The playoffs are in full swing, but the teams that missed out on the postseason are making their plans to crash the party next season. So which franchises are closer to making that leap, and which ones are farthest away? Our panel of writers got together and ranked the lottery teams in order of whose future is brightest, starting with a Minnesota Timberwolves team that has a lot of reasons for optimism. Here's what they need this summer to finally get going in the right direction.
1. What went wrong? It took way too long for the Wolves to find any sort of rhythm defensively, and when they finally did (for a few weeks after the All-Star break), they couldn't sustain it. On offense, they suffered with their glaring lack of 3-point shooting. They had a nasty habit of surrendering early leads, and with the possible exception of the Cavs, they had the widest gap of any team in the league between their peaks and valleys. The assumption, of course, is that the young Wolves will be their best selves more often in Year 2 under coach Tom Thibodeau, but it's a little disappointing that a team this talented couldn't even come close to winning half its games.
2. What is their biggest need? We touched on the 3-point shooting, so let's focus here on depth. Veterans Brandon Rush, Cole Aldrich and Jordan Hill -- also known as Minnesota's free-agent signings last summer -- didn't play major roles, and it would be nice if Minnesota had more shooting and versatility on the bench.
3. Realistic targets (draft or FA) to fill that need: I would absolutely love to see either Florida State forward Jonathan Isaac or Arizona big man Lauri Markkanen next to Karl-Anthony Towns in the front court. If either one was drafted by the Wolves, I would immediately start thinking about how long it would take for him to unseat Gorgui Dieng as a starter. As for free agents, perhaps the front office could target wings like Justin Holiday, C.J. Miles or P.J. Tucker to bolster the bench.
4. Outlook/next season playoff chances: I would be shocked if they missed the playoffs again. Towns is a superstar, and sometimes Andrew Wiggins looks like one, too. The big questions are about how much they grow defensively and how Zach LaVine fits back in when he returns from his torn ACL. I also wonder if Ricky Rubio's increased aggressiveness and production on offense late in the season means that Thibodeau will commit to him as Minnesota's point guard of the future. Kris Dunn is still waiting in the wings. -- James Herbert
1. What went wrong? In a way, nothing. Joel Embiid exceeded every expectation when he was healthy, and the team has once again put itself in a position to add to its core with potential stars -- yes, plural, if the Lakers' pick falls outside the top-3 -- in the draft. After the Sixers' ridiculous run in January, though, it was a bit of a bummer to see things go back to their version of normal in the second half. Embiid and Ben Simmons still haven't played together. Philadelphia had the worst offensive rating in the league for the fourth straight season. Another negative: Bryan Colangelo's front office did not handle the logjam at center as well as many people hoped -- it traded Nerlens Noel for a fake first-round pick and did not move Jahlil Okafor.
2. What is their biggest need? Point guard. Simmons is supposed to become the Sixers' primary play-maker, but they still would like to find a point guard who can run pick-and-rolls, make spot-up 3s and, ideally, defend multiple positions. It just so happens that there are guys at the top of the draft who would fit extremely well.
3. Realistic targets (draft or FA) to fill that need: In the draft, it's obvious that Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball and De'Aaron Fox would be perfect here. Old friend Jrue Holiday and hometown hero Kyle Lowry are intriguing free agents, but I would be shocked if either one of them was actually obtainable. Getting someone like Patty Mills seems more realistic, but again, the draft is the answer.
4. Outlook/next season playoff chances: Long-term, the Sixers probably have the most exciting outlook of any team not named the Golden State Warriors. They could have that distinction next season, too, but everything hinges on the health of Embiid and Simmons. As crazy as it sounds to predict that Philadelphia will make the playoffs in 2017-18, it's worth noting that the team outscored opponents by 3.2 points per 100 possessions with Embiid on the court. That's the same net rating as the Cleveland Cavaliers had this season. I can see it happening. -- James Herbert
1. What went wrong? Well, they could not put the ball in the hole. They just couldn't score, at all. A midseason trade for DeMarcus Cousins yielded mixed results which will have to improve or it could wind up burying the franchise. Anthony Davis was great.
2. What is their biggest need? A way to win with Davis and Cousins, and shooters, shooters, shooters everywhere. Their biggest issue might be Jrue Holiday. Holiday is a free agent, and they don't have the money to afford an upgrade. They're in a tight spot, despite having added Cousins to Davis, which should make things easier.
3. Realistic targets (draft or FA) to fill that need: Obviously winning the lottery would be a godsend and change everything. Markelle Fultz next to Davis and Cousins would be flat-out insane. If it's not top three, the Kings get the pick. Tony Snell would be a great wing fit, and Shaun Livingston wouldn't be a bad short-term point guard option if Holiday departs.
