Hawks, Bulls, Spurs and Pelicans: Looking for a map to success

Atlanta Hawks, Chicago Bulls, New Orleans Pelicans, San Antonio Spurs

What can hypothetical future contenders like the Hawks, Bulls, Spurs and Pelicans learn from this year’s conference finalists?

In the penultimate episode of The Good Place, Chidi Anagonye offers a Buddhist perspective on death: “Picture a wave. In the ocean. You can see it, measure it, its height, the way the sunlight refracts when it passes through. And it’s there. And you can see it, you know what it is. It’s a wave. And then it crashes in the shore and it’s gone. But the water is still there. The wave was just a different way for the water to be, for a little while.” This description also applies to NBA title hopefuls. Contention takes different forms. In that truth lies the dream for four teams who missed last year’s playoffs.

Five years ago, three of this year’s four conference finalists — the Los Angeles Lakers, Miami Heat and Denver Nuggets — all missed the playoffs; the fourth, the Boston Celtics, were a sub-.500 team who got swept in the first round. This season that foursome was the crème de la crème. That’s how quickly things change. The Atlanta Hawks, Chicago Bulls, New Orleans Pelicans and San Antonio Spurs each have reasons to hope they’ll soon transition from the crash to the crest. Each can take inspiration from one of this season’s semifinalists.

How will the Hawks, Bulls, Pelicans and Spurs look to take the leap?

The Celtics built themselves into a contender by drafting well and signing free agents who not only fit their old teams but Boston’s, too, something often easier said than done. The Hawks have assembled a young, promising talent base. All five of their leading minute-earners this season were 22 or younger, led by Trae Young and John Collins. After three consecutive losing seasons, Atlanta owns the sixth pick in the draft and is one of only a handful of teams with significant cap space this offseason.

Where do they turn in the draft? A complementary orchestrator and shooter to pair alongside Young, like Tyrese Haliburton? A defensive wing who’s raw but offers a high ceiling, like Isaac Okoro? Do the Hawks make another trade with their lottery pick, as they have the past two drafts? On the free-agent front, Davis Bertans and Jerami Grant are believed to be top targets. Either veteran would bring new dimensions to the roster while, ironically, making Atlanta younger: last year the rotation included Vince Carter, who at 43 was as old as Young and Collins combined. Landing Bertans or Grant would signal expectations have changed.

Similar to the Hawks, the Bulls have been bad (three straight losing seasons) and young (10 of their top 11 minutes leaders were 25 and under). Unlike Atlanta, Chicago is a big-market team that doesn’t sound interested in an organic rebuild. In that sense the Bulls are more like the Lakers; even as L.A. accumulated four top-seven picks over four years, it always felt like a matter of when and not if they’d parlay their goods into something great. Last year they did, trading a king’s ransom to pair Anthony Davis with King James and win it all. Chicago doesn’t have a Lebron on its roster, but there is quality there.

In Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr., Coby White, Otto Porter Jr. and Kris Dunn, the Bulls have scoring, rebounding, playmaking and defense. Unfortunately, while all those players do some of those things, none do all of them. Picking fourth in the draft, Chicago can aim for the best player available. Is that Maccabi Tel Aviv’s Deni Avdija? There’s also the matter of new coach Billy Donovan, whose strengths include not being Jim Boylen but who faces challenges all his own. In Oklahoma City, Donovan always had one or two All-Stars to lean on in Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Paul George or Chris Paul. All eyes will be on the coach and his unproven roster; if the Bulls struggle early, rumors regarding which player will be the first shipped out will heat up.

This past season the Spurs missed the playoffs. The last time that happened, three of their current players weren’t even born. The odds are against them launching another 22 straight postseasons, but an easier model of success for San Antonio to emulate could be what Miami’s accomplished since the two teams met in the 2014 Finals. While the Heat fell from the league’s penthouse for a half-decade, they never bottomed out, winning between 37 and 48 games before this year’s surprise Finals run. That kind of grit doesn’t earn platitudes or nicknames like Philadelphia’s “Process,” but Miami is what the 76ers sacrificed hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of games to try and be: a bona fide contender, a roster that fits like Cinderella in the glass slipper and a place Jimmy Butler wants to be. Rumors of the Spurs’ death may be greatly exaggerated.

This November San Antonio will be picking 11th, their highest selection since they won the 1997 lottery and landed Tim Duncan. Can the Spurs, who’ve done so well for so long drafting late in the first round, take advantage of their relatively strong position this year? Will anybody really be surprised if they draft, say, Patrick Williams and he turns out to be Kawhi 2.0? Does Gregg Popovich feel rejuvenated by the challenge of building a new winner from scratch? Or does he begin passing the baton to Becky Hammon, Duncan or whoever will be the next head coach? The Spurs still have several thirtysomethings of relative value in DeMar DeRozan, LaMarcus Aldridge, Patty Mills and Rudy Gay. Do they flip some for what assets can be had, or retain them, maintain a culture of competitiveness and hope that helps season the new wave to their flavor? Could what worked for Miami do so for San Antonio?

Of this season’s four semifinalists, Denver was the most mom-and-pop shop of them all. Four of the Nuggets’ six minutes leaders have played for Denver and nobody else in their careers. Denver was young, too: 21 players suited up for them last season and only one, Paul Millsap, was over 30. But while people talk about future deep playoff runs as an inevitability, the Nuggets are no longer just hunters, but the hunted, and in New Orleans, a deep and even younger team could be ready to bust loose.

The Pelicans are absolutely stacked with top-shelf young talent in Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram and Jaxson Hayes, along with intriguing secondary pieces like Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart. They also have two-way terror Jrue Holiday, who at 29 is the team’s biggest trade chip entering an offseason where no big free-agent signings are likely. What could they get for a player almost every good team would be thrilled to add, especially when almost every good team won’t have money to sign anyone of consequence?

New Orleans owns four draft picks, including No. 13. Do they look for a likely sure-thing role player and keep plugging along, or swing for the fences with the best player available? As young as the Pels are, that shiny new league darlings vibe never lasts long. Pressure is always nearer than you think. Anyone who’s ever had no money and then come into some knows: your problems don’t go away; they just change. The West could be tougher next year, with Golden State resurrected plus Phoenix and Minnesota likely improved. Can New Orleans make the playoffs? Who’ll lead the charge? Stan Van Gundy? Jason Kidd? Will it even matter if Zion misses significant time with injuries?

Past results never ensure future outcomes. While this year’s top teams were light years away from contending five years ago, the Knicks, the Hornets, the Pistons and the Kings were bad then and remain so. The turnarounds of the Lakers, Nuggets, Heat and Celtics remind us anything is possible. It’s up to the Hawks, Bulls, Spurs and Pelicans to catch the wave before it crashes and leaves them lost at sea.

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