NBA Desperation Meter: How Worried Should Your Team Be After Its Offseason?
Ideally, NBA teams come out of the offseason with a sense of fulfillment.
They've made the right draft picks. They've acquired the right players through free agency. Each time an opposing organization made a call to discuss trades, they handled the situation as advantageously as possible. And as the moves piled up, they found themselves in the best position to achieve their intended goal in the 2017-18 campaign.
But the best-laid plans can't always be followed perfectly.
Mess-ups occur. That much is inevitable. Bad contracts are added to the books. Situations develop that force franchises into pickles of varying sizes. As a result, desperation reigns supreme—desperation to get back on the right track.
Journey with us as the desperation meter begins on zero and slowly creeps toward the teams that are feeling the most pressure as we draw ever closer to training camps and preseason action.
I Ain't Got No Worries
After acquiring Gordon Hayward (and swapping Avery Bradley for Marcus Morris to clear up space to facilitate that signing), the Boston Celtics are set to build upon last year's top finish in the Eastern Conference.
Isaiah Thomas' enduring hip injury is the only concern here, but that should hardly produce a sense of desperation since the roster is more than talented enough to survive an extended regular-season absence from him.
Jayson Tatum turned heads during summer league, head coach Brad Stevens is set to enjoy all kinds of coveted positional flexibility and the Celtics managed to upgrade their troops while preserving their praiseworthy stash of future assets.
Golden State Warriors
Coming off a title? Check.
Retaining all core pieces? Check.
Somehow upgrading the bench by acquiring Omri Casspi, Nick Young and Jordan Bell? Check.
If anyone gets to claim the "I ain't got no worries" mentality, it's this year's Golden State Warriors.
The Houston Rockets enjoyed a near perfect offseason, acquiring Chris Paul from the Los Angeles Clippers and fleshing out their rotation with Luc Mbah a Moute, P.J. Tucker and Tarik Black. Head coach Mike D'Antoni now boasts two of the league's greatest point guards, as well as an overwhelming amount of depth.
Sure, Houston might have preferred not to part with integral pieces such as Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams. But this summer still saw it upgrade the roster dramatically, both elevating the ceiling and building an impressive amount of defense in support of the Paul-James Harden combination.
Even though the Philadelphia 76ers aren't locks to make the playoffs in the drastically weakened Eastern Conference, they have no reason to feel even the tiniest hint of desperation. If they stay healthy, they'll be one of the most competitive squads in their half of the NBA, and they're overflowing with upside.
Just think about the five-man lineup comprised of Markelle Fultz, JJ Redick, Ben Simmons, Robert Covington and Joel Embiid. And then realize that Dario Saric, Nik Stauskas, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Furkan Korkmaz, Justin Anderson, T.J. McConnell, Amir Johnson, Richaun Holmes and Jahlil Okafor would all be available off the pine.
This roster is loaded with potential, to the point that the organization can now just sit back and passively watch it develop. It'll keep pursuing upgrades, but that's more of a luxury than a necessity at this stage of the process.
Wait, what? Didn't the Utah Jazz just lose Hayward?
They did, but they're still in fine shape.
They retained the team's best player (Rudy Gobert), re-signed the tremendously underrated—and now accurately paid—Joe Ingles and managed to rebuild the core around the incumbent pieces. Especially after landing Ricky Rubio to replace George Hill and watching as Donovan Mitchell excelled in summer league, they're a Dante Exum or Rodney Hood breakout away from maintaining status as Western Conference playoff locks.
Maybe they aren't true contenders right now. But they also have nothing to feel desperate about.
After trading Dwight Howard to the Charlotte Hornets for Marco Belinelli, Miles Plumlee and a second-rounder, then letting Paul Millsap go in a sign-and-trade to the Denver Nuggets, the Atlanta Hawks have plunged firmly into a rebuild. General manager Travis Schlenk isn't quite willing to call it that, but let's not dance around too much.
This is, unequivocally, a rebuild.
