Fringe NBA Playoff Contenders Better off Blowing It Up During 2022 Offseason
The regular season is a day-to-day operation that doesn't leave much room for big-picture thinking. The offseason is when NBA teams have the time to take those long looks at themselves and ask whether the course they're on is the right one.
A handful of franchises sit somewhere between the contenders and the upward-trending, youth-focused rebuilds. Now's the time for them to consider blowing things up.
The advent of the play-in round and flattened lottery odds leave us with fewer and fewer of these in-betweeners every year. But enough candidates are still caught in that hazy middle.
These are the teams that don't project to do major playoff damage and lack enough young pieces to justify patience.
Time to detonate.
Los Angeles Lakers
Ditch the particulars and treat the Los Angeles Lakers as if you're unfamiliar with the names and reputations involved.
In this thought experiment, you've got a team coming off a 33-49 season that finished 11th in its conference. That conference, by the way, figures to be tougher next year than last.
That 33-49 team is led by a player entering his age-38 season on an expiring $44.4 million contract. Critically, that player has stated no clear intention of re-signing when his contract is up.
His main supporting pieces are a constantly injured big man who'll make an average of $40.6 million per year over the next three seasons (player option for 2024-25) and an exceptionally ill-fitting and clearly declining point guard who'll collect a whopping $47 million in 2022-23, assuming he picks up his player option for next season, before his crippling deal comes off the books.
Beyond that, the cupboard is bare. This team doesn't have a single young player who projects as an above-average starter, and the only future first-rounder it can trade is all the way out in 2027.
Isn't this exactly the kind of situation in which a teardown is the only real option?
Because we're dealing with the Lakers, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook and a broad organizational belief in its own exceptionalism, that demolition won't happen. But it should.
The Lakers cannot realistically expect to contend in 2022-23, and their long-term prospects will be bleak if they don't replenish their stock of picks and young talent. Davis, in particular, could still net a hefty return in trade.
Big picture, the NBA may now be operating in the post-superteam era; the homegrown Boston Celtics and Golden State Warriors are in the Finals. Yet Los Angeles seems most likely to resist the organic-growth trend. It'll try to win in the short term and then bank on free agency and its big-market appeal to lure talent, just like it always has.
There's a slim chance it'll all work out, but the better bet is that if the Lakers continue on this course, they'll spend most of the next decade wishing they'd pulled the ripcord when they had the chance.
New York Knicks
We're only suggesting a partial blow-up for the New York Knicks, albeit one that might subject them to liability for age discrimination. The operating principle of New York's offseason approach should be: Anyone over age 24 can take a hike.
RJ Barrett is the Knicks' timeline. The lefty wing's age-21 season featured an even 20.0 points per game and a career-low 9.9 percent turnover rate, with the latter figure looking particularly good against a career-high 27.6 usage percentage.
Barrett isn't ready to handle primary scoring and facilitating duties yet, but he showed clear growth in both areas, despite a supporting cast that rarely spaced the floor to make things easier for him.
Julius Randle regressed after a breakout 2020-21 season, and the remaining four years and $107 million on his contract (player option in 2025-26) will make him difficult to move. Otherwise, the Knicks have done well to preserve flexibility by including team options on several of their recent veteran signings. Derrick Rose, Alec Burks and Nerlens Noel are all technically under team control through 2023-24, but their team options mean they may as well be viewed as expiring salaries next season.
Evan Fournier is overpaid at just under $19 million per year over the next three seasons, but his contract also has a team option in 2024-25, and his 38.1 percent career hit rate on threes should make him appealing to teams that need shooting—which is all of them.
The Knicks may not have another clear cornerstone besides Barrett, but Immanuel Quickley, Obi Toppin and Quentin Grimes are keepers on their rookie-scale deals.
Unlike the Lakers, who need to make major changes because they don't have any promising prospects or future flexibility, the Knicks should look into stripping down because they're lucky enough to have both. It's just that the pricier veterans are in the way. They're producing just enough wins to prevent one more shot at the high lottery pick that would really kick a New York rebuild into high gear.
With the current roster, it feels like the Knicks' best-case scenario for next year involves modest improvement, a .500 record and a first-round elimination. There's no shame in aiming for that result, but there's a lot more long-term upside ahead if New York (and head coach Tom Thibodeau, who'll be tough to sell on the idea) consider taking a small step backward.
Portland Trail Blazers
It only makes sense to dismantle the Portland Trail Blazers if you accept that the point of running an NBA team is to win a championship. Not every organization operates that way, and plenty of fans would much rather spend a decade watching a playoff team with little shot of contending than endure multiple losing seasons that provide hope for—but no certainty of—something great.
Portland fans know exactly what the more conservative path feels like. Damian Lillard's 10 seasons have featured eight playoff trips but only four series wins. At no point did the Blazers have a legitimate shot to win a ring.
If Lillard gets the two-year, $107 million extension for which he's eligible this offseason, and if impending restricted free agent Anfernee Simons re-ups on a deal that pays him like a star, Portland will consign itself to many more years of that same high-floor, low-ceiling fate.
