NBA Shootaround: Picking Next Season’s Bandwagon Team

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So much amazing is happening, and the Shootaround crew is back to help you keep track of it all. You’ll find takes on moments you might’ve missed from the previous night, along with ones you will remember forever. This week, we look into the future to guess which team will emerge from the tanking rubble and mediocre mire to become a postseason presence next season.

Milwaukee Bucks

Andrew Sharp: The Bucks are a tough nut to crack. They have had one of the worst offenses in the league for the past few months, and yet they are a team on the rise. Jabari Parker could be great, but he hasn’t played since December. Khris Middleton is a killer role player, and this summer they’ll have to pay him like a star. They added MCW. And … wait, why did they add MCW? Tough nut to crack.

Then there’s the biggest mystery. The best mystery. Giannis.

He had two plays Wednesday night that reminded us where things are going — and where they are right now. The first was that chase-down block. The second came midway through the third quarter, when he caught the ball at the top of the key, went right at Nikola Mirotic, drew contact, and finished off the glass.

Of course, that block was called for goaltending, and the refs whistled Giannis for a very iffy push-off on the layup. But if you watched those plays and saw two mistakes, you are missing the point. Giannis hasn’t quite put it all together, but he is close. He can knock down jumpers. He can beat people off the dribble. He still has a cheat code on defense. He can do everything.

Sure, he also gets lost, standing in the corner sometimes. His offense disappears for stretches. He can’t be counted on to dominate night to night. All we have are these little flashes. Next year is when this should get crazy.

I wouldn’t be so confident about the future if he weren’t already so much further along than anyone expected. In just a year, Giannis has gone from the kid who was amazed by smoothies to the so-damn-Americanized superstar combining two memes, hitting on supermodels, and running down the court cursing out the refs after that bullshit offensive foul last night. I love it. He’s getting cool, he’s getting surly, he’s getting good.

The Bucks beat the Bulls last night. They may make some noise in the playoffs this year. They’ll definitely start next year with all kinds of inflated expectations, and it may not end well. MCW probably isn’t the answer, they need more shooting, and Indiana and the rest of the East will be better. It will take time for the Bucks takeover to really get going. But things will be fun while we wait. As the rest of the league is out of breath over Anthony Davis or dreaming about what Andrew Wiggins can be, Giannis is lurking. If anything, we don’t talk about him enough.

I don’t even know what Killer Giannis looks like, but that’s what’s coming. Watch that Vine from the Pelicans game a few weeks ago. What happens when that becomes normal? Anytime I talk to other basketball fans about what he’ll turn into, everybody just shakes their head and gets wide-eyed about the possibilities. That’s what I’m watching for next season.

Los Angeles Lakers

New Orleans Pelicans v Los Angeles LakersAndrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Dave Schilling: I have a basketball crush on Jordan Clarkson. It’s hard to admit that, because the cynical part of me is prepared to find out that I’m the victim of the NBA fan’s equivalent of being catfished. Next season will start and I’m going to think I’m meeting Clarkson in the middle of an empty park, but wait … why is he driving a 2002 Toyota Camry? Shit, is that a headband? Oh god, that’s not Jordan Clarkson. That’s SMUSH PARKER.

Maybe this won’t last, but in the moment, I believe. Clarkson is absolutely on fire right now and seems more aggressive and intelligent with every game. He’s notched two double-doubles in a row, and last night he was only three rebounds away from a triple-double. Mike Trudell tweeted that only three Lakers rookies have ever recorded a triple-double: Magic, Jerry West, and Elgin Baylor. That Clarkson is even sniffing that company (and against a potential playoff team) is something special. His 18 points against New Orleans came on 7-of-9 shooting with 10 assists. He’s efficient and generous with the ball, exactly what you want in a point guard — and this is a point guard’s league.

