Fifty years ago, Bill Russell’s Celtics defeated the Lakers in Game 7 of the 1966 Finals by a mere two points. Thirty years ago, Boston’s 1986 title team was so loaded that Hall of Famer Bill Walton had to come off the bench. Twenty years ago, Michael Jordan’s 1996 Bulls set an NBA record with 72 wins on their way to the championship.
2016 need not be frightened by those formidable anniversaries. Thanks to the record-setting Warriors—and strong challenges from the Spurs, Cavaliers and Thunder—the coming new year has a chance to add another memorable to the NBA’s “6” legacy.
Stephen Curry and company will continue to chase history as the calendar flips, but what about everyone else? Below, find SI.com’s proposed New Year’s resolutions for the 15 Eastern Conference teams. Check out the Western Conference resolutions right here. (All stats through Dec. 30.)
Atlanta Hawks: Break the bank for Al Horford
Everything changed for the Hawks in 2015: four All-Stars, a franchise-record 60 wins, an unexpected trip to the Eastern Conference finals, and an ownership change. And yet, in a way, nothing changed: just like last year, Atlanta is heading for negotiations with a free agent whose decision that will reaffirm or undercut all of this progress. Last year, the free agent was forward Paul Millsap, and the Hawks managed to retain him, although it cost them DeMarre Carroll in the process. This year, it’s versatile center Al Horford, 29, who will enter the summer as one of the most-coveted free agents after completing a bargain five-year, $60 million rookie extension. “Great values” don’t last forever, and Horford, like Millsap before him, could see his salary doubled next season.
Atlanta’s case for Horford to stay is convincing. Following some rough times in November, the Hawks are back at the top of the Southeast Division and challenging the Cavaliers for the East’s No. 1 spot. While the loss of Carroll is certainly felt and Kyle Korver hasn’t been nearly as lethal this season, coach Mike Budenholzer’s crew plows along thanks to its talented, flexible and balanced frontcourt, which now encourages both Horford and Millsap to jack up threes.
But Horford’s relative silence about his future leads to numerous questions. Can Atlanta retain Horford and improve its roster at the same time next summer, or will something have to give like it did last year? Does this Hawks core have title potential, or is it locked into a “very good, but not truly great” ceiling? Does Horford view himself as Atlanta’s answer to Tim Duncan, a one-team guy for his whole career, or might he follow LaMarcus Aldridge’s approach by seeking out greener pastures? Will an exploding salary cap and a long list of large-market teams with spending power help pry him away from the oft-overlooked Hawks? Might Horford be hesitant to re-sign a long-term deal with the Hawks given the advancing ages of some of their key supporting pieces after seeing Marc Gasol make a similar commitment in Memphis, only to look stuck in a dead-end situation a few months later? Those dynamics will play out in July and they may very well be influenced by what happens in April, May and June. What won’t change between now and then: Atlanta needs Horford for its good times to continue.
Boston Celtics: Opt for a light touch in February
Few franchises know the importance of superstar talent like the Celtics, who stocked the TD Garden’s rafters with banners thanks to a comically long list of Hall of Famers over the years. This year’s Celtics bear little resemblance to the traditional Boston title teams: their leading scorer, Isaiah Thomas, is crossing his fingers in hopes of his first career All-Star appearance, and the rest of the roster is high on effort and relatively low on name recognition. And while Boston is one of many teams trapped in the muddled East—simultaneously within striking distance of the No. 2 seed and in danger of missing the postseason—this is a very good team with sound fundamentals that could easily make real noise in the 2016 playoffs.
The Celtics’ defensive efficiency is tops in the East, and the offense gets by more often than not thanks to Thomas’s playmaking, improved shooting from Avery Bradley and coach Brad Stevens’ collective approach. Add it up and the Celtics’ point differential is virtually the same as the Cavaliers’ despite playing a tougher schedule. While built nontraditionally and lacking in both top-end firepower and big-time perimeter shooting, this looks like a more dangerous and cohesive team than the one that was swept out of the 2015 playoffs by Cleveland.
