By Ian Thomsen
April 11, 2013

The league is now split into two worlds -- teams that are focused more than ever on the here and now of the playoffs, and teams that are already looking ahead to next year. Raptors president Bryan Colangelo is part of the latter group, and he has reason for optimism.

"We're young," he said. "We've got really good talent. We've got depth at every position. We've got a chance for some -- what I'm going to call -- organic growth."

Toronto should improve with the continuing growth of rookies Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross. DeMar DeRozan hasn't peaked, and the Raptors will hope that hard-driving point guard Kyle Lowry can turn the corner after seven frustrated and frustrating seasons with three teams. There is also a full season of Rudy Gay to come, following the midseason trade for the Grizzlies' leading scorer.

"Rudy immediately gave our team a presence in the locker room; it's a quiet presence but a strong presence," said Colangelo. "I think he gives us a little credibility around the league. My counterparts, different media guys that I've talked to, agents, a couple of owners have commented that it's not every day you get a guy like Rudy at his level, and there's a little bit of star power that comes with it."

It also presents questions for the early offseason that begins with the official end to the season next week. How will the Raptors fill out their rotation around Gay? They're surely going to gauge interest in a trade for Andrea Bargnani, their former No. 1 pick who has been rumored to be on the move for the last year. They must also decide whether to commit to Lowry, whose $6.2 million expiring salary for next season can be bought-out by Toronto for $1 million. The Raptors' new ownership group must itself decide the future of Colangelo, who effectively will be a free agent, and coach Dwane Casey, who has another year on his deal.

Ownership would be smart to maintain the investment in Colangelo and Casey for at least another year, rather than bring in a new group that would be inclined to tear down and start over. Under the new rules of the collective bargaining agreement, tearing down and starting over is more difficult than ever. In the case of Toronto, the prospects are, at the very least, intriguing.

Here is a look ahead at the questions that will face the Raptors' peer group -- the other 14 teams that have or may miss the playoffs (including the Jazz and Lakers, who are fighting for the final postseason spot) -- this summer. Let's work our way up from the bottom of the league standings:

30. Charlotte Bobcats. It's a draft without stars, but the Bobcats can still expect to add a solid player with their high draft pick. They could spend the next year seeking a trade into their cap space, but their best long-term move will probably be to develop their current roster while earning another high pick in the draft next year (when the talent is supposed to rise) and then begin to spend their cap space in 2014, when Ben Gordon's contract will expire. In the meantime they must make decisions on the future for restricted free agent Gerald Henderson and emerging big man Byron Mullens.

29. Orlando Magic. Their keepers include center Nikola Vucevic, small forward Tobias Harris, shooting guard Maurice Harkless and swingman Arron Afflalo. They can continue to develop their young players while waiting for substantial cap space to emerge in 2014 with the expiration of Hedo Turkoglu's $12 million salary. Another option would be to package some of their young assets in order to acquire a star by trade, in much the same way as Toronto acquired Gay from Memphis for cap reasons.

28. Phoenix Suns. Their first decision will involve whether to turn interim coach Lindsey Hunter into a permanent hire. They'll have a pair of first-round picks along with close to $10 million in cap space this summer. While they can't expect a quick turnaround that will put them back into the playoffs, they will be proactive while trying to add talent around their best player Goran Dragic, who turned out to be a strong signing last summer. Channing Frye could return next season from a heart ailment that sidelined him all of this year.

27. Cleveland Cavaliers. It's hard to understand the talk that coach Byron Scott may be fired, as youth and injuries made it impossible to win in Cleveland this year. Yet the Cavaliers are progressing via Kyrie Irving, who became a first-time All-Star this year, and second-year power forward Tristan Thompson (12 points and 9.8 rebounds since the All-Star break). Anderson Varejao will return from injuries next season and Dion Waiters' shooting should improve over the summer. The plan is to continue to develop the young players while holding onto cap space until the next summer of LeBron in 2014.

