10 Teams That Should Be All-In on 2014 NBA Draft
Now that we're past the trade deadline, NBA teams still stuck in the gutter have little hope for salvation over the next four months.
The next real opportunity for any squad to make substantial improvements is June 26, the night of the 2014 NBA draft. Given the projected depth of the upcoming draft class, hope lies just around the corner for fans of the league's basement-dwellers.
By now, you've heard the names Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid, Dante Exum, Jabari Parker and Julius Randle thrown around. This year's class extends far beyond those five names, however.
Guys like Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III, who might have been lottery picks in 2013, could fall entirely out of the first round in 2014. The draft class is just that deep.
Heading into March, 21 of the league's 30 teams sit within six games of a playoff spot. While their owners wouldn't mind the extra postseason revenue, not all of those 21 should be thinking about making a late postseason push.
Because of the realities of their respective situations, the 10 teams featured here should be all-in on the 2014 NBA draft (assuming they aren't already).
All records are current through Feb. 28. Teams are organized in order of records, from worst to best.
Honorable Mention: New York Knicks (21-38)
The New York Knicks, 17 games below .500 and six games out of a playoff spot in the downtrodden Eastern Conference, should theoretically have their eyes firmly on the 2014 draft.
There's just one problem: They don't have a first- or second-round pick.
New York traded its first-round pick to Denver in the Feb. 2011 deal that netted Carmelo Anthony. The Knicks then sent Toney Douglas, Josh Harrellson, Jerome Jordan, their 2014 second-round pick and their 2015 second-round pick to Houston in exchange for Marcus Camby two summers ago. (Camby ended up playing a grand total of 27 games for the team, including three playoff games.)
Because the East is such a raging tire fire, New York still could semi-feasibly make a late-season playoff push. But when your best-case scenario is an opening-round knockout at the hands of Miami or Indiana, it's usually time for Plan B.
With no draft picks in hand, the Knicks have no incentive to tank the rest of the season and jockey for lottery positioning. They're stuck in the worst place of all for NBA teams—not good enough to compete for a championship but devoid of a long-term rebuilding plan.
Other honorable mentions: Detroit Pistons (23-35), who owe their first-round pick to Charlotte if it's outside the top eight; Phoenix Suns (34-24), who could have as many as four first-round picks in 2014.
Milwaukee Bucks (11-46)
The Milwaukee Bucks made a series of head-scratching moves during the 2013 offseason, striving to stay afloat as a bottom-of-the-barrel playoff contender.
Here's how CBSSports.com's Matt Moore summed up their free-agency flurry:
They don't seem to know where they're going or what they're doing, outside of praying for an "Angels in the Outfield" type situation. They don't have a star or a real core of players, but they added a bunch of window dressing veterans. They won't be as much of an issue in the locker room, but will they be better on the court? There are ways they can, but the overall impression is that they got worse without shedding money, and opted for prolonged mediocrisanity than crazed tank warfare.
As it turns out, maybe they did know what they were doing. Instead of engaging in a blatant tankapalooza like the Philadelphia 76ers, the Bucks chose a more subtle method of ensuring their short-term demise.
Larry Sanders' disastrous season only expedited Milwaukee's fall. The team currently has a 3.5-game lead in the race for the worst record in the league, which would guarantee a top-four draft pick in June.
Since the Bucks are 15 games out of the playoff hunt, going on a late-season winning streak would be their worst-case scenario. Instead, Milwaukee should be eagerly scouting Duke, Kentucky and Kansas games over the next few months.
Philadelphia 76ers (15-43)
If there's one team that can dethrone Milwaukee for the worst record in the league, it's the Philadelphia 76ers.
On the day of the trade deadline, Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie detonated the squad's core. He shipped out two of his four best players—Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes—to net three future second-round draft picks and second-year center Henry Sims.
The Sixers are now in such disarray, some media members are legitimately questioning whether they'll win another game this season. After recent double-digit losses to fellow bottom-feeders Milwaukee and Orlando, a 20-win season appears completely out of the question.
Hinkie entered this season with every intention to tank; his trade-deadline maneuvers were the logical extension of that philosophy. So long as the Sixers finish with one of the two worst records in the league, they're guaranteed a top-five draft pick (at worst).
At this point in the season, Philly fans should also keep one eye on the Western Conference standings. The New Orleans Pelicans, who have a 0.0 percent chance of making the playoffs, per ESPN.com's Hollinger Playoff Odds, will send their lottery pick to the Sixers so long as they're not in the top five. Two lottery picks in the deepest draft in a decade could certainly expedite the 76ers' rebuild.
Orlando Magic (18-42)
The Orlando Magic, currently in Year 2 of the post-Dwight Howard era, appear well-positioned to take a major step forward after this season.
Their backcourt appears to be the backbone of the squad, as Arron Afflalo has blossomed into one of the league's better 2-guards. Rookie Victor Oladipo, who Orlando drafted second overall, could emerge as the best player in his draft class.
