NBA Teams Facing Franchise-Defining Offseason
Aside from the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs, the offseason is already underway for the bulk of NBA teams. And for some squads, this particular summer will affect an entire franchise's direction for the foreseeable future.
Big-name superstars are either on the trading block or could change locations in free agency, while other teams are facing a franchise makeover unlike ever before. For various reasons, this offseason is shaping up to be as polarizing as any since The Decision four years ago.
Speaking of that 2010 spectacle, LeBron James and his Big Three cohorts could all opt for free agency as soon as July 1. However, those decisions likely won't be made until after the Miami Heat's fourth consecutive Finals run comes to an end.
The star power of Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving and Carmelo Anthony will surely dominate the headlines this summer, and the Donald Sterling drama will certainly play a part as well. Ahead, we break down the teams whose 2014 summer months will directly impact the years ahead.
Honorable Mention: Miami Heat
LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh can all opt to enter free agency following this postseason. This is also true for the next summer, and all three contracts would expire before the summer of 2016 if no opt-out clauses are exercised.
Basically, anything can happen.
This summer, barring a Donald Sterling-level organizational flame-out between now and July, it's difficult to see any of the Big Three exiting South Beach, regardless of this season's fate. The team has made the NBA Finals in every postseason since the three assembled, and has hardly faced any legitimate competition in the East during that time.
It's reasonable that any of the three could opt out of their contracts this summer, simply to sign a longer-term deal with the Heat this summer. Though it's hard to imagine Wade garnering $20 million a season at this point—which is what he's locked in for through 2016—and Bosh recently spoke about his desire to remain in Miami. Bosh spoke with ESPN Radio's Dan Le Batard earlier in the playoffs (via The Palm Beach Post's Jason Lieser):
Bosh was asked about his upcoming opportunity to leave in free agency during an appearance on The Dan Le Batard Show this afternoon and said, “Yeah, I mean, I don’t want to go anywhere. I like it here. It’s Miami. Everybody wants to come here. Yeah.”
When asked if he would accept a below-market offer from the Heat, he answered, “If that’s what it takes.”
This leaves James as the only semi-realistic option of a Big Three exit, and by that we mean hardly realistic at all.
The New York Daily News' Frank Isola speculated in February about a hypothetical Big Four next season, where James, Wade and Bosh would all negotiate new, discounted contracts to make room for Carmelo Anthony under the salary cap.
As far as Miami's future goes, LeBron summed it up best when he spoke to ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst earlier this season.
"I think teams understand that you need three guys to do big things; the "big three" thing is pretty cool if you can get it," he said. "To keep teams like this together, you may have to take even less because of the new CBA. I guess we'll find out."
Los Angeles Clippers
For the first offseason in 30 years, the Los Angeles Clippers won't be headed by Donald Sterling. That is, quite literally, franchise-altering.
With the news of former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer buying the Clips for a record $2 billion, first reported by James Rainey of the Los Angeles Times, Sterling's rule seems to finally be coming to an end. With that, changes are surely looming over the entire franchise.
The on-court product isn't in need of much change. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin serve as excellent cornerstones, while DeAndre Jordan and J.J. Redick make their starting five one of the NBA's best. They'll likely attempt to add an improved reserve squad, particularly in the frontcourt—no, Byron Mullens and Glen Davis won't cut it this July—but the Clippers project to be a top seed in the West next season again.
But beyond the players, coaches and basketball executives, the Clips are in dire need of an organizational shakeup, after being a national-news mainstay over recent months—and not for any on-court triumph.
Bleacher Report's D.J. Foster recently ran through a couple of changes that Ballmer should consider to help rejuvenate the franchise, and few would work to cleanse the organization of all things Sterling than an all-out identity swap. Foster wrote:
It's a good move for a few reasons. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin can sell just about any jersey, but a fresh one with a new logo, name and color scheme? That's an easy way to recoup some of that $2 billion spent by creating a merchandise boom.
It would be fitting, if nothing else, to start a new regime and era with a different name. There are some positive moments associated with former Clippers teams, believe it or not, but there are other ways to remember those then to carry on with the status quo. Giving the franchise a facelift is the way to go.
