Right track or off the rails? Best path toward title contention for six NBA teams


It's time for the Knicks to go from Carmelo Anthony's team to Kristaps Porzingis' team. Jason Miller/Getty Images

With the NBA playoffs approaching this weekend, it’s time to take a look at teams at the bottom of the playoff standings and on the outside looking in that have an eye toward the future instead of contending for a championship.

Here’s a look at three teams on the upward trajectory and three teams that need a complete re-evaluation of their plans moving forward:

On the right track


Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns and forward Andrew Wiggins hope to take the next step next season. Sergio Estrada/USA TODAY Sports

Philadelphia 76ers 

The process in Philadelphia has been a central topic in the concept of rebuilding over the past few years. With Sam Hinkie now sipping lattes at Starbucks running around giving tips to Silicon Valley upstarts, the task is on general manager Bryan Colangelo to see Hinkie’s mad genius plan to fruition.

The 76ers will finish the season with more wins than the last two seasons combined, and there are promising times ahead. Before his season ended prematurely with surgery to repair a meniscus tear in his left knee, Joel Embiid delivered on his promise after a two-year absence, averaging 20.2 points and 7.8 rebounds in 25.4 minutes per game in 31 games. Dario Saric finally came overseas and is a leading contender for Rookie of the Year, averaging 17.5 points and 7.3 rebounds since the All-Star break. Add in the potential of Ben Simmons, who sat out the entire rookie season rehabbing from surgery for a Jones fracture in his right foot, and the Sixers have three young, up-and-coming potential stars to build around and could be in playoff contention as early as next season.

Simmons and Embiid’s injury history is a cause for concern, but in a league driven by talent, it’s a risk that 76ers can and have to bet on. The future looks bright.

New Orleans Pelicans 

It was not long ago that the Pelicans were expected to vault themselves into the conversation of Western Conference contenders, but two disappointing seasons following a playoff appearance during the 2014-15 season and the team’s inability to surround Anthony Davis with the right pieces had New Orleans moving backward. Then, Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadive decided Buddy Hield would be the second coming of Stephen Curry, and the Pelicans gave up very little to take a chance on pairing DeMarcus Cousins next to Davis.

Cousins’ track record speaks for itself, and the volatile superstar comes with risk. The early returns on the Cousins-Davis pairing were not positive, but in the final weeks of the season, the two have found a chemistry. Per NBA.com, in the last 10 games, when Cousins and Davis are on the floor together, they have outscored opponents by 12.2 points per 100 possessions. If the Pelicans can re-sign point guard Jrue Holiday, they can go into next season with a potential core group that could make some noise for a playoff spot.

Minnesota Timberwolves 

Tom Thibodeau’s first season in Minnesota did not deliver a playoff spot, but look closer at the numbers and you can see why the T-Wolves might have just been a year early as the team many people picked to make the leap.

Since the All-Star break, Karl-Anthony Towns is averaging 28.5 points, 13.1 rebounds and shooting 59.7 percent from the field, 42.5 percent from three and 83.5 percent from the free-throw line. Andrew Wiggins has turned into one of the most reliable young scorers in the league, averaging 23.7 points per game. Add in Ricky Rubio and Zach LaVine, and the 'Wolves have the pieces in place to once again be everyone's pick to surprise in the West next season. The only difference is that they will probably deliver on that promise next year.

In need of a complete rebuild


Is it time for the Indiana Pacers to trade All-Star forward Paul George? Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports

Dallas Mavericks 

Mark Cuban has repeatedly scoffed at the idea of a full rebuild, but with zero playoff series wins since the Mavs' championship in 2011, the concept of making one final run at the championship with Dirk Nowitzki in the twilight of his career appears to be a pipe dream. The Mavericks will miss the playoffs for just the second time in 17 seasons, and while Nowitzki is returning next year, this offseason should be about positioning the Mavs for the future.

There are some pieces in place. Harrison Barnes' four-year, $95 million contract was met with many raised eyebrows last summer, but the 24-year-old has delivered, leading the Mavs at 19.2 points per game this season. Players like Yogi Ferrell and Seth Curry have been great finds as rotational pieces, but the Mavs need a lot more. They won't trade Nowitzki, who figures to have a role within the organization after he retires, but the Mavs need to continue to take chances in trades and free agency this summer to continue building a core group to prepare for the post-Dirk era.

Indiana Pacers 

Paul George has been frustrated with the Pacers the entire season, and while they are likely to make the playoffs, there are rumblings that he will make a play to join the Los Angeles Lakers when he’s eligible to hit unrestricted free agency after the 2017-18 season. Outside of Myles Turner, who is averaging 14.4 points, 7.2 rebounds and 2.1 blocks in his second season in the league, the rest of the Pacers' roster is uninspiring.

They should start the rebuilding process and see what George's value is on the trade market this summer. At age 26 and averaging 23.6 points and 6.5 rebounds this season, the Pacers could land a large haul for their star, especially if the Lakers are interested in parting with any one of their young stars to make it happen. It would allow Indiana to press the reset button and start over.

