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Ranking how close rebuilding NBA teams are to playoff contention

The NBA has become a sport where there’s nearly as many teams contending for the championship as there are teams tanking for the number one pick in the NBA Draft. The teams that have been associated with the latter in recent years include the New York Knicks, Phoenix Suns, Cleveland Cavaliers, Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks, Memphis Grizzlies and Charlotte Hornets.

At the same time, it’s not all doom and gloom for some of these teams. Here’s a ranking of how close they are to playoff contention.

7) Cleveland Cavaliers

The Cavs are building through back-to-back top 10 draft picks Collin Sexton and Darius Garland, forward Cedi Osman, and forward Larry Nance Jr. While a potential backcourt of Sexton and Garland could be unique — from the standpoint of it being an essential two point guard set — Osman is a gritty two-way player, and Nance is athletic, the Cavs are years away from posing any sort of the threat to the Eastern Conference.

They need to generate more ball movement and garner defensive consistency. Meanwhile, the Cavs have to build while also finding minutes for proven veterans such as Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson. There’s a lot of uncertainty surrounding the roles of their core youngsters, and they need more depth.

6) Memphis Grizzlies

The Grizzlies stopped on a dime to trigger a rebuild that’s centered around 2019 number two overall pick Ja Morant, 2018 first rounder Jaren Jackson Jr., and center Jonas Valanciunas. Morant has the potential to be a star, Jackson is an athletic defender, and Valanciunas is one of the best centers in the NBA. However, the Grizzlies are bound to undergo severe experimentation this season.

Their offense is a mystery, as Morant will be handed the keys to head coach J.B. Bickerstaff’s offense. Their depth chart is thin, they need Jackson to have a standout sophomore season, and they play in the Western Conference — which has 10 teams who are legitimate playoff contenders who could be shoe-ins if they were in the Eastern Conference. As the Grizzlies grow, so will the West.

5) Phoenix Suns

Same thing here: as the Suns grow, so will the West. Now, Phoenix has a sturdy foundation which features the likes of Devin Booker, DeAndre Ayton, Kelly Oubre Jr., Dario Saric, and rookies Cameron Johnson and Ty Jerome. Meanwhile, they signed veteran point guard Ricky Rubio in free agency. But, all in all, the Suns have been unable to make any significant leap.

Ayton and Oubre could be in store for big seasons, but the Suns continually finish at or near the bottom of the West, struggle mightily on defense, and typically end up playing to win the NBA Draft lottery. They’ve won no more than 24 games in each of the last four seasons, and there’s a legitimate chance that they make it a half-decade of absurd loss totals. Talent gives them some optimism but little more.

4) Charlotte Hornets

The Hornets are going to roll with a youth movement appearing to be centered around Miles Bridges, Malik Monk, PJ Washington, and Willy Hernangomez. They’ll be accompanied by veterans such as Terry Rozier, Nicolas Batum, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Life post-Kemba Walker is going to be a rough ride for the Hornets, as he was the driving force of their offense. Plus, the aforementioned youngsters haven’t yet endured a breakout or astounding season.

James Borrego is looking to get young players in definitive roles, and that’s an enormous challenge. They’re in a conference with a bunch of teams looking to do the same and who have players projected to become franchise cornerstones. Charlotte is tasked with transforming players who have mostly been reserves into starting fixtures; it’s going to take some time to produce positive results.

3) Chicago Bulls

The Bulls have quietly built a young core with four or so potential franchise players; Zach LaVine averaged 23.7 points per game last season; Lauri Markkanen is one of the best big men in the sport; Wendell Carter Jr. operates well inside; Otto Porter Jr. is one of the best 3-and-D players in the NBA; rookie Coby White’s playmaking will benefit the Bulls offense from the get-to.

The Eastern Conference playoff picture is wide open, and while the Bulls likely aren’t a playoff team this season, they have the makings of a team who could be competing for such play next season. However, a lot of their players need the ball in their hands to be effective. It’s pivotal that they share the sugar and develop more chemistry. They could also use some more veterans in their rotation.

2) New York Knicks

Yes, the Knicks finished with the worst record in the NBA last season (17-65). At the same time, they have a deep young core that should improve this season. Mitchell Robinson was a shot-blocking, physical specimen in his rookie season; Kevin Knox has offensive upside; Dennis Smith Jr. and Allonzo Trier are aggressive scorers; RJ Barrett enters his rookie season with high expectations.

This is a unit that should complement itself well and added veterans such as Julius Randle, Marcus Morris, and Bobby Portis to bolster their offense. The Knicks’ largest obstacle is finding a way to bear down defensively and balancing out minutes between their array of youngsters and veterans. Per usual, the future projects to be underwhelming at the bottom of the Eastern Conference playoff picture. With a plausible turnaround from an awful 2018-19 season, the Knicks could be a playoff team sooner than most expect.

1) Atlanta Hawks

The Hawks are a dark horse playoff team in the East this season, as their young core is poised to endure a breakout campaign. Trae Young is a well-rounded scorer and playmaker coming off a remarkable rookie season; John Collins is a physical specimen who led the Hawks in points (19.5) and rebounds (9.8) per game last season; Kevin Huerter was a reliable outside shooter last season; rookies De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish round out a deep forward rotation and could be big-impact players in the near future.

Young and Collins are a killer young duo, Hunter and Reddish could have smooth starts to their NBA careers due to inheriting secondary offensive roles, and the Hawks have veterans to groom their young core such as Vince Carter, Evan Turner, and Allen Crabbe. Priority number one for head coach Lloyd Pierce is getting his team on the right track defensively. With marginal improvements on that end of the floor, the Hawks are a force to be reckoned with in the making.