They've been competitive over the last few seasons, but Sterling's dark cloud that has loomed over the franchise has always seemed to put a damper on things for those who've been aware of his antics.
They aren't facing many basketball uncertainties any time soon, with Doc Rivers leading things and Paul, Griffin and Redick each locked up through 2017. But this summer will tell us a lot about the Clippers' new direction, sans Sterling, moving forward.
The Minnesota Timberwolves' marriage with Kevin Love has been on the rocks ever since he signed an extension with the team in 2012. That four-year extension contained an opt-out clause after Year 3, which Yahoo Sports' Kelly Dwyer discussed shortly after the contract was signed during the 2011-12 season.
First, everyone applaud Love and the Timberwolves for signing what could turn into a four-year, $62 million contract extension. Then, everyone freak out as we realize that Love has an opt-out clause after the third year of the deal, should the next three seasons of Love's career resemble anything like his first three seasons with the Timberwolves.
Maybe not so surprisingly, the Wolves still haven't reached the playoffs during Love's NBA career. Even post-David Kahn, the speculation was always that Love would at least test the waters by using that opt-out clause in 2015.
Now, it appears this separation could come even sooner.
ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne and Marc Stein reported last month that Love intends to test the trade market, as he plans on bolting Minny via free agency next summer if he isn't moved. With Love's future in Minneapolis essentially dead, Flip Saunders' front office has one viable option this offseason or shortly thereafter: Trade Love to a contender in return for a major rebuilding haul (see Denver Nuggets, Carmelo Anthony), so as to not make this a drawn-out sideshow next season.
Unless Saunders believes he can woo Love into staying by making an attractive coaching hire and upgrading the roster dramatically in short order, moving on from Love and reaping the benefits of his trade value should be the first priority.
Depending on the deal, the T-Wolves will be facing other issues soon after. Ricky Rubio is set to be a restricted free agent in 2015, and could also look to flee Minnesota if the situation doesn't improve (side note: They haven't finished above .500 in 10 years).
If Love isn't moved this summer or early next season, the Love dramatics are sure to pull attention away from the team. If he's moved for a mediocre package, the franchise's future could be doomed even more than it already has been.
Saunders isn't in an easy position by any means, but whatever decision he makes will certainly impact Minnesota's short-term and long-term chances.
New York Knicks
In case you haven't heard, Carmelo Anthony can opt out and become a free agent this summer. In related news, the New York Knicks weren't good this season, and probably won't be very good next year, with essentially an identical roster locked in for 2014-15.
Luckily, they implanted seemingly supernatural basketball figure Phil Jackson into the situation as team president to try to help the Knicks not be so bad at basketball all the time. That plan may or may not include bringing Anthony back this offseason.
Jackson has said that he's expecting 'Melo to sacrifice some salary to help the Knicks spend in 2015, when they may be able to pair him with a free-agent star a la Rajon Rondo. If that's not the case, and Anthony pushes New York for a max deal—which isn't likely, since he knows it would hamper New York's ability to help him win—all signs are pointing to Phil moving on.
“I’m not losing sleep over it but I’m definitely concerned about the idea of a guy going into free agency,” Jackson said, according to Frank Isola of the New York Daily News. "We will survive it. That’s what I’ve said and we’ll go forward. But this is a guy, we recognize his talent, and his skill is the kind of skill and talent that gets you through playoff games..."
Jackson also revealed that he's attempted convincing Anthony to "opt in" to next season, and delay his free agency by a year, to help him better assess the Knicks' new situation, and to help the team financially next summer. Anthony told Jackson that he'd "think about it," which would be a major diversion from most comments he's made this season—most of which have revolved around this year's free agency.
Jackson also outlined to Anthony that James Dolan's previous strategy of simply maxing out the best available players, and locking rosters in for multiple years at a time, isn't necessarily the team's gameplan any longer. Per Isola:
(The) reality of how to do that involves Carmelo’s compliance. It may not be a $20 million player, $16 million player, $12 million player — it may be a 10 million dollar ballplayer. But that’s the way things work out now. There’s a possibility we can do that. That’s kind of the way we looked at it with Carmelo, and he’s willing to do that because he wants to win a championship. That’s not the end of our appeal and that’s not the end of our negotiations with him. But that’s a point of emphasis that he opened the door and I stuck my foot in it and said this is what we can do.
