The Top Offseason Task for Every NBA Team Projected to Miss the 2015 Playoffs
As NBA teams continue jostling for playoff positioning over the final few days of the regular season, some have already begun the process of preparing for next year.
The Philadelphia 76ers, for instance, recently moved rookie big man Nerlens Noel to the starting 4 spot to prepare him for life with Joel Embiid. Los Angeles Lakers head coach Byron Scott has been playing rotation roulette in recent weeks, with the lone constant being heavy minutes for rookie floor general Jordan Clarkson.
Each squad that misses out on this year's playoff festivities will need to make adjustments over the offseason, although some tasks take precedence over others. While every team would love to land a top-tier free agent at a discount, the non-playoff franchises will need to approach their respective holes more realistically.
Based on roster construction, likely draft picks and salary-cap space, the following tasks should take precedence for teams projected to miss this year's playoffs as of Saturday, April 11.
Charlotte Hornets: Find a Fit for Lance Stephenson
The Lance Stephenson era hasn't gone quite as expected for the Charlotte Hornets, to put it kindly.
When the Hornets snagged Stephenson on a three-year, $27 million deal last summer, it appeared to be one of the biggest steals in free agency. The former Indiana Pacer was coming off a year in which he set career highs across the board—13.8 points on 49.1 percent shooting, 7.2 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game.
With just one week remaining in the regular season, however, Stephenson has still yet to find his groove in Charlotte. He's averaging just 8.2 points on 37.6 percent shooting, 4.5 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game this season. He recently did not play by the coach's decision in two consecutive games with the Hornets on the fringe of the playoff race.
Following Stephenson's second straight benching April 1 against the Detroit Pistons, Charlotte head coach Steve Clifford discussed his rationale behind the decision:
I want to make this clear, Lance is here because of me. I'm the one that wanted Lance. I'm the one that knows all of the people in New York that knows Lance. I'm the one that made all the calls. It's simply that I can't find a group that plays well when he's out there. I've been experimenting with all of these different things.
Though Stephenson recently told Steve Reed of The Associated Press that he doesn't regret signing with Charlotte, it's clear that he and Clifford need to figure out how to best utilize his skill set this summer. Otherwise, the Hornets would be wise to survey the trade market and sell him for 40 cents on the dollar if that's what it takes to get a deal done.
Denver Nuggets: Determine a Direction
The Denver Nuggets' activity at the trade deadline can only be described as head-scratching.
The Nuggets shipped Arron Afflalo and Alonzo Gee to the Portland Trail Blazers for Thomas Robinson (who they quickly waived), guard Will Barton, forward Victor Claver and a lottery-protected 2016 first-round draft pick. Shortly after that, they sent JaVale McGee to the Philadelphia 76ers with a protected first-rounder in what effectively amounted to a salary dump.
Two weeks later, Denver fired head coach Brian Shaw and immediately proceeded to win six of its next eight games, looking like as entirely different team. That didn't last long, however, as the Nuggets then dropped eight of their next 10 games, including a 14-point loss at the hands of the bottom-feeding 76ers.
Come the offseason, Nuggets general manager Tim Connelly must determine whether Melvin Hunt is the right long-term fit for the franchise, or if there's a better head coaching candidate out there. First, however, "Denver needs to figure out what kind of team it wants to be," as Pro Basketball Talk's Kurt Helin wrote.
Shaw wasn't shy about his desire to run a half-court-centric offense, but the Nuggets roster under him was better suited to George Karl's run-and-gun style. Not only does Denver need to decide upon a style of play and hire a coach accordingly, but the franchise must also determine whether to move into a full-on rebuild.
If the Nuggets fail to settle upon a direction this summer, they would likely be dooming their next head coach from the get-go, much like Shaw. Getting the front office and future coach on the same page is critical if Denver hopes to eventually retake its place among the Western Conference's top contenders.
Detroit Pistons: Settle Upon a Point Guard
The Detroit Pistons' trade-deadline acquisition of Reggie Jackson raised more than a few eyebrows, Brandon Jennings' included.
