Selling Hope: ETAs for NBA Lottery Teams to Become Playoff Contenders
The NBA is in a constant cycle of rejuvenation in which no team, no matter how crummy, stays that way forever.
Eventually, everyone has a chance to ditch the lottery and make it back to the playoffs. It's only a matter of time. The question is: How much?
The Dallas Mavericks, Denver Nuggets, New Orleans Pelicans and Minnesota Timberwolves all stood pat or geared up for another shot at a postseason spot after finishing outside the West's top eight last year—with the Wolves and Nuggets profiling as serious threats. Each figures to be in the mix for a postseason spot this season.
That leaves three teams in their conference—the Los Angeles Lakers, Sacramento Kings and Phoenix Suns—with hazier futures.
In the East, the standards for playoff contention figure to be so low that any club capable of winning 33 or 34 games could be technically involved in playoff contention through March. Considering the exodus of talent—Jimmy Butler, Paul George and Paul Millsap bolted, cutting the legs out from three of last year's bottom-four seeds in the East—we could see the Atlanta Hawks, Orlando Magic or New York Knicks win just enough to find themselves in the playoff conversation.
The same goes for the diminished Indiana Pacers, winners of 42 games last season and persistent tank-refusers. Remember, too, that the Charlotte Hornets, Detroit Pistons and Miami Heat made the dance two years ago. All three contended last season and figure to be at least as good in 2017-18.
The Chicago Bulls (who finished eighth a year ago), Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers are another story.
Philadelphia 76ers: ETA 2017-18
The Sixers' restructuring goals treated a return to the playoffs as little more than a footnote. The Process was about building a title contender, and though reaching the postseason was a necessary step in that progression, it was never a stated aim.
The idea of walking before you can run feels particularly appropriate for this team, if only because both tasks require healthy knees and feet.
Speaking of which, Joel Embiid isn't yet fully cleared for five-on-five work, and his health will determine the fate of Philly's 2017-18 season. If he's good to go for, say, 60 games, the Sixers will be competitive. If he logs another 31-game campaign, it's difficult to imagine that Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz can do enough to keep Philadelphia involved in the playoff discussion.
It's important not to view this year as some kind of make-or-break referendum on all those deliberate losses. Even if Embiid can't get his body right, Philadelphia still has the last two No. 1 overall picks as cornerstones.
But why not be optimistic in the short term?
The Sixers outscored opponents by 3.2 points per 100 possessions with Embiid on the court last season. If he gives them just a few more games than last year, you have to figure it bumps their win total from 28 to 31 or 32—but that's if he doesn't get any better and the rest of the roster stays the same, which it hasn't.
Because in addition to Fultz and Simmons, Philadelphia has JJ Redick and Amir Johnson ready to help. Toss in improvement from Robert Covington and Dario Saric, and maybe that amounts to another three or four wins.
Just like that, we've got the Sixers in the mid-30s. That's playoff contention in the East this year.
And if Embiid is healthy enough to really get after it for a full season, averaging something like 28 or 29 minutes per game, watch out.
Los Angeles Lakers: ETA 2018-19
2017-18 won't be the year the Lakers become a playoff contender, and that's fine.
They'll settle for becoming interesting.
Part of the intrigue will derive from the roster on hand: Brook Lopez and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope are legitimate NBA starters who'll produce for a team that is otherwise painfully young at critical positions. That youth, though, is the other source of excitement.
Lonzo Ball is already a phenom without having played a game. Brandon Ingram could take a leap (from terrible as a rookie to average in his age-20 season), and Julius Randle might iron out enough flaws to reinsert himself in the organization's long-term plans.
That much youth playing that many minutes is bound to produce losses. That's a shame since the Lakers don't own the rights to their first-round pick this season. But we all know 2017-18 is merely a holding-pattern year. A wait-it-out situation.
LeBron James is definitely coming rumored to have interest in joining the Lakers as a free agent next summer. If he signs on, veterans will follow on the cheap, and the kids on the roster will benefit from the clarified hierarchy that'll result from James' presence. Suddenly, Ball and Ingram won't have to be saviors; they'll just have to help out a little.
With the Memphis Grizzlies getting older, the Los Angeles Clippers slipping and the Utah Jazz trying to figure things out without Gordon Hayward, there will be opportunities in the West going forward.
So pardon the assumption, but if James winds up in L.A., it feels safe to consider his team a playoff contender. When a guy has carried clubs to the Finals for the better part of a decade, ranking among a conference's top eight feels like a foregone conclusion.
Phoenix Suns: ETA 2019-20
If we conservatively assume it'll take at least a .500 record to contend in the West, no team is technically further away than the Phoenix Suns, who finished with a conference-worst 24 victories last year.
A streak of seven straight lottery seasons figures to continue, as Phoenix's current core remains far too young to add more than another eight or 10 victories to last year's total—at best. And the Suns shouldn't be trying to do that.
Even if Dragan Bender develops, Marquese Chriss shows faint glimmers of focus and Devin Booker does more than score empty buckets, the Suns are still going to stink, possibly on purpose.
Nothing makes it easier to play the young talent and welcome losses (and lottery position) like a new contract for a general manager, and Ryan McDonough has one. He signed a multiyear extension in July. The Suns can tank away, look to add even more top picks to a roster already loaded with them, and then hope a few of them turn out to be superstars.
