Reasons for hope for 2017-18 non-playoff teams
NBA.com Global on Apr 13, 2018 11:37 AM
LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 3: Kyle Kuzma #0 of the Los Angeles Lakers goes to the basket against the Oklahoma City Thunder on January 3, 2018 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
By Sekou Smith, NBA.com
For fans of the 16 teams headed for the 2018 playoffs, it’s all about maximizing the immediate future and opportunities that come with being a part of the NBA’s “second season.”
Once you’re in, at least and as Kevin Garnett once said, “anything is possible!”
The future takes on a totally different focus for the lottery-bound teams. First up is hoping that May 15, Draft lottery day, turns out to be a hoops Christmas. Then comes the June Draft and the selection of what is hopefully the future face(s) of the franchise.
And come July, when free agency and Summer League action do their choreographed dance, dreams starting taking a much more realistic shape for lottery squads. So with plenty of time to ponder the possibilities between now and Draft lottery night, we take a look at things the lottery teams can feel good about as they slide off the radar for the next month.
So without further ado, a look at the non-playoff crop from 2017-18 ...
NOTE: Teams listed in alphabetical order
Everything could be new for the Hawks by next season, from the look and feel inside of a renovated Philips Arena (haircut or Top Golf, anyone?) to a roster that is need of a similar makeover. It helps to have a Draft war chest that consists of three first-rounders. But there are already a couple of young building blocks in place in Taurean Prince (who was a force down the stretch of this brutal season) and promising young big man John Collins.
Culture. Culture. Culture. That's what Nets coach Kenny Atkinson is working on building in Brooklyn. That, plus a player-development program that has seen the likes of Spencer Dinwiddie, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Caris LeVert develop into productive players. (Young big man Jarrett Allen could be next). If a healthy Jeremy Lin does what the Nets believe he can, this group becomes much more interesting.
The Hornets have fallen woefully short of expectations in recent seasons. Doing so cost former GM Rich Cho his job and provides his replacement, Mitch Kupchak, a prime opportunity to show what he learned about championship-level team-building during his years with the Los Angeles Lakers. Charlotte certainly worked for veteran big man Dwight Howard, who had a career resurgence in 2017-18. All-Star guard Kemba Walker survived trade rumors all season and remains one of the league’s most dynamic backcourt talents.
The rebuild from rock bottom will go a lot faster if the Bulls put their trust in Zach LaVine and Lauri Markannen as the headliners for the future. Everything else is negotiable for a franchise that has to identify and empower a point guard/playmaker comfortable setting the table for two dynamic youngsters with (eventual) All-Star potential. Coach Fred Hoiberg finally free from the shackles of expectations from the previous era should also provide a boost.
The good news? Dirk Nowitzki said it's looking like he's coming back for another season, perhaps the last of his sure-fire Hall of Fame career. The even better news? That gives rookie Dennis Smith Jr., the future face of the franchise, another season to learn from the all-time face of the franchise. The Mavs have plenty of heavy lifting to do to repair the image of the organization, both on and off the court. Coach Rick Carlisle’s guidance and Smith Jr. leading a seasoned cast in what could be Dirk’s final campaign is a good place to start in 2018-19.
Coach Michael Malone’s team was forced to play its final eight regular season games like the one-and-done affairs that they turned out to be. And they battled to the finish, falling on the final night in Minneapolis to a Timberwolves team that was just as desperate to get into the Western Conference playoff mix. The near-miss will only serve to harden these Nuggets, who are stocked with a playoff roster and need only to avoid the injury bug (Paul Millsap early and Gary Harris late) that bit them this season.
The world will miss coach Stan Van Gundy’s scowl and five-star mock turtleneck collection if he and owner Tom Gores cannot agree on a way forward for the franchise’s top basketball executive and coach. Even with Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond joining forces, the Pistons’ point guard issues overshadowed everything else. And no one is sure what to make yet of Stanley Johnson or Luke Kennard, whose progress, or lack thereof, might come to define the Stan Van era in the Motor City. Change, of one kind or another, seems on the way.
It’s a testament to coach Doc Rivers and his abilities that the Clippers stayed in the playoff chase as long as they did given all of the tumult in ClipperLand since last summer. Now that the "Lob City" era is officially over, the Clippers get to chart a new course with all of the framework in place for a quick turnaround. The best sixth man in the business (Lou Williams) and a former All-Star big man (DeAndre Jordan) headline the holdovers. All that’s needed now is executive Jerry West’s magic offseason touch to jumpstart the accelerated rebuild.
Los Angeles Lakers
No team on the lottery list contains a more promising young core of talent than these Lakers. Having Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Julius Randle and Lonzo Ball means L.A. is poised for bigger and better things in the near future. Isaiah Thomas is one the mend (again) and wants in on the party, too. If the Lakers’ Draft and free-agent pursuits produce the sort of immediate dividends that will keep Magic Johnson’s megawatt smile shining, the Lakers’ dark days will end sooner rather than later.
There’s only one direction to go for the Grizzlies, who will get a healthy (fingers crossed) Mike Conley back to run the show next season alongside former All-Star big man Marc Gasol. That’s a great place to start the franchise makeover. The sideline conductor for said show remains a mystery since a permanent replacement for David Fizdale has not emerged as of yet. A top Draft pick added to an already extremely young mix of talent means there is plenty of heavy lifting still to be done.
New York Knicks
How quickly the world forgot about the strides Kristaps Porzingis made before going down for the season with that dreaded ACL injury -- that "Unicorn" for MVP campaign was a real thing, briefly. The PorzinGod will return. There are other keepers, too. Tim Hardaway Jr. showed he’s legit. And they might have stumbled on to a real gem in Trey Burke. The promise of a top pick in what is believed to be a deep Draft provides another ray of hope that general manager Scott Perry will right some wrongs of the Knicks’ recent past on Draft night.
The ghost of Dwight Howard lingers over this franchise in ways that must make Stephen King cringe. The Magic are still trying to find a breakthrough back to the postseason since the Howard era ended. Rarely does one player alone fuel the fire for that sort of turnaround, but Aaron Gordon is doing his best to do exactly that. When healthy, he looked like the difference-maker the Magic have been looking to build around. His flashes have to turn into a consistent burn if he’s going to take the next steps and finally lead the Magic out of their playoff fog.
I know what you are thinking. We are all thinking the same thing after watching these Suns stumble on an extended loop. But a floor-balancing big to pair with budding star Devin Booker (the best non-Splash Brother shooter on this planet) and versatile rookie swingman Josh Jackson will go a long way towards resuscitating things in the Valley of the Sun. If things bounce right on lottery night, the Suns will have their pick from a diverse crop of long, athletic talents. Perhaps the better question is who will be around to guide this crew?
Chris Webber and Mike Bibby aren’t walking through that door, Sacramento. Vlade Divac and Peja Stojakovic, however, are already in the building. And the former Kings stars are leading the front-office charge for the Kings, whose assemblage of young talent finally looks like it might fit together. Now comes the hard part: figuring out if De’Aron Fox, Buddy Hield, Bogdan Bogdanovic and Willie Cauley-Stein are the leaders of a renaissance or the latest casualties in the Kings' seemingly never-ending franchise-renovation project? Player development will continue to be crucial. But there is talent in place with more on the way via the Draft.
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