26. Detroit Pistons. They'll have plenty of cap space this summer, and could have even more if Charlie Villanueva's $8.6 million salary is written off as amnesty. Will they re-sign free agent point guard Jose Calderon? Will they seek to trade big man Greg Monroe, or do they believe he and Andre Drummond can excel together for years to come? Will Lawrence Frank be brought back as coach? The Pistons are one team that could make a step up in the standings next season if they're able to add scoring on the perimeter and if a strong summer of work enables Drummond to play starter's minutes next year.

25. New Orleans Hornets. The soon-to-be-Pelicans would be advised to not force a trade of Eric Gordon (and the $44.7 million he's owed over the next three years) as his value will be low coming off this year of injury. It'd be better to bring him back healthy and showcase him for a trade in February. Anthony Davis will continue to be developed cautiously next season. In the meantime the Hornets will be seeking to add scorers around him. The goal should be playoff contention for 2014-15.

24. Sacramento Kings. The new owner (whoever and wherever he is) will be overhauling the front office, the coaching staff and the roster this summer. Whether the Kings stay in Sacramento or move to Seattle, the wise move for DeMarcus Cousins would be to create a new environment around him and then see how he responds. The same goes for upcoming unrestricted free agent Tyreke Evans, who will be entering his fifth NBA season but will be only 24.

23. Washington Wizards. They've gone 24-22 this season with John Wall in the lineup, and only LeBron James and Kobe Bryant have surpassed Wall's numbers of 23.1 points, 7.6 assists and 4.8 rebounds in his last 23 games. The defense is strong and Wall should contend for an All-Star breakthrough next year. A decision must be made on free agent Martell Webster. The short-term goal is to continue developing the young talent with coach Randy Wittman through next season, and then see what they can do with the cap space that comes with the 2014 contract expirations of Trevor Ariza and Emeka Okafor.

22. Minnesota Timberwolves. The big issue will be finding a coach to replace Rick Adelman if he chooses to retire this summer. Otherwise a promising year of Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio -- together in good health -- lays ahead. The Wolves don't have a lot of flexibility, but they do have the right to match any offer for Nikola Pekovic, along with enough talent from Andrei Kirilenko, Alexey Shved and others to put them in playoff contention next season.

21. Toronto Raptors. (see above)

20. Philadelphia 76ers. Will Doug Collins stay? What will be done with Andrew Bynum? Even if they renounce everyone, they won't have enough money to sign a star who can replace him. There will be no quick-and-easy solutions for the Sixers.

19. Portland Trail Blazers. They'll have limited cap space and aren't likely to spend it on a long-term deal to bring back J.J. Hickson. They already have two stars in LaMarcus Aldridge and rookie Damian Lillard, who can be expected to keep improving. Nicolas Batum is another keeper. They're a promising team that is likely to be better next year -- but unlikely to make a big leap up.

18. Dallas Mavericks. How many times have we heard about their cap space? If Dwight Howard refuses to leave the Lakers, then the Mavs will be seeking to trade a star into their cap in order to give Dirk Nowitzki another shot, eventually, at title contention.

17. Los Angeles Lakers or Utah Jazz. Neither L.A. nor Utah should be seeking to fire its coach. The Lakers' offseason revolves around Dwight Howard. If they lose him, then Pau Gasol becomes their center for the final year of his deal; if they keep him, then Gasol will probably be on the move, one way or another.

For the Jazz, major decisions must be made on free agents Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap -- with the understanding that at least one of them must be replaced by a scorer on the perimeter.


? Kobe Bryant drives the Lakers. He scored a season-best 47 points while pushing them to a 113-106 win Wednesday at Portland, where the Lakers have had trouble winning in the past. Bryant played 48 minutes against an extremely young Blazers rotation centered around LaMarcus Aldridge, which raises the question of how the Lakers could possibly manage a seven-game series against the Thunder or Spurs. While Pau Gasol has looked strong since his return from plantar fasciitis, a hamstring injury continued to sideline Steve Nash, Metta World Peace rushed back from knee surgery and Dwight Howard continues to deal with his own physical issues. But their dim prospects for a long playoff run don't diminish the play of Bryant, who has been playing on a badly sprained ankle. He has spent recent months discussing his imminent retirement while guaranteeing a playoff appearance for the Lakers. "What he [Bryant] is doing is phenomenal,'' said Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni. "He's determined to get us in the playoffs."