That'd be an acceptable scenario for some, and there's a case to be made that Lillard's current contract, without the extension, has already capped Portland's future at a sub-contender level. He will make $48.8 million (player option) in 2024-25, his age-34 season, as it is. Considering he hasn't been good enough to get the Blazers to the promised land in his prime, it's hard to imagine he'll fare better as he nears his mid-30s.
Optimistically, Lillard will age well and continue to rank among the league's top 20 players. But even then, if Portland retains Simons on a rich contract, brings back impending free agent Jusuf Nurkic at market rates, absorbs another pricey contract into its $21 million trade exception and/or uses its No. 7 pick in the 2022 draft to add short-term help, it still won't have a team capable of competing with the West's top threats.
Disregarding everything else, a roster built around two small guards who don't defend makes contention unrealistic in a wing-dominated, versatility-obsessed NBA.
Sentiment is a factor here. Lillard has been loyal, and he deserves whatever Portland wants to pay him. But from the cold and indifferent "championship, or what's the point?" perspective, the best way to up the Blazers' title odds over the next few years is to move Lillard and every veteran it can.
It comes down to choosing between being pretty good for a little while longer or potentially great down the line.
The temptation to cut and paste is hard to resist. We could pull from any of the last dozen or so offseason pleas to blow up the Sacramento Kings, and most of the logic would hold up.
The Kings and their league-long 16-year playoff drought have been unsuccessfully chasing mediocrity (they also haven't had a winning season in that stretch) for what feels like forever. You'd think that so many years of failing in the pursuit of immediate gratification would have taught the Kings something about patience.
And yet there they were at last season's trade deadline, giving up their most promising, cost-controlled young player, Tyrese Haliburton, for Domantas Sabonis, a veteran center whose no-stretch, no-switch game might as well come with a notarized guarantee of a sub-playoff ceiling.
De'Aaron Fox put up his worst box plus/minus since he was a rookie this past season, a tough look for a guy in the first year of a max contract. And considering his 30.6 percent shooting from deep across the last three campaigns, it's beginning to feel like his three-point shot won't develop. He and Sabonis, whose career three-point percentage sits at 31.9 on extremely low volume, simply cannot be the cornerstones of a functional, modern NBA offense.
Oh, and the other end? The Kings posted a 118.9 defensive rating when Fox and Sabonis shared the floor, a figure that would have ranked last in the league over the full 2021-22 season. Fox's failure to translate his speed and length into passable defense remains a major disappointment.
The Kings have Harrison Barnes, who'd fit on any team and might return a protected first-round pick in trade. Richaun Holmes and Justin Holiday could bolster a winning team's rotation. Fox should appeal to another young team that could put defense and shooting around him. All of those players ought to be on the table.
But, of course, the Kings are instead looking to move the most valuable asset they have, the No. 4 pick in the 2022 draft, per The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor.
Deep, resigned sigh...
Some things never change.
The Utah Jazz aren't a fringe team in the sense that they're logging miles on the mediocrity treadmill. They've averaged 49 wins per year and finished no worse than sixth in the West over the last six seasons. It was only two years ago, 2020-21, that they posted the best record and top point differential (by a mile) in the entire league.
Nonetheless, Utah has hit its ceiling.
A string of early playoff eliminations, an aging supporting cast, two stars who don't seem keen on one another and a coach who essentially walked away give the Jazz more than enough reason to take a sledgehammer to the roster.
Donovan Mitchell probably isn't going anywhere unless he demands to. Per The Athletic's Tony Jones, teams inquiring about Mitchell's availability are getting a "firm no" in response.
That's fine. Mitchell is the type of young offensive engine around which the Jazz could assemble many combinations of role players. Getting a guy like him, who's scored at least 20.0 points per game in every year of his career while bumping up his true shooting percentage in each of the last four seasons before 2021-22, is the hard part. Utah can keep the 25-year-old Mitchell and sell everything else.
Despite the four years and $169.7 million left on his deal, Rudy Gobert will garner massive trade interest. He's a defense unto himself, and the only thing Utah's recent postseason ousters proved was that Gobert is good enough to carry a truly terrible collection of perimeter defenders to the second round. Give him average support, and a top-five defensive rating is basically a given. Gobert might fetch Utah a first-round pick in this year's draft, plus at least one more in the future, along with a quality starter or two.
Bojan Bogdanovic's expiring $19.6 million cap hit should draw interest from any playoff team in need of spacing and secondary playmaking, while Mike Conley could be a sneakily sought-after commodity in an offseason when the demand for point guards exceeds supply. He'll make $22.6 million next season, but his 2023-24 salary is partially guaranteed, making him an intriguing rental.
Quin Snyder's exit felt like the first domino to fall. Maybe he knew some level of retrenching was ahead and didn't want to stick around for a transition season. Either way, the Jazz don't seem likely to run things back with the same group, and the age and cost of many of their key players point to turnover.
The more substantial, the better.