The beginning of the playoff season means the beginning of fishing, baseball or whatever summer activity you enjoy. But the NBA season has turned into a 11-month event (August is usually uneventful) in which teams need to be aware of what mistakes they made in the past, what assets they currently have on their roster, and most importantly for the teams I’m going to look at, what they can do to better prepare themselves for the future.
Much has been made of the futility of the Eastern Conference; only two teams have a realistic shot at making the finals (Cleveland and Atlanta), and the path for the two teams to meet up in the Eastern Conference Finals seems almost too easy. But that doesn’t mean that other teams in the conference don’t have something to look forward to in the near future.
Using a team’s young assets, salary cap future, future picks and whatever other criteria I deem necessary, I’m going to rank the future of each team in the Eastern Conference in descending order – the team with the worst outlook will be listed first – leaving out the five with winning records. (Atlanta, Cleveland, Chicago, Toronto and Washington)
#10 Brooklyn Nets
The most damning piece of evidence about the Nets’ future is they still owe Deron Williams $41 million this year and next, and that’s only if he exercises his early termination option in 2016-2017. (leaving $22.3 million on that table for that year) Joe Johnson is a fine player, but paying him $48 million over the next two seasons for his 52 percent true shooting percentage seems excessive. Paying a backup point guard $6.3 million per season isn’t necessarily a bad idea, unless that player is Jarrett Jack.
Despite a record that should give them a pick in the 10-15 range, the Hawks have the right to swap picks with the Nets due to the aforementioned Johnson. They also don’t have a 2016 or 2018 first-round pick because the organization sold out to compete for one year by trading for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, and the Celtics hold the rights to swap with the Nets in 2017 due to the same trade.
#9 New York Knicks
Almost every team in the league has a young player to be excited about. Every team except New York. Langston Galloway, Tim Hardaway Jr., Shane Larkin and Cleanthony Early all have decent potential, but none of those players make the Knicks’ faithful want to renew their season tickets. Carmelo Anthony is obviously the team’s best player, but he’ll be 31 all of next year, relies on a mid-range game that’s becoming more and more outdated and he’s not exactly a defensive savant. But don’t worry Knicks fans, it gets worse.
The Knicks owe their second-round pick to the Rockets this and next year (but get second-rounders back from Houston in 2017 and 2019! Woo!) and lose their first-round pick in 2016 to either the Raptors or Nuggets. In other words, the Knicks have one draft pick in the next two years to try to improve their team, barring trades.
The good news for the Knicks is the 2015 first-rounder may be No. 1 overall and they only have $32 million committed for next year, which means potentially enough money for two big free agents.
#8 Charlotte Hornets
Charlotte isn’t nearly in the hole that New York and Brooklyn are, but they don’t have much to look forward to. They had one of the worst offseasons last summer, Al Jefferson has a player option for almost $14 million next year and they owe Kemba Walker $48 million over the next 4 years. (Kemba has taken 16 shots per game over the last two seasons despite shooting just 39 percent from the field.)
The problem for the Hornets is there’s no player that has an upside people can get really excited for. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is a phenomenal defender, but his only real skill on the offensive end is rebounding. Cody Zeller is finally looking like he could be a rotation player, but his 46 percent shooting leaves a lot to be desired. Noah Vonleh has only appeared in 19 games, and the team is relying on Mo Williams to generate a large percentage of their offense.
The Hornets have almost $66 million committed next season, although that could decrease if Jefferson and Henderson decline their player options. The only player with guaranteed money in 2016-2017 is Walker, although Zeller, Vonleh and P.J. Hairston will have team options on their rookie contracts.
The Hornets own all of their picks for the foreseeable future except for a 2016 second-round pick that’s top 55 protected.
#7 Miami Heat
The Heat have a relatively good outlook for next year if Goran Dragic re-signs, but Dwyane Wade will be 34 for most of next year, Chris Bosh will be on the wrong side of 30 and will be owed $100 million after this season, and the average age of relevant players on the team is increasing drastically. (unless you believe in Shabazz Napier)
Pat Riley has said that he’s not a fan of building through the draft – which is interesting considering much of their run is based on Wade, a player they drafted – but they own most of their future picks. They owe the Celtics a lottery protected first-round pick this year, but if it’s not conveyed, it becomes two second-round picks in the next two years.
The Heat also have one of the biggest surprises of the season in Hassan Whiteside. Whiteside is averaging 11 points and 10 rebounds in only 23 minutes per game and is signed to a team-friendly deal worth less than $1 million for next season.
#6 Indiana Pacers
The Pacers are a middling team that isn’t good enough to win a title as currently constructed, but too good to hope for a top pick to significantly improve their team. If Roy Hibbert and David West opt in to their contracts, the Pacers will be on the hook for $63.5 million next year, but only Paul George and Hibbert contribute significantly to one (or both) side of the floor.
Despite their lack of promising young players outside of George, the Pacers hold all of their draft picks for the future. The draft pick this year will be somewhere in the mid-teens in a relatively deep draft for big men.
#5 Orlando Magic
While the Magic’s rebuild has some strong pieces to build around, there are a few problem spots. I don’t need to harp on the lack of shooting in the Magic backcourt because Zach Lowe did that for me, and if you’re reading me and not Lowe, you’re doing something wrong.
Victor Oladipo, Aaron Gordon, Nikola Vucevic, Elfrid Payton and a top 10 draft pick this year are enough to build a team around, but signing Channing Frye and Ben Gordon to multi-year contracts (Gordon’s contract is non-guaranteed next year) were interesting decisions when that money could have been best served somewhere else. Frye was a good player last year for the Suns, but he hasn’t played in the last two Magic games and isn’t living up to his four-year, $32 million contract.
The Magic own all of their important picks in the future, but they also have a top five protected Lakers pick in 2017.
All contract and draft pick information comes from Basketball-Reference.com and BasketballInsiders.com unless otherwise noted.