? Jazz move forward without Enes Kanter. The young Jazz center underwent surgery Wednesday to repair his dislocated left shoulder, officially ending his season prematurely. The Jazz remained a half-game behind the Lakers entering the final week, but Utah holds the tiebreaker. Its final three games include a home-and-away series with Minnesota and a season-ending game at Memphis, which may (or may not) need to win that game in order to maintain homecourt advantage for the first round. The Lakers, as usual, face the more difficult schedule against the Warriors, Spurs and Rockets, though all three are at home. It remains hard to imagine Bryant's Lakers missing the playoffs, if only because Bryant won't allow it to happen.

? Heat clinch the No. 1 seed. If the Thunder or Spurs are going to upset the Heat in the NBA Finals, they'll have to beat LeBron James at least once on his home floor. The formerly woebegone Knicks and Clippers each won their divisions, but those achievements reside on a tier below Miami, which has already won a franchise record 62 games and a fourth MVP is surely on the way for James. It could be a straightforward postseason for him and his defending champions.

? A request for resolution in Sacramento. The Maloof family issued a Friday 5 p.m. deadline for Sacramento's potential investors to submit a written, binding offer that matches the $525 million agreement that has been signed with the group in Seattle, the Sacramento Bee reported. The apparent intention was to emphasize that Sacramento has yet to come forth with a binding offer. The terms of the sale to Seattle have been finalized by a signed agreement and cannot be renegotiated down by the prospective owners -- a crucial fact to any owner trying to sell a sports franchise.

? Doug Collins on the way out? The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the 76ers are privately hoping that Collins, 62, won't return for the final year of his contract next season. Collins has been exasperated -- understandably -- by the Sixers' plunge into the lottery, largely the result of the unavailability of injured center Andrew Bynum. The report referred to a power struggle between Collins and the team's relatively new ownership group. Friends of Collins have been predicting all season that he would be unlikely to return for another year.

? Another surgery for Kevin Love. The Timberwolves' star forward underwent surgery on his left knee to remove scar tissue Wednesday. A hand injury had already cost him most of this lost season, but the return of Love and Ricky Rubio -- himself sidelined earlier this season while recovering from knee surgery -- promises a run at the playoffs next season for Minnesota.

? More underclassmen enter the draft. All of the expected lottery picks -- most recently Ben McLemore, Victor Olapido and Cody Zeller -- revealed they'll be turning pro in June, and why not? Next year's draft is expected to be far superior, and waiting until 2014 would reduce the stock of virtually all of the top prospects.

? Bernard King elected to the Hall of Fame. This was a surprise, based on the injuries that shortened his career. But it was also a sign that voters judged his brilliance to be more important than his longevity. The long-term impact is that the candidacy of Alonzo Mourning became more promising.

? Marty Blake dies. Blake, 86, had worked for the NBA for more than 50 years, including more than 35 years as its director of scouting. He was a pioneer in the discovery of players internationally. "Marty began his lifetime of service to basketball at a time when the league was still in its infancy," said NBA Commissioner David Stern. He saw the league grow up to fulfill his vision for what it could be.

Get To Know Courtney Lee

The 6-foot-5 guard is finishing his first year with the Celtics, strengthening their defense in the backcourt alongside Avery Bradley. Lee, 27, has played for four NBA teams in five seasons.

? He was raised with two brothers by their single mother in Indianapolis. "There was a lot of gang activity going on. There were definitely drugs involved, but for the most part I stayed away from it because I played sports, and when I went outside with my friends we were playing football. The most dangerous thing was a lot of drive-by shootings. We were outside playing football, and you could hear the tire screeches and gun shots.