The Hawks can boost up Dennis Schroder, John Collins and Taurean Prince as their featured long-term pieces, but that's not the extent of their youthful talent. DeAndre' Bembry is an intriguing piece, and there's no telling how much production they could squeeze out of Dewayne Dedmon and Diamond Stone.
Kudos to Sean Marks for engineering a fantastic offseason, one in which he kept absorbing salary to land talent.
He first did so by accepting Timofey Mozgov's deal to acquire D'Angelo Russell from the Los Angeles Lakers. Then he somehow managed to turn Andrew Nicholson into Allen Crabbe, essentially completing the offer sheet to which he'd originally signed the swingman last summer.
All of a sudden, the Nets could be staring at a starting five of Jeremy Lin, Russell, Crabbe, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Jarrett Allen—not bad for a team that entered the offseason with no noteworthy draft picks, precious little free-agency appeal and a stunning dearth of talent and potential.
The Dallas Mavericks aren't truly rebuilding, but they're still in the process of acquiring talent. Even at full strength, the current core isn't enough to compete with the true juggernauts in the Western Conference, nor will it be enough to make a serious playoff push.
Sure, head coach Rick Carlisle is a master of milking production out of overlooked and written-off players, but the upside just isn't there. Dirk Nowitzki's return on a bargain of a contract helps; it's still not enough when he's joined by Harrison Barnes, Yogi Ferrell, Dennis Smith Jr., Seth Curry, Wesley Matthews and (maybe?) Nerlens Noel.
Dallas doesn't have any reason to be desperate during the tail end of Nowitzki's career, and it's doing the right thing by continuing to chase after upside and talent.
Kudos to the Phoenix Suns for their continued investment in youthful pieces. They have untapped potential at every part of the lineup, given the presences of Tyler Ulis, Devin Booker, Josh Jackson, TJ Warren, Marquese Chriss, Dragan Bender and Alan Williams.
Are the Suns going to be any good in 2016-17? Probably not.
But at this stage, that's irrelevant, so long as they continue to let their up-and-coming talents develop on the floor during action that matters.
Even after Buddy Hield blossomed during the second half of his rookie season, the DeMarcus Cousins trade was a mistake. The Sacramento Kings simply didn't squeeze enough talent out of the New Orleans Pelicans, especially now that Tyreke Evans and Langston Galloway have departed. Factoring in the first-round pick that changed hands and was subsequently dealt to the Portland Trail Blazers, they turned Cousins into Hield, Justin Jackson and Harry Giles.
But since that initial decision that firmly forced Sacramento into a new era, the Kings have done a fantastic job acquiring talent and veteran leaders who can help facilitate growth from their tutees.
George Hill, Zach Randolph and Vince Carter can help both on and off the floor. More importantly, Hield, Jackson, Giles, De'Aaron Fox, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Skal Labissiere, Willie Cauley-Stein and Georgios Papagiannis could all prove worthy of featured status in the coming months.
Be Patient, Because Good Things Are Coming
You can be slightly concerned about the team's lack of depth, even after it acquired Michael Carter-Williams to back up point guard Kemba Walker. You can worry about the age of some core pieces (Dwight Howard, 31, and Nicolas Batum, 28, chief among them), as well as the lack of financial flexibility throughout the foreseeable future.
But the Hornets have plenty of talent locked up for the next few years, and their roster contains notable upside in the forms of Cody Zeller, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Malik Monk and Frank Kaminsky. They may not be tracking toward title contention, but they're continuing to move in the right direction.
After landing Paul Millsap, the first big-name free-agent signing in recent Denver Nuggets history, the Mile High City is ready to watch some playoff basketball. It features one of the NBA's best frontcourt duos in Millsap and Nikola Jokic, and it's not like the rest of the supporting cast is far behind.
Get ready for a Gary Harris explosion in 2017-18, which should push Denver firmly into "playoff lock" territory. The Nuggets aren't yet contenders in the brutal Western Conference, but they're well past the rebuilding stage and are ready to break out.
Los Angeles Lakers
Yes, the Los Angeles Lakers are still rebuilding. They won't make the playoffs in 2017-18, much to the chagrin of a certain team dad. They also don't belong in the same tier as the Philadelphia 76ers, since they lack a guaranteed superstar like Joel Embiid and haven't yet demonstrated any semblance of success in the post-Kobe Bryant era.
