NBA Teams Desperate for a Kickstart This Offseason
The 2013-14 regular season is a thing of history, and a number of teams would like to leave it at that. Whether they underperformed or stunk it up according to expectations, a handful of teams need a serious jolt from the coming offseason.
Note that these aren't necessarily the worst teams by record. They're the teams that are most desperate.
Some of the league's very worst teams are right where they want to be, early into rebuilding processes and making progress. The Orlando Magic's record might not look like much, but the organization has already acquired a number of talented young players. Now it's time to wait and watch them grow.
Like the Magic, the Utah Jazz are just young—but awfully talented. The pieces are there, and so is the patience. No one is clamoring for a major change in direction.
The Sacramento Kings and New Orleans Pelicans are in large part victims of playing in a very difficult Western Conference. The Pelicans suffered from a number of debilitating injuries, and the Kings are only beginning to turn their culture around and into a more defensively focused machine.
Not every team at the bottom of the standings can fall back on excuses, though. Some are behind where they should be in their respective rebuilds. Others don't seem to know where to start.
8. Minnesota Timberwolves
Season Record: 40-42
This is do or die time for the Minnesota Timberwolves.
That might sound a little dire, but it's a fair assessment for a team that's on the verge of losing its best player. Kevin Love can opt out of his contract in 2015 and pursue big-city life and titles with a team like the Los Angeles Lakers or Chicago Bulls.
So Minnesota has exactly one season to change his mind and avert a breakup that we've all seen coming for awhile.
The organization has little financial flexibility at the moment, locked into contracts with the likes of Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Martin. If there's going to be a serious and immediate talent upgrade, it'll have to happen on the trade market.
With head coach Rick Adelman reportedly on his way out (apparently by his own volition), there's certainly an opportunity to bring in a more defensive-minded locker-room leader who might shore up some of the team's most glaring weaknesses.
That's not a knock on Adelman—known largely as an offensive genius. But something will have to change if this group of personnel is to start playing better defense. There's no way around that, no button to be pushed, no prospect to be drafted.
Whether its an adjustment to Xs and Os or something more philosophical, change is in order. At the current rate, Love will be long gone before the Wolves' growing young talent base can change his mind.
Those are tough words for a team that would have made the playoffs in the Eastern Conference, but moral victories come as little consolation to a franchise with such a firm bottom line.
This isn't about feel-good stories; this is one hell of a Love story.
7. Cleveland Cavaliers
Season Record: 33-49
The good news is that the Cleveland Cavaliers still have a talented young core led by point guard Kyrie Irving.
The bad news is that the team expected to be further along, thanks in part to the development of backcourt cohort Dion Waiters, in part to the midseason acquisitions of Luol Deng and Spencer Hawes. Though there were moments when Cleveland seemed to be putting it all together, the verdict at the end of the season isn't encouraging.
The Cavs still stink.
By all accounts, the big problem is chemistry. Irving and Waiters don't get along. Mike Brown has a massive coaching staff, perhaps turning too many cooks into a kitchen nightmare. The team hasn't bought in, not in any meaningful sense. It's instead resorted to players meetings and other signs of desperation.
At this point, it's hard to say what's missing from the Cavs' picture. Cohesion doesn't happen overnight, but the right pieces still have to be in place. Do you wait another season for this to pan out or start looking for some new blood to rectify this mess?
Hard to say.
Either way, this will be a pivotal offseason, perhaps determining whether Cleveland progresses into a playoff team or takes a step back, remaining in rebuilding purgatory.
6. New York Knicks
Season Record: 37-45
The New York Knicks came awfully close to making the playoffs, but it should never have come to that. This was supposed to be a club that qualified for the postseason with ease, focusing its attention on challenges that awaited them there—the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers.
Things didn't go as expected for New York.
And now Carmelo Anthony can opt out of his contract and explore free agency. Bringing Phil Jackson in as new president of basketball operations may help keep him around, but the real work has yet to begin. It will take some serious magic on Jackson's part to turn this club around sooner rather than later.
The organization is way over the salary cap and isn't exactly flush with tradable assets.
