Posted Jun 29 2012 9:24AM
Every team that's ever been mentioned as a candidate to improve greatly next season shares one thing in common: They stunk, for the most part, a season ago.
Whether it was because of injuries, young players, rotten players, character issues or simply a roster full of dead weight, the teams that struggled last season did so for a reason. They just weren't good enough to reach the playoffs or do anything to encourage their fan base.
But a few aren't in such bad shape, at least in the big picture. They own a few advantages, such as highly drafted rookies or salary cap space or young players who just need more seasoning. And, in some cases, all of the above. These are the teams best equipped to turn themselves around somewhat quickly.
With the Draft over and free agency beckoning, here are the five candidates best prepared to move forward:
Wouldn't you think some of last season's playoffs teams would swap roster situations with the Hornets now? That's because New Orleans (21-45 last season) has salary cap relief (thank you very much, Wizards), Anthony Davis and Austin Rivers. Plus they'll likely retain free agent Eric Gordon. Not saying that's a Big Three by any stretch, but it's definitely a step in the right direction. The big bonus is Monty Williams, perhaps the best young coach in the game, who has the wherewithal to relate to a young up-and-comer. They still need to flush out the roster with help while being careful with their spending. Still, they have an Oklahoma City look and feel, a team that's building through the draft with young players who bring skills. With a new owner and Dell Demps, a general manager who appears to know what he's doing, the Hornets may not struggle for long.
If they don't improve by at least 10 games, there's something seriously wrong in the Bay. The Warriors (23-43) will have a healthy Andrew Bogut and Steph Curry join Klay Thompson, who's coming off a promising rookie year, and David Lee. Then there's the chance that Harrison Barnes, a boom-or-bust draft pick, delivers on all his promise. It's not totally unreasonable to think the Warriors will push for a final playoff spot or at least generate some serious buzz. It's been a long time since folks were excited about the Warriors, and while this isn't a remake of Run-TMC in the works, it should be better than the Lost Decade under previous ownership.
This one comes with an asterisk. So much depends on the whims of a free agent and a disgruntled All-Star who may or may not force his way out of Orlando and into Brooklyn. You figure if the Nets (22-44) re-sign Deron Williams and get Magic big man Dwight Howard for a reasonable price, Brooklyn will become a sports destination for the first time since Jackie Robinson and the Dodgers left for L.A. The Nets have plenty of cash to make it happen, plus MarShon Brooks (if he isn't included in a trade for Dwight) and maybe Gerald Wallace (if he re-signs). If they only get D-Will and not Howard, then so much for converting all the Knick fans who live in Brooklyn. And if they go 0-for-two with those two, then they're the Same Old Nets.
After fumigating the roster to get rid of all the silliness except for Andray Blatche (who just won't go away), the Wizards (20-46) are primed for a leap. In the last few months they've added Nene, Emeka Okafor, Trevor Ariza and Bradley Beal. That doesn't mean they're suddenly a playoff lock, just better than they were when last season began and knucklehead fever was running high. There's no reason to fall in love with a roster just yet, not until Okafor's contract is dumped or expired. But they can win 35-plus games. For whatever that's worth.
Well, duh, there's only one way after a seven-win season. While the Bobcats are almost certain to break into double digit wins next season -- playing a full season won't hurt -- there's plenty of work that needs to be done. Remember, there's an unproven new coach (Mike Dunlap) plus lots of holes on the roster. Besides, owner Michael Jordan is on record as saying he won't spend big money until the Bobcats are in position to justify it. That's not happening anytime soon, so don't expect much help from free agency. The Bobcats are at least a year away from adding quality pieces through free agency, and even that depends on whether a free agent considers Charlotte a destination. The best-case scenario for the upcoming season is Michael Kidd-Gilchrist wins Rookie of the Year and Ben Gordon gets buckets, or the Bobcats will continue to struggle on offense. How many teams can double their win total and still finish dead last in the league? With this team, coming off a disastrous 2011-12 season, that's possible.
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