Predicting Which 2014 NBA Lottery Teams Will Make Playoffs Next Season
Not all 2014 NBA lottery teams are made equally.
Some, like the Philadelphia 76ers and Orlando Magic, entered the 2013-14 season with little chance of winning more than 25 games. These squads, in the early stages of a complete rebuild, were much more concerned with developing their young players than their win-loss records.
Other teams, on the other hand, had the pieces to make a playoff run this year. Some convergence of factors—injuries, a lack of chemistry or plain bad luck—simply prevented that from happening.
Let's look at five lottery teams who, with the right moves during the offseason, will find themselves in the playoffs instead of the upper half of the draft next year.
Note: Teams are sorted in alphabetical order.
Honorable Mention: New York Knicks (37-45, 9th in East)
The New York Knicks' playoff fate in 2015 depends on one man: Carmelo Anthony.
If Anthony leaves New York this summer, the Knicks will have a better shot at landing the No. 1 overall pick than making the playoffs. Even if Anthony departs, New York won't have enough cap space to significantly improve, placing too heavy a burden on J.R. Smith, Tyson Chandler and Amar'e Stoudemire to realistically expect a postseason berth.
After meeting with Phil Jackson for an exit meeting, Anthony told reporters that he "wants to stay" in New York, but has little patience for a rebuild. Based on his low-risk, high-reward late-season signing of Lamar Odom, it appears as though Jackson, 68, feels the same way.
And frankly, the Knicks weren't that far off from making the playoffs in 2014. Despite a fractured fibula that cost Chandler 20 games, a miserable start to the season by Smith and point guard Raymond Felton trudging his way to a career-low player efficiency rating of 12.8, the Knicks only finished one game behind the eighth-seeded Atlanta Hawks.
If the Knicks can re-sign Carmelo and avoid the injury bug next year, they'll bounce back and make the 2015 playoffs. Though their 54-win season of 2012-13 was due for some regression to the mean this year, they have too much talent—remember, they're the "best team in the league" on paper, as Stoudemire told reporters in mid-April—to finish under .500 two years in a row.
Other Honorable Mentions: Minnesota Timberwolves (if they don't trade Kevin Love); Denver Nuggets (if they can avoid major injuries)
Cleveland Cavaliers (33-49, 10th in East)
After winning the 2013 draft lottery, Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert made it clear that he wasn't planning on returning for "a long, long time," per Sports Illustrated's Ben Golliver.
In year one of Mike Brown's second tenure as coach, the Cavs belly-flopped, finishing 16 games under .500. Anthony Bennett, who Cleveland selected with the No. 1 overall pick, had a historically miserable season, finishing with the lowest PER (6.9) of any top pick in the past 24 seasons, as SB Nation's Drew Garrison noted.
Meanwhile, the relationship between starting guards Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters was under constant scrutiny this season. Waiters reportedly called out Irving during a players-only meeting in November, per ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard, which led Cleveland to begin openly shopping the shooting guard. Brown moved Waiters out of the starting lineup for a majority of the season, as Bob Finnan of The News-Herald noted, instead of forcing the two players to learn to coexist.
Irving and Waiters did perform better alongside one another in the waning weeks of the season, but it wasn't enough to push the Cavs into the playoffs. That's only serving as additional fuel to Irving's fire, as he told Finnan:
There’s definitely a lot of motivation going into the summer and I expect a lot from all of us, just to be with each other this summer and making strides in the right direction and being prepared for next season. This was a learning year for me. I learned a lot about myself about being a better point guard from all aspects of the game and becoming a better leader. I’m a work in progress, which I’ve already admitted. There is always room to get better. I’m looking forward to this summer and just taking what I’ve learned and taking my game to another level.
With a likely top-10 pick coming this June, Cleveland will be well-positioned to put this disappointing season in the past. If the Cavs can re-sign Luol Deng and/or Spencer Hawes in free agency, they'll have the right blend of veteran experience and youthful energy to earn their first playoff berth in a half-decade next year.
Detroit Pistons (29-53, 11th in East)
Year one of the Josh Smith experiment in Detroit was an unmitigated disaster.
After shelling out $80 million last summer to Smith and point guard Brandon Jennings, the Detroit Pistons expected to make major strides toward the playoffs in 2013-14. Instead, Smith's shot chart ended up the same color as a stop sign, and the squad collapsed down the stretch to finish 29-53.
