Five teams already looking ahead

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com

The start of the playoffs is just over the horizon and there will be plenty of unexpected bounces before the 2014 NBA champ is crowned in June.

But you can’t blame a handful of teams from already taking an early peek at what will surely be better times ahead next season:

 


VIDEO: Joakim Noah joins Arena Link after a recent Bulls win

Chicago Bulls – There’ s still plenty of havoc to be made by Joakim Noah and his “no tanking here” gang. Sitting in the No. 4 spot in the East, the Bulls are already shuffling their hooves at what could be another rip-snorting first-round series against the Nets and possibly a chance to put a few bruises on the Pacers or two-time champions from Miami down the line. But while it’s unrealistic to think Chicago can go all the way this season, the title hopes are back in view next October. Starting, of course, with a healthy return by Derrick Rose, the Bulls get their former MVP and most talented player back onto the court to supplement a lineup that has Noah, Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler.

While the dealing away of Luol Deng didn’t sink the Bulls in the standings, it brought a first round draft choice that the Cavs had picked up from Sacramento. They saved $20 million on Deng’s contract next year, can amnesty the vastly overpaid Carlos Boozer and be at the front of the line to make a recruiting pitch to head of the class free agent Carmelo Anthony. The lure of Phil Jackson‘s zen magic will probably make it tougher to get him out of N.Y., but if he really wants to make a run at a title instead of just being hero-worshipped, Melo would jump at the chance to join the Bulls where a recuperated Rose gives them the 1-2 punch that is almost necessary these days to be elite. As much fun as they’re having now, the real excitement could return next season.

 


VIDEO: Thaddeus Young, Jarvis Varnado discuss the progress and potential of Nerlens Noel

Philadelphia 76ers — It can’t get worse than losing a record-tying 26 games in a row, can it? It will still be only Year Two in general manager Sam Hinkie‘s long-term building project for the future. But at least next season the Sixers will be able to put a team out on the floor that has more than just Michael Carter-Williams, Thad Young and Tony Wroten as real NBA talent that could be part of something positive down the road. Hinkie has cleared out the payroll, but it’s far too early for the Sixers to even give a thought to luring free agents to Philly. They’ll have two lottery picks — their own and the Pelicans’ spot from the Jrue Holiday trade — and go digging for bargains with another pair of picks in the second round.

Of course, there’s the big bonus of finally getting big man Nerlens Noel into the lineup, after he sat out all of this season with a torn ACL. Noel has been champing at the bit to play now, but the team will hold him back till summer league and then turn him loose. Hinkie is positively giddy about what a bulked-up, more physically fit Noel will be able to do. The Sixers are not even dreaming of playoffs, just putting the building blocks in place.

 


VIDEO: Andrew Nicholson talks about staying positive in Orlando

Orlando Magic — Two years ago, Rob Hennigan dealt away Dwight Howard and the instant reaction from many corners was that the rookie GM had been fleeced. Of course, the way things turned out in L.A., Philly and Denver, it seems that Hennigan was the one doing the fleecing, picking up Nic Vucevic, Maurice Harkless and Arron Afflalo, who are now main parts of a young roster on the rise. Mix in last year’s top draft pick Victor Oladipo with Tobias Harris, Kyle O’Quinn and Andrew Nicholson and while the Magic are again near the bottom of the standings with the third-fewest wins in the league, there has been a method to Hennigan. The jury is still out on making Oladipo a point guard, but he’s clearly a talent.

Hennigan is following in the footsteps of his mentor Sam Presti in OKC, constructing a roster that is flexible in terms of both talent and salary. The Magic are not beholden at this point to a single individual and are willing to be in the trade market for any upgrade that makes sense at any position. Then toss in the potential of adding an Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker to the lineup and the Magic are suddenly a team back in the spotlight with a new franchise star and a future that could lead back to chasing the playoffs maybe even as soon as next year in the Eastern Conference.

 


VIDEO: Giannis Antetokounmpo is adjusting to life in the NBA and U.S.

Milwaukee Bucks – As bad and depressing as things got for the Sixers during their 26-game losing streak, the fact is they were never able to drop below the Bucks in the standings. This is the worst team in the league, but it doesn’t have to be this way in 2014-15. For one thing, it’s about timing in the draft. The Bucks have been fortunate enough to win the lottery twice in the past, getting Glenn Robinson with the No. 1 pick in 1994 and Andrew Bogut in 2005. “Big Dog” had had his moments and Bogut is playing nicely these days for the Warriors, but neither was ever the kind of game-changer than can take a franchise to the top.