Before tearing his left Achilles tendon toward the end of January, Jennings was playing at a career-best level, averaging 15.4 points, 6.6 assists, 2.5 rebounds and 1.1 steals in just 28.6 minutes per game. Though his .401 field-goal percentage left much to be desired, his career-high player efficiency rating of 19.7 had him looking like a potential long-term building block alongside Andre Drummond.
However, Jennings' injury cast doubt over his long-term future with the organization. Head coach Stan Van Gundy acknowledged as much following the trade for Jackson:
There's a lot of uncertainty around Brandon, and so we needed to make sure we were protected. Plus, Brandon's only signed through next year. So we wanted to get a long-term option and there's still plenty of room for Brandon. So we look forward to his recovery. I think it takes the pressure off him having to rush back, which is a positive thing. And we can move forward.
Jackson got off to a slow start in Detroit, averaging 14.3 points on 37.1 percent shooting, 6.6 assists and 4.3 rebounds over his first 11 games, but he's been sensational since Greg Monroe temporarily went down with a knee injury. Over his past 13 games, the Boston College product has averaged 20.9 points on 49.3 percent shooting, 11.0 assists and 5.3 rebounds, bludgeoning opponents via pick-and-rolls with Drummond.
Van Gundy conceded that Jennings "probably would have rather we didn't" acquire Jackson at the trade deadline, according to David Mayo of MLive.com, but the coach said Jennings "is on board" with the decision. This summer, SVG must decide whether to build around Jackson—a restricted free agent—Jennings or both.
Indiana Pacers: Reload the Frontcourt
Though the Indiana Pacers remain in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race, ESPN.com's Hollinger Playoff Odds give them just a 22.5 percent chance of earning a postseason berth. Getting Paul George back onto the court eight months after he suffered a gruesome broken leg should be consolation enough for Indiana.
The Pacers' chances of returning to the playoffs next season largely come down to what David West and Roy Hibbert decide to do between now and July. If both decline their 2015-16 player options to test the free-agent market, Indiana could suddenly be down the entirety of its starting frontcourt.
The bad news doesn't end there, either. Luis Scola, Shayne Whittington and Lavoy Allen are all set to become unrestricted free agents on July 1 too, which means Ian Mahinmi is the only current Pacers big man who is guaranteed to be back with the team for the 2015-16 season.
There's no guarantee Hibbert and West will decide to opt out of their respective deals, however, especially with the salary cap set to explode following the 2015-16 season. Neither player is likely to match his 2015-16 salary—$15.5 million for Hibbert and $12.6 million for West—so it may behoove them to play out the final year of their respective deals and hit the booming 2016 free-agent market.
Regardless of what Hibbert and West decide to do, however, the Pacers will still need to fill out their frontcourt reserves via the draft or free agency. Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky, Texas' Myles Turner and UCLA's Kevin Looney all stand out as potential late-lottery options for Indiana, while Ed Davis, Omer Asik and Bismack Biyombo could be promising under-the-radar free-agent targets.
With George back in the fold, George Hill running the point and a late-lottery pick added to the rotation, the Pacers should have little trouble competing for a 2016 playoff spot once they fortify their frontcourt. Hibbert is the real X-factor for Indiana this summer, as his departure would create a massive void to fill.
Los Angeles Lakers: Don't Overspend in Free Agency
Assuming the Los Angeles Lakers finish with the league's fourth-worst record, they'll have 82.8 percent chance of retaining their first-round draft pick this spring. If they slip two (or three) spots during the draft lottery, however, that mid-lottery pick will head straight to the Philadelphia 76ers.
What happens on lottery night may determine the direction this franchise takes in the offseason. Adding a top-five pick to a core of Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson gives the Lakers a sneaky good post-Kobe Bryant "Big Three"—assuming the former returns from his season-ending broken leg without complications, that is—which could make the team more enticing to potential free-agent targets.
If L.A. loses its first-round pick, however, it could send the front office into a panic once free agency begins, especially with Bryant's career coming to a close. The Lakers would then have to resist the temptation of overpaying a big-name free agent simply to appease Bryant in what may be his final season with the team.
