Give And Go: Assessing the future for the Western Conference's lottery teams
Give And Go is a recurring feature in which The Point Forward’s Ben Golliver and Rob Mahoney bat an NBA topic du jour back and forth.
This week: assessing the bottom seven teams in the Western Conference. Through Tuesday, the Jazz, Mavericks, Blazers, Timberwolves, Kings, Suns and Hornets were all tracking toward the draft lottery. Utah, however, was just one game out of the No. 8 seed.
1. Which of these seven teams has the brightest future?
Ben Golliver: The brightness for any of these teams is dimmed for one major reason: the power imbalance between the Western and Eastern conferences. Whereas it's conceivable for a team like the Cavaliers to rocket up the charts over the next year or two, the West's weaker sisters face stiff competition from above. Five of the NBA's seven best teams record-wise this season are in the West and all of those teams have their core pieces locked up to a fairly reasonable degree.
What's more, the current 6-7-8 trio of the Warriors, Rockets and Lakers all can be expected to be competing for playoff spots again next season. The Warriors have their core set; the Rockets have a talented roster with cap space to add to it; and the Lakers have all the money in the world to re-sign Dwight Howard and patch together a roster around him and Kobe Bryant. Barring a shocker -- San Antonio's Manu Ginobili retires, the Clippers' Chris Paul or Howard bolts, the Nuggets go cheap, the Rockets totally blow free agency -- all eight current playoff teams are going to be factors again next season.
That reality forces this question to become a bit of a longer view. Big picture, the Kings and Suns don't have exciting foundational pieces, the Hornets will need some real time to mature, the Mavericks are hamstrung by Dirk Nowitzki and the Timberwolves could be looking down the barrel of some major Kevin Love free agency drama. That process of elimination leaves the Jazz and Trail Blazers, who both present solid cases.
For Utah, the future will revolve around the promising Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter, Gordon Hayward and Alec Burks, all of whom are still on rookie deals. That group will be surrounded by whatever the Jazz are able to add in free agency this summer, either by sign-and-trading Paul Millsap and/or Al Jefferson, bringing one of those guys back or letting one or both walk and spending the money elsewhere. Their payroll commitments next season are minimal, making the Jazz big players no matter which way they decide to go. Their management and ownership houses are in order, both key ingredients when we discuss young teams growing and building together.
The Blazers' core is a bit more expensive -- LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews and Rookie of the Year favorite Damian Lillard will combine to make around $36 million next season -- but it's also a more proven, well-balanced unit that has put up above-average offensive efficiency numbers this season despite playing essentially without a bench. The question marks come in how quickly general manager Neil Olshey can assemble the right combination of complementary pieces and whether Aldridge, the team's lone All-Star, will decide he wants to leave as a free agent in 2015 or, worse, explore his options beforehand, a la Paul, Howard and Carmelo Anthony in recent years. Owner Paul Allen's impatience has gotten in the way in the recent past, which must always be taken into account, and the Blazers will need to show massive improvement on the defensive end if they want to be taken seriously.
When push comes to shove, I'll settle on the Jazz. Their steady front office, good talent base and flexible cap position combine to give them a lot of upward potential over the next two to four seasons. Lillard is the big wild card, though. If he makes a jump like other young point guards -- the Cavaliers' Kyrie Irving and the Sixers' Jrue Holiday, for example -- the Blazers' ramp-up could be quicker and steeper than it might look at first glance.
Rob Mahoney: Love the Jazz pick there, especially with everything we've seen from Kanter over the last few weeks. (The second-year center has averaged 13.1 points and 7.2 rebounds in just 23.1 minutes per game in March.) We honestly haven't seen him play often enough with Favors to know for sure that they can work together effectively, but both seem athletic and malleable enough to make sense as a tandem, and they should mesh well with both Hayward and Burks, giving Utah a fun young core.
I do think the Hornets -- and soon-to-be Pelicans -- deserve mention, though, mostly because No. 1 pick Anthony Davis is an outstanding prospect and has shown steady improvement over the course of the season. Davis may have been productive right off the bat, but his game is very clearly a work in progress. You can see him feeling out the timing of the pick-and-roll game from night to night, slowly picking up the cues that make the league's elite roll men so potent. In the meantime, he's putting up fantastic numbers (16.8 points, 10.1 rebounds, 2.3 blocks and 1.4 steals per 36 minutes) while earning more slack from coach Monty Williams. There are still holes aplenty in New Orleans' rotation, but Davis, Ryan Anderson, Greivis Vasquez and a healthy Eric Gordon is still an outstanding collection of players to build around. That group will take some time to really blossom, but I like what's in place and the prospects of the Hornets' clean cap sheet.
That said, Minnesota would be my pick for the team most able to turn its fortunes around quickly. Minnesota seemed to welcome the potential for injury with the addition of a post-sabbatical Brandon Roy, but otherwise has suffered a string of fluky and unpredictable injuries that derailed a legitimate postseason candidacy. The Wolves' luck shouldn't be quite so disastrous next year, and a full year of Love alone (he has played only 18 games in 2012-13) will make a world of difference. Factor in a re-upped Nikola Pekovic, a healthy season for Ricky Rubio, an improving Derrick Williams, the ever-helpful Andrei Kirilenko, a potentially re-signed Chase Budinger (who has yet to play this season because of a knee injury) and a few minor additions, and Minnesota should be right in the thick of the playoff race come 2013-14.
