Four Corners: Out-of-contention teams and storylines to watch

New Sacramento Kings head coach George Karl addresses the media. (Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports)
New Sacramento Kings head coach George Karl addresses the media. (Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports)

With the 2015 All-Star Game now behind us, it's time to turn our attention to the two-month sprint to the finish of the NBA's regular season. Over the next couple of days, we'll take a look at several issues of interest for the stretch run and beyond.

Next up: Which out-of-contention team or storyline will you be paying closest attention to down the stretch?

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Kelly Dwyer: George Karl taking over the Sacramento Kings. The Kings won't make the playoffs this year, as has been their custom since a sound showing in the 2006 postseason. If current winning percentages in the Western Conference hold up, Sacramento would have to win 27 of 30 games in order to move beyond April.

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New coach George Karl has certainly engineered some quick turnarounds in his time. In his run as rookie coach with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 1985, he took an overachieving Cavs team to their first playoff berth in seven years. A couple of years later, in his first season with Golden State, he took the Warriors to their first postseason in 10 years. Karl led his first Seattle SuperSonics team to a 27-15 record to finish the year after the previous two coaches split the team’s first 20 games. He engineered the Milwaukee Bucks' first playoff run in eight years in his first season in Wisconsin, and he helped the Denver Nuggets finish out the 2004-05 season on a white hot 32-8 run after inheriting a 17-25 team.

The obvious pattern, which also includes championships in the CBA and coaching with Real Madrid in the late 1980s, pegs Karl as a guy who gets almost immediate results. These Kings won’t be making the playoffs this year, but splitting the team’s final 30 games wouldn’t be out of the question, right? Sacramento has lost 21 out of 28 games under former “interim coach for the rest of the season, we swear” Tyrone Corbin, but they did manage an 11-13 mark under Michael Malone earlier this season, and that was with DeMarcus Cousins missing nine games due to illness during that spell.

The question from here, however, is whether or not the Kings want to finish the season on too hot a streak.

Securing a middling lottery pick is not going to put Sacramento over the top, but the Kings have to make some sort of impact along those lines. Save Cousins in 2010, the Kings haven’t really made hay on any of their recent selections. Jimmer Fredette (taken in 2011) isn’t with the team after 2 1/2 unremarkable years. Neither is 2012 pick Thomas Robinson. Even 2009 selection Tyreke Evans, who won Rookie of the Year, was allowed to engineer a sign-and-trade with the New Orleans Pelicans.

Those whiffs should be rightfully pegged on former general manager Geoff Petrie, but with new GM Pete D’Alessandro in charge, the last two drafts haven’t exactly worked out. Guard Ben McLemore had a misspent rookie season and is working through a still-dodgy second year, and 2014 lottery pick Nik Stauskas is shooting 32.8 percent.

The problem here is that, due to Petrie’s brief obsession with J.J. Hickson, the Kings owe their first round pick to the Chicago Bulls this year (or next) if it falls out of the top 10. A 14-16 end to the season would put Sacramento about in line with the Nuggets and Boston Celtics' projected final records, and both Boston and Denver have been active in attempts to either ship out (or eventually buy out) their best players in rebuilding years. Then there's the lottery to consider, with no guarantees that the Kings will stick at their projected draft spot.

The stylistic concerns considering Karl and Cousins shouldn’t be a factor. Unless DeMarcus has fully given up or Karl has suddenly become twice as stubborn, the team should work well together. The new coach could do solid enough work with hybrid position types like Rudy Gay and Darren Collison, and perhaps McLemore could turn a corner. The Kings, active as always on the trade market, could make a splash before Thursday afternoon.

Due to the sins of the previous administration, though, would any of this help?

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Ben Rohrbach: The quest for the No. 1 pick in the 2015 NBA draft. As fascinating as the three-team race for the West’s No. 8 spot and the six-team chase for the East's final two playoff seeds may be, there’s a four-team battle brewing at the bottom of the standings that’s equally intriguing.

On Dec. 1, when the Philadelphia 76ers owned an 0-17 record, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that Brett Brown’s bunch would have the most ping-pong balls in the hopper come June, but somehow three other teams have stumbled their way into the NBA basement.

The 76ers and Wolves are two teams in the hunt for the No. 1 pick. (Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports)
The 76ers and Wolves are two teams in the hunt for the No. 1 pick. (Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports)

After dealing Kevin Love for a pair of developing No. 1 overall picks over the summer, the Minnesota Timberwolves (11-42) are no surprise at the bottom of the West standings. But the NBA’s two largest media markets — New York and L.A. — producing a pair of teams tanking their way to 40 losses at this point in the season comes as a bit of a shock, even if the circumstances that have led them here make their inadequacy understandable.

From a non-tanking standpoint, the Timberwolves remain the most appealing member of this foursome. Will Andrew Wiggins continue his quest for the Rookie of the Year award? What becomes of Shabazz Muhammad’s development after his oblique injury? Can Ricky Rubio climb the league’s point guard rankings again? Is Zach LaVine an alien? How will the Gorgui Dieng-Nikola Pekovic center dynamic play out? All compelling questions.