This is the glimmer of hope I needed, and now I’m ready to declare the Lakers the NBA’s next great bandwagon team. With potentially up to $27 million in salary-cap room uncommitted for next season, they’ve got the flexibility to rebuild the roster this summer. Consider this insane scenario: a Lakers team featuring Kobe Bryant, Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle, Kevin Love, and Rajon Rondo. I don’t know if that’s a playoff contender, but I’m certain that would be an explosive locker room situation. Do you think Love can “fit in” when Kobe is screaming obscenities in his ear? What if Rondo and Kobe hate playing with each other because they both need the ball? Would Love get stuck spotting up in the corner again because those Lakers have no shooters? Would they challenge the 1990-91 Denver Nuggets for the most points allowed per game with a starting five that contains a grand total of zero players who can defend? Can I successfully get the nickname “Lil’ Vino” to stick for Clarkson? Good god, the story lines write themselves. Lakers Nation, this is our moment! We’re back! I can smell banner no. 17. Now, if we could just find Jim Buss a shiny object to distract him for a few months …

Detroit Pistons

Detroit Pistons v Charlotte HornetsRocky Widner/Getty Images

Juliet Litman: Brandon Jennings has a lot of free time right now. He’s bored. His torn Achilles robbed him from riding the post–Josh Smith wave until it crested. But that’s why I’m already excited about next season for the Pistons. Jennings has vowed to be back by training camp — if he’s still the starting point guard at that point. Reggie Jackson has come in, looking for a team to love him and a team to run. It’s not even July, and the Pistons already have a compelling story line.

Luckily, they also have some talent to go with it. We will witness the next step for Andre Drummond, who’s starting to put it together; more Greg Monroe (free agency depending), who may have benefited the most from Smith’s departure; the rising Kentavious Caldwell-Pope; and the second year of Stan Van Gundy’s reign. Amid the depressing losing streaks and unwatchable games, there has been a glimmer of bigger things to come. The gravest threat to this team’s improvement is the Internet, given Drummond’s penchant for meeting girls on the platform and Jennings’s abundance of down time. Hopefully they’ll both remember this important observation.

Denver Nuggets

Denver Nuggets Host Special Olympics ClinicGarrett W. Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Danny Chau: Have you ever been sprayed with Mace while running on a treadmill? Me neither, but I imagine it looks and feels a lot like how the Nuggets look and feel this year. At best, they demonstrate the human capacity to endure the crippling sting of mediocrity and rise above with flashes of shocking competency. At worst, like last night, getting humiliated by the Utah Jazz, they’re knocking out their two front teeth falling headfirst on the belt.

The Nuggets have been my favorite hate watch of the season. The schadenfreude was a couple of years in the making. George Karl’s firing, after leading the Nuggets to their best record since moving from the ABA, didn’t sit well with me. I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s been only two seasons since the Nuggets were the proto-Hawks. As much as things have changed since then, I want to believe the DNA of those Karl-led Nuggets hasn’t been buried completely.

The season is almost over, and luckily, they’ll likely have a fairly high draft pick to show for it. Nuggets fans knew 10 games in what this team was, and it’s been a torturous crawl ever since. There is talent on the roster, but little cohesion and not much in the way of a plan. So now comes the fun part. Imagine Willie Cauley-Stein/Kristaps Porzingis as the roving rim protector paired with Jusuf Nurkic instead of Joffrey Lauvergne. Or Justise Winslow/Stanley Johnson as the power guard in the Nuggets’ positionally fluid lineups. With Brian Shaw gone, absolutely everyone on the roster on the trading block, and three future first-round picks in the vault as trade chips, the Nuggets can, in theory, be whatever they want to be. That’s exciting. Not knowing is exciting.

Boston Celtics

Indiana Pacers v Boston CelticsMaddie Meyer/Getty Images

Jason Gallagher: Boy. Boston wastes no time rebuilding, right? I wasn’t expecting to fall for them for at least a couple of years, but it’s 2015 and they’re already making a push for the playoffs. Now I’m all … slow down, Celtics. Stop sliding your black heel up my figurative sports leg. I’m a married man. Ah, what the hell. Go for it, with Kelly Olynyk and Jae Crowder playing meaningful minutes. I AM YOURS FOR THE TAKING.

