OK, the Knicks aren’t technically out of the race in the Hindenburg Conference, but they have a lot of ground to make up on Atlanta – four games in the loss column with 13 to play. The Celtics, Lakers and 76ers all are making plans for the 2014 draft lottery and the riches it may (or may not) provide.
Twenty years ago, the Celtics, Lakers and Sixers all missed the postseason, but the Pat Riley-coached Knicks made it all the way to the NBA Finals, losing in seven games to the Houston Rockets. That remains the best Knicks’ playoff run since the 1973 championship season (moreso than their surprising appearance in the 1999 Finals, where they were decided underdogs to the Spurs and lost in five.)
But at no time since 1949, when the Lakers entered the NBA in Minneapolis, and the 76ers came in as the Syracuse Nationals, have all four of these marquee teams been on the outside looking in when the playoffs arrived. (The Celtics and Knicks started in 1946.)
All four teams are in varying states of disrepair.
Here’s a look at each of as they try to move onward and upward. The teams are listed in reverse order of their most immediate chances at resurrection. Or, in the case of the first team, exhumation.
LOS ANGELES LAKERS: Talk about a team on the verge. I’ve been on their case for some time now, going back to last summer when I wrote that Dwight Howard would be a fool to re-sign with them, given the differences of the Houston and Los Angeles rosters. Since then, the Lakers have only gotten worse.
Roster: Kobe Bryant and, um, whoever they draft and, um, whoever. That’s it, unless you want to count the calcified Steve Nash. The Lakers compounded things by giving Bryant a ridiculous contract extension and Kobe – always the team guy – pounced on it, dramatically restricting what the team can do in free agency. Most of their roster consists of free agents; among those, and, only Pau Gasol has any kind of gravitas, and he turns 34 in July. If the Lakers even offered Phil Jackson a job now, I’m pretty sure he would have responded with a request for a cigarette and a blindfold. They are awful. They are going to be equally awful next season.
Coach: Mike D’Antoni. For now, anyway. Any bets on next season?
Future: They have a 2014 first-round pick, but they better not miss, because they only have one more over the three ensuing years. They are counting heavily on 2015, but that means punting next season (they will have no choice) and that will mean Kobe going postal. All in all, not a pretty picture.
PHILADELPHIA 76ERS: Were it not for a ludicrous non-call at the end of the Jan. 29 game against the Celtics, the 76ers would already have set a record for consecutive losses. But Michael Carter-Williams got away with a palming violation (“Are you kidding me?’’ broadcaster Tommy Heinsohn bellowed) and Evan Turner made a buzzer-beater. Since then, nothing but L’s. None of this can be characterized as a surprise. The Sixers were prepared for a long season. Then they traded away two important players (Turner and Spencer Hawes) and got even worse.
Roster: Thaddeus Young and Carter-Williams look to be keepers. Nerlens Noel will be there next season. Other than that? Ew. Their six bench players on Friday: Jarvis Varnado, James Nunnally, Byron Mullens, Hollis Thompson, Elliott Williams and Darius Johnson-Odom. (But no, they’re not tanking. As Heinsohn would say, “Are you kidding me?’’) They may not win another game this season.
Coach: Brett Brown. It’s not his fault. He has an average D-League roster.
Future: The Sixers are counting big-time on the draft and the likelihood of nearly $40 million in cap room. They have New Orleans’ first-round pick as well as their own, so two lottery selections will join Young, MCW and Noel. They also have five – count ‘em, five – second-round picks. But that’s still a young team. And which free agent is going to want to join that group? Let’s hope for the Sixers’ sake that GM Sam Hinkie knows what he’s doing.
NEW YORK KNICKS: I know, Phil Jackson is going to solve everything and bring a championship to 33rd and 8th. One small question: How, precisely, is that going to happen? The Knicks mortgaged their future in the Carmelo Anthony trade. Denver owns New York’s first-round pick this year. Toronto owns it in 2016. Running a front office for the first time, Phil doesn’t have a lot of flexibility. Second-round picks, you say? Nope: Their next four have all been dealt away.
Roster: Melo says he is going to opt out of his deal this summer but has always been seen as re-signing because the Knicks can pay him tons more than anyone else. He will not pull a Howard. Then again, how many teams would clamor for a soon-to-be 30-year-old defensively challenged ballhog whose teams never win? Unlike the Lakers, the Knicks do have some decent, young talent such as Tim Hardaway Jr. and Iman Shumpert. But like the Lakers, they won’t be able to do too much until the summer of 2015.
Coach: Mike Woodson. For now, anyway. If he’s back next season, it’s another remake of Miracle on 34th Street. At his introductory news conference, it sure sounded like Woodson was being set up to be dismissed.
Future: New York is not a patient place, and Jackson’s overbearing persona cannot hide the multitude of deficiencies on the team, both now and going forward. The Knicks get financial relief in 2015 when Tyson Chandler, Amar’e Stoudemire and Andrea Bargnani come off the books. The latter two have opt-outs this summer, but neither is expected to give up that guaranteed dinero.
BOSTON CELTICS: GM Danny Ainge has the Celtics positioned perfectly to be relevant again. The team has played hard all season (very few blowouts), and the roster is chock-a-block full of promising 20-somethings, led by star point guard Rajon Rondo. How the Celtics deal with Rondo will be interesting to watch. Does he want to go through another rebuilding situation? He says he does. We’ll see. His contract is up at the end of next season.
Roster: Besides Rondo, the Celtics have Avery Bradley, Jared Sullinger, promising rookie Kelly Olynyk, the maddening but undeniably talented Jeff Green and valuable backup Jerryd Bayless. Rondo, who just turned 28, is the oldest of those. (Green turns 28 in August.) None of the other three teams has anything close to such an aggregate of young NBA talent.
Coach: Brad Stevens. Solid and staying put.
Future: In addition to the appealing roster of young’uns, the Celtics also have amassed a slew of draft picks. They have nine first-round picks over the next five years, three of them from the Nets for the Paul Pierce/Kevin Garnett trade, plus the right to swap picks with the Nets in a fourth draft. They also have a No. 1 from the Clippers for allowing Doc Rivers to head west. They will have their own lottery pick this year and another No. 1 as well. They are in excellent shape to be back in the thick of things in the East.
Peter May is the only writer who covered the final NBA games played by Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. He has covered the league for three decades for The Hartford Courant and The Boston Globe and has written three books on the Boston Celtics. His work also appears in The New York Times. You can follow him on Twitter.
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