With the regular season winding down, it's time to look ahead to next year and beyond. That's certainly what the teams buried at the bottom of the standings are doing. Through Sunday, six teams had lost at least 50 games, and three others seemed certain to hit 50 before the end of the season. Of those nine teams—the Mavericks, Timberwolves, Bucks, Pistons, 76ers, Bullets, Kings, Clippers and Celtics—six lost 50 or more last season, too. Here's a look at how quickly the have-nots can expect to become haves.
•Mavericks. Hard as it is to believe, Dallas, which had won only eight games at week's end, has a chance to make a huge leap forward next season. Of course, that would take the Mavs from pathetic to merely bad, but a leap is a leap. Center Roy Tarpley, a former winner of the NBA Sixth Man award, who was banned from the league in 1991 for violating its drug policy, is expected to apply for reinstatement and could be back in Dallas next season. The Mavs also have two first-round draft picks, and because they're virtually assured of finishing with the NBA's worst record, they are likely to have the best mathematical chance of getting the No. 1 overall choice. If they play their cards right, they could wind up adding three productive players to the two they already have, guard Jimmy Jackson and forward Jamal Mashburn. But their most pressing need is to eliminate all the bickering between coach Quinn Buckner and his players. If that doesn't happen, Buckner won't be around next season; the return of former Dallas coach Dick Motta has been rumored.
•Timberwolves. Several teams would love to have Minnesota's three-man core: forwards Christian Laettner and Isaiah Rider and guard Doug West. And the Wolves should have extra money under the salary cap to sign free agents to surround that core if forward Chuck Person, who will be an unrestricted free agent, leaves as expected. Still, it will be difficult to attract players to a team known for friction between the players (read: Laettner) and the coaching staff and a franchise that might not be in Minnesota next year.
•Bucks. Forward Vin Baker is improving as fast as any rookie in the league, and Milwaukee has a solid, patient coach in Mike Dunleavy. But it can't be a good sign when a player who came aboard as a free agent only last summer, forward Ken Norman, already says he wants to leave.
They have a youthful foundation with 26-year-old forward Terry Mills and rookie guards Lindsey Hunter and Allan Houston, but they should have traded one or both of their veteran guards, Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars, for young players or draft picks. Thomas will sure wish Detroit had gotten something for him when he moves into the Pistons' front office, perhaps next season.
•76ers. Say what you will about how much of a project 7'6" center Shawn Bradley is, the fact remains that Philly was competitive (20-29) with him but has been hopeless (1-22 through Sunday) since a knee injury ended his season on Feb. 18. However, the Sixers' recent nosedive might have been a blessing in disguise since it will give them more Ping-Pong balls in the lottery. If they can complement Bradley and forward Clarence Weatherspoon, one of the league's most underrated players, with a top pick, the 76ers might be on to something.
•Bullets. It's increasingly likely that Wes Unseld, whose seven seasons at the helm in Washington gives him the longest tenure with a team of any current NBA coach, will be gone after the season. Unseld clashed with Bullet general manager John Nash recently after Nash suggested Washington might not re-sign forward Pervis Ellison, who can become a restricted free agent. "I've read where he said we're building the team around four individuals [shooting guards Calbert Cheaney and Rex Chapman and small forwards Tom Gugliotta and Don MacLean]," Unseld said of Nash. "But those four individuals play two positions." That sums up the Bullets' problems quite neatly.
•Kings. Sacramento's second-leading scorer, forward Wayman Tisdale, can be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. Plus, no one knows when last year's first-round pick, guard Bobby Hurley, will be fully recovered from the injuries he suffered in December's car accident. On top of that, it doesn't look like the Kings will be making many shrewd off-season deals—their general manager, Jerry Reynolds, resigned in December but he's still on the job because no one has agreed to take the gig. Who would?
•Clippers. Just last season L.A. appeared to be up-and-coming, with Danny Manning, Mark Jackson, Ron Harper and coach Larry Brown. But Manning and Brown are gone, and by next season Jackson probably will be the only one of that group left. The Clippers will try to rebuild around a 34-year-old, one-dimensional player—never a good idea, even if that player is Dominique Wilkins.