If you’re still dubious, here are five things that are definitely going to happen and will give you no choice but to fall in love with the Celtics.

1. Boston claims the 8-seed thanks to a fourth triple-double from Celtics legend Evan Turner, thus saving America from having to watch Brooklyn in the playoffs ever again. Train is filling up.

2. The underdog Celtics face off against the Hawks in the playoffs. Brad Stevens proves his genius (again), and the Celtics go up 1-0 to start the series. Podium Game Isaiah Thomas is born, and all is right with the world. Only middle seats left.

3. The Celtics push the Hawks to a Game 7. The world is behind Boston. Kelly Olynyk Fatheads are sold out everywhere. Boston takes a last-second shot to win the series. Celtics lose. Standing room only.

4. Thomas is asked to fill in as cohost on Live With Kelly and Michael. We’ve reached capacity.

5. Boston signs somebody ever-so-lovable like a Khris Middleton or, god help us, Kawhi Leonard, and there isn’t a basketball fan alive who isn’t waiting in line for six hours to get on this Boston bandwagon.

Philadelphia 76ers

Los Angeles Lakers v Philadelphia 76ersMitchell Leff/Getty Images

Jason Concepcion: The Sixers got run over by the staggering, playoff-bound corpus of the Washington Wizards on Wednesday night, 106-93. It’s exactly what happens to Philadelphia most nights against most teams, be those teams playoff-bound, lottery-bound, animal, plant, or mineral. Philly is 18-58 with six games left, and if it reverse runs the table, our 2014-15 Sixers will be tied for the second-worst mark in their illustrious franchise history.

Which is why I’m picking Philly as my 2015-16 bandwagon team. Because, last time I checked, this is still America and there’s nothing more goddamn American than buying low and selling high. Climb aboard.

Let’s start by acknowledging that no one, not the gods above or the demons below, knows what the Sixers roster will look like next year. Twenty-five players have perspired while wearing a 76ers uniform this season, among them such legendary figures as Alexey Shved and JaVale McGee. All of that churn and all of those fluttering pages of 10-day contracts were created in service of a higher calling: Get stars or tank trying.

So why am I throwing my weathered steamer trunks of optimism on the Sixers bandwagon?

  • They’ve got picks. The 76ers’ natural-born Ping-Pong ball is slated to fall somewhere in the top six. They have the misbegotten Lakers’ top-five protected pick (top-three protected in 2016). With L.A. sitting on the fourth-worst record in the league, this pick has Sixers fans muttering prayers to the dark gods and making animal sacrifices. They have OKC’s first-round pick with top-18 protection. They have a top-10 protected pick from Miami. And they have five second-round picks.
  • I am not one of these slobbering Hinkieites flying the banner for analytical tanking. I think it’s fair to wonder if Hinkie really needed to drive the Sixers this far into the molten core of the Earth. That said, look at this dude:Screen Shot 2015-04-01 at 11.00.40 PMThis is a guy whose corpse-like visage and milky-gray eyes scream, “ALL I DO IS WORK, AND THE ONLY LIGHT THAT TOUCHES MY FLESH COMES FROM COMPUTER SCREENS.”
  • Maybe Nerlens Noel is really good? He’s already a legit difference-maker on defense, with an all-encompassing wingspan, great timing, and be-anywhere speed. He leads all rookies in rebounds, blocks, and steals.
  • YO, IS THAT JOEL EMBIID’S MUSIC? IS THAT JOEL-HANS EMBIID, OLAJUWON’S RIGHTFUL HEIR, ANSWERING TWITTER QUESTIONS IN HIS PJS LIKE A FREAKING BUM? YES, IT IS.

Reserve your seat now.