Every roster-building option is on the table for president Danny Ainge, who has expendable and affordable trade pieces and a plethora of future draft picks at his disposal. The calls to trade for a star—DeMarcus Cousins and Carmelo Anthony are the biggest names on lottery-bound teams—will continue unabated up until the deadline, but Boston should tread lightly. While an incoming star might theoretically punch up an inconsistent offense, he might also disrupt the productive defensive chemistry or alter what has become a positive, team-first culture. The East’s landscape offers more cause for prudence, as it’s hard to envision a plausible (but major) trade that would somehow vault Boston past Cleveland in the short-term, and the lack of a bona fide No. 2 contender means that a spot in the conference finals is potentially within the Celtics’ grasp, as is. There isn’t much downside to seeing how this group fares either: Boston will enter the summer with significant cap flexibility, its key core pieces already under contract, and all those picks. The opportunity to strike will be there when the draft rolls around.
Brooklyn Nets: Find a fresh-faced coach to put lipstick on this pig
After gambling on a short-term, spend-happy approach in recent years, Brooklyn got to work on the inevitable teardown in 2015, trading away the aging Kevin Garnett and buying out the underachieving ball of perpetual angst named Deron Williams. The start of the 2015–16 season has been as pointless and unwatchable as expected, with an added dose of depression thanks to the long-term absence of rookie Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Of course, the Nets would lose their only promising young piece to ankle surgery in early December before he might inspire some hope or excitement.
Although Brooklyn might not have the least-talented team in the league, it’s hard to imagine any team would trade rosters at this point. With an uninspiring veteran core and a dearth of up-and-comers, Brooklyn is stuck without a quick fix or even a medium-length fix. This is going to take a long, long time.
The Nets, then, should make the most of a crummy 2016 by investing in a new coach who can become the face of the franchise, like Brad Stevens has in Boston or even Brett Brown in Philadelphia. If the losses are unavoidable, and they are, there at least needs to be a positive personality driving the entire organization towards a brighter future. The old-school, no-nonsense Lionel Hollins was hired in 2014 to coach a team that is no longer there. A certain personality type is needed to carry a team through a slog and the 62-year-old Hollins, who freely admitted this season that he’s not burning the midnight oil because his squad is often overmatched, just doesn’t fit the bill. This summer is the right time to reboot.
Charlotte Hornets: Think long and hard about Al Jefferson’s future
The “Al Jefferson in Charlotte” story is destined to become one of those “in the eye of the beholder” debates. Pick a story, any story, and Jefferson fits the bill. He was a dependable 20/10 workhorse. He guided the Hornets back into the playoffs. He was the backline defender on an excellent defense. He was an All-NBA selection. He was in and out the lineup with injuries. He was the highest-paid player on one of the league’s most disappointing teams. He put up big individual numbers for a team with incredibly inefficient attacks. He was a center in his 30s in decline with 24,000+ minutes to his name. He was “too slow to keep up in the modern NBA.” He was busted for drugs. He gained weight and lost weight. He was a $41 million signing who might wind up producing zero playoff wins over the course of the three-year deal he signed in 2013.
The question now for Hornets management is when this story should end. The past three years have seen the ups and downs described above, but what will the next three years hold? The 30-year-old Jefferson is expected to miss six weeks due to a knee injury shortly after missing time earlier this season due to a calf injury and a five-game drug suspension. Although Charlotte is 12-7 with Jefferson and 5-7 without him, his stats (12.5 PPG and 6.1 RPG) and impact numbers (+0.1 net rating) are hardly overwhelming this season, and it’s a fairly safe bet that his most productive days are behind him. As such, he will enter free agency next summer with more than his share of red flags.
With Nicolas Batum playing like a potential All-Star and sure to command significant attention as an unrestricted free agent next summer, Charlotte needs to give serious thought to committing major money to both players. How high is that core’s ceiling? How, exactly, does Jefferson fit age-wise and style-wise with a younger, bubbling nucleus that includes Kemba Walker, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Jeremy Lamb, Cody Zeller, Frank Kaminsky and others? How likely is it that Jefferson gets back to an acceptable level of durability after missing meaningful amounts of time in each of the past three seasons? If nothing else, the next six weeks should serve as an extended trial run for the possibility of life without Jefferson next season. The transition period might very well be rocky, but that won’t exactly be a major departure from most of Jefferson’s tenure in Charlotte.
Chicago Bulls: Seriously shop Derrick Rose this summer
Is there a team whose glass is half-emptier than the Bulls? Despite a solid 18-12 record, All-Star Jimmy Butler publicly asked for more from first-year coach Fred Hoiberg, Joakim Noah expressed frustration with the team’s lack of identity, and the coaching staff and front office are largely grappling with the same problematic lineup-combination issues that they faced at the start of the season. Perhaps the mix feels off because Chicago’s leaders—Butler, Pau Gasol, Derrick Rose and Noah—are all less productive than they were last season. Remarkably, all four of them are in position to feel as if they are sacrificing more than they should be. More often than not, that amounts to a ticking time bomb.
