Best-case, worst-case scenarios for every Eastern Conference team
NEW YORK KNICKS
Best-case: You might have to squint really hard, but the Knicks just barely belong in the discussion of teams with a shot at a title. What must go right? Andrea Bargnani must prove all the doubters wrong. J.R. Smith must recover fully from his knee surgery and his peeving immaturity. Carmelo Anthony must continue to shoot at a decent clip from three-point range (37.9 percent on 6.3 attempts last year). Amar’e Stoudemire must give them something come playoff time. And Tyson Chandler must return to his 2011 game-dictating form when push comes to shove in May and June.
Worst-case: Nets guard Jason Terry gets “King Of New York” tattooed on his head after one of the many variables on the list above goes wrong, leading the Knicks to go one-and-done in the playoffs.
Some in the Knicks’ organization feel that their team is the most overlooked squad in the league, a result of the negative reaction to the Bargnani trade and the injuries to Smith and Stoudemire. New York is a 54-win team returning a vast majority of its key pieces, their thinking goes, with the understanding of how to craft an elite offense around Anthony, one of the league’s most potent threats.
It’s a convincing line of thinking, but New York just has so many different players who fail the “Would you want him in your foxhole?” test. Raymond Felton’s streaky shooting and shaky decision-making are issues. Bargnani is one of the league’s biggest question marks (with far too few rebounds to show for that size). Smith’s unreliability is well documented. Stoudemire is probably the most baffling of all, and Anthony recently referred to his teammate’s ongoing knee problems as “just sad.” That’s probably not the best motto for a title hopeful.
Best-case: Orlando strikes lottery gold for the fourth time in franchise history, earning the right to select Andrew Wiggins (or anyone else who strikes its fancy).
Worst-case: The extraordinarily young core overachieves its way out of a top-five pick in the 2014 draft.
Orlando appears to be one of the East’s three bottom-feeders, along with Charlotte and Philadelphia. It’s fair to say that the Magic are the least desperate member of the trio. Thanks to the Dwight Howard trade and winning the No. 2 pick in the 2013 draft, Orlando has an intriguing group of youngsters already assembled. There’s no Wiggins to be found, but Victor Oladipo, Nikola Vucevic and Tobias Harris is a fine start, and their development, along with that of Moe Harkless and Andrew Nicholson, offers plenty of reasons for Magic fans to care about what happens on the court this season.
The lottery balls are hovering in Central Florida, let’s not get that confused, but they aren’t front and center quite like they are in Charlotte and Philadelphia. Oladipo has to be viewed as a leading candidate for the Rookie of the Year award, and what he shows this season will surely influence management’s thinking as the Magic craft their draft strategy for June.
Best-case: The tank is so on in Philadelphia and the bounty it could produce is incredible: Wiggins plus New Orleans’ 2014 first-round pick (top-five protected, courtesy of the Holiday trade). Let’s say the Sixers get perfect luck, winning the lottery themselves and drawing the No. 6 pick from the Pelicans. How does a 2014-15 starting lineup of Michael Carter-Williams, Evan Turner, Wiggins, Aaron Gordon and Nerlens Noel sound? It sounds like a top-five must-watch team on League Pass, immediately, and the beginnings of a team that could open a wide window of contention in three to five years.
Worst-case: Philadelphia gets bum lottery ball luck and falls out of the top three in the draft order despite having the NBA’s worst record or very close to it. Then, one of two things happens with the Pelicans: Something goes terribly wrong and they wind up keeping their top-five-protected pick, or Anthony Davis leads a playoff push, and the pick winds up in the 15-18 range. A true nightmare would see complications for Noel as he rehabilitates from last year’s season-ending knee injury, but surely the basketball gods will spare him and Philadelphia after the Andrew Bynum fiasco.
Even though the Sixers are one of the easiest teams in the league to peg — they are guaranteed to be terrible — there’s actually a fair bit of distance between their best and worst outcomes. The “best” scenario described above would totally validate the decision to trade Holiday and blow things up, while the “worst” scenario would make for a more complicated picture. If New Orleans holds its pick, which seems unlikely given its aggressive offseason and the projected growth from Davis, Philadelphia’s looking at another long, deflating year of hoping and waiting in 2014-15. If New Orleans does climb out of the lottery, the Sixers aren’t likely to add two true core building blocks in the draft.
Best-case: Jonas Valanciunas enjoys such a fantastic breakout season that Drake and Adam Silver present him with the Most Improved Player award in the spring. The Lithuanian center’s play is so singularly promising that no one bothers to get upset when new GM Masai Ujiri dumps Rudy Gay and/or DeMar DeRozan and/or Landry Fields and/or Kyle Lowry in a fire sale to shed salary and accumulate assets.
Worst-case: The Raptors flirt with a playoff run long enough that Ujiri opts to stay put at the deadline, only to fall back into the late-lottery down the stretch, leaving the team without its first postseason appearance since 2008 or a top lottery pick. Toronto Mayor Rob Ford gets arrested trying to smuggle drugs through an airport while wearing the team’s dinosaur mascot costume.
You’ll never believe this, but Toronto once again finds itself in no man’s land — not good enough to make the playoffs for sure, but not bad enough to land a top draft pick — without a clear-cut core and without a roster that’s efficient in its allocation of resources. That means there’s plenty of work to do, and that’s a good thing, because Ujiri is a proactive, talented executive with the proven ability to execute a big-picture vision.
Best-case: John Wall validates the second-half excitement from last season, earning his first All-Star berth and leading the Wizards to their first playoff appearance since 2008. The loss of Emeka Okafor to a neck injury right out of the gate was a bad omen, but the No. 7 seed seems like an achievable target.
Worst-case: Something, anything happens to Nene, and then everything falls apart so quickly that not even a franchise-player-type season from Wall or a breakout sophomore year from Bradley Beal can hold it together.
The Okafor injury makes for a frustrating Whack-A-Mole feel. Just when the Wizards thought their big man duo had the whole defensive efficiency thing down pat while a healthy Wall would fix last year’s abysmal offense, Washington now needs to figure out how to squeeze some stops from the likes of Kevin Seraphin, Trevor Booker, Al Harrington and Jan Vesely or risk a regression on defense. Some of those guys — many of those guys — will need to play and contribute with Okafor’s 26 minutes per night now open, and last year’s on-/off-court numbers aren’t particularly kind to any of them on the defensive end.