Commentary

PER Diem: March 19, 2009

Which lottery teams have a shot at earning a spot in the playoffs next season?

Originally Published: March 19, 2009
By John Hollinger | ESPN.com

For about 20 NBA teams, it's the most exciting time of year. Playoff races are heating up and they're striving to make the field of 16 and get as good a seed as possible.

For the other 10? It's the dog days. With little to play for and ping-pong balls being the prominent item of discussion, the excitement factor went out the window a long time ago.

But not all lottery teams are created equal. Some of them are bound to be near the bottom of the standings for quite some time, given the lack of star players and/or the assets to acquire them. Meanwhile, others are positioned to make much quicker rebounds.

So before we write off the league's bottom third for the year, let's take a look at those who have the most to look forward to.

Here, in order, is how I rank these teams' chances of contending for a playoff spot next season:


1. Washington: The Wizards have several things in their favor heading into next season.

First, they're likely to have starters Gilbert Arenas and Brendan Haywood back in the lineup after each has missed all of 2008-09 so far -- which will fill major holes at point guard and center. Whether Arenas can be the Agent Zero of old is an open question, of course, but whether he'd be an improvement on Mike James and Javaris Crittenton is not. His return alone should add several wins to Washington's ledger.

Additionally, the Wizards are likely to have a top-five draft pick that should bolster their talent base, especially if the lottery nets them beastly Oklahoma forward Blake Griffin. The only downside is the salary of a top-five pick will add to the potential luxury tax bill for next season -- so it's possible they'll need to trade either the pick or Antawn Jamison to get under the tax threshold.

And there's one other really good sign -- Washington's stable of young talent. JaVale McGee is going to be a monster once he figures out how to play, Andray Blatche and Nick Young already are productive reserves and Dominic McGuire is developing into a defensive ace on the wings. While each has his shortcomings -- McGee is clueless on D, Blatche doesn't always play hard, Young passes only as a last resort and McGuire can't score to save his life -- together they should make a pretty potent second unit when Washington's starting lineup is intact.


2. Oklahoma City: Despite having their doctor nix the Tyson Chandler trade, the Thunder made a less-discussed coup at the trade deadline with shooting guard Thabo Sefolosha. He gives the team the solid wing defender it's been missing for most of the past two years and allows Jeff Green and Kevin Durant to play forward full time. Throw in Russell Westbrook's surprisingly fast development and Nenad Krstic's arrival and the talent base is growing rapidly.

Also, the Thunder are poised to add even more talent this summer. In addition to another high draft pick of their own and another from Denver (technically the better of Denver's or San Antonio's, which almost certainly will be the Nuggets'), the Thunder have beaucoup cap space to either spend in a buyer's market or use in a trade.

And then there's this little fact -- since starting the year 3-29, the Thunder are a very respectable 16-20. With Durant coming on like gangbusters and Green and Westbrook also showing major progress, getting somewhere near .500 next season won't require much of a push.


3. L.A. Clippers: Don't laugh. As dysfunctional as they've seemed this season, the Clips could be a playoff team next season on talent alone. Baron Davis and Eric Gordon make for a solid backcourt, the frontcourt trio of Zach Randolph, Chris Kaman and Marcus Camby is potent (if they're ever healthy at the same time), and the Steve Novak Experience has to be seen to be believed (more on him in the Insider Gems).

As with Washington, the Clips will get an advantage from their awful season in the form of a high lottery pick who should give them a big boost a year from now. And if they stay in contention there's a greater probability players like Davis will work hard instead of lazily jogging after loose balls (like he did in the opening minute Wednesday night, while Washington's McGuire breezed past him, took the ball and cruised in for a dunk), and that the defense will consist of more than an arm wave.


4. Minnesota: The Timberwolves won't be drafting quite as high as the three teams above, but they'll benefit from a high draft pick all the same. And they'll benefit even more from the changing of the guard in the front office -- Kevin McHale has apparently been stripped of decision-making power, which means the torrent of bad drafts and worse contracts that have hamstrung this franchise for years should finally come to an end.

Moreover, there are some pieces already in place. Al Jefferson is a monster on the block, assuming he recovers well from knee surgery, and Kevin Love -- who had 23 points and 11 boards in a near-upset of the Hornets on Wednesday night -- is second among rookies in PER. Randy Foye, Mike Miller, Ryan Gomes and Craig Smith all are solid pieces around those two, meaning if Minnesota can just find a point guard and keep Jefferson healthy all year, the Wolves could be poised to make a charge up the standings -- as shown during the 10-2 run the team went on in January when everybody was healthy.


5. Toronto: The reason I think Toronto can improve is pretty simple -- I just don't understand how they're this bad.

On paper, a team with Chris Bosh, Jose Calderon, Andrea Bargnani and Shawn Marion should be monstrously efficient, even with the wing players contributing comparatively little. And at the defensive end, the Raps will almost certainly be better if they're contending for something, as they appeared to give up on this season once they fell out of the race.

As with the other teams listed above, they'll be getting a high draft pick, and Toronto also has some cap space at its disposal, depending on how it decides to proceed with Marion.

I don't know if that's enough to get this team back to the postseason -- but regardless, there's no reason they should be this far out of the race.

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.