Ranking the states of the NBA’s lottery teams

The NBA Playoffs have started, and after a near conference semi-final appearance just a year ago, the Milwaukee Bucks are sitting at home watching them on TV. So while the rest of the world is focused on the 16 teams battling it out for the title, here in Wisconsin we are left to focus on the 14 teams that did not. The Bucks’ position among these teams in terms of future title contention is much debated, so I thought I could provide fans of the Bucks and fans of the NBA in general with a definitive list of which non-playoff teams are in the best positions moving forward to ascend into the league’s elite.

1. Minnesota Timberwolves

The group of young guns that have assembled in Minneapolis is without a doubt the most electric package of young talent that the league has seen together on a non-playoff team since the 2009 Oklahoma City Thunder. Of course, it was just two years later that that team led by Durant, Westbrook and Harden were able to win the Western conference, and the argument could be made that this Minnesota team has an even greater foundation for greatness than the Thunder did. With Ricky Rubio, Andrew Wiggins, Shabazz Muhammad, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Zach LaVine, Minnesota could be a title contender in just two or three short years. These five guys are locked up through the end of 2019, so there is a window in which these players can play and grow together before having to worry about the sort of issues that prompted OKC to pull the trigger on the now fateful James Harden trade. Furthermore, the Wolves coaching vacancy and the plethora of accomplished coaches that are seeking employment allows for ownership to bring in someone like a Tom Thibodeau to bring stability and an identity to this group that has such limitless possibilities. With many veteran contracts expiring following this season, and with Nikola Pekovic’s $44 million over the next 4 years likely to be amnestied, this team will have plenty cap space going forward, not to mention the added bonus of another high lottery pick this year and a stable crop of future picks as well. These are exciting times up north in the Twin Cities.

2. Utah Jazz

The Jazz don’t have a roster that screams “future title contender” at first glance, but in reality this organization is perfectly poised to make noise in the West for years to come. First, the players occupying the 2-5 positions in their current starting lineup are all approaching the primes of their careers, are all talented enough to start for a championship team, and have incredible chemistry when on the floor together. Rudy Gobert is an elite rim protector, Derrick Favors has used his knockdown 15-19 foot jumper to turn himself into Horace Grant 2.0, Gordon Hayward is a versatile scorer and borderline All-Star, and Rodney Hood should develop into one of the league’s premier “3 and D” wings. With the addition of a star point guard to carry the load and some additional bench depth, this team would unquestionably belong in the NBA’s elite.

Now you may think adding a star point guard (Dante Exum may be an option if he can stay healthy) is way tougher than it sounds, but not in the current situation that the Jazz find themselves. They have the league’s third most cap room through the 2018 offseason, and in that time period Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose, Kyle Lowry, Jeff Teague and Mike Conley will all be free agents. Lure any of them to Salt Lake City with the max, and we could be looking at a force to be reckoned with in the league for a long time to come.

3. New Orleans Pelicans

The Pelicans, quite simply, are the only franchise of this group that have a player who is already good enough to be the number one guy on an NBA champion. That guy is Anthony Davis, and he is signed on to continue being that guy in NOLA through 2021. Granted, management may have screwed the pooch a little bit in terms of throwing money around the past two off seasons in an attempt to win now-reaping absolutely no benefits from doing so-but the future at the SmoothieKing Arena is brighter than it may first appear. Two of those bad contracts—Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson—will expire this summer, while another—Tyreke Evans—will come to an end a year down the road. Omer Asik’s $10 million per year through 2020 is still a huge black mark on the franchise’s future, but one that they will likely be able to work around as the salary cap rises. The 2017 and 2018 free agency periods will be huge for the Pelicans, as they must be able to attract a second star to play alongside Davis that will vault them into the upper realms of the west. During that period, James Harden and Russell Westbrook are available to sign on to co-star with The Brow, while many other guys like Kyle Lowry, Demar DeRozan and Paul Millsap will be available to play a top notch supporting role. Another fascinating possibility is the 2018 free agency of former New Orleans point guard Chris Paul. Could a 33-year-old ring chasing CP3 be open to a return to the Bayou to pursue a title with Davis and Co.? The possibilities with this franchise are endless and intriguing.

