The Biggest Question Mark About Every NBA Team's Future

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBAFeatured Columnist IVSeptember 14, 2022

The Biggest Question Mark About Every NBA Team's Future

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    As much as NBA players might want to live in the moment—never getting too high or too low is one of the Association's biggest keys of survival—front offices can't afford to think that way.

    These decision-makers must always have at least one eye on the future. Now, future is a relative term, as long-term rebuilders might think a half-decade ahead, while contenders can be singularly focused on the campaign ahead. Either way, though, some of today's energy must be spent on preparation for tomorrow.

    We have adopted the same mindset here in identifying the most pressing question facing every franchise going forward.

Atlanta Hawks: Is There a Path to Championship Contention?

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    On paper, it's easy to get carried away about the on-court possibilities for Trae Young, an offensive dynamo with a fiery outside shot and major defensive deficiencies, and Dejounte Murray, an elite defender whose offensive bag features everything other than a reliable three-ball.

    This new Hawks backcourt will be good. But will it be good enough to lead a title run? And what happens if it isn't?

    Atlanta is all-in on this talented twosome. Young is making supermax money, while Murray cost the franchise three first-round picks and a pick swap. It's all worth it if these two can strike a championship harmony together, but this would get thorny quickly if they can't. The Hawks don't have the trade juice to broker another blockbuster, so if this roster doesn't have enough firepower now, they'll need internal development to cover the difference.

Boston Celtics: Can the Jays Hit an Even Higher Gear?

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    Boston's front office has done everything in its power to construct a championship roster around All-Star wings Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. (Unfortunately, that couldn't include keeping Danilo Gallinari healthy (torn ACL), but what can you do?)

    On paper, this team has juggernaut potential, but could the Jays themselves have some untapped potential, too? That feels a tad greedy to ask, as they combined for more than 50 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists last season, but given the minuscule margin for error at the top, they might need to deliver more.

    Tatum had a rough go of things in the Finals, as he shot just 36.7 percent overall and averaged almost as many field-goal attempts (20) as points (21.5). Brown played a superior series, but sometimes his limitations as a ball-handler and playmaker got the better of him. It is, admittedly, a bit nit-picky given the sample size and strength of competition, but the championship ride won't get any easier going forward, so it's on them to overcome it.

Brooklyn Nets: Will Off-Court Distractions Torpedo This Team?

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    For all of the trade smoke that billowed out of Brooklyn this summer, it seems that was merely the calm before the storm. The question now is whether that storm involves the Nets becoming a basketball powerhouse or being buried by the next wave of trade demands.

    Despite public proclamations of a unified front, there is ample skepticism that this club can simply come together after a summer seemingly spent so far apart.

    "How long will this last?" ESPN's Nick Friedell wrote. "That was a miserable team to be around at times last season, and now they'll be able to rebuild their culture as training camp nears? That would be a stretch."

    Kyrie Irving isn't signed beyond the 2022-23 season. Ben Simmons never suited up during the 2021-22 campaign. Kevin Durant is barely a month removed from reportedly calling for the dismissals of coach Steve Nash and general manager Sean Marks, per The Athletic's Shams Charania. It's tempting to still buy into Brooklyn's talent, but there are myriad ways this could go really, really bad.

Charlotte Hornets: Can They Find a Co-Star for LaMelo Ball?

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    The Hornets nailed the hardest part of their post-Kemba Walker rebuild by finding a franchise talent in LaMelo Ball, the No. 3 pick in 2020 and an All-Star this past season.

    Still, Charlotte's quest to give him a top-tier sidekick might be only slightly less challenging. Gordon Hayward is on the decline (and always injured), Terry Rozier may have peaked a rung or two shy of stardom and Miles Bridges may have removed himself from the equation with an offseason arrest on three felony domestic violence charges.

    Do the Hornets have anyone in-house who can ascend to that status? There aren't any obvious candidates, at least not with the funk of a rough freshman season clouding around James Bouknight. That could also make it tricky to acquire an elite via trade, as Charlotte's prospects not named Ball aren't the kind to have rival front offices drooling over them.

Chicago Bulls: How Bad Is Lonzo Ball's Knee?

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    Lonzo Ball proved nothing less than a transformational addition for the Bulls. That's how the numbers saw it, at least.

