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Silver Linings for the Lakers, Knicks and More Non-Playoff Teams

Sports Illustrated logo Sports Illustrated 3/26/2019 Michael Shapiro
LeBron James, DeAndre Jordan are posing for a picture: Los Angeles Lakers v New York Knicks © Sarah Stier/Getty Images Los Angeles Lakers v New York Knicks

Half of the NBA’s 30 teams will fight to dethrone the Warriors for the championship when the playoffs begin on April 13. But for the league’s bottom 14 squads, their offseason will begin three days earlier with the end of the regular season slate. The 14 non-playoff teams have registered 2018-19 campaigns ranging from promising (Sacramento and Dallas) to disastrous (Phoenix and Washington), setting the table for one of the most exciting summers in recent memory.

The bottom half of the league has been properly dragged as we approach April, with free-agent signings mocked and trade demands skewered. So we at The Crossover decided to take a kinder approach as the regular season draws to a close. Here are 14 silver linings for the 14 teams slated to enter the lottery in May.

a basketball player in front of a crowd: Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images © Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

New York Knicks – The promise of Zion and July

It wasn’t an easy road for the Knicks to set themselves up for the most important summer in franchise history, but here we are. After six-straight losing seasons and a trade of the organization’s best draft pick since Patrick Ewing, New York enters the 2019 offseason with two chances at a return to relevance. The first will come in May, when the ping-pong balls could land the Knicks Zion Williamson 34 years after  they received Ewing. Though even if the lottery is a letdown, 2019 can still represent a historic summer. Signing Kevin Durant or Kyrie Irving would signal a minor Madison Square Garden revival. Bringing in both could make the Knicks a legitimate contender in the East.

Phoenix Suns – Youth and (no) expectations

The Suns have been the West’s worst tire fire in 2018-19, zooming past New Orleans’ headache with Anthony Davis. Devin Booker said “I’m done with not making the playoffs” at the conclusion of the 2018 season. Phoenix enters Tuesday night last in the West at 17–58. Of the 161 players to tally 1,500 minutes this season, Josh Jackson ranks 160th in true-shooting percentage. A herd of goats reportedly defecated in general manager Ryan McDonough’s office, and that’s probably not the worst moment at Talking Stick Resort Arena. The Suns have lost ten home games by double digits in 2018-19. Head coach Igor Kokoskov could be out after the season, making next year’s coach the fifth in five years.

This is all a long preamble to say that the Suns are pretty bereft of silver linings at the moment. They haven’t crossed 30 wins in four-straight years, representing one of the league’s worst ownership and management situations. Yet amid the current chaos, Phoenix now has nothing but time. Bookier is 22. Deandre Ayton is 20. The Suns will likely get a top three draft pick, slotting one of Williamson, Ja Morant or R.J. Barrett into their young core. Booker and Ayton have shown offensive promise, if not winning ways. Add another quality young piece, and the Suns can quietly grow in the desert, perhaps gunning for the eight seed in 2020-21.

Cleveland Cavaliers – Flashes from Young Bull

Collin Sexton struggled throughout the 2018 portion of the season, clanking a stream of jumpers as the Cavs sunk to the bottom of the East standings. The slow start wasn’t necessarily surprising, nor all that discouraging. A raw point guard on a bad team is ripe for some ugly efficiency numbers.

Even with diminished expectations, Cleveland fans still hoped to see some improvement before the season ended. Their patience has been rewarded over the last month. Sexton is averaging 22.3 points since March 1, making 47% of attempts from three. He ripped off eight-straight 20-plus point efforts before Sunday’s loss to the Bucks, leading the Cavs to wins over Orlando, Toronto, Detroit and Milwaukee. Sexton looks more comfortable navigating the pick-and-roll, increasingly bursting through the tin instead of settling for free-throw-line jumpers. His percentages should jump in year two as Cleveland navigates a post-LeBron future.  

