What Every 2014 NBA Non-Playoff Team Should Look Forward To
The NBA regular season is coming to a close and the playoffs will be here before you know it. However, what should those not expected to partake in the postseason be looking forward to over the next few months?
While some will be out contending for a championship, the others will be going back to the drawing board. This summer has the potential to swing the fortunes of downtrodden franchises thanks to a strong draft and a solid crop of free agents.
This article will serve as a summer preview for teams (and fans of said teams) who will surely be forgotten in the coming weeks as the playoff picture takes shape. Even though the season didn't go as planned, what can these teams hang their hat on and how can they improve this offseason?
Since Phoenix, Dallas and Memphis are battling it out for the final two spots in the West, they've been excluded from the list. I didn't want to disrespect those respective fan bases by ending their season prematurely.
As for the rest, consider this your moment in the sun.
It's tough to find bright spots on a team with a 13-55 record (as of Mar. 19), but there's a light at the end of the tunnel for the Milwaukee Bucks. For starters, they pulled off the steal of the 2013 NBA Draft by landing 19-year-old guard Giannis Antetokounmpo with the No. 15 overall pick.
"The Greek Freak" is still pretty raw, but he has shown flashes of being a franchise player with his unique blend of size, speed and athleticism. As he gains experience, he has the chance to be special. As we've learned this season, there aren't many rookies that you can say that about.
The bigger positive is that Milwaukee's putrid record gives them the inside track on getting the No. 1 pick this June. Even if the Bucks manage to not win the lottery, there really isn't a spot in this draft where they can go and not find someone who can contribute.
Beyond that, Brandon Knight leads the team in scoring (17.5 PPG) in his first season with the team. John Henson has filled in admirably for the injured Larry Sanders, and the team has a sneaky trade chip in sweet-shooting big man Ersan Ilyasova (who asked for a trade in February, according to the Journal Times)
Speaking of Sanders, he deserves a mulligan for this season. He was held to just 23 games this year due to a myriad of injuries. When healthy, he's an elite shot-blocker and one of the game's emerging young centers.
With another home run in the draft, Milwaukee could easily be back in the playoff picture in a weak Eastern Conference.
You know you've had a rough year when someone creates a "Did The Sixers Win?" Twitter account. As it stands, Philadelphia is in the midst of a 21-game losing streak that doesn't seem likely to end soon, with games against the New York Knicks, Chicago Bulls, San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets on tap.
However, the Sixers were destined to take their lumps this year once they committed to rebuilding from scratch. It started with the Jrue Holiday trade on draft day and was further driven home when the team shipped off Spencer Hawes (Cleveland) and Evan Turner (Indiana) for 10 cents on the dollar at the deadline.
On the bright side, Philly did end up with the favorite to take home Rookie of the Year in point guard Michael Carter-Williams. They also have shot-blocking big man Nerlens Noel waiting in the wings, as well as another lottery pick this year as part of their haul from New Orleans in the Holiday deal.
That doesn't even include the high pick of their own they'll have this June thanks to their current 15-53 record. They'll also have a ton of cap space with Thaddeus Young being the only real contract of worth on the books for next season.
For those scoring at home, that means Philly will walk into next season with the reigning Rookie of the Year, the No. 6 overall pick from last year in Noel, two lottery picks this year and Young as their projected starting five.
If the Sixers turn those two picks into, say, Kansas' Andrew Wiggins and Michigan State's Gary Harris, that's going to be a filthy rotation for years to come. Plus, they'll have the money to bring in veterans to build around these young studs.
A couple weeks ago, I wrote an article on teams with a bright future ahead and left the Orlando Magic off of it because I needed to see more out of their young core. As expected, Magic fans the world over took me to task for this slight.
Out of respect for them, I'll admit I dropped the ball on that one. While the 19-50 record may say otherwise, the Magic have enough promise that fans can be proud of. Victor Oladipo may not run away with top rookie honors like some had hoped in the preseason, but he's put together a strong second half.
