Lottery teams need to plan for a busy summer

With the NBA’s regular season about to come to a close, several players have one foot on the court and the other on the beach. Vacations beckon, tee times are set and the fishing rods are packed.

Before we bid farewell to our friends in lottery land, let’s offer them a little advice for how they should spend their summers.

Eastern Conference

New Jersey Nets: After watching Devin Harris develop into an All-Star, point guard clearly isn’t a position of concern for the Nets. They also have a promising young center in Brook Lopez.

The question: Is it time to shift away from Vince Carter? The answer: Yes. Carter’s half-man/half-amazing act can no longer carry a team, and the Nets’ combination of veteran talent and youthful potential is a difficult mix. For the Nets to truly rebuild, they’ll likely have to start over without Carter.

New York Knicks: The Knicks are prepping for the LeBron James 2010 sweepstakes, but it’s questionable whether they’ll be able to assemble enough talent to persuade King James to leave Cleveland. If LeBron can lay his own championship foundation in Cleveland, would he still have reason to move to New York? The Knicks need to upgrade their roster enough to convince LeBron he won’t have to build a winner from scratch with them.

Washington Wizards: You can’t call Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler the Big Three anymore. They haven’t stayed on the floor together long enough to earn that title.

In fact, the Wizards might be better off paring down their triumvirate of stars to a twosome. Arenas’ injuries – along with his $111 million contract – make him too difficult to move. That leaves Jamison or Butler. Washington should explore the trade market; hoping the three can stay healthy hasn’t worked so far.

Toronto Raptors: There aren’t many people in the NBA who think Chris Bosh will remain with the Raptors beyond next season. Toronto could again try to find another veteran via trade or free agency to help lighten Bosh’s load, but that strategy (first Jermaine O’Neal, then Shawn Marion) didn’t produce much.

Instead, the Raptors might be better off adding some young talent, taking advantage of their draft pick and start building for a future that might not include Bosh.

Milwaukee Bucks: The Bucks have some solid young building blocks in center Andrew Bogut and forward Charlie Villanueva. The problem: Neither has distinguished himself as a franchise player capable of carrying the team.

Michael Redd and Richard Jefferson are both potential All-Stars, but how much do they make their teammates better? If the Bucks are going to make the jump to the next level, they need Bogut to start producing like a No. 1 pick.

Indiana Pacers: The Pacers seem to be on the right track, in spite of their struggles. Danny Granger became an All-Star and looked like he’s capable of being the franchise’s centerpiece moving forward. If Mike Dunleavy successfully returns from knee surgery – which is never certain – the Pacers could find themselves in the playoffs next season.

Charlotte Bobcats: Larry Brown nearly guided the Bobcats into the playoffs in his first season in Charlotte. The Bobcats were clearly a better team after acquiring Raja Bell and Boris Diaw from the Phoenix Suns, but they’ll likely need to find another veteran via free agency or trade if they want to take the next step.

Western Conference

Sacramento Kings: Be patient. Even if the Kings land the No. 1 pick and Oklahoma forward Blake Griffin, they still have a lot more rebuilding to do. Kevin Martin, Spencer Hawes and Jason Thompson at least give them a workable core moving forward.

Los Angeles Clippers: You don’t have to search long for reasons to make fun of the Clippers. But they honestly have some talent. The problem? They’re going to continue to have a hard time building a team with the pieces they have.

The Clippers first need to identify what style they want to play. Up-tempo? Inside-out? Defensive-oriented? Once they decide on how they want to play, they can do a better job of assembling the proper pieces to form a team instead of just grabbing the best available talent.

Oklahoma City Thunder: This is the team to watch. The Thunder aren’t far off from breaking through.

Of the 14 lottery teams, Oklahoma City might have the brightest long-term future. With Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Jeff Green the Thunder already have a promising young core. Add in another high draft pick and salary-cap flexibility and they should be contending for a playoff spot in two seasons, if not sooner.

Memphis Grizzlies: For now, they’re known only as the franchise that turned the Los Angeles Lakers into a superpower. Building themselves into a contender hasn’t been as easy. But O.J. Mayo, Rudy Gay and Marc Gasol give them something with which to start. Unfortunately, they still need stability at point guard and another interior presence.

Minnesota Timberwolves: Al Jefferson is an All-Star in the making if he returns healthy next season. Kevin Love had a promising rookie season, particularly in March when he averaged 15.8 points and 9.6 rebounds.

But Jefferson will likely endure some of the same frustration Kevin Garnett experienced in Minnesota if the Timberwolves don’t find him some veteran help. Not until the T’wolves brought in Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell did Garnett advance out of the first round of the playoffs.

Forget the youth movement. Jefferson is ready to take the next step now.

Golden State Warriors: The Warriors can start by convincing Don Nelson small-ball is dead. Anthony Randolph is fast winning admirers around the league. Monta Ellis looked explosive before being shelved for the end of the season and Stephen Jackson had a career season before undergoing surgery.

Still, at some point, the Warriors are going to have to defend and rebound if they hope to become a legit contender.

Phoenix Suns: Oh, where to begin? The Suns first need to decide whether Amare Stoudemire is going to be part of their long-term future. If he is going to stay, Phoenix, unlike most of its lottery peers, would benefit from getting a little younger.

When two of your best players are 35 or older, you’re living on borrowed time

Kenny Smith is the NBA analyst for Yahoo! Sports. Check out "The Jet" at http://kennythejet.com and "Inside the NBA" on Thursdays on TNT. Send Kenny a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Tuesday, Apr 14, 2009