Here’s a breakdown of the seven Western Conference non-playoff teams on the outside looking in, and what type of outlook for next year they each have.
Golden State Warriors (23-43)
The Hope: First and foremost, Monta Ellis had to be dealt for the Warriors to move forward, and if Andrew Bogut ever gets healthy, they might have pulled off one hell of a franchise-advancing deal. David Lee absolutely continues to get it done. Rookie Klay Thompson proved himself to be the 3-point sharpshooter he was drafted to be, and rookie second-rounder Charles Jenkins is well on his way to becoming the next uber-efficient-yet-severely-underrated-for-years PG in the Sessions/Calderon mold. Brandon Rush finally resembles the role-playing scorer he was intended to be. They continue to shoot 3’s at a crazy good rate (38.8%). Through trades, they hold the 30th and 35th picks in the draft, two positions that could yield good value in this deep crop of incoming talent.
But Don’t Forget: Mark Jackson is a terrible coach who promised playoffs and an improved defense (which shouldn’t have been hard after they finished 26th in that category in ’10-11), but they failed on both counts (27th). Golden State purposefully tanked down the stretch with no chance of even finishing in the bottom-3, which says a lot about the organization’s character. No one would be surprised to hear doctors say that Bogut and Stephen Curry will never be fully healthy again. They have a lot of money wrapped up in bad contracts that aren’t going anywhere (Jefferson, Biedrins, Bogut if he keeps getting injured), and there’s no chance they’re landing a good free agent this summer. The Warriors have plenty of defensive and rebounding issues that will certainly prevent their improvement; on a related note, why’d they allow Ekpe Udoh to be included in that trade?
Houston Rockets (34-32)
The Hope: The Rockets hold the Knicks’ first round draft pick, meaning Houston is likely selecting 14th and 16th overall in a deep draft. Kyle Lowry played like an MVP candidate for the first half of the season before getting hurt; he returns. Luis Scola, Kevin Martin, Patrick Patterson, and Chase Budinger all add known value to the Rockets moving forward. Second-round rookie Chandler Parsons and career back-up PG Goran Dragic both far exceeded expectations this season, and the club would be wise to re-sign both. GM Daryl Morey will certainly find something interesting to do with the massive disparity that currently exists between their committed payroll and the salary cap.
But Don’t Forget: As Morey enters his 6th year as Houston’s GM, it’s becoming clear that he can work with very little to consistently make Houston into a 5th-to-9th place sort of club, but he’s certainly not in R.C. Buford (Spurs’ GM) territory when it comes to making something out of nothing (late draft picks, trades that go unnoticed). Houston was pretty much average at everything this past season, so it’s hard to pinpoint any one area that could help pull them out of the 52% winning percentage playoff-limbo they’ve been stuck in for three straight years. Scola is starting to show his age. Are you really expecting Houston to come up with a free agent coup that makes a true difference next year?
Minnesota Timberwolves (26-40)
The Hope: A healthy Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio, and Nikola Pekovic are a talented, young trio to build around that has all sorts of potential. Rookie F Derrick Williams showed some good flashes before hitting the rookie wall. J.J. Barea is a very good back-up PG, and I personally believe SF Wesley Johnson can still become an above-average role player. Minnesota has tons of financial flexibility over the next two seasons.
But Don’t Forget: The Timberwolves have the worst owner-GM pair in the league with asshole extraordinaire Glen Taylor and lobotomy survivor David Kahn running this thing, so don’t expect anything noteworthy and positive to happen in MN in the offseason. Because of past trades, they’re picking 18th in the draft instead of 10th, plus they lost their early-second round pick (where there’s often a lot of inexpensive value in deep drafts like this one). As much as everyone remembers that the Wolves were a possible playoff-bound club and super fun to watch before Rubio tore his ACL on March 9, it’s also worth remembering that they were 21-21 at that point, so it’s not like their three big talents had Minny looking like the ’09-10 Thunder (50-32) or anything. The team’s defense has a monumental amount of work to do (especially in the paint) if they want to take a real leap forward, but the presence of non-shot blockers Love and Pekovic at the 4 and 5 kinda prevents this from becoming part of the team identity.
New Orleans Hornets (21-45)
The Hope: Fans are excited about the new owner (anyone’s gotta be better than David Stern), landing the 2014 All-Star Game, and having two lottery picks (likely 4th and 10th overall). In addition, they’ve committed very little money toward next year’s payroll, so there’s plenty available to re-sign Eric Gordon and to hopefully attract some free agents to go with him and the two top draft picks. Jarrett Jack and many other role players all showed fight and some value during this season that was decimated by injuries. Considering how extraordinarily injured the club was, how tough their schedule was (especially in the first half of the season when morale got crushed), and how close they were in a lot of their losses, the Hornets really aren’t anything like the Bobcats or Wizards, and should have a much easier time improving. Gustavo Ayon.