The Bulls will face major decisions on both Gasol and Noah this summer, but the backcourt deserves some attention too. This season, the Rose/Butler pairing is posting a forgettable +0.1 net rating (100.3 on offense, 100.2 on defense), which amounts to a step back from last season. While both parties share some of the blame, Rose is clearly the weaker link: He’s averaging a career-low 14.4 points, shooting just 38.6% from the field and 24.6% from deep, and posting a 10.5 PER (really bad) and a -5.48 Real Plus-Minus (really, really, really, really bad). Whereas Rose was the face, heart and soul of the Bulls franchise as recently as 2012, he’s now often an anchor making life more difficult.
If Cleveland had opened the season looking invulnerable, perhaps Chicago would feel greater urgency to get on with the future before the trade deadline. That hasn’t happened yet, though, so the Bulls are probably best served going forward with this mish-mashed roster in hopes of capitalizing should the Cavaliers falter. Come summertime, though, Rose will be heading into the final year of his current contract and Chicago will need to seriously confront all of its fit weaknesses. That process should include shopping Rose: his $21.3 million salary for next season will be easier to swallow once the cap rises and his star power might be attractive to teams in desperate need of a short-term publicity bump. While it hurts to think about “What could have been?” had Rose remained healthy, a season lost to denial about his current abilities is the same as a season lost to injury.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Hold the rope
Cleveland finds itself entering the new year in a better position than it was at this time last year (Timofey Mozgov, J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and Mo Williams are on the roster), in a better position than it was during the Finals (Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love are both active), and in a better position than it was entering the 2015-16 season (Irving has returned to the court and Tristan Thompson’s contract drama has been resolved). And yet, because of the Warriors’ record-setting start and the Spurs’ sustained excellence, the Cavaliers are strangely left shaking off the potential for self-doubt.
The immediate challenge for LeBron James and coach David Blatt, then, is simply to keep everyone bought in. There are plenty of reasons for optimism: the improved East hasn’t produced a second blue-chip contender, Cleveland regularly exerted its preferred style in its matchup with Golden State, James has played in all but one game this season, and the Cavaliers’ top lineup from last year (Irving/Smith/James/Love/Mozgov) has still logged just 29 minutes together in 2015-16. What’s more, the Cavaliers have remained under the radar in large part because they have dispensed with major sources of drama: Blatt is no longer a rookie coach facing regular hot seat talk, Love is locked into a long-term deal and settling into a productive role, Smith has been on remarkably good behavior (knock on wood), and Dion Waiters is a distant memory.
Even if the Cavaliers haven’t matched the Warriors’ dream season, how much would they really change about their own campaign to date? The heavy lifting was taken care of 2015. For now, they just need to stick to the script. Their time in the spotlight is coming.
Detroit Pistons: Pray for continued perfect health
Despite a three-game losing streak, Stan Van Gundy’s new-look Pistons have pulled themselves out of a half-decade long rut this year. Point guard Reggie Jackson (20.1 PPG, 6.3 APG) has taken a significant leap forward in his first full season as a starter, Andre Drummond (18.2 PPG, 16 RPG) is on track to be an All-Star starter and Most Improved Player candidate, and together they’ve powered a fairly cohesive Pistons starting lineup that has posted a strong +4.8 net rating.
That said, some skepticism is in order regarding Detroit’s ability to maintain its strong start. The Pistons have started the same five players for all 32 games, a run of impeccable injury luck that is virtually impossible to maintain, especially considering that Drummond, Marcus Morris and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope are all logging 35+ minutes per night. Although Brandon Jennings’ return from an Achilles injury adds some much needed potency to a weak bench, the drop-off between Detroit’s first and second units has been so severe that even a short-term injury to one starter would likely wreak some havoc. Sooner or later, the Pistons’ lack of depth will be put to the test.
Real help is unlikely to arrive until July, at the earliest, so the Pistons might as well play this one out as is. If they can hold things together and sneak into the playoffs, it would be a borderline milestone. If they fall short of the postseason, the Pistons will still be able to claim their most functional season since at least 2009. The precise amount of positive momentum generated this season will be determined by how well Van Gundy’s top five holds up over the next 14 weeks.
