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NBA AM: Lottery Teams Emerging From The Basement

Five teams that have been languishing in the league basement have playoff aspirations. Can they keep the pace?

Lang Greene

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One of the toughest places to emerge from in professional sports is the proverbial basement. There are franchises across the league that have spent years and even up to a decade at times languishing outside the land of relevancy. Fan bases during these periods of drought have likely endured a combination of the following: botched rebuilding plans, front office upheavals, numerous coaching changes and failed draft picks while living in the basement.

But every now and then a team is able to elevate from the deeper depths of the league and join the ranks of relevancy. To start the 2017-18 campaign there are five teams that have been mired in seemingly endless rebuilds where their respective fan bases have anticipated the next draft lottery and crop of collegiate and international prospects more than the regular season opening tip.

Whether these teams can keep up their current pace and earn their first playoff berth in years is another story altogether, but through the early going these teams are showing the potential and the upward trajectory that may ultimately lead to them playing in late April, May and eventually June.

While it’s still very early, let’s take a look at teams on pace to leave the basement this season:

Orlando Magic
2017-18 record:
6-4
2016-17 record: 29-53
Last Playoff Appearance: 2012

After a fiery start, the Orlando Magic had the best record in the league at one point right out of the gates.  While the team has dropped their last two contests, the team is showing signs of life under head coach Frank Vogel, who had similar success resurrecting the Indiana Pacers a few years back. Those Pacers teams, led by All-Star Paul George, former All-Stars Roy Hibbert and David West and a blossoming Lance Stephenson, became perennial thorns in the side of the LeBron James led Miami HEAT for a few seasons.

This year’s Magic team doesn’t possess the same type of star power that  Vogel had at his disposal with the Pacers, but the unit is a scrappy bunch that plays with a chip on their shoulders. Forward Aaron Gordon is on pace for a career season and center Nikola Vucevic has rebounded from an inconsistent campaign last season. The Magic are on pace to arrive a bit ahead of schedule this season and secure a playoff berth.

Philadelphia 76ers
2017-18 record:
6-4
2016-17 record: 28-54
Last Playoff Appearance: 2012

Are you trusting the process yet? The Philadelphia 76ers are a team with plenty of upside. But to get to this point, the franchise’s fan base had to endure years of campaigns full of losing and uncertainty surrounding their young leading talent. To start the season, the team is above .500 and look like they potentially have two franchise level players in center Joel Embiid and point guard Ben Simmons.

It’s just a matter of time before the 76ers completely emerge from the basement and become annual playoff fixtures. Whether that is this season or not remains to be seen, but the team has a capable set of veterans around their young talent and still haven’t fully benefited from No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz as the rookie is currently battling a shoulder injury.

It’s fair to mention that Embiid and Simmons have both missed full seasons in the past due the injury, however, if Philadelphia’s health holds up then trusting the process over the years would have proved to be a pretty solid investment.

New York Knicks
2017-18 record:
6-4
2016-17 record: 31-51
Last Playoff Appearance: 2013

It’s definitely too early to start singing any rendition of Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” but we can spread a little news about this year’s team.

Third-year big man Kristaps Porzingis has moved himself into the All-Star discussion after a blistering start where he’s averaging 30 points per game to begin the season. It’s not often that the departure of a future Hall-of-Famer would help a player develop quicker, but in the case of Porzingis, removing the security blanket of Carmelo Anthony has thrust him into a larger leadership role – and he has thrived without missing a beat.

Offseason free-agent signing Tim Hardaway Jr. has been a solid addition to the team’s backcourt despite some initial reservations about the size of his new contract. Keep in mind, it is still very early in the season and the Knicks have been largely dependent on Porzingis each night to keep them in games, so any type of slippage or injury to the big man would derail a lot of their progress. But for now, Knicks fans finally have a reason to smile when thinking about their future.