4. Outlook/next season playoff chances: They have two top-15 players, so pretty good, but there's a lot to figure out in regards to playing style, approach and the surrounding roster. Give them a 50-50 chance of making the postseason next season. -- Matt Moore
1. What went wrong? Defense, defense, defense. The Nuggets were last in the league on that end, allowing 110.7 points per 100 possessions. They also struggled greatly during the opening six weeks or so, going just 9-16 over the first 25 games as head coach Mike Malone tried to figure out the starting lineup and rotations. After that, they were 30-26, thanks to a tremendous offense led by breakout star Nikola Jokic, but the poor start left them little room for error. A poor record in close games -- they went just 5-10 in games decided by three points or less -- and some key losses to Portland were enough to seal their fate.
2. What is their biggest need? Health and a clear vision going forward. Danilo Gallinari (a free agent), Will Barton, Kenneth Faried and Gary Harris all missed significant time, and they dug themselves a big hole with their poor start that was largely due to the constant shuffling of lineups, which shouldn't be a problem next season. In terms of specific players or positions, that will largely depend on what they plan to do with their own free agents, Gallinari and Mason Plumlee. Even if they do retain Gallinari and Plumlee, they could use a solid defender on the wing, and perhaps a point guard as well, as Jameer Nelson is nearing retirement and it's not clear if Emmanuel Mudiay, who saw his minutes slashed at the end of the season, is the answer.
3. Realistic targets (draft or FA) to fill that need: A lot of teams will likely be vying for his services, but P.J. Tucker would be a perfect fit as a defensive-minded wing and a veteran presence for a team with a lot of youngsters. Another option in that department would be Tony Snell, who is coming off a solid season with the Bucks.
4. Outlook/next season playoff chances: Starting with Jokic, the Nuggets have a lot of nice, young talent and showed an elite offense last season. If they can shore up the defensive side a bit and get some better luck in terms of injuries, they should be right there battling for one of the last few playoff spots in the West. -- Jack Maloney
1. What went wrong? Just about everything. The players didn't play well together, the young guys were too young to contribute to a winning formula, the coaching was suspect, the veterans couldn't make an impact and the team was just a mishmash of guys for most of the season.
2. What is their biggest need? Time. They just need time for their young guys to improve and get better. The talent is there, and they'll add another high pick this summer. They need to clear out the veterans, and just give this roster time to percolate.
3. Realistic targets (draft or FA) to fill that need: They should steer clear of free agency; they have the veteran leadership they need, and don't need to clog things up for the young guys in their rotation. If they land in the top three in the lottery, they have a world of options. Lonzo Ball's play-making, Markelle Fultz' athleticism, Josh Jackson's athleticism, they all fit with what Phoenix needs.
4. Outlook/next season playoff chances: Slim, but this team could turn the corner at any point. If Earl Watson has a better second season at the helm, if Devin Booker finds consistency, if they have one young guy make a jump, they could surprise some folks. But their focus needs to be on developing the core and being patient. -- Matt Moore
1. What went wrong? They just completely fell apart. They had a great start then went to pieces. They lost the tether on offense and defense, all of the young guys had their development stall and the veterans gave them almost nothing. They had some nice moments, but far more forgettable nights.
2. What is their biggest need? Steady point guard play, if D'Angelo Russell can play the 2. Rebounding and rim protection, most especially. Julius Randle is not built for it and doesn't have the instincts, and, well, Timofey Mozgov did not exactly fill that role despite his hefty contract.
3. Realistic targets (draft or FA) to fill that need: You can probably make it work with Markelle Fultz or Lonzo Ball next to Russell, especially with Jordan Clarkson's regression. Jackson is superfluous with Ingram. Their big key is to keep their lottery pick, which means it has to be in the top three. There's also the looming Paul George story. George reportedly wants to join the Lakers if he leaves the Pacers. If George is traded to the Lakers, that accelerates their timeline and everything goes on the table. Making a move for DeMarcus Cousins, trying to bring in Blake Griffin, everything.
4. Outlook/next season playoff chances: They're not ready. They need to steady the ship, evaluate where they're at and go from there. If George is available, you have to take that opportunity, they don't come along very often. But transitioning from a super-young rebuilding squad to a star-laden contender is tough. Even Boston had Paul Pierce in his prime. The Lakers have to be careful. -- Matt Moore
1. What went wrong? There were no major injuries, Kemba Walker and Nic Batum were fantastic, and they had the 11th-best net rating in the league. And yet, the Charlotte Hornets did not make the playoffs. The main reason? They simply gave away multiple games they absolutely should have won -- an 11-point lead in the final six minutes vs. New Orleans, a seven-point lead in the final 90 seconds vs. Minnesota, a 17-point lead in the fourth quarter vs. Toronto, and a 15-point lead in the fourth quarter vs. Detroit all turned into losses -- and they couldn't secure victories in countless other games they certainly could have won. They were 8-14 in games decided by five points or less, lost all six of their overtime games and went 0-9 in games decided by three or less points, which is the worst record in such games in NBA history.
