8 NBA Teams That Can't Afford to Miss During 2014 Offseason
While the San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat battle for basketball supremacy, the rest of the NBA is back at their drawing boards conjuring up ways to improve this offseason. For a handful of those teams, the need to get everything right this summer is stronger than in previous years.
It isn't very often that the stars align like they will this summer. This year's draft is projected to be the strongest and deepest it's been in quite some time. Meanwhile, depending on who decides to opt out, free agency could be equally as impactful.
For those handful of teams, desperation has set in. This has to be the year that they make the most of the talent that's up for grabs and turn things around. Quite frankly, these teams can't afford to miss during the offseason.
A couple things to keep in mind before we go forward. Some of the teams on this list are in the market for a new head coach. That decision isn't being factored into this piece. This is strictly about each team's need to get things right in trades, free agency and the draft.
As always, crowd participation is encouraged. If there's a team you feel missed the cut, or if you want to plead your case for why your team shouldn't be on here, feel free to drop a line down in the comments section.
The Cleveland Cavaliers will be picking first overall for the third time in four years. Whether you believe the team should trade the pick for a proven star or not is another debate for another time. Regardless, it is imperative that the Cavs do better with the top spot than they did last year.
Under normal circumstances, it would be too early to call last year's No. 1 pick, Anthony Bennett, a bust. However, we live in a social media age when everyone jumps to conclusions on players far sooner than they should.
Bennett's rookie season was pretty awful—he averaged 4.2 points, 3.0 rebounds and 0.2 blocks per game in 2013-14—and that should be a cautionary tale for the Cavs in case they decide to think outside the box again this year. With elite talents such as Duke's Jabari Parker, and Kansas' Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins available, Cleveland theoretically can't go wrong with the top pick.
For the Cavs' sake, they better hope they don't. The team is in that weird limbo where it has the talent to be a playoff squad yet still manages to end up in the lottery. Cleveland traded picks for Luol Deng and Spencer Hawes midseason in an effort to make a late playoff push.
We saw how well that worked out.
With star point guard Kyrie Irving due for an extension in the near future, Cleveland needs to learn from its past mistakes and improve immediately. Beyond nailing the first pick, they must also be savvy in free agency as well.
The Cavs have been very lucky when it comes to getting the ping-pong balls to go their way, but they can't continue to rely on the lottery gods to bail them out of their offseason mistakes.
New Orleans Pelicans
The New Orleans Pelicans pushed all of their chips to the center of the table last summer in an effort to get out of the lottery and back into the playoffs. They traded Nerlens Noel and this year's first-round pick for All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday. They also signed Tyreke Evans to a big contract.
As ambitious as those moves were, the result remained the same. When the playoffs rolled around, New Orleans was on the outside looking in.
In its defense, injuries depleted the roster and the team barely had anyone of note by the final weeks of the season. Holiday broke a bone in his leg. Forward Ryan Anderson suffered a serious neck injury. Even superstar Anthony Davis missed a few games with various ailments.
Now, with Davis' star quickly rising, the Pellies must do what they can to avoid missing the playoffs for a fourth straight year. The biggest step forward in that direction will be finding a team willing to take on the two years and nearly $31 million left on oft-injured guard Eric Gordon's contract.
With no draft picks and limited cap space, ridding themselves of Gordon's albatross deal will help out tremendously. From there, they must fill holes at small forward and center.
The Pelicans have the talent to be a playoff team if everyone comes back healthy (a big if). Evans and Holiday could be a great backcourt. Davis is already an All-Star at 21 years old, and Anderson is one of the game's best shooting big men.
They aren't that far away. However, while New Orleans is young, the window of opportunity won't stay open forever. Sooner rather than later, there won't be any excuses to fall back on for the team's failures.
Los Angeles Lakers
This one could have gone either way. On one hand, the Los Angeles Lakers' roster is an open book. Beyond Kobe Bryant and what's left of Steve Nash, there aren't many notable names on the roster. The team could commit to a full rebuild and start from scratch.
On the other hand, Bryant is the league's ultimate competitor. If you think he's down for toiling in mediocrity while the team gets its act together, you don't know the Black Mamba. When asked if he had the patience to wait for future free agents, this was Bryant's response in March, per Beto Duran of ESPN Radio LA's tweet:
"NO. Not one lick...oh lets just go into next year and suck. Nope."
We also remember Bryant taking to Twitter in April to express his own disapproval with this season.
The good news for Bryant is L.A. has the seventh pick in the draft and a ton of cap space to chase free agents. It'll have even more money to burn if Nash decides to call it a career. The bad news is the Lakers play in the Western Conference and, even with a few high-profile additions, a return to glory isn't guaranteed.
