Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes to weigh in on the three most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.
Which non-playoff team makes the biggest leap forward next season?
Steve Aschburner: I’m giving Minnesota one more try. Injuries absolutely pole-axed a roster that had “playoff berth” written all over it. It wasn’t just that the losses of Kevin Love, Brandon Roy, Chase Budinger, Andrei Kirilenko, Ricky Rubio (at the start) and the others cost the Timberwolves the 15 victories or so they would have needed to claw into contention – it’s also that they wouldn’t have gone 1-13 against their primary competition (Lakers, Jazz, Warriors, Rockets) for a lower seed. Or 8-32 (with one left) against the 11 teams ahead of them in the West, compared to 22-19 against the rest of the league. Forget Roy, unfortunately, going forward, but Love needs to come back with a vengeance. And assuming they get one more season out of coach Rick Adelman, the Wolves could be revved by the sense that it’s 2013-14 or never .
Fran Blinebury: Of course, it will require the basketball gods to finally grant them good health, but a lineup with Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio available to play a full season with Andrei Kirilenko back in the fold and Rick Adelman back on the bench should put the Timberwolves into the thick of the West playoff race.
Jeff Caplan: In the West I think the most obvious non-playoff team to make a major leap next season has to be the Timberwolves. I picked them to finish sixth this season, but injuries derailed that instantly. Given full health (and re-signing Nikola Pekovic), the Wolves are primed for a big move. In the East, give me a healthy, young and talented Cavs squad that still has draft picks to make.
Scott Howard-Cooper: The Trail Blazers. It may not be the biggest leap in terms of win total, although they are doing everything possible the last few weeks of the season to make that a relevant conversation as well. But Portland has clearly positioned itself as a team of the future, with a foundation in place, a lot of spending power in the summer to get some much-needed depth, and a smart GM. Whether the Blazers begin 2013-14 with a path to No. 8 in the West depends on moves other teams make.
John Schuhmann: I look at the team with the best young star on its roster, and that’s Cleveland. After a summer of development, Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters should all come back as better players next fall. Obviously, it’s hard to count on a full season of Anderson Varejao after he’s played just 81 games over the last three, but a coaching change could help the Cavs take a step forward. This is the only team that has ranked in the bottom five defensively for each of the last three seasons, and they need someone to point them in the right direction. If they can just play average defense next season while taking a natural step forward offensively, they can be at least 10-12 games better.
Sekou Smith: Without an easily identifiable superstar in the 2013 Draft class, it’s hard to hypothesize about the sorts of leaps and bounds a team can make if they acquire the top (or one of the top three to five picks) in the lottery. That said, the Washington Wizards showed me glimpses (once John Wall got healthy and comfortable) of being a legitimate playoff contender next season if they have all of their main rotation players healthy. The climb’s a little steep in the Western Conference for teams like Minnesota, Utah and Portland. But in the East, the bottom half of the playoff mix should be wide open. And the Wizards, one of the top defensive teams in the league, should have a chance to fight their way into the mix next year if Wall and Bradley Beal are healthy and in attack mode.