Business practices aside, there are only two places where NBA teams want to be: championship contenders or cellar dwellers. The in-betweeners are rarely doing anything noteworthy. Milwaukee, for example, has set itself up to be eliminated by the Heat in the first round of the playoffs for years to come. While Milwaukee refills its roster with middle-level talent and wanna-be All-Stars to maintain their current level, the likely best place for them to go is down.
Certain teams, like the Bucks or Hawks, are fighting to maintain relevancy and lock up a playoff spot from six to eight. Other teams though, are following the rock-bottom building plan and positioning themselves to vault the middling teams in upcoming years.
The Cavaliers are a prime example of a team on the bust-to-boom road. LeBron made his decision and the subsequent fall of the Cavaliers began. A little luck is always necessary for a rebuild and the Cavaliers found some when they won the 2011 draft lottery and were able to select Kyrie Irving. With Irving growing into a perennial All-Star, the Cavaliers have added four other top-20 selections, in addition to Irving and Tristan Thompson in 2009, and used their talent to lure attractive free agent pieces Jarrett Jack and Andrew Bynum. Cleveland was 30th in the league in 2010-2011, now they’ve positioned themselves to take a run at the playoffs this season and to only improve in coming years.
If Cleveland is not convincing enough for the bust model, Golden State presents a strong case as well. From 2003 through 2008, the Warriors first round selection fell between 9 and 18. They were an NBA middle-of-the-pack team, making the playoffs just once this millennium (prior to their trip this season) as the eighth seed in 2007. They did, however, pull off the upset that year beating the number one seed Mavericks before being ousted in round two with little fight.
In the 2009 draft, they made their lowest selection in seven years and struck gold with Steph Curry. They drafted in the top 11 in two of the next three years, coming away with two very talented role players in Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes. Golden State turned their newfound core in to a playoff run last season and are expected to expand upon that after signing touted free agent Andre Iguodala. Contenders and Golden State are now mentioned in the same breath and this is without nailing the 2010 draft (the team selected Ekpe Udoh sixth and then watched the Pistons and Pacers snag a pair of budding stars in the next four picks in Greg Monroe, 7, and Paul George, 10).
The 2014 draft class boasts at least five players that could have gone number one overall in this year’s draft: Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Julius Randle, Aaron Gordon and Marcus Smart. This class is not just top heavy though and will feature guys as low as the mid-to-late 20’s that could have been lottery picks this year. Even if teams aren’t lucky enough to strike gold and select one of the potential superstars at the top, many will find serviceable rotation players late in the draft.
The race for the top spot, and the right to select phenom Andrew Wiggins, will be a tight one though, with at least seven teams vying to have the best odds when the ping-pong start spinning next May.
Phoenix selected fifth overall this season and took a flyer on big-man project Alex Len. They looked to be headed for a similar finish prior to receiving Eric Bledsoe in a trade with the Clippers. Even with the popular Bledsoe though, Phoenix likely won’t improve much as he still has big steps to take in his own game. Their two best players are point guards and the rest of the roster hardly moves the radar.
Michael Jordan and the Bobcats seem like a team destined for the lottery from now until forever. With the fourth pick in this year’s draft they surprised most by taking Cody Zeller. While there may have been higher-rated prospects, Zeller looks to be at least a reliable rotation player who won’t win them many games next year, which is exactly what Charlotte needs. The real head-scratcher by the Bobcats was the signing of Al Jefferson. Jefferson should be a lock to average 20 points per game on this roster and while he definitely improves their overall talent, the rest of the roster is bad enough that they should still be selecting top ten. If they are, Charlotte will have added a pair of big men to pair with their top ten pick next year and maybe even threaten to climb from the lottery (Maybe).
Sacramento is another perpetual lottery team. They teased a little by offering Andre Iguodala a contract, but quickly rescinded the offer. Iguodala could have helped this team think about competing for the playoffs, but instead, the Kings biggest offseason move consisted of turning Tyreke Evans in to Greivis Vasquez.
After sending away their pair of hall of famers, Boston will go from dark-horse contender to lottery. Even if they keep Rondo and get half of a healthy season from him, the rest of the roster is just too bad for them to make any real noise. Their first-time NBA coach likely doesn’t help either. If it happens to be that Ainge was lying about wanting to keep Rondo and he is the next Celtic shipped out, this team will be among the tank favorites.
Utah and Philadelphia followed similar plans to go from middle-of-the-pack teams to dwellers. Utah allowed free agents Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap to walk away and turned them in to Richard Jefferson, Andris Biedrins and Brandon Rush. They also collected a 2014 first rounder in the process. Their best players are now a collection of guys all under 25. If a couple of them start to reach the high potential they’ve become associated with, Utah will look to make a vast improvement in the coming years.
On draft night, the 76ers traded away their All-Star point guard for the rights to a rehabbing rookie whose game needs a lot of work, Nerlens Noel. If that doesn’t scream “TANK!” then I honestly don’t know what does. Count Philadelphia among the favorites for the tank fest that is 2014.
Finally though, my favorite to win it all is Orlando. Fresh off selecting second, the only real roster move the Magic made was adding Victor Oladipo with that pick. I see Oladipo as being a strong NBA player, but anyone who thinks he is coming in day one and winning the Magic (regular season) games is crazy. Orlando posted the worst record in the league this season and is the early favorite to do so next season.
While some teams will enter training camp hoping to compete for an NBA title, others will strive for Orlando-Magic levels with visions of ping-pongs and Andrew Wiggins dunking in their heads.
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