2. What is their biggest need? There's really no glaring need for the Hornets, as their starters, save for Cody Zeller, who they should re-sign, are all under contract for next season, but they could make a few moves to improve their bench. Their 3-point shooting was pretty middle of the road, and they don't have a great point-guard option on the bench behind Walker.
3. Realistic targets (draft or FA) to fill that need: A guy like Patty Mills, who could really improve their 3-point shooting while also running the show for the second unit would be a nice target.
4. Outlook/next season playoff chances: If it wasn't for a few disastrous collapses, along with some bad luck in close games, the Hornets would have been a playoff team. Considering their core, which won 48 games just last season, is returning, and the fact that the bottom of the Eastern Conference playoff picture is not strong, the Hornets should have a great chance to get back to the postseason in 2017-18. -- Jack Maloney
1. What went wrong? They dug a deep hole, climbed out, fell back. Dirk Nowitzki is not what he once was, Harrison Barnes had a good-not-great season, and they just didn't have enough play-makers offensively despite finding Yogi Ferell to go along with Seth Curry's emergence.
2. What is their biggest need? Curry as a sixth man would be ideal, and a better starting point guard would be great. It doesn't need to be a superstar, though getting one would certainly change the trajectory of the franchise.
3. Realistic targets (draft or FA) to fill that need: Winning the lottery would be huge, transitioning from the Dirk era forward. They need a player to really build around. The supporting structure is there with Nerlens Noel and Barnes, but they need a perimeter weapon to make it come together. If they strike out in the lottery, going for Jrue Holiday would be a good plan. He would make the offense work and provide a shooter as well.
4. Outlook/next season playoff chances: They were within range this season, but there are a lot of weaknesses for this team, and Nowitzki is not going to be better in what will probably be his last season. Barring an unforeseen addition, even if they won the lottery, it's not likely they'll have enough. Then again, the competition in the West looks weak for that last spot right now. -- Matt Moore
1. What went wrong? The main problem -- besides starting the season 11-30 -- was that there's just not a ton of talent on the roster. The double loss of Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade coupled with the injury to Justise Winslow left them really shorthanded. Goran Dragic was as solid as ever and Erik Spoelstra did yet another wondrous coaching job, getting career years out of Dion Waiters and James Johnson. Even though they went on a tear over the final few months, they had dug themselves too big of a hole and ended up falling just short of the playoffs.
2. What is their biggest need? The Heat need a star if they hope to jump back into serious playoff contention, and they're going to have the cap room to get one this summer. The question is, are they going to be able to get one? The allure of playing in Miami is a serious draw, and Pat Riley has delivered before, but will he be able to convince someone to come to town and join a team that's unlikely to have championship aspirations next season?
3. Realistic targets (draft or FA) to fill that need: The Heat will likely focus on the second tier of stars, the Gordon Hayward and Paul Millsap types. But both of those players have player options, and might decide to stay with their current squads. Blake Griffin is a potential target to play alongside Hassan Whiteside down low, as they could form a similar partnership to Griffin and DeAndre Jordan in L.A.
4. Outlook/next season playoff chances: Everything depends on how free agency goes for the Heat. If they can score a big-time free agent, they should be able to jump right back into playoff contention. Otherwise, depending on what smaller additions they make, they figure to be right back where they were this season, fighting for one of the last few playoff spots. -- Jack Maloney
1. What went wrong? Reggie Jackson was never the same after his injury, Stanley Johnson regressed into dust and Andre Drummond is a legitimate concern as far as being an actual key building block. Ish Smith was all right, though.
2. What is their biggest need? A revamp. The formula they thought they could believe in failed miserably and there was talk of trading both Jackson and Drummond, both on huge extensions, this year. They need a total overhaul because Stan Van Gundy isn't going anywhere, and those guys are not getting it done.
3. Realistic targets (draft or FA) to fill that need: If they trade Drummond, they can revamp, but they have to find the right opportunity with picks and young players, and that's tough with a guy who has question marks about his attitude. Jackson's value seems to be rock bottom; it's hard to see them recouping much for him. It's also hard to see who they should add, given the status of those two guys, and the young guys they still have to have hope for.
4. Outlook/next season playoff chances: Maybe this was just a bad run, and all their players bounce back. But if not, they are likely stuck in purgatory, somewhere between the bottom of the playoff race and the elite, and that's never where you want to be. -- Matt Moore
1. What went wrong? The Magic had a young core they were trying to build on a few years ago. Then they got impatient, and tried to swing for the fences in free agency. The result was a log-jammed roster with Serge Ibaka in a contract year and a team that was awful all over. So they traded Ibaka for almost nothing. Rob Hennigan took the blame and was let go, and now Orlando has to find a way to take a mish-mashed roster and translate it into something that makes sense.