Ben is absolutely correct in noting that Love's eventual free agency could prove problematic, but the Wolves have two full seasons after this one to persuade him to stick around. It's hard to know at the moment how hard a sell that might be, but given the charisma of this Wolves' roster, I wouldn't be surprised if Love winds up leading Minnesota to two straight playoff appearances.
2. Which of these seven teams has the bleakest future?
BG: The default answer to this one is always the Kings, although their uncertainty clouds the picture. Picture this hypothetical: The Kings move to Seattle, hire Nate McMillan as coach, nail the 2013 draft and find a cap-savvy GM to move out some of their redundant pieces. That doesn't sound so bleak, does it? Or, picture this: Mark Mastrov succeeds in keeping the Kings in Sacramento, cleans house with management and the coaching staff and sets a new organizational tone. That doesn't sound so bleak, either, does it?
The lesson here: The bleakness about the Kings is so irrevocably tied to the Maloof family's bumbling ownership that we shouldn't hold it against the next owners, whomever they might be, until they get a season or two under their belts. That might sound like it will require a lot of patience, but who among us really believes that 2015 will be a worse year for this franchise than 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013 have been? Not I.
That leaves the Suns. One could argue that the only true bright spot on Phoenix's roster is Goran Dragic, who ranks No. 21 in Player Efficiency Rating among point guards. When your shining ray of hope is an average-ish starter, that's bleak. The good news is that Phoenix will have cap space this summer; the bad news is that they used cap space to sign Michael Beasley last summer in one of the worst contracts of the offseason.
There's just so much work that needs to be done here and so many ill-fitting parts. Marcin Gortat is unhappy and likely needs to be shipped out. What's the point of Luis Scola? Who knows. Jared Dudley is a nice player who should be playing on a veteran, playoff-bound team. None of the younger prospects have, as of yet, truly distinguished themselves. Management hasn't proved to be particularly adept, and interim coach Lindsey Hunter's future hasn't yet been decided. Questions upstairs, questions on the bench and questions on the floor -- that sounds like a winning bleak recipe to me.
RM: Phoenix is certainly the least favorable situation in terms of raw talent, though for a team that's made so many curious decisions the Suns at least have a fair bit of cap flexibility. I'm just as untrusting as you are, Ben, when it comes to how the team will actually make use of its cap room, but it at least gives the front office options in the case that Lance Blanks and Lon Babby trip into a smart move.
The Kings are definitely in the running, though I'll also give them a pass because a new ownership group could actually bode well for the franchise.
But Dallas warrants an unfortunate mention, if only for projecting the bleakest future relative to franchise expectations. The Mavs are on pace to miss the playoffs for the first time since 2001, and unfortunately their prospects don't look all that much better beyond this season. Donnie Nelson and Mark Cuban will make their pitch to Howard and a couple of other free agents, but at this point they would be selling a max-level player on the prospect of suiting up alongside Nowitzki, Vince Carter and a handful of end-of-the-rotation players.* Jae Crowder and Bernard James are decent players and good value for where they were selected in the draft, but a bit lacking when considered among the top five players the Mavs have under contract for next season.
The problem, as I articulated a few weeks back, is that Dallas is attempting a blank slate rebuild on a limited timetable with a $22.7 million salary already on the books for Nowitzki. Playoff contention next season would be a longshot, and beyond that the Mavs really don't have any intriguing pieces to build around save a potentially re-signed, 36-year-old Nowitzki. Dirk should still be productive at that age provided he wants to keep playing, but is that really enough to propel Dallas back into the playoff picture?
*Shawn Marion would likely have to be traded for Dallas to have enough cap room for a full max deal.
3. What's the most glaring roster need?
BG: There are so many options here. The Blazers need a center. The Mavericks need a point guard. The Timberwolves need a shooting guard. The Kings need a designated passer. The Suns need basically everything.
But I'll home in on Dallas because it is on track to have a decent amount of flexibility this summer with so few future salary obligations. Thousands of words have been written about Tyson Chandler's departure after the 2011 Finals victory, and rightfully so. The losses of Jason Kidd and Jason Terry last summer weren't as crippling, individually, but the Band-Aid backcourt solutions -- Darren Collison and O.J. Mayo -- haven't been enough to keep the Mavericks in the postseason picture. Mayo has been solid. He's led Dallas in scoring, he's shot the lights out from deep and he's done enough on both ends to earn himself some real money as a free agent this summer, whether from Cuban or elsewhere.
The same can't exactly be said for Collison, who was acquired in a trade with the Pacers. He briefly lost his job to Derek Fisher -- the NBA version of a scarlet letter -- and his shooting consistency has wavered. His numbers -- 12.3 points and 5.2 assists -- aren't terrible, but the West is so loaded with talented point guards that he's rarely the favorite in a matchup of floor generals. That's no great shame considering the competition (Paul, Russell Westbrook, Tony Parker, Stephen Curry, Ty Lawson and others) but getting the most mileage out of the final chapter of Nowitzki's career will almost certainly require an upgrade.
