Is it June yet?
It's a thought that has passed through the minds of several NBA executives already, most likely ones from teams destined to have lousy seasons. Phoenix, Orlando, Charlotte, Boston, Philadelphia and Utah are all rebuilding and figure to be jockeying for prime lottery position with as many ping pong balls as they can get. Tanking is an annual rite of passage for NBA bottom-feeders but next season, said an Eastern Conference executive, "it will happen earlier than most."
Why? Because the 2014 draft is good. Really good. As ho-hum as most executives were about the '13 draft, they are that positively giddy about the '14 one. Ask execs about prospective franchise players in last month's draft and they will struggle to come up with one. Ask them about next year's and they will rattle off a list of five or six before taking a breath.
"This draft reminds me of the 2003 draft," said a Western Conference GM, referring to the class headlined by LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. "There is a cluster of cornerstone, All-Star level players at the top. These are guys that if they were in this year's draft, they all would have gone at the top."
The leader of the class is Kansas' Andrew Wiggins, a spectacularly athletic small forward with a bagful of moves. Wiggins, said a Western Conference assistant GM, "isn't quite a LeBron talent, but he's right behind him," a mouth-watering thought for the teams craving a franchise player. Jayhawks coach Bill Self just finished molding Ben McLemore into a high lottery pick and with Wiggins, Self will have even more to work with.
But Wiggins isn't sitting in the top tier by himself. There isn't a consensus about the next-best player -- considering the college season hasn't started, that's not surprising -- but the list of candidates is impressive. There is Kentucky's Julius Randle, a 6-foot-9 walking mismatch who can score facing up or with his back to the basket. There is Oklahoma State sophomore Marcus Smart, a 6-4 middle linebacker masquerading as a point guard who would have distanced himself from Trey Burke, Michael Carter-Williams and any other playmaker had he decided to enter this season's draft. There is Duke's Jabari Parker, the 6-8 power forward with a shooting stroke that gives him David West-like potential.
Want more? How about Arizona's Aaron Gordon, an uber-athlete and rebounder who can jump out of the gym. Or Kentucky's Andrew and Aaron Harrison, a pair of big, dynamic guards who already look and play like pros. And a rich draft could get richer if Baylor's Isaiah Austin, North Carolina's James McAdoo and Kentucky's Alex Poythress -- projected lottery picks a year ago who developed slower than expected -- take the next step.
This column comes with a warning label, of course, because the college season can take some unexpected twists and turns. Shabazz Muhammad was a consensus top-three pick in November, before he stopped passing, defending and made a series of PR gaffes that resulted in him tumbling down the draft board. International big man Rudy Gobert settled into the top five of SI.com's first Big Board, only to watch his stock plummet once teams got a closer look at him.
But if this crop of players ends up as good as advertised, look out. Think Phoenix wouldn't love to have a franchise forward like Wiggins to fold into a young lineup featuring Eric Bledsoe and Alex Len? Think Orlando wouldn't kill for a power forward like Randle? Think Philadelphia wouldn't crave a forward like Parker to play alongside Nerlens Noel?
All of this should make for an interesting second half of the season. Tanking doesn't work, of course. The Bobcats have been bad since, well, the franchise's inception and they have never landed the No. 1 pick. The Cavaliers had a 15.6 percent chance of winning the top pick this year, and they went home with it. Since the current lottery system was put in place in 1990, only three teams that finished with the worst record ended up with the top pick. But that won't stop nagging hamstring injuries from becoming chronic at the end of the season, won't stop the occasional star from being shut down. Tossing young players to the fire is a classic move by a team content to pile up the losses, which means youth will be served this season.
Gear up, NBA, because this season could be a fun one. The Heat will look to three-peat, the Nets will try to buy a title and Dwight Howard will attempt to restore a tattered reputation. But the next generation of superstars are coming, and the teams that understand that optimism will end in training camp will be maneuvering for the best chance to get one.