To think that we’re only three weeks away from the start of the playoffs; the special time of year where all of the “It’s only the regular season talk” stifles and the “Win or go home” mantra begins. While 16 teams prepare their final rosters and create the lineups they believe will lead them to a title, the other 14 plan for the draft, as they wait to see where the ping-pong balls bounce this year.
Fortunately for the unfortunate, they’re going to be immersed in more draft talent than any draft we’ve seen since 2008. Notable names are strewn throughout both rounds, with the top picks being more significant than ever, as the potential of as many as ten players could be franchise-jarring.
Although certain teams are closer to figuring things out than others, the effects of drafting a player, no matter how talented they may be, will likely require more than a season to reach its expected potential. The teams that are expected to be within the top three this year will definitely need a few more drafts, as well as a few wise moves in the free agency market, to fully rebuild. There have been quite a few teams out there that have openly made their regular season intentions known, shedding contracts for nothing and sending out lineups that would struggle to win in Sioux Falls.
Those teams will soon reap the rewards. But does the season-long futility linger when the player that every team in the NBA wanted is donning your team’s jersey? Well, only when the player turns out not to be who you expected, but that’s unlikely to happen with some of this summer’s NBA-ready talent.
Five teams, all of which find themselves in the lottery, are within closing distance of making a playoff push, but need that extra boost from a talented athlete that’s ready to begin contributing.
With a few more free agents, possibly as a result of the development of the rookies, these teams could very well be contending sooner than we expect.
*** *** ***
LOS ANGELES LAKERS
The Lakers’ most redeeming value is their history.
It wouldn’t take a lot of convincing to entice a free agent to join the Lakers franchise. The yellow and gold has played a heavy role in the development and growth of the NBA, dating as far back as the 1950s, and to this day continues to draw attention. Even if the product is horrific, as it has been this year.
With Kobe Bryant sitting on the bench, and throwing not-so-subtle jabs at his would-be teammates and head coach, with Dwight Howard in Houston and Steve Nash also on the bench, the Lakers have been trotting out D-League-caliber lineups. The most used starting lineup this season, one that’s been used 11 times and has gone 3-8, features D-League call-up Kendall Marshall at point guard, Jodie Meeks at shooting guard, Minnesota castoff Wesley Johnson at small forward, rookie Ryan Kelly at power forward, and Pau Gasol at center.
Their most recently used lineup, coming in a surprising 16-point win over Phoenix, featured the likes of Marshall, Meeks, Kent Bazemore, Jordan Hill and Chris Kaman. Off the bench that night was Kelly, Johnson, Nick Young and Robert Sacre. Your 2013-14 Los Angeles Lakers! As scrappy as ever!
No, it hasn’t been an enjoyable year for the 25-48 Lakers, who are going to miss the playoffs for the first time since 2005, the year after Shaquille O’Neal‘s departure. But they have the benefit of being the Los Angeles Lakers. Any player they draft will be an improvement, unless they’re truly committed to Kendall Marshall, who has played surprisingly well. However, he’ll likely play behind Nash next year, as Steve has his own reasons to stick around for another year.
If they had to select a certain player in particular, though, it would be Joel Embiid. The Lakers can no longer attempt to disguise the loss of Dwight Howard and Andrew Bynum, and the gradually disappearing Pau Gasol, with the likes of Kaman, Hill and Sacre. In fact, all three of those players could be gone by next year.
The Lakers will have ten players listed as unrestricted free agents this offseason.
Also, even if the Lakers were to sign Kevin Love in two years, he will do little to quell the team’s problems of defending the interior. No team in the league allows more points in the paint than the Lakers, giving up nearly 49 paint points per night. They allow 13 more points in the painted area than the first-place Indiana Pacers.
Overall, the Lakers rank 28th in defensive efficiency. Embiid, who averaged 2.6 blocks to go along with 11.4 points and 8.1 rebounds, is the best available option when it comes to a defensive deterrent a franchise could build around.
Once the Lakers sign a high-profile lottery pick, whether it be Embiid or even a wing to learn under Kobe Bryant, they should be able to attract some attention from free agents such as Love.
NEW ORLEANS PELICANS
With Anthony Davis making the jump from rookie to legitimate top-ten player, it feels as if the New Orleans Pelicans are bursting at the seams, ready to become a team to watch out West.
