Here’s a breakdown of the seven Eastern Conference non-playoff teams on the outside looking in, and what type of outlook for next year they each have.
Brooklyn Nets (22-44)
The Hope: If Deron Williams stays, the Nets retain one of the game’s best PG’s; if he signs elsewhere, the Nets will have a huge amount of cap space to sign free agents. The move to Brooklyn brings the most “cool new location” buzz the league has experienced since the Lakers landed in LA in 1960. Owner Mikhail Prokhorov will certainly shell out the dough to try to bring free agents to town. Retaining Brook Lopez will work out well if he returns to form both health-wise and rebounding-wise. Anthony Morrow is one of the NBA’s elite 3-point bombers and they should have the inside track on keeping Kris Humphries, an elite rebounder.
But Don’t Forget: GM Billy King is widely considered one of the worst in the business (of all time), so he’s probably not the guy who should be making decisions at this important juncture. The Nets will definitely chase a lot of the wrong players with way too much money, which will only set them back further for future development (remember Travis Outlaw?). Not only did they trade away what’s likely to be the #6 pick in this loaded draft for nothing, but they also traded away their early-second round pick, so the one chance they got in this draft is at #57 overall (from Miami). It has to be concerning that Lopez is coming off an injury-ravaged, 5-game season, and his rebounding and shot blocking have been steadily getting worse, so he’s probably not the cornerstone they hope he is.
Charlotte Bobcats (7-59)
The Hope: For as raw as rookie PF/C Bismack Biyombo was, he proved himself to be a very good rebounder and outstanding shot blocker. Rookie G Kemba Walker looked to be a quite capable passer when he focused on setting others up and not his own scoring. In theory, it will be next to impossible for the Bobcats not to improve. D.J. Augustin remains an incredibly efficient passer and decent 3-point shooter. Charlotte has some cap space to pursue free agents. Obviously they’ll have a very high draft selection.
But Don’t Forget: Michael Jordan still runs this show, which means it’s entirely possible they somehow don’t improve next year. If Patrick Ewing is actually considered for Charlotte’s next coach, then it’s clear they’re not serious about rebuilding things correctly/intelligently. The Bobcats only have a 25% chance of getting the top pick in the draft, so anything less than that could very well result in Andre Drummond or Perry Jones, either of whom will be linked to MJ in the same way Kwame Brown and Adam Morrison currently are. Based on their recent track record of losing/trading decent players they could have retained (Tyson Chandler, Gerald Wallace, Raymond Felton, Stephen Jackson, Boris Diaw, etc.), expect Augustin to soon end up on another franchise and have a great rest of his career. Walker is not a PG and has always been an extremely inefficient scorer. Almost everything about this team sucks, and it can’t be reiterated enough how much damage Jordan has done and will continue to do to the only franchise in the league that I honestly believe is losing money for its owner, which will continue a cycle of not spending enough (or smartly enough) in order to ever change things.
Cleveland Cavaliers (21-45)
The Hope: Owner Dan Gilbert is always thinking big, which is an infectious mindset that’s helpful for a struggling franchise. Kyrie Irving is a great, young PG to build around, especially if he gets his turnovers under control. Fellow rookie Tristan Thompson showed some positive signs and looks like a keeper. Anderson Varejao continues to bring the energy and skills to be an extremely underrated frontcourt piece for a franchise. Cleveland has a ton of cash sitting around to sign free agents. In addition to a likely top-3 draft pick this summer, the Cavs also control the Lakers’ pick (#24 overall), the Hornets’ second rounder (#33 overall), and their own second rounder (#34 overall), a nice little cluster to work with in terms of finding some inexpensive talent in a deep draft like this one.
But Don’t Forget: Cleveland won’t attract any good free agents for a variety of reasons. Varejao has battled a slew of injuries the past two seasons (he’s played 56 total games during that span), and Irving’s health looks to be on the Derrick Rose fast track. There isn’t much other talent on this franchise, so it will take a complete rebuild before they approach .500 again. Irving does look to be particularly turnover prone, a bad sign for the guy who’s supposed to make the entire team’s offense gel, plus the coach was none too impressed with the rookie’s defense throughout the season. Gilbert appears to be a little crazy at times, so keep an eye on how that manifests itself.
Detroit Pistons (25-41)
The Hope: Greg Monroe has very quickly transformed himself into one of the most legit and durable centers in the center-deficient NBA. Amnesty-ing Ben Gordon or Charlie Villanueva should free up a few bucks to play with in free agency. Jonas Jerebko still has promise due to well-rounded skills and feistiness, Rodney Stuckey is sort of a Tyreke Evans-lite, Gordon is still a decent gunner (if he’s not amnestied), and Brandon Knight is a young rookie the fans still believe in. Obviously they’ll have a decent first round pick (around #9) and what could be a good value pick near the top of the second round (#39 overall).
