As the NBA's regular season winds down and playoff-bound teams continue to maneuver in their respective conference standings, there are others who could make a significant impact in 2012-13.
No team is immune to the injury bug and some crews just have lousy coaching or poor chemistry that serve as a major hurdle for postseason status. However, some teams defy age (San Antonio, Boston) and then there are a few that generally stay healthy (Oklahoma City, Miami, Los Angeles Clippers).
Following is a list of squads that missed out on playing for a chance to hoist the Larry O'Brien Championship trophy, and have the potential to turn things around for the 2012-13 campaign:
GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS - First-year head coach Mark Jackson may have bit off more than he could chew last summer when he said the Warriors will be a playoff team. He said he didn't sign up for a long-term project and thought he could change the culture in Oakland in his first stint as a head coach. Never one to back down from a verbal confrontation on the floor during his playing days, Jackson stood by his claim, and he is actually right that the Warriors have a bright future. Jackson's optimism runs deep down the backs of David Lee, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. Monta Ellis would have been the centerpiece of an Oakland revolt, but the powers that be opted to trade the leading scorer to Milwaukee before the deadline. Both Lee and Curry are nursing ailments, and will provide Golden State with a strong 1-2 punch next season. The addition of Richard Jefferson is a nice touch, and both Dorell Wright and Nate Robinson can play significant minutes. Does Jackson need to wax poetic on his team this summer? No way, but having faith in your own philosophy is a step in the right direction.
PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS - Rumor has it that top reserve Jamal Crawford told Phoenix Suns head coach Alvin Gentry in a recent matchup that he wants to play in the desert next season. Fine. Good riddance, buddy. Although currently sidelined with a hip injury, the Blazers still have one of the best power forwards in the game in LaMarcus Aldridge and a fresh style of play under head coach Kaleb Canales, who was appointed bench boss when Nate McMillan was given his walking papers. While Crawford's 13.8 ppg will be somewhat missed, Aldridge, J.J. Hickson (who was claimed off waivers not too long ago), Nicolas Batum and Raymond Felton can easily fight for one of the last few spots in the Western Conference playoff race. If the Phoenix Suns, Utah Jazz, Houston Rockets and Denver Nuggets are doing that right now with their current roster, imagine what a Portland team at full strength can do. Maybe shelling out some dough in the offseason will get the hype going once again in the Pacific Northwest.
CLEVELAND CAVALIERS - While it's not set in stone just yet, Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving should take home NBA Rookie of the Year honors even though he's missed some time this season with injuries. Currently on the mend from a shoulder injury over the past nine games, Irving was the right choice to take over for the departed LeBron James in last year's NBA draft. With a special blend of speed and silky-smooth ball-handling skills, Irving will lead this team back to its days of grace someday, and that could be as soon as next season. Think about it: He already has a reliable power forward in Antawn Jamison, big man Anderson Varejao should be back at full strength and a handful of other contributors can make the Cavs a formidable bunch. Alonzo Gee, Tristan Thompson and Daniel Gibson are all decent ballers at the disposal of head coach Byron Scott. Once Scott gets all of his players on board, teams such as the Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks and New York Knicks will start watching over their shoulder. It's a shame Ramon Sessions was dealt to the Lakers, but this is Irving's time now.
SACRAMENTO KINGS - The Kings can make it all the way to the No. 4 or 5 seed in the Western Conference if they can just get their act together. Young center DeMarcus Cousins already proved his worth and the minds that he can control when head coach Paul Westphal was canned in favor of Keith Smart in January. Cousins posted up on his former head coach to show who was boss and nobody can blame the organization for doing so. How could you anyway? Cousins is a stud and will make the All-Star team soon. Surrounding the big man with rookie Isaiah Thomas, Marcus Thornton and Tyreke Evans could bring back memories of when Chris Webber, Vlade Divac, Peja Stojakovic, Doug Christie and Bobby Jackson stole the show out west. And, of course, health will be an issue. Thornton, the team's leading scorer at 18.6 ppg, has played in 50 of the possible 61 games. Jason Thompson and Jimmer Fredette can score the basketball, too, when the going gets tough for the usual suspects. On a side note: Failing to get a new arena in California's capital could put a damper on some things, but not the talent on the floor, wherever that floor may be.
DETROIT PISTONS - Pistons head coach Lawrence Frank could still pass as a sophomore in high school if he tried, but let's not bring up references to such poor movies as "17 Again." Playing in a division with Chicago, Milwaukee and Indiana is never an easy task even though capturing one of the last few spots in the Eastern Conference postseason race can be. Detroit can forget about bringing home a division title for a while and continue focusing on improving one step at a time. Rodney Stuckey and Brandon Knight are arguably a better backcourt duo than what lies in Philadelphia or Milwaukee. Mix in steadily improving center Greg Monroe, veteran forward Tayshaun Prince and even forward Jason Maxiell, and this lineup has plenty of upside to erase the awful memories of years past. Why couldn't they do that in 2011-12, you ask? For starters, Stuckey has been injured this season, Knight is a rookie and Prince may suffer from Randy Moss syndrome by taking some plays off. Monroe, however, is the real deal and the trio of the Georgetown product, Stuckey and Knight should strike fear into next season's opponents. Oh yeah, don't forget about 3-point specialist Ben Gordon, either.
MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES - The Timberwolves simply played themselves out of a postseason spot and probably could have stolen a few games in the first round against either the Thunder, San Antonio Spurs or Lakers. Mired in an 11-game losing streak, the Wolves' season most likely came to a close when rookie point guard and Spanish sensation Ricky Rubio suffered a torn knee ligament. Minnesota's season deflated from then on, and later All-Star forward Kevin Love sustained a concussion, forcing him to miss some time. The Love-Rubio experiment should set off some pyrotechnics in 2012-13, along with help from J.J. Barea, Nikola Pekovic and Anthony Randolph. Derrick Williams and Wes Johnson only have room to improve next season, too. The future status of forward Michael Beasley in the Twin Cities is still up in the air and the Wolves may not give him a qualifying offer for next season, leaving Beasley's options open. Beasley is fourth on the team with 11.5 ppg -- behind Luke Ridnour's 12.1 ppg. Ridnour is not a difference maker for Minnesota, but it doesn't hurt to have him around.
NEW JERSEY NETS - Even if Deron Williams believes he's too good to play for the Nets next season in their Brooklyn debut, there is still some promise for a major turnaround. Williams said he didn't ask to be in New Jersey, he was simply traded there. Being a free agent for the first time in his career is probably quite appetizing for D-Will, who can pull a Peyton Manning and leave several teams in limbo in their search for a dominant field general. Had Dwight Howard been dealt to the Nets, Williams may not have other intentions and would see what it's like to play with a real big man at this level. He never had one in Utah and the most dominating frontcourt player the Nets have is injured center Brook Lopez. Don't discredit Kris Humphries, though, because he's been consistent all season while dealing with off-the-court issues with the blessed posterior that is Kim Kardashian. What a lucky guy either way. Gerald Wallace, MarShon Brooks, Gerald Green and Anthony Morrow don't exactly have a playoff ring to it and aren't sexy picks to keep D-Will in town, but stranger things have happened. Williams in another uniform for 2012-13, however, will not be so deviating.