The Los Angeles Lakers (13-40) find themselves in their predicament after Byron Scott rolled out Kobe Bryant for 24 shots in 37 minutes per game on a bum shoulder in the month of November — a strategy that culminated in the five-time champion leaping over Michael Jordan on the all-time scoring list and landing in the infirmary with a torn rotator cuff. Similar season-ending injuries to Steve Nash (back) and Julius Randle (leg) have helped Scott challenge the 1957-58 Minneapolis Lakers (19-53) for the franchise record in futility.

And then there are the New York Knicks (10-43), who, after dealing Tyson Chandler this summer, have taken extraordinary measures to ensure the worst record in their history. And that’s saying something for an organization that’s made its way out of the first round once since the turn of the century. Since New Year’s Day, Phil Jackson has waived Samuel Dalembert, sold J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert for a song, bought out Amar’e Stoudemire and reportedly ruled out Carmelo Anthony (knee) for the remainder of the season.

Still, after watching the Sixers (12-41) start four guys who weren’t in the league last season along with the well-traveled Luc Richard Mbah a Moute against the Boston Celtics a couple weeks ago, I wouldn’t rule out GM Sam Hinkie signing folks off the street to 10-day contracts in his Robert Ballard-esqueexpedition at the bottom of the NBA’s tank.

It remains to be seen who is most willing to sell their soul for the best odds of drafting Jahlil Okafor in June, but at least three of these four teams are already trying like the devil.

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Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine and the rest of the young Wolves bear watching. (Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports)
Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine and the rest of the young Wolves bear watching. (Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports)

Eric Freeman: The woeful but watchable West. The bottom of the league was virtually without interest for the past several seasons, thanks in part to the guidance of general managers looking to raze rosters and rebuild over the long haul. The good news now is that many of those teams are beginning to take form, or are at least far enough along to have found several young players worthy of our time. It’s not clear how many of these teams have been successful, but they have achieved a base level of watchability. They are not diamonds in the rough, but really promising lumps of coal buried in a forest. The lack of certainty over their value is half the fun.

Most of these teams reside in the West, if only because a team can stink in the East and still challenge for the playoffs. The Timberwolves have had an objectively rough year with the loss of Kevin Love and long-term injury to Ricky Rubio, but the play of Rookie of the Year favorite Andrew Wiggins and presence of several other high-excitement youngsters (hello, Zach LaVine!) makes them an enjoyable team despite it all. The Utah Jazz are a little further along in their process but are similarly in search of their identity. Luckily, the roster is full of intriguing players coming into their own, including Rudy “The Stifle Tower” Gobert.

Plus, a team doesn’t even have to be progressing to offer something of value. Take the Kings, perpetually caught between rebuilding and believing that they’re just one uninspiring move away from contention. Yet this directionless outfit still boasts All-Star center Cousins, one of the most exciting and fascinating players of the past decade.

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Dan Devine: How the Jazz finish the season. For starters, there's the intrigue surrounding Enes Kanter, who reportedly wants out but will stay put unless a suitor offers at least "a good young player and a first-round pick," according to Yahoo's Adrian Wojnarowski. If nobody blows Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey away, will Kanter's frustration boil over? Or will he step up his play as a means of auditioning for teams that might be interested in a still-just-22-years-old big who can score inside, clear the glass and step out to about 18 feet, even if he's a defensive liability?

Will one of Utah's young point guards take a step forward? (Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports)
Will one of Utah's young point guards take a step forward? (Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports)

There's more beyond Kanter, though. Quiet as it's kept, Utah's been pretty frisky. They've gotten strong play from Gordon Hayward, who's looked more max-worthy than many expected, averaging 19.7 points, five rebounds and 4.3 assists per game on 46/39/81 shooting. Derrick Favors continues to improve, and it looks like he could pair with rising shot-swatter Rudy Gobert to form the stout frontcourt pairing Jazz brass have long sought.

Utah posted the league's fourth-worst defensive efficiency mark before the All-Star break, but have tightened up considerably — 101.9 points allowed per 100 possessions, equivalent to the Chicago Bulls' No. 13 mark — when Favors and Gobert play together. Can coach Quin Snyder coax further defensive improvement out of his young squad with those two bigs along the backline?

After slumping to 25th in points scored per possession last season, the Jazz are back to the middle-of-the-pack in their maiden voyage in Snyder's motion offense, but the point guard spot remains an open question. Will Trey Burke or Dante Exum take a meaningful step forward and stake a claim to the starting gig?

Utah's also got questions to resolve on the wing. Rodney Hood, who profiled as a shooter coming out of Duke, has seen his rookie season derailed by injuries. Midseason signee Elijah Millsap hasn't shown much offensively, but has flashed intriguing defensive potential. Can either demonstrate enough to merit increased consideration next season, after injured Alec Burks returns from shoulder surgery?

Utah's got legitimate young talent, potentially intriguing pieces and a pretty interesting coach. How the Jazz finish up could go a long way toward determining how likely it is that they'll climb out of the basement in the near future.

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