But Don’t Forget: Other than Monroe, most of the talent worth mentioning (which isn’t much) on Detroit is really just C/C+ players occasionally masquerading as something more; you can’t build a winner around that “core.” Speaking of which, the Pistons haven’t done much of any constructive franchise building for years, so there’s not a lot of reason to think it will start happening now. If they whiff with their first round pick and poorly spend what little free agent money they have (both fall between ‘quite possible’ and ‘very probable’ on the likelihood spectrum), expect another season of 25-30 win basketball.
Milwaukee Bucks (31-35)
The Hope: By trading former #1 overall pick Andrew Bogut, the Bucks showed they’re willing to shake things up in an attempt to get out of their perpetual flirting-with-the-playoffs-while-battling-injuries funk. The trade netted them Ekpe Udoh, one of the most unexplainably valuable players in the entire league (for two consecutive seasons, he’s had really high Plus/Minus values while being surrounded by tons of teammates way in the negative – no one else comes close to matching his discrepancy). Luc Mbah a Moute continues to be one of the most underrated players in the league, and possibly the NBA’s most versatile defender, while G/F Mike Dunleavy continues to get it (very loosely defined in this case, but some version of ‘it’ none the less) done. Young big men Jon Brockman, Larry Sanders, and Jon Leuer are probably the best and most versatile $4 million worth of frontcourt backups you can buy. Monta Ellis provides some wow factor to a team with just about none of it. Hello, Ersan Ilyasova!
But Don’t Forget: Fans hate the team’s defense under coach Scott Skiles, plus they feel that bringing back GM John Hammond is a sign that ownership is OK with mediocrity; no argument here. Brandon Jennings and Ellis don’t make a good backcourt on either end of the court for a lot of reasons, but the franchise is obviously committed to them. As seems to always be the case with the Bucks, they will have an OK-ish draft pick and an OK-ish amount of cap room available, but no one is expecting much to come from either. After a decade of continually being close to make the playoffs or barely making them and then losing in Round One, it’s become expected that injuries will strike them and they’ll repeat the same old sub-par mess again; hope is slowly being crushed from this fanbase.
Toronto Raptors (23-43)
The Hope: If healthy, it’s entirely possible that PF Andrea Bargnani, PG Jose Calderon, and C Jonas Valanciunas (#5 pick last summer) could be the league’s most underrated “Big Three” in the league in 2012-13; they could quickly lead a Raptors turnaround that finally lands them in the post-season. James Johnson, Amir Johnson, and Ed Davis are a decent (but unspectacular) trio of big men who provide plenty of defense, decent rebounding, and fairly efficient scoring when operating next to Bargnani. Although Linas Kleiza and DeMar DeRozan no longer look like they’re going to break into stardom, both can get hot from the wing. Toronto certainly has some money to spend on free agents. Coach Dwane Casey and GM Bryan Colangelo are the right pair to move this franchise forward.
But Don’t Forget: The Raptors desperately need some wings who can score efficiently, especially ones who can hit 3’s and open up the inside for Bargnani and Valanciunas. Bargnani’s health is a lingering concern that could continue to derail Toronto’s success. Most of the guys on the team who like to take shots need to learn to take smart shots. This “individual talent on the verge of gelling” routine has been going on in Toronto for a while and has never materialized.
Washington Wizards (20-46)
The Hope: Nene brought a steadying influence to the frontcourt when he showed up in March. The Wizards finished on a 6-game win streak (including twice over Miami), so the fan base has some optimism going into the summer. John Wall has the athleticism to someday improve his game to the level a #1 pick should be at, and young big men Trevor Booker, Jan Vesely, Kevin Seraphin, and Chris Singleton all displayed enough flashes this year to make you think something good could happen there. A top draft pick (likely #2) and top second-round pick (#32 overall) could both yield potential building blocks. Assuming Rashard Lewis’ $24 million 2012-13 salary is bought out, they’ll have some cap space to pursue free agents.
But Don’t Forget: Wall displayed no improvement from his rookie season at all, which is particularly troubling when one considers how inefficient and unpolished his game is and the extreme lack of team success he’s ever been part of (high school, college, pro, Team USA). There are plenty of ways for the Wizards to go wrong with their top pick (if it’s not #1 overall) and their cap space, always a possibility considering their recent track record. Andray Blatche is not a building block by any stretch of the imagination, and the fact the front office isn’t aware of this tells you Washington could have problems assembling a winning squad.