Although the Eastern Conference is down to four teams, seven teams never even had a chance to make it this far at the start of the Playoffs – they simply didn’t make the post-season. These clubs and their fans are already looking ahead to next year and wondering if they can improve enough to make a run at the playoffs in April, 2012. Here’s the rundown of how the 2011-12 season is looking for these franchises.
Charlotte Bobcats (34-48)
Local Optimism: Not good. The Bobcats dismantled most of the team that earned the franchise’s first playoff berth in 2010, as Tyson Chandler, Raymond Felton, and Gerald Wallace are all gone, along with head coach Paul Silas. Fans don’t trust in owner Michael Jordan, and right now this is a team without an identity.
Case for Improvement: Jordan has pledged to be active this summer in free-agency, and there has been some quiet talk about making a run North Carolina native Chris Paul when his contract expires in 2012. Paul Silas got the team to play hard after taking over from Larry Brown midway through last season, even though they were only 25-29 under Silas. D.J. Augustin and Gerald Henderson made some nice strides last season.
However… Charlotte has no realistic chance at signing Paul; if he wanted a small-market club, he’d stay in New Orleans as they are much more likely to contend than Charlotte. Though this team clearly needs a shakeup, I don’t think Jordan is the man to do it as he’s been largely unsuccessful during his stints in the Wizards and Bobcats’ front offices. Charlotte has no current/emerging stars and didn’t lose enough games to pick one up in a draft short on high-end talent.
Verdict: No playoffs next season. The 7/8 seeds in the East are usually pretty up for grabs from year-to-year, and Charlotte was just three games out from the playoffs in 2011. I don’t see Charlotte improving much next season, especially with the glaring hole they have in the post due (inexcusable considering they traded away Emeka Okafor, and then let his replacement, Tyson Chandler, walk). At least Charlotte isn’t a complete disaster like some of the teams below them on this list.
Cleveland Cavaliers (19-63)
Local Optimism: Tempered optimism. Fans understand that the team is bad and it will take awhile to rebuild, but feel that two high draft choices (they also own the Clippers’ pick) should allow the Cavs to get back on track. What the fan base needs most is a player they can rally around now that James is gone, hopefully someone like Arizona’s Derrick Williams.
Case for Improvement: Even though it is a weak draft, pretty much anyone they add will be better than the guys they trotted out there this season. It’s hard to play much worse than the Cavs did in 2010-11, and they have some underdeveloped talent (Ramon Sessions, Christian Eyenga) that could help as long as they don’t have to be relied on heavily.
However… The Cavs have one more year of Antawn Jamison (making $15 million next season) and two of Baron Davis (owed $28 million through 2013), neither of whom have any desire to be in Cleveland. Most of Cleveland’s roster consists of bench players and D-Leaguers, and if the lottery doesn’t go kindly, the team won’t be much better next season. And don’t forget, this is a team that lost 26 games in a row last season.
Verdict: Definitely no playoffs. Byron Scott has gotten teams to the playoffs before, but it will take more than one season to recover from the loss of LeBron James. If they can flip Jamison’s contract to another team and make good use of their trade exception, they might be able to set themselves up nicely for next summer. GM Chris Grant needs to hit a home run with one of the lottery picks this year though, because if he doesn’t, Cleveland’s going to stink for awhile.
Detroit Pistons (30-52)
Local Optimism: Poor. The Pistons have a lot of problems right now, but the most important one—firing head coach John Kuester, won’t come until the sale of the franchise to LA financier Tom Gores goes through later this month. Fans want a head coach with some experience (both Kuester and his predecessor Michael Curry were rookie head coaches), while the roster features a lot of aging pieces that aren’t much good to anyone right now.
Case for Improvement: They might be able to get something for Richard Hamilton, which would free them from the two years and $25 million remaining on his contract. They have some cap space to work with, and a new head coach (perhaps the enigmatic Bill Laimbeer) will hopefully light a fire under what was an uninspired team in 2010-11.
However… GM Joe Dumars seems unwillingly to fully rebuild despite the fact that Detroit is now seven years removed from a title. The 2004 team worked because it consisted of a bunch of very good players geared towards playing oppressive defense. The remaining members of that team (Tayshaun Prince, Ben Wallace, and Richard Hamilton) are now shadows of their former selves, and Dumars hasn’t made a good personnel decision in at least five years (including striking out on the past two head coaches).
Verdict: Possibility of playoffs. Detroit has some talented players on their roster if they play hard (Ben Gordon, Tracy McGrady, Hamilton—though T-Mac’s contract is up), and with the emergence of Greg Monroe, I could see this franchise improving a bit next season. But until Dumars gets with the program and realizes that this Pistons squad isn’t going anywhere soon, any progress will be short-lived.
Milwaukee Bucks (35-47)
Local Optimism: Not that good, though perhaps unfairly so. Fans are disappointed with the job GM John Hammond did last offseason (particularly the Corey Maggette signing), and were unhappy with the job the team did on offense under defensive-minded coach Scott Skiles (last in the NBA in both PPG and Offensive Rating). But Hammond improved the team in each of his first two seasons before taking a step backwards last season, and Skiles does have the Bucks playing well defensively (first in the league in opponents’ PPG and fourth in Defensive Rating).