Minnesota Timberwolves
2017-18 record:
7-3
2016-17 record: 31-51
Last Playoff Appearance: 2004

Heading into last season, many pegged the Timberwolves to be a sleeper team in the Western Conference due to the highest expectations on Karl Anthony-Towns and Andrew Wiggins being paired with head coach Tom Thibodeau, who found plenty of success during his years at the helm of the Chicago Bulls.

Those expectations proved to be too lofty as Minnesota sputtered to a 31-51 record, disappointing many in the process. The team was very aggressive during this past offseason. Minnesota acquired All-Star guard Jimmy Butler via trade, and signed veterans Jeff Teague, Taj Gibson and Jamal Crawford in free agency.

The new additions around Anthony-Towns and Wiggins have been a blessing as the squad has raced out to a 7-3 record to begin the campaign. Minnesota hasn’t appeared in the playoffs since 2004, a streak that could be coming to an end shortly.

New Orleans Pelicans
2017-18 record:
6-5
2016-17 record: 34-48
Last Playoff Appearance: 2015, only one appearance since 2012

The Pelicans appeared to be on the verge of relevancy in 2015 when All-Star forward Anthony Davis led the team to a playoff berth and a spirited outing versus the eventual champion Golden State Warriors.

That seems like ages ago.

The past two seasons have been a struggle as Davis and the rest of his teammates have battled a combination of devastating injuries and off the court life events. Last season, the club acquired All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins and, while the chemistry and cohesion between him and Davis was slow to take shape, we’re beginning to see how dominant the pair can be when clicking on all cylinders.

Yes, the Pelicans have questions in their back court and are probably sitting on a few bloated contracts they would like to move on from in order to get more high-end talent into their program, but no one can deny that the team led by Cousins and Davis are on the right track to get back into the land of the relevancy.

The NBA season is a marathon, not a sprint, and typically has a way of identifying the real versus pretenders. The Denver Nuggets is another franchise to keep an eye on as they look to emerge from their respective rebuild. We’ll check back in on this list near the All-Star break.

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The Case for Upperclassmen in the NBA Draft

College upperclassmen are becoming increasingly viable options in the NBA Draft, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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Each year when the NBA draft comes around, there seems to be an aversion to taking upperclassman with a top selection. More specifically, it’s college seniors who often find themselves getting drafted in the second-round if at all.

It can be understandable. NBA teams are clearly looking for a home run pick with a lottery selection. They’re looking for a player who they can build a foundation around for years to come. College seniors often project as solid role players to strengthen a team once that foundational superstar is already in place.

However, recent years have seen the entire first round dominated almost entirely by freshmen and sophomores. In 2017, a college senior wasn’t drafted until the San Antonio Spurs took Derrick White with the 29th pick. The Los Angeles Lakers followed that up with Josh Hart. Hart ended up having a better rookie season than a few of the underclassmen taken ahead of him.

A few other upperclassmen, Frank Mason III, a senior, and Dillon Brooks, a junior, both had better rookie seasons than many of the freshmen taking before them as well. Junior Semi Ojeleye is playing a major role for the Boston Celtics who are in the Eastern Conference Finals.

In 2016, Malcolm Brogdon, another college senior, was taken in the second-round with the 36th pick by the Milwaukee Bucks. He went on to win the Rookie of the Year award and was a starter for a playoff team.

Senior Tyrone Wallace was taken with the last pick in the draft at No. 60 that year. When a rash of injuries hit the Los Angeles Clippers this season, Wallace stepped in right away as a starter at times and helped keep the team afloat in the playoff picture.

There were a few college seniors that went undrafted in 2016, players such as Fred VanVleet Yogi Ferrell that have had better NBA careers to this point that a lot of the underclassmen taken ahead of them.

This isn’t to say that NBA teams should completely abandon taking young, underdeveloped players in the first-round. The Spurs took Dejounte Murray, a freshman point guard, over Brogdon, Wallace, VanVleet and Ferrell. That’s worked out well for them. It’s more a testament to having a good front office and scouting team than anything else.