But why should they feel desperate?
They figure to be big players during the 2018 offseason, and they're already putting together an overwhelming amount of youthful upside. With Lonzo Ball, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Larry Nance Jr., Kyle Kuzma and Ivica Zubac, they're doing just fine.
The Milwaukee Bucks still have to hope all their young pieces pan out and stay healthy, but sit back and think about this lineup for a while: Malcolm Brogdon, Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jabari Parker and Thon Maker with Tony Snell and Greg Monroe coming off the bench.
That's what I thought.
After winning only 31 games and finishing 13th in the Western Conference during 2016-17, the Minnesota Timberwolves are attempting to make a monumental leap. Their roster is conducive to such massive strides after acquiring Jimmy Butler, Jeff Teague, Taj Gibson, Justin Patton and Jamal Crawford, but that's not an easy task.
The 'Wolves simply aren't there yet. They'll have to address potential shooting problems and learn how to play more stifling defense, though that could easily happen as Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins continue to grow into two-way assets.
These aren't developmental or roster-based concerns that allow for hints of desperation; they're just expected growing pains for a team on the rise.
Hints of Trouble
The Indiana Pacers may eventually work their way next to the teams happily rebuilding, but they might be feeling a bit desperate to acquire young talent after botching the Paul George trading process. Getting only Domantas Sabonis and Victor Oladipo (on an unpalatably lengthy contract, no less) without receiving so much as a single draft pick for a bona fide star isn't how you want to begin the retooling process.
With Myles Turner leading the charge, the Pacers don't belong among the 10 most desperate teams. But their big offseason decision pushed them close to earning such an ignominious status, and it's unclear how they'll escape that label in the future.
So long as Mike Conley and Marc Gasol are teaming up on Beale Street, the Memphis Grizzlies will be just fine. But that doesn't mean age and a fading identity aren't legitimate causes for concern.
Tony Allen remains a free agent. Zach Randolph and Vince Carter are gone to the Sacramento Kings. And all of a sudden, the "grit and grind" mentality that has propped up Memphis for so many years, allowing it to consistently overcome more lackluster underlying metrics, is under siege.
For the first time in a while, legitimate cracks are appearing on the Grizzlies' facade of sustained competitiveness.
Oklahoma City Thunder
The Oklahoma City Thunder enjoyed a nearly flawless offseason, which came so close to boosting them all the way to this article's first featured category. George, who was acquired for a shockingly small return, is a perfect fit alongside Russell Westbrook, and general manager Sam Presti followed that with bargain contracts for both Andre Roberson and Patrick Patterson.
Only one sign of potential trouble remains.
"Less than three months away from the deadline, Russell Westbrook is yet to sign the five-year extension the Oklahoma City Thunder have offered him," Fred Katz reported for the Norman Transcript. It's still possible both George and Westbrook could depart in 2018, no matter how unlikely that may currently feel.
The Orlando Magic are clearly working to acquire as much talent as possible. With Jonathan Isaac, Aaron Gordon, Elfrid Payton, Terrence Ross and Jonathon Simmons, they legitimately boast intriguing pieces who could become centerpieces in the near future.
But when will this rebuild end?
The new regime should be afforded patience after replacing former general manager Rob Hennigan, but it's still a bit concerning that the franchise has struggled to make playoff pushes ever since Dwight Howard left in 2012. At some point, the Magic have to win more than 35 games and stop greeting every step forward with a corresponding one in the wrong direction.
San Antonio Spurs
The San Antonio Spurs will never truly feel desperate. They can't while head coach Gregg Popovich is patrolling the sidelines, since he's uniquely able to turn cast-offs and less-than-ballyhooed players into key rotation members who then get rewarded with big contracts from other teams.
However, this is the first offseason in a while where the Spurs have looked vulnerable.
The roster is still loaded with talent, but the depth is dwindling as key players age or depart for other organizations. The second unit doesn't strike fear into the hearts of opponents, though that will almost assuredly change 20 games into the 2017-18 campaign.