If anyone can find a way around the limitations of financial inflexibility, it may be Jackson. His reputation alone will be enough to recruit some talent that otherwise may not have considered the Knicks a legitimate option.
All the same, much of New York's improvement will have to happen internally. That may mean a new coach. It may mean a new culture. But it has to mean something new. More of the same won't get it done in a conference where younger teams (Toronto Raptors) and more talented teams (Brooklyn Nets) have overtaken the Knicks as Miami's principle obstacles to the NBA Finals.
Gasol, 33, made $19.3 million in the final year of his contract and isn't expected to get anything close to the type of salary again. Joining the Knicks would likely come with a massive pay cut since the most they can offer – without a sign-and-trade deal – is the taxpayer's midlevel exception, expected to be worth about $3.2 million. With the Knicks expected to play Jackson's triangle offense and more of a half-court, such a style of play could be attractive to Gasol. Gasol, however, also said he wanted to play on a championship-caliber team and the Knicks didn't make the playoffs this season with Carmelo Anthony.
Similar challenges will emerge with respect to just about any premium free agent the team pursues. Unless someone out there is willing to come on the cheap, it will be difficult for the Knicks to recruit outside help.
Even with the Zen Master at the helm.
5. Detroit Pistons
Season Record: 29-53
Weren't the Detroit Pistons supposed to be a playoff team this time?
Weren't Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings supposed to be the difference-makers? That's was certainly the thought among some. There's no doubt that the team got more talented, and there's even less doubt that emergent star Andre Drummond became a lot more dominant.
When it was all said and done, though, there was precious little to show for all the developments. The Pistons were 29-53 in 2012-13 and 29-53 a season later.
They seem to be moving on a treadmill.
Part of the problem is that Smith just doesn't fit. He's always been something of a tweener, but he does his best work from the power-forward position—not at the 3, where Detroit is forced to play him on account of having Drummond and Greg Monroe around.
The other part of the problem is that Detroit isn't nearly as good defensively as they should be. On paper, this team's size is meant to overwhelm opponents and clean the glass. In practice, their communication and rotations aren't very good.
And their motivation is suspect.
That's a dangerous combination of problems, and it's preventing Detroit from taking any significant "next step." Much of the improvement may have to come from the sidelines. Whoever replaces interim head coach John Loyer will have his work cut out for him.
4. Boston Celtics
Season Record: 25-57
Much of the Boston Celtics' desperation stems from a fanbase that's accustomed to seeing better. It's been a while since the Cs were rebuilding, and transition periods of this sort don't make anyone happy, least of all Celtic faithful.
While there seem to be more questions than answers for this team, we do know this much—president of basketball operations Danny Ainge will be looking to make a splash according to The Boston Globe's Baxter Holmes:
We’re hopeful. I have some ideas and some plans that I’d like to do, but there are just no guarantees that we can do it. We need to find good trading partners. We always are trying to make fireworks. Every summer, we try to do something that’s unique and special, and we will definitely try this summer.
That much alone is encouraging. Boston isn't content to deal with a protracted transition. It's not going to accept losing season after losing season, collecting draft picks along the way.
But while Ainge is saying all the right things, the road ahead is less clear.
Does the team keep both Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green, accomplished veterans amidst an increasingly young and developing roster? Is there any way to move Gerald Wallace's nightmare of a contract (over $20 million owed through 2016)?
How much is the club willing to pay restricted free-agent guard Avery Bradley? He's been a promising young player, but he's also been held back by injuries. If another team wants to give him over $8 million a season, it's hard to see the Cs matching.
The good news is young big men Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk are developing nicely. That gives Ainge the option to either watch them grow or use them in a trade package to acquire readier talent.
Having options won't be Boston's problem this summer. It will be making the right decisions when confronting those options. Fortunately, Ainge has been here and done this before. There's no better man for the job.
3. Milwaukee Bucks
Season Record: 15-67
Despite the Philadelphia 76ers losing 26-straight games, the Milwaukee Bucks still somehow ended up with a worse record.
