Rebuilding to-Do Lists for NBA Teams Eliminated from Playoff Race
It's nearly playoff time in the NBA. Teams are scrambling for postseason positions, and fans across the country are checking potential first-round matchups.
And then there are the other guys.
Five teams have already been eliminated from postseason contention as of Thursday: the Sacramento Kings, Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Lakers, Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks.
These teams stretch from sea to shining sea. They include a marquee franchise only four years removed from an NBA title (Los Angeles) and a team that narrowly avoided moving to Seattle last season (Sacramento). But this motley crew shares one thing in common: They'll all be watching the playoffs from home.
As these teams look to the future, lets take a look at what each team needs to do in order to contend down the road.
*Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.
Sacramento Kings (24-44)
Draft odds: 15.0% (Top 3), 4.3% (No. 1 overall)
The Sacramento Kings' season has been full of intriguing individual storylines.
Center DeMarcus Cousins has taken the leap from promising underachiever to legitimate All-Star-caliber player. Even if he wasn't selected to the Western Conference squad, his per-game averages of 22.3 points and 11.8 rebounds more than warranted inclusion.
Meanwhile, pint-sized point guard Isaiah Thomas, the last pick in the last round of the 2011 draft, burst onto the scene, averaging 20.6 points and 6.4 assists.
The duo was joined in December by Rudy Gay, who resurrected his career after being traded from the Toronto Raptors. He's averaging 20.5 points, 5.6 rebounds and 3.1 assists since coming to Sacramento.
So the Kings have what seems to be an impressive Big Three...on paper, at least. But their play hasn't contributed to many wins.
Some of that is simple bad luck. The Kings have under-performed based on their expected win-loss record of 29-39. Still, that isn't a playoff team.
Moving forward, Sacramento needs two things: depth and defense. They rank a paltry 24th in the league in defensive efficiency. A large part of that is due to Thomas, who gives up nearly as many points on D as he creates on O.
This offseason will be critical for the Kings for two reasons. First, they will need to really cash in on 2014's first-round pick, something they have rarely done in recent years. Grantland's Bill Simmons mentioned the Kings among his four teams that consistently waste high picks: "Sacramento had the no. 4, no. 5, no. 7, no. 5 and no. 7 picks in the past five drafts and has only DeMarcus Cousins and Ben McLemore left."
If the Kings want to compete, they need to turn this pick into a quality player—preferably one who will turn into a plus defender. Even an elite scorer like Jabari Parker is more of a luxury than a necessity.
The second thing they must do is make a decision on Thomas, who will be a restricted free agent in the offseason. They can match any offer, but must decide on a limit that gives them cap flexibility moving forward and stick to it, no matter what.
Utah Jazz (22-47)
Draft odds: 37.8% (Top 3), 11.9% (No. 1 overall)
None of these teams have as much intriguing young talent already on the roster as does Utah, and yet the Jazz can seemingly do nothing right.
I know Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter, Gordon Hayward, Alec Burks and Trey Burke aren't seasoned players, but that is some serious talent. Yet the Jazz are ranked a bad 22nd in offensive efficiency and an even worse 29th in defensive efficiency.
The first thing the Jazz need is a change at head coach. Tyrone Corbin clearly isn't getting enough out of his players. The good news is that the roster is young and impressionable enough that they don't need a big name to control the locker room. The Jazz should look for the brightest up-and-coming mind on the coaching market.
Like the Kings, the Jazz will have to make a decision on a restricted free agent (Hayward). Unlike the Kings, however, the Jazz could really use a No. 1 scorer, like Jabari Parker, to take the pressure off Hayward, should they decide to keep him.
Los Angeles Lakers (22-45)
Draft odds: 29.2% (Top 3), 8.8% (No. 1 overall)
The Los Angeles Lakers will likely build their team in a completely different manner than every other team on this list.
Why? Because they are the Lakers, that's why!
The other teams are looking to build on their young core in the draft; the Lakers are looking for a young star to pair with Kobe Bryant...and Kevin Love...and any other star they set their sights on.
