As those of us living in Canada know, supporting a bad basketball team can be a trying experience. Everyone has friends who root for the Lakers or Celtics and have plenty to get excited about in the late spring and early summer. But for those of us who stand by teams whose players play golf and go on fishing trips come April, as opposed to being involved in the beauty of playoff basketball, the second half of the season can be a deflating time. Every season begins with a sense of optimism, despite that voice inside your head telling you to keep your expectations low, but by the All-Star break you’re ready to pack it in and start scouting college stars that may grace your roster come November.
But unless you’re the Sacramento Kings, teams don’t stay bad forever. Bad seasons equate to high draft picks, and the best way to build a playoff contender is through drafting well—unless you’re the Lakers, in which case you have a knack of landing superstar free-agents and winning every trade. Some teams that are wallowing in the basements of their respective conferences today only need to wait for their young stars to hit their stride in the pros, and surround them with the correct pieces, and they’ll be ready to make the playoffs for years to come. And when your May evenings are spent cheering on your team in the playoffs, instead of cheering for your friend’s team to lose, the bad old days will feel like a lifetime ago.
Here are 5 bad teams with a reason for optimism:
Most of the talk surrounding the Rudy Gay trade centered on whether Memphis or Toronto came out on top in the transaction, but the real winner was Detroit. The Pistons got involved in the 3-way deal simply to shed salary, and it was mission accomplished in that regard. They got rid of Austin Daye and Tayshaun Prince’s salaries, while taking on Jose Calderon’s expiring contract. The Pistons also have $30 million of expiring contracts as well as Rip Hamilton’s buyout coming off the books in the summer. In other words, they have a lot of cap flexibility.
Unfortunately, as Piston’s fans well know, G.M. Joe Dumars isn’t always inclined to make the best use of cap space. The last time the Pistons had any Dumars used it to sign Charlie Villanueva and Ben Gordon. However, one would hope that Dumars has learned from his many mistakes.
The Pistons have two extremely talented big men to build around—one, in Greg Monroe, who has developed into a borderline All-Star, and the other, Andre Drummond, who is an extremely raw but exciting centre with a very high ceiling. Monroe has been a consistent double-double threat for a couple years now and was the only reason to watch the Pistons last season—unless you enjoy dysfunction, of course. Coach Lawrence Frank is bringing Drummond through slowly, but his potential is there for all to see. He recently had 18 points and 18 rebounds in a game, and rookies don’t put up those numbers unless they have the potential to be special.
If Dumars can make the most of Detroit’s cap room with some decent backcourt signings in the off-season, and the organization drafts well, the Pistons could start the long road back to those glorious early years of the 21st century.
The Washington Wizards’ record is 12-35, which is pretty dismal when viewed in a vacuum. However, some context is necessary is order to understand why there’s reason for optimism in America’s capital. The Wizards began the season without their star man John Wall—the player they are trying to construct their franchise around. During his absence the team went 5-28 with Jordan Crawford essentially running the offense. Since his return, however, Washington has gone 7-7, with some impressive wins along the way, including a win on the road in Portland, and Monday night’s victory over the Clippers.
It’s taken Wall a little bit of time to find his stride since returning from injury, but the emotional lift his presence has given the team has been immeasurable. Wall is not only the team’s best player, but he’s also their leader on the court. The 2010 first overall pick has been criticized by some for not making a big enough leap after his rookie year, but it’s been the toughest possible learning experience for Wall. He was drafted by a terrible team, with no leaders in the locker-room, and plenty of dysfunction; try learning how to be an NBA player from JaVale McGee, Andre Blatche, and Nick Young. But Wall, with his breathtaking speed, great perimeter defense, and ever-improving court vision, has the potential to be one of the NBA’s best point-guards.
And Wall has the perfect player to complement him in the backcourt: the rookie Bradley Beal. Wall should improve as a jump shooter, but if he turns out to be Rajon Rondo in that regard, Beal can play the role of Ray Allen. Wall is fantastic off the dribble, and can drive into the lane, which, in every Wizards fan’s fantasies for the future, would consistently leave Beal open to knock down the jumper when the ball is kicked out. Washington has an exciting backcourt pairing, and if they can continue to build around Wall and Beal, it won’t be too long before the team is back in the playoffs.
