By Jonathan Hartzell, NBA.com
There are very few ways to build a championship contender in the NBA and they’re all centered around obtaining a superstar.
Option 1: Sign an already established superstar through free agency (the Miami Heat model)
Option 2: Use young talent and Draft picks to trade for a superstar (the Boston Celtics model)
Option 3: Draft well and stockpile young talent in hopes they develop into superstars (the San Antonio Spurs model)
The first option is usually only available to organizations in major markets that have the appeal to attract superstars. So for non-major market teams, the more feasible option is to acquire young talent and high Draft picks and hope one of those players turns into a star. But this route requires a lot of luck and usually a lot of losing for cities that usually can’t afford such a steep decline. It’s a tough but necessary route.
Organizations find themselves stagnated in obscurity when they fail to get lucky in the lottery or they spend their money unwisely. It’s an unfortunate place to be and it’s where seven teams find themselves going into this season. They’re not bad enough to get better and not good enough to matter.
Let’s breakdown how each of these teams got here and what their plans seem to be moving forward.
Winning percentages, last five seasons (2008-13): .402, .488, .268, .348, .415
Biggest mistake, last five seasons: Signing Hedo Turkoglu to a 5-year/$53 million contract in 2009.
Past: The Raptors have experienced some of the NBA’s longest stagnation this century as they have not advanced past the first round of the playoffs since 2000-01 and they’ve only been over .500 once in the past ten seasons. They botched their chance to obtain relevancy when they drafted Andrea Bargnani No. 1 overall in the 2007 NBA Draft. Bargnani never developed into the elite offensive center the team imagined and Toronto recently unloaded Bargnani on the New York Knicks for a package centered around sharp-shooter Steve Novak. Last season, the team dug their heels deeper into the middle of the road when they acquired Rudy Gay. This move made the team better, but nowhere near championship caliber and Toronto found itself again on the playoff fringe.
Future: The Raptors are now under the control of former Denver Nuggets GM Masai Ujiri and some of his moves this summer signal a new direction for the organization. This must be a welcome sign for Toronto fans who haven’t had much to cheer for in a while. But it most likely won’t be a quick turnaround with the amount of bad contracts the team still has on the books.
Winning percentages, last five seasons (2008-13): .476, .329, .366, .379, .354
Biggest mistake, last five seasons: The summer signings of 2009 (Ben Gordon – 5-years/$55 million — and Charlie Villanueva – 5-years/$35 million).
Past: The Pistons were one of the best teams in the NBA for most of the 2000s and ranked No. 1 in attendance as recently as the 2008-09 season. But as the core which won them the 2004 NBA title began to age, general manager Joe Dumars spent ludicrous amounts of money on average players like Gordon and Villanueva. These signings, along with a controversial Chauncey Billups-for-Allen Iverson trade, sank the Pistons. By the 2011-12 season, they ranked 28th in league attendance. However, they’ve had some luck in the Draft recently with the picks of Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond.
Future: This summer, the Pistons once again decided to spend big money in free agency. They signed Josh Smith, brought back Billups and traded for Brandon Jennings to create one of the most explosive (and inefficient) starting lineups in the league. If everything goes right, this team could get past the first round of the playoffs in a season or two. But this team will never contend for a championship and Detroit will most likely find themselves in the same stagnated position in four years — unless Drummond develops into a superstar.
Winning percentages, last five seasons (2008-13): .415, .561, .427, .470, .463
Biggest mistake, last five seasons: Trading Tobias Harris and Doron Lamb for J.J. Redick, Ish Smith, and Gustavo Ayon.
Past: The Bucks have been the definition of average over the past five seasons as GM John Hammond has consistently acquired flawed, high-volume scorers since he was hired in 2008. First he tried Richard Jefferson, then Corey Maggette, then John Salmons, then Stephen Jackson and, finally, Monta Ellis for the last two seasons. None of these players brought the team remotely close to championship caliber, but they made the Bucks good enough to not be able to improve through the Draft. The goal of just making it to the playoffs hit a low point last season when the Bucks traded talented first-round pick Harris to Orlando for a two-month rental of Redick. Milwaukee is in no position to make trades like that one just to squeak into the playoffs.
