Reasons for 14 non-playoff teams to look forward to the future
Breaking down the state of each non-playoff team before the offseason.
It’s gratifying to bask in every single moment over the course of a best-of-seven series for fans of the 16 teams currently fighting through the opening round of the 2021 playoffs.
Fans of the 14 lottery-bound teams, meanwhile, can’t help but ponder the future.
Fortunes change fast, though.
Case in point: the current playoff field features five teams — Washington, New York, Atlanta, Memphis and Phoenix — that weren’t playoff teams in 2020.
Upcoming events like the June 22 NBA Draft Lottery help to push teams there, as well as the July 29th draft, where future franchise cornerstones are selected to resuscitate doubtful fan bases. Then comes free agency in August, followed by NBA Summer League, when the optimism of lottery teams finally starts to morph into a more real-life manifestation of what may transpire on the court for the upcoming season.
As the non-playoff teams disappear behind closed-door meetings into full offseason mode, we take a quick look at some of the things those squads can feel good about headed into 2021-22.
So, here are some positives about the immediate future for the non-playoff crop from 2020-21
Coach James Borrego has proven he’s the right man to reside over the rebuild by leading the young, exciting Hornets to the cusp of the postseason. LaMelo Ball is a star, and should win Kia NBA Rookie of the Year, and the roster also features Gordon Hayward and an improved Miles Bridges and Terry Rozier. The berth in the State Farm NBA Play-In Tournament only increased Charlotte’s hunger while teaching lessons that will benefit this young, scrappy squad going into 2021-22. The buzz is back.
The Bulls already have a couple of All-Stars in Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic, and a promising youngster in Patrick Williams. LaVine has a year left on his deal and can negotiate a max contract this summer. Despite all the losing LaVine has experienced over his seven NBA seasons, exercising a little more patience with the Bulls might finally pay off, as it appears the new regime wants to win just as much as the guard. Chicago appears to be a solid point guard away from making some real noise.
The young core of Collin Sexton, Darius Garland, Jarrett Allen and Isaac Okoro showed promise last season. Plus, they’ve got the right coach in J.B. Bickerstaff to lead Cleveland back to respectability. Allen and Sexton are up for extensions, but cap room could be an issue. The Cavs will work to figure out what to do with Kevin Love, who might just need a change of scenery. Cleveland won the No. 2 spot in the lottery in 2019 and 2020 and could be in for similar luck next month to grab the star wing the roster is missing.
Jerami Grant comes off his best season, finishing with averages of 22.3 points, 4.6 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.1 blocks, and proved he could handle the increased responsibility of being a team’s primary playmaker. A finalist for the Most Improved Player Award, Grant needs to take another step in his growth. Coach Dwane Casey believes he’s up to the challenge. The Pistons made several moves last offseason, but like the group now in place. Detroit has a 14% chance of winning the lottery and a 52.1% shot at drafting in the top four, and GM Troy Weaver thinks there’s star power in the top 5.
Golden State Warriors
The Warriors proved they can still compete with the league’s best without Klay Thompson, and you watched a 33-year-old Stephen Curry and a 31-year-old Draymond Green each produce one of the best seasons of their respective careers. Juan Toscano-Anderson, Jordan Poole and Andrew Wiggins only sweetened things with their emergence. Throw Thompson back into the mix next season, along with rookie center James Wiseman (who will benefit from an NBA offseason), and Golden State is back in the hunt for titles.
James Silas didn’t deserve what he experienced in his first coaching gig, presiding over an unexpected rebuild due to an exodus of star power. But along the way, the Rockets showed the future is bright with Christian Wood, Jae’Sean Tate and 20-year-old Kevin Porter Jr. Houston isn’t accustomed to a season like this — it was their worst wining percentage since 1982-83 — but they’ve got an owner committed to turning that around as quickly as possible. Still, the Rockets need to figure out what to do with Eric Gordon and John Wall.
Injuries and illness decimated the Pacers all season, leaving T.J. Warren, Malcolm Brogdon, Caris LeVert and Myles Turner to miss time. The good news, though, is all of them remain under contract for 2021-22. This team is so talented that a return to the playoffs next season will be viewed as a failure. Brogdon and All-Star forward Domantas Sabonis are each coming off career seasons, and the only question marks going into this offseason are the bench and the future of coach Nate Bjorkgren.
Minnesota has to finally feel like it is heading in the right direction. The Wolves go into the offseason with a big three of Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell and Anthony Edwards, who combined to lead the club to a 9-7 record to close the season. The Timberwolves are looking to establish a winning culture while setting standards for the future. Even if Minnesota loses its first-round pick to the Warriors, it has enough talent under contract to keep improving. If Gerson Rosas accomplishes his goal of improving the power forward spot, watch out.
New Orleans Pelicans
We saw flashes in Zion Williamson’s rookie campaign, but now it’s safe to call the man a bona fide star in this league. Williamson and Brandon Ingram give New Orleans a strong core to build around, and you can’t bat an eye at the Pelicans’ flexibility wrought from GM David Griffin’s wheeling and dealing for Draft picks. Decisions need to be made on restricted free agents Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart, but the franchise is probably only one player away from it finally fully living up to potential.
Oklahoma City Thunder
You can’t help but come away excited from GM Sam Presti’s thought that “when we do get back in the postseason, we want it to be an arrival, not an appearance.” The Thunder have plenty of ammunition to make that happen, and there’s a chance they can come out of the draft lottery with two top 10 picks. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Lu Dort are solid pieces, alongside intriguing young players like Aleksej Pokusevski and Theo Maledon. Presti will likely guide the Thunder back to relevance sooner than most expect.
At the trade deadline, the Magic started stripping down the roster to build it back up by jettisoning Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon and Evan Fournier along with Gary Clark and Al-Farouq Aminu. Like OKC, Orlando could wind up with two top-10 picks in the Draft (three picks in all). Combine that with Cole Anthony, R.J. Hampton and Chuma Okeke coming off strong rookie campaigns, not to mention the fact Markelle Fultz will likely be returning from next season from his knee injury, and Magic fans should be downright giddy about an unknown, yet promising future.
The Kings haven’t reached the postseason since 2006, but better days should be on the horizon with the continued development of De’Aaron Fox as well as Tyrese Haliburton, who turned out to be one of the better picks of the 2020 draft. By bringing back coach Luke Walton for a third season, Sacramento ensures the stability required to take the next step. However, roster depth remains an issue. But best believe the Kings learned some harsh lessons from the two nine-game losing streaks that essentially sunk this season.
San Antonio Spurs
It’s strange to look at all the young talent assembled from 2016-18 and not think about what could have been. San Antonio drafted Dejounte Murray, Derrick White and Lonnie Walker IV to all someday play alongside former Spurs star Kawhi Leonard. The 2018 trade of Leonard to Toronto changed all that, but the Spurs continued assembling young talent in Quinndary Weatherspoon, Keldon Johnson and Devin Vassell. Coach Gregg Popovich reinvented the Spurs to play a different style, and they’ll have about $60 million in cap space this offseason to continue the rebuild.
After a playing 2020-21 home games in Tampa, the Raptors finally get the chance to return to Toronto. There’s some uncertainty regarding whether free agent Kyle Lowry and president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri will return, but they’ve already got solid enough pieces in Fred Van Vleet, Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby to complete a rebuild with few hiccups. Keep in mind that Toronto hasn’t drafted in the lottery since 2016, and it also owns the cap space to keep restricted free agent Gary Trent Jr. while bolstering the roster in other needed spots.
* * *
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.