Given that I’m projecting into the future, I guess I should be referring to the Hornets as the Pelicans, but I’ll stick with the former, at least until the end of the season. Anyway, those Hornets, soon to be Pelicans, have a very bright future. In retrospect Hornets fans can thank David Stern for vetoing the trade that would’ve sent Chris Paul to the Lakers and left them with an overweight Lamar Odom. It was a gross abuse of power by the commissioner, but one in which the fans in New Orleans can forever be grateful for.
The promising future in The Big Easy revolves around their rookie sensation Anthony Davis. Davis has had to battle injuries throughout the year, but is starting to show why he was regarded as one of the most talented players to come out of college in quite some time. Davis is already showing his impact defensively—he’s going to be a game changer at that end of the floor—but his offensive game is improving all the time, and is somewhat underrated.
The Hornets also have some other very talented players on the roster. Eric Gordon, despite wanting to leave last summer, changes the dynamic in the backcourt. When healthy he’s a fantastic shot-maker and can be called upon down the stretch to score in isolation. Last season’s Most Improved Player, Ryan Anderson, despite the team’s poor record, is having a very solid year, and continues to be one of the most dangerous players in the league from beyond the arc; an if Austin Rivers can turn into a semi-serviceable point-guard, the Hornets will go from the basement of the Western Conference, to one of the West’s most dangerous teams in the coming years. Don’t forget, Monty Williams is one of the NBA’s most talented young coaches, and has been making chicken salad out of chicken s**t for a couple years now. He now has some real talent to work with.
There hasn’t been too many times in NBA history where you could be genuinely excited to watch a 14-34 team play basketball, but this is one of those times. The Cleveland Cavaliers lose a lot of games, and they’ll continue to lose a lot of games this season, but boy, Kyrie Irving makes them worth watching. Irving, who is set to make his first All-Star appearance this month—he should be starting—is playing like a superstar with 5 or 6 years of NBA experience under his belt. But he’s in his second season and he’s just 20 years old—20 years old! Irving’s numbers have been fantastic this year. He’s averaging 24 points per game and is shooting 47% from the field, including over 40% from 3-point range. A second year player on a bad team shouldn’t be putting up those kinds of shooting numbers.
But it would be doing a disservice to Irving to simply focus on his stats. To truly appreciate the genuine superstar that he is, you’ve got to witness him in action. The guy has ice water running through his veins. He doesn’t care about reputations—check out his 35-point master-class in the win over OKC at the weekend—and has already developed a startling ability to take over a game down the stretch and put the team on his back. There are few players his age that possess the kinds of offensive weapons he does. Get too close and he’ll drive past you in a flash (he might possess the best handles in the game right now), and back off him and he’ll knock down a sweet jumper. Pick your poison.
I’ll admit, this is in danger of becoming a Kyrie love-fest, but there are other reasons for the Cavaliers to be optimistic about the future. Rookie Dion Waiters has shown potential in spurts this year, while Canadian Tristan Thompson has been playing very well as of late. Ultimately, however, the real hope lies in Irving and the cap space the Cavs possess going forward. If the Cavs can lure a big free agent, or make a trade for a talented frontcourt player (DeMarcus Cousins, for example), the team could make a big jump. Cleveland isn’t the most attractive of destinations, but the chance to play with Irving might be worth that sacrifice.
Okay, fine, I’ll admit it, Raptors fans have some reason for optimism; however, the breaks need to be pumped just a bit. If the Raptors want to contend for a championship the Rudy Gay trade was a bad move. It leaves the team with very little cap flexibility and a player who has not shown that he has the ability to be a superstar, but who is paid like one. What’s more, Gay will probably hurt the development of promising rookie small-forward Terrence Ross and is far too similar a player to DeMar DeRozan, which may create compatibility issues. The signing of Gay, as I’ve mentioned earlier on this site, will help cap the Raptors’ ceiling off at 7th or 8th place in the East, and thus will hurt their ability to improve through the draft.
But for a fan-base that’s been starved of any sort of success in the past few years, there’s something to be said for just making the post-season. Sure, the 8th seed almost always loses in 5 games against the best team in the conference, but providing your fans with hope, even if it’s fleeting, is fun in the short-term. I’d question whether Raptors fans should be optimistic for about the long-term future with Gay, but potential playoff basketball in the next couple years is, I’ll begrudgingly admit, something to get excited about.