But maybe NBA teams should start expanding their horizons when it comes to the draft. There appears to be a stigma of sorts when it comes to upperclassmen, particularly college seniors. If a guy can play, he can play. Of course, college production is often not the best means of judging NBA success, but it does count for something.

With the 2018 NBA draft about one month away, there are a few interesting names to look at when it comes to college seniors. Players such as Devonte’ Graham from Kansas, Theo Pinson from North Carolina, Chandler Hutchinson from Boise State, Jevon Carter from West Virginia and Bonzie Colson from Notre Dame are all guys that should be on NBA team’s radars.

Sure, none of those guys are going to turn into a superstar or even an All-Star. But you’re probably going to get a player that becomes a solid contributor for years to come.

Again, it’s understandable when teams take projects in the lottery. After a long season of losing, and in some cases years of losing, ownership and the fanbase are hungry for results. They don’t want a top pick to be used on a player that projects as only a solid contributor.

But after the lottery, the rest of the draft gets a little murky. A good front office will find an NBA caliber player whether he’s a freshman or a senior. The NBA Draft isn’t an exact science. Nothing is ever for sure and no player is guaranteed to become the player they’re projected to be.

College upperclassmen tend to be more physically developed and mentally mature for the NBA game. If what you’re looking for is someone who will step right in and produce for a winning team, then instead of wasting a pick on the unknown, it might be better to go with the sure thing.

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NBA Daily: Are the Houston Rockets in Trouble?

Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals may have been the perfect storm for Houston, writes Shane Rhodes.

Shane Rhodes

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The Houston Rockets took a gut punch from the Golden State Warriors, but they responded in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals.

After they dropped the first game of the series, Houston evened things up at one apiece Wednesday night with a 127-105 blowout win over Golden State. With the Warriors struggling on the offensive end and Houston rebounding from a less than stellar Game 1, the Rockets rolled through the game with relative ease.

But was their improved demonstration a fluke? While fans may not want to hear it, Game 2 may have been the perfect storm for Houston.

The Rockets’ gameplan didn’t change much from Game 1 to 2. They attacked Steph Curry relentlessly on the offensive end, James Harden and Chris Paul took plenty of shots in isolation and their role players got shots to drop that just weren’t going down in Game 1. Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza and P.J. Tucker exploded for 68 points while shooting 66.7 percent from three after scoring just 24 the previous game. The trio averaged only 35.8 points collectively during the regular season.

Meanwhile, Golden State couldn’t buy a bucket; starting Warriors not named Kevin Durant scored just 35 points. Curry shot just 1-8 from downtown while Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguadola combined for just 19 points while shooting 35 percent from the floor. All of that will undoubtedly change.

So, going back to Oakland for Game 3, where do the Rockets find themselves? Not in a great place, unfortunately.

Golden State did their job: they stole a game — and home-court advantage — from the Rockets at the Toyota Center. Now, as the series shifts back to Oracle Arena and, assuming the Warriors return to form in front of their home crowd, Houston will have their work more than cut out for them. If Curry, Thompson and Durant all have their shot falling, there isn’t much the Rockets can do to keep up

The Warriors, aside from Curry, played great team defense in Game 2, something that will likely continue into Game 3. The Rockets hit plenty of tough, contested shots — shots that won’t drop as they move away from the energy of the home crowd and shots that Golden State would gladly have Houston take again and again and again. Harden and Paul didn’t exactly bring their A-game in Game 2 either — the two combined for a solid 43 points but took an inefficient 38 shots to get there. If the two of them play like that at Oracle, the Warriors will abuse them in transition, something that can’t happen if the Rockets want to steal back the home-court advantage.