RM: Utah is a good point guard away from being a really solid team. The Jazz may be able to grab a decent option at that position -- or at least acquire the assets to potentially do so -- with a sign-and-trade for either Jefferson or Millsap. Either way, the Jazz are due for a change; Mo Williams, Earl Watson and Jamaal Tinsley will all be unrestricted free agents this summer, giving GM Dennis Lindsey complete freedom to sculpt a new point guard rotation from scratch. The free agent options are somewhat underwhelming beyond the pipe-dream scenario of nabbing Paul, but Jeff Teague (restricted) or Jarrett Jack (unrestricted) could make for an interesting first-line addition, with Beno Udrih (unrestricted) an intriguing potential backup.
4. Which team is in most need of a coaching change?
BG: The early-season favorite to get sacked, Alvin Gentry, indeed got fired in the desert. Will his replacement, Hunter, be kept on? Only the mad scientists in the Suns' front office can answer that one. Nothing was predictable in how they appointed Hunter as interim. But he's done fine, going 10-17, which is as good as can be expected with this group.
The other most obvious candidate, Sacramento's Keith Smart, has a contract that runs through 2013-14 but will almost surely find his job status up in the air depending on the team's prospective sale. The Kings play the worst defense in the West and have a below-average offense, which is often a fireable combination, and some media members haven't been thrilled with Smart's playing time decisions. The illogical roster moves made over the last half-decade have done Smart no favors, and DeMarcus Cousins' attitude and act would be a nightmare for everyone. Should the Kings relocate to Seattle, moving Smart out in favor of a popular local icon like McMillan would make all the sense in the world.
With Monty Williams and Terry Stotts just getting started in New Orleans and Portland, respectively, and Rick Carlisle fully entrenched in Dallas, the only remaining candidates are Tyrone Corbin in Utah and Rick Adelman in Minnesota. The Jazz's collapse over the last few weeks, the strained relationship with Raja Bell and the reliance (perhaps over-reliance) on veterans are all issues to consider with Corbin. But the franchise was in a bit of a wait-and-see mode this year, with Jefferson and Millsap among those in contract years. What's the urgency in parting ways with Corbin, especially for a franchise that has historically valued stability? Adelman, meanwhile, is one of the league's best coaches. The only reason he wouldn't be back is his wife's health, which led him to take leave briefly this season, kept him away or if he simply got sick of coaching a half-injured team night after night.
Smart seems like the right pick here, as he's dealing with the most smoke around his job security.
RM: If anyone, it's Smart, for exactly the reasons that Ben outlined. He's been dealt a weird roster with gluts at certain positions and clear deficits at others, but for me it's the lack of a coherent plan that does him in. Few Kings players seem to have any idea what their roles or directives actually are on either end of the court. Though some of that may not be entirely Smart's fault, it's ultimately the coach's responsibility to ensure that his players are all on the same page. That can't at all be said of these Kings, who at their very best resemble an ultra-talented pick-up team playing with the slightest modicum of team structure.
I had high hopes for Smart based on his initial relationship with Cousins and some of the strategic notes he's made in public interviews over the past few seasons. But Cousins has been an on-court wreck in terms of behavior and demeanor, the Kings look woefully unprepared on a nightly basis and Smart's lineup decisions leave much to be desired. It may be unfair to call for his job, but it's safe to say that Smart's work in leading the Kings this season has been lacking.
All of that said, concerns are growing around Corbin, who has mismanaged the Jazz's rotation down the stretch and cost Utah dearly in a series of close games. Ben's right in mentioning Corbin's preference for veterans, though the troubles go a step further in the coach's bizarre preference for ineffective veterans. He's not just marginalizing the Jazz's young talent for the sake of competing at a higher level now, but actively hurting his team's chances by playing Marvin Williams for far too long, refusing to better incorporate Burks and Hayward and constructing unbalanced, vet-heavy lineups that put far too much pressure on Utah's big men.
The Jazz's roster isn't exactly overflowing with quality wing players, but Corbin seems to get in his own way when it comes to filling out his rotation. Again: I'm not sure that alone is reason enough for the Jazz to move in a different direction. But I remain unimpressed with Corbin's handling of his team's depth chart, particularly given the cost of those decisions to Utah's lingering playoff hopes.
5. Which team should consider a new general manager?
BG: Not to constantly harp on the Kings here, but who else could it be? Reports circulated in December that GM Geoff Petrie was headed out after 19 years with the Kings. The two-time Executive of the Year has been in the unenviable position of working for the Maloofs, who have battled serious financial problems in recent years, so it's always difficult to judge his moves. The constant question: Does Petrie want to make that trade or is he being forced to by ownership? The list of questionable moves is a mile long and doesn't need to be rehashed again. Phoenix, whose front-office moves have looked confused and desperate, and Minnesota, where David Kahn's trades and signings have mostly failed to come to fruition as hoped, are other organizations that should contemplate new management.