The playoffs are already underway which means 14 squads are already plotting towards next season. The Jazz have pissed away their shot and the Lakers are looking to head back to Los Angeles tied 1-1 after Game 2 tonight in San Antonio. The NBA is unlike the NFL in that teams don't just leapfrog to the top on a year's notice. Thanks to the new collective bargaining agreement keeping teams from forming more Big Threes, it'll be more difficult for the rich to get richer without shelling out tons of money.
That's why the opportunity is bigger than ever for teams to built on their way to titles. With that said, I took a look at the teams not in the playoffs this year and ranked them in order by who could possibly win a title first. Some teams don't have a chance while others have nice nuclei to make their ways to the titles in the matter of a few short years.
And as a special attraction to our playoff coverage, we're offering PLAYOFF BADGES! Here's how it works:
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Teams With No Chance
14. Charlotte Bobcats
The Big If -- Will they luck up on the next LeBron?
They're the worst team in the league and show no signs of ever improving. Michael Jordan also treats the team like he got its mom pregnant in 1998. They also did Mike Dunlap a favor and fired him only one season into his gig. The only way they'll have a shot is by lucking up on a franchise-changing, transcendent player in one of their drafts.
13. Cleveland Cavaliers
The Biggest If Of All -- The Decision Pt. 2
Full disclosure: when I originally wrote this post a week ago, Cleveland was #3 solely for the possibility they could get LeBron in a year. But the news breaking that Mike Brown just signed a five-year deal to coach basically nixes that whole scenario. And if LeBron isn't coming to Cleveland then Kyrie will probably be a Laker or something stupid in a couple of years. Meanwhile, Cleveland just won't have nice things.
12. Washington Wizards
The Big If -- Can John Wall Become Great?
John Wall needs to be a great point guard to lead these guys anywhere. But the Wizards are known to pick up bad contracts. They may never build a great team around him even if he somehow becomes an elite player.
11. Phoenix Suns
The Big If -- The NBA Goes Through A Fantasy Draft
The Suns have, by far, the worst roster in the NBA. And that's not just us saying that, ask Marcin Gortat. They need a total overhaul. It's crazy how just a few years ago they had one of the best teams in the league. The only reason they're not last is the Bobcats and Wizards' utter incompetence over a consistent basis.
10. Orlando Magic
The Big If -- Can They Turn Expiring Contracts Into Good Signings?
The Orlando Magic as a franchise has been in a crazy holding pattern thanks to the whole Dwight Howard fiasco (but somehow ended with the biggest splash in the damn near automatic double-double Nikola Vucevic). It'll take some time to recover but the bigger issue is the team's penchant for taking on bad contracts from Hedo Turkoglu, Gilbert Arenas and Jameer Nelson to name a few. Once these deals go, the Magic may be able to make some better signings. Of course, that's going to take plenty of years to execute.
9. Detroit Pistons
The Big If -- Can They Get Over The Passing Of A Teammate?
Okay, in all seriousness, Detroit has a nice crop of young talent. Bynum, Knight, Monroe and Drummond are all solid. If one of them can turn into a marquee talent then Detroit can succeed in the long-term. They're going to have to hope for a good few drafts because no high profile free agent is coming anytime soon.
8. Toronto Raptors
The Big If -- Can Rudy Gay Finally Become A Franchise Player?
Rudy Gay has all the talent in the world but something just isn't clicking with his game to hit the next level. If he can get his act together, Toronto has a solid nucleus for success. The main obstacle is just really irresponsible spending including a Landry Fields' albatross salary.
7. Sacramento Kings
The Big If -- Will New Ownership and A New City Mean A New-Look Team?
The Maloofs have done the best they can to ruin the Kings franchise on their way out of the door. Their asinine Thomas Robinson trade, mainly to add a few extra million in their back pockets, is symptomatic of the zero f*cks they gave. There's hope for the Kings. New ownership and a move to Seattle means they could be a totally different franchise in the coming years. If Phil Jackson becomes involved as the rumors indicate then we may really be on to a team that's bound to turn heads by the end of the decade.
6. Utah Jazz
The Big If -- Can They Convince Anyone To Come And Stay In Salt Lake City?