Still, that shouldn't deter the Lakers from making the most of their considerable resources. At No. 7, the team could land a solid talent like Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart or Indiana forward Noah Vonleh. Then, the Lakers could bring back Bryant's pal Pau Gasol and/or another piece like Deng.
Suddenly, this Lakers team would look less like the train wreck from last season.
Bryant may never win the sixth ring he's been chasing to keep up with Michael Jordan. He'll be 36 years old in August and just completed his 18th season in the NBA. He's had his last two seasons cut short by serious leg injuries. There's just not much left in the tank.
That being said, the Lakers owe it to Bryant to give it one last go. Rebuilding is understandable, but who wants to be the one to tell that to Kobe?
The Indiana Pacers are in a weird spot. They have everything you'd want in a championship contender, except for the ability to get by the Miami Heat. Indiana's past three postseasons have been cut short by LeBron James and company, with the last two coming in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Miami is Indiana's kryptonite. To use a boxing reference, the Heat are the Vernon Forrest to the Pacers' Sugar Shane Mosley.
This year was especially disappointing. Lance Stephenson emerged as one of the league's most improved players as well as a potential star (albeit a quirky one). Paul George continues to be one the sport's best players, and Indiana nabbed the top seed in the East.
In the end, it didn't matter. The result was the same.
So, how do you improve an already elite team?
The Pacers have two key decisions to make this summer. First, they must decide whether to keep Stephenson after a year filled with ups and downs. While he stepped up his game considerably this season, Stephenson also got into fights with teammates, and his antics against the Heat drew the ire of team president Larry Bird, according to USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt.
According to CBS Sports' Matt Moore, despite the trolling, Larry Legend still wants to bring back Stephenson.
"I think his ceiling is what he wants it to be," said Bird, the Pacers' president of basketball operations. "I always want him back. You just don't let talent like that walk away if you can help it."
Next, the team must decide what to do with center Roy Hibbert. The defensive stalwart had far too many disappearances during the 2014 playoffs, and the team needs him to be its rock in the middle. Hibbert's camp, according to ESPN's Marc Stein, "wouldn't exactly oppose" a trade out of Indy.
"There is said to be some thought on both sides -- management and Hibbert's -- that a fresh start would be beneficial for everyone after the big man's second-half decline." Stein wrote.
Hibbert is owed nearly $31 million for the next two seasons, which makes him tough to move. Without Hibbert and Stephenson, though, this is a completely different Pacers team.
If Indiana thinks it's been tough getting by Miami in the past, wait until it tries to beat the Heat after having to rebuild around George sooner than anticipated. It is imperative that the Pacers guess right on the two most important decisions of their offseason.
The Chicago Bulls are in a good enough place that they could stand pat and still be one of the best teams in the East next season. The (hopefully) healthy return of former MVP point guard Derrick Rose makes them better.
Joakim Noah filled in magnificently during Rose's absence. The big man won Defensive Player of the Year as well as earned First Team All-NBA and All-Defensive Team honors. Jimmy Butler didn't have the breakout some had hoped, but he still showed signs of being a capable two-way player.
The Bulls also have one of the league's best coaches and defensive minds in Tom Thibodeau.
So, why is Chicago on this list?
Because, if the Bulls make the right moves this summer, they could be more than just a really good playoff team. With cap space and two first-round picks in this year's draft, Chicago could improve dramatically this offseason.
The first move Chicago should make is ridding itself of forward Carlos Boozer, either via trade or the amnesty provision. Boozer is still a formidable presence in the post, but he's not worth the $16.8 million he's owed next season and the Bulls have a better alternative in Taj Gibson.
Next, the team must make a run at New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony, who can opt out of his deal with the Knicks prior to next season. While Noah and Rose alone make the Bulls pretty good, 'Melo makes them elite. His offensive ability is the perfect remedy for a team that finished dead last in scoring last year (93.7 points per game).
Whether the Bulls clear cap space to sign him outright or offer trade assets for him, bringing Anthony to the Windy City should be the team's top priority. He's the missing piece. A starting five of Noah, Gibson, Anthony, Butler and Rose could leapfrog Indiana and give Miami a serious run in the Eastern Conference.
Rose's return from a second serious knee injury will be a nice boost. The addition of Anthony, however, puts this team over the top. It can stay put and be very good or it can swing for the fences and be elite.
New York Knicks
Phil Jackson has always been a thinking man. He seems to have the innate ability to read a situation and decipher the best course of action quicker than most basketball minds.
So, you'd like to think the Zen Master wouldn't have agreed to become the New York Knicks team president if he didn't have a plan for Anthony's possible free agency this summer.
The 'Melo situation is the only story that matters for the Knicks. If he stays, the focus shifts to finally building a winner around the former Syracuse star. If he leaves, a lot will ride on what New York gets back as compensation.