Sean Deveney of Sporting News recently discussed this tension:
It could be Bryant’s final season, and the franchise does not want to send him off with yet another rebuilding year, though that might be in the best long-term interest of the team. Assuming the Lakers stay in win-soon mode, it is a safe bet that they will go hard after the two top point guards on the market, with Bryant’s pal Rajon Rondo at the head of the list and Goran Dragic behind him.
There's no harm in landing a top-tier free agent, but handing a guy like Rajon Rondo a four-year max contract could come back to bite the Lakers. General manager Mitch Kupchak and Co. must accordingly tread lightly in free agency, putting the team's long-term future ahead of the desire to make one more playoff push with Bryant.
Miami Heat: Re-Sign Goran Dragic
The Miami Heat didn't ship out two future first-round draft picks at the trade deadline for a half-season rental of point guard Goran Dragic. They fully intended on extending his stay in South Beach for the next half-decade.
Dragic figures to decline his $7.5 million player option this summer to become an unrestricted free agent, and his re-signing in Miami is no guarantee. A few weeks after joining the Heat, he told Bleacher Report's Jared Zwerling that he's "going to explore [his] options" in free agency.
Before Heat fans get up in arms, however, Dragic also told Zwerling that he was "really hoping to stay in Miami because I really like it." So long as the Heat make "a suitable offer," the 28-year-old floor general would feel "no need to explore other teams in free agency," according to Jason Lieser of the Palm Beach Post.
Immediately following the trade, ESPN's Ramona Shelburne tweeted, "The Heat would not have done this trade for Dragic without feeling good that he re-signs this summer. Expectation is he'll get a five–year max." Depending on where the salary cap falls this summer, a five-year max contract should be in the ballpark of $100 million, per Pro Basketball Talk's Dan Feldman.
That may sound like a hefty sum to hand The Dragon, but the Heat have little choice in the matter. The only thing more devastating than overpaying Dragic would be trading away two future first-round draft picks for a half-season of his services.
With Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh both on the wrong side of 30, imagining the Heat in five years' time necessitates a stomach made of steel. In the interim, though, a Wade-Dragic-Bosh core could easily contend in the lackluster Eastern Conference, especially with breakout center Hassan Whiteside set to return next year too.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Overhaul Their Offensive Approach
It's no secret the NBA has gone three-point happy over recent years. Someone might want to inform Minnesota Timberwolves head coach Flip Saunders of that.
The Timberwolves rank dead last this year in both three-point makes and three-point attempts, which says all you need to know about their offensive philosophy. They've attempted roughly 260 more treys than the Houston Rockets have hit. Meanwhile, Minnesota is sixth in shot attempts from 15-19 feet despite shooting just 38.2 percent from that range, the league's sixth-worst mark.
This isn't a one-year anomaly, either. As Yahoo Sports' Kelly Dwyer noted, "Not counting partial seasons, [Saunders'] Wizards and Wolves teams are typically perched deep into the 20s in threes attempted per contest," although the same wasn't true during his three-year stint with the Detroit Pistons in the mid-2000s.
Saunders raised eyebrows with comments he made to reporters before Wednesday night's loss to the Sacramento Kings, saying that he didn't want three-point shooting "to become a main part" of Andrew Wiggins' game. In speaking with A Wolf Among Wolves' Steve McPherson, ESPN's David Thorpe critiqued that idea:
…He looks like he could be a guy who could be a 40 percent three-point shooter in a few seasons—he's not going to do it for a year or two. But it's such a viable weapon and it just adds another component to his game and for teams to prepare for him. If you gotta run him off the line, that gives him a lot of opportunities to blow by you with that kind of speed. He doesn't need great ball-handling skills to blow by you if you have to close out the three-point shot.
As Thorpe later alluded to, the Wolves' lack of three-point shooting this season could be a personnel question, as Kevin Martin and Chase Budinger are the team's only true knockdown shooters. Still, Wiggins' pre- and post-All-Star-break splits—he attempted 95 treys in 53 games before, compared to just 25 in 26 games since—raise serious questions about Saunders' offensive philosophy in today's NBA.
