Right now, the NBA seems to be all about the Miami Heat, Oklahoma City Thunder and the few fortunate teams poised to make a run for championship glory. However, which teams could be future contenders is always something to keep in mind and that logic fits three particular teams perfectly.
There are teams that are on the fringe of making the monstrous leap into the elite bucket of NBA teams and while they aren’t quite ready yet, the future is looking quite bright for them. Rising stars are plentiful and youth is, as well. These teams could be championship contenders as soon as next year and it is worth keeping an eye on them.
But which teams are they? Here are three future contenders that will make a splash very soon.
New Orleans Hornets
Next year, the Big Easy’s basketball team will be known as the New Orleans Pelicans. Once they become the Pelicans, they can become contenders.
Anthony Davis was picked first in the 2012 NBA Draft and he has made a big impact on the Hornets. Davis is a complete player and he will blossom into a bona fide star very soon. Luckily for the Hornets, Davis has a strong supporting cast, so he won’t be doing the vast majority of the work.
Eric Gordon and Greivis Vasquez form a talented backcourt, as Vasquez averages 9.4 assists per game (APG) and Gordon averages 16.4 points per game (PPG). Vasquez is one of the game’s best passers and Gordon was considered as a member of the 2012 U.S. Olympic team. Ryan Anderson averages 17.1 PPG and is seventh among power forwards with 7.5 estimated wins added (EWA), while Robin Lopez is 10th among all centers in player efficiency rating (PER). The ninth- and eighth-ranked centers, Samuel Dalembert and Tyson Chandler, have PERs of 20.43, while Lopez owns a 20.42 PER. So, he is just about tied for eighth among centers.
Oh, and Davis? He ranks sixth among power forwards with a 20.55 PER, averages about 13 rebounds per 48 minutes and is shooting 51.4 percent.
All this talent should equal a winning team, but so far it hasn’t. The Hornets are currently 19-34, but that’s because they took a long time to gel and they aren’t experienced. If Anderson, who is shooting 87.9 percent from the free-throw line and 40.2 percent from beyond the arc, is moved to small forward, the Hornets could start Vasquez, Gordon, Anderson, Davis and Lopez, which would give them one of the best starting lineups in the NBA.
The Hornets aren’t a great rebounding team, but having Lopez, Anderson and Davis in at the same time will help. Once Davis gets more playing time (he is currently averaging less than 28 minutes per game) he will make more of an impact in all phases of the game.
New Orleans is a talented team, but this year, it hasn’t come together. However, next year, the same Hornet team can be a force to be reckoned with in the daunting Western Conference. The Hornets could also trade for or sign a big man, such as Paul Millsap or Al Jefferson. Jefferson, who ranks second among all centers with 9.1 EWA, or Millsap, who is tied for fourth among power forwards with 8.5 EWA, could both help the Hornets.
But even if the Hornets don’t make a trade, they’re still fine. New Orleans is on the path for success, as the future is bright. All signs point to a lottery pick for the Hornets, which could be used to add a bit of help down low. Even if they don’t get that help, they will still be bright. Davis is going to be a star, one that can do everything (especially defense), and he will lead a good team.
And if all goes well, he could lead the Hornets all the way to the NBA Finals in a very small amount of time.
The 2012-13 season was supposed to be the Philadelphia 76ers’ big year, but Andrew Bynum‘s injury and absence brought the team down. Instead of being contenders, like they thought they could be, the 76ers are on the fringe of playoff contention and currently on the outside looking in.
Philadelphia is four games behind Milwaukee for the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, and while they have lots of talent, they have underachieved. The 76ers took down the Chicago Bulls in six games in last year’s playoffs and they took the Boston Celtics to seven games in the conference semifinals. However, Philadelphia just missed out on a berth in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Since the East is a relatively weak conference, Philadelphia was seen as a playoff lock and a team with a chance of seizing one of the lower playoff seeds. While Jrue Holiday has elevated his play for the 76ers to reach that level, the rest of the team has struggled. That’s why the 76ers are currently sitting at 22-29.
Sure, the playoffs are possible this year, but the 76ers will most likely face off with the Heat if they do sneak into the playoffs. It could be a good experience to build on for the 2013-14 season, but it won’t get the 76ers anywhere this season.
