NBA Teams Facing Franchise-Defining Offseasons

Adam FromalNational NBA Featured ColumnistJune 14, 2013

NBA Teams Facing Franchise-Defining Offseasons

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    While the 2013 offseason is important for bottom-feeders attempting to move into the realm of respectability and for contenders hoping to add those final pieces, it's not necessarily a summer that can either make or break teams in those categories. 

    For seven organizations, this offseason is a franchise-defining one. The next few months will both determine the immediate success of the team in question and have a significant impact on the long-term outlook. 

    Some of these squads are trying to make a single decision, or waiting on a single decision for that matter. But that one choice will set the team down an inescapable track. 

    Others are almost starting from scratch and have a ridiculous amount of cap space to play with during the free-agency period.

    The offseason is always important for each of the 30 teams in the NBA, but it's absolutely vital for these seven franchises.

     

    Note: All contract information comes from Spotrac.com.  

Atlanta Hawks

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    The Atlanta Hawks offseason may as well be a labyrinth, because there are innumerable routes the management can go down, and none of them is guaranteed to lead to the light at the end of the tunnel. 

    With only three guaranteed salaries on the books for the 2013-14 season—Al Horford, Lou Williams and John Jenkins—the Hawks have less money committed than any other team in the NBA. Even if they choose to keep DeShawn Stevenson and Mike Scott, both of whom are operating under non-guaranteed deals, they're only set to pay out $21,513,122. 

    That gives general manager Danny Ferry the ability to shape the roster in any way he desires. And again, the options are countless. 

    Seeing as Atlanta can afford any two free agents on the market, the ultimate targets are Chris Paul and Dwight Howard. Signing them would allow the Hawks to form the Association's newest superteam, as the Paul-Howard-Horford trio would rival even the Miami Heat's Big Three. Plus, just as happens with any championship-contending squad, the veterans and valuable role players, eager to play for a bird-named team, would come flocking in. 

    Even if the marquee superstars don't migrate into the ATL, the Hawks have a number of positive options. They can still pick and choose their favorite players from the free-agent class. 

    What if Atlanta decided to sign Tyreke Evans and Paul Millsap, running out an Evans-Williams-Stevenson-Millsap-Horford starting five? That would certainly be an intriguing unit, even if it's not as exciting as anything involving Paul and Howard. 

    Of course, Ferry can also choose to maintain the status quo, re-signing restricted free agents Jeff Teague and Ivan Johnson while bringing back unrestricted free agents Josh Smith and Kyle Korver. Atlanta fans might revolt, but it's certainly a possibility. 

    Then again, as Kevin Garnett might say, anything is possible in Atlanta this summer. Except snow. That's just off-limits. 

Boston Celtics

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    The Boston Celtics could choose to take one more shot at a title, or they could move firmly into rebuilding mode. General manager Danny Ainge has given no hint about which option he'll choose, and the offseason—albeit one that hasn't technically begun—is still mired in uncertainty. 

    If the C's do stay together, they'll have essentially the same roster. Just with a healthy Rajon Rondo and Jared Sullinger added back into the mix.

    Shavlik Randolph is the only player with an option on his contract, and it's unlikely that Boston declines it. As reported by ESPN, Ainge has no intention of letting him go: 

    I think Shav is a good player. He's a guy that will probably have the best chance of being with us in the future, just because he rebounds, and that was one of our weaknesses.

    Randolph was an efficient player in limited action, and he knows his role. But at the same time, he's a rather inconsequential part of this offseason, as is Chris Wilcox, the team's only free agent. 

    Everything revolves around Paul Pierce, Garnett and Doc Rivers this offseason. Once the Pierce decision comes in, the domino effect will begin, and we'll quickly know what happens with KG and Doc. 

    Pierce has another year left on his contract, but Ainge could choose to buy him out for $5 million and let him sign on with another team, like, say, the Los Angeles Clippers. If Pierce leaves, Garnett will follow him out the door via either another buyout or retirement. And if Garnett leaves, Rivers has no reason to stay and experience a rebuild. 

