Posted September 11, 2013

Give And Go: Which 2012-13 lottery teams have the brightest futures?

Ben Golliver, Cleveland Cavaliers, Dallas Mavericks, Detroit Pistons, Give-and-Go, New Orleans Pelicans, Rob Mahoney, Toronto Raptors, Utah Jazz
Kyrie Irving

Kyrie Irving made the All-Star team last season as a 20-year-old. ( David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images)

Mahoney: Cleveland Cavaliers. Irving has the game and trappings of a legitimate franchise player and is further along in his development than many of the other stars-in-waiting who could eventually claim the same. He alone makes Cleveland a threat on a nightly basis. His ability to attempt good, balanced shots from all over the floor opens up a world of possibilities, as opponents are forced to respect the threat of a pull-up jumper or floater at virtually any time. That he hasn’t shared the court with many quality NBA players yet only makes his potential that much more daunting, because his game complements different types of offensive players.

Because Irving’s rare talent for creating offense was identified so early, the Cavs are in position to make moves while he’s still under his relatively inexpensive rookie deal. (He’ll be paid only $5.6 million this season and $7.1 million next season before a potential contract extension would kick in.) As a result of that flexibility, the Cavs were able to sign Bynum, Jack, No. 1 pick Bennett and Clark this summer without nearing the luxury-tax line.

If Bynum is able to give Irving proper (and consistent) support, their pairing could provide the basis of a potential contender. If Bennett or fellow forward Tristan Thompson pans out as an All-Star-level player, that could propel Cleveland along a similar path. If any of second-year guard Dion Waiters, second-year center Tyler Zeller or rookie forward Sergey Karasev improves significantly over the next few seasons, their development would solidify Cleveland’s supporting cast — particularly if they do so before their rookie-scale contracts run out.

Irving might be the only sure thing in the bunch, but I see plenty of reason for hope in a core featuring Irving, an All-Star-caliber big man, a top pick in the draft and a handful of workable young pieces.

Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter

Derrick Favors (15) and Enes Kanter (0) are key building blocks for the Jazz. (Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)

3. Which 2013 lottery team is due for the most constructive season without playoff contention?

Mahoney: Utah Jazz. The pairing of Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap was good enough to guarantee mediocrity. Their presence also hedged against some of the developmental opportunities that otherwise would have been granted to Favors and Enes Kanter, among others. But those two productive, well-meaning big men are inadvertent obstacles no more after departing as free agents.

Though the Jazz have forfeited their chance at keeping up with the other bubble teams in the West, they’ve gained in both assets and opportunity. In addition to Favors, Kanter and the persistently underrated Gordon Hayward, Utah added two talents worth cultivating in point guard Trey Burke (No. 9 pick in the draft) and center Rudy Gobert (No. 27). With third-year shooting guard Alec Burks holding the potential to be a solid pro, too, we could be seeing the long-awaited beginnings of Utah’s next iteration.

Much of that hinges on Favors, the key acquisition in the 2011 trade of Deron Williams to the Nets. Favors’ size, athleticism and raw contributions (defense by feel, volume rebounding, basic finishes) allow him to put up some impressive numbers (14.6 points, 11.0 rebounds, and 2.6 blocks per 36 minutes), but he needs the kind of long-term learning experience he’ll be afforded this season. His minutes are expected to climb dramatically with Utah’s stark change in direction, bringing more direct opportunity to integrate feedback from the coaching staff and learn from the natural trial and error of game play.

Gifting a prospect playing time can be counterproductive in certain situations, but Favors has paid his dues and waited his turn over the last three seasons.  (He’s averaged 22 minutes in 164 games with Utah.) Now is his chance to improve the more technical aspects of his defense and grow more comfortable with the ball in his hands — both clear points of emphasis for the 22-year-old big man.

All of the above generally applies to the 21-year-old Kanter, too, because he’s played just 1,952 NBA minutes in two seasons and was deemed ineligible during his one year of college basketball. Despite that lack of playing time, though, Kanter already has a much better feel for operating from the post than Favors. Once set up on the block, Kanter generally does a good job of identifying mismatches and working over smaller defenders, using a good variety of basic post moves to select a scoring angle. His footwork — often the bane of young bigs looking to exploit a size advantage — is actually quite good. His rebounding is already NBA-ready.

Kanter, however, definitely needs a crash course in how to maximize his movement — an unfortunate reality for a big man who isn’t so athletically gifted. His execution of pick-and-rolls can still seem a little awkward for that reason, and defensively he hasn’t figured out yet how to take the kind of optimal angles that would allow him to maximize his influence. Those things should come in time, and Kanter will see plenty of it soon enough after averaging 13.2 minutes as a rookie and 15.4 last season.

Utah has plenty to look forward to beyond the big men. Hayward will have an even greater opportunity to broaden his game, particularly in working with the ball. Burke is the most promising Jazz point guard since the acquisition of Devin Harris in 2011, though hopefully he winds up as a better fit for the Jazz than Harris ever did. Burks still needs to work through the pains of being an overeager defender and having some decision-making issues on offense, both of which can be addressed with stretches of engaged playing time.

Golliver: Determining which also-ran will have the most constructive year probably starts with an analysis of who has the most work to do (and the desire to do that work). In a number of rebuilding situations (Orlando, Phoenix, Philadelphia and Utah), this year’s heavy lifting was done during the offseason. In each of those situations, long-terms salaries have been moved out, prospects and picks have been acquired and the decks have been cleared for young players. Any constructive progress for those teams will be taking place on the court. A few other weaker sisters (Charlotte and Sacramento) tried to improve this summer without making much headway; they’re more or less stuck with the results of those decisions until the draft.

Eliminating those six teams from the conversation leaves a whole bunch of teams that should be in contention for the postseason unless something goes badly wrong (Minnesota, Dallas, Portland, Detroit, Washington and Cleveland) and two others that are tougher to peg, New Orleans and Toronto. A lot would have to go right for the Pelicans to emerge as a true playoff contender after finishing 18 games behind the No. 8 seed in the West last season, but they made so many major additions this summer that it would be sensible to let the new group marinate together before pivoting again. By process of elimination, that leaves the Raptors, my choice here.

New Raptors GM Masai Ujiri should be able to see opportunities for potential progress at virtually every turn. On the court, Valanciunas will have the chance to emerge as a threat capable of scoring reliably and dictating an offense from the post, while DeMar DeRozan — last year’s big investment — has improved during his four seasons and is still just 24. At the very least, this should be a year of progress from those two, and perhaps 2012 lottery pick Terrence Ross and intriguing summer pickup Dwight Buycks, too. It’s also more than reasonable to expect bounce-back years from guards Kyle Lowry and Landry Fields.

The real construction work, though, should result from Ujiri’s own hand. The 2013 Executive of the Year began that process immediately after arriving from Denver, dealing Andrea Bargnani to the Knicks in a trade that was both necessary and tone-setting. Even after the move, though, the Raptors’ payroll isn’t that far removed from the luxury-tax line. Given that the vast majority of a 34-win team is back, Toronto’s talent-to-cost ratio stands as among the league’s worst. The personnel cycling we saw from Ujiri in Denver feels inevitable in Toronto, too, and it will take some time. Ujiri just isn’t one to waste any opportunity.

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