The final month of the NBA season is mainly about teams jockeying for playoff position. But for some, the last few weeks are just a prelude to an offseason that will help define the franchise's near-term future.
For a few teams, the biggest question mark is obvious: Will they re-sign a big-name player?
For others, there are more nuanced realities to consider.
But for each, there are more long-term roster questions than answers.
To sign or not to sign? In Philadelphia, that is the only question.
Andrew Bynum, the in-theory Philadelphia 76ers franchise player who is yet to play a game for the team, becomes a free agent this summer. Given the history of big-man salaries in this league and the number of teams that tend to act out of desperation, Bynum will likely demand a max contract.
Should the 76ers re-sign the player they traded Andre Iguodala, Nikola Vucevic, Moe Harkless and a draft pick for?
Or do they cut their losses now, let Bynum walk and live on to fight another day?
There is no right answer, but the downside of being risk-averse (becoming a terrible team that has to slowly rebuild through the draft) seems less than the gamble of handing over one-fourth of your cap space to a player who may never be healthy again (being a bad-to-middling team with little financial flexibility).
As Philadelphia tries to decide, it may want to look back at what happened after the Washington Wizards re-invested in Gilbert Arenas following a major knee injury.
In 2008, the Wizards gave their injured, popular All-Star a six-year, $111 million deal, according to the Associated Press. They wanted to retain the fan favorite and give their "big three" (Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler) a chance to fulfill its potential.
It was the wrong decision, and it was a setback from which the franchise still hasn't recovered.
The "predicament" of the Boston Celtics perfectly illustrates how silly roster building can be in the NBA.
From a success standpoint, the team has now twice overachieved in the past 12 months, and it is this play that may convince the team to stay the course—something that will likely lead to years of mediocrity.
It all started when Boston finished last season just one win away from the NBA Finals. The team struggled to beat even the Atlanta Hawks and Philadelphia 76ers in the first two rounds, but some throwback performances—and a lot of veteran savvy—helped Boston take the Miami Heat to the brink of elimination.
Even before any of this had occurred, team general manager Danny Ainge had publicly said, as reported by ESPN Boston, that he didn't want to see the Kevin Garnett era end the way the Larry Bird era had, with a GM declining to trade away the team's fading stars and instead riding with them until the wheels fell off.
But after such an uplifting playoff run, what was Ainge to do?
He kept the roster largely intact, even adding some pricey complementary pieces (Jason Terry, Courtney Lee) to help fortify another run.
But as the team struggled this season, it seemed like he should have pulled the trigger when he had the chance. Paul Pierce and a re-signed Kevin Garnett didn't look like players capable of taking Boston to any new heights. Instead, they were beginning to resemble financial millstones around the franchise's neck.
Then, after Rajon Rondo was lost for the year with a knee injury, the team started to look as good as it had since last June. It won 13 of its next 17 games, looking vastly improved from its sub-.500 play early in the year.
We have yet to see if this spark will translate to the postseason, but if if does and the Celtics crawl their way back to the Eastern Conference Finals, it could lead Ainge to give it one more go with this cast.
In a way, this highlights all that is great with the league: Fans in Boston have lived and died with this Garnett-, Pierce- and Rondo-led team since 2008, and diehards will get some enjoyment out of watching the old guard give it their best shot next season.
But in a practical sense, not dealing (at least) Pierce this summer could set the franchise back by years. After Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish fizzled out, for example, Boston missed the playoffs in six out of seven seasons. It wouldn't be shocking to see a similar stretch of futility if Ainge isn't able to restock the cupboard before it runs bare.
So, depending upon your perspective, another good playoff run could be the best or worst thing to happen to the Celtics this year.
The Brooklyn Nets are patient zero of the new collective bargaining agreement.
Ratified by the players and owners to end the lockout in December 2011, the new deal penalizes franchises that spend recklessly on payroll, both in the form of taxation and by limiting the options they have to acquire new players.
With some $85 million committed to payroll next season, according to Shamsports, there is no team that will be tested sooner by the constraints of the new CBA than the Nets.
Because they are so far over the salary cap, they may not be able to retain free-agent-to-be Andray Blatche this summer. They still have a good chance if Blatche likes his situation in Brooklyn, but Nets Daily explains why the improving power forward may head elsewhere if he wants to maximize his earning potential.
While Blatche isn't a franchise-turning talent, this possibility sums up the quandary the organization will face for years to come. If he leaves, it has very few ways to replace his production.
As we saw in the lead-up to the trade deadline—when the Nets reportedly were offering Kris Humphries, MarShon Brooks and a pick to any number of teams for any number of players—Brooklyn doesn't have much flexibility.
There is always the possibility of trading Brook Lopez or Deron Williams, but neither is likely to return any players whose immediate impact would be as great as those two. Their other key cogs (Joe Johnson and Gerald Wallace) make way too much to be attractive trade bait to other teams. And since the Nets are so far over the cap, they will only be able to sign—at most—one free-agent reserve of any consequence.
The silver lining in all this is that the Nets may already have a high-level seven-man rotation. Bumps in the road remain, but the team has improved throughout the year to the point that it may have some deep playoff runs in it over the next few seasons.
It better hope so, because there are very few solutions out there to add any difference-makers if this crew can't win in the postseason.
Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol and Mike D'Antoni are unlikely to all agree on the same basketball philosophy.
The solution here may seem obvious: Fire D'Antoni and bring in a new coach who can figure out a way to win with two elite big men.
But it's not that simple.
Once his contract ends, for example, the Los Angeles Lakers will have paid the fired Mike Brown about $11 million to not coach the team, according to Sam Amick of USA Today.
After Brown was let go, D'Antoni was brought in on a three-year, $12 million deal, according to Howard Beck of the New York Times.
The Lakers may have more money than any team other than the New York Knicks, but it seems unlikely that Jim Buss will pay two ex-coaches nearly $20 million to not sit on the bench, so D'Antoni probably isn't going anywhere.
There is also the Steve Nash factor.
Marc Stein of ESPN reported that the Lakers signed the former MVP to a three-year contract last summer, meaning he will still be owed around $18 million over the following two seasons. The team knows that Nash can be effective under D'Antoni, so bailing on the coach now would also disrupt that potential advantage.
This, plus the financial factors, makes the solution seem obvious: Re-sign Howard to a max deal this summer, then trade Gasol and hope for the best.
Of course, there is also the issue of actually re-signing Howard.
It looks like he should have all the incentives he needs (more money, a large-market spotlight, playing for an iconic franchise) to remain in Los Angeles. But if they can't convince him to stay, they will be looking at an ancient roster led by Kobe Bryant—who will make $30 million next season at age 35.
Given all this, it seems certain that Howard will have a lot of influence over what the team decides to do this season. There may be all the financial reasons in the world to keep D'Antoni, and there may be all the basketball reasons to fire D'Antoni and keep Gasol.
But since Howard holds all the cards, his opinion on these decisions might matter most.