This NBA season, it seems some teams are in full tank mode. If you just take a look at the Eastern Conference standings alone, you will understand. This year’s NBA Draft prospects are the perfect cash crops for GMs and owners around the league who are looking to rebuild their teams.
Throughout the past few seasons we have seen a handful of NBA teams that have struggled in past years that are now sitting and bidding to be on the throne on top of the NBA hierarchy. Teams such as the Thunder, Pacers and Trail Blazers are examples of teams whose management understood the method of building a team from the ground up from the draft. Thunder GM Sam Presti did a brilliant job drafting Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and James Harden. Despite Harden, of course, they have had a chance to play together for a few years, learning the ropes in the NBA and now, they are major contenders in the Western Conference each year.
Even though they have changed some positions in the front office, the Pacers exploded last season and became an immediate favorite in the Eastern Conference with the emergence of Paul George. They drafted Roy Hibbert in 2008 out of Georgetown to be their anchor of their defense. They found Lance Stephenson in the second round of the 2010 Draft and he has been their X-factor this season, having the most triple-doubles in the league this season with three.
Then you have the Trail Blazers, who have the fourth-best record in the league this season and are playing amazing basketball. The Blazers have surprised everyone this year and rank first in three major categories in the NBA in points per game, rebounding and free throw percentage. The Blazers drafted LaMarcus Aldridge in 2006 and he has erupted this season to be an MVP candidate. Last year’s Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard has been fearless and has hit multiple game-winners this season and may be heading to his first All-Star Game.
All three of these teams didn’t spend big money in free agency — they got better through the draft. Now, some others are following that blueprint.
There is no predicting the future of course, but we can make educated guesses at some of the teams who could become the next OKC, the next Indiana, the next Portland…
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Current record â€“ 12-35, Southeast Division
2014 NBA Draft First Round Selections â€“ Two
Centerpiece â€“ Victor Oladipo
The Orlando Magic hired GM Rob Hennigan at the age of 30 to overhaul their roster and prepare for the future. In his tenure so far he has made some critical decisions, trading away Dwight Howard to the Lakers during the 2012 offseason and also trading J.J. Redick to the Bucks. The moves created a massive amount of flexibility for the team’s financial plans.
At the moment, they have the second-worst record behind the Milwaukee Bucks but Orlando is building a nice core centered on guard Victor Oladipo, who they selected with the No. 2 pick in last summer’s NBA Draft. Hennigan stated back after drafting Oladipo that “We like Victor because we feel Victor has a work ethic and an approach to the game that will allow him to continually improve. And we feel that way about a lot of the players that we have.”
Oladipo, despite having an up-and-down season, has shown glimpse of great potential on both sides of the ball. He takes pride in defense and has been a regular on the NBA’s top plays every night. He is shooting over 40 percent from the field this season but needs to work on his shot from beyond the arc, only averaging 29.5 percent from the three-point line. Once the Magic figure out which position they want Oladipo to play moving forward, he is only going to improve.
If forward Tobias Harris shows that he can be durable player he can be a big part of the team’s future plans, as well. Also, getting Nikola Vucevic from the Dwight Howard trade was a huge plus as the 7-footer has shown improvement this season. Vucevic is an elite rebounder and is going to become a better defender as his career progresses. Maurice Harkless is a prototypical NBA small forward prospect but he has not found his niche in Jacque Vaughn‘s rotation this season. Once he plays more minutes, I believe he can excel and be one of the best players on the Magic in a couple years.
Then we have Arron Afflalo, who has been the Magic’s best player this season. Affalo is having an All-Star caliber season but is he in the Magic’s future plans? The team is not going anywhere and right now, while his stock is very high, this would be the best time to trade him to bring in more young talent or some additional draft picks. The Magic is going to be a lottery team this year but also have secured future draft picks from Denver or New York in 2014. A player such as Marcus Smart out of Oklahoma St. would be a great addition to the team next year. Smart and Oladipo as backcourt mates will make up one of the best defensive guard tandems in the league.
With not committing to huge salary contracts at the moment and having multiple draft picks, the Magic are going to be great team to watch in the future.
Current Record â€“ 24-21, Atlantic Division
2014 NBA Draft First Round Selections- One
Centerpiece â€“ DeMar DeRozan
Okay, so the Raptors don’t suck — not at all, actually — but play along with us, considering this team is notoriously bad.
New GM and President of Basketball Operations Masai Ujiri has made it a mission to change the culture of the Toronto Raptors. Ujiri is a very confident general manager who has not been afraid to trade away his team’s best players to build a better culture for the team. With the Denver Nuggets, Ujiri traded Carmelo Anthony to the New York Knicks. The move made the Nuggets a better team and last season, they finished with the fourth-best record in the NBA (57-25), earning Ujiri the 2013 NBA Executive of the Year honor.