Once the playoffs were out of reach, the Pistons had every reason to tank—they owe a top-eight-protected first-round pick to Charlotte this year—but that pick is only protected for the No. 1 spot in 2015, per RealGM. Therefore, with no real incentive to collapse next season, expect Detroit to take a major stride forward in its rebuild.
At only 20 years old, Andre Drummond is already a soon-to-be All-Star superfreak. As Bloomberg Sports' Jared Dubin noted on Twitter, he's just the second player in NBA history to average at least 13.0 points, 13.0 rebounds, 1.5 blocks and 1.0 steals per game as a rookie or a sophomore (joining Bob McAdoo). In other words, he's the type of player worth building an entire franchise around.
That means, due to Smith's arrival last summer, Greg Monroe is likely on his way out of Detroit this year. Smith fits best as a small-ball 4 next to a defensive-minded center, but Monroe, a restricted free agent, occupied that space for most of this past season.
If the Pistons allow Monroe to walk, they'll have over $20 million in cap space, which would give them plenty of flexibility on the free-agent market this summer. Barring any surprises on the night of the draft lottery, they'll also add the No. 8 pick to their roster this summer, which could net them a player like Noah Vonleh or Doug McDermott.
Given the relative weakness of the Eastern Conference, the Pistons won't require a major overhaul to qualify for the 2015 playoffs. Adding a few sharpshooters through free agency or the draft and getting Smith and Jennings to rein in their oft-questionable shot selection should do the trick.
New Orleans Pelicans (34-48, 12th in West)
Had the New Orleans Pelicans avoided the injury bug during the 2013-14 season, there's little question they would have been playoff contenders.
Due to injuries, however, their five best players—Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday, Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans—only appeared in the same five-man lineup 12 times this season.
Davis missed seven games early in the season due to a fracture in his left hand and sat out the final week with back spasms. Holiday only played 34 games before suffering a stress fracture to his right tibia that required season-ending surgery. A herniated disc limited Anderson to just 22 games, while injuries to Evans' left ankle and rib caused him to sit out 10 times this season.
As estimated by FiveThirtyEight's Jeff Stotts, New Orleans would have won an additional 5.1 games this season had no one in the NBA gotten injured (the second-most additional wins of any team). It's unrealistic to expect the Pelicans to stay completely injury-free in 2014-15, but there's little reason to believe the injury gods will smite the squad to this degree for two consecutive seasons.
Barring a miracle on the night of the draft lottery, New Orleans will be sending its first-round pick to Philadelphia this year as part of the trade that netted Holiday last summer. The Pelicans also have roughly $57 million in cap space already committed for 2014-15, leaving little room to improve via free agency.
That leaves internal improvement and fringe free-agent additions as the squad's two most likely routes for playoff contention in 2015. Given The Brow's rapid ascension to the NBA elite, however, a relatively injury-free season should be enough to get New Orleans into the playoffs in 2015.
Orlando Magic (23-59, 13th in East)
Yes, that's right: The Orlando Magic, who finished with the NBA's third-worst record in 2013-14, are going to make the 2015 playoffs. And no, I'm not on drugs.
No matter what you think of the Victor Oladipo-as-point-guard experiment, his shooting percentages (.419/.327/.780) are only likely to increase now that he has a full year of experience under his belt. He went from shooting .410/.303/.777 before the All-Star break to .437/.380/.788 in the final two months of the season.
Paired with Arron Afflalo, who had a breakout season in 2013-14, Orlando appears to have a backcourt worth building around. Throw in Nikola Vucevic, the rising fourth-year center who missed 25 games this year due to a concussion and a sore Achilles tendon, and the Magic have a not-such-a-poor-man's Big Three.
Orlando also touts more depth than you might expect based on its paltry 2013-14 win total. Kyle O'Quinn showed promise as a backup big this season. Forward Tobias Harris came on strong after the All-Star break, averaging 15.8 points while shooting 50.8 percent from the floor and 38.1 percent from three-point range. Swingman Moe Harkless experienced a similar post-All-Star-break surge, jumping from 6.5 points per game on 45.5 percent shooting before to 9.1 points on 47.6 percent shooting after.