Bynum, who was supposed to be the face of the franchise and take the 76ers places, has done the exact opposite, as he hasn’t played in a game for the 76ers and will be a free agent this offseason. He may be back in Philadelphia, or he may not.
The 76ers have lacked an elite big man, as Spencer Hawes is mediocre and doesn’t have what it takes to match up with Dwight Howard and other elite big men. They could splash the cash and sign Bynum, as his value would go down.
Still, I estimate that a team might spend, say, $10-15 million on Bynum annually, so the 76ers will have a lot to compete with there. If that doesn’t work out, the 76ers could target Jefferson or Millsap, or even trade for someone such as DeMarcus Cousins.
Holiday and Evan Turner form a talented backcourt, as both are capable defenders, passers and scorers. Holiday is averaging 19 PPG and 8.9 APG, while Turner is averaging more than 13 PPG and dishing out around five assists per game.
Thaddeus Young is a capable small forward and Arnett Moultrie can do things for the 76ers, as he is averaging 13.4 rebounds per 48 minutes. Lavoy Allen is averaging 6.6 PPG in about 23 minutes and Hawes is averaging more than 10 PPG in about 25 minutes.
However, none of those numbers are incredibly impressive and it’s crystal clear that the 76ers don’t have tons of talent on the active roster. However, by making a move for a big man, the 76ers could give Holiday another target to pass to and by adding a power forward, the 76ers could put out a starting lineup of Holiday, Turner, Young, whoever would start at the 4 and Hawes. That would be a good lineup by all means.
The 76ers don’t seem like a great team, but by building around Holiday and Turner, both of which will blossom into legitimate stars, they can become a contender. The talent isn’t there right now, but all it takes is one big move (which could also be re-signing Bynum) to change all of that.
And that big move could also change the course of the Eastern Conference.
Before the Houston Rockets struck a pivotal deal with the Thunder to take in James Harden, they were a completely different team. And it would have been a huge shock to just about everyone if the depleted Rockets were even on the fringe of playoff contention.
However, since that Harden trade, the Rockets have developed and become a real threat. Jeremy Lin has developed into a true point guard, Harden has been a star and the Rockets have put up points in huge numbers. As a result, the Rockets are currently the No. 8 seed in the West with a 29-26 record.
While the defense in Houston hasn’t been all that great, the Rockets are winning and scoring to make up for their lack of defense. Harden has ignited the offensive attack, averaging 26.1 PPG. The Rockets are averaging 106.1 PPG as a team, which is the best in the league. While they are 29th in points allowed (103.3 PPG), they still have a +2.8 point differential, which is very good.
A lot of that credit is due to Harden, who is third in the league in EWA with a whopping 13. Considering the Rockets have 29 wins on the year, Harden’s numbers are even more impressive. But he isn’t the only one powering the Rockets.
Houston is also doing well down low, averaging 43.1 rebounds per game (RPG), good for 10th in the NBA. Omer Asik has done a great job crashing the boards and making an impact for the Rockets, after Houston handed Asik a highly criticized contract, worth more than $25 million over three years.
The Rockets were also criticized for signing Lin, but the creator of “Linsanity” has bounced back from a rocky start to lead the Houston offense well. While Lin won’t be mistaken for Chris Paul, he has done a respectable job.
Houston will have its core intact for a long time and the more time the players have to gel, the better. You could see the Rockets make a move in free agency this coming offseason and while the Rockets could use a defensive upgrade, the team that the Rockets currently have is good enough. As long as Harden keeps playing well and his supporting cast chips in, the Rockets will become a force to be reckoned with in the West.
This year, Houston isn’t going to get past the first round, because if the Rockets hold on to their playoff spot, they will likely play the Thunder or Spurs right out of the gate. While it would be neat to see Harden play his old Thunder team and it would provide motivation, Harden won’t get his squad past Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and the Thunder. As a result, the Rockets will be watching most of the playoffs at home.
However, making the playoffs would be a great experience to build on. The Rockets haven’t made the playoffs since 2008-09 and they basically have a new team. Having a full offseason to work with Harden and Lin will help and adding a player to help with defense, probably at forward, would also be great.
The front office controls a lot, but the talent is there for the Rockets. It remains to be seen what Houston will do this offseason and how they will fare in the next couple of years, but I can guarantee that opponents will not be looking forward to playing the Rockets.
And if all goes well, opponents will be not looking forward to playing the Rockets deep in the playoffs as soon as next year.
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