Dark Times Ahead: Five Lottery-Bound NBA Teams in 2012-2013

The Cleveland Cavaliers and the NBA lottery are well-acquainted (Getty Images)

Germany, November 10, 1938.  To German and Austrian Jews who survived to see the morning, there was no imminent hope in the aftermath of Kristallnacht.  Fast forward to today, and a majority of NBA general managers acknowledge the necessity of collective team suffrage, before great times return.  For a handful of NBA clubs, bad times may equate to tweaking personnel and treading water on the cusp of the playoffs, but for others, it means tearing down the roster and establishing an indefinite presence in the NBA cellar.  A GM’s recognition to hit the reset button on a stalling franchise requires maturity, patience, and a sparkly new vision.

As a loyal Sacramento Kings fan, I should describe the physical toll the team takes on my body.  The glands in my eyes to create tears have stopped functioning due to overuse, and every summer I get screened for brain tumors.  At times, the NBA lottery becomes a Godsend, but Blake Griffin and John Wall slipped through Sacramento’s fingers.  The only thing that gets me out of bed is a recurring dream of DeMarcus Cousins and Tyreke Evans hugging a finals trophy.  I’ve seen a few dreams turn into reality, so I’m holding my breath.

While my prophecy reaches fruition, the Kings will probably continue to spend time with fellow rebuilding teams at the bottom of the NBA standings.  These squads have hit rock-bottom or are about to, but that doesn’t mean the only place to go from here is up.  You can also go sideways.

Charlotte Bobcats

Bobcats fans are trapped in a cruel world.  Owner Michael Jordan’s decision to shoot for their first playoff berth in 2010 has clearly backfired. When Charlotte earned a 7-59 record last year, they managed to beat only two teams (New York and Orlando) with winning records, and lost by nearly 14 points every contest.  Their 0.106 winning percentage also happened to be the lowest in NBA history.

The roster is saddled by chronic underachievers but there is genuine talent at critical positions.  Bobcats management envisions point guard Kemba Walker and center Bismack Biyombo as franchise cornerstones despite uninspiring rookie campaigns.  Walker shot 36.6% from the floor, and Biyombo’s presence contributed a net loss of 2.5 points per game, so Charlotte will have to overlook their struggles as they develop toward stardom.  Big man Byron Mullens and 2012 draft pick Michael Kidd-Gilchrist also flash NBA value, as a high-post scorer and defensive do-it-all respectively.  Mullens must sustain momentum from his breakout 2011 season, while Kidd-Gilchrist has to prove he can keep pace with professional wings.

Troubled veterans Ben Gordon, Tyrus Thomas and DeSagana Diop look to resurrect the spunk in their NBA careers, but at this stage, any basketball contributions are welcome.  Gordon could rediscover the shooting stroke he displayed with the Bulls almost four years ago, but Thomas has failed to demonstrate any maturity in the NBA, and Diop’s game is a lost cause (save for six fouls.)  24 year old two-guard Gerald Henderson averaged 15.1 points at a 45.9% success rate last year, but his only asset is filling buckets, which happens to be Gordon’s primary role.  Don’t expect a shortage of minutes, however, because the Bobcats are desperate for points, finishing last in the league in 2011 at 87 points per game.

Charlotte was also 29th in the NBA in total rebounds, so 33 year old import Brendan Haywood may remedy the issue.  But the team needs two years to assess their current roster.  New head coach Mike Dunlap wants to run an up-tempo offense and hold players accountable for careless mistakes, which is a start to bring the franchise respect that it never had.

Orlando Magic

Richardson finds himself in another rebuilding project (Getty Images)

The Magic’s problems are a result of shortsighted ownership, which is depressing if you think about the gifted names who’ve donned their uniforms.  Florida’s forgotten team is heading back to the dump, rolling the dice that they can build a team through the NBA draft like Oklahoma City.  Good luck with that.  By shipping out their latest superstar in exchange for middling veterans and mediocre draft picks, Orlando is content with being the worst team in the league…which is good, because that’s where the current roster is heading.  I send my condolences to rookie head coach Jacque Vaughn, who did not deserve to be handed this scenario.

Acquired in the Dwight Howard trade, shooting guard Aaron Afflalo is Orlando’s best asset, and he is relatively affordable with four years and $31 million remaining from his 2011 extension, which includes a 2015 player option.  The former Denver Nugget is an above-average perimeter defender and an ideal fourth option on offense.  The Magic also landed two decent center prospects in Gustavo Ayon and Nikola Vucevic.  Both bigs are raw on offense and defense (and Ayon is already 27 years old,) but show a willingness to be coached.  Rookie forward Moe Harkless is deceivingly athletic and could carve out an NBA niche as a defender if he can’t expand his range on offense.

Beyond the players mentioned, the roster features an assortment of veterans, and most are on the downside of their NBA careers.  Jameer Nelson, Hedo Turkoglu, Al Harrington and Quentin Richardson would all be better served living out their golden years with a playoff contender, but their leadership is sorely needed.  The same goes for forward Glen Davis and guard J.J. Redick, who are the only Magic players in their basketball “prime.”  This is going to be a rough ride, so all experienced hands are needed on deck.