The aforementioned trio of Gordon, Ariza and Tucker are unlikely to replicate their Game 2 performance as well, and relying on them to do so would be foolish on the part of Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni. Devising a game plan that will keep the offense moving while not leaning heavily on the role players will be of the utmost importance — if the offense returns to the bogged down effort that Houston gave in Game 1, the Rockets stand no chance.

Meanwhile, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr will likely adjust his defense in an effort to limit the Rockets effectiveness in the isolation while also trying to find somewhere to hide Curry on the defensive end. It almost certainly won’t be the same sets that Houston throttled in Game 2 which will take another toll on the Rockets offense, especially if they fail to execute.

Not everything looks bad for Houston, however. Faced with a do-or-die scenario, Harden, Paul and co. were the more aggressive team from the jump. Pushing the pace flustered the Warriors and forced some pretty bad turnovers consistently throughout the night. If they come out with the same kind of energy and pace, the Rockets could have Golden State on their heels as they did in Game 2.

Budding star Clint Capela also has plenty of room to improve his game, as he has averaged just 8.5 points and eight rebounds through the first two games of the series — the Rockets need him to play his best basketball of the season if they want a chance to win.

Still, the Warriors are virtually unbeatable at home. The team has lost three games this postseason, just four times over their last two playoff trips and not once at Oracle, making the Rockets’ task even more daunting than it already was. Like Game 2, Game 3 should be played as a do-or-die situation for the Rockets because, if they don’t come out with the same aggressive, up-tempo energy, things could be over quickly.

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NBA Daily: Hope Not Lost for Mavs

The Dallas Mavericks were the lottery’s biggest losers, but VP of basketball operations Michael Finley still believes the team will land an elite talent.

Joel Brigham

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Dallas Mavericks vice president of basketball operations Michael Finley knows what it’s like to be on the other side of the draft process. In 2018, he’s an executive for the third-worst team in the league that somehow slipped to the fifth overall pick in Tuesday night’s NBA Draft Lottery, but in 1995 he was a kid from the University of Wisconsin hoping to get drafted.

Finley was a first-round pick that summer, ironically selected by the Phoenix Suns, who won the first overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft earlier this week, but he says he doesn’t even remember the lottery. The lottery wasn’t the event then that it has since become.

“The lottery wasn’t this big when I was in the draft,” Finley told Basketball Insiders. “I don’t even remember how the lottery process played out when I was coming out of college. It’s grown so much, but the league has grown. It’s good for fans, and it’s good for people to get excited about this process.”

Of course, the irony in getting excited about a draft pick isn’t lost on him.

“It’s kind of weird that [fans] are celebrating the losing process, isn’t it?”

Not surprisingly, Finley wasn’t especially thrilled to see his team fail to reap the rewards of a Dallas Mavericks season that was stepped in that losing process. The lottery odds will change next year, and Finley believes that’s a good thing.

“It’s a good thing to change the system a little,” he says. “It will help keep the integrity of the game intact, especially toward the end of the year. It also will be even more suspenseful than these lottery events have been in the past.”

That’s next year, though. This year, the Mavericks are tasked with finding an elite player at a pick lower than they expected. Finley’s trying to look at things optimistically.

“It could have been sixth,” he said. “It’s still in the top five, and going on what we did this season, we don’t want to be in this position next year, so hopefully the guy we pick at #5 will get us out of the lottery and back into the playoffs.”

In fact, having that selection doesn’t preclude the team from finding a star, especially in a draft this loaded. Most agree that Luka Doncic and DeAndre Ayton are the prizes of the draft, but there are other guys available with All-Star potential. Marvin Bagley, Trae Young, Michael Porter, Jr., and Mo Bamba all have incredibly high ceilings. The Mavs may yet do something meaningful with that selection.

“It’s a strong draft, and a lot of the draft is going to go with what player fits what team in a particular system. If you’re lucky enough to get that perfect combination, the players that are in this draft are really good and have the capability of helping a team right away.”

That’s what Finley and the rest of the Mavericks’ organization hopes will happen in 2018-2019.

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