Miami Heat

Kirk Goldsberry: The Miami Heat are kind of a cop-out pick, I admit. But the rule was we had to pick a team that is bad this year and will “make a leap” next year. Miami matches both criteria, so screw it: I’m going with them. The reason? Pat Riley is maniacally competitive and he’s got one more push left in him. Plus, the Eastern Conference.

RILEY_576

Miami will likely start Goran Dragic, Dwyane Wade, Luol Deng, Chris Bosh, and Hassan Whiteside. If they can stay healthy, that’s a really formidable group of basketball talent. Plus, Dragic and Bosh pick-and-pop plays all day long. So many lefties!

Sacramento Kings

Atlanta Hawks v Sacramento KingsRocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

Sean Fennessey: Let us take stock of the future: Sim Bhullar, the first NBA player of Indian descent, has arrived in Sacramento. David Stockton, the only one of four John Stockton male descendants to pierce the NBA bubble, will be there soon. Sauce Castillo is alive and well. There’s the Mac & Mac Backcourt Attack: the improving Ray McCallum and Ben McLemore. And of course you know Boogie. All of these players are under 25 years old. Children of men.

This franchise is obsessed with youth. In recent years, no team has toyed with and pulled from its D-League affiliate the way Vivek Ranadivé’s Kings have. (Run-and-gun Reno Bighorns maestro David Arseneault Jr. was previously the associate head coach with Grinnell College, where young men can score 138 points in a game — by themselves.) And if the season ended today, the Kings would finish with the sixth-worst record in the league, putting them right in the Justise Winslow/Willy Cauley-Stein zone, two players who make too much sense for this team. Either a slashing wing or a rim-protecting colossus will do. Not yet 29, Rudy Gay is a midrange sage having one of his best seasons but earning nearly $20 million and mostly ignored leaguewide amid another Sactown disaster. So there are pieces here. Who will examine the puzzle?

Next year, George Karl will turn 65. He has barely warmed his seat this year, so we shall not judge his 8-14 performance thus far. What he will have next year — speed, shooting, childlike mania, and some muscle — are the things he has always looked for and the things with which he has prospered. Think of his young Sonics, or his young Bucks, or his young Nuggets. They were fast, nasty teams that would drop 128 points on your head as if candy from a piñata. These are your Kings of the future. Bow down.

Oklahoma City Thunder

Chris Ryan: ALOHA.

waiters-island

It’s me, the Danny Rayburn of Waiters Island. No matter how long you’ve been gone, you’re always welcome back. While you were fawning over Rudy Gobert, we’ve been sitting around listening to Beanie Sigel and shooting long 2s. Sure, Kevin Durant may have left us to re-create a Smiths album cover …

But we’re getting by.

As the season has gone on, Waiters Island is no longer a punch line to a joke about Dion Waiters’s evaporating potential — it’s a symbol for the Thunder themselves. People have been evacuating the OKC bandwagon since before the words “Durant” and “bone graft” were used in the same sentence. But to true believers — despite the seemingly improvisational offense, Enes Kanter being the reverse Roy Hibbert, and awful injury luck — the future is looking bright. There’s something about this team that feels almost collegiate, from Russell Westbrook and Kanter’s burgeoning bromance, to Kanter teaching Mitch McGary the beautiful game …

… to the irrational confidence of guys like Waiters and Anthony Morrow, to the veteran competence of D.J. Augustin and Kyle Singler. They may be losing to every decent team they face, but something is being forged in this forgotten but unforgettable campaign. Forget the 2014-15 Thunder. Think about the 2015-16 Thunder. Two top-five NBA players, Serge Ibaka, Kanter (assuming the Thunder re-sign him), and the most useful group of role players Sam Presti has assembled since James Harden went to Houston. Are you seriously betting against that team? You can try to check out of Waiters Island, but you can never leave.

Filed Under: NBA Shootaround, Oklahoma City Thunder, Philadelphia 76ers, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Lakers, Denver Nuggets, Dave Schilling, Andrew Sharp, Danny Chau, Chris Ryan, Jason Gallagher, Kirk Goldsberry, Jason Concepcion