Now with the deepest lottery in a while, it seems that Milwaukee is in a can’t-miss position. GM John Hammond is said to be setting his sights on center Joel Embiid, who could anchor the middle of a lineup with exciting rookie Giannis Antetokounmpo and Larry Sanders, who hopefully can get his head back into the game and save a career that could go off the rails. Hammond unloaded the contracts of Luke Ridnour and Gary Neal at the trade deadline and would probably like to jettison O.J. Mayo. Brandon Knight has been up and down, but shows that he can score. Rookie Nate Wolters has probably exceeded expectations and creates optimism for the future.

It’s Antetokounmpo who creates the most excitement with his raw talent and potential. Whether they go with Embild with their first pick or Wiggins, Parker, Julius Randle or Dante Exum, this time the Bucks could get the game changer they need at a time when owner Herb Kohl is trying to sell the franchise. This could be a lineup worth buying and watching next season.

 


VIDEO: Dwight Howard explains why he likes it in Houston

Houston Rockets — Yes, yes, yes. The Rockets are already a top four seed in the rugged Western Conference and have flexed their speed and muscles and shooting prowess against some of the best teams in the league this season. The pairing of Dwight Howard with James Harden has given Houston the 1-2 All-Star punch that was expected. Yet even with some folks tabbing the Rockets as a dark horse threat when the playoffs begin, the truth is their best days are still ahead. Wheeler and dealer GM Daryl Morey knows that his job is not yet done and that’s why he’s played the payroll and salary cap like a Stradivarius and will again have the Rockets in position to make a run at at the biggest names on the free agent market this summer. If he deals Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik ($15 million each next season), the Rockets could offer close to the max.

Howard and Harden are still getting to know each other and this team might need to experience the pain of a playoff loss to get recommitted and take things to the next level. The Rockets could also use another scorer/defender on the wing to go toe-to-toe nightly with the elite contenders. LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony? Let us saddle you up as part of the posse, pardner. Of course, it’s unlikely that James is going anywhere. But Anthony would have to have give long and serious thought to Houston if he decides that the magic of Jackson isn’t going to turn the Knicks around in the next year or two. Put Melo in a lineup with Howard and Harden and the 145 points the Rockets rung up the other night against the Lakers could become a nightly occurrence. If not Anthony, Bosh could return home to Texas. The Rockets made a free agent pitch for him several years ago and his adaptable skills could fit in nicely on the front line.

The Rockets will be different next season. They always are. And with Howard and Harden as anchors, now different means better. The start of next season can’t come soon enough in Houston.

26 Comments

  1. michael siegel says:

    Once again the name is D.J. AUGUSTIN !!!!!  Can you give him a huge SHOUTOUT

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  2. dustydreamnz says:

    I think the Celtics and the Suns are sitting pretty.

  3. Rocket says:

    Well if u wanna be honest my rockets need just a pure point guard to really put us where we want to be we’re not far from where we wanna be it’s gonna take maybe a year or so but we will be in the finals don’t count us out..we love doubters too y’all keep us motivated. Clutch city!!! Remember that!

    • qqqqq says:

      Your defense is average, and Harden is one of the worst perimiter defender in the league, Howard shoots 50% from the freethrow line, so if you ask me, you are far from a championship right now, The clippers, spurs and thunder are waaay better than houston. And they would destroy you in the playoffs,

      Houston are a bad halfcourt team also.

  4. Akeem says:

    The Bulls and the Nets will be interesting, getting Rose and Lopez back. The Knocks SHOULD be interesting with that front line. The Nets and Knicks are VERY hot as of late, sooooo……..

  5. jmndodge says:

    Just get us a new coach and Timberwolves will be looking ahead for a brighter future.

  6. Zach says:

    Rockets who? lets be real about this DH hasn’t played ball like he used to since he left Orlando. Harden is a good player and i miss him being in OKC but any decent ball player will look amazing on a team of scrubs. This team can hope and wish for any big named player they want but the likes of Anthony coming to Houston is a joke. Thats like saying LJ will come to OKC..it’s not going to happen. At the end of the day the rockets will stay a fun team to watch in the reg. season. IMO the suns have a better chance of going all the way before the rockets do. That is with Kobe out and the hope of someone else knocking out the thunder.