Coming into the season, it wasn't supposed to be like this. Other rebuilding teams can at least claim to be right where they expected. The Bucks are not one of those teams. They brought in O.J. Mayo and the bought-out Caron Butler to compete for a playoff spot, not to tank for lottery purposes.
Somehow that just sort of worked out.
This may be the best thing for the Bucks. They weren't going to be especially good as currently constituted, eighth-seed material at best. Now they can regroup and focus on bringing along younger talent like Brandon Knight.
The worst thing for this team would be continued mediocrity—missing out on prime draft picks without having a serious shot of playoff success. That seemed to be the trajectory until this season. A turnaround was in order, and unfortunately it had to happen in painful fashion.
The Bucks do have some reasons for hope. Young players like John Henson and Giannis Antetokounmpo got a lot of playing time in the midst of Milwaukee's misfortunes. That ensures they'll be all the more ready to contribute once more talent is in place.
Such is the forgotten upside to tanking—or whatever it is the Bucks have been doing. It's not just about getting the draft pick. It's about getting the prospects some opportunities they otherwise wouldn't have on a playoff team.
Will those prospects be ready to reinvigorate Milwaukee a season from now? Or will the organization need help from the outside.
That's the $450 million question.
2. Los Angeles Lakers
Season Record: 27-55
No, the Los Angeles Lakers didn't have the second-worst record in the league this season. But you could make an argument that no team is more desperate to turn things around.
Kobe Bryant's days in the league are numbered. He will not be a happy camper spending those days on a team underperforming as badly as the 2013-14 Lakers. Even with injuries to Bryant and point guard Steve Nash, the Lakers should have been better.
I mean, these are the Lakers. Losing just doesn't happen in mass quantities.
It's been a season of reality checks in L.A. The Clippers are contending, and the Lakers all but tanked. The only thing that seems certain in days like these is that the present imbalance won't remain for long.
Bryant certainly won't stand for it. Nor will his legions of fans. Nor will an iconic franchise that's built its reputation on doing whatever it takes to win.
With Pau Gasol's massive contract coming off the books this summer, the Lakers will have some financial flexibility. They may wait to use most of it until 2015 when Kevin Love figures to be a free agent. That's also when Steve Nash's $9.7 million salary expires.
Between now and then, there are any number of routes the organization could take toward improvement. It'll have a premium lottery pick it could either retain or trade in order to acquire more veteran talent. It will also have the option of re-signing any number of good, young players who had opportunities to showcase their talent during a lost season (e.g. Nick Young and Kent Bazemore).
However the organization proceeds, you can expect it to proceed according to a philosophy of patience and prudence. That's the tone general manager Mitch Kupchak is setting (per ESPN Los Angeles' Ramona Shelburne):
We [Kupchak and Bryant] want the same thing. We both want to win as much and as soon as possible. But it takes an organization a long time to get in the position that we're in where we have options financially going forward for the next year or two or three and we just have to make wise decisions using that space. If you don't make a wise decision, then you can set yourself back 6-7 years, and we don't want to do that.
No, we wouldn't want that.
1. Philadelphia 76ers
Season Record: 19-63
Philadelphia 76ers owner Josh Harris recently described the season as a "huge success."
That's one way to look at it.
The 26-game losing streak is really all you need to know about the Sixers' season.
It was a lost one in almost every way, save for the opportunity it afforded point guard Michael Carter-Williams. He developed well and leads the way in Rookie of the Year consideration, so there's that. But otherwise, ouch. It was a rough year in Philly.
Some reinforcements are already in the offing. Center Nerlens Noel missed his rookie season to injury, but he will be back and very possibly better than ever when the 2014-15 campaign rolls around.
The Sixers will also be able to restock in the draft, which was maybe sort of the point to this season all along. With Carter-Williams, Noel and another premium prospect, the organization should be able to look forward to a much brighter future.
It could certainly accelerate the rebuild with the right move or two this summer. Philadelphia is scheduled to have cap room aplenty in each of the next two offseasons. With fans who don't like to wait, don't be surprised if the franchise attempts to put a swift end to the painful rebuilding.