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Brighter days beckon for NBA's worst -- or so they hope

Five factors will shape whether the Lakers, Knicks, Sixers, Pistons or Wolves return to glory first.

POSTED: Jan 6, 2015 10:34 AM ET

By Shaun Powell

BY Shaun Powell


Even though the Lakers have a true superstar in Kobe Bryant, their future remains murky at best.

We're barely into 2015 and at least a half-dozen teams are realistically setting the table for next season and beyond. Such is the cruel reality every year, the only difference is this time, big, traditional basketball cities are represented: the L.A. Lakers, New York, Philly and Detroit.

Add in Minnesota (which always seems to be playoff-eliminated this time of year) and the NBA's bottom five teams are discreetly (except in the case of the very blatant Sixers) plotting to win this summer through the Draft and free agency. The Knicks made a trade Monday to weaken the current team and strengthen their off-season options.

Nobody in those organizations will come straight out and say it, but this season is pretty much a wash, in terms of competing for the playoffs. Although, in the bottom-heavy East, attrition could elevate the Pistons, so who knows?

Anyway, these teams are doing whatever necessary to confine the pain to this season. Ideally, they'd like to put out a product fans are anxious to see next season, but so many things must fall their way to do that: wise drafting, good health, an impact trade and a free-agent savior. Two seasons seems more like it.

Which of these five teams are in the best shape for a reasonably rapid turnaround? We take a look at each and weigh five important factors:

Young talent on hand, which can be groomed into stars while eating only a portion of the cap.

How attractive each team is to free agents, as ome teams are destinations.

The quality and track record of management, both crucial to trades and wise spending.

The team's fiscal condition under the salary cap, which must be favorable for big decisions.

And, lastly, future draft picks, which always help.

Here's how we rank them, from best to not-so-best:

1. Detroit Pistons

If the last time you wandered into The Palace at Auburn Hills was 2008 or so, you'd hardly recognize the joint today. The stands are often passionless and half-empty and there's rarely anything worth seeing on the floor most nights. The Pistons had to give coach Stan Van Gundy complete personnel control in order to bring him aboard, which tells you about their level of desperation. Ex-team president Joe Dumars ran the franchise into the ground with bad free-agent signings -- adding Josh Smith and trading for Brandon Jennings two summers ago was just the last straw. Lacking in chemistry and longing for a breath of fresh air, the Pistons need a semi-overhaul to turn themselves around, which means they need a few years, at least.

GameTime: Detroit Back In Tune?

Rick Fox, Brent Barry and Rick Kamla discuss the Pistons, Rajon Rondo and each of their players of the week in the Sunday Feast.

Young talent: The immediate and perhaps long-term future of the franchise is wrapped around the development of Andre Drummond, a frisky and raw big man who can get 10 rebounds by accident. Having Drummond gives Detroit an edge over the other rebuilding teams, although Van Gundy needs to send him to Camp Olajuwon to learn a post move or three. Jodie Meeks and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope are decent enough rotation pieces. The big question is unrestricted free-agent to-be Greg Monroe. Will the recent eradication of Smith make him a keeper, or at least a valuable sign-and-trade asset next summer?

Free agent feasibility: The last big-ticket free agents who came to Detroit were Smith, Jennings, Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva. Now you know why the Pistons are digging themselves out of a ditch.

Drummond Attacks the Boards

Highlights from Andre Drummond as he grabs a whopping 20 rebounds in the Pistons win.

Management: Van Gundy is new to this GM thing, but so far, so good. He cut Smith loose and the Pistons started winning. It was the right call, and the $6 million a season he gave last summer to Meeks, productive since returning from injury a few weeks ago, doesn't look like the overpay it once appeared.

Salary cap: The Pistons likely won't have to pay Drummond until 2016. Their reasonable payroll should put them in play for free agents and for trades with teams willing to unload high-priced veterans. Only then will we see if billionaire owner Tom Gores is willing to flirt with the luxury tax.

Future picks: Dumars was disastrous with Draft strategy and signing free agents, but at least he didn't mortgage the future. The Pistons own all of their picks.