Of Orlando's top six overall scorers from this season, only two have more than three years of NBA experience under their belts. Jameer Nelson is the Magic's only regular rotation player above the age of 28, and Afflalo is the only other one above the age of 24.
Add in a likely top-three pick—ideally Jabari Parker, if the 2015 playoffs are the goal—and suddenly Orlando has one of the league's most promising young cores. Unless Vucevic misses another 20-plus games due to a concussion, there's no reason Orlando can't add 15 wins to its 2013-14 win total and squeak into the playoffs as the East's No. 8 seed next season.
Phoenix Suns (48-34, 9th in West)
Of all the teams featured here, the Phoenix Suns have the most feasible route to the 2015 playoffs.
After all, with only five days left in the 2013-14 regular season, the Suns were deadlocked with the Memphis Grizzlies for the West's No. 8 seed and only a half-game behind the Dallas Mavericks. Losses to Dallas and Memphis on April 12 and 14, respectively, drove the final nail in the Suns' postseason coffin.
Despite missing the playoffs this year, Phoenix is in remarkable shape moving forward. The Suns are set to have three first-round picks—Nos. 14, 18 and 27—in this year's draft, along with over $30 million in cap space.
Most of that cap space will presumably go toward matching any offer for combo guard Eric Bledsoe in restricted free agency this summer. The Suns' president of basketball operations, Lon Babby, said as much in a radio interview back in February, per Adam Green of ArizonaSports.com.
Though the exact figures on maximum contracts won't be set until July 10 (the first day after the July Moratorium), Bledsoe will be eligible for a deal starting at roughly $15 million in 2014-15. Suns general manager Ryan McDonough told the Associated Press' Bob Baum that he hopes to work out an agreement before Bledsoe hits the open market, but either way, the combo guard is unlikely to leave Phoenix.
The same goes for swingman P.J. Tucker, another restricted free agent this summer. Phoenix will have copious amounts of cap space left over after working out Bledsoe's deal, which will allow them to retain Tucker if so desired. (Per Baum, the Suns do want him back.)
Therefore, the Suns are positioned to add as many as three first-round picks to a 48-win team—they could always draft-and-stash an international player with at least one pick—and lose no major contributors from this year's team. Considering Bledsoe missed two months of the 2013-14 season due to a torn meniscus in his right knee, setting the bar at a minimum of 50 wins for Phoenix in 2014-15 is entirely feasible.
Sleeper: Utah Jazz (25-57, 15th in West)
Given how competitive the Western Conference playoff race promises to be in 2015, the Utah Jazz can't be considered likely to make the postseason. They did, after all, finish with the conference's worst record in 2013-14.
There's plenty of reason for Jazz fans to maintain optimism, however.
With swingman Gordon Hayward set to hit restricted free agency, Utah is projected to have over $30 million in cap space this summer. As much as half of that space could go toward retaining Hayward, who, last fall, was seeking a deal in the four-year, $50-million-plus range, per Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski.
That still leaves over $15 million in cap space to improve elsewhere, although Utah can't go crazy in terms of long-term spending. If the Jazz can't reach an extension agreement with center Enes Kanter by Oct. 31, he will become a restricted free agent in the summer of 2014.
The real beacon for hope, in that case, will be June's draft. By virtue of winning a tiebreaker with Boston, the Jazz have the fourth-best chance of landing the No. 1 overall pick, and, worst-case scenario, they have a guaranteed top-seven selection. Utah also has Golden State's first-round pick (No. 23 overall) thanks to being on the receiving end of the Richard Jefferson/Andris Biedrins salary dump last summer.
Barring any lottery-night surprises, that means Utah will be in line to draft either Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid or Dante Exum, along with a role player in the late-first round. As long as the Jazz retain Hayward, adding a top-five pick to an already strong, young core could spell major improvement for the Jazz in 2015.
Is it enough to make it to the playoffs? Given the strength of the West, that's questionable. Then again, who in their right mind expected Phoenix to remain in the 2014 playoff race until the final week of the regular season?
Unless otherwise noted, all player and team statistics via Basketball-Reference.com or NBA.com/stats and are current through the final day of the 2013-14 regular season. Salary information is via Spotrac.com and does not factor in unrestricted free agents, restricted free agents or 2014-15 rookie contracts.