Once the regular season ends, we typically take the focus off teams that fail to make the playoffs and shift toward the NBA's elite. But even the league's best were simply a ball of potential at one point. Today, there are similar teams and young stars sitting on the sidelines. To shine a light on those squads currently waiting in the shadows, members of The Crossover staff explain which lottery team they believe has the brightest future.
Lee Jenkins: Wolves
They were a massive disappointment this season, finishing 20 games under .500 and losing 12 of their last 15, but the Timberwolves’ future is the brightest of any lottery team. A lot of the NBA’s also-rans hope they have two stars on their roster. The T-Wolves, with Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, know it. They now must decide which point guard will grow with those guys—Ricky Rubio, Kris Dunn, or someone else entirely—and really buy into Tom Thibodeau’s defense. Minnesota finished 18th in points allowed per game this season, odd for a Thibodeau-coached squad, and Towns has work to do on rim protection if he’s going to assume the Joakim Noah/Kevin Garnett role for Thibs. But Towns is only 21, already among the best centers in the league, and Wiggins 22. Players of that age, as talented as they may be, don’t typically win a lot. But they do later.
Ben Golliver: 76ers
If “Brightest future” is defined by pure upside rather than by the likelihood that a best-case scenario actually manifests, Philadelphia stacks up very well against the other 13 lottery teams, including Minnesota. The case obviously starts with center Joel Embiid, who showed in his 31 games this season that he is a major positive on both offense and defense, something that Karl-Anthony Towns is still working to master. But this isn’t just about Embiid singlehandedly carrying the Sixers to a promised land of Shirley Temple and champagne baths because Ben Simmons is also in the fold. The 2016 No. 1 overall pick is the most overlooked potential star in the league right now since he didn’t play in the 2016 NCAA tournament and wasn’t able to suit up during his rookie year due to injury. While he’s not as freakishly athletic as Giannis Antetokounmpo, he should be able to put pressure on the rim with his physical driving ability, to work a nice two-man game with Embiid, and to set up complementary players for easy buckets with his elite vision. In theory, it should be easier to build an efficient attack around Simmons’s initiation and passing rather than, say, Andrew Wiggins’s individual scoring game.
From there, Philadelphia’s draft pick situation puts it in a uniquely optimistic situation. After fielding two Rookie of the Year candidates in Embiid and Dario Saric this season, the Sixers could actually have three such players next year in Simmons, their 2017 lottery pick (which could be as high as No. 1) and the Lakers’ 2017 top-three protected pick (which could be as high as No. 4). One of those three players—likely Simmons—would rise to the top of the pecking order, but that’s an awful lot of ammunition to have in one locker room. Even if Philadelphia doesn’t jump up on the draft board and even if they don’t receive L.A.’s pick this year, the Sixers’ core going forward includes Embiid, Simmons, Saric, Robert Covington, T.J. McConnell and whatever scrapyard parts the front office can get back for Jahlil Okafor. With good health (a major assumption, to be sure) and a few additions around the edges this summer, that’s enough talent to jump into the East’s playoff bubble next season. Lastly, Philadelphia’s conference geography gives it a leg up over teams with promising cores like Minnesota and Denver, who must climb the ladder in the West, where 10 of this season’s 15 most deserving All-NBA candidates are duking it out.
DeAntae Prince: Wolves
Minnesota entered the NBA regular season with playoff expectations, as close observers of the league heaped praise on Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn. Each player deserved to be lauded, even if the prediction of what they could do collectively was premature. As the season wore on, it became clear that the Wolves were a few years, maybe more, away from becoming the team we expected them to be. That said, they're uniquely qualified for an NBA lottery team.
Sure, their 31–51 record was worse than that of Miami, Denver, Detroit, Dallas and a few others. But none of those teams have the building blocks on hand that Minnesota does, and few have a coach as capable as Tom Thibodeau. If Towns remains elite, Wiggins continues to grow and LaVine gets healthy, the Wolves should be back and ready to capitalize on the brightest future in this year's NBA lottery.
Jeremy Woo: Heat
Who needs high lottery picks, drool-worthy talent and mountains of developmental uncertainty? The Miami Heat just put together the best second half of any team that has ever missed the playoffs. That counts for something! The Heat are good not next year, not in five years, not if their star player can avoid further injury, but right now. If Dion Waiters hadn't gotten hurt, Miami would likely still be playing basketball right now. And none of that is a total loss! Remember we're still talking about Pat Riley and glorious, personal income tax-FREE Miami. The Heat just circumvented their own rebuild, displayed something tangibly positive, and remain a sneaky landing spot for free agent talent. Of course, that's only if Waiters island is still leasing.
Jake Fischer: 76ers
There is no answer to this question other than the Philadelphia 76ers. Ben Simmons just announced a clean bill of health. Joel Embiid is already rehabbing from successful minor knee surgery, well on track to return for opening night. There's a more-likely-than-not chance the Lakers' convey a second top-five pick to the Sixers in May, for one of the deepest drafts in recent history. Brett Brown guided a group of misfits to the 15th-best defense in the league. Robert Covington has emerged as an All-NBA caliber wing stopper. And the Sixers own the Sacramento Kings' unprotected 2019 first round pick... which could reach 2017 Nets' pick levels. It all truly funnels down to that defensive efficiency. It's easy to stockpile young talent and create an explosive offense, but the stingiest defensive units rise to the upper echelons of the NBA. Embiid-Simmons-Covington is the foundation of a lethal, lockdown unit. Good luck scoring against this team for the next 10 years.