Indiana Pacers: Chill on the lobbying
Let’s give Paul George this: “The stripes were terrible” is one of the more colorful and chuckle-inducing ways to publicly criticize NBA officials. Big picture, though, George’s repeated grievances aren’t all that funny. To date, he’s the only player who has been fined twice this season for criticizing the officials, he complained again about a “questionable no-call” at the end of an overtime loss to the Bulls on Wednesday, he ranks among the top 10 in technical fouls this season, and his use of profanity during a post-game interview earlier this season was a completely unnecessary bad look.
George has made clear his desire to become one of the NBA’s best players. His comeback from a leg injury is one of this season’s biggest and most positive stories. His style of play is smooth, jaw-dropping and magnetic, and he’s headed for the third All-NBA selection of his career. He is, quite simply, a marketer’s dream. So why stomp down this pouty road? Why risk getting lumped in with the perpetually-aggrieved likes of DeMarcus Cousins and Blake Griffin? Why, exactly, does he believe publicly airing his grievances time and again will lead to better treatment?
For the record, George is in the same ballpark as LeBron James and Jimmy Butler when it comes to free throw attempts per game this season, so he can’t claim that he’s being totally ignored. While no star is ever fully satisfied with the officiating, the savvy ones, almost without fail, eventually realize that blasting off is useless and can often be counterproductive. At the very least, George needs to do a better job of picking his battles.
Miami Heat: Be realistic about Hassan Whiteside
The hype that built quickly around Hassan Whiteside last year was justified: the 7-footer had fallen so far off the NBA map that his out-of-nowhere production for Miami seemed borderline impossible. As Whiteside’s career sample size has grown this year, the numbers have stayed big (12.4 PPG, 11 RPG, a league-leading 4 BPG) but the excitement has largely leveled off. There are at least two reasons for that: 1) The Heat, who have enjoyed much better health this season, haven’t vaulted up the East’s ladder, and 2) The Heat’s defense has performed better with Whiteside on the bench than when he’s on the court. If Whiteside isn’t delivering wins and he isn’t performing like an irreplaceable backline defender, how valuable is he really? And, even more critically, how valuable will he be once he’s no longer on a bargain-basement minimum contract at the end of this season?
For Miami, there are three major options: preemptively trade Whiteside before the deadline, play the “wait and see” game down the stretch with the understanding that he will likely draw rich offers this summer, or prepare to compensate Whiteside as a centerpiece player going forward.
Trading Whiteside early for value is a difficult proposition due to his small contract number, and such a move would create a short-term hole in the rotation that wouldn’t be easily filled, as he is a part of four of Miami’s five most-used lineups. On the other end, building a long-term plan around Whiteside involves a level of risk and commitment that should turn off Miami, who is already looking at major salaries for Chris Bosh, Goran Dragic and Dwyane Wade, not to mention the potential big fish that might be found in free agency over the next two summers.
Playing the wait-and-see game might be the least sexy option of the three, but it’s also probably the smartest and most realistic. Miami would get to ride Whiteside’s low-dollar deal to its conclusion while keeping a long and active (often too active) center in place for the postseason. If Whiteside walks in the summer, the Heat would be able to pursue alternate plans knowing that they extracted maximum on-court value from their off-the-radar find and that his departure won’t shatter their foundation.
Milwaukee Bucks: List the vets on eBay
This season has already slipped away from the Bucks (12-21). That’s a shame to admit on the heels of an inspiring 41-win campaign, but it’s the truth. Milwaukee has struggled on offense, it has struggled on defense, and there’s no obvious momentum-shifting event looming on the horizon. The Bucks’ key players on paper—Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jabari Parker, Greg Monroe, and Michael Carter-Williams—have posted an abysmal -10.5 net rating and, despite their collective length, an atrocious 117.2 defensive rating when they take the court together. Time is the only medicine here and, in Carter-Williams’s case, even that probably won’t be enough.
Already seven games out of the East’s playoff hunt, the Bucks have every reason to race to the bottom this year. They desperately need a franchise point guard, they have so many young players on the roster that strategically losing shouldn’t be very difficult, they can probably maneuver as high as the No. 4 draft lottery slot, and coach Jason Kidd’s own injury absence helps frame this season as a total write-off.
