson, and the Blazers are on the cusp of a revival. The real key will be continually improving the roster to appease the wishes of an unhappy Aldridge, according to CSN Northwest's Chris Haynes.
If the Blazers are on the brink of playoff contention, then the Timberwolves aren't far behind. Much like Portland, the T'Wolves possess a brilliant young point guard and a rock solid scoring machine at the 4.
However, Minnesota differs in that their supporting cast is more diverse and arguably more talented. Adding Kevin Martin at shooting guard alongside Ricky Rubio was a major step towards improved three-point shooting and floor spacing for a team that finished last in three-point percentage (30.5) and 28th in threes made (450) last season.
The Wolves also stabilized their depth at the 3 despite losing Andrei Kirilenko to the Brooklyn Nets, adding Corey Brewer as the backup to Chase Budinger.
And with young guns like Alexey Shved and Derrick Williams capable of providing some pop of the bench, the Timberwolves feel like a lock to improve upon their lousy mark of 102.6 points per 100 possessions (per Basketball-Reference) from last season. A healthy Kevin Love won't hurt, either.
With some more efficient offensive execution, the Timberwolves could find themselves a postseason sleeper a la the 2012-13 Warriors in 2014 and beyond.
Stock Down: New York Knicks
Emerging Eastern Conference squads and perennial powers have been thoroughly discussed without mention of one team: the New York Knicks.
In the summer of 2014, panic buttons may very well be pressed throughout Madison Square Garden. The reason: Carmelo Anthony.
Like James, Wade and Bosh, Anthony has the ability to exercise an early-termination option and become a free agent a year from now.
Should he do so, don't be surprised to see the Purple and Gold throw plenty of green at the 2012-13 scoring champion, according to ESPN LA's Ramona Shelburne and Brian Windhorst:
The Los Angeles Lakers, whose plan to re-sign center Dwight Howard did not pan out this offseason, are poised to rebuild fast by focusing on the two biggest free agents of 2014 -- LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, front office sources have told ESPN.
Opinions are split on whether the Lakers can actually land James or Anthony, with one source calling it "realistic" and another saying it was "far-fetched at this point." Nonetheless, the Lakers have made it clear they are positioning themselves for a run at one and perhaps even two of the superstars who could become free agents in 2014, by refusing to commit to any contract past this next season, multiple sources have said.
While the Knicks enter 2013-14 coming off their first 50-win season since 1999-00, you have to wonder if Anthony will grow frustrated given the team's inability to piece together the championship puzzle.
Should he ultimately bolt, the Knicks will be left with an aging group centered around Amar'e Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler and Andrea Bargnani. With Iman Shumpert the team's only true young asset (and if you believe Stephen A. Smith, James Dolan wanted to trade him), the Knicks may need to find ways to reinvent themselves in order to keep Anthony in tow.
The Lottery Favorites
Andrew Wiggins' dream may be to play for his hometown Toronto Raptors, according to Cathal Kelly of the Toronto Star, but by virtue of playing in a dreadful Atlantic Division, the Raps could easily finish as high as third place.
So if the Raptors are out of the running for Wiggins' services, which teams should we keep an eye on? In all, there are five solid contenders for the phenom's services—and the most viable reside in the Eastern Conference.
Philadelphia is the odds-on favorite at this point in time, but don't discount the Magic, who are in the midst of a rebuild as well. With Evan Turner as their go-to scoring option (pending things not being blown up further), the Sixers will struggle to top the 20-win mark.
The Charlotte Bobcats shouldn't be discounted as players for the No. 1 overall pick (per usual), as Rich Cho's squad has its fair share of raw prospects. But if Charlotte's ownership has things their way, the Bobcats will be among the conference's most improved teams this season.
Michael Jordan went out and threw big money Al Jefferson's way this summer, a clear indication that ownership is serious about improving over the next two seasons (Jefferson can opt out after year two of his three-year deal, according to ESPN's Marc Stein).
Out West, it's the Phoenix Suns and Sacramento Kings who will give the Sixers, Magic and Bobcats a run for their money.
The addition of Eric Bledsoe gives Ryan McDonough his point guard of the future, but the Suns lack veteran talent at nearly every other position. Bledsoe and Goran Dragic will be a versatile one-two punch to pair with a 2014 lottery stud, one whom the Suns are virtually certain to acquire. Like Hinkie on the East Coast, McDonough has positioned the Suns beautifully for a run at Wiggins, Randle or Parker.
And then there's Sacramento. Unlike Phoenix and Philadelphia, the Kings have promising young talents who are proven, to an extent. Greivis Vasquez led the NBA in total assists last season (704), while DeMarcus Cousins—no matter how immature he may be—is a legitimate franchise building block who averaged 17.1 points and 9.9 rebounds in 2012-13.
The good news for the likes of Sacramento and Charlotte is this: With prospects like Marcus Smart, Aaron Gordon, Dante Exum, Willie Cauley-Stein, Glenn Robinson III, Andrew Harrison and many, many more, All-Star-caliber talent is abound in next year's lottery.