He's won Rookie of the Month twice this season (which is as many times as ROTY favorite Michael Carter-Williams) and has showed the skills of being a capable two-way guard. Meanwhile, Oladipo is averaging 13.2 points and 5.4 assists in his last five games.
The outside jumper needs a little work (31 percent from downtown), but he's going to be a building block for years to come. Also, center Nikola Vucevic has been quietly averaging a double-double with an output of 14 points and 10.8 rebounds a night.
The Magic have also surrounded those two with a complement of young talent that could emerge down the road. Small forward Tobias Harris is the leader of that pack, contributing 15.1 points and 7.1 rebounds per contest. There are also promising youngsters like Moe Harkless and Andrew Nicholson waiting in line.
Orlando also has a nice ace up its sleeve in the form of veteran Arron Afflalo. The 28-year-old is putting together a nice season, leading the team in scoring with an average of 19.3 points per game. With an affordable contract (a little over $7.5 million apiece the next two seasons), he could generate some interest this summer from potential trade partners.
There's also the draft, where Orlando will be in line to add yet another young piece. Someone like Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart would be an intriguing backcourt mate for Oladipo, as would Australian guard Dante Exum.
With the right bounces, Orlando is poised to make me look every bit as stupid as their fans think I am.
The good news for the Utah Jazz is that they have a young and talented starting five that will give opponents fits as they continue to grow together. The bad news is the Jazz play in the West, where it seems even the lowliest of teams is just one piece away.
It's hard not to like what Utah has built so far though. Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter form one of the most imposing young big men tandems in the league. Both continue to get better and neither are older than 22 years old (Favors will be 23 in July, Kanter will be 22 in May).
Rookie point guard Trey Burke has had his ups and downs but, when he gets going, he's as good as anyone in this draft class. Alec Burks might be the team's best player, though he's only had the chance to start eight games this season. He's scored 31 points combined in his last two games.
The name to keep an eye on this summer is guard/forward Gordon Hayward. He's the team's leading scorer (15.7 points per game) and will be a restricted free agent after the season. The Jazz will probably have the cap space to retain him with so many contracts coming off the books, but Hayward's talents will attract some big offers.
With Burks and another lottery pick this year waiting in the wings, the Jazz must decide if Hayward is worth the big price tag he's sure to command. If not, the team could use that money to build a strong bench behind its young core.
With guys like Richard Jefferson and Marvin Williams becoming free agents this summer, Utah could use a veteran presence on the roster. Also, if the team moves on from Ty Corbin, they'll also need a coach that brings out the best in their emerging rotation.
Los Angeles Lakers
The most important thing for the Los Angeles Lakers is the recovery of superstar Kobe Bryant. In what has been a tough year for the purple and gold, fans can at least hang their hats on the hope The Black Mamba will be ready to go when next season tips off.
After initially attempting to return from an Achilles injury suffered last season, Bryant suffered a lateral tibial plateau fracture in his left knee in December that ended this season.
Whether Bryant is able to go or not, there's going to be a major shakeup in Hollywood. The team has cap space to be major players in free agency and they'll be picking in the highest spot they've been in since using the No. 10 overall pick on Andrew Bynum in 2005.
With his odometer running high and his window for a sixth ring steadily closing, Bryant is going to want the team to turn things around immediately. A couple free agents that make sense are small forward Luol Deng and point guard Kyle Lowry.
Both are the kind of players that can take some of the pressure off Bryant as he recovers. Both have the chops to fix the Lakers' matador defense. Los Angeles is currently allowing 108.7 points per game, which includes the 142 points the Clippers dropped on them on Mar. 6.
From there, the team must make a decision on free agent Pau Gasol. Gasol has been the only constant for the Lakers this season, but he'll be 34 in July. The team could sign him short-term or try to replace him in the draft with someone like Indiana's Noah Vonleh or Kentucky's Julius Randle.