That means the Bucks front office should enter sell-off mode come February. Milwaukee’s roster doesn’t have much fat to trim, but perhaps O.J. Mayo and Jerryd Bayless, who are both on expiring deals, could net some minor draft assets at the deadline. Neither guard is an essential member of the Bucks’ future and both could be useful to playoff teams in need of backcourt depth. Although this is a frustrating and somewhat bitter place to be after last year’s flirtation with success, another infusion of top-five talent, like Kentucky's Jamal Murray, would lift the Bucks’ promising long-term outlook even higher.
New York Knicks: Give daily thanks for Porzingis
Knicks coach Derek Fisher was allegedly beaten up by an opposing player this fall in an off-court physical altercation. One Knicks player, Derrick Williams, was allegedly robbed of $600,000 worth of jewelry by two women after a night of partying while another Knicks player, Cleanthony Early, was shot in the knee in a late-night robbery this week. All three were clearly serious incidents, the latest of which prompted Carmelo Anthony to thoughtfully call for action with regard to gun violence, and all three could easily be tied together to paint another unflattering picture of a franchise that’s been mired in dysfunction and losing for years.
This season—at least so far—the Knicks seem to generally be receiving the benefit of the doubt. Some of that might be attributed to New York’s improvement over a dismal 2014-15 season, as a number of veteran off-season additions have instilled a level of respectability that was lacking. Some of that might be attributed to Anthony’s ability to stay healthy following knee surgery last year, as no one wins when one of the league’s marquee players is on the injured list. But rookie sensation Kristaps Porzingis deserves to be at the top of this list: his immediate impact out of the gate, his approachable personality, his highlight reel plays, his unprecedented size and skillset combination, and his immense potential have combined to tell an alternate story for the Knicks, one rooted in genuine hope and intrigue.
The 7'3" Latvian big man is both a reason to watch now and a reason to believe in tomorrow. New Yorkers have longed for both. Those who are ready to move on from Anthony, who is 31 and under contract through at least 2017-18, and rebuild around Porzingis are getting ahead of themselves. There’s plenty of time for all that. After all, Porzingis is only 20. In reality, 2016 should serve as a honeymoon year, a time to appreciate Porzingis’s newness and potential rather than spoiling it with fretting about Anthony’s inevitable decline or over-analysis of the difference in their ages.
Orlando Magic: Launch Victor Oladipo’s Sixth Man campaign
One of the key questions facing the Magic entering the season was how they hoped to craft a functional offense with two non-shooters—Elfrid Payton and Victor Oladipo—in their starting backcourt. Both players were recent lottery picks, both are incredibly young and still developing, and both have sufficient athletic gifts to believe they have futures big-time NBA players. Together, however, they looked like a questionable fit.
New coach Scott Skiles’s solution to the problem was to split the pair by moving Oladipo to the bench. In theory, the move makes a lot of sense: Payton is the more natural ball-handler, Oladipo likes to have the ball in his hands and can’t really spread the court off the ball, Evan Fournier is a more natural fit as a floor-spacer next to Payton, and moving Oladipo to the bench creates room for big man Channing Frye, another shooter, to enter the starting lineup. In the second unit, Oladipo enjoys regular touches and can make better use of his off-the-dribble attack-minded game.
This is a pretty classic win/win/win situation, except for the fact that Oladipo is a former No. 2 overall pick who is extension-eligible next fall. Remember, he’s not a veteran with tens of millions in the bank playing for a championship contender like Andre Iguodala or a specialist like Jamal Crawford or Lou Williams. Skiles’s decision directly costs Oladipo minutes, shots, the prestige of a starting spot and potentially some leverage in his next contract talks. Many players would balk or sulk, but so far Oladipo has acquitted himself well (12.3 PPG, 5 RPG) as the Magic (19-13) have emerged as one of the league’s biggest surprises. If this continues, Orlando should do him a solid during awards season by aggressively campaigning for the Sixth Man award on his behalf.
Philadelphia 76ers: Finish the season as the NBA’s worst team
Until a few weeks ago, this wouldn’t have even qualified as a resolution. It would have been a given. After all, Philadelphia lost its first 18 games and started 1-31, making it seem impossible that any team could finish with a worse record this season (and thus more ping pong balls in the lottery).
