NBA Lottery Teams with the Quickest Path to Finals Contention
The NBA's championship race might feel relatively static at times, but it constantly evolves.
While a blockbuster trade or marquee free-agent signing can be the quickest way to shake things up, internal growth can be just as effective. Draft and develop a Stephen Curry or a Giannis Antetokounmpo, and sometimes the rest will take care of itself.
Although there are different ways to enter the fray, common indications often arise early in the process. The most obvious is a young, exciting nucleus, which either becomes a contender on its own or attracts the elite talent that transforms it into one.
That's where our attention lies as we try to identify the non-playoff teams with the quickest paths to Finals contention.
While we've taken the possibilities of offseason additions into account, those can't be the entire basis of the argument. In other words, it takes more than a blank slate to make the cut. Some kind of contender-level (or potential-contender-level) infrastructure must be in place already.
These five teams have it, which could be their ticket to the title race sooner than later.
The Atlanta Hawks planned on being patient rebuilders, but their young cornerstones had other ideas.
John Collins just missed the All-Star cut and could become a regular if he keeps cranking out 20-point, 10-rebound double-doubles. Trae Young took a steep superstar turn after the All-Star break (24.7 points and 9.2 assists per game) and potentially loosened Luka Doncic's stranglehold on the Rookie of the Year award. Kevin Huerter became just the 14th freshman in NBA history with 125-plus triples on 38-plus percent shooting.
While the Hawks need more pieces around this core, they might have three big components of a future championship backbone. Given their growing asset collection, they could find their finishing pieces faster than you'd think.
Atlanta holds six picks in the upcoming draft, including three in the top 20. Those are high-caliber trade bullets, regardless of whether the club tries to climb up the board or moves some selections for win-now support.
The Hawks have considerable financial wiggle room this summer and only rookie-scale contracts beyond next season. They'll make a push for any interested elite free agents, and they might have more pull than their 29-53 record indicates.
"I definitely think this is going to be a big spot that free agents look at," Young told HoopsHype's Alex Kennedy. "... This is an exciting team and an exciting city. I think we're maybe one or two pieces away from really making that jump and taking off."
Other teams might have a greater quantity of contending-caliber contributors, but the quality of Atlanta's young nucleus is the difference. With an impact addition or two, these birds are ready to take flight.
If your initial reaction at seeing the 60-loss Chicago Bulls here is to laugh, vomit or do a little of both, that's fine. With that said, it takes some creativity and a lot of luck to turn lottery teams into contenders.
Scattered among this mountain of losses is an attractive young core that's collectively trending up.
The Bulls placed a $78 million wager on Zach LaVine, and he responded by becoming one of 14 players to average 23 points, four assists and four rebounds this past season. Lauri Markkanen weathered injury issues and a coaching change to follow his All-Rookie first-team effort with more points, boards, threes and assists as a sophomore. Wendell Carter Jr. appeared polished beyond his years before a thumb injury derailed his rookie campaign.
Otto Porter Jr., meanwhile, arrived at the trade deadline essentially as an early free-agency addition. Rather than offering big bucks to this summer's best, Chicago sacrificed cap room to add the do-it-all swingman. While he lasted only 15 games with the Bulls before a shoulder injury shut him down, he injected the club with lights-out sniping, versatile defense and a wider offensive arsenal than he'd previously displayed.
Although Carter went down before Porter arrived, the core still displayed encouraging signs. The Porter-LaVine-Markkanen trio registered a plus-2.4 net rating across 325 minutes, nearly the same efficiency as the 51-win Philadelphia 76ers.
The Bulls must check two significant boxes to enter the championship race. First, they must find an upgrade over Kris Dunn at point guard. They'll then have to acquire a superstar, either by developing one in-house or using this core, market and storied history to attract one.
Those are undeniably tall tasks, but Chicago's ceiling will skyrocket the second they're completed.
Buying into the Dallas Mavericks requires a leap of faith.
