5 NBA Teams with the Most Upside This Offseason
While the Los Angeles Clippers and Milwaukee Bucks were expected to make deep postseason runs, arguably the best part of the playoffs has been watching 2020 lottery teams like the Phoenix Suns and Atlanta Hawks suddenly rise to power.
It's not only fun to watch young stars such as Trae Young and Devin Booker shine in their first postseasons, but seeing teams turn around so quickly should also give hope to those who missed the playoffs.
To label a team as having "breakthrough potential," we're ignoring the cores who have already won a title and/or made deep runs together and simply had a down year (Golden State Warriors, Toronto Raptors), with an eye on young squads on the rise. Even making the playoffs in 2021 is fair game for this list, provided there's still significant room to develop.
These are the five franchises that should show the biggest growth in 2021-22, based on young talent, drafting position and the flexibility to improve the roster this offseason.
2020-21 Record/Standing: 33-39, 10th place in Eastern Conference
Key Returning Players: PG LaMelo Ball, SG Terry Rozier, SF Gordon Hayward, F Miles Bridges, PF P.J. Washington
The Charlotte Hornets were in the running for home-court advantage in the first round for much of the regular season and were 27-24 on April 9 before they finished on a 6-15 skid. Most of this can be attributed to LaMelo Ball's late-March wrist injury and his understandable dip in play following his return May 1.
Falling out of the playoffs (perhaps for the last time in a while) isn't all bad, however, as the Hornets will pick 11th in a draft that still features plenty of talent beyond the top 10. While center is its biggest need, Charlotte should still eye the best player available outside point guard.
There's also free agency, where the Hornets can free $21 million in cap space by renouncing Cody Zeller and Malik Monk and bring back impending restricted free agent Devonte' Graham. For a team that needs a new starting center, there should be plenty available (Richaun Holmes, Nerlens Noel, Andre Drummond, Montrezl Harrell, Serge Ibaka).
While Rozier, 27, and Hayward, 31, represent a pair of offensively dynamic wings in their primes, this roster still has a lot of room for internal improvement.
Ball, 6'6" and the Rookie of the Year, is the type of big playmaker other guys love to share the floor with. His own shot looked good before the wrist injury (45.1 percent overall, 37.5 percent from three), a previous concern heading into the draft.
Bridges posted 18.6 points, 6.7 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game while shooting 41.8 percent from three in 19 starts and looked like a different player next to Ball. Yet he will have to serve as a high-flying sixth man with Rozier and Hayward around. Washington can play both power forward and small-ball 5, giving this lineup the spacing it needs.
This team will live and die by Ball, but there's plenty of other rising talent mixed with playoff-tested veterans who will make for a big rise in the East next year.
2020-21 Record/Standing: 22-50, 13th place in East
Key Returning Players: SG Collin Sexton, PG Darius Garland, C Jarrett Allen (RFA), SF Isaac Okoro, PF Kevin Love, PF Larry Nance Jr.
The Cleveland Cavaliers were the worst team of any on this list yet are entering year four of a rebuild and just had the good fortune of moving up to No. 3 in the draft.
This means the Cavs can take either Jalen Green or Evan Mobley, both of whom could make an immediate impact while serving as the team's cornerstone.
While their record was one of the NBA's worst last season, the Cavaliers never seemed to have their healthy core together. A starting five of Garland, Sexton, Okoro, Love and Allen played in just seven games all season, posting a surprisingly good net rating of plus-4.0 in their 85 total minutes. The group is also slated to start the 2021-22 season together.
Sexton looked like an All-Star candidate at the beginning of the campaign, finishing with averages of 24.3 points (fifth-highest among all shooting guards), 3.1 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 1.0 steals per game. He improved his ball distribution (career-high 22.6 assist percentage) while getting to the free-throw line more (6.4 attempts per game, up from 4.1 the season before).
Garland made a big leap in his second year, averaging 17.4 points, 6.1 assists, 1.2 steals per game and shooting 39.5 percent from three. The trade for Allen, 23, gave Cleveland the rim protector it needed behind a small backcourt, and Okoro looks like he'll be a lockdown defensive wing with time.
The Cavs will probably still try to trade Love this offseason, but his skill set is needed on a team that finished 29th in made threes. The 32-year-old finally looked healthy at the end of the year, putting up 17.6 points, 10.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists and shooting 51.4 percent from three over his final five games.
Give this young core another year of seasoning with a top-three pick and some good role players (Nance, Taurean Prince, Cedi Osman, Damyean Dotson) and the Cavs have a chance to make the playoffs in 2021-22.