Last season, Orlando was 19th in the league in assists per turnover, but expect this ranking to decrease as veterans play for their own statistical accomplishments.  The Magic want to be horrible, so there is no miracle in store.  Tune in for crossed ankles, stagnating ball movement, and jumpers with double-digit shot clock times in 2012.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Following LeBron James’ exit, Cleveland’s roster was a post-war wasteland littered with bloated contracts and aging role players, so credit general manager Chris Grant for cycling new blood into the team.  Regardless, last season the Cavaliers were 25th in the NBA in points scored and 26th in points allowed, so more shuffling is necessary.

As far as linchpins, Grant and owner Dan Gilbert believe Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters will form an All Star backcourt.  Though Waiters is undersized for a shooting guard at 6’4”, the duo should light it up on offense.  Irving appears to be a star and will probably be known as the most talented Cavalier during his tenure.  Second year power forward Tristan Thompson seems to jump on an invisible trampoline, but has yet to develop a go-to post move.  Rookie center Tyler Zeller will learn the ropes from Anderson Varajao for at least half a season, as the Brazilian NBA veteran will be inevitably traded with three expensive years left on his deal.

The Cavaliers signed swingman C.J. Miles to a two year, $4 million pact to fill the void at small forward, where Omri Casspi has been a bust.  Like incumbent re-signed wing Alonzo Gee, Miles is not a natural fit at the three, but will play there out of necessity.  Gilbert is counting down the days until next summer, when Luke Walton and Boobie Gibson are off the books.

Cleveland has made small, quiet moves as they plan to compete for a playoff spot in 2014.  The most crucial needs on the team’s wish list are a beefed up frontcourt and a guard off the bench, but there is no rush.  A former Cavalier is currently dominating the East anyways.

Houston Rockets

Expectations are low for the Rockets but high for Lin (NBA.com)

All eyes are on point guard Jeremy Lin, who has a chance to be Houston’s biggest star since Yao Ming.  Perhaps his flashy offense will distract Rockets fans from what is bound to be a horrifying season this year.  GM Daryl Morey gutted the roster in his failed pursuit for Dwight Howard, but was surprised to obtain two restricted free agents in Lin and center Omer Asik.  With their ample cap space suddenly filled, the Rockets’ new priority is developing chemistry.  “We have a lot of guys who can step forward,” Morey explained in an interview.

Someone will have to step forward for the Rockets in 2012, because outside of veterans Lin, Kevin Martin, Carlos Delfino and Toney Douglas, no player on the club has ever averaged double-digit scoring in the NBA.  This is the sort of future uncertainty that often comes with an unclaimed raffle ticket for last place in the Western Conference.

Lin and Martin will have to shoulder the offense, as coach Kevin McHale gets a feel for the roster.  Asik, who Morey prays is the next Marcin Gortat, is so unproven with the ball in his hands that Patrick Patterson, who averaged 7.7 points per appearance in 2011, will need to be the team’s first option in the post.

Houston’s wild card is a group of rookies selected between the 12th and 20th picks in the NBA draft.  Guard Jeremy Lamb, forward Royce White (16th) forward Terrence Jones (18th) and center Donatas Motiejunas (20th in 2011) are an intriguing package of size and athleticism.  They performed well in the Summer League, but must establish their presence in training camp.

I can safely assume the scrappy Chandler Parsons will improve, but Rockets fans are looking at a terrible roster.  The pieces don’t fit their roles, and an injury to Lin or Martin will put the team at a competitive level akin to the Magic.  Yes, it’s nice to have four rookies grow up in the league together, but this is an opportunity to destroy their confidence.  While I find this unlikely, throwing away a large draft class would set the franchise back for several years.

Sacramento Kings

I’m in love with the Kings but I don’t lie to myself.  My favorite team will miss the playoffs for a seventh straight year, because general manager Geoff Petrie failed to significantly address the club’s league-worst defense.  Sacramento could evolve into a top-ten offense and continue to bully the boards, but atrocious paint defense and a tendency to gamble for steals will hold the Kings back.

Petrie added forward James Johnson to aid Sacramento’s defense, but he is banking that continuity with the young core and coaching staff will pay dividends for defensive execution.  This is a fair strategy as the Thunder can attest, but not every drafted NBA player embraces defense as they should, and a team may simply turn into an entertaining, showboating perennial loser (think early 2000s Clippers, or mid 2000s Nuggets.)  Chuck Hayes was recruited last year to provide his burly strength on post defense, but the key to the season, and the Kings’ semi-immediate future, relies on the defensive development of DeMarcus Cousins.  Cousins is peculiar for his tendency to take charges, which could be his personal excuse to shy away from rim protection.  But at 6’11” and 270 pounds, the third year center contains the ability to clog the lane with the effectiveness of Andrew Bogut.  As for the Kings’ other big men, Jason Thompson and Thomas Robinson, are susceptible to abuse from back-to-the-basket scorers.

The Kings also need to see major improvement in shot selection and accuracy.  Tyreke Evans, Jimmer Freddette, John Salmons, Francisco Garcia and newcomer Aaron Brooks will be under scrutiny for offensive slumps this season.  Sacramento was 29th in the NBA in three point accuracy last year, so a reliable shooter will be guaranteed rotation time.

If Sacramento played in the Eastern Conference, they would likely be in contention for the eighth seed. But geography is geography, and I’m very pleased to watch professional basketball in the Central Valley.  Should the Kings relocate next year, I will put a gun to my forehead, but for now, I look forward to more sloppy basketball, which gives me a shred of hope.

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