Ujiri is an executive that understands how having flexibility in the cap is important year in and year out. As soon as he landed in Toronto, he traded away Andrea Bargnani to the Knicks. (FYI GMs: if you want to unload on cap money, trade your player to the Knicks. You’re welcome.) He then traded swingman Rudy Gay and his $20 million contract to the Kings for three players that will be free agents next summer. They ultimately improved after shipping Gay.
No one expected the Raptors to be good this season, and now they’re leading the Atlantic Division. The Raptors are doing the right thing with molding and building what they have. The Raptors were in dire need for an All-Star this season and may have found it in DeMar DeRozan. He is averaging career-highs across the board with 21.8 points, 4.7 rebounds and 3.6 assist per game. Second-year player Terrence Ross erupted this past weekend against the Clippers for 51 points. Ross is very athletic but needs to keep improving in all areas of the game. If he consistently brings that edge he brought against the Clippers every night, the Raptors will not have any trouble scoring the ball.
Center Jonas Valanciunas from Lithuania is only 21 years old and is a big part of the Raptors future on the frontline. In his second year, he is still adjusting to the game in America and last year he finished as a member of the NBA All-Rookie Second Team. Kyle Lowry is tough to project because I am not sure you can put him in the elite category of point guards. He is having a great season, averaging 16 points, four rebounds and close to eight assists per game, even with constant trade rumors. But I am not sure if he is the long-term answer at the one.
When it comes to marketing and building a brand, the Raptors did the smart thing and hired Toronto native and rapper Drake to be their global ambassador. Other than being “WheelChair” Jimmy who played basketball in the show Degrassi, Drake does not have a basketball background. But what Drake does bring is a massive cult of fans. If he is constantly promoting Raptors basketball and showing his face around the arena, fans are going to go to the game. Drake is also friends with a lot of NBA players, which might persuade a player to play for Toronto in the future. Toronto is quickly becoming one of the favorite tourist destination cities and will host the All-Star Game in 2016.
One more thing. The Raptors are most likely not going to have a lottery pick, which means no Andrew Wiggins, but with the amount of depth this draft has, the Raptors can find somebody that will be very good and can contribute next year.
Current Record – 16-29, Northwest Division
2014 NBA Draft First Round Selections â€“ Two
Centerpiece â€“ Trey Burke
Every player on the Utah Jazz is on the breakout list. I am just waiting for one player to step up and take control of this team. They are a big-time scorer away from being a great competitive team down the road.
They have perfect young building pieces with Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter, Trey Burke, Alec Burks, Rudy Gobert and Gordon Hayward. The Jazz front office did an incredible and bold job of letting go of Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap and Mo Williams. All are good NBA players but it was time to give the young faces a shot.
I believe the word “upside” initiated with Derrick Favors. By this time, I expected Derrick Favors to be an All-Star caliber player already. Not much is his fault, due to the logjam at his position over the years, but this season Favors has been given the opportunity and he has only been average. The bright side is he does possess a lot of upside because he is only 22 years old and has played three years already in the NBA, learning from veterans.
Burke missed the first 12 games of his career with a finger injury but has been one of the best rookies this season. The past few years after Deron Williams left for the Nets, the Jazz have been searching for a floor general for the future and Burke is the answer and immediately made the Jazz a better team after a 1-11 start without him.
Center Enes Kanter’s career is following in the same path as Favors. Their on-court chemistry is just not there yet, but he is a good athlete that has great hands in the post, albeit a project on the defensive end.
Gordon Hayward is the go-to guy for the Jazz in his fourth season and he is improving each season and should be in consideration for Most Improved Player. Hayward does not scream star potential in the future, but he does make for a great role player that could be a great asset to have in the future.
Alec Burks is another young face on the Jazz team that has talent and is averaging 13 point per game off the bench for them.
Referring back to what I said earlier that the Jazz need a big-time scorer, Jabari Parker out of Duke would be the perfect fit for the Jazz. Parker is, without a doubt, the most ready pro prospect in the draft and a lethal scorer that can average 20-plus a night one day. Adding Parker to play the three or the four spot on this team could elevate them to the playoffs.
Current Record – 15-31, Atlantic Division
2014 NBA Draft First Round Selections – Two
Centerpieces – Michael Carter-Williams and Nerlens Noel
The Philadelphia 76ers are in full rebuilding mode. If you look at the Sixers roster right now, beyond Michael Carter-Williams and Nerlens Noel, there is no one else to be thrilled about. The team, however, is making the right decisions to further move along their rebuilding process.
GM Sam Hinkie made the right selection picking Michael Carter-Williams, who has been nothing short of amazing this season. Carter-Williams is the leading candidate for Rookie of the Year honors and has shown that he can contribute in every aspect of the game. He is currently in the lead of all major stat categories in the rookie department (points, rebounds, assists and steals).