4. Washington Wizards

In one season, the Wizards have gone from dark horse Eastern Conference contender to a late-lottery team without a head coach. Still, much like New Orleans, their potential for greatness rests on the shoulders of their franchise star: John Wall. While the former-Kentucky standout’s leadership skills may not yet be there, as evidenced by the calamitous season we just witnessed, he has quietly developed into one of the best distributing point guards in the league. His relentless energy, penetrating ability, and court vision make him a dream to play with for shooting wings and mobile bigs alike. He did not have either of those things alongside him for the majority of this season, but with a new coach, a new style and an anticipated roster revamp on the way, a situation tailor-made for Wall’s unique skill set is sure to be coming soon to DC.

In terms of salary cap, they lose the burdensome contract of Nenê this offseason, are only locked into deals with their young core of Wall, Otto Porter, Markieff Morris, and Kelly Oubre beyond this year, and they will be able to retain the soon-to-expire contract of potential All-Star Bradley Beal at a discount value due to his frequent injuries throughout the formative years of his career. If the Wizards can turn it around and get back in the playoff mix in the next couple of years, Blake Griffin and Chandler Parsons look like prime targets for free agency down the road. Oh, how could I forget the possibility of a Boogie/Wall reunion in 2018? Maybe with Calipari as the coach? Hey I’m just speculating…

5. Orlando Magic

This is easily the most surprising of my rankings so bear with me. First of all, their young core of Victor Oladipo, Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier, Elfrid Payton, Mario Hezonja and Nikola Vucevic is solid but not spectacular, and none of them have superstar potential, but all have years left in their careers of contributing on contending teams. Oladipo may not be a superstar, but he showed this year he has legitimate All-Star potential. So use that core as a foundation and add to it these elements:

-They have the most cap room in the league on average for the next four years

-They have likely two more lottery picks of their own in the next two years

-They have the Lakers first rounder in 2018, which has a 50-50 chance of being amongst the ping-pong balls

-They have 10 second-round draft picks in the next four drafts, that is enough to make even Sam Hinkie jealous

The result is a solid young core with the potential to add one or two stars to the mix. I see a potential contender as the result of that equation. If they hit on a couple of their draft picks, throw a max contract at Hassan Whiteside this summer to partner Vucevic down low, and then sign a wing scorer like a Danilo Galllinari or point guard like an Isaiah Thomas or a Kyle Lowry a couple years down the road, then we could be looking at a 2004 Detroit Pistons-like formula for contention without a superstar.

6. Milwaukee Bucks

The Bucks cannot add much in the coming years through picks (though they will have a top-12 pick this year) and cap room, but have a core in place that could develop into one of the scariest trios in the league. Khris Middleton is already a 17-18 point per game wing scorer who can defend and pass, and though that may be his peak, Giannis Antetkounmpo and Jabari Parker have virtually limitless potential as a tandem. Giannis is fully capable of developing into someone who can be the best player on a title-winning team, much less an MVP candidate. If he does just that and Jabari becomes the All-Star second option that he is more than likely to become, then the Bucks already have a title contending team in place without adding any new pieces. It is a simple yet complicated path towards owning the future in Milwaukee.

7. Chicago Bulls

The situation in Chicago is rather dire, but underneath the divergent mess that is Fred Hoiberg, Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler, there does lie some cause for optimism. By the end of next season, Rose, Joakim Noah, Pau Gasol, and Taj Gibson could all be gone, and the Bulls’ brass will have ample money to throw around to supplement their solid-yet-stifled young core of Butler, Doug McDermott, Bobby Portis, and Nikola Mirotic. Butler is on the cusp of becoming a star the caliber of which can attract high level free agents, and the added allure of the Chicago Bulls as a franchise makes the possibility of a rapid tear-down and rebuild highly possible.

8. Philadelphia 76ers

Although “The Process” to this point was such an unmitigated disaster that its architect, Sam Hinkie, decided to walk away from the ruins that he had left behind, the Sixers have more assets and options to work with going forward than just about anybody in the league. Hinkie bequeathed to the Sixers a golden pot of draft picks, including the chance for two top-5 picks this year, two lottery picks next year, two further non-lottery first-rounders this year, and a total of 14 second rounders over the next four years. They have the highest odds to win the draft lottery and thus land Ben Simmons (or Brandon Ingram) this year, they have Joel Embiid hopefully primed for a long awaited rookie campaign next year, Dario Saric coming over from Europe, and they have a coveted trade target in Jahlil Okafor that they could potentially receive a handsome sum for. Also, that Nerlens Noel guy is pretty good.