    His penchant for passing was invaluable in connecting this offense, and his presence on the perimeter masked some of the club's defensive shortcomings elsewhere. Chicago went 22-13 with him and 24-23 without. The Bulls' season going off the rails can be directly traced back to his mid-January departure with a torn meniscus.

    The problem is it's now September, and the knee issue hasn't gone away. In fact, he's already considered doubtful for the start of the 2022-23 season, per ESPN's Jamal Collier and Ramona Shelburne. Chicago has depth in the backcourt—Zach LaVine, Alex Caruso, Coby White, Ayo Dosunmu, Goran Dragic and rookie Dalen Terry—but no one can mimic Ball's two-way impact.

Cleveland Cavaliers: Does Donovan Mitchell Deal Take Them over the Top?

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    Buoyed by last season's 44 wins and emboldened by the swift ascensions of Darius Garland, Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen, the Cavaliers made one of the summer's biggest transactions by acquiring All-Star Donovan Mitchell from the Utah Jazz for a mountain of draft picks and a handful of players.

    Mitchell can scratch some of Cleveland's biggest itches. The Cavaliers needed another shot-creator to support Garland, and Mitchell arrives with career averages of 23.9 points and 4.5 assists. Cleveland also didn't have much in the way of established starpower, and Mitchell has been an All-Star in each of the past three campaigns.

    You can see how this can work for the Cavaliers, at least in terms of making them perennial playoff participants and locking them into the East's top handful of teams. What's harder to picture, though, is this club reaching that tier's top rung and competing for the NBA crown. Maybe the right combination of time and development makes that a reality, but it could be tricky to rewrite the formula on the fly if it doesn't.

Dallas Mavericks: Does Luka Doncic Have Enough Help?

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    Luka Doncic turned 23 years old in February. You probably knew that already, but it's worth the reminder of how ridiculously good he's been at such a young age and how absolutely absurd his career has a chance to be.

    In just four NBA seasons, he has already amassed more than 6,000 points, 2,000 assists and 2,000 rebounds. The three other players to ever match that production by their fourth season are: LeBron James, Oscar Robertson and Grant Hill. Doncic is already off to a historic start, and his presence alone will give the Mavericks at least a puncher's chance in any postseason series.

    Saying that, he'll need help to ever realize any championship dreams, and it's debatable whether Dallas has provided that type of support—or can provide it in the future. The arrival of Christian Wood and return of Tim Hardaway Jr. will help, but they might not do much more than offset the subtraction of Jalen Brunson. Maybe their second-round flier on Jaden Hardy eventually pays off, but it could be a while before they see any return on that investment.

Denver Nuggets: Can Michael Porter Jr. Find Stardom?

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    It's easy to buy into the idea of Michael Porter Jr. He is an effortlessly smooth three-level scorer who just so happens to stand 6'10" tall. He is the definition of a walking mismatch: too big for smaller defenders, too quick for bigger ones.

    That's why Denver deemed him worthy of a max extension despite the fact he played just 116 games (62 starts) in his first three years, as his rookie season was erased by a back injury. Before the ink even dried on that deal, he was back on the shelf with...well, another back injury, this one requiring his third back surgery since 2017.

    He played nine games last season, and they weren't played particularly well (9.9 points on 35.9/20.8/55.6 shooting). In four years, he essentially has one season where he resembled a star (19 points per game on 54.2/44.5/79.1 shooting), and even then, he failed to answer questions about his effectiveness as a defender and distributor.

    The Nuggets have handled him like a cornerstone player, and there are flashes of that type of ability. If he can't stay healthy enough to sustain those flashes—let alone shore up his weak spots—then he could derail any title runs in Denver.

Detroit Pistons: Is the Long-Term Nucleus Now in Place?

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    The Pistons' rebuilding project is (understandably) light on proven players. Sure, they've seen encouraging flashes from players like Cade Cunningham, Saddiq Bey and Marvin Bagley III, but their excitement is fueled by what they could become, not what they are right now.

    Potential is all the rage in the Motor City, and they're overloaded with it. That was true even before the 2022 draft delivered a pair of lottery picks in Jaden Ivey and Jalen Duren.