The Lakers have very few assets outside of their first-round pick, which makes it imperative that they hit in this upcoming draft. Fortunately, they won't be boxed in by drafting for need, as their roster will be nearly completely bare, aside from Bryant.
While Los Angeles might hope that 40-year-old, oft-injured point guard Steve Nash would retire and save them his $9.7 million salary next year, he has shot that idea down, per a video interview with Grantland released early Thursday (via Ben Golliver of Sports Illustrated):
I’m not going to retire because I want the money. It’s honest. We want honest athletes, but at the same time, you’re going to have people out there saying ‘He’s so greedy. He’s made x amount of money and he has to take this last little bit.’ Yes, I do, have to take that last little bit. I’m sorry if that is frustrating to some but if they were in my shoes they would do exactly the same thing.
Regardless of what Nash does next year, the Lakers will likely have the cap space to sign Love, or any one of the big-name free agents available in 2015 and beyond. The only question will be just how much Kobe has left in the tank by then.
Philadelphia 76ers (15-53)
Draft odds: 55.8% (Top 3), 19.9% (No. 1 overall)
What are the Philadelphia 76ers?
Are they one of the worst basketball teams of all time? A diabolically genius organization destined to eventually take over the league? Both?
The Sixers could very well finish the season on a 36-game losing streak, yet it's hard to find many people questioning their long-term direction under first-year general manager Sam Hinkie.
A losing season was pretty much guaranteed on draft night, when Hinkie traded the team's best player, Jrue Holiday, for an injured draftee in University of Kentucky big man Nerlens Noel.
Though Noel, the No. 6 overall pick has yet to play this season, the 76ers struck gold with likely Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams.
Moving forward, the Sixers will have two first-round picks in the 2014 draft: their own, which is pretty much guaranteed to fall within the top five, and New Orleans'. They also have a staggering four picks in the second round. They are already set at the point and up top with Carter-Williams and Noel, so now they need to fill out the wings.
One more interesting tidbit to consider: Hinkie probably wouldn't mind losing in 2014-15 as well. Per RealGM, the Sixers owe their 2015 first-rounder to the Boston Celtics, but that pick is protected from spots one-through 14. If Philly winds up in the lottery next season, that first-rounder will become two second-rounders.
In terms of market, Philadelphia might not have the cachet of Los Angeles, but it is far bigger than the other three cities on this list. They should be able to lure future free agents once the team becomes competitive again.
The Sixers are a potential sleeping giant, but they are still a few years away from contention.
Milwaukee Bucks (13-55)
Draft odds: 64.3% (Top 3), 25.0% (No. 1 overall)
Believe it or not, the Milwaukee Bucks have been playing better ball of late. They nearly grabbed their first win of the season over a winning team on Tuesday when they took the Portland Trail Blazers to overtime. If they played a seven-game series with the Philadelphia 76ers, the Bucks would likely win going away.
But, in the long run, this might be the most hopeless franchise in the NBA. While a team like Philly planned to lose this year for the greater good, Milwaukee stocked up on multi-year contracts for the likes of O.J. Mayo and Zaza Pachulia.
Just check out the Bucks' salary commitments over the next two seasons, per ShamSports:
- 2014-15: $49,246,162
- 2015-16: $42,761,957
Most of that money is tied up in Mayo, Pachulia, Ersan Ilyasova and Larry Sanders. Even if Sanders returns to last season's form, that is a franchise-crushing chunk of salary cap.
While the Bucks have acquired two extra picks in the 2014 and 2015 drafts, all of those picks are of the second-round variety.
To contend in the near future, Milwaukee will have to hit a miraculous trifecta:
- Rookie Giannis Antetokounmpo must quickly realize his off-the-charts potential.
- They have to nail their 2014 first-round pick, which will likely fall in the top five. Whether it's Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid, or whoever, that pick needs to turn into an All-Star.
- They need to find a valuable contributor with at least one of those second-round picks.
If they can pull off all of that, then sure, they can be a good team. If not, Milwaukee could be in for a world of hurt.
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