  7. TL says:

    carmello + harden isn’t going to work.. two iso-type players and both need the ball too much.

  8. Brian says:

    I doubt the Rockets are looking ahead to next season, they are loaded for a good run in the playoffs, What about the Nuggets who have a had an injury riddled season and have a very young team that missed the playoffs for the first time in 10 years. They lost Gallinari, Mcgee, Robinson and Hickson all to injuries while missing Lawson for decent stretches as well. If these guys can come back healthy and Brian Shaw realizes that this team is built to run teams out of the gym then they will be in good shape.

  9. jazz fan ryan says:

    the jazz have the best talent out of all of the bottom teams, we just need a new coach!

  10. Dcon says:

    People must really hate Utah…because they are better off than both Milwaukee and Philadelphia….their future is extremely bright, but finding the right coach is the most important thing this offseason. Even more important than their top 5 draft pick.

    • qqqqq says:

      I think George Karl would do an terrific job in utah, he got alot of young athletic players thats fits his system nicely. and He can win alot of games without star talent. We saw what he did with those denver teams after melo left.

  11. TDOTtime says:

    Toronto going to hurt feelings lol you aint even know it

  12. Uncle Daddy says:

    I’m sure I will be the only guy to say this, but as usual I don’t care. I would rather have an inspired Lin and Asik (if Asik comes around and realizes he’s in a great position and he can only do worse, I would much rather be on winning team coming off the bench, then a starter on a losing team) come off my bench than an un-inspired (he lives un-inspired as most talented ball players do, because they don’t have to thrive to survive) Anthony as a starter on my team. He is a very good basketball player, but he is a chemistry killer and that effects the whole team. Does no one remember Denver was better without him, until all the injuries…

  13. Panos says:

    I disagree about houston rockets. They are just one quality point guard away from a championship run. They dont need another small or power forward.

  14. Putos says:

    And no mention of the kings? They will be the surprise of the NBA next season. Putos!!!

  15. ICYMI says:

    In case you missed it…. the poison pill contracts signed by Lin and Asik will pay them each 15 million dollars, but their individual salary cap hits are only 8.33 million. That is why it will be so hard to trade them away this next year.

  16. ATLienC4 says:

    Why NO HAWKS… ATLANTA COOKING something good to…..

  17. Bill says:

    If Morley thinks he will find takers for J Lin at $15mm he (and Fran) is kidding himself. I am afraid that the Rockets will have to swallow that poison pill themselves. Asik probably isn’t worth $15mm a year either but a team desperate for a legit center (which he is) would probably pony up the money. However, Asik has proven to be a valuable player for the Rockets this year so getting rid of him should not be taken lightly.

    Ultimately I don’t think the Rockets ever make it to the top of the mountain because of their two top players. Harden is atrocious defensively and Howard is just OK offensively. Only adding a player of Carmelo’s status would get them in the conversation for a ring and I really don’t think that is very plausible.

  18. lol says:

    no boston celtics? rly but then again its fran whatever so writing this article so no wonder

  19. KaashMoneyy94 says:

    More like Celtics, Lakers, Sixers, Magic and Bulls

  20. Sonny says:

    sacremento kings ?

  21. smh says:

    i love where the bulls are right now, and the position theyre on. i pray to God that derrick rose will finally be healthy, and that melo can sign to the bulls, who have shown that they are all about winning. that wouild be a great team offensively and defensively

  22. michael siegel says:

    I can’t un derstand why D.J. AUGUSTINE gets no mention from you as the major factor in the BULLS turnaround.  This dude can flat out PLAY. [just ask Noah]

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    • fgdfgdfg says:

      Like Nate Robinson, I think Augustine is only signed for one year. The chances of him returning next year is low due to the fact that he will be offered more money by other teams. The Bulls are getting rid of contracts to sign Melo or Love, so they don’t have much money to offer Augustine next year. Which is why he wasn’t mentioned in the list of players for NEXT YEAR. -_____________________-

    • Jeff says:

      Agree about DJ and from all accounts he wants to stay. As for Bulls I don’t think Melo is a good fit, would much rather take a younger scorer who can also defend (Melo is hopeless)……..enter Kevin Love. Who is also close friends with Drose. I know that means Taj may nor get to start although I don’t think he would mind if he was getting the minutes he is. Of course we need to amnesty Boozer, thats a given.