    If the newcomers hit the ground running while the incumbents make developmental progress, Detroit doesn't have to be down for long. Having said that, the Pistons hold far more question marks than certainties, so this season could reveal a ton about the true state of this young nucleus.

Golden State Warriors: How Will They Navigate Next Summer's Financial Crunch?

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    It might sometimes seem like the Warriors just print money, but they don't actually have unlimited funding. That's part of the reason why Gary Payton II and Otto Porter Jr. were freed to seek out greener pastures in free agency. It's also why the 2023 offseason carries an ominous note for the Bay Area ballers.

    Assuming the Dubs don't get any extensions done between now and then, they'll send both Andrew Wiggins and Jordan Poole (restricted) to the open market next summer. Draymond Green could join them by declining his $27.6 million player option for 2023-24, which could be on the table as he's reportedly seeking max money from Golden State, per The Athletic's Anthony Slater and Marcus Thompson II.

    The Warriors can't afford to pay everyone—Klay Thompson will be a free agent in 2024—so while the team spends the upcoming season chasing a championship, the front office will be trying to figure out which player (or players) is non-essential for future title pursuits.

Houston Rockets: Can Jalen Green Build off of Second-Half Surge?

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    Jalen Green encountered his fair share of turbulence during his first NBA go-round, but the fact he capped it by snagging an All-Rookie first-team spot shows how effectiveness he became over the course of the campaign.

    Over his first 10 games in Houston, he averaged 13.6 points on 35.3/28.6/73.3 shooting and 2.9 turnovers. During his final nine outings, he went for 28.1 points on 48.6/42.7/77.3 shooting with only 1.6 turnovers.

    So, what happened late last season? Did 2021's No. 2 pick truly turn the corner, or was he simply capitalizing on opponents who were already thinking ahead to the postseason (or a Cancún getaway)? If it's the former, Houston could already have its offensive focal point.

Indiana Pacers: Can the Young Core Produce an All-Star?

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    The Pacers took a long time to even consider rebuilding, and they haven't exactly leaned into a total demolition. While they've shipped out players like Domantas Sabonis and Malcolm Brogdon, they have stopped short of tearing it to the studs and have sometimes prioritized players over draft picks in trades.

    That isn't the worst strategy, so long as Indiana targets the right additions. The Pacers have done well for themselves in adding Tyrese Haliburton, Bennedict Mathurin, Chris Duarte and Jalen Smith over the last year, but is there a rising star in the mix? That's debatable.

    Haliburton has come closest to wearing that label, and he looked pretty star-adjacent over his 26 games in the Circle City last season. As good as his numbers were though—17.5 points on 50.2/41.6/84.9 shooting, 9.6 assists and 1.8 steals per game—they weren't quite star-quality. Not for a team that lost nearly 70 percent of its games, at least.

Los Angeles Clippers: Would a Healthy Kawhi Leonard Make Them Championship Favorites?

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    Injuries held down the Clippers in 2021-22, but if they clear that obstacle this season, can anything else hold them back?

    On paper, this roster might be as good as it gets in the NBA, assuming a clean bill of health. That's obviously far from a given, but it sounds like Kawhi Leonard could be ready to return from a year-plus absence (ACL) by opening night.

    If Leonard returns to his form—which features perhaps the league's greatest two-way impact—then the Clippers will have an elite leading their roster, an ideal co-star in Paul George and ample support behind their stars.

Los Angeles Lakers: So... Is Russell Westbrook Actually Staying?

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    At times this summer, it seemed a near certainty that L.A. would move Russell Westbrook. He's a poor fit for the roster and a massive burden on the financial books, so you'd think the Lakers would be itching to cut him loose. However, doing so would cost the franchise at least one first-round pick, and there are doubts the team is willing to take that hit.

    "As of now, competing executives aren't sure the Lakers will send away one future first-round pick, let alone two, to get out of Westbrook's contract unless the return package substantially improves the team," B/R's Eric Pincus reported.

    If the Lakers never take the plunge, can they really smooth things over with Westbrook and position him for success? The idea of him decreasing his on-ball opportunities and becoming more dynamic as a defender and off-ball attacker has long intrigued, but asking anyone—let alone a 33-year-old with an MVP in his trophy case—to completely change their game is never guaranteed to go well.

