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Cheap Seats: Wait ‘Til Next Year

In this Cheap Seats, Basketball Insiders’ interns discuss the NBA teams that are poised to make a significant jump next season.

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Every season, we welcome in a new group of interns and typically their work is done primarily behind the scenes. But now that the current group has been around for awhile, we’re giving them a platform to voice their thoughts on the NBA. Each week, Basketball Insiders’ interns Jesse Blancarte, Cody Taylor and John Zitzler will discuss a topic related to the league in Cheap Seats.

This week, the interns discuss the teams that are poised to make a significant jump next season.

Chicago Bulls

The Chicago Bulls are currently 40-32 and ranked fourth in the Eastern Conference. Since losing to the Miami HEAT in late February, the Bulls have gone 11-6 by playing solid basketball. But the Bulls were supposed to be better than solid this season. Entering this season, the Bulls were expected to compete with the Indiana Pacers and the HEAT for the best record in the East. This expectation was based on the long-awaited return of superstar point guard Derrick Rose, after he tore his ACL in the first round of the 2011-12 playoffs.

On October 5, 2013, Rose returned to action. Unfortunately, he played only 11 games before tearing his meniscus in his right knee on November 22. After undergoing surgery, the Bulls announced that Rose would miss the rest of the season. Fortunately for Bulls fans, the season ending injury caused a shift in priority for the front office, and has set the team on a path that could land them back to the top of the East next season.

On January 7, the Bulls traded long-time Bull Luol Deng for Andrew Bynum and the right to waive his partially guaranteed contract. This saved the Bulls roughly $20 million, and netted the Cleveland Cavaliers’ first-round draft pick acquired from the Sacramento Kings in 2011. In addition, the Bulls received the right to swap 2015 first-round picks with the Cavaliers, so long as it is not a lottery pick, and the Portland Trail Blazers’ 2015 and 2016 second-round picks, which Cleveland acquired in 2013.

This is the sort of move that savvy general managers like Sam Presti and Sam Hinkie are making. These general managers are trading solid veterans, and even All-Star players, like James Harden, for future draft picks, cap flexibility and young pieces to develop. For the Bulls, trading Deng strategically places them in a position to make a free agent splash this upcoming offseason.

The Bulls still need to make a few roster moves before this plan can be executed. First, they will have to amnesty power forward Carlos Boozer, who is owed $16,800,000 next season. Boozer is a talented power forward, but has not lived up to expectations in Chicago. His salary is steep, and with Taj Gibson backing him up, Boozer is expendable.

With Boozer’s contract off the books, the Bulls will almost have enough cap space to make a max free agent offer. However, at least one more move will be needed, most likely a trade of Mike Dunleavy, with no significant guaranteed salary coming back. Even then, any max-caliber free agent would have to take less money than they could make with their current team, but that has happened before, such as with the Big Three in Miami and Dwight Howard leaving the Los Angeles Lakers last year.

The next, and obvious, step is the most uncertain. Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh can all become free agents this offseason. Wade has always dealt with injuries due to his aggressive style of play, but now age has him missing regular season games to rest and stay fresh for the playoffs. Bosh is a talented big man, but has surrendered his own stats to be a glue-guy for the HEAT, and it is unclear whether he is worth max money anymore. Also, with Gibson primed to take the power forward position, it does not make sense to pursue Bosh. This leaves Anthony and James as the prime targets.

James is less likely to make a change in scenery this offseason as he has gone to the NBA Finals in each of his three years with the HEAT, and has won back-to-back titles. Though Wade is rapidly aging and Bosh plays on the perimeter more than ever, the Big Three in Miami are still a dominant trio. Also, teams like the HEAT benefit each year by acquiring talented veterans looking to take a smaller role, for less money, to join a team that can win a title. That benefit will remain in Miami so long as the Big Three all stay put this offseason. Also, there’s no guarantee that James, Wade and Bosh will become free agents this summer – they could decide to put off their free agency until the summer of 2015.

Anthony is another story. The New York Knicks have been in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons this season. They have failed to meet expectations, have had internal discord with head coach Mike Woodson on the hot seat all season, though they recently hired Phil Jackson as team president to oversee all basketball operations. Additionally, numerous rumors suggest that Anthony looks favorably at the situation in Chicago, and Joakim Noah reportedly made a recruiting pitch to Anthony during All-Star Weekend. Considering all of these factors, it is impossible to say for certain what ‘Melo will do this offseason. If the Knicks make the playoffs and perform well, it could positively change his thoughts on committing to New York long-term. He also admitted that having Jackson in New York would impact his decision.