Chicago Bulls – Zach LaVine shedding bad habits

Zach LaVine has attended the Andrew Wiggins School of Wings for much of his career, missing long-two’s and ignoring teammates at every turn. The UCLA product has made a turn for the better in recent months. LaVine is attacking the rim with abandon, pushing past the mediocre midranges into efficient drives. His free-throw rate and field goal percentage is up since February 1. He led Chicago to a double-digit win over the Celtics with 42 points in late February. LaVine previously looked incompatible with a winning team. His game has evolved since the New Year, and he’s now a more malleable wing next to the Bulls’ precocious frontcourt.

a man holding a basketball: Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images) © Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images) Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images)

Atlanta Hawks – Trae Young is legit

Similar to Sexton, Trae Young couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn in his first half of the season. The Oklahoma product shot just 27.5% from three, worrying some that his summer-league issues would continue through the rest of his rookie season. The concerns dissipated once the calendar turned to 2019. Young paired his elite playmaking with a 40.4% mark from three since Feb. 1, closing the gap on Luka Doncic on the MVP race. Hawks GM Travis Schlenk will likely be questioned over the Young-Doncic trade for the next decade-plus. Though if Atlanta can land a quality piece with their additional draft pick, the deal should end up as a winner for both franchises.

Dallas Mavericks – Other NBA GM’s

The other top-five picks in the 2018 draft all project to be quality NBA pieces, headlined by a historically-efficient year from Deandre Ayton and a late Rookie of the Year campaign from Trae Young. Still, it’s hard to look at Dallas’ acquisition of Luka Doncic as anything other than a historical fluke. Doncic entered the 2018 draft as the most accomplished teenager in European basketball history, but still slid to No. 3 before being traded from Atlanta to Dallas. Now, he is the key cornerstone of Dallas’ future, perhaps launching another two-decades of European dominance in the metroplex.

Dallas then continued its accelerated rebuild in February, swiping Kristaps Porzingis from the Knicks in exchange for Dennis Smith and salary cap relief. The Mavericks went from zero franchise players to two in the span of nine months, positioning themselves for a return to Western Conference prominence in the 2020s.

Memphis Grizzlies – JJJ’s defensive potential

Jaren Jackson Jr. likely has the lowest offensive ceiling of any top five pick, yet he’s already strides ahead on the defensive end. While Deandre Ayton is a sieve inside, Jackson is a force, tallying 2.7 blocks per 100 possessions.

Jackson is more than an interior anchor. He can switch onto guards on the perimeter, sliding his feet with the grace of a practiced veteran. Jackson has cut down on his foul rate after an early-season hackathon. He’s embracing his verticality, with discipline uncommon for a 19-year-old. Memphis should struggle into the next decade, but Jackson is a sturdy building block to kickstart the Grizzlies’ rebuild.

Washington Wizards – Welp, it can’t get much worse

John Wall is out until at least midway through last season. Otto Porter was dealt as luxury tax dump. The Dwight Howard era has been more non-existent than disastrous. Still, the roster is basically Bradley Beal and a bunch of afterthoughts. Beal is in the midst of an All-NBA-caliber season, though even that honor will cost the Wizards in their next contract talks. The future is bleak.

So where can the Washington faithful turn to for optimism? Maybe it’s best to end the search. The Wizards won’t provide much joy in 2019-20, and rock bottom has fully arrived. There’s nowhere to go but up, and perhaps that will provide a dash of solace during perhaps the most disheartening season of the century.

New Orleans Pelicans – A trade haul awaits

The Anthony Davis era has effectively ended in New Orleans, bringing an uncertain future after seven seasons with its post-Chris Paul star. Who will be the next face of the franchise? It could temporarily be Julius Randle or Jrue Holiday, but long-term, the player in question is probably on another roster. Jayson Tatum could lead the new era along with Jaylen Brown, as could Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma. Maybe the Knicks deal a top-three pick for AD, the Bulls could potentially do the same, though sending a valuable package for a potential rental is a gamble. Regardless of the suitor, New Orleans should gain a haul of young talent in exchange for Davis, moving forward after the saga that consumed the trade deadline.