2. Los Angeles Lakers

The shine is off the glamour franchise. L.A. finds itself in unfamiliar territory, sitting near the basement in the West with no relief in sight. Making matters more complicated is the presence of Kobe Bryant. He still has supreme skills (and an ego to match), he wants to win a title before his contract runs out next season and it all makes for an uncomfortable fit. The Lakers are trying to rebuild while a proud aging superstar is just in the way. It's very possible the Lakers won't be able to fully change their identity and move forward until after 2016 when Kobe and his $25 million contract are gone.

GameTime: Better Without Bryant?

The GameTime guys debate if the Lakers are better without Kobe Bryant in the lineup.

Young talent: They'll have rookie Julius Randle back from a broken foot and Ed Davis could be worth signing next summer, except those two play the same position. Guard Jordan Clarkson needs more reps and center Robert Sacre is a career backup.

Free agent feasibility: This is their ace card. The tradition, the sunshine, the glitz and glamour, the Lakers will always be an A-list destination -- or at least should be. The lifestyle and off-court opportunities are tremendous. A superstar would be foolish not to at least consider singing here, no matter who's in charge. This is why the Lakers always have a chance, and why they never stay down for long.

Davis Throws Down

Ed Davis hammers home the pass from Ronnie Price in transition.

Management: Jim Buss was celebrated in town ... until Dwight Howard signed with the Rockets. Suddenly, Buss was a bum. The reality is Buss will have the chance to enhance or ruin his reputation as an owner in the coming years as he navigates the Lakers through this mine-filled rebuild.

Salary cap: Buss and Mitch Kupchak wisely refused to spend big money on free agents last summer after Carmelo Anthony said no. Instead of wasting good cash on a player who would needlessly tie up the cap, they chose to save their funds.

Future picks: Their upcoming first-rounder goes to Phoenix unless it falls in the top 5. Thanks, Steve Nash! Their 2017 pick could go to Orlando, depending where it falls. Thanks Dwight Howard!

3. Philadelphia Sixers

NBA Rooks: Nerlens Noel

After spending last season on the bench, Nerlens Noel is ready for his rookie year.

For the last two seasons, the Sixers have been short on wins and high on raised eyebrows. Folks are regularly throwing a four-letter word in their direction (tank) although the Sixers like to be more politically correct and say they're plotting a new course. Whatever. The goal is pretty clear: prepare for the future at the expense of today. Why tie up money on a veteran past his prime for maybe four additional wins? The Sixers don't want to make a financial or Draft mistake that could cause even bigger headaches. By summer, they could have six recent first-rounders on the roster and a ton of salary cap space, too.

Young talent: Philly has more top young players they haven't seen than those they have. Next season they'll have a better idea about Joel Embiid and maybe Dario Saric, two idle big men it drafted in 2014. Until then, KJ McDaniels, Michael Carter-Williams, Nerlens Noel, Tony Wroten and Robert Covington are getting their reps in and building a case to stick around a while.

Free agent feasibility: A big East Coast city with a rich basketball history should be enough to put the Sixers on radar ... eventually. They've got a ton of money to spend over the next few years. Yes, they're losing big now, but the right free agent knows he can force a semi-drastic turnaround.

McDaniels Blocks Lee

KJ McDaniels stops David Lee's dunk with a big block at the rim.

Management: You either love what GM Sam Hinkie is doing or you don't. An unofficial poll of Sixers fans show they are OK with a complete strip-down as long as this plan doesn't last forever (or worse, as long as Minnesota's). It'll help if Hinkie nails the next Draft pick and uses some of his surplus of young talent and picks to trade for a veteran who brings sizzle.

Salary cap: They Sixers don't have anyone making more than $10 an hour, so yeah, they've got money to spend. Seriously, though, only Jason Richardson ($6.6 million) makes $4 million-plus on this squad.

Future picks: This is what happens when you hoard picks. They could get the Heat's top-10 protected pick this summer and they've got a dozen second-round picks between now and 2020.