Jackson also said that he expects the Knicks to maintain some cap flexibility into the summer of 2016.
Whether Anthony stays or flees—and whether the team nets a sign-and-trade haul if he does leave—obviously impacts the team's short-term future. But looking further down the line, it only has a finite effect on Phil's plan.
After 2015, Amar'e Stoudemire, Andrea Bargnani and Tyson Chandler all come off the books for New York. As much as Anthony no longer being part of the roster hurts the team, his not being on the payroll helps it. Next year, that's another roughly $20 million that can be spent elsewhere. And while his talent isn't easily replaceable, the salary he commands can easily be redistributed to three or four solid building blocks moving forward.
What has a more long-term impact on the team is where Jackson plans on finding his first head coaching hire after getting spurned by his former subject, Steve Kerr.
Phil will likely reach into his widespread inner circle of candidates to coach the team next year, with Derek Fisher leading the way in speculation points. But whoever is hired will presumably be an extension of Jackson himself, and a coach Phil can mold in his own image—modeling Pat Riley's handling of Erik Spoelstra.
Just when it looked like rock bottom was within shouting distance once again, the basketball gods handed the Cleveland Cavaliers the NBA equivalent of a get-out-of-jail-free card—once again.
That card, of course, is the first overall pick in the most lauded draft since the historic 2003 class.
Whether it be Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid or Jabari Parker, Cleveland will be adding one of the generation's more promising pieces to Kyrie Irving—perhaps the game's most intriguing young point guard.
That pick is only the first factor contributing to this offseason's importance in Cleveland. The second is Irving, who has already weathered his fair share of Cavs-esque turbulence over his brief career.
In just his third season, reports about the then 21-year-old point guard's desire to leave Cleveland emerged, leaving Cavs fans with the most unsettling form of deja vu to date. In January, ESPN.com's Chad Ford wrote in an online chat that Irving "has been telling people privately he wants out."
Irving is under team control on his rookie contract for three more years, which makes it difficult for him to force a trade. But with Mike Brown out as coach, new general manager David Griffin in place and with the first pick this summer, it's possible that Irving's outlook with Cleveland may have changed.
Which ties in the third piece of the puzzle for the Cavaliers this summer: Of course, LeBron James.
James may opt out this summer and enter free agency, and Cleveland will be one of the teams with sufficient cap room to sign him.
A LeBron-Cavs reunion tour has been speculated about ever since King James decided to leave his home state for South Beach. But now, for the first time, there's actually a slight possibility of it becoming reality.
It's still unlikely that James goes anywhere this offseason, but potentially teaming with Irving and Wiggins, Parker or Embiid would be worth considering if James is interested in returning to his first NBA home with eyes on leading a younger group to championship heights.
It sounds cute and tidy. The storybook twist in James' career arc fit for Hollywood.
But ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst, who has covered LeBron throughout the entirety of his career, seems to find it unlikely that things will come full circle this offseason:
The idea of James trading in playing with teammates in their 30s for up-and-coming players in their 20s where he wouldn't have to carry as much of a load is a conversation starter for sure. But James is in a special zone that few people ever reach in any profession -- he doesn't have to compromise on anything and he can demand the premium.
Never lose sight of that reality; you can be assured that James will not.
It's reasonable to believe that he feels his work is unfinished in Cleveland, but at 29, LeBron still has several prime seasons left to compete for rings with a bona fide Heat roster. The counterargument to that would be that any team James plays for instantly morphs into a title contender, which is largely true. It's what leaves this door constantly cracked open.
With a new GM, a new coach on the way, a budding star at point guard, Wiggins, Embiid or Parker in the pipelines and loads of cap room to spend (and, apparently, luck forever on its side), this summer is shaping up to be the most important one Cleveland has faced in some time.
Let's see if the Cavs can surprise us and put it all together.