Memphis Grizzlies: Can This Roster Spawn a Second Star?

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    The Grizzlies had the asset collection needed to land a major external upgrade this offseason if they wanted. The fact they largely focused in-house instead says everything you need to know about their self-assessments.

    The confidence isn't hard to follow. They won a way-ahead-of-schedule 56 games last season while going an unreal 20-5 in games their MVP candidate, Ja Morant, missed. Virtually everyone on the roster is either in their prime or still building toward it, and most fall into the latter category. There are legitimate reasons to believe this bunch hasn't shown its best yet.

    Having said that, there are also reasons to wonder whether Memphis can ever slot a second star alongside Morant. The Grizzlies have some internal candidates—Desmond Bane, Jaren Jackson Jr. and, if you're indulging in optimism, Ziaire Williams—but no one guaranteed to make the leap. If a star does come from the outside, it will have to happen via the draft or trade, as this has never been a destination franchise.

Miami Heat: Is Tyler Herro a Better Keeper or Trade Chip?

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    The Heat clearly have something in reigning Sixth Man of the Year, Tyler Herro, but good luck figuring out what that something is, as ESPN's Zach Lowe observed:

    "What will peak Tyler Herro look like?

    "Ask 50 executives and coaches, and the gap between answers will be wider than for possibly any other NBA player. You hear everything from 'All-Star' to 'Lou Williams/Jamal Crawford 2.0' -- a one-way bench scorer who will get exposed on defense in the playoffs."

    If Miami believes Herro can become an annual All-Star as a top-shelf scorer who makes plays for others, then he clearly deserves off-limits keeper status. If the Heat are unsure he'll be more than a scoring specialist with some defensive issues, then the time to flip him for an upgrade is now, as he'll need a new deal by next summer.

Milwaukee Bucks: Are There Ways to Expand the Contention Window?

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    It feels like the Bucks aren't being discussed enough. They won a world title two years ago and pushed the eventual Eastern Conference champion Celtics to seven games in the second round despite losing All-Star swingman Khris Middleton to a knee injury in the first. They have—for my money, at least—the best player on the planet in Giannis Antetokounmpo, plus a supporting cast that impresses at both ends.

    Milwaukee should factor prominently in next season's championship race. That should probably be the expectation for the following campaign, too.

    Looking any further into the future might be pushing it, though. Middleton and Jrue Holiday are both on the wrong side of 30. Brook Lopez will turn 35 during the upcoming campaign. This supporting cast will age out of its prime before Antetokounmpo (who turns 28 in December) does. The Bucks need to find up-and-comers wherever they can, because this roster is noticeably light on growth potential.

Minnesota Timberwolves: Is Rudy Gobert Really Their Missing Piece?

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    Minnesota bet the farm on three-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert and his ability to transform a 46-win team into a title contender.

    If that sounds like a big ask, that's because it is. It's part of why the Wolves shocked so many when they sacrificed four first-round picks—five if you count Walker Kessler, this year's No. 22 pick—to get Gobert. He'll help, but maybe not enough to put the Timberwolves into title talks.

    Is it possible they eventually get there? Sure, Anthony Edwards has a skyscraper's ceiling, and maybe Karl-Anthony Towns proves even harder to handle as a power forward. Still, there are probably other teams you like more—and definitely ones I like more—both in the present and moving forward than Minnesota.

New Orleans Pelicans: Can Zion Williamson Conquer His Injury Issues?

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    Getting Zion Williamson's signature on a max contract extension was no minor victory for the Pelicans. From virtually the second they snatched the high-flyer up with the top pick of the 2019 draft, they've been inundated with speculation that he wouldn't be long for the Crescent City.

    It's good that he wants to stick around. It's also imperative that he's healthy enough to earn that money.

    He missed all of last season following foot surgery and has suited up just 85 times over the past three seasons. He has been jaw-droppingly good when he plays—27 points, 7.2 rebounds and 3.7 assists per outing in 2020-21—and looks like someone who might unlock this club's championship potential. That all gets rendered moot, though, if he can't make it off the pine.

New York Knicks: How Much Higher Is RJ Barrett's Ceiling?

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    The Knicks are fans of RJ Barrett, enough so that they recently inked him to a four-year extension that could pay him as much as $120 million. However, they may not be completely sold on the 21-year-old.