There's also the murky future of beleaguered head coach Mike D'Antoni. In an interview with Dan Patrick, Bryant said he "didn't know" if D'Antoni has done enough to be worth bringing back next season.
With their immense history and large market, the NBA could use a bounce-back performance from the Lakers. They are professional basketball's equivalent of the Duke Blue Devils. They are the team that outsiders love to hate.
They make the league interesting when they are relevant. They are in a good position to get right back into the swing of things this summer.
The Boston Celtics are another historic team whose fall from grace was swift and merciless. The good news is the team has built quite the safety net. The bad news is that safety net is contingent on the future of star point guard Rajon Rondo.
Rondo is the last man standing from the most recent Boston dynasty. He's also a free agent at the end of next season. His name came up in trade talk around the deadline, fielding interest from the likes of Sacramento and Houston.
Inevitably, Boston's price was too steep for a deal to get done. Now, the team must decide where they go from here. Do they use the considerable resources they have to entice Rondo into staying or do they move Rondo and rebuild with the spoils they net in return?
Barring a Godfather offer, it's hard to fathom Rondo getting dealt. For one thing, Boston has the pieces to turn things around quickly. Plus, they play in the Eastern Conference where they don't need much to get back into the playoffs.
At 23-46, the Celtics figure to be picking high in what is believed to be an excellent draft. They also own the lesser of Atlanta and Brooklyn's pick, which should be somewhere in the middle of the first round. On top of that, they'll have the cap space to make some moves in free agency.
Do they make a run at restricted free agent Gordon Hayward and reunite him with his old college coach, Brad Stevens? How about the idea that Grantland writer and Celtics fanatic Bill Simmons pitched in his most recent column?
"Hey, Minnesota — what about No. 4, No. 18 [in this year's draft] and Jared Sullinger for Kevin Love?" Simmons wrote.
As long as they have Rondo happy and healthy, Boston is a leg up on some of the other teams in this article. They have the pieces to build around him as well as a general manager in Danny Ainge who knows how to build a winner.
The situation in Detroit is a bit tricky. When the team spent close to $78 million on Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings in free agency, they probably weren't expecting to be observers when the playoffs start.
However, that's exactly where they stand as the team is currently 25-42 in what has been a disappointing season in Motown. Head coach Mo Cheeks was canned early in the year and the team has looked like a ship without a rudder.
To turn things around, a couple things need to happen. First, they have to find a way to fix the redundancy up front. Josh Smith isn't suited to play small forward. He needs to be playing the 4, where he's less of a threat to jack up bad threes (25 percent from downtown this season).
The problem with that is the team already has Greg Monroe at that spot. Now, Monroe is a restricted free agent this summer, but Detroit is stuck in a quandary. If they match a team's offer, they hurt their chances of re-signing rising star Andre Drummond down the road while failing to fix the mess up front.
If they don't match, they would be letting one of their best players walk while leaving their fate in the hands of J-Smoove and his erratic shot selection. As if that isn't bad enough, the team needs to find a way to land into the top eight in the lottery in order to keep their pick from going to Charlotte as part of the Ben Gordon/Corey Maggette trade.
So, Detroit is a lottery team with potentially no lottery pick and limited cap space to get better this offseason. Those are the negatives.
The positive is that they have an absolute beast in Drummond. He's only 20 years old and he's averaging 13.1 points, 12.8 rebounds and 1.8 blocks. The crazy part is he's only going to get better.
The next step is building around their young big man. If they can trick someone into taking on Smith's contract (no easy feat), that would be a nice start. Beyond that, the Pistons' fortune is dependent on a historically unlucky city suddenly catching a break.
To think that the Sacramento Kings will finally live up to their potential, you must believe three things:
- DeMarcus Cousins will keep his temper in check and continue to build towards being one of the league's best centers.
- Rudy Gay will buck the trend of his teams being better after he leaves and become a viable piece of the Kings' puzzle.
- Pint-sized guard Isaiah Thomas will continue to climb up the NBA point guard ranks.
To quote Meatloaf, "two out of three ain't bad".
