2014 NBA Lottery Teams Under Most Pressure to Make Playoffs Next Season
Not all post-lottery campaigns are created equal.
Certain NBA lottery teams prepare for their next season fully aware things aren't getting any better. Perhaps they've improved. Maybe they'll even snag a few extra wins here and there. But their relative ceiling remains the same: They're going back to the lottery.
It's not as simple for other teams, those with actual hope and expectations after making smart offseason decisions (so, not the Sacramento Kings). After one or more years of lottery-squatting, they're under pressure not only to improve, but to avoid a repeat of last season.
Another lottery berth in 2015—whether they own their first-round pick or not—is unacceptable. These lottery indwellers can continue bottom-feeding no more for many different reasons. Perhaps they've been stuck in lottery purgatory for too long. Maybe they missed the playoffs in 2013-14 when they weren't supposed to. In some instances, they may even be victims of previously unforeseen success.
Teams that meet the criteria find themselves here: on the heels of a disappointing season and/or significant roster upgrades, tasked with making something of themselves, replacing losses with wins, pessimism with hope and late-April vacations with trips to The Show.
2013-14 Record (Conference Finish): 33-49 (10th)
Let's start with the obvious.
The Cleveland Cavaliers have to make the playoffs next season. That's non-negotiable. We can even increase their urgency level to Defcon Win Now, which is also known as Code LeBron James.
After staging the biggest free-agency coup of any team, the Cavaliers need to make the most of it. They haven't made the playoffs since James' first decision, and now that he's back, it's contend for a title or bust.
Expectations will only rise if they acquire Kevin Love, too. While speaking on ESPN Radio with Chris Broussard and Ryan Ruocco, ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst said, "The deal is done, but not done. The teams have agreed, but they can't say they have agreed and they can't agree because we are in this weird moratorium period. Because you can't trade Andrew Wiggins until the 23rd of this month," per SB Nation's Ricky O'Donnell.
Potential for this deal to still go awry notwithstanding, the Cavaliers look like they'll be entering next season led by a superstar troika consisting of James, Love and Kyrie Irving. So, yeah. The repercussions of not making the playoffs would be catastrophic.
Disgusted by Cleveland's complete meltdown, Love could leave in free agency. James' impending free agency next summer or in 2016 could become an issue. Owner Dan Gilbert might have to break out the Comic Sans font again.
Good thing it won't come to that. Love or no Love, the Cavaliers have enough to thrive within the woefully wacky Eastern Conference.
2013-14 Record: 48-34 (ninth)
Consider the Phoenix Suns victims of their own unforeseen success.
The Suns emerged as tankers-turned-postseason-seekers last season. Their offense—which ranked eighth in efficiency—was electric and stunning, buttressed by the star-ish stylings of Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic.
Anticipation has only increased tenfold after the addition of Isaiah Thomas, whose presence guarantees Phoenix's penchant for fielding dual-point guard lineups is going nowhere.
Assuming Bledsoe returns, that is.
Although his restricted free agency was once considered a formality, it's turned into something of a soap opera-style staring contest, according to CSNNW.com's Chris Haynes:
Phoenix has made it known publicly and repeatedly that they intend to match any offer sheets competitors issue out to Bledsoe. This tactic has succeeded in scaring away any potential suitors so far. However, the effort by the Suns to undermine Bledsoe’s market is what has angered Bledsoe and his reps and led to a standoff in which the relationship is now on the verge of being irreparable, we’re told.
Keeping Bledsoe is imperative. He played in only 43 games last year, but he's still a big part of what they're trying to do.
And what they're trying to do is expedite a restoration project most thought would take years by building upon last season's inspiring performance.
Nothing short of a playoff berth that proves these blindingly bright Suns are more than one-year wonders will suffice.
2013-14 Record: 29-53 (11th)
After hiring Stan Van Gundy as president and coach, the Detroit Pistons find themselves in a precarious situation: a little deeper, better equipped to shoot, waiting for a resolution to Greg Monroe's restricted free agency, hoping whatever happens is enough for them to end a half-decade-long playoff drought.
But the Pistons, as Dan Feldman wrote for the Detroit Free Press, are up against themselves once more:
As I scan their underwhelming roster, even assuming Greg Monroe’s return, it’s tough to see much progress from last season. Only one new player, Meeks, is even a lock for the rotation. Butler and Augustin have solid chances, and Martin can’t be ruled out, either, but this group hardly guarantees progress.
Young players such as Drummond, Monroe and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope also should improve—but how much?
