The NBA's Teams of Tomorrow
For teams struggling to win games during the 2013-14 season, there's one beautiful thing about the way the NBA works.
Tomorrow is another day.
Scarlett O'Hara would be proud of these five teams, because they're all focused on tomorrow (in a metaphorical sense), and they're going about the rebuilding process in the right way. Not all bottom-feeders can turn things around in just one or two seasons, but this handful of squads in the Association is poised to do exactly that.
Players on the roster right now look like future studs. Draft picks flow through the ledgers with relative abundance. There's cap space to add another prominent piece to the rotation.
The future looks bright, even if the present is dark and full of terrors.
In order to qualify for this article, though, the team must currently sit below .500. Sorry to the Phoenix Suns and Toronto Raptors, both of whom have brighter futures than their current states, but they've won too many games to gain eligibility.
I'm sure they don't mind much.
Note: All stats, unless otherwise indicated, are current as of Jan. 25 and come from Basketball-Reference.
Sometimes it all starts with a great coach.
Brad Stevens has done wonderful things with the Boston Celtics ever since taking his talents from Butler to Beantown, and he's coaxed some quality basketball out of just about every player on the roster. Jordan Crawford thrived under the first-year coach until he was traded to the Golden State Warriors, and Jared Sullinger has shown flashes of promise as well.
There isn't too much talent in Boston right now, and that's the main problem for the present.
Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green are the only quality players with experience under their belts, and the talented point guard is still seeking to regain his pre-injury form. But if he signs the contract extension that was offered to him, he'll help the rebuilding process run its course rather quickly.
Stevens is going to attract quality free agents, simply because it's clear how much players adore him and how excellent he is at milking talent out of places it can't typically be found.
However, it goes beyond that.
The C's are absolutely loaded with draft picks, and they'll either be able to land a handful of high-upside rookies in the next few years or package the picks for another star.
In addition to their own selections, Boston is picking up a conditional first-rounder from the Philadelphia 76ers (bet on them getting the lottery-protected pick in 2015), the less favorable of the Atlanta Hawks' and Brooklyn Nets' first-round selections in 2014, a first-round pick in 2015 from the Los Angeles Clippers, another one in 2016 from the Nets and the list goes on.
Seriously, there's actually more than that, though the picks are more than two years down the road, so they aren't highly relevant here.
The players aren't in place for the Celtics to regain their spot near the front of the Eastern Conference, but all of the other pieces are.
New Orleans Pelicans
This Anthony Davis guy is pretty good.
During the 2013-14 season, he's averaging 20 points, 10.2 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 1.5 steals and 3.0 blocks per game, which leaves him as the league leader in the final category. Oh, and he's posting those sensational numbers while shooting 51.8 percent from the field with a 26.2 PER, one that has him trailing only five players in the entire NBA.
But it gets more impressive.
Davis should earn a reserve spot on the Western Conference All-Star team, traveling with the best of the best to play yet another game in New Orleans. And he still won't even be able to enjoy everything that Bourbon Street has to offer since he's only 20 years old.
Yes, that's right.
Davis is a 20-year-old second-year player, and he's already asserted himself as one of the elites in the entire Association. He's a part of that premier power forward class that also includes Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge and Blake Griffin, though the four are bunched together so tightly that ranking them is really a matter of personal opinion.
In a few years, there's no telling how well Davis will be playing. We just know that it's going to be at an extraordinarily high level, one that leaves him competing with the NBA's superstars for ultimate supremacy as an individual.
Plus, the rest of the New Orleans Pelicans aren't bad. They just haven't all been healthy at the same time, as injuries to just about every player on the roster have reared their ugly heads. And in some ways, that's the best thing that could possibly happen.
Should the Pellies keep losing games at the rate they've been dropping them lately, they could end up with one of the top-five draft picks in 2014. Then they'd keep the pick instead of handing it off to the Philadelphia 76ers.
But even if they don't add another star from that loaded draft class, the improvement of Davis, especially when coupled with Ryan Anderson, Tyreke Evans, Eric Gordon and Jrue Holiday, is enough to ensure this team a bright future.
As ESPN's David Thorpe (subscription required) wrote, "The Pelicans are not close to that now (a title)—they need to fill out the roster with guys who complement Davis—but they have something that only a very select few teams have: a future MVP winner."
Given his rapid development in just two years of professional basketball, it's hard to argue.
The Orlando Magic are awful.
They fell back to earth quickly after a solid start to the season, but that doesn't make the future any less promising. After all, general manager Rob Hennigan has been stockpiling young players and draft-day assets with the future, not the present, in mind.
Orlando is one of those teams that could easily take a giant leap—almost like the one the Phoenix Suns are currently making—during the 2013-14 season.
Arron Afflalo has made tremendous strides during his second season enjoying the warm winters of Florida, and he's now averaging an efficient 20 points per game while submitting his name as a strong candidate for both Most Improved Player and a coveted All-Star berth.
Meanwhile, the actual young guys have enjoyed various levels of success.