    Boston would be left building around Rondo and Jeff Green, and Ainge still wouldn't have much cap space to work with. Hesitant as C's fans may be to admit it, a rebuild would be in the works, and the playoffs would not. 

    However, if everyone stays in place, there's still time for a swan song, one that might result in a deep playoff run.

Dallas Mavericks

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    How many more elite years does Dirk Nowitzki have left in the tank? 

    The decline has already begun, although the German big man hasn't yet fallen off precipitously. During the 2012-13 season, admittedly one in which he needed to play his way back into shape following a bit of surgery, he averaged 17.3 points per game with a PER of 19.8. 

    It marked the first time since 1999-2000 that Dirk had averaged less than 20 points per game, and his PER dropped below 20 for the first time since that same campaign. Nowitzki can still play like a star, but it's imperative that the Dallas Mavericks surround him with talent before he's incapable of shouldering such a hefty burden for prolonged stretches. 

    This offseason, the Mavericks have the money necessary to do exactly that.

    Once O.J. Mayo inevitably turns down his $4.2 million player option, Dallas will only have $38.3 million committed for the 2013-14 season. Mark Cuban will be targeting the stars—surprise, surprise—and honing in his focus on either Howard or Paul. 

    Either would form an intriguing pairing with Dirk, but Dallas needs more than just one more player. 

    Realistically, the Mavericks are left signing a number of good, but not quite great, players to hold them over before the 2014 offseason, when Dallas has virtually no money committed at all. 

    Cuban is in a tough spot here. He can either remain patient and hold his horses until 2014 rolls around, or he can go into ultra-aggressive mode and decide not to waste a season of high-level play from his star 7-footer. 

    We don't know which route he'll choose, but since when has patience ever been used to describe the Dallas owner?

Houston Rockets

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    No one would blame the Houston Rockets if they avoided becoming major players during the 2013 offseason. 

    General manager Daryl Morey found his first star last summer when he traded Kevin Martin and Jeremy Lamb for James Harden, and the bearded shooting guard was absolutely incredible during his first season in a starting role. Surrounded by a bevy of shooters and young players, Harden led the Rockets to the playoffs, where they almost took down the Oklahoma City Thunder. 

    It was the first time that Houston had made the playoffs since 2009, and it's tough to qualify the campaign as anything but successful. 

    Again, no one would blame the Rockets if they were content and waited on their hosts of young guns to develop further. But Morey couldn't live with himself if that happened. He has to chase the big names, and he's after Howard this offseason. 

    Quite frankly, Houston is the best landing spot for D12. His playing style meshes perfectly with Kevin McHale's system, and he'd thrive while surrounded with sharpshooters and a dynamic guard like Harden. 

    But why stop there? 

    Morey can actually do the seemingly impossible and reel in both big fishes in this free-agent pond: Howard and Paul. It would take a lot of creative and involved work with the roster, but it is possible. You can check out the step-by-step guide here.

    Houston is in a rather enviable position. While this is still a franchise-defining offseason due to the potential for massive improvement, maintaining the status quo would still leave the Rockets as one of the up-and-coming teams in the Western Conference. 

Los Angeles Lakers

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    Few players have the ability to completely shape an offseason like Howard does with the Los Angeles Lakers. 

    If the league's best big man (when he's healthy) decides to return to the team, everything will work out for the Purple and Gold. Well, they hope so, at least. 

    Kobe Bryant will eventually return from his ruptured Achilles, and he'd join Steve Nash, Pau Gasol and Dwight to form that terrifying quartet once more. Karma and the law of averages both dictate that the injury imp can't possibly plague the Lake Show quite as much during the 2013-14 season. 

    Hidden in the constant turmoil and the nail-biting quest to even make the playoffs was the fact that L.A. dominated toward the end of the season. Kobe's injury and the subsequent loss to the San Antonio Spurs masked it as well. 

    The Lakers went into the All-Star break at 25-29 and finished the season on a five-game winning streak that pushed their final record to 45-37. Their win-loss record over that stretch of the season was 20-8, good for a winning percentage of 71.4. Over the course of an 82-game season, that percentage would leave them either 58-24 or 59-23. 