All of this seems well and good, but the fact remains that they still don’t have anything remotely resembling an NBA basketball team to put on the floor. Their league-high cap room means nothing as of now because they are a joke of a franchise that no free-agent in their right mind would consider signing with unless they were grossly overpaid. Rumors even persist that Simmons and other top picks are doing everything they can to avoid being drafted by the Sixers, and the situation in Philly is close to reaching the point of no return. This upcoming year will be crucial for the destiny of this franchise.

9. Denver Nuggets

The Nuggets, in short, have a ton of future assets, but very few pieces currently on their roster. Their future potential is entirely predicated on their GMs ability to put their five first-round draft picks in the next two years to use, and hit on a superstar with one of them. If that does not happen, this team is locked into long term deals with Kenneth Faried, Danilo Gallinari, and Wilson Chandler that will annoyingly eat away at their cap space for the next 3-4 years and will prevent the franchise from building around their young talent base of Nikola Jokic, Jusuf Nurkic, Will Barton, Gary Harris and Emmanuel Mudiay through free agency. Unless they strike gold in their ample opportunities in draft, there is not much potential for this franchise to rise above anything more than a lower playoff seed in the West.

10. Los Angeles Lakers

The Lakers roster next year will honestly look a lot like the Sixers’ roster did this year. They will have a team of 19-23-year-olds, all of whom have a shot at Tinsel Town stardom but none of whom are surefire franchise centerpieces. Add to that the potential of the devastating loss of their first round pick this year to the Sixers if they fall outside the top 3, the loss of their 2018 first rounder to Orlando, and the chaotic state of their young locker room, the situation doesn’t look to bright for the yellow half of Hollywood. They do, however, have a large chunk of cap space to work with following Kobe’s retirement, and big time free agents will always be attracted to LA regardless of the state of the Lakers roster. Also, let’s be real, the Lakers won’t lose their pick this year and will likely even win the lottery and pick Simmons because the NBA is totally rigged. Just please get rid of Byron Scott.

11. New York Knicks

Kristaps Prozingis!!

Okay, now that we got that out of the way, it’s time to talk about everything awful about the Knicks’ situation.

They have no cap flexibility up through 2019. They lose their first round pick this year and have no second rounders for the next five years. Melo is only getting older and more inefficient, but will continue to expect to be the man in New York and hinder the growth of Porzingis and the rebuild process as a whole. The whole organization is in shambles under Phil Jackson, and no one, not even any of his former players not named Derek Fisher, wants to take the vacant coaching job. To be frank, if it was not for the whole mystique and aura of being the New York Knicks and the presence of a perennial All-Star and an exciting young talent on their roster to distract from their woes, they would almost be as much of a joke as the Sixers at this point.

12. Phoenix Suns

After horribly jumping the gun on accelerating their rebuilding process three years ago, the Suns are back at square one and this time in an even worse position. Devin Booker and Alex Len are their cornerstones for the future, but they are by no means shoe-ins for greatness, and they are pledging $30 million per year for the next four years to a Brandon Knight/Eric Bledsoe backcourt combo that has proven it is nowhere near playoff level.

The sunny side of the ordeal in Phoenix is that they have a lottery pick from Washington this year from the Markieff Morris fiasco, as well as Cleveland’s late first round pick, and also own Miami’s first rounders in 2018 and 2021 from the Goran Dragic deal, which could be valuable depending on the direction that the Heat organization takes in the coming years.

13. Sacramento Kings

I could talk about cap space, draft picks, potential free agent signings, current talent and all that crap that I have talked about for every team above, but the bottom line is that this Sacramento Kings organization is simply rotten from the top down. They are one of the biggest jokes in the NBA and no matter what situation they are in in terms of money, potential, and future draft standing, the current regime in place at the GoldenOne Center will find some way to unequivocally screw things up. I would hate nothing more in the world than to be a Kings fan.

14. Brooklyn Nets

The Nets have the sixth highest salary in the league, the third worst record, their best young player is Sean Kilpatrick, and they have no first round draft picks for the next 2 years.

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