This NBA season, it seems some teams are in full tank mode. If you just take a look at the Eastern Conference standings alone, you will understand. This year’s NBA Draft prospects are the perfect cash crops for GMs and owners around the league who are looking to rebuild their teams.
Throughout the past few seasons we have seen a handful of NBA teams that have struggled in past years that are now sitting and bidding to be on the throne on top of the NBA hierarchy. Teams such as the Thunder, Pacers and Trail Blazers are examples of teams whose management understood the method of building a team from the ground up from the draft. Thunder GM Sam Presti did a brilliant job drafting Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and James Harden. Despite Harden, of course, they have had a chance to play together for a few years, learning the ropes in the NBA and now, they are major contenders in the Western Conference each year.
Even though they have changed some positions in the front office, the Pacers exploded last season and became an immediate favorite in the Eastern Conference with the emergence of Paul George. They drafted Roy Hibbert in 2008 out of Georgetown to be their anchor of their defense. They found Lance Stephenson in the second round of the 2010 Draft and he has been their X-factor this season, having the most triple-doubles in the league this season with three.
Then you have the Trail Blazers, who have the fourth-best record in the league this season and are playing amazing basketball. The Blazers have surprised everyone this year and rank first in three major categories in the NBA in points per game, rebounding and free throw percentage. The Blazers drafted LaMarcus Aldridge in 2006 and he has erupted this season to be an MVP candidate. Last year’s Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard has been fearless and has hit multiple game-winners this season and may be heading to his first All-Star Game.
All three of these teams didn’t spend big money in free agency — they got better through the draft. Now, some others are following that blueprint.
There is no predicting the future of course, but we can make educated guesses at some of the teams who could become the next OKC, the next Indiana, the next Portland…
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Current record – 12-35, Southeast Division
2014 NBA Draft First Round Selections – Two
Centerpiece – Victor Oladipo
The Orlando Magic hired GM Rob Hennigan at the age of 30 to overhaul their roster and prepare for the future. In his tenure so far he has made some critical decisions, trading away Dwight Howard to the Lakers during the 2012 offseason and also trading J.J. Redick to the Bucks. The moves created a massive amount of flexibility for the team’s financial plans.
At the moment, they have the second-worst record behind the Milwaukee Bucks but Orlando is building a nice core centered on guard Victor Oladipo, who they selected with the No. 2 pick in last summer’s NBA Draft. Hennigan stated back after drafting Oladipo that “We like Victor because we feel Victor has a work ethic and an approach to the game that will allow him to continually improve. And we feel that way about a lot of the players that we have.”
Oladipo, despite having an up-and-down season, has shown glimpse of great potential on both sides of the ball. He takes pride in defense and has been a regular on the NBA’s top plays every night. He is shooting over 40 percent from the field this season but needs to work on his shot from beyond the arc, only averaging 29.5 percent from the three-point line. Once the Magic figure out which position they want Oladipo to play moving forward, he is only going to improve.
If forward Tobias Harris shows that he can be durable player he can be a big part of the team’s future plans, as well. Also, getting Nikola Vucevic from the Dwight Howard trade was a huge plus as the 7-footer has shown improvement this season. Vucevic is an elite rebounder and is going to become a better defender as his career progresses. Maurice Harkless is a prototypical NBA small forward prospect but he has not found his niche in Jacque Vaughn’s rotation this season. Once he plays more minutes, I believe he can excel and be one of the best players on the Magic in a couple years.
Then we have Arron Afflalo, who has been the Magic’s best player this season. Affalo is having an All-Star caliber season but is he in the Magic’s future plans? The team is not going anywhere and right now, while his stock is very high, this would be the best time to trade him to bring in more young talent or some additional draft picks. The Magic is going to be a lottery team this year but also have secured future draft picks from Denver or New York in 2014. A player such as Marcus Smart out of Oklahoma St. would be a great addition to the team next year. Smart and Oladipo as backcourt mates will make up one of the best defensive guard tandems in the league.
With not committing to huge salary contracts at the moment and having multiple draft picks, the Magic are going to be great team to watch in the future.
Current Record – 24-21, Atlantic Division
2014 NBA Draft First Round Selections- One
Centerpiece – DeMar DeRozan
Okay, so the Raptors don’t suck — not at all, actually — but play along with us, considering this team is notoriously bad.
New GM and President of Basketball Operations Masai Ujiri has made it a mission to change the culture of the Toronto Raptors. Ujiri is a very confident general manager who has not been afraid to trade away his team’s best players to build a better culture for the team. With the Denver Nuggets, Ujiri traded Carmelo Anthony to the New York Knicks. The move made the Nuggets a better team and last season, they finished with the fourth-best record in the NBA (57-25), earning Ujiri the 2013 NBA Executive of the Year honor.
Ujiri is an executive that understands how having flexibility in the cap is important year in and year out. As soon as he landed in Toronto, he traded away Andrea Bargnani to the Knicks. (FYI GMs: if you want to unload on cap money, trade your player to the Knicks. You’re welcome.) He then traded swingman Rudy Gay and his $20 million contract to the Kings for three players that will be free agents next summer. They ultimately improved after shipping Gay.
No one expected the Raptors to be good this season, and now they’re leading the Atlantic Division. The Raptors are doing the right thing with molding and building what they have. The Raptors were in dire need for an All-Star this season and may have found it in DeMar DeRozan. He is averaging career-highs across the board with 21.8 points, 4.7 rebounds and 3.6 assist per game. Second-year player Terrence Ross erupted this past weekend against the Clippers for 51 points. Ross is very athletic but needs to keep improving in all areas of the game. If he consistently brings that edge he brought against the Clippers every night, the Raptors will not have any trouble scoring the ball.
Center Jonas Valanciunas from Lithuania is only 21 years old and is a big part of the Raptors future on the frontline. In his second year, he is still adjusting to the game in America and last year he finished as a member of the NBA All-Rookie Second Team. Kyle Lowry is tough to project because I am not sure you can put him in the elite category of point guards. He is having a great season, averaging 16 points, four rebounds and close to eight assists per game, even with constant trade rumors. But I am not sure if he is the long-term answer at the one.
When it comes to marketing and building a brand, the Raptors did the smart thing and hired Toronto native and rapper Drake to be their global ambassador. Other than being “WheelChair” Jimmy who played basketball in the show Degrassi, Drake does not have a basketball background. But what Drake does bring is a massive cult of fans. If he is constantly promoting Raptors basketball and showing his face around the arena, fans are going to go to the game. Drake is also friends with a lot of NBA players, which might persuade a player to play for Toronto in the future. Toronto is quickly becoming one of the favorite tourist destination cities and will host the All-Star Game in 2016.
One more thing. The Raptors are most likely not going to have a lottery pick, which means no Andrew Wiggins, but with the amount of depth this draft has, the Raptors can find somebody that will be very good and can contribute next year.