Lakers, Celtics, Knicks, Mavericks stuck in no-man's land under NBA's new hierarchy

Jeff Gross

There could be nine title-contending teams in the NBA next season. There will be no shortage of others actively trying to rebuild through the draft. No one wants to be stuck in the middle, but that's exactly where some of the league's most storied franchises find themselves.

Class disparity has been a persistent narrative in the NBA for some time, with the league doing its best to forge a separate-but-equal playing field whenever the Collective Bargain Agreement is up for negotiating.

Early returns suggest it has worked: this year's conference finals featured teams from small markets in San Antonio, Memphis and Indiana, and none from big markets such as New York, Chicago or Los Angeles.

But while the league constantly strives for its ideal of widespread parity, the teams themselves often have other ideas. Look no further than a frenzied offseason that has essentially split the league in half. Offseason improvements to the Nets, Rockets, Warriors and Clippers mean nine teams seem to have a legitimate stake as a title contender, while plenty of others are rebuilding with an eye on a loaded 2014 draft class.

And then, there are the teams in the middle.

No one wants to be in the NBA's version of purgatory, a land occupied by teams not good enough to compete for a title but too competent to throw themselves fully into lottery sweepstakes for a shot at Andrew Wiggins, Julius Randle or Jabari Parker. These are teams likely to tell you they can compete for the 2014 championship if some things go their way, but it's a hard argument to buy. Unlike in professional baseball and football, the most talented teams usually rise in the NBA playoffs, especially when the current crop of contenders is so deep.

What makes the upcoming season unique is a change among the powers at the top, something that cuts both ways. As new teams seem set to ascend to the top of the standings, a few traditional powers now look like a bunch either dying or in flux.

No man's land has fresh blood this year, and it comes in the form of some of the league's most storied franchises. The real intrigue comes in how it might affect their long-tenured star players after this season.

Dallas Mavericks

Mark Cuban broke up a championship team by letting Tyson Chandler walk in free agency two offseasons ago. At the time, he had dreams of landing Deron Williams or Dwight Howard. Instead, he got Monta Ellis, Jose Calderon and Samuel Dalembert.

Seemingly everything has gone wrong for the Mavs since their improbable title run in 2011. The thought of pairing another superstar with Dirk Nowitzki as he enters the twilight of his career was an appealing one, but Dallas blew the execution.

Now Nowitzki is set to become a free agent after the upcoming season, and he'll have to ask himself if staying loyal to the only team he's ever played for is more important than one last run at a championship playing for another team. It seems like Dirk isn't going to win a thing in Dallas over the next few years. That might be enough to push him out the door a year from now.

Los Angeles Lakers

The burden of expectations has been lifted from Los Angeles, but that doesn't mean this season will be any more enjoyable for the Lakers. When Dwight Howard bolted in free agency, so too did any faint hope of the Lakers competing in the Western Conference.

Nick Young. Chris Kaman. Jordan Farmar. This isn't going to be fun. It's hard to envision a scenario in which the Lakers are anything but mediocre. But because these are the Lakers -- a team that's finished under .500 just three times in the last 37 years -- they aren't allowed to do a proper rebuild. Instead, the focus will be on reloading through a potentially star-studded 2014 draft class.

While the idea sounds nice in theory, pulling it off is another matter.

Superstars want to play with other great players now, but the Lakers' roster and salary cap realities make the notion of luring LeBron James and/or Carmelo Anthony to L.A. appear unrealistic. The Lakers have zero good, young players and don't have a first-round pick in 2015 or 2016. There aren't many conceivable ways the roster can improve, save for the big free agent signings that seem so unlikely.

Kobe Bryant will be 36 years old entering the 2014-15 season, and has repeatedly stated he wants to play a few more years with the hope of winning a sixth championship. He'll have to ask himself the same question as Dirk: is another shot at a title worth leaving the Lakers over?

Don't laugh: Michael Jordan finished in Washington, Willie Mays finished as a Met, Peyton Manning currently plays for the Broncos. Superstars leave all the time when it's apparent they can't win with the only club they've ever known. Kobe could be next.

Boston Celtics

The Celtics' future seems brighter than any team on this list. They acquired three future first-round draft picks for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. They made a bold coaching hire in Butler's Brad Stevens. In Rajon Rondo, Jeff Green and Avery Bradley, they have talented young players who double as appealing trade assets.

But unless Rondo is traded (still in play), it's hard to imagine Boston being bad enough to have a real shot at a top-five selection in the 2014 draft. The Nets' pick will be outside of the lottery and potentially out of the top 25. It's certainly possible general manager Danny Ainge can turn things around quickly in Boston, but right now it seems like the Celtics might be stuck in the middle of the conference for a season or two.

New York Knicks

The Knicks are, by most reasonable projections, the fifth-best team in the Eastern Conference. There's no shame in that. But with the Heat, Nets, Pacers and Bulls in front of them, it's hard to see New York coming out of the East next season. The addition of Andrea Bargnani won't change much. Their hope for internal improvement is a burden that rests on guard Iman Shumpert and the health of Amar'e Stoudemire.

Stoudemire's presence is the real killer for New York. He's on the books for the next two seasons, making over $55 million. The Knicks can't use the one-time amnesty clause on him because they already let Chauncey Billups go in order to sign Tyson Chandler.

Carmelo Anthony's prime is fleeting. He'll be 30 years old by the time the 2014-15 season starts and he could opt out and sign an extension after this coming season. Anthony always wanted to play in New York, a place he considers home, but he also probably wants to win a title. Can he afford to keep sacrificing years of his prime in hopes of the Knicks luring another star-level player or two?

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