10. Miami Heat
The Miami Heat have to show distinct signs of progress.
Thanks to their offseason splurges, they now owe an inordinate amount of cash to the trio of Dion Waiters, Kelly Olynyk and James Johnson, and there's no guarantee that works out. Even if it does, Tyler Johnson's ballooning contract will soon make building around this nucleus an even tougher proposition.
Miami's level of desperation is still manageable, though.
Sure, it would like to win now and take advantage of the Eastern Conference's overall weakness. It can easily begin to build off last season's second-half success, as it recovered from a putrid 11-30 start and came tantalizingly close to earning a postseason berth. Capitalizing on Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside is also preferable, especially because the former is now 31 years old and moving past that magical age at which point guards often experience precipitous declines.
But the Heat only rank 10th because they have relative youth on their side.
James Johnson is a late-bloomer who should continue finding success now that head coach Erik Spoelstra has figured out how to best utilize his skills, and Olynyk and Waiters are moving toward their respective primes. Throw in Justise Winslow, Josh Richardson and Bam Adebayo, and the organization's best years are likely ahead of it—the previous championship-winning ones notwithstanding, of course.
These big offseason signings just have to work.
9. Washington Wizards
"We're talking about Paul George here. If we could get him on our squad? We could definitely contend for a championship," Otto Porter Jr. recently said in reference to John Wall's much-publicized comments regarding George possibly replacing Porter, per CSN Mid-Atlantic's Chase Hughes. "It's just motivation. I will continue to get back into the gym. I didn't take anything personal. I'm just going to continue to go out there and work and play my game."
But actions speak louder than words.
If there's any lingering on-court animosity between Wall, who recently signed a massive extension, and Porter, who recently signed a max deal as a free agent, we'll find out soon enough. And that's not even the only potential source of disappointment, which is why a team that figures to rank near the top of the Eastern Conference hierarchy can find itself feeling desperate.
The Washington Wizards' starting five is fantastic. Wall, Porter and Bradley Beal are among the league's best players at their respective positions, and rounding out the unit with Marcin Gortat and Markieff Morris puts this quintet in even better standing.
The bench, however, is nothing to write home about.
As of now, the best second unit Washington can cobble together features Tim Frazier, Jodie Meeks, Kelly Oubre, Jason Smith and Ian Mahinmi. Even in the East, that's not good enough to stave off massive declines when the starters inevitably need breathers.
Somehow, someway, the Wizards have to keep striving for bench improvements.
8. Chicago Bulls
Trading Jimmy Butler was fine. The Chicago Bulls must've felt they had to shake things up, and they did.
However, a sense of desperation can set in when Dwyane Wade opts into his contract, presumably expects to be fairly competitive and then watches as a rebuild begins that doesn't feature the most promising pieces.
Who's the future centerpiece on the Chicago roster?
Kris Dunn is fresh off a rookie season with the Minnesota Timberwolves that was filled with offensive struggles. He may look like a defensive plus, but his game is far too limited to serve as anything more than a backup point guard on a competitive squad. Lauri Markkanen, this year's lottery pick in the Windy City, is more of a complementary floor-spacer than anything else—particularly at this infant stage of his professional career.
Zach LaVine is the best bet, but his time in Minnesota proved he's also best as a secondary—or tertiary—option. No matter how many high-flying dunks and rim-ripping triples he completes, he's best served operating off the ball and attempting to make up for his defensive porosity with spot-up prowess.
Chicago's media market is massive, and it typically doesn't like to suffer through prolonged rebuilds. Pressure is on these youthful Bulls (and Wade) to figure out something quickly, or else they'll plunge into an even deeper rebuild, buy out the veteran shooting guard and attempt to compete for Michael Porter Jr. or Luka Doncic at the top of the 2018 NBA draft.
7. Los Angeles Clippers
The Los Angeles Clippers recovered from Chris Paul's departure as best they could. Truthfully, the rest of their offseason proceeded in admirable fashion, as they not only staved off a bigger decline by trading Paul for useful pieces, but also added legitimate talents in Milos Teodosic and Danilo Gallinari.