The Utah Jazz have spent the last 15 years suffering a fate worse than bottom-dwelling: mediocrity. They stay in the six-to-nine seed every year and either just miss the playoffs or get bounced in the first couple of rounds. It's virtually impossible to build a great franchise on 13-16th draft picks. Now, the team seems to be losing either one or both of its big men, which means they'll be worse. Maybe that'll lead to a better draft pick. Still, even if they get a high-quality rookie, there doesn't seem to be any way to keep him around past his initial three-year deal. Right, Deron?
5. Philadelphia 76ers
The Big If -- How Long Will It Take To Recover From The Bynum Fiasco?
Andrew Bynum ruined these guys. Despite that, the 76ers are still full of talent even if Evan Turner hasn't lived up to anything close to his expectations. Expect big changes for the team as they are in a huge transition. Doug Collins has hit his three-year breaking point and these guys will be looking for a center to replace the one they paid to not play. But now that they don't have to worry about signing Bynum (or will they?), the 76ers can focus their money elsewhere and build.
4. New Orleans Pelicans
The Big If -- Can Austin Rivers And Anthony Davis Become The League's Next Big 1-2 Punch?
The big name that'll change the Hornets? Dell Demps. He's the team's GM and from the same San Antonio Spurs front office tree that produced OKC's magical GM Sam Presti. Demps has turned the team around, getting rid of unwanted contracts (Emeka Okafor to name one) and plucking out bargains like Greivis Vasquez. His only misstep so far has been re-signing a selfish, overrated Eric Gordon when James Harden became tradeable a month later. Still, Eric Gordon will turn into one or two good players when he's inevitably traded to a team willing to buy into the hype.
But the long-term future of the Hornets resides in the potential of Anthony Davis and Austin Rivers. Rivers, in particular, is having one of the worst statistical years in NBA history but he's shown signs of improvement as Monty Williams has dedicated an entire field of coaches to making him better. If Davis and Rivers can be Marbury/Garnett-lite and team up with one or two solid talents in place of Eric Gordon the Pelicans can be a new powerhouse. Expect them to be perennial playoff contenders within four years.
3. Minnesota Timberwolves
The Big If -- Can The Timberwolves Convince Kevin Love To Stay?
Kevin Love is yet another big-name star who might ditch his squad when his contract is up. There's a glimmer of hope for Minny, though. Love's first option is likely the Lakers, who can't afford him right now so a trade will have to take place. So even if the Timberwolves can't convince K. Dot to stay, Pau Gasol would make a fitting replacement. Now you have Rubio, AK47, Gasol and a 2013 lottery pick moving forward. That's a nice core to build on.
2. Portland Trailblazers
The Big If -- Just How Good Is Damian Lillard?
The Portland Trailblazers are ready for greatness in a few short years and it all rests on the shoulders of Damian Lillard. If he's a Western Conference Kyrie Irving and LaMarcus Aldridge can maintain his productivity, the Blazers will be a team to look out for. All of their players are young and developing, with Nicolas Batum being the only player with a contract that's a bit too pricey.
With the Lakers slowly moving out of the picture, Portland may be the next team to watch out for very soon.
1. Dallas Mavericks
The Big If -- When Does Dirk Get Off Vacation?
Dirk Nowitzki is a pretty interesting case. He spent more than a decade fighting for a title. Then when he got one he basically stopped trying. Suddenly, he went from a top-five player in the league to a guy who could barely stay in shape throughout the season. Then Dirk turned it around towards the end of the season getting Dallas within arms reach of the NBA playoffs capping out at a highly effective 20-8-3 for a 35-year-old guy who appeared to have lost six or seven steps only months ago.
Regardless, the Mavs have a solid roster that should be in the playoffs. Cuban has managed to build a bunch of talent at low prices. Vince Carter remains one of the league's best bargains while OJ Mayo and Darren Collison are affordable as well. Add in Chris Kaman's expiring contract and Dallas has plenty of cap room for a run at Dwight Howard or Kevin Love going forward. If Dallas can grab a high-end free agent, relegating Dirk to a second option, then the Mavericks can make one more push to a title as soon as next year. It's crazy to think that not getting bogged down by a deteriorating (up until a couple of weeks ago) Deron Williams and his contract would be a blessing for Dallas moving forward.