Eventually, "Boogie" Cousins will get his head on straight and be the anchor for this team. Thomas will continue to shock the world by going from former No. 60 overall pick to one of the league's best point guards.
The doubt lies in Gay, who has been productive in Sacramento but not to the point that he generates wins. Sacramento is currently 24-44 despite its top three players all averaging more than 20 points per game. You can't put all the blame on Gay but, sometimes, your reputation precedes you.
Gay has a player option worth $19.3 million for next season. If he wants to test the waters, he could always opt out. He'd be hard-pressed to find a team that will pay him what he'd make if he stayed in Sacramento, but he's more than welcome to try.
On paper, the Kings should be a lot better than their record. Even when you look beyond the aforementioned three, there are still guys like Derrick Williams and Ben McLemore on the roster. Plus, they'll have another top-10 pick in this year's draft (goes to Chicago if it falls below No. 10, which it probably won't).
The talent is there for Sacramento to make some noise, even in a conference as deep in the West. It just remains to be seen.
The Cleveland Cavaliers' woes are either due to bad luck or bad management. When you look at the roster, there's no denying the talent. Kyrie Irving is an All-Star and one of the best point guards in the NBA.
Guys like forward Tristan Thompson and guard Dion Waiters have the talent to be viable contributors. They've signed or traded for guys like Jarrett Jack, Luol Deng and Spencer Hawes. Plus, they have No. 1 overall pick Anthony Bennett lurking on the roster as well.
For some reason, it just hasn't happened for the Cavs. After playing in a career-high 64 games this season, the injury bug found Irving once again. This time, the former Duke star injured his biceps and could be done for the season.
Free agents Deng and Hawes seem like long shots to stick around. Bennett, while having some moments of brilliance, has looked like a bust in his rookie season. Waiters and Thompson have been solid, but haven't shown a ton of progression from last season's numbers.
There are just too many bodies and not enough positions. The upside is that the logjam will clear up this summer. Deng's departure will open up more time for Bennett, and the team can try again in the upcoming lottery.
Like with Sacramento, the talent is there in Cleveland. They just need the right bounces and the right people to mold it into the contender that they should be by now.
New Orleans Pelicans
Anthony Davis emerging as an NBA superstar was the best thing to happen to New Orleans basketball in quite some time. It's also the only bright spot in what has been a disappointing season for the Pelicans.
The team traded away its first-round pick to Philadelphia under the belief that the acquisition of point guard Jrue Holiday (among other moves) would get them back in the playoffs. New Orleans also threw big money at Tyreke Evans to be their sixth man and occasional small forward.
Instead, the team was ravaged by injuries and now clings to the scant hope of landing in the top five to keep their pick out of the Sixers' hands. Ryan Anderson suffered a herniated disc in his neck in January that cut short his season. Not long after that, Holiday fractured his tibia and his season was also over.
You know your team has been decimated by injuries when Eric Gordon leads the team in games played with 63.
While their hopes of adding another piece may be limited, the Pellies may have enough (if they can stay healthy) to bounce back next season. A starting five of Davis, Anderson, Evans, Gordon and Holiday could still be imposing, especially if Davis continues to shine.
If nothing else, Pelicans fans can hang their hats on having a franchise big man with the potential to be special (as evidenced by his 40 points and 20 rebound performance against Boston on Mar. 16). The Brow is averaging 21.4 points, 10.9 rebounds and a league-leading 2.9 blocks per game.
He also just turned 21 years old.
Going forward, a little bit of luck will help New Orleans become a team on the rise, rather than a team that never lived up to the hype.
In fairness, a late-season hot streak could elevate the Timberwolves into the playoffs for the first time since 2003-04 and render everything that's about to be said meaningless. Minnesota are 5.5 games behind Dallas for the eighth seed with 16 games to play.
If Minnesota once again misses the playoffs, things will get interesting this summer. On paper, they've done everything they could to get out of the NBA's cellar. They have the league's best power forward in Kevin Love. They have a promising point guard in Ricky Rubio and a good center in Nikola Pekovic.