But now, the desperation sets in.
This plan has to work.
Gallinari has found more success in recent years at power forward than the small forward position, but he'll have to revert to his old habits to avoid overlapping with Blake Griffin. Head coach Doc Rivers has never been one for staggering talents, so thriving at the 3 is basically the Italian scorer's only option.
Teodosic has to make an immediate impact with his wizardrous passing, or else the team will be forced into relying on Austin Rivers and Jawun Evans when Patrick Beverley needs a break from running the show. The new acquisitions from the Houston Rockets, Beverley included, need to blend in seamlessly from the get-go.
Why? Because the Clippers won't have much success adding talent in future seasons.
Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, Gallinari and Rivers will lock up over $90 million next campaign, and LAC still has plenty more contracts on the books. Worse still, it was forced to give up one of its two 2018 first-round picks in a sign-and-trade for Gallinari, which leaves it with only one opening-round selection in the next two drafts.
If this core doesn't work, the Clippers will struggle to find a different avenue leading it into the Western Conference playoff picture.
6. Portland Trail Blazers
The Portland Trail Blazers already seem aware that their current roster isn't capable of taking down the Golden State Warriors or Houston Rockets in a postseason battle. Why else would they be making overtures to Carmelo Anthony?
"He can help us a lot; we can help him," CJ McCollum said, per Joe Freeman of The Oregonian. "He wants to play in the playoffs and be competitive. He's a very talented player. I think if we get him—when we get him—I think [we're] top three in the West easy."
"Obviously with that being out there and that being a real possibility, I don't see why I wouldn't reach out to him and let him know the interest is mutual if he's interested in us," Damian Lillard similarly revealed to Freeman. "We had a conversation...so he knew that it wasn't just the team—but it was myself and C.J.—[who] would love to have him here. So I reached out to him."
Portland already figures to improve in 2017-18, simply by virtue of having Jusuf Nurkic for a full season. The draft-day additions of Zach Collins and Caleb Swanigan, who was particularly impressive throughout summer league, could help as well.
But this roster knows it has a limited ceiling, and a shake-up is necessary to elevate it further. It's already moved Allen Crabbe to the Brooklyn Nets for Andrew Nicholson (subsequently waived via the stretch provision, per ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski), and that surely won't be the only move of significance between now and the 2018 trade deadline.
5. Detroit Pistons
The clock is ticking.
Legitimate doubts have emerged about Andre Drummond's ability to serve as the integral part of any contending team, thanks primarily to his head-scratchingly slow offensive development. At this stage, assuming an average of two free throws per trip, he produces more expected points when drawing a shooting foul (0.772) than he does on post-up attempts (0.734).
Already, trade discussions may have emerged.
"I play for Detroit now, so we'll keep it at that," the big man told TMZ when asked about trade rumors starting to pop up, as relayed by Detroit Bad Boys' Steve Hinson. "Anything is possible in this league."
Reggie Jackson's future is similarly up in the air. Perhaps he can bounce back and resume his work as a fringe All-Star once he's fully healthy, but last season's disappointments should linger in the back of the fanbase's collective consciousness.
Plus, Avery Bradley, for whom the Pistons essentially sacrificed both Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Marcus Morris, can become an unrestricted free agent during the 2018 offseason.
If the Pistons don't start winning now, they might have no other option but to dive into a full-scale rebuild without any reservations. Floundering with the same core shouldn't be a preferred route, and we're getting dangerously close to exactly that.
4. Toronto Raptors
See those somber, morose faces?
Kyle Lowry, who re-signed with the Toronto Raptors this offseason, and DeMar DeRozan don't want to experience that feeling yet again. Running into the LeBron James juggernaut has left them disheartened, to the point that Lowry was griping about James' dominance while last year's playoff series was still in progress.
Per Adrian Wojnarowski, then with The Vertical:
"They've got LeBron James. Nobody's closing the gap on him. I mean, that's it right there: They've got LeBron James and nobody's closing the gap on him...
"I don't know when his prime is going to stop. I don't think it's going to stop anytime soon. I think he'll be able to continue what he's doing for a long time. But that's basketball. You've got to find a way to beat the best."