As you might guess, there will be quite the market for one of the game's best pure scorers. As mentioned earlier, the Chicago Bulls will definitely be in the running. The Houston Rockets will also come calling, as Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski reported back in March.
There could also be other intriguing suitors waiting in the dark, such as the Charlotte Hornets and the Boston Celtics.
Regardless of the decision 'Melo makes, Jackson has his work cut out for him. The Knicks don't have much to entice Anthony to stay. The roster is filled with players that are either old, overpriced or both. They don't have a proven coach (or any coach, at press time). All they have is Jackson's vision and the allure of Madison Square Garden.
Even if Anthony leaves, could Jackson get fair value in a sign-and-trade? What's the going rate for one of the 10 best players in the NBA? Would a package from Houston headlined by Chandler Parsons and Terrence Jones be enough? How about international prospect Nikola Mirotic and a slew of picks from Chicago?
The route that Anthony inevitably chooses will shape Knicks basketball for years to come. That sentence alone makes this one of the most important offseasons in team history.
The New York Knicks aren't the only team in the Big Apple that is in for an interesting summer. The Brooklyn Nets have some critical decisions to make as well.
It all starts with last year's big additions, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. Pierce is a free agent this summer and could (read: should) realize that his chances at contending for one last title reside elsewhere. As for Garnett, the big man could (read: should) finally decide to hang it up. He has one year left on his contract, which will pay him $12 million next season.
That could leave Brooklyn's once-vaunted starting rotation down to Brook Lopez (returning from foot surgery), Joe Johnson (who will be 33 at the end of June) and Deron Williams (a shell of what he once was and coming off surgery on both ankles).
The team must also decide whether to bring back key reserve Andray Blatche, who will likely opt out of his deal this summer. As it stands, the Nets' payroll is set to be just under $90 million, according to HoopsHype.com. However, money hasn't been an object for this team in the past.
A trio of Johnson, Williams and Lopez (if all stay healthy) is still formidable enough to make the playoffs in a weak Eastern Conference. However, just making the playoffs has never been the goal for the Nets. Every year they spend large sums of money, and every year they inevitably disappoint.
This time around, they'll be faced with possibly having to replace two players a year after giving up draft picks to acquire Pierce and Garnett. With no trade assets (beyond Williams, who may have the worst contract in basketball) and (theoretically) limited cap room, the Nets will have to take drastic measures to improve this summer.
They're good enough to stay in the middle of the Eastern Conference pack, but $90 million should be able to buy you more than that. Even in New York City.
The Houston Rockets have have managed to make a big splash the past two summers. From the looks of things, this year shouldn't be any different.
The team followed up its trade for Harden two years ago by signing Howard last offseason. That duo helped elevate the Rockets from an eighth seed in 2012-13 to the fourth seed this season. That wasn't good enough, however, as Houston was eliminated in the first round once again—this time by the Portland Trail Blazers.
As a result, general manager Daryl Morey appears determined to bring in a third star this offseason. The team's first move was to decline the option on emerging small forward Parsons, making him a restricted free agent this summer.
The reasoning behind that decision, according to Wojnarowski, is that Houston is "determined to clear the necessary salary cap space this summer to chase a third maximum contract free agent to join Dwight Howard and James Harden." Wojnarowski continues:
Houston plans to pursue the major stars who could be available upon opting out of deals, including Miami's LeBron James and Chris Bosh, and New York's Carmelo Anthony. Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki is expected to be a target too, Wojnarowki writes. The Rockets are pursuing Minnesota's Kevin Love in trade talks too, and Parsons could hold sign-and-trade possibilities.
The Rockets could still retain Parsons by using his Bird Rights to go over the cap, even after landing a third star. The trick to the latter will be freeing up some space via trading pricey role players Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin.
Lin and Asik have a cap number of just over $8 million apiece, per Sham Sports, but they are each owed just under $15 million in real money. That kind of price tag would be tough to move, right? Morey doesn't seem to think so, according to Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle:
According to an individual familiar with the Rockets’ plans, they are confident they would be able to move Lin and Asik’s contracts because unlike their failed efforts to trade Asik last season, they would be looking to clear cap room, rather than bring back rotation players with similar contracts.
While skepticism over Morey's ability to find a suitor for Lin and Asik is understandable, it's blatantly obvious that the team is going all-in once again this summer. Whether someone like Love, Anthony or Nowitzki is a fit for Houston is another debate for another time.
As of right now, the Rockets' intentions are clear. They want to form a Big Three and bring a championship back to Houston.
That's great if everything works out. If it doesn't, it could have serious ramifications on the team's salary cap and the future outlook of its roster, especially if it costs Houston a rising talent like Parsons. You can't fault Morey's ambition, but championships aren't won solely on bright ideas.