"My mother definitely was tough. She had to be -- she was raising three boys. She wanted us to grow up the right way and not get off the right path and get involved in what everybody else was doing, getting involved in the neighborhood.

"Everybody went to college. My oldest brother went to Pace University in New York, and he's in medical science. My other brother went to the University of Indianapolis, and then finished at Ball State. He's an engineer. A month and a half ago I relocated my family [mother and brothers] to Orlando. Indianapolis was good, we all lived there -- born and raised and grew up there. I think they've been there long enough. You go back, so much has changed. All the people you grew up with, they started their families or they've moved on with their life, or moved out of the state. There's really not too much there, besides family. That's why I want to get them closer to me, and I live in Orlando.''

? Basketball wasn't his first choice. "I was a football player. I was quarterback, running back, wide receiver, played safety and cornerback. Once I hit a growth spurt and realized getting hit in the snowy weather is not what I want to do, I started focusing on basketball a little more. That was my freshman year of high school: I was on the football team, and I remember there was one scrimmage. It had to be at least 20-below out. I got hit one time, and I just sat there numb. This is not for me, no more. I switched to basketball.

"My freshman year of high school, I was kind of with the wrong crowd and I wasn't going to class. I wasn't getting the grades I needed to get. My sophomore year I did better, and my junior year was when I turned it around. I got good in basketball, the teams were calling, and then in my senior year I had to go to night school to make up for my freshman year. So a lot of teams were calling, and they weren't giving me offers because they weren't sure if I was going to qualify with my grades and then my test scores. I got in a nice groove my senior year, making up for the D's and F's, and getting A's and B's -- it brought my GPA up. Then I got my test score and the first time I took it, I qualified. The schools that were there from the beginning, even when I wasn't, was Western Kentucky and Bradley University, so I said these are the two schools I'm going to stick with and visit both of them. And I liked Western more than Bradley."

? After four years at Western Kentucky he was picked No. 22 overall by Orlando in the 2008 draft. He found his niche as a defensive player. ``That was something my coaches always wanted me to do. Growing up, I was always a scorer. But I had the capabilities of becoming a good defender; playing defense is just effort. It's what got me on the court in Orlando, and I just stuck with it. Stan [Van Gundy] taught me all the philosophies, the sets, the scheme, the everything of the NBA, especially guarding the pick-and-roll and what not. He put me out there, he had faith in me. I think he's a great coach."

As a rookie he started all five games of the NBA Finals against the champion Lakers. "It was an unbelievable experience. Coming in your first year, you go along that ride of not just being on the team, but part of the plan. My senior year was my first time experiencing the NCAA tournament and we made it to the Sweet 16, so I thought that was the highlight of basketball. Then I got to the NBA and made it to the Finals."

Lee missed a difficult tip-in that would have won Game 2 off an inbounds lob with .06 seconds remaining. The Lakers won that game in overtime. "It stuck with me for a while. You put anybody in that position, you definitely want to make it; but then when you miss it, it definitely makes a statement. I wasn't going to let that define me. I was definitely down about it for a year or two -- always thought about it. But you just have to keep going on. You have to continue to play, keep doing what you do, what you have to do, wherever you're at. It defines character."

The upcoming playoffs will be Lee's first return to the postseason since the '09 Finals. "They [the Celtics] are a playoff-caliber team every year -- you see the guys they had last year, they went to the conference finals and gave [the Heat] a battle for their money. I definitely want to be a part of that again. It's been four years since I've been to the playoffs. I'm thirsty -- that's the term we use around here. I want to get back.''

Quote Of The Week

"I want to keep bringing in pieces that are going to complement them and hope we can have one of those 10-year rides." -- Pat Riley on the future of the Heat.

This pronouncement by the Miami Heat president was depressing to his rivals throughout the league. They hope that the Heat dynasty will end with the departure of LeBron James as a free agent next summer. Not so, said Riley Sunday. "You think about every team -- the Celtics in the '60s, the Lakers in the '80s, the Bulls [in the '90s] and then again the Spurs. Those guys have been together for eight, nine, 10 years. If we can keep this group together for eight, nine, 10 years, we're all going to have some fun. Don't ever take it for granted. This is a special time."