4. Minnesota Timberwolves

They've searched for respectability ever since trading Kevin Garnett to the Boston Celtics. Since the KG days, they've had five different coaches, whiffed on lottery picks and simply plunged into the deep-freeze. Can you fault Garnett or Kevin Love for wanting to bolt? After trading Love to Cleveland last summer, the Wolves are hoping to finally lay the right foundation while they embark on yet another rebuilding plan. If nothing else, they've got some assets for a change.

Nightly Notable: Andrew Wiggins

Andrew Wiggins gets two shy of his career high scoring 27 points (on 11 for 22 shooting), grabbing 9 rebounds, and nabbing 4 steals in a loss to Sacramento.

Young talent: If you're Minnesota and can't seem to get it right, this is what you need to do: load up on young players and hope a star emerges from them. In that sense, the Wolves will give Zach LaVine, Shabazz Muhammad, Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins all the time they need and hope they develop rapidly, unlike Ricky Rubio. Wiggins is the key. If he's the real deal, then they're on their way. If not, here we go again.

Free agent feasibility: Nobody with options is anxious to spend winters in Minnesota and play for a team that's been mismanaged for years. That's why the Wolves tend to overpay for the free agents they do get (like Kevin Martin).

Kia Awards: Zach LaVine

Minnesota's Zach LaVine is a nominee for December's Kia Western Conference Rookie of the Month.

Management: Team president and coach Flip Saunders seemingly made out OK in the Love trade. Still, Saunders is digging out from the David Kahn era that set the franchise back years. Saunders needs to nail the high lottery picks that Kahn squandered.

Salary cap: The Wolves should be comfortably under the cap the next two seasons without any key players to extend. They could contend for a B-list free agent or absorb a high-salaried player via a trade.

Future picks: Their first rounder could go to the Suns this summer or next if it falls beyond No. 12. But there's really no chance of that happening.

5. New York Knicks

This quickly became a throwaway season once Carmelo Anthony's body started tanking and other injuries forced the Knicks to play guys you've never heard of. All team president Phil Jackson can do is pray 'Melo stays healthy and hope to find him help next summer, all while coach Derek Fisher uses this season to make his mistakes. Jackson knows he'll always have owner Jim Dolan's wallet and the charms of the Big Apple to make the Knicks attractive. Yet the Knicks have wasted Dolan's millions and their big-city advantage too many times before.

GameTime: Skolnick on Cavaliers Trade

Ethan Skolnick from Bleacher Report, joins Game Time to report on the 3-team trade involving the Cavaliers, Knicks and Thunder.

Young talent: The Knicks haven't had a young, franchise building block from the Draft since Patrick Ewing in 1985. A lost decade under Isiah Thomas never fetched an engrossing talent, and the cupboard is still mostly bare. Tim Hardaway Jr. was a first-team All-Rookie choice last season and often can fill it up from deep, but he's too erratic (39 percent shooter) to be anything more than a sixth man. Cole Aldrich has the ugliest jumper east of Joakim Noah, but he works hard and could stick as a backup center.

Management: Honestly, we don't know much about Jackson just yet, other than striking out for Steve Kerr and dumping J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert on Monday. His goal is to let this toxic dump of a season play itself out, then clear cap space for next summer and go to work. Once he has money to spend, a lottery pick to use and free agents to seduce, only then will we see if Jackson's clout and smarts match his hype and money. He got nothing but cap space for Smith and Shumpert.

GameTime: Aldridge On Carmelo

David Aldridge gives his take on whether Carmelo Anthony should sit and nurse his injuries, amidst a dismal Knicks season.

Free agent feasibility: The Knicks have rarely capitalized on the one clear asset they have over anyone else: New York City. That alone should make the Knicks a destination. Plus, say what you will about Dolan, but he's willing to spend whatever it takes (unless you're Jeremy Lin). The pull of the big city and Madison Square Garden will always convince a big star to at least think about playing for the Knicks.

Salary cap: Amar'e Stoudemire and Andrea Bargnani are off the books ($35 million) next summer, giving the Knicks room to breathe. They'll have roughly $40 million in committed salary for next season. Three seasons ago, their payroll was $100 million.

Future picks: Here's the problem. They gave their 2016 pick to the Raptors for Bargnani, a guy who stays hurt and will be a trivia answer by then. The Knicks, man.

Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

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