With less than a week left in the regular season, eight teams have been eliminated from playoff contention, with two more bound to join them in a few days before the play-in tournament starts.
Their 2020-21 campaign may have come to an unfortunate end, but these eliminated teams have a lot to look forward to. Most of these franchises are stacked with young talent that need a few more years to develop. For some, this season served as a practice run or a buildup for something greater in the future.
Let’s take a look at the bottom three teams from each conference before they officially close their season and move on to the next.
The Timberwolves have encountered a lot of issues this season – from the players' battles with COVID-19 and injuries to the controversial dismissal and replacement of their coach.
Initially, when Ryan Saunders left and Chris Finch took his place, there were doubts on whether he would perform well given his limitations. Finch was the new guy on the block, he had no prior history with the Minnesota franchise and he wasn’t even coaching in the same conference as his new team.
However, he quickly shut down critics by making moves that took the team to the next level. His appointment prior to the All-Star break gave him the time to create a system that fit well with the talent they have right now. One of his biggest changes involved the rotation of the Timberwolves that led to more minutes for rookie standout Anthony Edwards.
Since the All-Star break, Edwards’ productivity followed the increase of his minutes. His time on the court shot up from 29.1 to 35.0 minutes, and his scoring improved from 14.9 to 23.5 points per game. Now considered a top candidate for the Rookie of the Year award alongside LaMelo Ball, Edwards currently leads all rookies in scoring. Karl Anthony Town and D’Angelo Russell still remain at Minnesota’s core, and the steady improvement of Edwards helps build a solid foundation for the young team.
If you look at their current record, it will definitely deceive you. With Finch calling the shots, the Timberwolves won 15 games and lost 23. However, part of that record is their late season push that includes six wins in the last 10 games, which is an impressive feat by itself.
This shows that they’re starting to build some chemistry and are finally at sync. The team has a long way to go, but with most of the guys still under the age of 25, it’s a good sign for them. The hope for Minnesota is that they use the extended off-season to focus on their development so they can finally have a chance of making it to the postseason.
The Thunder are in the process of a rebuild, obviously. They have invested heavily in their future team, securing a whopping 38 picks until 2027. Most of these picks came from their trade negotiations, sending off their veteran role and star players for a chance to acquire younger talents in the next few years’ NBA Draft.
Here’s a summary of how their next three drafts will look: they will have a total of nine first round picks and five second round picks -- that’s practically a whole roster. If you go down the whole history of how they acquired all these picks, you will see that they are still acquiring players from the Russell Westbrook trade to Houston. If that’s not investing in their future, then what is?
It looks like the Thunder’s management decided to look ahead and create a team that can contend for the title in the near future. However, that doesn’t mean that their next superstar is still in high school. The team is building their franchise around their super guard, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. In his third year in the NBA, he is averaging 23.7 points, 4.7 rebounds and 5.9 assists. He’s shown steady improvement over the years, becoming the foundation of the team’s future.
Not only that, SGA is surrounded by a lot of hidden gems that often don’t get the same spotlight as the veterans of the league. These young guns include Lu Dort, Darius Bazley, and fan favorite Aleksej Pokusevski.
So no, OKC fans, you don’t have to wait until 2027 to make it to the playoffs. The coaching staff is focused on building up these raw talents and making them the players of the future. While you may not hit another home run drafting superstars like Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, and James Harden in succeeding drafts, OKC just needs enough pieces to complement their already budding star that is SGA.
Catastrophe wouldn’t leave Houston. It started with James Harden’s controversial fallout with the team that led to his sudden exit. Just when things were going well, the Rockets fell into a 20-game losing streak, the longest in franchise history.
After the chaos, Houston adopted an “everything must go” attitude and gave up all their veteran players to start from scratch. Similar to what OKC did, they stacked their draft picks and invested in young stars. They have a total of 14 picks in the next three drafts, opening a new chapter for the Rockets franchise.
However, the difference between the two teams lies in their foundation. Unlike the Thunder, Houston’s key to success right now is veteran John Wall. As the team acquires fresh legs year after year, the hope is that Wall passes on his leadership and experience. That starts with the development of guys like Kevin Porter Jr., who began showing up in the latter part of the season.
The hiring of longtime NBA coach Stephen Silas, turned out to be the best thing that has happened to the Rockets this season. Stephen grew up familiar with the coaching industry through his father and legendary coach, Paul Silas, who had 12 seasons in the league.