The Breakdown

An NBA advance scout looks at the race for the Most Improved Player award. He opens the discussion with the candidacy of Rockets guard James Harden:

"The question is how much has Harden improved, as opposed to how many more shots is he taking? I don't think he'd be a terrible pick, but I also think his minutes have increased more than he's improved.

"If you look at Harden in the playoffs for Oklahoma City last year, he had a bad stretch -- but there was also a stretch where he was their best player. I think he was already there as a talent. The role that he was in was a good fit for Oklahoma City, and not so much for him. I'm not surprised that he's as good as he is. I saw that he was this good last year.

"Obviously I didn't think the Rockets as a team were going to be as good as they have been. Harden is solely responsible for that. He's proven that he's good enough to be a superstar of a team, which is saying something, but I think most people would have thought that he was able to be the best player on a team.

"I'd say [Rockets center] Omer Asik is more improved than Harden. Even saying that, I already thought Asik was good before this year. Most people that I know [in the league] really like the guy. Maybe he's a little better than a lot of people thought, but I don't think the way he's been playing is a big shock. He's showing that he was better than the backup role that he had in Chicago. I would vote for Asik more so than Harden because Harden was the third-best player on his old team, whereas Asik was not playing Harden's minutes. Now, he's had to do it on a higher-minute basis.

"Jrue Holiday has been horrible lately, but he's actually the first guy I think about for this award. He definitely took a bigger leap those guys in Houston. But on the same scale, he didn't get his team in the playoffs.

"Serge Ibaka has taken a step up, and he's been given the opportunity and moved up to that third-guy role for Oklahoma City. The other one would be Stephen Curry as a guy who has taken that next step and also got his team into the playoffs. His team is better than the Sixers, obviously, but Curry is definitely their star. I just think he's a hell of a player. He has become that guy for a team that hadn't made the playoffs, and now he's made them into a playoff team.

"Greivis Vasquez has got to be in the mix because he's had such a great year. I really liked him when he was a backup, because he tries -- but he just can't quite do it. He's obviously one of the best 30 point guards in the league, but you're a good team if he's your backup. So many times I've seen him at the end of the game when Eric Gordon hasn't been there, when Vasquez has got the ball in his hands, and very rarely can he get it done. But that's not to say he didn't improve a lot. The fact that he's third in the NBA in assists, that's a hell of a step up for him.

"Nikola Vucevic was good last year, but no one saw this coming -- the numbers he's putting up this year. I guarantee you that no one thought he would be this good so early in his career. Larry Sanders also deserves to be considered.

"I'd also say that the jump Paul George made this year was harder than the one Harden made. George looked like a star in spurts last year, but this year he made a big step up. He's not a legitimate All-Star, in my opinion, but he's very close.

"I'm going to say my top three, in no particular order, would be Paul George, Vucevic and Curry.''

All-Pioneer Team

These players broke through barriers. None was a Hall of Famer, but great players would follow them through the door.

C: Darryl Dawkins, 76ers, debuted in 1975 -- The 6-11 prodigy became the first high school player to be drafted; he played 14 seasons with four teams. C: Wang Zhizhi, Mavericks, 2001 -- The 7-footer became the first Chinese player to play in the NBA, two years after the Mavericks surprisingly picked him in the second round. In total, he played five seasons with three teams. F: Georgi Glouchkov, Suns, 1985 -- The 6-8 Bulgarian became the first European with no American high school or college experience to be drafted (in the seventh round, 148th pick overall) and play in the NBA (49 games for the Suns in 1985-86). F: Chuck Cooper, Celtics, 1950 -- Became the first black player drafted; played six seasons with four teams. G: Muggsy Bogues, Bullets, 1987 -- became the first player under 5-6 and shortest player (5-3) in NBA history; played 14 seasons with four teams in an era of big guards.

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