With the NBA season about to hit the home stretch, many losing teams are already looking to the future of the franchise. Which teams have the most to look forward to, and which should just to go back to the drawing board? Our panel breaks it down.
1. Which East team with a losing record has the best long-term outlook?
Henry Abbott, ESPN.com: Cleveland Cavaliers. They have Kyrie Irving, young bigs and cap space, which could quickly become an interesting combination. Honorable mention to the Sixers, who are a healthy Andrew Bynum away from having real potential.
Andrew Han, Clipper Blog: Cleveland Cavaliers. In Kyrie Irving, the Cavs have a prospect many would deem to be knocking on the doors of stardom, if he isn't already there. And because he's only in the second year of his rookie contract, Cleveland will likely be enjoying Uncle Drew for at least the rest of this decade.
Danny Nowell, Portland Roundball: Cleveland Cavaliers. With Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters looking like long-term rotation fixtures and not the busts they were initially assumed to be, it's hard not to say Cleveland. When you've got Kyrie Irving on your team, it doesn't take much to make the future bright.
Benjamin Polk, A Wolf Among Wolves: Cleveland Cavaliers. Cleveland's got a good coach, a great salary situation and, most importantly, Kyrie Irving, the best player of any of the losing teams in the East. Plus, they're bad enough to land some more talent in this upcoming draft.
Tom Sunnergren, Hoop 76: Detroit Pistons. Among the rarest commodities in sports is a young, dominant NBA big man. In Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond, the Pistons have two of them. Add Jose Calderon and "Exciting Young Lottery Pick X" to the mix, and suddenly you have a team that could make waves as soon as next season.
2. Which West team with a losing record has the best long-term outlook?
Abbott: The Timberwolves would be good right now with a little medical luck. The Blazers have a nice start on a good team with Damian Lillard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum and cap space. And you just know Mark Cuban isn't going to sit quietly as the Mavericks fade into obscurity. Dallas' long game, working the CBA angles, will come to fruition in the next couple of years as the tax gets serious and other owners tighten spending.
Han: New Orleans Hornets. The Hornets look like they may have something special in Anthony Davis, and Eric Gordon is slowly shaking off the injury bug. And budding stars are what any team needs for the future. Toss in a name change and steady ownership and things are looking rosy in the Big Easy.
Nowell: The Trail Blazers. Yes, the Hornets have a potential generational talent in Anthony Davis, but their second-best player doesn't want to be there and the front office does not always seem in lockstep with the coach. Portland has a plethora of solid young players and seems likely to provide a stable environment for growth.
Polk: New Orleans Hornets. They've got great talent in Anthony Davis, Greivis Vasquez and, assuming he's healthy, Eric Gordon. Monty Williams may be the best coach at the bottom of the league. And, like the Cavs, they should get somebody pretty good in the draft.
Sunnergren: New Orleans Hornets. The team has a foundational piece in Anthony Davis, a plus set of complimentary parts in Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson, and a tremendous new nickname. The future is bright for the Pelicans.
3. Which East team with a losing record has the worst long-term outlook?
Abbott: Toronto Raptors. They aren't dreadful, but they are spending real money and losing real games while several of their key players (Kyle Lowry, Rudy Gay, Andrea Bargnani) are probably too old to improve much. Maybe Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross can emerge and change things. Or maybe not, in which case this could get ugly.
Han: Philadelphia 76ers. Originally thought of as a potential dark horse after the Iguodala-Bynum swap, things have steadily spiraled out of control. With Bynum potentially never suiting up for Philly, there doesn't seem to be a clear way off the treadmill of sub-mediocrity for the Sixers without striking gold late in the lottery.
Nowell: Washington looks mighty bleak. The Bobcats are more talent-poor, but I still trust that Rich Cho & Co. knew they were running that risk with the strategy they're pursuing. The Wiz are locked into big money on a few underperforming players and will have to make a decision on a franchise player who can't quite play like one.
Polk: Charlotte Bobcats. The Bobcats have talent and stability in the front office but, with apologies to Kemba Walker and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, they don't yet have that one young star to hang their hats on. That could change if the Bobcats get lucky in the draft. But if they don't, Walker and MKG are little more than low-efficiency gunners leading a less-than-mediocre supporting cast.
Sunnergren: Charlotte Bobcats. The Bobcats, one of the worst teams in professional sports history, would have to make a quantum leap forward just to get to "awful." There are plenty of colorful ways to express how bad they are, but try this one: The Cats have a cumulative scoring differential of minus-12.3 the last two seasons. The 1995-96 Bulls had a differential of plus-12.2. So Charlotte is actually the Michael Jordan of terrible.
4. Which West team with a losing record has the worst long-term outlook?
Abbott: Los Angeles Lakers. Soon they will be paying even more insane amounts in tax and salary for an old and decidedly mediocre roster. And it's not as simple as saying the Lakers don't care about the bill, because they have done plenty of things through the years to control costs, right down to firing inexpensive office staffers during the lockout. The only real relief comes with Kobe Bryant's retirement, and after that ... what assurance is there this will be the Lakers anymore?
Han: Phoenix Suns. So here's what the Suns have going for them: they have multiple first round picks in future drafts. Except Phoenix has had a middling-to-poor track record in drafts as of late (Stoudemire might be their last bona fide draft success in 2002). It's not great when a team's best ability to improve relies on a perceived area of weakness.
Nowell: Sacramento. It takes a lot to wrest this from the Suns, who seem to be just throwing anything at the wall to see what sticks, but the long-term outlook in Sacramento may in fact be Seattle. And the team's awful, too.
Polk: Phoenix Suns. Like Charlotte, Phoenix has a serious dearth of young talent. Even worse, the Suns' front-office instability, plus the organization's history of misguided trades and draft-day cluelessness, leaves one feeling awfully queasy about the future.
Sunnergren: Sacramento Kings. As dreadful as the Suns are -- and when the best aspect of your franchise is your training staff, you're in trouble -- the Kings are a mess from top to bottom. Take a mishmashed roster and add the cloak of uncertainty surrounding where the team will be playing its home games going forward, and you've got the least enviable situation in the West.
5. Which player on a losing team has been overlooked?
Abbott: Kyrie Irving! Shout it from the rooftops! There is not a player who is more fun to watch, but without League Pass and highlights he's the Invisible Man.
Han: Kemba Walker. After an underwhelming rookie campaign, Walker has seen sizable increases in points, true shooting percentage and player efficiency. He is quietly toiling in Bobcats obscurity, but he's acquitting himself nicely in his sophomore season.
Nowell: There are a lot of right answers here (looking at you, Goran), but Anthony Davis has been shockingly ignored in New Orleans. Without taking anything away from Damian Lillard, I suspect the ROY race wouldn't seem like such a runaway if Davis played for a team more people liked to watch.
Polk: Andrei Kirilenko has been a sunburst of basketball intuition for the Wolves. His passing and off-the-ball movement, honed in his years in Utah, have been visionary. And with his length, anticipation and quiet desire, he has been almost (but not quite) Garnett-like in his ability to guard multiple positions and disrupt all phases of the pick-and-roll.
Sunnergren: Jose Calderon. Ask a casual fan to rattle off the top point guards in the NBA, and they'll get to the teens before they land on Calderon. Their bad. In each of the last four seasons, in the relative anonymity of Toronto and then Detroit, Calderon has been among the most efficient distributors in the sport, ranking in the top three in the NBA in assist/turnover ratio.
ESPN.com and the TrueHoop Network
Henry Abbott covers the NBA for ESPN.com. Andrew Han, Danny Nowell, Benjamin Polk and Tom Sunnergren contribute to the TrueHoop Network.
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