He was given the keys on day one after the Sixers traded All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday to the New Orleans Pelicans, which landed them Nerlens Noel out of Kentucky. Noel has not seen any live game action in almost a year since he tore his ACL on February 12. He has a lot of potential on the defensive end. He can eventually become the anchor of the defense, such as what Roy Hibbert is doing with the Indiana Pacers. Noel has a long way to go on the offensive end but once he is fully healthy he is going to be able to contribute immediately on the defensive end. The best bet for Noel would be to sit the whole year out and continue to develop for next year. There is no need to rush his process when the team is not winning games.
Evan Turner‘s time in Philly is running out as the team has not offered an extension. The former No. 2 pick in 2010 is putting up respectable numbers with 18.5 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 3.8 assists per game, but as the trade deadline approaches, I think Philly is going to try to trade him. The Sixers are going to be a lottery team this year and might have two picks in the lottery. Andrew Wiggins would be a great fit at the three spot. Also adding a shooting guard or a power forward with one of their next selections would be a smart move also â€“ there are so many prospects that would fit into this current system (Julius Randle, Jabari Parker, Gary Harris, James Young and Noah Vonleh). Give this team three or four years to build together and they might be a force in the Eastern Conference.
Current Record – 15-33, Atlantic Division
2014 NBA Draft First Round Selections â€“ Two
Centerpiece â€“ Rajon Rondo
During the offseason, Danny Ainge and company felt it was time to start preparing for the future, deciding to trade franchise beloved Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to the Brooklyn Nets. The exodus also meant letting coach Doc Rivers not endure the rebuilding process, so he joined a contending team in the Clippers. In the process, the Celtics now have pairs of first-round draft picks in each of the next three drafts. It was a brilliant move by Ainge and the team is going to have a range of assets to work with in the near future.
First off, Ainge has done the right thing so far by not trading Rajon Rondo. By committing to Rondo and making him the face of the organization, the Celtics have a person to build around. He is still young, only being 27, and when healthy he deserves to be mentioned in the elite class of point guards. They are not going to find a better floor general and competitor than Rondo. The only red flags for keeping him is that he is coming off an ACL injury that had sidelined him for a year. If he can show that he can return to natural dominance at the position, I see no reason to trade him.
Taking a look at the rest of the Celtics roster, they have some players they can work with and also some real big head scratchers. Gerald Wallace is a player on the roster that the Celtics need to find a trade partner immediately because his contract is terrible. Wallace will be paid $10 million in each of the next three years, which is money that can be used for another player. The Celtics are aggressively trying to trade Kris Humphries to suitors for his $12 million expiring contract.
However, there are some bright spots for them. The Celtics hired Brad Stevens to replace Doc Rivers in the offseason. Stevens fits the Celtics role perfectly and is a great young coach that will continue to grow with this team. Kelly Olynyk has shown he has a lot of talent to run the floor and with Rondo back it was will be interesting to see how he develops over the course of the season. The Celtics also have Jeff Green and Avery Bradley as part of their core. If the Celtics continue to plummet they will be in the perfect position to draft a high-caliber player that could be a cornerstone with Rondo. Center Joel Embiid out of Kansas has sky-rocketed up draft boards and would be perfect in the Celtics system.
Current record – 27-18, Pacific Division
2014 NBA Draft First Round Selections â€“ Four
Centerpiece â€“ Eric Bledsoe
Maybe I have fallen into the hype of how well they are doing this season… or maybe I am excited about what they can possibly do with four first-round picks in this summer’s NBA Draft, but out of the teams mentioned on this list the Suns have the best chance to become true contenders.
New GM Ryan McDonough has brought in a new culture to the team. Before the season began, the writing was on the wall for the Phoenix Suns: this year was going to be the year they just flat-out tanked. It has been the complete opposite and the Suns have been the most surprising team in the NBA this season. They hired a new coach in Jeff Hornacek and their roster included players such as Gerald Green, Miles Plumlee, Goran Dragic and the Morris twins; not the most luxurious list of names. But these players have been playing their hearts out and contributing, playing together.
The future of the team is centered on point guard Eric Bledsoe, who they traded for back in July. Bledsoe spent two seasons playing behind Chris Paul and in Phoenix has finally had the chance to show off his talent. Despite currently being injured, Bledsoe has put up great efficient numbers this season and is having a breakout year.
Goran Dragic is leading the team in scoring at 19.7 per game while shooting 50 percent and has been the leading man while Bledsoe is hurt.
I expect a lot out of center Alex Len and Archie Goodwin. The Suns took both in the first round of last year’s draft. Len, out of Maryland, is a true 7-footer and has not contributed that much this season due to injuries and riding the pine behind Channing Frye. After a year of learning the NBA style of play, Len is going to be a great center for the Suns. Goodwin is talented but is only 19 years old and is at least two or three years away from being a major contributor.
The Suns are going to have a staggering six first-round picks in the next two drafts. That is more than enough to make a huge splash. Whether they use some of the picks for trade bait is not yet determined but pending they do keep their picks, the Suns can add a lot of young talent, especially in a draft coming up with so much depth. They also have a bank of $30 million to spend on free agents.
What do you think?
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