Even if you're willing to grant Rookie of the Year favorite Luka Doncic go-to status already, you must still contend with question marks at the sidekick spot. Kristaps Porzingis has done some incredible things when healthy, but he hasn't logged NBA minutes since February 2018 and is now ticketed for restricted free agency.
With that said, the potential for this combo is mind-numbing. We wouldn't be including them unless we were all the way bought-in, right?
"The last time we saw Porzingis, we all thought he was going to be a star. We all know that Doncic is probably going to be the NBA Rookie of the Year. ... To get those two young pieces, I think the Mavs have done a really good job. I can't think of a better one-two punch going forward for the next 10 years."
Doncic already appears to be an elite shot-creator and across-the-board contributor. He just joined Oscar Robertson as the only rookies ever to average 20 points, seven rebounds and six assists. The 7'3" Porzingis is a rim protector and shot-blocker who doubles as a 39.5-percent three-point shooter and smooth perimeter scorer.
The rest of Dallas' roster needs work. But the Mavs have financial flexibility, no state income taxes, the deep pockets of team owner Mark Cuban and one of the Association's most attractive 23-and-under combos.
They have the resources in place to recruit and retain difference-making talent.
Los Angeles Lakers
A cursory glance at the Los Angeles Lakers might lead you to believe the sky is falling, especially if you digest your NBA analysis in #hottake form.
Former team president Magic Johnson's split from the franchise was messy. New head coach Frank Vogel wasn't among the club's top two choices. The franchise-worst playoff drought has spanned six seasons. Roadblocks have appeared in front of potential fortune-changing trade targets and free agents.
But if any of this year's non-playoff participants made a run at next year's crown, wouldn't it be the one already rostering the King?
LeBron James' first season in Hollywood was...strange. But it was also encouraging before injuries reared their ugly head. Through Christmas Day—when the Lakers routed the Golden State Warriors but also lost James to a groin strain—L.A. was 20-14 with a top-10 net rating. And that was with the team dropping five of its first seven outings.
The Lakers are closer to contention than their clouds of chaos would lead you to believe. If James is no longer the best player on the planet, he can still wear that label any given night. Brandon Ingram just averaged more than 18 points on nearly 50 percent shooting. Kyle Kuzma has the 19th-most total points between his rookie and sophomore seasons in the 2000s. Lonzo Ball is both a stat-sheet filler and a defensive tone-setter.
This roster isn't perfect, but it has plenty of attractive parts. It could also soon be enhanced in a major way. The Lakers have the cap space to sign a megastar or the trade assets to acquire one. With the 34-year-old James' biological clock audibly ticking, this organization should be as aggressive as any this summer.
L.A. rocked the hoops world by landing LeBron last summer. If the Lakers swing another earth-shattering move this offseason, they could shake up the 2020 championship race.
While growing a contender organically takes time, the Sacramento Kings already have years—not to mention, blood, sweat and tears—invested in the process.
And it shows.
Sacramento, which hasn't tasted playoff hoops since 2006, took its biggest step yet toward snapping that decade-plus-long drought last season. Second-year point guard De'Aaron Fox emerged as a full-fledged floor general. Buddy Hield rarely met a three-ball he couldn't bury. Harrison Barnes arrived as the missing big wing. Marvin Bagley III and Harry Giles III each showed flashes of brilliance while auditioning for the frontcourt of the near future.
That quintet barely saw the floor together, logging only 24 minutes across nine contests. But that floor time was as encouraging as a miniature sample can be. The Kings outscored clubs by 6.5 points per 100 possessions with that five-man group, which would have been this season's second-best net rating.
"Fox and Harry Giles III are 21, and Marvin Bagley III will play most of next year as a 20-year-old. Buddy Hield emerged as an ace high-volume sniper in 2018-19, and he's the old man in the core at 26. Throw in a sparkling arena, a fanbase that's dying to embrace a winner and a thrilling style of play, and you've got a lot to like in Sacramento."
The Kings should further embrace their pace-and-space vision under new head coach Luke Walton, and another developmental offseason could do wonders for this young core. If Sacramento adds an impact piece this summer, expect it to be a regular on all NBA breakout watch lists this October.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.