2. What is their biggest need? A direction. They need someone to make the roster make sense, clean out the redundancies (Bismack Biyombo and Nikola Vucevic?), and work to find a player they can genuinely build around. They need to figure out if Elfrid Payton and Aaron Gordon are players to build around, and then figure out what kind of team they need to be.
3. Realistic targets (draft or FA) to fill that need: Jayson Tatum is redundant in some ways to Gordon, but that combo might actually work in having two guys with that physical profile and athleticism. If they land in the top three, trading Payton for wing depth is the way to go. They have Evan Fournier, but Malik Monk could be a good selection with superstar potential. They should stay far, far away from free agency.
4. Outlook/next season playoff chances: They need a hard reset. They need to get Gordon back as a power forward and see what that looks like. Making the playoffs next season would be fool's gold. There are too many things they need to figure out long-term to worry about the playoffs. -- Matt Moore
1. What went wrong? It didn't seem like things were that bad, but then the Kings traded DeMarcus Cousins the night of the All-Star Game. Evidently, management didn't think it was worth trying to build a playoff team around him, so it decided to start from scratch. While Buddy Hield played admirably in Sacramento, it's hard to shake the feeling that the front office could have made a much better deal last summer or even before then. The Kings are still fairly inept -- post-Cousins, they were 24th in both offensive rating and defensive rating -- and they're now searching for another franchise player.
2. What is their biggest need? Point guard. Darren Collison and Ty Lawson will both be free agents and Langston Galloway could decline his $5.4 million player option. It's time the Kings try to find their floor general of the future.
3. Realistic targets (draft or FA) to fill that need: Sacramento has the Pelicans' first-round pick (top-three protected) as well as its own (or the Sixers' pick, as Philadelphia has swap rights). Given the Kings' need at PG, it's easy to imagine them nabbing De'Aaron Fox, Dennis Smith or Frank Ntilikina.
4. Outlook/next season playoff chances: Given that the Blazers barely had to get to .500 to clinch the eighth spot, this was Sacramento's best shot at making the playoffs in a while. The front office punted on that opportunity, though, and now it'll probably be years before they're back. As frustrating as that might be for fans who haven't seen playoff basketball since Mike Bibby was on the team, it doesn't actually have to be a bad thing. The Kings need to stay patient and let guys like Hield, Willie Cauley-Stein and Skal Labissiere grow -- that way, when they do make the postseason, it might actually be sustainable. -- James Herbert
1. What went wrong? Well, pretty much everything. The self-proclaimed "Super Team" finished 26th in the league in defensive efficiency. The offense, whether part-triangle or all-triangle, wasn't much better, checking in at 19th. Derrick Rose, acquired to be a star, played 64 lackluster games. Joakim Noah, who hoped to be healthier and back to his mid-career form, instead continued succumbing to the aging process. Kristaps Porzingis didn't develop much, and Carmelo Anthony was merely his usual excellent self, but those two weren't the problem, they were the lone bright spots.
2. What is their biggest need? This team needs plenty, but a point guard to both create for others and defend is at the top of the list.
3. Realistic targets (draft or FA) to fill that need: De'Aaron Fox would be perfect, frankly. They get lucky with ping pong balls, Markelle Fultz would be even better immediately.
4. Outlook/next season playoff chances: They lost 50 for the third year in a row. Depending on how they shop this summer and who they get for keeping their draft pick will tell us plenty, but they don't look like a move away from the playoffs or anything. -- Howard Megdal
1. What went wrong? The team was built around Jeremy Lin, and Lin only made 33 starts, thanks to a few injuries, mostly hamstring-related, though he played remarkably like his Linsanity self when on the court. They were 13-20 in games Lin started. They were 7-41 in games he didn't. Also, all that futility was for nothing, thanks to the Paul Pierce-Kevin Garnett deal with the Celtics that lets Boston swap picks this year, among many other heist-level indignities Billy King gifted Sean Marks.
2. What is their biggest need? The Nets need more scoring. They need to defend better, too. But a legit option on the wing to go along with Lin at point and Brook Lopez at the five would do wonders for this team's spacing, and keep the offense from grinding to a halt whenever Lin is off the court.
3. Realistic targets (draft or FA) to fill that need: They should be all-in on Otto Porter, a free agent this summer who Washington might not give a max deal to. There are potential solutions late in the first round as well, guys like Terrence Ferguson, but not to help immediately.
4. Outlook/next season playoff chances: A healthy Lin, some help in the margins, and another East race for 8 decided in the upper 30s, and the Nets may well be in that mix, much to Boston's disappointment (they have Brooklyn's 2018 pick, too!). -- Howard Megdal