But Don’t Forget: Gordon is the only proven starter worth building around, but he’s coming off a terrible knee injury and isn’t exactly an All-Star even when fully healthy. Emeka Okafor’s knee might get him amnestied, so the Hornets need to figure out how to keep their defense together if he, Chris Kaman, and Carl Landry are all indeed gone. The offense has no identity at all and has to be assembled from square one. Despite having all the financial room in the world to sign free agents, this isn’t a great year for free agency and New Orleans doesn’t have any inroads with anyone of note, so expect them to overspend or underwhelm.
Phoenix Suns (33-33)
The Hope: The Suns have a league-leading $23 million in cap space, and we keep hearing all the right rhetoric about Phoenix and unrestricted free agent Steve Nash staying together. Assuming they match any offer Robin Lopez receives, the Suns retain a versatile and fairly solid frontcourt in Marcin Gortat, Channing Frye, Lopez, Markieff Morris, Jared Dudley, Josh Childress, and Hakim Warrick (that’s the entire list of who they have signed for next year, by the way), so they still have the bigs for the run-and-gun style.
But Don’t Forget: Robert Sarver is the cheapest owner in the league, and there are already indications that Phoenix won’t utilize their tremendous cap space. As great as he still is at orchestrating so-so teammates into a very good offense, Nash is playing on borrowed time and would be wise to avoid re-signing here if the club isn’t committed to getting him above-average teammates. What exactly will happen to their offense if the Suns don’t reconfigure their backcourt properly? (Aaron Brooks?) Gortat is the only big man worth a damn on the glass which is why Phoenix is one of the league’s worst rebounding clubs. Their first round draft pick (likely 13th overall) is the only selection they hold in a summer of desperate rebuilding, so it’s all or nothing for them in a position that’s historically been a crapshoot at best.
Portland Trail Blazers (28-38)
The Hope: The Blazers have a lot of money available to chase free agents this summer, plus they hold two lottery picks (likely 6th and 11th overall) in a draft that’s considered very strong, so they can do a lot of franchise building in just about any direction they choose to go. Assuming Portland matches whatever offers are thrown Nicolas Batum’s way, their 2-3-4 spots are solid and locked in (Matthews-Batum-Aldridge). Their rabid fanbase might be the league’s best, which certainly makes an impact on free agent signings and general team morale. J.J. Hickson was great down the stretch in Aldridge’s absence and should definitely be brought back.
But Don’t Forget: Good luck figuring out if they have any coherent plan because it certainly doesn’t look like it, and they’re still searching for a non-interim GM and coach to hopefully/supposedly help shape that plan. Many fans think owner Paul Allen is both a) a giant front office-wrecking control freak, and b) angling to sell the franchise, which would reset the whole plan thing. Fans are also starting to realize there’s a good reason Aldridge was considered the Bosh-esque third wheel in the Roy-Oden-Aldridge Big Three that was supposed to be the future of this franchise. There’s an excellent chance Portland will overpay/over-reach on at least one free agent and completely botch at least one of the lottery picks (it’s this simple: take UNC’s Zeller and Marshall to intelligently fill the C and PG positions for years). Again, they’ve needed a GM for a year now.
Sacramento Kings (22-44)
The Hope: Second-year big man DeMarcus Cousins proved to be one of the league’s elite rebounders, Marcus Thornton continues to be a surprisingly strong scorer, and Tyreke Evans had a much more consistent season than last year. Rookie PG Isaiah Thomas far outperformed the expectations of a 60th overall selection (which some pundits predicted). Keith Smart definitely seems like he could be a decent coach in the NBA. They got plenty of cash to throw around in the offseason.
But Don’t Forget: Oh dear goodness, where to begin? The owners are obviously screwing around with the city of Sacramento and the fanbase, so the future of this franchise could be completely shaken up in a variety of ways, none of which figure to be positive. Cousins is still the league’s biggest headcase (at a minimum in the top-3), so there’s 0% chance they can build a winning club around him. Evans is turning out to not be that guy either, with three consecutive seasons of 29-33% team winning with no real upswing in sight as evidence. Jimmer Fredette was an instantly panned lottery pick who didn’t exhibit the production or improvement to suggest he’s part of any long-term solution. There are plenty of ways to go wrong with the 5th overall selection in this draft, plus very few free agents of note want to join the Kings in Sac-town or wherever else they might land.