HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — The start of training camp is just days away.
There are 30 teams that believe deep down this is the year they do it. This is the year that it all comes together. This is the year that they win it all again in Miami, finally win it in Oklahoma City or finally break through and make the playoffs in places like Sacramento, Detroit and New Orleans.
The power of positive thinking will be on full display around the league when players convene for the initial stage of the 2012-13 season.
Not all of those hoop dreams will be realized, though, and there will no doubt be teams that are convinced they are prepared to take that next step this season when they simply are not.
But we’re focusing on the positives today, peering into our crystal ball and trying to identify the teams with the goods to make good on whatever promise they’ve shown in recent seasons, Drafts and in the offseasons (in free agency and trades).
There are no guarantees, of course. Injuries and other unforeseen issues can alter the fate of a team at any time.
We’ve checked the radar, though, and the skies are clear for HT’s Five Teams On The Rise … five lottery teams with a chance to move into the realm of playoff contention:
CLEVELAND CAVALIERS, 21-45 last season
They were supposed to go away for five or six years after the departure of Lebron James and rebuild quietly. Then Kyrie Irving showed up and forced us all to reconsider. The roster is slowly but surely being fortified to surround a budding star like Irving with a supporting cast capable of making a little playoff noise at some point in the near future.
Anderson Varejao looked like his usual pesky self in London during the Olympics and Tristan Thompson showed significant promise last season as well. They’ll form the foundation of a frontcourt rotation that will include rookie center Tyler Zeller and rugged workman Samardo Samuels.
The only thing that worries us about the Cavaliers is whether or not rookie Dion Waiters is ready to assume his role as Irving’s backcourt sidekick. We were a bit surprised to see him picked where he was in the June Draft, but we were forced to reconsider when a handful of coaches and two league executives we trust gushed about him after the Draft.
Bottom line: With the fearless Irving as the ringleader (he learned from the best in Las Vegas this summer), the Cavaliers have a fighting chance this season.
MILWAUKEE BUCKS, 31-35 last season
Bucks general manager John Hammond was the league’s Executive of the Year in 2010 for a reason. If he believes that the Monta Ellis–Brandon Jennings combo is the key to getting this team back to the playoffs, we’ll ride with him. And it’s not like we needed to be convinced. Ellis has always been on our most underrated list and Jennings continues to do his thing without the respect he deserves for the improvements he’s made since entering the league.
Hammond wasn’t afraid to recognize that Andrew Bogut wasn’t the right fit for the franchise, a move that will either look like a disaster or pure genius depending on how things for turn out for Bogut and the Golden State Warriors this season. The Bucks, instead, are opting for the big-man-by-committee approach this season with Sam Dalembert, Drew Gooden, Larry Sanders, Ekpe Udoh and rookie John Henson manning the paint.
Ersan Ilyasova was a bit of a revelation last season and should give Bucks fans another dose of hope about this season and the future of the franchise. It’s not often a team stumbles onto a gem like Ilyasova, an unselfish worker bee who is effective on both ends of the floor with the range to shoot from deep and the size and versatility to guard as many as three different positions.
Bottom line: The pressure is on and Bucks coach Scott Skiles usually does some of his best work in those situations.
MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES, 26-40 last season
Before Ricky Rubio went down last season the Timberwolves looked like a team that might be a year ahead of schedule, in terms of making a legitimate attempt at crashing the Western Conference playoff party. He won’t be back until sometime in December, but there is reason to believe that Rick Adelman‘s team is ready to take the next step this season, whether Rubio is ready to resume his playmaking ways right away or not.
Having a revitalized Brandon Roy to balance the floor for All-Star power forward Kevin Love is going to be extremely fun to watch. And Roy also gives the Timberwolves another clutch shot-maker at the end of games, too. Love is poised to take yet another step on his path to becoming the most complete power forward in the game (yes, we said it), and he’ll have plenty of help up front from rugged types like Nikola Pekovic, Greg Stiemsma and HT fave Dante Cunningham.
The added bonus this year for the Timberwolves come in the form of improved depth. Aleksey Shved, Andrei Kirilenko and Chase Budinger will help upgrade the backcourt and wing rotations. And when Rubio returns, they should have everything covered.
Bottom line: If Derrick Williams finds his niche this season, this team becomes extremely dangerous.
NEW ORLEANS HORNETS, 21-45 last season
The youth movement in the Big Easy is in full swing with No. 1 overall pick Anthony Davis, rookie guard Austin Rivers and the highly underrated rookie Darius Miller ready to lead the Hornets’ youth brigade. We saw enough from Davis and heard enough from his Olympic team coaches and teammates in London to know that his defensive presence will make an immediate and dramatic impact for the Hornets, who have been solid in that phase under Monty Williams.
Don’t forget about Eric Gordon, who has the ability to score at an elite level and be the alpha dog offensively that this team will need. Gordon’s a pro’s pro, so we’re not concerned about their being any lingering issues from his restricted free agent summer. And dating back to his high school days (when he played summer ball alongside Derrick Rose), Gordon should have no problem sharing the spotlight or the backcourt load with another big time guard.
The addition of Ryan Anderson gives the Hornets another offensive dimension they didn’t have last season. There is some talent, largely unproven, to help fill out the rotation on the wing but no one we’re ready to count on for big things just yet.
Bottom line: Robin Lopez and Jason Smith have to be ready to help carry the load down low so Davis can grow his offensive game and body as quickly as possible.
PHOENIX SUNS, 33-33 last season
We’ve already explained what could be in store for Goran Dragic this year as he replaces Steve Nash as the head of the Suns’ snake. Are we gambling that a two-month stint of wicked play from Dragic in Houston last season means he’s ready to run his own show on a full-time basis? Sure. We’re doing the same thing the Rockets did when they let Dragic get out of town and put their money on Jeremy Lin‘s two-month stretch in New York being a preview of what’s to come. Call us crazy if it all goes up in smoke this season.
This team is full of cast offs, from Michael Beasley to Luis Scola, who have every right to play with huge chips on their shoulders this season. Spite has often served as one of the great motivators in league history (see the 2004 title-winning Pistons, a team full of guys who were tossed aside at one time or another in their careers). If he has nothing, Suns coach Alvin Gentry will have that rallying cry for his troops.
If Marcin Gortat‘s evolution continues without Nash around facilitate the process, there’s another key piece this team will rely on as they groom rookie Kendall Marshall for a potentially starring role. Don’t sleep on Markieff Morris, who could be in for a breakout season of his own.
Bottom line: This is our one stretch on the list, but there’s something about this mismatched crew that intrigues us. If Beasley finally decides to play up to his potential, look out.