Building a sustained winner in today’s top-heavy NBA is no easy task.
The Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors are at the top of the heap, but how long will those windows stay open? When the inevitable changing of the guard occurs, teams have to be well-positioned to take advantage.
Here’s a look at five teams that missed the playoffs in 2016-17 but have bright futures in store, this season and beyond:
The folks in Philadelphia have been “trusting the process” for what feels like forever and it looks like this could be the year their team takes the next step.
The 76ers look solid enough on paper to compete for a playoff berth in the weak Eastern Conference as early as this season. First overall pick Markelle Fultz shares the backcourt with veteran sharpshooter JJ Redick, while up front, Philadelphia will roll out a trio of Joel Embiid, Dario Saric, and 2016 No. 1 pick Ben Simmons.
Health will be absolutely crucial to the 76ers’ success and continued development as injuries knocked Simmons out for the entire 2016-17 campaign and a knee issue limited Embiid to just 31 games. Those two need to stay on the court for Philadelphia to return to the post-season for the first time since 2011-12.
It’s easy to be excited about Lonzo Ball and the impact he could have on one of the NBA’s most storied franchises— specifically his on-court impact. Forget the circus that comes with him off the court and Ball looks like a strong floor general moving forward. Throw in Brandon Ingram and Julius Randle and the Lakers have some solid building blocks.
However, the main reason the future seems promising in Los Angeles isn’t due to the current roster makeup, it’s because of the rumours swirling for next summer. LeBron James is at the centre of NBA gossip once again as speculation runs rampant that this season will be his last as a member of the Cavaliers. Obviously nothing is set in stone, but the Lakers seem to be the favourite to land the best player in the world should he leave Cleveland once again.
If James stays put or decides to sign elsewhere, Los Angeles could still bring in another superstar next summer in Paul George. It’s no secret the Lakers have been linked to George, who hits free agency after 2017-18, and they were even slapped with a tampering charge last month.
It seems inevitable the Lakers will acquire a bonafide star in the near future to pair with a potential one in Ball. The only question remaining is who will it be?
Denver finished one game out of a playoff position last season and seem poised to punch a ticket to the dance this year.
Centre Nikola Jokic is a budding franchise player, and pairing him with the recently signed Paul Millsap gives the Nuggets an imposing frontcourt. Jokic is the real deal as he is able to score and facilitate at elite levels. Put those skills together with his three-point shooting ability and he is the ideal big man in today’s NBA.
There’s plenty to like about a Denver team that finished 2016-17 with a top-five offence and made improvements to its roster. The defence was a sore spot, finishing 29th in efficiency, but Millsap should help cover up some of those flaws. Throw in young standouts like Jamal Murray and Gary Harris and the Nuggets are as well-positioned for the future as just about any team in the league.
It’s hard to look at Phoenix’s performance last season and see reasons for optimism. This squad finished at the bottom of its conference and posted the second-worst record in the entire league.
Despite that mark of futility, there is a glimmer of hope in the desert. Shooting guard Devin Booker has emerged into a big-time scorer at the ripe age of 20. Phoenix also took one of the most exciting players in June’s draft, selecting Kansas standout Josh Jackson with the fourth overall pick. Those two players give the Suns strong pieces to build around moving forward.
Eric Bledsoe provides the Suns with an intriguing trade chip to move if they so desire. The 27 year-old is a legitimate scoring threat and is due $29.5 million over the next two seasons, which is currently a bargain for a player of his offensive calibre. The Suns won’t be contenders while they have him under contract, and they could likely fetch a nice return for Bledsoe in the form of young players and/or draft picks to add to the mix.
Ok, maybe this is cheating a little bit. A team that already boasted two of the most exciting young talents in the game that went out and traded for Jimmy Butler in the off-season probably can’t be considered a sleeper of any kind.
That being said, the Timberwolves were a popular breakout pick entering last season, with many thinking Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns and Co. were ready to challenge for a post-season spot. Turns out the young stars weren’t quite there yet as Minnesota whimpered to a 31-51 record and a 13th-place finish in the Western Conference.
With a Towns-Wiggins-Butler core in place, the Timberwolves went out and augmented the roster over the summer with veterans Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson as well as perennial Sixth Man Award candidate Jamal Crawford. The future has looked bright in Minnesota for a while, but now it’s time to realistically shift to the present. Anything short of the playoffs won’t be good enough in 2017-18.