Stephen had to deal with the burden of catching a burning building that was the Houston team. Upon his arrival, he expected to build a new system around the Rockets’ two All-Stars James Harden and Russell Westbrook, but everyone knows what happened. Now, Silas is determined to use the unexpected turn of events to create an entirely new team that will have a new system and culture at play.
Rockets fans should look at next season with a sense of conservative optimism as the team tries to get back on its feet. You need to expect a lot of changes, but changes that won’t be as explosive as the ones they had at the start of this season.
The health issues of the Magic’s players ultimately led to their downfall this season. There’s no question that Markelle Fultz’s season-ending ACL injury in the early part of the season brought Orlando in a downward spiral.
At that point, their management didn’t really have much of a choice but to launch their rebuilding campaign early on. They gave up their key players like All-Star center Nikola Vucevic, veteran guard Evan Fournier, and hidden gem Aaron Gordon, in exchange for fresh legs that will build the team up. The team acquired several key newbies like Wendell Carter Jr. and RJ Hampton, who both fit the system extremely well.
Unlike the Thunder and the Rockets, their rebuild won’t be through traditional draft picks. Their focus is on acquiring talent through trades and developing the team that they have now. The combination of Fultz’s cool demeanor with rookie Cole Anthony’s energy might be something special in the long run. Although fans only saw glimpses of their duo early in the season, it may be something head coach Steve Clifford wants to keep on the regular.
Former Denver Nugget Gary Harris perfectly encapsulated what the Magic’s present and future looks like. After their win against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Harris said: “Being around the guys, getting to know everybody and building the chemistry, we’re building something here. We’ve had some ups and downs. But we’re coming to work each and every day. Guys are fun to be around. We’re getting better and trying to finish the season strong.”
The tenacity of Collin Sexton is unmatched. After only three years in the big league, Sexton has become the leader of the new era of Cavaliers. This season, he’s averaged 24.4 points, 3.2 rebounds, and 4.3 assists, but this is only the start of something greater.
Sexton, who is known for being a tough contender, keeps improving his game every year. He’s converted his game from a typical trigger-happy rookie to a consistent scorer who’s learned how to move off the ball. Pair that with dynamic playmaker Darius Garland, who doubled his assists this season, then you have a recipe for success.
In reality, that’s what any coach wants from his young players. Every season, coaches ask their guys to come back stronger and tougher for himself and the team -- and that’s exactly what Sexton did. Cleveland’s non-appearance in the bubble seemed to work in their favor as it gave them more time to prepare for the following season.
Here’s a guy who went from being an overly excited, individualistic rookie to a scorer that single-handedly shut down the Brooklyn Nets’ Big Three debut by scoring his career-high 42 points. Here’s a guy who went from a ball hog to a guy who has learned how to move off-ball and succeed in it. Here’s a guy who went from a good rookie to a franchise player. That’s the development Collin Sexton had in a span of three years.
And the rebuild is nowhere near over. In fact, it can only get better. The improvement of these young talents gives the Cavaliers some new hope following the era of LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. There’s a lot to look forward to, and their quick development is a testament to their ability to keep moving in the right direction.
Jerami Grant made a decision that would turn around his entire career. He went from a solid role player for the Denver Nuggets to the Detroit Pistons’ first option. In his run with Denver, he ended the season with 12.0 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 1.2 assists.
In Detroit? He’s averaging 22.3 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 3.8 assists. He almost doubled his entire statline in a span of one year. The overnight star moved seamlessly into the Pistons in the offseason and made a name for himself.
After being shuffled around post-Draft, Saddiq Bey found himself in Detroit, which worked out well for him. He’s an all-around player who’s averaging 12.1 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 1.3 assists in his first year with the Pistons.
Two other young gunners shined through in the final stretch of the season. Killian Hayes, who has served as the team’s primary playmaker, averaged 7.6 points, 3.1 rebounds, and 6.7 assists in their last 10 games. The recipient of most of those plays was Isaiah Stewart, who produced 11.0 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 0.6 assists in their last 10 outings.
See a pattern? A lot of the guys who are doing well are new to the organization. Whether it’s through acquisition, trades, or draft picks, the roster of Detroit is filled with new faces. Because they did not have the luxury of time to prepare for the season, they found themselves just going with the flow. They let these guys just play basketball the way they do without a clear-cut direction. While this helps their players establish their own identity, the team found itself in a big lull. Their players have improved individually but they still lack cohesiveness.
The Pistons barely have a superstar but what they do have is a combination of good pieces. What they ought to do during the break is build around those individuals and create a system that will work for them. Once they’ve established their collective identity and built more chemistry in the offseason, then they may have enough tools to put an end to their playoff drought.