Much of the discussion around the NBA has centered around the teams at the top of the league, but their stories, one way or the other, won’t be finished until April, May and June. The regular season, in contrast, is about the other 27 franchises, the ones whose seasons won’t be judged as failures if they aren’t hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy at the end of them. And a year after one of the worst regular seasons in recent memory, this season is already shaping up to be far more compelling for almost every one of them.
Thanks to the lockout, a compressed 66-game schedule forced teams to play stretches of three games in three nights and five games in seven nights last year. The basic tenet of competitive basketball, the importance of winning games, was often compromised, as older teams worried about avoiding injuries while younger teams daydreamed about Anthony Davis.
Nor was the lockout’s damage confined to just the schedule. Many of the top prospects in college basketball opted to stay in school rather than risk the uncertainty of being stuck in limbo and possibly losing an entire season of development. As a result, the 2011 draft was one of the weakest in the last decade.
Take a look at the previous lottery: outside of No. 1 overall pick Kyrie Irving, are there any other future All-Stars in it? Derrick Williams is already on the trading block by the Wolves, while Cleveland fans have been complaining about Tristan Thompson since the moment he was drafted. However, none of the collegiate players taken after him -- Brandon Knight, Kemba Walker, Jimmer Thompson, Klay Thompson, Alec Burks, Markieff Morris and Marcus Morris -- has the looks of a future star written on them either.
If another player from that lottery become an elite contributor, it will probably come from the ranks of the international big men -- Bismack Biyombo, Enes Kanter, Jonas Valanciunas and Jan Vesely. Valanciunas stayed in Lithuania last season, while the other three, still teenagers, struggled mightily to adapt to the speed of the game as well as an immense cultural transition to the United States. All four are still many years away from reaching their potential, if they ever do.
A rebuilding franchise is essentially selling hope for the future, that while wins are hard to come by in the present, developing young talent will pay off down the road. Unfortunately, with so few talented rookies in the NBA last season, there was precious little hope to go around.
What made the Bobcats so depressing last season wasn’t their 7-59 record, it was that there was no guarantee that all the losing was making any difference. The final verdict on Walker and Biyombo is far from settled, but given the obvious holes in their games coming into the draft, there’s little chance they would have been taken so high in a normal year. This season, if Charlotte is on the schedule, season ticket holders can at least look forward to watching No. 2 overall pick Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who has a very intriguing combination of size, athleticism and skill at 6’7 230.
The story is the same throughout the NBA. The Raptors, after plummeting to the depths of the league without Chris Bosh, now have an intriguing young PG (Kyle Lowry), SG (Terrence Ross) and C (Valanciunas). The Cavs brought in a talented young SG (Dion Waiters) to complement their franchise PG, as did the Wizards (Brad Beal). The Pistons are as woeful as ever, but how can their fans not be at least intrigued by the Andre Drummond Experiment? The Hornets, who were racing to lose as many games as possible last season, now have Anthony Davis, if not Eric Gordon.
The only two franchises in really bad shape in terms of future assets, the Magic and the Suns, are also the ones who most recently lost a franchise player. Even Orlando has two intriguing young big men (Nikola Vucevic and Andrew Nicholson) while Phoenix has a starting-caliber PG (Goran Dragic) and a forward theoretically capable of shooting them into any game (Michael Beasley). Neither situation is as dire as the one Toronto and Charlotte found themselves in over the last two years.
Overall, I had over a dozen prospects rated as lottery-caliber in the 2012 draft. In 2011? Three (Irving, Valanciunas and Kanter). Talent comes into the NBA in waves; over the last decade, the only draft classes I would rate above 2012 are 2003 and 2008. Of course, not all of these prospects will develop, but even a poorly run franchise has a chance of backing their way into talent when so many good players are on the board.
One of the more popular phrases used during the lockout was “nuclear winter”. If we continue the analogy, the 2012-13 season is the following spring. The Heat, the Lakers and the Thunder may be on top of the NBA for now, but there’s hope in nearly every city that their franchise could be the next Oklahoma City.
If you look at what has happened in the NFL and the NHL this year or just follow the recent history of the NBA’s owners, it would appear that, for the indefinite future, lockouts are here to stay. However, as ugly as that undeniably sounds, never forget that no winter, not even a nuclear one, can lost forever. Spring will always come, in basketball as in life.