However, if Anthony does leave the Knicks, the Bulls should be at the top of his list as a potential destination. Without Rose and Deng, the Bulls still tout the league’s second best defense, allowing only 97.7 points per 100 possessions, second only to the Pacers. They also hold opponents to just 55.3 percent shooting within five feet of the rim, which is fourth best in the league. This is not surprising considering Noah anchors the defense, and Tom Thibodeau is the best defensive-minded coach in the league.

In addition, getting Rose back and adding a player like Anthony would go a long way towards fixing the Bulls’ anemic offense, which is ranked second to last in the league at 98.8 points scored per 100 possessions. Rose is a matchup nightmare, and will have all summer to work on his timing, explosiveness and health. Russell Westbrook recently returned from the same surgery, and has shown he still has his elite athleticism (though he is on a time restriction and doesn’t play in back-to-back games). Anthony is an offensive system by himself, and can score as easily as anyone not named Kevin Durant.

Add these two elite players to the mix with Noah’s recent dominant play, and the Bulls may feature the best Big Three in the league next season. If the unlikely scenario occurs where James is the one who joins the Bulls, then they will be in a class of their own.

Beyond this potential trio, the Bulls have talented players to round out the roster. Jimmy Butler is a versatile and improving wing player who can play shooting guard or small forward. Gibson is an underrated, athletic power forward with a solid face up game. Tony Snell is a solid wing-defender who has a lot of upside and room for development. The Bulls would also do well to retain D.J. Augustin, if he doesn’t cost too much, to act as Rose insurance. Then factor in that the Bulls will have two first-round draft picks high enough to select players like Zach Lavine, Tyler Ennis, Adreian Payne or Kyle Anderson, among others, who could be developed until they are needed to fill a role like Reggie Jackson, Jeremy Lamb and Steven Adams were for the Thunder.

Don’t forget that any holes in the roster can likely be filled later in the season when buyouts start happening, as the Los Angeles Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder were able to do this year. A roster featuring Rose, Anthony and Noah will draw the attention of veteran players looking to make a push for a title late in their career. Even without Rose and Anthony, Jimmer Fredette opted to go to the Bulls this season after he was bought out by the Kings.

Though there are uncertainties, the Bulls have positioned themselves to be significantly better next year. They’ll need to retain Thibodeau, Rose needs to come back healthy and Anthony or another elite free agent needs to sign on to add scoring. Jackson signing on in New York is certainly a curve ball that puts this scenario into doubt, but at age 29, Anthony needs to recognize that Chicago is his best opportunity to win a championship. If he does, the Bulls will catapult to the top of the East and may be the favorite to win it all.

– Jesse Blancarte

Orlando Magic

It has been nearly two full seasons since the Orlando Magic traded away Dwight Howard and started their “rebuild.” While the Magic have endured some of their worst couple of seasons since parting ways with Howard, those that are around the team firmly believe that Orlando will be back in the thick of the playoff race in the next year or two.

When the Magic hired Rob Hennigan as their new general manager, the team’s goal was to acquire assets, cut unwanted expenses and build through the draft. In Hennigan’s short time with the team, the Magic have been able to do exactly that.

The trade that sent Howard to the L.A. Lakers returned the Magic several of the team’s current core players and a total of five draft picks. Among the players the Magic acquired were Arron Afflalo, Maurice Harkless and Nikola Vucevic.

After getting traded to the Magic, Afflalo posted a career-high 16.5 points per game last season and has improved that number to 19.1 points per game this season. In addition to improving his scoring output, Afflalo is also averaging a career-high 3.8 rebounds per game and 3.5 assists per game. Afflalo was also invited to the three-point competition this season after shooting 44 percent from beyond the arc.

The Magic hope Afflalo can eventually lead the team to postseason success, but they won’t hesitate to move him if they get real value in return. While the Magic have a lot of young core guys on the team – players like Harkless, Vucevic, Tobias Harris, Victor Oladipo, Kyle O’Quinn and Andrew Nicholson – they aren’t committed to any one player if they get better value in return.