Though his season has been plagued by injuries, Nikola Vucevic appears to be tracking toward a top spot in any ranking of the league's best centers. As ESPN's Nick Borges (subscription required) writes, "Orlando has some quality young talent on the team, including Vucevic, and they could be one of the best teams in the East in the near future."
Vucevic, averaging 13 points and 11 boards per game, deserves to be the headliner, but who else is Borges referring to?
The answer isn't a short one.
It includes Victor Oladipo, who is firmly embroiled in the midst of an up-and-down rookie season. He's talking about Maurice Harkless and Tobias Harris, both of whom can look like stars on any given night before failing to leave any sort of impression the next game. And there are the young bigs—Andrew Nicholson and Kyle O'Quinn—who have shown hints of long stays in NBA rotations.
But on top of that, the Magic are sure to add a quality player near the top of the stacked 2014 draft, and they'll also get to use the less favorable of the first-round picks currently owned by the Denver Nuggets and New York Knicks. And by quality player, I'm talking about a guy like Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins or Joel Embiid, since Orlando will be picking at or right near the very start of the selection process.
The futility in the present will lead to bigger things in the future.
It's easy to get excited about the Philadelphia 76ers.
In fact, you can go ahead and pencil them in for a playoff spot during the 2014-15 season, because they're going to get loads better during the summer and still play in the weak Eastern Conference. Don't use pen quite yet, though.
It all starts with Michael Carter-Williams, who has become the shoo-in leader of the Rookie of the Year race.
MCW is averaging 17.6 points, 5.8 rebounds, 6.6 assists and 2.5 steals per game while shooting 40.8 percent from the field. His jumper desperately needs fixing, but the rest of his game is undeniably impressive, and it's made a big impact in the City of Brother Love.
When the rookie floor general is in the lineup, Philly is 13-19. When he sits, the team has gone a pathetic 1-10.
How's that for making a big impact?
The Sixers also boast a few more solid players—Thaddeus Young, Spencer Hawes and Evan Turner—but there's no telling how many of them are a part of the long-term plans. Presumably, one or more will be dealt at the deadline for more future assets.
And Philadelphia already has plenty of those. In addition to cap space, general manager Sam Hinkie gets to work with his own first-round pick in 2014, as well as another selection if the New Orleans Pelicans don't fall down into one of the bottom five spots in the Association.
Since the Pelicans currently have a better record than 10 teams (seven of which play in the East), it's a safe assumption that Philadelphia will be adding two rookie first-rounders in 2014-15.
Actually, that number may be three.
We can't forget about Nerlens Noel, after all.
Per an official release on the team's website during the middle of January, Hinkie said the following about the flat-topped center from Kentucky:
After careful consideration and numerous discussions with our medical and performance teams, the consulting physician and rehabilitation staff, and Nerlens' representatives, some of the restrictions on Nerlens have been lifted and he is now able to participate in limited on-court work.
That gives fans a glimmer of hope that Noel may be able to play in 2013-14, but the smarter alternative would be letting him rehab for the rest of the year and then try to follow up MCW as Rookie of the Year in 2014-15.
Regardless, he'll be playing for Brett Brown—who has also emerged as a promising building block—in the future. A future that's very bright for these Sixers.
The Utah Jazz have the worst record in the Western Conference, but they still have a good-looking future.
Firstly, the roster has plenty of promise at this very moment.
Point guard Trey Burke has played quite well during his rookie season out of Michigan, averaging 13.5 points, 3.2 rebounds and 5.6 assists per game. He's struggled with his shot, but he's minimized his turnovers and led the Jazz into more respectable territory.
While No. 3 has been healthy, Utah has gone 13-18. Without him, they've only won a single game in 12 tries. Just as was the case with Michael Carter-Williams and the Philadelphia 76ers, that's a pretty significant impact.
But Burke isn't the only current piece with promise.
Gordon Hayward has had trouble serving as the No. 1 option, but he's still a versatile player who could blossom into a star down the road. A little overrated at the moment since his gaudy numbers overshadow his inefficiency and lack of defensive presence, Hayward won't let that tag stick around for long.
Then there's Alec Burks, who has finally started to trend upward.
Highlighted by his 34-point outburst against the Denver Nuggets, the Colorado product is averaging 15.2 points, 3.6 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game since the calendars switched to 2014, and he's doing so while shooting 45.9 percent from the field and 35.7 percent beyond the arc.
On top of the aforementioned trio, there's a frontcourt duo with plenty of upside.
Derrick Favors has shown off a developing offensive game while continuing to dominate on the glass, and Enes Kanter is finally living up to his potential. There was a seven-game stretch in early January that saw the Turkish big man come off the bench to average 15.1 points and 7.6 rebounds per contest while making 58.9 percent of his attempts.
Already sounds good, right?
Well, it only gets better in Salt Lake City, and I'm not just referring to the loads of cap space they'll have this offseason after all the expiring contracts come off the books. After all, the Jazz will be adding another potential star at the top of the 2014 draft (ideally local favorite Jabari Parker) and also have the rights to the Golden State Warriors' first-round selection.
Weird as it sounds for a team that has won only 14 games as we near the end of January, Utah is in great shape.