New York Knicks: Tread Cautiously with Their Draft Pick
The New York Knicks are already guaranteed to end the 2014-15 season with the most losses in franchise history. If you ask head coach Derek Fisher, however, they'll be right back in the thick of the playoff conversation next season.
"We can go from 15 [wins] to 63 if we really want to," Fisher told reporters Thursday. "But that is up to us."
Being guaranteed no worse than a top-four pick (if they finish with the worst regular-season record) should help accelerate the Knicks' return to postseason contention. There's no guarantee the franchise actually hangs onto that pick, though.
In an interview on The Robin Lundberg Show back in March, ESPN's Brian Windhorst reported the Knicks are gauging "what they could possibly get if they trade their draft pick," per ESPN New York's Ian Begley. Since the Knicks have already traded away their 2016 first-rounder, they aren't allowed to move the 2015 pick until selecting a player, but that's a simple loophole to work around if so desired.
Grantland's Jason Concepcion believes "in a vacuum, the Knicks gauging the market for their pick is a logical, even responsible, thing to do." However, shipping it out to acquire a big-name veteran to pair alongside a soon-to-be 31-year-old Carmelo Anthony fresh off knee surgery gives him pause:
That's the thing about deals that exchange long-range potential for short-term impact: In close-up isolation, they make sense. It's only years later, when those traded picks and players begin flowering elsewhere, that the true costs become clear. Prioritizing established players is fine. But the flip side is that if a team prioritizes veterans and free-agency acquisitions, as the Knicks have done time and time again, that team naturally runs the risk of giving player development short shrift.
If the Knicks could land a young, budding superstar like Sacramento Kings big man DeMarcus Cousins for the pick and little else, it would be a no-brainer. Short of a deal like that, however, the franchise must proceed with extreme caution before giving up a shot at Karl-Anthony Towns, Jahlil Okafor, Emmanuel Mudiay or D'Angelo Russell.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Avoid Overpaying Enes Kanter
There's no guarantee the Oklahoma City Thunder wind up missing the playoffs. Though the New Orleans Pelicans have the tiebreaker over them for the Western Conference's No. 8 seed, ESPN.com's Hollinger Power Rankings give OKC a 40.4 percent chance of sneaking past Anthony Davis and Co. into the postseason.
Regardless of how the playoff race shakes out, though, the Thunder should enter the offseason with one goal in mind: avoiding any panic moves in free agency.
Yes, Kevin Durant is set to become an unrestricted free agent following the 2015-16 season, and Russell Westbrook will be one the summer after. No, the Thunder haven't won a title with this particular core, which has inevitably led to an endless stream of revisionist history about OKC's decision to trade James Harden in 2012.
The worst thing the Thunder could do this offseason, however, would be compounding mistakes by overpaying free agents in a desperate attempt to convince KD to re-sign in 2016. In particular, that goes for center Enes Kanter's upcoming date with restricted free agency.
Kanter has given the Thunder a low-post scoring threat they've lacked since moving to Oklahoma City, but the same can't be said about his defensive abilities. In fact, OKC has the league's third-worst defense since acquiring him at the trade deadline, and the Thunder have allowed opponents to outscore them by 1.4 points per 100 possessions with him on the court.
That doesn't mean OKC should outright rule out re-signing Kanter in restricted free agency, especially given its right of refusal. However, if another desperate team throws anywhere close to a max-contract offer his way, the Thunder should think twice before matching, even if it sends a negative message to KD and Westbrook.
Orlando Magic: Settle Upon a Head Coach
The Orlando Magic mercifully ended Jacque Vaughn's tenure as head coach on Feb. 5 after he compiled a 58-158 record over roughly two-and-a-half seasons. In a statement posted on the team's website, general manager Rob Hennigan explained the rationale behind the move:
We went into the season wanting to see some progress and see some growth and we just didn't feel like we were seeing the kind of growth that we wanted to see. That led us to this point. We find ourselves in a little bit of a rut right now. We'll call it what it is, but I’ll always say that it's a road bump and not a road block. We will get through this, but it doesn’t make it any easier when you have to make the type of decision that we made today.