2020-21 Record/Standing: 23-49, 13th place in Western Conference
Key Returning Players: C Karl-Anthony Towns, SG Anthony Edwards, PG D'Angelo Russell, SG Malik Beasley, PG Ricky Rubio
While Towns has been the face of the Minnesota Timberwolves for the past six years, that honor could soon go to Edwards.
The runner-up for Rookie of the Year, Edwards is already one of the NBA's top young scorers and showed exceptional growth in both his efficiency and playmaking as the season went on. Over his last eight games, he averaged 27.0 points, 5.5 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.0 blocks and shot 52.8 percent overall and 40.6 percent from three.
He was already a leader at age 19, displaying an intense work ethic and competitive drive.
"I don't see that from any rookies, that personality. Ant was just loud and that got him going; that's just how he is. That's how he was all season. He'd do it with Karl-Anthony Towns. It wouldn't matter if it was Michael Jordan in there; he'd be the exact same person. It's not personal; he's just competitive," one Timberwolves coach previously told Bleacher Report.
Injuries didn't allow the Wolves to get a good look at their core, as Towns, Edwards, Russell and Beasley combined to play just 13 minutes together over three games.
The trio of Towns, Edwards and Russell was actually quite good, however, registering a net rating of plus-4.9 in 327 minutes together. Still, Minnesota's Big Three shared the floor in just 24 of the 72 games, so there's still a lot of unknown and upside surrounding the group.
Philadelphia 76ers star Ben Simmons would be a great fit, as he could fill the defensive, playmaking power forward role next to Towns. If the Wolves can get Simmons for a package based around Beasley and Jarrett Culver, they absolutely should.
The talent is already in place to make a big jump in the standings, with only experience and a clean bill of health standing in the way.
2020-21 Record/Standing: 38-34, 8th place in West
Key Returning Players: PG Ja Morant, PF Jaren Jackson Jr., SG Dillon Brooks, C Jonas Valanciunas, F Kyle Anderson, G/F Desmond Bane, PF Brandon Clarke
Can a team make a breakthrough if it's already reached the playoffs?
If we're talking about the 2021-22 Memphis Grizzlies, then yes.
Memphis finished four games above .500 even though it was missing its second-best player for most of the year and half the roster was made up of rookies or sophomores.
Giving this rotation a full year of a healthy Jackson, who suffered from knee trouble, should tack on a couple of wins and help improve Morant's game. The 2019-20 Rookie of the Year actually took a step back with his shooting efficiency and assist percentage, even if the raw numbers were still good. Morant's primed for a big breakout in year three with what projects to be the best team around him to date.
While Memphis may be lacking a third "star," Brooks sure looked like one in the playoffs. He averaged 25.8 points, 4.2 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.4 steals per game while shooting 51.5 percent overall and 40.0 percent from three against the Jazz. If he can continue putting up big scoring numbers and shooting at a high clip from deep, Memphis will have one of the NBA's best backcourts.
Bane, Clarke and Xavier Tillman have contributed from day one and should only get better with time, and Valanciunas is the team's vet (at age 29) who looks to be in his prime. Able to muscle up the best big men in the NBA, he brings a toughness to this young team, is one of the league's best rebounders and can space the floor for Morant and Co.
Don't be surprised to see Memphis hit 50 wins or more next season thanks to an All-Star campaign from Morant, and Jackson establishing himself as one of the best young bigs in the NBA.
New Orleans Pelicans
2020-21 Record/Standing: 31-41, 11th place in West
Key Returning Players: PF Zion Williamson, SF Brandon Ingram, PG Lonzo Ball (RFA), SG Nickeil Alexander-Walker, C Steven Adams, G Eric Bledsoe
The New Orleans Pelicans may face the most pressure of any team to have a breakthrough, with head coach Stan Van Gundy already out the door after one season and executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin now likely feeling the heat.
New Orleans can stand by and count on internal development from Williamson, Ingram, Ball, Alexander-Walker, Kira Lewis Jr. and Jaxson Hayes or use some of its impressive draft pick collection to take a swing at a star.
Damian Lillard would be the dream trade target, with players such as Myles Turner, CJ McCollum and Bradley Beal all looking like perfect fits to help get this team to the playoffs. The Pelicans own the 10th pick and have four second-round selections in 2021, are owed four future first-round picks from the Los Angeles Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks with the rights to swap another three first-rounders.
It feels like the Pelicans will do something this offseason to make sure they reach the postseason, especially considering The Athletic's report that Williamson's family members "have voiced displeasure with the organization."
With Williamson becoming extension-eligible next offseason, expect the Pelicans to start turning those future picks into win-now help.