So yeah, the Raptors might be feeling a bit desperate to figure things out. More than a bit, really.
Thus far, they've made all the right moves. They kept their core intact by handing new contracts to Lowry and Serge Ibaka, then moved to acquire C.J. Miles and shore up the spacing around their All-Star backcourt. If OG Anunoby works out, he could be one of the greatest value picks from the 2017 NBA draft.
But they still have to get by the boogeyman, and the clock is ticking on this squad before general manager Masai Ujiri has no choice but to hit the red button.
3. New Orleans Pelicans
Win now, or pay the price later.
Unfortunately for the New Orleans Pelicans, "later" is actually sooner than they may like.
DeMarcus Cousins won't be around forever if his pairing with Anthony Davis doesn't produce immediate success. He's an unrestricted free agent next summer, and it's important to remember he didn't choose NOLA as his next landing spot; the Sacramento Kings traded him to the bayou, and he could be very well be on the move again if New Orleans gets any whiff of intended flight.
And it gets worse.
Davis isn't guaranteed to stick around forever, and the Pelicans could also trade him in the near future should they decide Cousins is a risk for departure. They may rather begin rebuilding in full than continue to hover in more mediocre territory with the unibrowed big man leading the charge. Already, speculation is beginning to run rampant.
New Orleans is under more unrealistic pressure to win now than any team in the league, but one fact prevents it from elevating past the next two squads in this countdown. No matter how much trade speculation takes place, the Pelicans still have a top-10 player (Davis) locked up through 2020-21.
2. New York Knicks
Does anyone know what the New York Knicks' plan is at this point?
The franchise still hasn't found a resolution on the Carmelo Anthony front, as all signs point toward the small forward's preferring a trade to the Houston Rockets. And now, that's actively hindering some of their other desires, as Ian Begley reported for ESPN.com:
"Kyrie Irving informed the Cleveland Cavaliers earlier this month that the New York Knicks were one of the teams he would be willing to join. But it seems unlikely at this point that Irving will land in New York.
"Here's why: Carmelo Anthony's top destination in any trade, per league sources, is the Houston Rockets. Nothing really has changed since ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported more than a week ago that Anthony still expected the Knicks to carry out their previous plan to trade him to Houston."
The Knicks are desperate to figure out the Anthony situation. They're desperate to build a quality roster around Kristaps Porzingis. They're desperate enough to pay Tim Hardaway Jr. far more than market value would dictate. They're desperate to regain respectability around the league.
So much has gone wrong for this organization during the last few seasons, all culminating in Phil Jackson's exit. The Knicks—shockingly enough, considering the size of their market—haven't even emerged as a primary draw for free agents.
But one aspect works in their favor: Porzingis is still under contract and can't leave anytime soon without a trade, which stands in stark contrast to the situation developing for the No. 1 team in this countdown.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers
"I got a phone call. And the voice on the other end of that phone call was a trustworthy person, and he was saying to me that Kyrie Irving very badly wants to be a New York Knick. Kyrie Irving wants to come home," ESPN.com's Pablo Torre revealed while appearing on the network's First Take program.
It's only the latest twist in the Irving saga that threatens to tear apart the Cleveland Cavaliers. And while no guarantees exist that the All-Star point guard will be traded (or to which franchise he'll be dealt, should an agreement materialize), the drama has enveloped the entire organization.
And now, the Cavaliers are staring in the face of a disastrous 2018 offseason.
What if Irving's market value declines, just as was the case for Paul George and Jimmy Butler before him, and he merely brings back a mediocre return? What if his move makes LeBron James realize just how bad his supporting cast could become, and the four-time MVP departs for the Los Angeles Lakers next summer?
An entirely realistic scenario exists in which Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson could be the 2016 champions' two best players for the 2018-19 campaign. Not only do they have to figure out the Irving situation, but they have to remedy the issue in a way that appeases James, keeps Cleveland as competitive as possible and does everything necessary to give James some desire to remain in Northeast Ohio for a while longer.
Good luck. This isn't going to be easy.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.