Had center Nikola Vucevic not missed 18 games due to an assortment of injuries, the Magic likely would be closer to the 25-win range. Their record isn't necessarily indicative of the talent on this team.
They're well out of the playoff race this season, but reinforcements will soon be on the way. The Magic could possess two top-12 draft picks in June, as Denver must convey the lesser of its own pick and the New York Knicks' first-rounder to Orlando, fallout from the four-team Howard mega-trade from the summer of 2012.
If the squad finishes with the third-worst record in the league, it will be guaranteed at least one top-six pick (at worst). With Denver and New York both likely to miss the playoffs, another late-lottery pick should be coming to O-town in June too.
Los Angeles Lakers (20-39)
The Los Angeles Lakers appear to have finally embraced a full-fledged tank.
Kobe Bryant played a grand total of six games this season before suffering a fractured lateral tibial plateau in his left knee. As Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding reported, it's entirely possible that the Black Mamba is done for the season.
Without Kobe, the remaining squad hardly resembles the Lakers of yesteryear. Pau Gasol, Los Angeles' one active All-Star, is sniping back and forth with coach Mike D'Antoni. The other four current starters—Kent Bazemore, Jodie Meeks, Kendall Marshall and Wesley Johnson—would each struggle to crack most teams' starting lineups.
The Lakers have the worst record in the Western Conference and thus have zero incentive to start winning games over the final two months of the season. They should be in an all-out free fall, aiming to supplant as many Eastern Conference bottom-feeders as possible.
At the moment, Los Angeles is tied with Boston for the fourth-worst record in the league, which would guarantee a top-eight pick in June.
At least one general manager is already openly wondering if Australian point guard Dante Exum will angle his way onto the Lakers in June, per Sporting News' Sean Deveney:
When you hear some of what he says, it does make you wonder how the process is going to go as far as workouts and that sort of thing. We have seen this story before, of course. I am not sure a player can have that kind of control, though.
Even if the Lakers miss out on Exum, landing a top-five pick could ease the burden on Kobe as he heads into the twilight of his career.
Boston Celtics (20-39)
The Boston Celtics haven't quite succumbed to all-out tanking just yet, but they're not exactly sweating their bevy of losses either.
After trading Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry to the Brooklyn Nets last summer, this was bound to be a rebuilding year in Boston. With Rajon Rondo on the mend from ACL surgery for the first half of the season, the Celtics entered opening night down four of their top-six offensive options from 2012-13.
Unsurprisingly, Rondo's mid-January return didn't lead to a dramatic uptick in wins. Given the way general manager Danny Ainge stripped the roster bare, Boston wasn't ever going to field a competitive playoff-contending squad this season.
The future, however, looks far brighter for Beantown. The Nets must convey the less favorable of their first-round pick and Atlanta's (likely their own) to Boston as part of last summer's trade, likely giving the Celtics two top-20 picks in what's shaping up to be the deepest draft in years.
If the lottery gods don't betray the C's, they will almost certainly end up with a top-five or –six pick. They'll likely miss out on the Joel Embiid-Andrew Wiggins-Jabari Parker trio, but Julius Randle and Willie Cauley-Stein (via Brooklyn) wouldn't be such a terrible consolation prize.
Sacramento Kings (20-38)
The Sacramento Kings traded for Rudy Gay in December to help aid a playoff push, but the move made little effect on the team's bottom line.
Without Gay, the Kings started the season 6-14. Since he joined the team, they've gone 14-24—slightly better but nowhere near playoff contention.
SB Nation's Mark Deeks panned the acquisition at the time, writing:
Getting a quality player for spare parts and no future assets is rarely a bad idea. But when that player is hugely expensive, it needs to make perfect sense. It doesn't here. Sacramento is perhaps guilty of the same thinking that got Toronto in trouble, that a pure talent infusion will offset the poor fit of said talent.
Gay has been better in Sacramento—he's posting career highs in player efficiency rating (21.0), true shooting percentage (.580) and effective field-goal percentage (.525), per Basketball-Reference—but it hasn't helped the team get off the schneid.
At this point, with the playoffs out of reach, the Kings should already have at least one eye on potential mid-lottery picks. They hold the league's sixth-worst record at the moment, which would guarantee them a top-nine pick (at worst).
Slotting a player like Aaron Gordon or Noah Vonleh next to DeMarcus Cousins could give the Kings one of the league's most terrifying young frontcourts. If they're unwilling to spend big money on Isaiah Thomas, who's set to become a restricted free agent this summer, Marcus Smart could also make sense in Sacramento.
Utah Jazz (21-37)
After letting Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap walk in free agency last summer, the Utah Jazz entered this season in full-on rebuilding mode.