Even though the Magic are listening to trade offers and exploring ways to bring in more assets, the Magic aren’t too far off with their current crop of players. At just 20 years old, Harkless is the youngest player on the team and in the second season of his career. Harkless has the physical tools to be a premier defender in the league and has already shown the ability to fill up a highlight-reel on any given night. Since the Magic waived Glen Davis on Feb. 20, Harkless’ minutes have increased by 10 minutes to 31 minutes per game. In that time frame, Harkless has raised his points per game by three and three-point percentage from 37.5 percent to 41.2 percent.

Another key player the Magic acquired in the Howard trade was Vucevic. In his third season, the seven-footer is averaging 14.2 points and 11.1 rebounds per game, good for eighth-best in the league. Vucevic is still developing his skills as a big man, but the changes are sure to improve his game even more. This season, Vucevic has become more experienced down in the post, where the Magic want him to utilize his seven-foot frame.

Oladipo was drafted last season with the idea of converting him to a point guard. The result has been a work in progress as Oladipo is averaging 3.2 turnovers per game, which is 11th-worst in the league. Once the game begins to slow down for Oladipo, the Magic’s offense will really begin to flourish. Many have the Rookie of the Year race down to Oladipo and Philadelphia 76ers point guard Michael Carter-Williams, and it seems the Magic will have an electric player in Oladipo for years to come.

One Magic player in particular has made tremendous strides during the course of this season: Kyle O’Quinn. Since the departure of Davis from the team, O’Quinn has raised his scoring output from 4.4 points per game to 8.9. O’Quinn’s strong play has earned the trust from Magic head coach Jacque Vaughn as O’Quinn has started 10 straight games, dating back to March 8 against the San Antonio Spurs. In those 10 games, O’Quinn has averaged nine points, 6.9 rebounds and 1.8 blocks on 51.3 percent shooting from the field. O’Quinn is someone the Magic can afford to like as he will be making $915,243 next season on a non-guaranteed contract.

One of the five draft picks the Magic acquired in the Howard deal was a first-round pick from either the Denver Nuggets or the New York Knicks, whichever of the two is the lower pick. That pick is important because both teams are currently destined to miss the playoffs, so the Magic would be working with that lottery pick, plus their own draft pick.

Given the Magic’s stance that they are interested in getting the best value for any move that they make, the team will be selecting players in this year’s draft based off of best talent available, and not by team need.

The team has been projected by many draft analysts to take a player like Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Dante Exum, Julius Randle, Joel Embiid or Marcus Smart. In Steve Kyler’s latest mock draft, he has the Magic taking Exum with the third pick and Willie Cauley-Stein with the 12th pick, which would be conveyed from the Knicks.

Magic fans would likely be happy with any of those players, but someone like Exum would certainly make for an interesting backcourt combination when paired up with Oladipo. Exum is on record as saying he would like to play for the Lakers given his connection to Kobe Bryant (they share the same agent) or for the Magic after meeting Oladipo while visiting Indiana when he was contemplating college. At 6’6, Exum could give the Magic height they haven’t seen at the point guard position since Penny Hardaway was on the team.

The Magic will certainly be a team on the radar next season and for years to come given their young core of players and draft picks to come in the upcoming seasons. Even though bad times are currently plaguing the team and the city, the upcoming years should far outweigh a couple of years of suffering for the team and their fans.

– Cody Taylor

Milwaukee Bucks

The Milwaukee Bucks currently have the worst record in the league, somehow still outpacing the Philadelphia Sixers for the most ping pong balls. You would think things went exactly according to plan since the team is poised to be in great position come draft day. However, that is not the case, as owner Herb Kohl has always made it a priority to push for the playoffs even when the Bucks’ chances of making a deep playoff run may be slim. Last offseason, the Bucks went out and made some moves hoping to improve enough to make a hard push for a playoff berth. Most notably the team signed guard O.J. Mayo to a three-year, $24 million deal, Gary Neal to a two-year, $6.5 million deal and acquired Caron Butler. The Bucks decided it would best to move on from the Brandon Jennings era, shipping him off to Detroit in exchange for Brandon Knight, Khris Middleton and Viacheslev Kratsov. Their biggest move was giving a $44 million dollar extension to Larry Sanders after he proved he can be one of the top interior defenders in the league. The team entered the season with playoff aspirations.