Wiggins will fit in regardless of where he goes, but there's no denying how stellar a fit he'd be in Orlando. With Victor Oladipo at the 2 (and perhaps eventually point guard), Wiggins would slot in beautifully alongside the Indiana product, Tobias Harris and Nikola Vucevic. They wouldn't top Penny and Shaq, but with Wiggins the Magic would be appointment viewing.
Parker and Randle would both work in Phoenix (Parker even more so given the team's need for scoring wings), but it's the latter whom I believe is the most-NBA ready prospect of the freshman in next year's class.
In particular, I believe Randle is an intriguing fit in Philadelphia (should they miss out on Wiggins), especially if Noel recovers from his torn ACL and develops into a fierce shot-blocking intimidator down low. With the offensively-gifted Randle, the Sixers would have a multi-dimensional frontcourt possessing ridiculous upside to build around.
To recap, here are the favorites for the No. 1 overall pick at this time, in order: Philadelphia, Phoenix, Orlando, Charlotte and Sacramento.
The Utah Jazz and Boston Celtics may have some tanking of their own planned as the season gets underway, but for now, those are the teams to beat in the Wiggins sweepstakes.
Tier Two Free Agents
If superstars like James, Wade and Bosh all stay put, where's big-time player movement going to come from?
Look no further than your tier-two free-agents. Danny Granger, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bogut and Zach Luol Deng should be included in that list, but as previously mentioned, Chicago appears to be keen on re-signing the 28-year-old.
The most intriguing name in that group is Gasol. Should the Lakers aim to sign two max stars to pair with Kobe Bryant, Gasol figures to be out of the picture pending a massive pay cut.
Who then, will take an interest in a 34-year-old who excels playing with his back to the basket? It's hard to look past the Cleveland Cavaliers.
With the Cavs holding team options for Anderson Varejao and presumably Andrew Bynum next season, Chris Grant and Dan Gilbert will have money to blow on a more polished center. A Gasol-Irving pick-and-roll combination would rank among the league's best, catapulting the Cavs into a coveted spot as a consistent playoff contender in an Eastern Conference that lacks them.
Another player to keep in mind as the 2013-14 season progresses is Randolph, who was rumored to be a trade candidate at last season's deadline. With the Grizzlies stashing 24-year-old Ed Davis behind Randolph, it wouldn't be a shock to see Randolph dealt at next year's deadline to free up playing time for the promising young 4.
Factor in that Randolph's player option for 2014-15 is worth $16.5 million, according to HoopsHype, and the Grizzlies' financial prudence, and Randolph's future looks rather bleak.
Granger and Bogut are harder to peg at this stage, but should they both play next season injury-free, their value will spike entering a critical negotiating period.
The Los Angeles Lakers
Examining the Los Angeles Lakers' salary-cap situation entering the 2014 offseason, it's clear that Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak will have their eyes on shaking up the NBA landscape.
According to HoopsHype, Steve Nash ($9.7 million) and Robert Sacre ($915,000) are the only locks to be on the Lakers roster next season, while Nick Young has a player option worth roughly $1.2 million for 2014-15.
That leaves the Lakers with sizable amounts of cap space. They're going to have to spend a fair bit on Bryant, which isn't news. But according to Shelburne and Windhorst, it remains to be seen if Bryant will take a pay cut to help attract a superstar cast:
Bryant will be the highest-paid player in the league next season with a $30.5 million salary. For the Lakers to maintain enough room to pursue two max-level free agents, he'd need to play for quite a bit less.
"As a businessman the goal is always to not take a pay cut," Bryant said. "But ..."
Bryant told ESPNLosAngeles.com's Dave McMenamin last week that he intends to be involved in the Lakers' recruiting efforts for 2014 and is looped into the team's decision-making.
So who exactly do the Lakers pursue?
I believe LeBron will return to Miami, and I'd have a difficult time believing that he would bolt for L.A. just to share the spotlight with Kobe, whom he's constantly compared to in a historical context. Sure, it would be mesmerizing, but James has a good thing going in Miami.
Assuming James is out of the picture, Anthony then leapfrogs his way to the top of the Lakers' wish list.
Another notable free agent set to hit the market in 2014 is Dirk Nowitzki. It's still very early in the process, but these are all names to keep an eye on moving forward.
Stephen A. says it's 50-50 Carmelo Anthony leaves New York next year and it's 50-50 he comes to the Lakers.— Arash Markazi (@ArashMarkazi) July 8, 2013
Inevitably, the Lakers will come away with a few prizes in free agency. Whether several are max players, however, remains to be seen.
Kobe is one title away from that elusive sixth championship, and you get the feeling that with financial wiggle room and a proven willingness to spend into the luxury tax, the Lakers will make any and all moves within their power to be in the title conversation a year from now.
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