Case for Improvement: Most of a roster that won 46 games in 2009-10 is intact. Hopefully Andrew Bogut will be fully recovered from the elbow injury he suffered in last year’s playoffs, allowing him to contribute more on the offensive end. Brandon Jennings and John Salmons have both proven that they can be successful players for the Bucks, though neither had a great season last year. Michael Redd’s albatross of a contract is gone, so Milwaukee can use some of that cap space to add a player of value.
However… While Jennings necessarily has to take more shots in the Bucks’ offense because he has little offensive talent surrounding him, his 39% FG% was last in the NBA in 2010-11, and his 2.09 assist-to-turnover ratio ranked him 50th in the league last season. Salmons is old, so the likelihood of him reverting to his 2010 form is fading. It’s unclear who should be in the rotation, as 12 guys averaged at least 15 minutes per game last year, despite the fact that the Bucks made no trades and no significant in-season signings.
Verdict: Possibility of playoffs. Milwaukee only missed by two games last season, and if they can get anything on offense next season, their defense should be good enough for a playoff berth. But this franchise won’t turn around until Jennings develops a better jump shot and starts limiting his turnovers.
New Jersey Nets (24-58)
Local Optimism: Not awful. While the Nets remain a bad team, Deron Williams is a legitimate star, and Kris Humphries had a breakthrough season. NJ has some useful pieces on its roster (Brook Lopez, Anthony Morrow), and the fans would like to see another wing player or two (Wilson Chandler, perhaps?).
Case for Improvement: Williams is a great point guard, and if New Jersey can keep him around long-term, they’ll be set at that position for the foreseeable future. The Nets are well under the cap for next season, and if they can re-sign Humphries while leaving enough room for a quality wing, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be better than they were in 2010-11
However… The Travis Outlaw signing last off-season (he has 3 years and $21 million remaining on his contract) was a disaster. Only one player started more than 55 games for New Jersey last season (Lopez), and their bench is terrible. And if they start losing early, there’s little chance Williams will stick around past next season.
Verdict: Possibility of playoffs. GM Billy King declared that it’s “playoffs or bust” next season, and it’s certainly not out of the question with a core of Williams, Humphries, and Lopez. That said, they still have a bunch of holes to fill on their roster, which will take multiple off-seasons to address.
Toronto Raptors (22-60)
Local Optimism: Bad. GM Bryan Colangelo has worn out his welcome, and most fans don’t want to see his expired contract renewed. Five years later, the team still doesn’t know what to do with Andrea Bargnani, while subsequent #1 picks have gone on to flourish in the league (see: Derrick Rose and Blake Griffin).
Case for Improvement: DeMar DeRozan improved a lot from his rookie season, and Bargnani averaged over 20 PPG last season (granted, the Raptors’ points had to come from somewhere after Chris Bosh left). Amir Johnson is a reliable backup big man
However… Toronto’s never been a premier free-agent destination, and whoever the GM is this summer will have trouble convincing players to sign there. Fans are split about whether to keep coach Jay Triano (who is 87-142 in two plus seasons at the helm), and the Raptors seem to be backpedaling in a division where all the other teams look to be improving (aside from the division’s top team, the Celtics).
Verdict: No playoffs. Toronto could be marginally better this season, but I don’t see a scenario in which they improve by the 15+ wins needed to make the playoffs. Their best chance is to win the lottery and take Kyrie Irving, but even then I can’t see any more than 30 wins.
Washington Wizards (23-59)
Local Optimism: Low. Owner Ted Leonsis has stated on multiple occasions that he is going to be patient and slowly rebuild the Wizards through the draft and smart free agent signings rather rush things in an attempt to get to the playoffs as soon as possible. While no fan base likes rebuilding, Leonsis rebuilt the NHL’s Capitals in a similar way. No one expects big things from the Wizards next year, but if they don’t show signs of progress (they lost three more games in 2010-11 than they did in 2009-10), the fan base is going to lose patience quickly.
Case for Improvement: John Wall is turnover-prone and needs to work on his jumper, but he is still just 20 years old. Along with Wall, Washington has several other raw but talented individuals (Jordan Crawford, JaVale McGee) that could be important parts of the rebuilding process if the Wizards develop them properly. They have the 18th pick in the draft this year (Atlanta’s) as well as their own, so they have potential to add a couple pieces there as well.
However… Flip Saunders isn’t the right coach for this team. Both Andray Blatche and Nick Young have shown flashes of brilliance, but Young thinks he’s better than he is and Blatche has some major motivation issues. They got rid of Gilbert Arenas, but traded one huge contract for another, as they still over Rashard Lewis $45 million through 2013, despite the fact that he can’t do anything on this team because there’s no big man spacing the floor for him.
Verdict: No playoffs. I think Leonsis has the right idea, and best case scenario has the Wizards’ young core maturing enough to contend for the playoffs in 2012-13. They still need a quality big man, and I don’t think they can address that need in this year’s draft even if they land the number one pick. Should this rebuilding project fail, most fan bases would start to riot. Unfortunately, most Wizards fans are used to it, as the team hasn’t won 50 games in a season in 32 years.