The alternative is another season hoping that offseason additions and internal development can push the Pacers into the top four in the East. It's a risky proposition and one that will likely leave the Pacers empty-handed without George after next season.

New York Knicks 

Phil Jackson pushed his chips to the middle last summer by acquiring Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Courtney Lee and Brandon Jennings as a last-gasp attempt to build a contender around the aging Carmelo Anthony and the developing Kristaps Porzingis. The moves have not paid off.

Rose is no longer a point guard capable of leading a contender, Noah looks like he's on the downside of his career and Jennings reached a buyout with the team in midseason to join Washington, leaving Lee as the only addition that has paid off in any way.

Anthony has become resigned to the fact that a parting of the ways with the team is coming, which means the best course of action for the Knicks would be to finally work with Anthony — who has a no-trade clause — this summer on moving him to a team of his choice and getting assets in return. That way, they can start building around Porzingis. But this being the Knicks, do you really expect them to take the most reasonable course of action this summer?

Alex Wong is a freelance writer from New York. You can follow him on Twitter @steven_lebron.

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30 SLIDES
Every NBA team's best player under 25
QUIZ: Name the top three picks in the NBA draft since 1985

Since the start of the lottery era, we've seen 96 players get selected as the top three picks of the NBA draft. How many can you name?

Score:
0/99
Time:
10:00
1985-NYK
Patrick Ewing
1985-IND
Wayman Tisdale
1985-LAC
Benoit Benjamin
1986-CLE
Brad Daugherty
1986-BOS
Len Bias
1986-GSW
Chris Washburn
1987-SAS
David Robinson
1987-PHO
Armen Gilliam
1987-NJN
Dennis Hopson
1988-LAC
Danny Manning
1988-IND
Rik Smits
1988-PHI
Charles Smith
1989-SAC
Pervis Ellison
1989-LAC
Danny Ferry
1989-SAS
Sean Elliott
1990-NJN
Derrick Coleman
1990-SEA
Gary Payton
1990-DEN
Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf
1991-CHH
Larry Johnson
1991-NJN
Kenny Anderson
1991-SAC
Billy Owens
1992-ORL
Shaquille O'Neal
1992-CHH
Alonzo Mourning
1992-MIN
Christian Laettner
1993-ORL
Chris Webber
1993-PHI
Shawn Bradley
1993-GSW
Anfernee Hardaway
1994-MIL
Glenn Robinson
1994-DAL
Jason Kidd
1994-DET
Grant Hill
1995-GSW
Joe Smith
1995-LAC
Antonio McDyess
1995-PHI
Jerry Stackhouse
1996-PHI
Allen Iverson
1996-TOR
Marcus Camby
1996-VAN
Shareef Abdur-Rahim
1997-SAS
Tim Duncan
1997-PHI
Keith Van Horn
1997-BOS
Chauncey Billups
1998-LAC
Michael Olowokandi
1998-VAN
Mike Bibby
1998-DEN
Raef LaFrentz
1999-CHI
Elton Brand
1999-VAN
Steve Francis
1999-CHH
Baron Davis
2000-NJN
Kenyon Martin
2000-VAN
Stromile Swift
2000-LAC
Darius Miles
2001-WAS
Kwame Brown
2001-LAC
Tyson Chandler
2001-ATL
Pau Gasol
2002-HOU
Yao Ming
2002-CHI
Jay Williams
2002-GSW
Mike Dunleavy
2003-CLE
LeBron James
2003-DET
Darko Milicic
2003-DEN
Carmelo Anthony
2004-ORL
Dwight Howard
2004-CHA
Emeka Okafor
2004-CHI
Ben Gordon
2005-MIL
Andrew Bogut
2005-ATL
Marvin Williams
2005-UTA
Deron Williams
2006-TOR
Andrea Bargnani
2006-CHI
LaMarcus Aldridge
2006-CHA
Adam Morrison
2007-POR
Greg Oden
2007-SEA
Kevin Durant
2007-ATL
Al Horford
2008-CHI
Derrick Rose
2008-MIA
Michael Beasley
2008-MIN
O.J. Mayo
2009-LAC
Blake Griffin
2009-MEM
Hasheem Thabeet
2009-OKC
James Harden
2010-WAS
John Wall
2010-PHI
Evan Turner
2010-NJN
Derrick Favors
2011-CLE
Kyrie Irving
2011-MIN
Derrick Williams
2011-UTA
Enes Kanter
2012-NOH
Anthony Davis
2012-CHA
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
2012-WAS
Bradley Beal
2013-CLE
Anthony Bennett
2013-ORL
Victor Oladipo
2013-WAS
Otto Porter
2014-CLE
Andrew Wiggins
2014-MIL
Jabari Parker
2014-PHI
Joel Embiid
2015-MIN
Karl-Anthony Towns
2015-LAL
D'Angelo Russell
2015-PHI
Jahlil Okafor
2016-PHI
Ben Simmons
2016-LAL
Brandon Ingram
2016-BOS
Jaylen Brown
2017-PHI
Markelle Fultz
2017-LAL
Lonzo Ball
2017-BOS
Jayson Tatum
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