Beyond them, they've added some key role players like Kevin Martin, Corey Brewer and Chase Budinger. However, Minnesota is once again facing tough odds to make the postseason. If they miss again, they get another step closer to the possibility of Love leaving after the 2015-16 season.
You don't want to pack the bags of the team's franchise player prematurely, but think about it. If T'Wolves fans are frustrated with the team's long absence from the postseason, imagine how Love must feel. He's about to finish his sixth season in the pros and he's never even sniffed the first round.
The question becomes: what can Minnesota do to get better? Do you blow up the team and try to build around Love again? Do you start exploring the possibilities of a Love trade now while there's still time to barter?
Minnesota already has a little over $66 million on the books for next season. Their first-round pick is top-13 protected, which means it could be going to Phoenix if the Timberwolves try to make a last-second surge.
Barring any drastic changes, this is the team Love will be going to battle with next season. Is it enough to get them over the hump?
New York Knicks
Like Minnesota, the New York Knicks are another team that could creep into the playoffs. They are four games behind Atlanta for the eighth seed and are currently riding a seven-game winning streak. In all honesty, the timing couldn't be better.
New York made waves by bringing in the Zen Master, Phil Jackson, as the new team president. Jackson's first order of business will be compelling superstar Carmelo Anthony, who can opt out of his contract this summer, to stick around in the Big Apple.
According to Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, Houston and Chicago are expected to make runs at 'Melo this summer. However, Wojnarowski offered up this quote in the piece:
"He'll give New York every option," one source with knowledge of Anthony's plans told Yahoo! Sports. "But he has options and he's going to explore them all."
If Jackson convinces Anthony to stay, the next task is trying to fix a Knicks team that went from 54 wins a year ago to 28 wins this season. According to New York Post's Marc Berman, guard/forward Iman Shumpert appears to be in the team's immediate plans.
"Now Shumpert appears to have a legitimate future with Phil Jackson's Knicks," Berman writes. "According to a league source, Jackson is a fan of Shumpert."
Shumpert is the kind of talent the Knicks need around 'Melo. He's a fine defender that is coming along on the offensive end. Another intriguing piece is rookie Tim Hardaway Jr., who is averaging 10 points per game and shooting 37 percent from downtown.
The big thing for Jackson will be removing some of the dead weight. The $23.4 million left on the final year of Amare Stoudemire's contract is the closest thing to immovable. The team must also find a way to make viable role players out of Ray Felton and J.R. Smith as well as get Tyson Chandler to return to form.
New York also needs to find a coach, if it decides to move on from Mike Woodson.
The Knicks invested $60 million in Jackson to be their savior. Whether he's staying or going, the turnaround starts with Carmelo Anthony.
Injuries did a number on the Denver Nuggets this season. Star forward Danilo Gallinari suffered a setback in his return from an ACL injury and missed the entire year. Center JaVale McGee was limited to five games before undergoing season-ending surgery on his leg.
In the end, the West was too deep for an undermanned team to try to stay afloat. However, if ever there was a time to have a down year, it would be this season with a good draft coming up. The Nuggets will get the more favorable of their own and New York's draft pick.
Picking late in the lottery, someone like Duke's Rodney Hood would be a nice insurance policy in the event Gallo's knee continues to be an issue. Meanwhile, once McGee returns, Denver's projected 2014-15 starting lineup could look like this:
- PG Ty Lawson (team-leading 18 points, nine assists and 1.6 steals per game)
- SG Wilson Chandler (14.1 points per game)
- SF Rodney Hood/Danilo Gallinari (if healthy)
- PF Kenneth Faried (12.6 points and eight boards a night)
- C JaVale McGee (one of the game's best rebounders and shot-blockers)
The bench would also feature the likes of J.J. Hickson, Evan Fournier and Randy Foye. That's a pretty solid team right there.
Much like this season, health will be the key factor.
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