NBA Teams Who Won't Be Tanking This Year, but Should
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The NBA draft lottery provides incentive for teams which are not competing for a championship to lose as many games as possible, in order to acquire the talent necessary to contend in the future. Yet this summer, several bad teams opted for mediocrity instead of increasing their odds of hitting the jackpot.
The incentive to tank this season is even greater than in years past because the 2014 draft is expected to be the strongest in over a decade. University of Kansas freshman Andrew Wiggins has been touted as the biggest prospect since LeBron James.
Duke University freshman Jabari Parker, University of Kentucky freshman Julius Randle, Oklahoma State University sophomore Marcus Smart and Australian guard Dante Exum are also considered potential franchise players.
Teams like the Utah Jazz and Philadelphia 76ers shed talent and salary in the hopes of acquiring one of those talented youngsters next summer.
Other teams, like the Orlando Magic and Phoenix Suns simply maintained the status quo, refusing to add marginal players to their rosters.
There are a variety of reasons why teams choose not to tank. Very often the mandate to remain competitive comes from the top. Some owners are too impatient or proud to go through a prolonged rebuilding process. Others are concerned about keeping people in the seats.
New Orleans Pelicans
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The New Orleans Pelicans essentially won the NBA lottery for a second year in a row when the player many scouts believed to be the best prospect in the draft, Nerlens Noel, fell into their laps with the sixth pick.
New Orleans selected the shot-blocker extraordinaire, then promptly traded his rights and its first-round pick in the 2014 draft to the Philadelphia 76ers for All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday.
The Pelicans also signed guard Tyreke Evans to a four-year, $44 contract.
The moves immediately improved a roster that won just 27 games last season. Holiday is an athletic playmaker and a significant upgrade over Greivis Vasquez defensively. Evans provides them with another scorer to go along with Holiday, Anthony Davis, Eric Gordon and sharpshooter Ryan Anderson.
However, New Orleans could have built a stronger nucleus by remaining patient and continuing the rebuilding process for one more year.
Noel is expected to miss a large portion of the season after undergoing ACL surgery, which would have almost assured the Pelicans of another top selection in 2014 with the pick they sent to Philly. (The pick is top-five protected, though with the additions of Evans and Holiday, New Orleans is unlikely to retain it.)
Noel and Davis, whom the Pelicans envision as a power forward, would have formed a devastating defensive duo down the road. And New Orleans could have used the money it spent on Holiday and Evans to sign two talented players next summer, with the added benefit of having Noel and another lottery pick on the team.
Los Angeles Lakers
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It took a desperation late-season run for the Los Angeles Lakers to make the playoffs before being swept in the first round by the San Antonio Spurs. Their prospects for next season are even less promising. ESPN's panel of experts projected the Lakers to finish 12th in the Western Conference.
Dwight Howard bolted for Houston and was replaced by Chris Kaman. Kobe Bryant is recovering from a torn Achilles tendon, Steve Nash is on his last legs and Metta World Peace is no longer with the team.
The Lakers will have plenty of money to spend next summer and intend to reload, rather than rebuild. According to Ramon Shelburne and Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com, L.A. plans to pursue LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony in 2014.
Unfortunately for L.A., neither star is likely to leave his current team. The Lakers are also not as desirable of a destination as they once were. Their roster is aging and owner Jim Buss does not inspire the same level of confidence as his late father.
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The Milwaukee Bucks had an opportunity to reboot this offseason after years of mediocrity. With Monta Ellis, Brandon Jennings and J.J. Redick hitting the free-agent market, the team could have bottomed out in 2013-14 and increased its odds of hitting it big in the next couple of draft lotteries.
Unfortunately for Bucks fans, team owner Herb Kohl is unwilling to go that route. The former U.S. Senator publicly stated that he wants the Bucks to field a competitive team.
Milwaukee had the good sense not to shell out near-maximum salary dollars for Ellis or Jennings, two high-scoring, inefficient guards. Instead, they signed shooting guard O.J. Mayo to a three-year, $24 million deal, added backup center Zaza Pachulia for 15.6 million over three years, and acquired Brandon Knight from the Detroit Pistons for Jennings.
Pachulia is receiving a lot of money for a backup center at a position of strength for the Bucks. Mayo may be slightly overpaid, but his contract is not unreasonable given its short length, and Knight has some potential.
Those three players are probably not enough to earn the Bucks a return trip to the playoffs in an improved Eastern Conference, but should play well enough to keep the team out of the top of the draft.
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Plan B should have been to trade the 35-year-old Dirk Nowitzki to a contender while he still has some value, as the Boston Celtics did with Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, and rebuild. Without Dirk in the mix, Dallas could have had a legitimate shot at landing Andrew Wiggins or another franchise player.
Mark Cuban chose a different option.
The Mavs owner is intensely loyal to the 7-footer who brought the franchise its first championship. Cuban also recently stated on his blog that he is unwilling to trade Dirk in large part because of the influence his star player has on the team's culture.
Dirk has enough left in the tank to make Dallas respectable, and Cuban doled out $55 million for veterans Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon in order to make another run at the postseason. The Mavs will likely fall short of the final playoff spot in the West while lowering their draft position and diminishing their financial flexibility in the process.
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The Charlotte Bobcats failed to land the No. 1 pick and Anthony Davis after the worst season in NBA history in 2011-12 and fell to the No. 4 selection in June after finishing with the second-worst record this past season.
However, with the most anticipated draft since 2003 fast approaching, this was not the time for management to lose faith in winning the lottery.
Charlotte shocked the rest of the league by signing the defensively challenged Al Jefferson to a three-year, $41 million contract this summer. The former Utah Jazz center is a reliable post scorer through whom the Bobcats can run their offense. He averaged 17.8 points and 9.2 rebounds per game last season.
The problem is, Jefferson is not good enough to put the Cats in contention for a playoff spot, though his presence, along with the continued development of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Kemba Walker and Gerald Henderson could elevate Charlotte the a high-20s win total.
That would likely be enough to keep them out of the top five in next summer's draft.