This week: assessing the bottom six teams in the Eastern Conference. Through Tuesday, the Raptors, Pistons, Magic, Cavaliers, Bobcats and Wizards were all at least 5½ games out of the No. 8 seed.
1. Which of these six teams has the brightest future?
Ben Golliver: At the risk of dumbing down a fairly complicated question and short-cutting a thorough, all-points analysis, I’ll rush to pick the Cavaliers and not think twice. Nothing is brighter than a budding superstar still on his rookie deal, and that’s exactly what the Cavaliers have in point guard Kyrie Irving. Last week, I selected Irving as the second-most-deserving player among potential first-time All-Stars. If he makes it to Houston this season, which he absolutely should, the Cavaliers are looking at eight (eight!) years of All-Star play before Irving could leave in unrestricted free agency. (That’s assuming he signs a five-year extension, a la Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook, on top of the next two-plus years of his rookie deal.)
Polldaddy.comThere are young lottery picks to like among the other five teams — including Charlotte’s Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Kemba Walker; Washington’s John Wall and Bradley Beal; Detroit’s Greg Monroe, Andre Drummond and Brandon Knight; Toronto’s Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross; and Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic — but Irving’s future outshines them all, even when injury risks are factored in. Come on, Irving is averaging 23 points, 5.6 assists, 3.6 rebounds and 1.7 steals and shooting 41 percent from three-point range — and he’s still not 21 years old.
This isn’t just about Irving (although it could be). The Cavaliers have been bad enough for long enough to set themselves up for a quick rise with a couple of right moves. I’m not the world’s biggest fan of Tristan Thompson (No. 4 pick in 2011 draft), Dion Waiters (No. 4 in 2012) or Tyler Zeller (No. 17 in 2012), but they all look like rotation pieces and are on affordable rookie deals. Anderson Varejao is, at worst, an above-average trade chip. The Cavaliers will have loads of cap space this summer to improve Irving’s supporting cast, although they must be sure to dole it out to deserving players. Owner Dan Gilbert’s demonstrated commitment to spend what it takes to win adds an optimistic shine to their long-term outlook.
Rob Mahoney: Cleveland is undoubtedly the pick here, for precisely the reasons you mentioned, Ben. Irving is as compelling a prospect as they come, and though the Cavs have a long way to go before they put together a playoff-worthy roster, they already have a handful of useful pieces to build around, and their cap outlook is unbelievably clean. There isn’t a single player under contract beyond this season who shouldn’t be, and no asset on the roster that could even remotely be considered overpaid beyond Luke Walton and his $6 million expiring contract. That gives GM Chris Grant the opportunity to pursue all manner of free-agent targets in his efforts to round out this roster, and just as important is the ability to take on extra salary in a potential trade. Teams under the cap wind up being the ultimate facilitators due to the salary-matching rules, leaving Cleveland in a position to pick up some quality picks or players in exchange for little to nothing. It’s up to Grant to leverage that opportunity into something tangible, but the Cavs have only $27.5 million on the books for next season — a total roster payout that should allow Grant to make some moves and retain that flexibility in the process.
Beyond the Cavs, though, I’m most optimistic about the Bobcats. Though Charlotte may still be on the hunt for high-ceiling offensive players, Mike Dunlap’s infrastructure offers promise for a group of perfectly sturdy complementary types. Walker is coming into his own as a pick-and-roll player, and alongside him is a world of defensive potential between Kidd-Gilchrist, Gerald Henderson and Bismack Biyombo. Things aren’t looking great right now for the Bobcats because of their lack of firepower, general lack of experience and forced reliance on Byron Mullens, but a single shot creator and a few years of working their way into the playoff picture should position the ‘Cats for a long run of success.