They've stuck to that plan through the first four months of the season, as their top five scorers are all either 23 or younger. The Jazz turned the team over to Gordon Hayward, Alec Burks, Derrick Favors, Trey Burke and Enes Kanter, recognizing that the bumps and bruises endured this year could pay dividends in the long run.
Utah started the year off 1-11, as Burke missed the first 12 games due to a broken right index finger. Since his return, however, the Jazz have been somewhat respectable, posting impressive wins over Miami, Phoenix and Oklahoma City since the calendar flipped to 2014.
With its core largely established, it's now time for Utah to look ahead toward building a legitimate championship contender. Not only do the Jazz have their own first-round pick, which will almost certainly fall in the top 10, but they'll receive Golden State's first-rounder as well (as part of last summer's Richard Jefferson-Andris Biedrins salary dump).
With Hayward set to become a restricted free agent this summer, Utah will likely select a swingman with at least one of its two first-rounders. Seeing as many of this year's mid-lottery picks could have been top-three picks last year, the draft could help the Jazz vault into legitimate playoff contention as soon as next season.
Cleveland Cavaliers (24-36)
The Cleveland Cavaliers entered the season with a playoff-or-bust mentality.
When they won the 2013 draft lottery, owner Dan Gilbert expressed his faith that it would be Cleveland's "last [lottery appearance] for a while." Things haven't quite gone according to plan, however, as the team sits 12 games under .500 with less than two months remaining in the regular season.
As of March 1, the Cavs only have a 6.8 percent chance of making the postseason, according to ESPN.com's Hollinger Playoff Odds. If the Eastern Conference weren't so downtrodden, Cleveland would already be looking ahead toward the 2014 draft.
That playoff-or-bust edict from Gilbert will be the franchise's downfall. Because a playoff spot is still conceivably in reach—the Cavs are only 3.5 games behind the No. 8-seeded Atlanta Hawks—they were buyers at the trade deadline, acquiring Spencer Hawes from the Philadelphia 76ers for Earl Clark, Henry Sims and two second-round picks.
"Cleveland is giving up assets to chase the no. 8 seed, which is stupid in a vacuum," Grantland's Zach Lowe wrote in his trade-deadline diary with Bill Simmons. "But the Cavs aren't operating in a vacuum. They're operating under a screaming owner who wants to win."
The Cavaliers should be all-in on what's shaping up to be the best draft in a decade. Instead, with Gilbert's declaration looming large, they're blindly pushing ahead to an execution at the hands of Miami or Indiana in the first round of the playoffs.
New Orleans Pelicans (23-34)
Due to a never-ending series of injuries, the New Orleans Pelicans' playoff push has ground to a screeching halt.
The Pelicans made a handful of major splashes last summer, including trading for All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday and signing swingman Tyreke Evans to a four-year, $44 million deal. According to Grantland's Zach Lowe, owner Tom Benson "pushed the front office to end the slow game and accelerate the rebuild," hence the flurry of offseason acquisitions.
Those maneuvers didn't translate into playoff contention, however. A series of injuries to many of the Pelicans' key contributors quickly derailed those aspirations.
Star center Anthony Davis missed seven games due to a broken hand. Ryan Anderson, the team's best stretch 4, is out indefinitely due to a herniated disc. And on Friday, the Pelicans announced that Holiday would miss the rest of the season after undergoing surgery to fix a stress fracture in his right tibia.
Here's the problem: In the trade for Holiday, the Pelicans sent their top-five protected 2014 first-round pick to Philadelphia. If they don't finish with one of the five worst records or strike lottery gold, they'll be sending a likely top-12 pick to the City of Brotherly Love.
With a 0.0 percent chance of making the playoffs, per ESPN.com's Hollinger Playoff Odds, New Orleans' best move for the rest of the season would be an all-out tank. Otherwise, the Sixers will almost assuredly be reaping the rewards of the Pelicans' first-round pick this June.
Denver Nuggets (25-32)
With point guard Ty Lawson sidelined by a broken rib, the Denver Nuggets' faint playoff hopes have completely vanished.
Denver will use the final third of the season to evaluate its talent, determining which players it will build around in the long run. Beyond Lawson, the roster appears to be in a state of total flux, with only five players posting an above-average player efficiency rating, per Basketball-Reference.
The Nuggets are set to miss the playoffs for the first time in 11 years, but their timing couldn't be much better. Having a mid- or late-lottery pick in this year's draft would be the equivalent of a top-five pick most seasons.
Denver must convey the least favorable of its own pick and New York's to Orlando as part of the four-team Dwight Howard mega-trade from the summer of 2012. As of now, the Nuggets are five games ahead of New York, meaning that they'll likely send their own pick to Orlando and keep the Knicks' pick.
Realistically, barring some major splashes in free agency, the 2014 lottery won't be Denver's last over the next few seasons. However, the Nuggets can expedite their rebuilding process by striking gold with the Knicks' lottery pick, continuing to reap the rewards of the Carmelo Anthony trade.