But the season went off course pretty quickly. Sanders was involved in a bar fight that led to him being sidelined with a broken thumb. It certainly wasn’t what the team wanted to see from a player who they just endorsed with hefty pay day. The injury sidelined Sanders for a good chunk of the first half of the season, leaving a gaping hole in the Bucks’ defense. Mayo and Neal were brought in to provide scoring, but were both inconsistent to say the least. Not only was Neal struggling on the court, his attitude became an issue in the locker room. Similarly, Butler was never able to really find his stride with the team. The Bucks got off to a very poor start (3-15 in November) and continued right about that putrid pace all season.

Right before the trade deadline the Bucks were able to rid themselves of some of the veterans brought in to help the team be more competitive, a sign that Kohl had maybe, just maybe, seen the light and bought into the tanking approach. Neal and Luke Ridnour were traded to the Bobcats for Ramon Sessions and Jeff Adrien, and Butler was released and later picked up by the Oklahoma City Thunder.

On the bright side for Bucks fans, this season did feature the emergence of rookie Giannis Antetokoumpo. The first-round pick has been the one glimmer of hope in the middle of a sea of dread. Some may look at his stats or the Bucks record and dismiss the young Greek as overhyped, but if you have ever seen him play you know that he possesses a very unique skill set for a player of his size. The development of Antetokounmpo should be priority number one for the team. With the proper tutelage and many hours spent in the weight room, Antetokounmpo could prove to be a major a contributor in the not so distant future.

Looking forward until next year, it is clear Antetokounmpo will be one of the most important pieces on the roster but whom else? Sanders will almost certainly still part of the club, along with veteran forward Ersan Ilyasova. Also under contract in the frontcourt is Zaza Pachulia, John Henson and Miroslav Raduljica, with Ekpe Udoh set to become a restricted free agent if the team extends a qualifying offer. Also Carlos Delfino will be returning after sitting out this with a knee injury so the team will have to factor him into the equation as well. With the front court being as crowded as it is, it would only make sense for the team for part ways with the reserve forward Udoh. The backcourt players who will still be under contract are Knight, surprising rookie Nate Wolters and the underwhelming Mayo. Knight showed that he can have games where he scores over 30 points, but at times he struggles mightily creating for others and there are still question marks as to whether he can be starting point guard or if he may be best suited playing off the ball. One can only hope Mayo will improve from his lackluster performance this year and start to play up to his salary. There is no doubt he can shoot the ball, but he needs to be much more engaged.

This June, the Bucks will have the opportunity to really improve their roster via the draft. They will almost certainly pick within the top five and will have a legitimate shot at landing the number one pick. Bucks general manager John Hammond has been rumored to favor Joel Embiid should the Bucks land the coveted number one pick. If that was the pick, it would certainly raise some questions about the future of Sanders and/or Henson with the team. If the Bucks are unable to choose Embiid, it will be interesting to see what direction they go. They could target Andrew Wiggins and pair him with Antetkounmpo on the wing, which instantly makes the team better defensively and that combination could be a nightmare for opponents in transition. Jabari Parker’s name will be in play, and he could provide that alpha dog scorer that would surely improve the team offensively. Julius Randle is another guy who looks like he will be able to score in the league from day one with his quickness and strength inside the paint. One of the more intriguing prospects is Dante Exum, the 6’6 guard out of Australia might just be the best of the bunch. Exum is long and quick with a nice handle and, with his size, has the ability to play either guard spot. It will be exciting to see what direction the team decides to go as one of these players along with Antetokounmpo could change the franchise for years to come.

Even with a top draft pick and continued development from Antetokounmpo, Bucks fans may have to be patient. Doing a rebuild right doesn’t usually happen overnight. If the team can remain healthy, they will have some very talented and very entertaining players. Seeing how much Antetokounmpo can develop in his first offseason as pro will definitely be something to look out for. This team may not be a playoff contender next year, but they may surprise some teams. If Sanders can return to the form that had him in the Defensive Player of the Year conversation in 2012-13, Ilyasova can regain his once lethal shooting touch, the young players continue to grow with Antetokounmpo and another top draft pick joins the club, don’t be totally shocked if the Bucks make a big jump in the standings from this year to next.

– John Zitzler

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