Future: The Brandon Jennings era in Milwaukee is over and the Bucks seem headed in a new direction. Youngsters Larry Sanders and John Henson are proof the Bucks have drafted well recently despite the team not being bad enough to receive high picks. Sanders, Henson and Ersan Ilyasova seem positioned to become the team’s building blocks and the Bucks’ moves this offseason make it seem like they’re finally embracing a youth movement. It will still take a superstar for this team to become a championship contender, but as it stands, they have assembled a potentially strong, young core.
Winning percentages, last five seasons (2008-13): .573, .646, .537, .606, .537
Biggest mistake, last five seasons: Signing Joe Johnson to a 6-year/$119 million contract in 2010.
Past: Unlike all of the other teams on this list, the Hawks have experienced a decent amount of success over the last five seasons. But this success was never enough to make them championship contenders as the potential of Johnson, Josh Smith and Al Horford plateaued at a non-championship level. They spent big money to re-sign Johnson and were never able to acquire any above-average young talent besides Jeff Teague.
Future: The Hawks were an active team this summer as they signed two of the most reasonable contracts of the free-agency period: Paul Millsap (2 years at $19 million) and Elton Brand (1 year at $4 million). They also re-signed back Teague to a bargain 4-year/$32 million contract. They drafted well, too, selecting foreign prospects Dennis Schroeder and Lucas “Bebe” Nogueira. However, all of these moves keep the Hawks in the awkward position of being simply good. Not great enough to contend for a championship and not bad enough to rebuild through the Draft. It’s a difficult position to be in and they need one of their young prospects to become a superstar soon.
Winning percentages, last five seasons (2008-13): .293, .183, .207, .395, .378
Biggest mistake, last five seasons: Traded Ty Lawson instead of Jonny Flynn after the 2009 NBA Draft.
Past: The Timberwolves have the worst winning percentage in the NBA over the last five seasons, an incredible feat considering All-Star Kevin Love has been on the roster during this span. Injuries have been the problem lately as a healthy Wolves team most likely would have made the playoffs last season. Botched drafts doomed them for a few seasons, but things are looking up.
Future: Ricky Rubio makes any future look bright. The flashy point guard has brought excitement back to Minnesota and the free agent acquisitions of Corey Brewer and Kevin Martin give the Wolves a high-powered offense. They’re in the same boat as the Hawks, though, as this squad will most likely never contend for a championship. The Wolves are in a better position than the Hawks, however, as they already have their superstar in Love. This should be a playoff team if Love can avoid knuckle push-ups.
Winning percentages, last five seasons (2008-13): .207, .305, .293, .333, .341
Biggest mistake, last five seasons: Dropped three spots in the 2011 NBA Draft to acquire John Salmons.
Past: The Kings have been hurt over the past five seasons by a complete disregard for defense. They’ve averaged a defensive rating of 110.96 since 2008-09 and ranked last or second-to-last in the NBA in defensive rating three of the last five seasons. They’ve been unable to land a superstar in the Draft, despite selecting Rookie of the Year Tyreke Evans in 2009. DeMarcus Cousins has all of the talent to be a main piece on a championship team. But his maturity and poor defense have held him back.
Future: Michael Malone will be the fifth different coach for the Kings since 2008-09 and his success will be determined by his ability to develop Cousins. New ownership and a forthcoming new arena will allow passionate Kings fans to be able to keep their team for the foreseeable future. These fans may lose interest soon, though, if Cousins and rookie Ben McLemore are not capable of developing into superstars and the organization can’t figure out a way to achieve relevancy.
Winning percentages, last five seasons (2008-13): .232, .317, .280, .303, .354s
Biggest mistake, last five seasons: Traded Nick Young, JaVale McGee and Ronny Turiaf for Nene and Brian Cook in 2012.
Past: The Wizards saw sustained success from 2004-08 with a roster led by Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison. But Arenas’ quick downfall and a tumultuous locker room quickly turned Washington from a perennial playoff team to one of the league’s worst. They were able to nab potential superstar John Wall during the 2010 Draft and they recently signed him to a max contract extension. Wall’s development was unfortunately derailed by injuries last season.
Future: The core of Wall, Bradley Beal and rookie Otto Porter is a strong foundation for the Wizards. They’re young, talented and will have considerable cap room next offseason. Washington can be a playoff team this season if Wall continues to improve and they stay healthy. Of all the teams on this list, they seem most likely to become a championship contender within the next few seasons.