    They reportedly dangled him in an offer for Donovan Mitchell, per ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski. They also reportedly preferred to wait on extension talks with Barrett but felt "they had to do something" once it became clear they weren't getting Mitchell, per Marc Berman of the New York Post.

    The issue with Barrett might boil down to there still being a wide amount of room between his floor and ceiling. You can see the outline of an offensive alpha who holds his own defensively. You can also see someone who could always struggle with shot selection, decision-making and, ultimately, inefficiency.

Oklahoma City Thunder: When Is It Time to Hit the Accelerator?

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    Oklahoma City won't stay in asset-accumulation mode forever. At some point, general manager Sam Presti and his staff will sense this club is ready to compete for something other than draft-lottery odds and will cash in any outstanding trade chips for immediate support.

    When should the Sooner State expect such a massive shift? Well, not during this upcoming season, at least. Abandoning the tank job ahead of a draft featuring a jaw-dropping prospect like Victor Wembanyama wouldn't make much sense, particularly when the Thunder have already shut down No. 2 pick Chet Holmgren for the entire year.

    Still, that transition could come shortly after that. The Thunder have already seen encouraging growth out of players like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Lu Dort and Josh Giddey, and more prospects have a chance to cement themselves in that core over the next calendar year.

Orlando Magic: Can Paolo Banchero Lead a Good NBA Offense?

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    When Orlando hit the lottery jackpot, the franchise found more than the No. 1 pick. In Paolo Banchero, the Magic added a focal point for their previously rudderless offense.

    Orlando didn't have a 17-point scorer last season. Its highest scorer, Cole Anthony, averaged all of 16.3 points on 39.1 percent shooting. Despite playing at the 10th-fastest speed, they averaged the second-fewest points (104.2).

    With those struggles in mind, Banchero might feel like nothing less than a gift from the basketball gods. He was the most polished scorer in the 2022 draft class, and his playmaking has perked up. He'll get plenty of cracks at steering this brutal offense, but can he one day lead a top-10 attack? The answer to that question will reveal how much rebuilding work remains for the Magic.

Philadelphia 76ers: Can James Harden Get His Groove Back?

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    Last season, James Harden averaged his fewest points since becoming a full-time starter in 2011-12. His 41.0 field-goal percentage was his lowest since his rookie year. His 33.0 three-point percentage was the worst of his career.

    So, what happened? Was the now-33-year-old finally showing his age and struggling to compensate for a burst forever lost to the history books? Or were these merely the unsightly markings of a hamstring issue that pestered him in parts of the past two seasons?

    If this was injury-related, then it's something he can overcome. If he's simply on the decline, then Philly's championship formula may never compute.

Phoenix Suns: How Can They Offset Any Age-Related Decline by Chris Paul?

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    Phoenix's ouster from the 2022 playoffs was jarring. It's wild enough watching a squad suffer consecutive losses by a combined 60 points—right on the heels of a 30-point victory, no less—but it's staggering to see a No. 1 seed falter like that.

    What made it even less fathomable, though, was the fact this was a Chris Paul-piloted club. You shouldn't be allowed to malfunction at that degree with the Point God calling the shots, and yet it happened on his watch—partly because he wasn't himself. In the final five games of this series (four of them Suns losses), Paul averaged just 9.4 points and 3.6 turnovers while taking a total of four free throws.

    Now, maybe Paul merely picked a bad time for a rough patch, but he turn 37 during the series, so perhaps his age is starting to catch up to him. If it is, Phoenix has few options other than riding this core until the wheels fall off, but with players like Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges all still ascending, the Suns need to come up with a succession plan at point guard that allows this nucleus to compete at a high level even after Paul is finished.

Portland Trail Blazers: What Carrot Are They Chasing?

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    The Trail Blazers don't want a repeat of last season's tire fire. But what exactly are they chasing?

    There's surely a generic of hope of maximizing competitiveness around Damian Lillard, but how does that happen? Is chasing a back-end playoff spot with Jerami Grant enough to keep Lillard happy in Portland? Shouldn't the Blazers push harder to make something happen before their 32-year-old franchise face runs out of time to lead that charge?