Although they’ll miss the playoffs this year, injuries played a large part. All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday played only 34 games, Jason Smith for 31 games, and sharpshooter Ryan Anderson played only 22. The injuries to the team’s starting point guard, center and small forward led to the team utilizing the likes of Brian Roberts, Austin Rivers, Jeff Withey and Alexis Ajinca.
Should we be surprised that a team that gives rotation minutes to the likes of Rivers and Withey ranks 25th in defensive efficiency?
New Orleans’ depth has been tested all year, and it’s resulted in the team watching the playoff race from afar, even with Davis and Eric Gordon both relatively healthy. Tyreke Evans has brought along his well-rounded game, but has been inconsistent on both ends of the floor.
What the Pelicans have needed this year is a scorer off the bench. When healthy, they’ll possess one of the most lethal starting lineups in the NBA. Holiday, Gordon and Anderson are all perimeter threats, while Davis’s shooting range will seemingly extend beyond the arc at some point during his career. Jason Smith, the team’s starting center this year before his injury, also has a solid midrange game. That’s an entire starting lineup of players who can all convert from at least 15 feet out.
Even with all the injuries, New Orleans ranks 12th in offensive efficiency.
Although it may seem like a waste of his talent, considering he’ll likely start on a team that will draft him earlier, Marcus Smart would be a strong fit as the Pelicans’ sixth man. When the Pelicans are healthy, they’re sporting a bench that will feature the likes of Evans, Al-Farouq Aminu, Brian Roberts and Greg Stiemsma. Aminu, Morrow, Smith and Stimemsa, however, are all unrestricted free agents this summer, while Roberts is a restricted free agent. Changes to their bench are likely going to come.
Smart is coming off a sophomore season where he averaged 18 points, 5.9 rebounds and 4.8 assists per. He struggled with his range, shooting less than 30 percent from three both seasons, but radiates confidence and isn’t afraid to attack the rim.
Someone who plays with as much fire and intensity as Smart would do a team like New Orleans a service.
I’m aware New Orleans is currently without a draft pick in the lottery, as they traded it to Philadelphia in the Jrue Holiday deal, but there’s still a possibility they could trade their way into the upper-tier of the draft. They do have several guards that are expendable, and can be replaced with a younger option that possesses more potential.
Once again, the Minnesota Timberwolves are giving Kevin Love all the reasons to leave for greener pastures.
The reason for the Wolves being 36-37, and likely to finish with the tenth seed, is because they’re far too dependent on Love, owner of 26-point and 12.6-rebound per game averages, and lack the type of guard that can attack, penetrate the lane and score.
Ricky Rubio has proven he can lead an NBA offense, averaging 8.5 assists and only 2.7 turnovers per game, but has been a poor scorer. He’s shooting a respectable 35 percent from beyond the arc, but is at 37 percent overall, and has been one of the league’s worst finishers. Kevin Martin, the team’s second-leading scorer, has the type of game that’s centered around the perimeter. Most of his shots have come from beyond 15 feet, where he’s shooting 39 percent from beyond the arc, but is shooting 63 percent on 190 attempts at the rim. He’s shooting only 56 percent on layups.
Minnesota’s points in the paint numbers are inflated because of the influences of Love and Nikola Pekovic, but little of it comes from their guards and small forwards. Guys like Corey Brewer and Chase Budinger are also perimeter based, leaving the driving responsibilities to the likes of Rubio and the diminutive J.J. Barea.
Rubio, Barea, Budinger, and Alexey Shved are all shooting below 40 percent this season. That’s a problem.
The Wolves need the type of player who can play aggressive at all times. They can’t rely on Love and Pekovic for all their scoring inside, and then rely on K-Mart for his services on the perimeter. It’s not a healthy way to play offense without a slasher who can break down defenses.
Dante Exum, who has showed a preference to play for the L.A. Lakers, could be happy to know that he’d fit in with the former home of the Lakers. Although shooting is something he will need to improve on, his aggression and ability to get to the rim with a quick first step would be imperative to a Wolves’ offense that could use an attacking guard.
His size also allows him to play at either guard position. He still has room to develop, so there’s no immediate need to have him replacing either Martin or Rubio. In fact, he could come off the bench and lead an offense, as both a passer and scorer, that J.J. Barea has struggled leading.
They signed reasonably good players, yet everyone, besides Detroit Pistons ownership, knew the 2013-14 installment of Detroit basketball was doomed to fail.
