The bottom of the Western Conference isn’t an abomination like the Eastern Conference, but there are still teams with very bleak outlooks as well as teams that made some interesting decisions this season. This list won’t include the Thunder, as it would be too difficult to write through the tears (and their future seems like it will work out with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka), and it won’t include the Pelicans – despite the fact that they would rank lower on this list than their fans would like to admit – but it’ll include the rest of the non-playoff teams in the conference. I’ll break down the future of every team, starting with the unfortunate.
#6 Los Angeles Lakers
While Kobe is on his mission to be on every talk show known to man, his Lakers have had the worst two seasons in franchise history, and the outlook isn’t too bright for next season. One of their better assets will likely walk at the end of the season (Ed Davis), they’re paying a player who’s possibly the worst 2-point shooter in the league for the next three years (and encouraging him to shoot) and although I liked the signing in the offseason, Jordan Hill was not-so-secretly terrible this past season and is on the hook for $9 million next season.
The Lakers made news during the trade deadline, but not for the right reasons. The top five protected lottery pick they traded to the Suns for Steve Nash in the summer of 2012 has returned to possibly haunt Lakers’ fans dreams, as it was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers. The Lakers finished with the fourth-worst record in the league, meaning there’s a very strong possibility they’ll keep their draft pick.
However, the pick is only top three protected in 2016, meaning the Lakers would have to somehow be worse than they were this year in order to keep their draft pick. The Lakers also owe the Magic a first-round pick two years after the 76ers acquire their draft pick from the Dwight Howard trade, placing even more importance on this year’s draft.
The Lakers possibly have another problem, and he’s the one controlling the clipboard. Under Byron Scott, the Lakers played at a slower pace, didn’t improve the defensive rating and the offensive rating regressed by almost a full point. The Lakers averaged the most mid-range attempts per game, rejecting the notion of simple math. He has also made comments disparaging the players on his current team, although this may not matter as the Lakers won’t ever be good with the current roster.
There’s good news for the Lakers. Assuming they don’t lose their draft pick, they’ll get Julius Randle and another top five pick in the draft next season, they may have found a diamond in the rough in Jordan Clarkson and they’re only currently on the hook for $9 million in 2016-2017 when the cap is expected to explode. They also acquired Houston’s draft pick this season just for taking Jeremy Lin away from the Rockets.
#5 Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets have something to look forward to, but the teams’ futures above them on this list are just a bit brighter. The Nuggets made a great move in last year’s draft by moving down and acquiring Gary Harris and Jusuf Nurkic while the Bulls acquired Doug McDermott. The problem for the Nuggets is the rest of the roster. Kenneth Faried and Ty Lawson are two of the three highest paid players on the team, and while they’re positive contributors, they’re in the stage of their careers where they won’t improve a significant amount and we saw what a team spearheaded by these two produced this season. Denver will still owe these two players a combined $25 million in the summer of 2016, although the deals may look like bargains at that point. Danilo Gallinari is the third-highest paid player, but he has had his troubles staying healthy over the past two seasons.
The Nuggets had a similar problem to the Lakers on their bench, but they parted ways after 59 games. Denver should try to hire a coach that meshes better with its stars and doesn’t have to read books such as The Millennials: Connecting to America’s Largest Generation. (The Kindle version is only $9.59 on Amazon, if you’re interested.)
The Nuggets have quietly become one of the teams with the most significant draft picks in the coming years. They’re owed a first-round pick from Cleveland (1-5 and 15-30 protected in 2016, 1-5 protected in 2017), a draft pick swap from the Knicks and a first-round pick from Portland (top 14 protected) in 2016 with no first-round picks going out. The Nuggets have many chances to improve their roster between now and the 2017 draft.
#4 Sacramento Kings
The Kings aren’t in the best cap situation next season due to owing Rudy Gay, Carl Landry, Jason Thompson and Darren Collison more than $30 million, but they have other things to look forward to. Ben McLemore started off shooting close to 40 percent from the three-point line, and although he regressed to just under 36 percent, you can see glimpses of the Ray Allen comparisons that were made on draft night. He also improved his true shooting percentage from a putrid 48.5 percent to a better than average 55.2 percent. While he doesn’t do much else on the floor, the Kings can control his salary cap situation for at least the next two seasons and there’s plenty of room for improvement.
After McLemore, the youngest Kings to receive significant minutes were Nik Stauskas, Ray McCallum and Derrick Williams. None of these players have performed well enough to be looked at as potential building blocks of the future.
The Kings are flirting with disaster with potentially losing their draft pick in 2016 to the Bulls. The Kings will lose their pick to the Bulls if it falls outside the top 10 in 2016 or 2017 – something that’s very possible with the growth of DeMarcus Cousins, McLemore and whatever player they select this season – but it’s a pick they’ll undoubtedly need with the strength of the Western Conference. If the pick isn’t conveyed by the 2017 season, the Bulls will receive a 2017 second-round pick instead.
The reason the Kings are higher than the Nuggets isn’t because they’re in a better cap situation (the Kings have $57 million committed in the summer of 2016 while the Nuggets have only $25 committed), and it’s not because of the draft pick situation, but the Kings possibly have the piece of the puzzle that every team entering the draft is hoping to find in Cousins. (As long as they keep him, of course.)
Cousins is one of the most skilled big men the league has ever seen, and while it’s yet to be seen if he can harness his skillset to help lead a team on both sides of the floor, the potential is undeniable.