    To be clear, their path forward looks precarious. If Grant isn't all this team needs to get going, then finding additional upgrades will be challenging. The Blazers have already traded away one future first- and four future second-rounders, and the prospects on their roster either haven't established themselves yet or are set to handle a sizable role this season.

Sacramento Kings: What's the Biggest Key for Quenching Their Playoff Thirst?

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    The Kings have kept plenty busy with their roster reshuffling since the calendar flipped. At the trade deadline, they swapped out Tyrese Haliburton for Domantas Sabonis. This summer, they handed the coaching reins to Mike Brown, spent the No. 4 pick on Keegan Murray, traded for Kevin Huerter and signed Malik Monk.

    That's a ton of activity, but is enough to snap Sacramento's record-setting playoff drought? Some are optimistic.

    "I think they've made enough additions where I think they have a legitimate chance to make the playoffs," an opposing Western Conference assistant coach told ESPN's Tim Bontemps.

    Sacramento fans know enough at this point to not prematurely celebrate, though some optimism is warranted for this roster. Saying that, though, this could get uncomfortable in a hurray if the club doesn't jell. Most of their key contributors have several NBA seasons under their belt, so the front office can only afford to be so patient with them.

San Antonio Spurs: How Many Long-Term Keepers Are in Place?

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    The Spurs had a chance to really invest in their young core this summer. While they locked up Keldon Johnson on a four-year, $74 million extension, they also traded away Dejounte Murray and let Lonnie Walker IV leave in free agency.

    So, Johnson is clearly a part of the long-term plans in the Alamo City, but can anyone else make that claim with any confidence?

    The Spurs have no shortage of potential keepers on the roster, but there isn't another sure thing in the mix. Hopefully that changes sooner than later, as expanding this core would help shape the rebuild and identify remaining areas of need.

Toronto Raptors: Will All Core Performers Get Paid?

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    Toronto skirted around a post-Kawhi Leonard rebuild and has instead primarily kept itself ahead of the curve. That's good news in almost every possible way, but the financial aspect is a different story.

    At some point sooner than later, Toronto might struggle to retain all of its talent. Gary Trent Jr. can reach the open market already next summer by declining his $18.6 million player option for 2023-24. The 2024 offseason will see both Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet reach free agency, plus OG Anunoby could get there by declining a player option. The Raptors should also already be saving up for Scottie Barnes' next contract, which he could sign as soon as 2024.

    How can the Raptors afford to pay everyone? They can't. The better question, then, is which of these players can be cut loose and when should those sacrifices be made?

Utah Jazz: How Many More Veterans Can They Unload?

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    The biggest dominoes in Utah's rebuild have already dropped, as the Jazz brokered summer blockbuster deals for both Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell. Still, Utah has more veterans to move before the new front office finishes this round of wheeling and dealing.

    The Jazz, who also flipped Patrick Beverley, reportedly feel they can fetch first-round picks in return for each of Bojan Bogdanovic, Mike Conley and Jordan Clarkson, per ESPN's Ramona Shelburne. Malik Beasley looms as another logical trade candidate, although virtually the entire roster is likely available for the right price.

    Some of these vets will be easier to move than others—contenders should be tripping over themselves for Bogdanovic, but it could take time to find the right fit for Conley—but Utah has time to wait to make sure it gets this right. The Jazz have a long rebuilding road in front of them, but they're smartly focused on finding enough draft assets to fuel this project to completion.

Washington Wizards: Who's Their Next All-Star Not Named Bradley Beal?

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    The Wizards coughed up a quarter-billion dollars to Bradley Beal this summer, which is... wild. If they hope to ever compete for something of substance over the life of this contract, they need the supporting cast to improve.

    Since they don't have a ton of tradeable assets, though, they might need those improvements to happen internally. So, who steps up and becomes Beal's All-Star sidekick? Can Kristaps Porzingis stay healthy and mobile enough to work his magic? Or does it have to be a youngster like Deni Avdija or Johnny Davis growing into that role?

    Either way, the clock is strangely ticking. Despite having just three playoff trips and one postseason series win to show for the last seven campaigns, the Wizards put win-now pressure on themselves with that colossal contract.


    Statistics used courtesy of Basketball Reference and NBA.com.

    Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.

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