LeBron James, DeAndre Jordan are posing for a picture: Sarah Stier/Getty Images © Sarah Stier/Getty Images Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Los Angeles Lakers – Don’t forget the King

The Lakers’ season has been a disaster anyway you slice it, causing LeBron James to miss the postseason for the first time since 2005. But don’t expect a second-straight missed postseason in Los Angeles. The Lakers still have the greatest player of his generation, who will likely end 2018-19 with the quietest 27-8-8 stat line in NBA history. Los Angeles would still be a playoff contender had James not missed 17 games, and could even be firmly inside the top eight barring its poor injury luck. Even without a blockbuster deal this summer, Los Angeles can still move forward with its young core, ready to compete for the playoffs with LeBron, its trio of young starters and hopefully a revamped supporting cast.

Minnesota Timberwolves – Karl-Anthony Towns, destroyer of worlds

Towns’ dominance over the last two months should keep Timberwolves fans’ spirits afloat as they lament the disastrous Andrew Wiggins contract. Minnesota’s roster behind Towns is shaky. Yet the Kentucky product can string together a full-season of dominance in 2019-20, Minnesota can reach its second playoffs in the last three years.

Minnesota’s franchise cornerstone is averaging 30.2 points and 13.6 rebounds in 19 games since Feb. 1. Oh, and he’s shooting 51% from three on over five attempts per game. Towns is eating opposing centers’ lunches, unleashing the mammoth potential that made him the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 draft. He’ll likely settle for third-team All-NBA in 2018-19, aiming to leapfrog Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid next season.

Charlotte Hornets – Kemba Walker’s loyalty

Kemba Walker will be one of the NBA’s premier free agents in July, and don’t be surprised if the UConn product stays with the woebegone Hornets. For one, there’s the economic advantage Charlotte holds, with Walker’s potential Hornets contract ballooning to $221 million if he makes an All-NBA team in 2018-19. There’s also the loyalty consideration, which Walker has previously noted. “This is a place that believed in me from Day 1,” Walker told Sports Illustrated’s Kaelen Jones in February. “I’m a loyal guy. I just wanna stay loyal to the people who are loyal to me.”

It’s a good thing Walker is open to sticking in Charlotte, because the surrounding roster is a below-average unit. Jeremy Lamb may be the Hornets second-best player, and game-winners aside, that’s a pretty startling indictment. The Hornets are presently the lottery and littered with bad contracts—anyone want Bismack Biyombo for $17 million? – with no clear path toward contention in the East. At least the promise of Walker’s return will soften the blow on a disappointing 2018-19.

Orlando Magic – The right coach in place

Orlando’s roster is bit of a jumbled mess right now, with a surplus of frontcourt contributors and a lacking backcourt (all due respect to Texas legend D.J. Augustin). The Magic’s playoff chances could dampen next year if Nikola Vucevic bolts in free agency. Yet despite the roster concerns, Orlando should still squeeze the most out of its talent thanks to veteran head coach Steve Clifford. The Magic cycled through James Borrego, Jacque Vaughn, Scott Skiles and Frank Vogel from 2014-18. Clifford has brought stability to Orlando, breeding its young roster as he did in Charlotte from 2013-18. In a weakened East, perhaps Clifford’s experience can carry the Magic back to the postseason in 2020.  

Sacramento Kings – A legitimate young core

Sacramento has cycled through plenty of nominal young cores in the past decade. There was the Tyreke Evans, Marcus Thornton, DeMarcus Cousins core to start the decade, adding failed top-ten picks Thomas Robinson, Nik Stauskas and Ben McLemore in following years. This year’s group, though, looks to be sustainable, likely in competition for a West playoff spot for years to come.

De’Aaron Fox is ready to take the reigns and progress into a fringe All-NBA guard, while Buddy Hield and Bogdan Bogdanovic make up a quality pair of perimeter gunners. Configuring the frontcourt rotation moving forward will be a difficult task. Harrison Barnes is best suited to play the four, creating a logjam with Willie Cauley-Stein, Marvin Bagley, Nemanja Bjelica and Harry Giles. Cauley-Stein’s restricted free agency will be interesting. If an offer blows past Sacramento’s comfort level, the Kings could part with their former first round pick. Even without Cauley-Stein, the Kings are finally set-up for a return to the West playoffs.

Related Slideshow: Best of the 2018-19 NBA season (provided by imagn)

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