It’s gone exactly as we expected. Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith are taking too many shots, and Greg Monroe isn’t. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope isn’t as NBA-ready as Detroit hoped he would be and the team is still starting Kyle Singler at small forward. The lone positive takeaway from their season has been Andre Drummond. The towering UConn-product has averaged 13 points, 12.8 rebounds, including a league-leading 5.2 offensive rebounds, per game, and has a team-best PER of 22.
Although Detroit leads the league in points in the paint, they’re not that bad on offense when Smith and Jennings don’t have their blinders on, yet they’re still ranked 20th in offensive efficiency. That’s due to the guard play, as well as the team’s collective inability to shoot the ball.
At 32 percent, the Pistons rank 29th in the league in three-point percentage, only a few points ahead of the glorified D-League roster that is the Philadelphia 76ers. Singler leads the team shooting 39 percent on threes, but he’s essentially the only player on the team that consistently takes three-pointers and is shooting above 35 percent.
Jennings is at 35 percent on nearly six attempts, Caldwell-Pope is at 31 percent on 2.3 attempts, Stuckey is at 28 percent on 1.2 attempts, and Smith is at 25 percent on over three attempts per game.
So, Detroit might need a shooter out of this year’s draft. They need a player who can knock down shots in the flow of the offense that also knows when to differ to the post, to feed the likes of Monroe and Drummond. Even Josh Smith can get in on the act, if he decides to abandon the perimeter game that is clearly not working.
Needless to say, just some attention being directed at a legitimate shooter on this team would make things easier for the Pistons’ frontcourt, which should always have the ball run through it.
Gary Harris out of Michigan State would be a solid pickup. While Marcus Smart’s athleticism and explosive energy would be a huge boost to a Detroit team that could certainly use the intensity, his three-point shooting, below 30 percent on a high frequency of threes in both years at Oklahoma State, would only compound the problem in Detroit.
Harris is coming off a sophomore season with the Spartans where he shot 35 percent on nearly seven three-point attempts per game. He had shot 41 percent on nearly five attempts per his freshman season. He’ll also be able to provide on the defensive end, a desperate need of Detroit’s to improve, specifically on the perimeter.
Andrew Wiggins. The effects won’t be immediate, no matter who the Philadelphia 76ers draft, nor if Nerlens Noel turns out to be a Rookie of the Year candidate next season, but there will be a foundation. And with that foundation comes plenty of pieces to build with, mainly in the form of open cap space. The Sixers, because they signed 12 players to deals that will pay out less than $1 million this year, are spending less on salaries than any team in the league. Danny Granger, who was waived immediately upon being traded, is the highest-paid player at $14 million.
Thaddeus Young makes the most among active players, set to make $9.1 million next year, while Jason Richardson will have a player’s option worth $6.6 million next year. The only players signed on for next year, besides Young and Richardson, are Noel, Michael Carter-Williams, Tony Wroten and Arnett Moultrie.
Byron Mullens could sign a player option worth $1 million, while Elliott Williams and Jarvis Varnado have team options, both worth less than $1 million.
That’s $27 million in salaries for next year. Philadelphia will have a foundation consisting of a well-rounded point guard, a defensive-minded center, and possibly Andrew Wiggins, if he’s still available.
Despite facing criticism for not being aggressive enough, Wiggins still managed to average 17.1 points, 5.9 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.2 steals and one block per game in his freshman season. These numbers came on a Kansas team that’s been criticized for not properly utilizing Wiggins.
He’s remarkably athletic, possessed the athleticism to play in the NBA right out of high school, is equally effective on defense, and is nearly impossible to defend when he’s confidently shooting. He was a 35 percent three-point shooter as a freshman.
Philadelphia needs all the help it can get, on either end of the floor. They’re dead-last in offensive efficiency, garnering over three points per 100 possessions less than 29th place, and are somehow only 27th in defensive efficiency.
They are giving up more points per game than any other team. They allow nearly 110 points per game to be scored on them, and have allowed 139 points to Portland, 130 to Brooklyn, 135 to New Orleans, and 130 to Milwaukee–a team that ranks 26th in offensive efficiency.
Adding on Wiggins and Noel will provide the Sixers with at least five years to develop two of the league’s most promising talents. Add on the fact that Philadelphia will have another $40 million to spend on free agency this summer and the Sixers could end up making a run at the eight seed next year, if they sign the right veterans that can lead a young roster.
What do you think?
Follow John on Twitter at @JFriel1990.
Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.
Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.