More than anything—even internal development and the futures of Monroe and Josh Smith—Detroit's playoff hopes are trussed to Van Gundy. His experience with coaching rosters of limited talent—see pretty much all his Orlando Magic teams—leaves him as the ideal candidate to turn around a Pistons faction that ranked 20th in offensive efficiency and 25th in defensive efficiency last season.
Actual floor-spacers—namely the overpriced Jodie Meeks and seldom-used Kentavious Caldwell-Pope—should see more time. J-Smoove should possess a semblance of shot-selection conscience.
Andre Drummond should flourish under the man who helped usher Dwight Howard into superstardom.
And then, finally, the Pistons should make good on their attempt to earn a playoff spot.
2013-14 Record: 36-46 (11th)
Injuries ripped through the Denver Nuggets roster last season, destroying a 57-win team, turning it into a hollow 36-victory disappointment.
Next season will be different, because it has to be.
Or at least, it should be.
Danilo Gallinari, J.J. Hickson, Ty Lawson, JaVale McGee and Nate Robinson should all be healthy (knock on wood). Arron Afflalo injects additional shooting, scoring and playmaking into the lineup.
Kenneth Faried's motor is still as valuable as his hair is wicked awesome.
All told, the Nuggets should be afforded a fresh start. And with that fresh start come expectations that are a little more 2012-13, a little less 2013-14, as Mike Olson of Denver Stiffs writes:
Coming off their team record-setting campaign the year prior of 57 wins, many pundits picked the Nuggets to settle back into a 7 or 8 seed last season prior to their eventual slide out of the playoff picture. But this year starts with a clean slate, both in health and the filling out of ideas and relationships between Shaw and the current core team. With a 21-game delta between the last two seasons win counts, opinions run rampant as to where the Nuggets will fit into the wild Westrn Conference playoff picture.
Can the Nuggets resemble the high-powered, fifth-ranked offensive juggernaut of 2012-13, or will they once again crumble beneath the weight of a remorseless Western Conference?
If healthy, they'll be held to the former standard, looked at as a legitimate playoff contender that needs a postseason appearance to validate everything head coach Brian Shaw and crew are doing.
New York Knicks
2013-14 Record: 37-45 (ninth)
New team president. New coach. New starting point guard. New system.
The New York Knicks have had an encouraging offseason. Carmelo Anthony is back and richer than ever. Raymond Felton is the Dallas Mavericks' problem now. J.R. Smith's brother, Chris, hasn't been given a contract. Derek Fisher guarantees Kevin Durant's arrival in 2016. The point guard rotation no longer gives Knicks fans distended sadz.
Phil Jackson's first summer piloting the Knicks has been so encouraging that they should make the playoffs next year. The Eastern Conference continues to have the structural stability of watered-down toothpaste outside of Cleveland (because, 'Bron), which, in theory, paves the way for New York to adequately rebound from its wretched 2013-14 crusade.
Sure, its defense figures to be cue ball-to-the-groin fantastic (as in not fantastic), and yes, the NBA hasn't issued a league-wide mandate that demands all players Smith defends wear Velcro, but this team is substantially better.
It's better offensively. There should be less drama. Tim Hardaway Jr. is learning to play defense within a Team USA setting that doesn't teach defense.
Also, and most importantly, Melo says so.
"I don't think we're that far away," he told ESPN.com's Jeff Goodman. "People use 'rebuilding' too loosely."
We're holding you to that, Melo. Seriously, we are.
New Orleans Pelicans
2013-14 Record: 34-48 (12th)
You may have more eyebrows than Anthony Davis, but he has way more basketball awesomeness flowing through his body than you ever will.
And it's time for the New Orleans Pelicans to turn his supernatural, do-it-all, dominate-and-destroy-everyone talents into something more than promising lottery finishes.
Two years into his NBA career, Davis is a superstar. A top-10 superstar. A top-five superstar. The Pellies know it judging by their activity. Last summer it was Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans. This summer it was Omer Asik.
In surrounding Davis with this talent, the Pellies have now forfeited two valuable first-rounders—this past year's and 2015's (owed to the Houston Rockets with top-three and bottom-11 protection, per RealGM).
Rebuilding teams don't trade draft picks. They keep them. New Orleans has been channeling its inner Knicks instead, relinquishing costly commodities for a chance to win now, a method Bleacher Report's Zach Buckley considers justifiable:
The Pelicans are trying. That might not mean much to everyone, but if Davis appreciates the effort, that could be invaluable when his rookie contract is up.
There is no right way to handle a budding superstar. Surrounding him with a playoff-caliber supporting cast might prove to be the best possible path.
Trying to win as soon as possible comes with an inescapable cache: The Pellies actually have to win. They're under pressure to win something, anything.
A playoff berth.