    58 or 59 wins would have put L.A. in either the No. 2 or No. 3 seed in the Western Conference during the 2012-13 season. 

    As they showed on a consistent basis throughout the second half of the season, these Lakers can be the dominant squad we expected, and Howard returning would give them a chance to prove it over the course of a full season. 

    At the same time, it would be absolutely disastrous if the big man left for greener pastures. L.A. has $79,631,035 on the books before re-signing Howard, and there aren't many realistic options Mitch Kupchak could use to clean the books. 

    Metta World Peace has an early termination option, one that the Lakers probably wouldn't mind if he exercises, but he's unlikely to turn down $7.7 million. Jodie Meeks has a club option for $1.5 million, but that's not going to push the team below the cap. 

    In fact, L.A.'s best option is to use the amnesty clause on one of the remaining eligible players: MWP, Steve Blake, Gasol or Bryant. And that's probably not going to make much of a difference, since only Gasol and Kobe have gaudy enough contracts to free up much space. 

    Regardless of whether or not Howard spurns the Lakers, L.A. is stuck using the mini mid-level exception and signing either its own free agents or players willing to accept minimum deals. See why Howard is so important now?

    The Lakers can't afford to let him slip away, and it's not because of his dominance on the court. It's mostly because he's their only option to remain truly competitive. 

Sacramento Kings

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    There's new ownership in charge of the Sacramento Kings, and it'll need to prove rather quickly that it's more competent than the Maloofs were in recent years. 

    Led by Vivek Ranadive, the new owners must decide the direction they want to take this team. Do they want to continue down the path started by the Maloofs, or do they want to pull the plug on this rebuilding experiment and start over from scratch? 

    We'll know rather soon based on what they do with Tyreke Evans, who enters this offseason as a restricted free agent sure to draw a lot of attention. 

    Evans enjoyed a fantastic rookie season out of Memphis, but he's never matched the expectations he set for himself. Part of the blame lies with him, as he's failed to develop anything that even resembles a consistent jumper. But part of it lies with the management as well, seeing as they've given him no consistency in the coaching approach and have yet to firmly place him into one steady role. 

    Take a look at the ridiculous splits provided by 82games.com. These numbers represent the percentage of available minutes that Evans has spent at each spot in the lineup over the years: 

      Point guard Shooting guard Small forward
    2009-10 28% 37% 1%
    2010-11 2% 45% 4%
    2011-12 2% 53% 30%
    2012-13 0% 38% 11%

    I have one major reaction to those splits: Huh??

    If Ranadive and Co. decide to keep Evans, they'll need to ensure that he finds his natural spot in the lineup. But they could also let him walk, freeing up money to build their own roster. Trading DeMarcus Cousins could accomplish this as well. 

    Sac-Town is pretty excited about the changes at the top, but the changes at the bottom will have some far-reaching impact as well.

Utah Jazz

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    The list of free agents from the Utah Jazz roster is a pretty long one. 

    While there are no restricted free agents, DeMarre Carroll, Randy Foye, Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Jamaal Tinsley, Earl Watson and Mo Williams are all hitting the open market. Jefferson, Millsap and Williams are the most important ones here, as they were all key contributors during the 2012-13 season. 

    As a result, Utah has a lot of financial flexibility. With seven players under contract, the Jazz are on the books for only $26,116,698 going into the offseason. At the moment, Kobe is set to make more money than this entire team.

    Utah, much like the Hawks, could go in a number of directions. But first, general manager Dennis Lindsey must decide how firmly he wants to commit to the youth movement.

    The Jazz could go after some big names and hope to remain fairly competitive in the Western Conference. They could very well target players who would immediately jump into the starting lineup, particularly when it comes to the frontcourt.

    They could also re-sign Millsap, Jefferson or both.

    However, doing so would block the progress of all the young players on this roster, guys who have been waiting on their chance to shine for varying amounts of time. Between Alec Burks, Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter, the Jazz have an inordinate bulk of young talent.

    Handing over the team to the young guns wouldn't lead to many wins during the 2013-14 campaign, but it would give them all a chance to develop while "earning" a better spot in the loaded 2014 NBA draft.