That’s still the most likely outcome. However, the Sixers’ recent moves towards a basic sense of respectability—hiring Jerry Colangelo and Mike D’Antoni, extending the contract of coach Brett Brown, and trading draft picks for Ish Smith—have complicated this slightly. The Sixers (3-31) have suddenly won two of their last three games, thereby narrowing their lead over the Lakers (6-27) in the race to the bottom. Remember, the Sixers have two dogs in this fight. First, they want to finish with the worst record to increase their shot at selecting Ben Simmons with the No. 1 pick. Second, they want to increase the odds that the Lakers get bumped out of the top three in the draft order, as that would force L.A. to convey its pick to Philadelphia.
It’s not panic time yet: The Sixers clearly control their own destiny, the Lakers are still trying to win games, and the gap between these two teams and the other 28 is significant. As nice as winning surely feels and as helpful as it might be to alleviate some of the scorn that built up during November, Philadelphia’s big-picture best-case scenario is still achieving the absolute worst-case scenario in the standings. Anything else would be compounding a disastrous start with an even more ill-advised course correction.
Toronto Raptors: Give the smallball lineups a shot before the playoffs
Off-season acquisitions Bismack Biyombo and Luis Scola filled in admirably for starting center Jonas Valanciunas, who missed more than a month with a hand injury. Even though frontcourt depth was a concern entering the season, the Raptors went 11-6 without Valanciunas while maintaining top-10 rankings on both offense and defense. That was an impressive run, in part because coach Dwane Casey often had to turn to lineups that featured both Biyombo, a shot-blocking specialist, and Scola, a veteran known for his crafty around-the-basket game. On paper, that looks like a space-killing pairing, but Scola’s ability to adapt by stepping out to shoot three-pointers for the first time in his career has helped make it work.
Now that Valanciunas has returned to the lineup, though, it’s time for Casey to reconsider his best looks. Pairing Valanciunas with Scola has produced a +5.2 net rating, a strong mark that makes sense for a team that wants to open games with a big, traditional lineup. But there’s another solid option at Casey’s disposal: surrounding Valanciunas with a smaller look composed of perhaps his four best all-around players in Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Cory Joseph and DeMarre Carroll. While that group has played only 34 minutes together—due to injuries to Valanciunas and Carroll—there are good reasons to want to see more.
For starters, three-guard lineups with Lowry, DeRozan and Joseph have posted a sterling +13.9 net rating this season, posting strong numbers on both sides of the ball. That’s no accident: Joseph can handle the toughest backcourt defensive assignment, lighten Lowry’s ball-handling load a bit, and act as a secondary off-the-dribble threat to complement DeRozan’s paint attacks. Throw Carroll into the mix, and the Raptors have two All-Star scoring guards alongside two tenacious perimeter defenders, one of whom can act as a true spread power forward. Valanciunas completes the lineup as a fifth scoring option whose low-post scoring ability would be maximized in an open court.
Over the next few months, Toronto should test out its best small lineup, as it could help avert some of the postseason struggles that plagued both Lowry and DeRozan last year. It’s possible that Casey ultimately concludes that Valanciunas needs to be paired with another traditional big man to help protect the paint or that Scola is simply playing too well to keep off the court. If that’s how it shakes out, so be it. It’s good to have options in the playoffs and it’s even better to have fully-tested options.
Washington Wizards: Start working on the Kevin Durant fallback plans
The Wizards are far from the only disappointing team this season, but their brand of disappointment carries an extra degree of gravity given their major 2016 offseason goal: luring Kevin Durant “home” to the D.C. metro area. How’s that working out? Not well.
A new, faster style has created as many problems as it has solved. Both the offense and defense are below-average and inconsistent. John Wall started slowly, Bradley Beal has been sidelined with injuries, and together they haven’t been able to deliver on their potential as of the league’s top backcourts (not to mention the franchise’s best recruiting pitch to Durant). Nene has become an afterthought, Otto Porter has taken a step forward (but not a leap forward), and Martell Webster exited stage left for retirement. This collective stagnation stands as a direct contrast to the early-season optimism surrounding Durant’s Thunder, who are back in their familiar spot atop the Northwest Division.
Unless something drastically changes, it’s hard to even make a case for the Wizards in the Durant sweepstakes next summer. What are they selling if they can’t offer more money, a better shot at winning now, or even the marketing benefits of playing for a prestige franchise? Honestly, Washington has its work cut out if its wants to be one of eight playoff teams in the East, much less the one team that lands next summer’s biggest prize. If the Wizards do fall back into the lottery, next summer might be best spent executing a coaching change and targeting a long-term solution at power forward.