Josh Jackson, the latest such addition, has that kind of ceiling.
But he's still only 20. So is Chriss. Booker won't turn 21 until the end of October, and Bender will play the first month of the season as a teenager. There's no urgency to rush these guys—not with the West's upper tier, led by the Golden State Warriors, looking unbeatable. And especially not with a front office enjoying job security.
Even assuming steady improvement, this group won't be ready to sniff .500 for at least two more years.
Hence the 2019-20 playoff contention projection.
Brooklyln Nets: ETA 2019-20
The age of hopelessness is nearing an end in Brooklyn.
When the Nets convey their first-rounder to the Cleveland Cavaliers in June, the onerous, franchise-crippling debt stemming from that ill-fated trade with the Boston Celtics in 2013 will be extinguished. This pick, in 2018, is the last one owed.
And finally, finally, the Nets will be masters of their own destiny.
To be fair, Brooklyn has done well to control what it could in the years since mortgaging its future for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. GM Sean Marks has transacted deftly despite having few assets to deal. He landed D'Angelo Russell by unloading Brook Lopez's expiring deal and managed to regain first-round picks by shipping out veterans like Thaddeus Young and taking on Andrew Nicholson's bad contract.
It shouldn't have been possible for Brooklyn to land Caris Levert in 2016 and Jarrett Allen in this most recent draft. Not with the bare cupboard Marks inherited.
Outside of Russell, there doesn't appear to be a foundational piece on the roster. But with Marks managing personnel and head coach Kenny Atkinson employing cutting-edge pace-and-space schemes, it's easy to have faith in the organization.
If Brooklyn were in the West, the timeline for playoff contention would be at least a year longer. But in the East, a franchise being run this well shouldn't need more than another two seasons to get itself into the postseason conversation.
Sacramento Kings: ETA 2020-21
Is "the guy" on the roster right now?
You know, THE GUY?
The Kings have loads of lottery tickets, sure. But there's a difference between rostering tons of young players—Skal Labissiere, Buddy Hield, Willie Cauley-Stein, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Justin Jackson, De'Aaron Fox and even Harry Giles—and having a guy you just know is going to be a transformative talent.
Maybe one or two of Sacramento's kids develops into a franchise-altering leader. Maybe Fox is John Wall. Maybe Labissiere gets stronger and revolutionizes the Kings offense as a stretch 5.
But maybe not.
And even if both Fox and Labissiere reach the upper limits of their potential, are they going to do it before their third or fourth years in the league? Remember, Fox (19 years old) hasn't played a second of NBA basketball yet, and Labissiere (21) has just 33 games on his resume after an abbreviated rookie season.
Both have a chance to be great. But even if (and it's important to understand this is a major "if") they pan out, the Kings still have to surround them with talent. And they still have to do it in the brutal Western Conference.
Sacramento has finished at least eight games behind the No. 8 seed in its conference every year for the last decade. It's difficult to overstate the amount of ground this organization has to make up.
Does the 2020-21 seem like a long time off? Sure.
But think of it this way: In a best-case scenario, do you really expect the Kings to contend before Fox turns 22?
Chicago Bulls: ETA 2021-22
Nobody's timeline stretches further into the distance than the Chicago Bulls'.
If it feels unreasonably harsh to put Chicago's playoff contention five years into the future, just remember that four teams are currently in postseason droughts at least that long. Dry spells like this happen all the time.
Chicago is so far from relevance, even in the East, because virtually no facet of its organizational makeup inspires confidence.
The front office, led by John Paxson and Gar Forman, got fleeced in the Jimmy Butler deal and gave away Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott for next to nothing last year. Look back a bit, and you see the exchange that sent away the picks that became Jusuf Nurkic and Gary Harris for McDermott in the first place.
They signed Dwyane Wade.
They signed Rajon Rondo.
Though the Bulls front office has made better moves in the past, nothing recent augers well.
Not only that, but the Bulls just added Doug Collins in an advisory role.
As Derek Bodner of The Athletic noted, Collins' reputation as an anti-analytics old-schooler and shaky transactional history in his last stop with the Sixers are worth noting: "So the Bynum trade, Kwame signing, Nick Young, he certainly had a very big say in, and numerous people told me they were his moves. In fact, I was told that he wanted to give Kwame Brown a four-year contract, but ownership talked him out of it."
Head coach Fred Hoiberg has been set up to fail, saddled with personnel ill-suited to his uptempo preferences. Bad situation aside, he hasn't impressed.
And then there's the roster, a group utterly bereft of cornerstones. The best the Bulls can offer: lottery disappointment Kris Dunn, athletic but ultimately underwhelming Zach LaVine (coming off a torn ACL and projected to be worse than replacement-level this year by ESPN's RPM) and rookie Lauri Markkanen.
Outside of Robin Lopez, the Bulls may not have an average rotation player on the roster. Maybe Dwyane Wade qualifies there, but he's a buyout candidate and certainly won't have an impact on the team beyond this season.
The faint outlines of a playoff contender aren't even present, and it could take several years to amass the talent necessary to even start squinting at the roster and seeing traces of respectability. If the Bulls grab the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 draft, they'll still be several players away.
So, yeah, it'll be a while.