This year, I’m going to preview the NBA season by starting with the lowest of the low and working my way up to my Finals picks. If a franchise is a legitimate championship contender, I’ll focus on what stars have to line up for a title run. If a team is a playoff also-ran, I’ll identify the weaknesses that have to be shored up via trade, free agency or draft over the next couple of seasons to make it a contender. If a team is likely to miss the playoffs, I’ll take a look at the salary cap, and provide a blueprint for how the team should proceed in the near future to get back in the postseason.
#30: Cleveland Cavaliers
The Cavs could very well finish with the worst record just one year after finishing 2009-10 with the best regular season record. This, of course, is all LeBron James’ fault. He wasn’t supposed to leave, but he did. Not only did he drag his feet during free agency and make it impossible for the franchise to make any other significant moves, he also broke up with the city of Cleveland in the most public way possible. (Hey, at least the Boys & Girls Club made some money off of the deal.) The Cavs are trying to look forward, but it’s tough when you’re planning to start Anthony Parker and Jamario Moon on the wing and are depending on a 34-year-old Antawn Jamison to be your go-to scorer. Jamison and Mo Williams do bring some offense, and Anderson Varejao and J.J. Hickson will keep the front line competitive, but this team is seriously lacking in talent, specifically at shooting guard and small forward. Byron Scott is a good coach, but he’s going to have a tough time winning more than 25 games with this group. The good news, if there is any, is that the team is not in salary cap hell. They project to have about $10 million in cap space next summer and nearly $30 million in the summer of 2012. But there’s more bad news — it’s going to be tough to attract free agents to Cleveland, especially after Dan Gilbert’s open letter to LeBron.
#29: Toronto Raptors
The other big loser in the Super Friends saga, the Raptors elected not to trade Chris Bosh before the deadline and ended up paying for it in the end. They did trade a disgruntled Hedo Turkoglu for Leandro Barbosa and signed Linas Kleiza to start at small forward. The Raptors are going to try to play a European style of basketball with lots of ball movement and very little isolation. So if they’re able to develop great chemistry quickly, and Andrea Bargnani develops into an All-Star caliber player, they could creep into low-20’s or high teens, but chances are the Raptors are looking at a high lottery pick next summer. There is some young talent on the roster (Bargnani, DeMar DeRozan, Amir Johnson, Ed Davis), but it’s going to have to develop quickly if the Raptors hope to avoid embarrassment night in and night out. Salary-cap wise, Toronto isn’t going to have any significant space (~$15 million) until the summer of 2012, so this rebuilding process is going to take a while.
#28: Minnesota Timberwolves
The T-Wolves are still floundering thanks to the questionable leadership of GM David Kahn. He’s still intent on the idea that Ricky Rubio will be joining the team next year, but Rubio’s parents declined to meet with owner Glen Taylor during a recent trip to Paris to talk things over, so things aren’t looking particularly good on that front. Kahn traded away his best offensive player (Al Jefferson) to Utah for two protected first round picks and acquired/re-signed a couple of reclamation projects in Michael Beasley and Darko Milicic. Looking at the T-Wolves’ salary cap situation, it’s interesting to note that the franchise doesn’t have a single player making more than $5 million this season. For the team to be somewhat competitive this summer, Beasley needs to become a go-to scorer and Kevin Love needs to turn in All-Star caliber numbers at power forward. Minnesota will have about $15 million in cap space next summer to sign Rubio (?) and another significant free agent (or two).
#27: Washington Wizards
The Wizards won the lottery both literally and figuratively when they landed the #1 pick and the rights to draft John Wall, who projects to be a superstar in the NBA. The only issue is that he plays the same position as Gilbert Arenas, who submarined the franchise last season when he brandished a fire arm in the locker room. The Wizards are planning to play Arenas at shooting guard, which might work, but there just isn’t enough talent on the roster to be competitive in the Eastern Conference, which should be improved this season. The Wizards need to feature Arenas and find someone to take his giant contract (four years, $80 million) off their hands for a draft pick or a young prospect along with an expiring contract. This will give Washington a ton of salary cap flexibility next summer and allow Wall to take the reins of the franchise.
#26: Golden State Warriors
With Don Nelson’s recent resignation/dismissal, the Warriors are going through some changes that are likely to have an effect heading into the first few months of the season. This is Stephen Curry’s team now, and the Warriors did well to bring in David Lee to anchor the front line, but it cost them the enigmatic Anthony Randolph in the process. Monta Ellis and Andris Biedrins are still around, though both have been involved in trade rumors over the last several months. Biedrins should benefit from consistent minutes at center now that Nellie isn’t there to yank him in and out of the lineup. Defensively, this group projects to be fairly brutal as Curry, Ellis and Lee all struggle on that end of the court. Luckily, help is (possibly) on its way — the Warriors will have significant cap space next summer and generally-speaking don’t have any terrible contracts on the books after this season.