If that's the case, interim head coach James Borrego might not last beyond this season, either. Since taking over, the Magic have gone a half-respectable 10-17, but they have bottom-10 rankings on both offense and defense with him at the helm, despite his publicly declared intention of focusing on the latter end of the court.
According to Brian Schmitz of the Orlando Sentinel, former Denver Nuggets head coach Brian Shaw would be "very interested" in the Magic job if the team doesn't keep Borrego as its permanent head coach. That's all but a foregone conclusion, per Schmitz, who wrote in mid-March that "the odds of Borrego being retained are long."
Though he has the backing of some key Magic players—"I can tell you the players here respect him," second-year 2-guard Victor Oladipo told NBA.com's Shaun Powell in mid-March—there's no guarantee the front office agrees. Three years into the post-Dwight Howard rebuild, the Magic need to begin making strides toward the playoffs next season, whether under Borrego or a more experienced head coach.
If Borrego isn't the answer, Orlando should have no shortage of options, including former NBA head coaches such as Mike Malone, Scott Skiles and Shaw. Additionally, according to ESPN.com's Marc Stein, University of Florida head coach Billy Donovan—who agreed to take the Magic job in 2007, only to back out days later—will reportedly be on the team's "list of targets" once its coaching search gets underway.
Philadelphia 76ers: Find a Starting Point Guard
When the Philadelphia 76ers shipped Michael Carter-Williams to the Milwaukee Bucks at the trade deadline, finding a franchise point guard became their top priority this offseason.
Though Ish Smith and Isaiah Canaan have each shown flashes of promise over the past month-and-a-half, neither is suited to be a starting lead guard. Pierre Jackson, who suffered a season-ending Achilles tear during summer league, could also figure into the point guard equation, but he's likewise best used in a reserve role.
Barring some devastating luck on lottery night, however, the draft figures to help Philadelphia out in this regard. If the Sixers end the season with the league's third-worst record, they'll have a 38.2 percent chance of winding up with the third or fourth pick in this June's draft and a 69.5 percent chance of landing in the top four.
With Kentucky's Karl-Anthony Towns and Duke's Jahlil Okafor likely to come off the board within the first two or three picks, that should leave the Sixers choosing between Emmanuel Mudiay and Ohio State's D'Angelo Russell. Each player brings different strengths to the table—Russell is a better shooter, Mudiay is more athletic—but either could potentially fit the bill of franchise floor general.
If the lottery gods cause the Sixers to tumble to the No. 5 or 6 pick, meanwhile, things would become exponentially more difficult for general manager Sam Hinkie. He's unlikely to snag a restricted free agent like Brandon Knight or Reggie Jackson, and no marquee unrestricted free agent will sign with the team while its rebuild remains in its nascent stages.
Unfortunately, this summer's crop of second-tier free-agent point guards isn't exactly promising, with Jeremy Lin and Patrick Beverley standing out as the only relatively young names of potential note. Slipping one spot in the lottery wouldn't be the end of the world, but falling out of the top four could be devastating to the Sixers' chances of finding a franchise point guard this offseason.
Phoenix Suns: Re-Sign Brandon Knight
At the trade deadline, the Phoenix Suns blew up their three-headed point guard hydra, shipping Goran Dragic to the Miami Heat and Isaiah Thomas to the Boston Celtics. They also flipped the Los Angeles Lakers' top-five protected 2015 first-round pick to the Philadelphia 76ers and sent big man Miles Plumlee and point guard Tyler Ennis to the Milwaukee Bucks, netting Brandon Knight in return.
The series of moves backfired in the short term, as Knight suffered an ugly ankle sprain in mid-March that limited him to 11 games in a Suns uniform. Now, he's set to become a restricted free agent in July, raising the specter of Phoenix having coughed up a likely lottery pick for a half-season rental that didn't lead to a playoff berth.
In a recent interview on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM's Burns and Gambo (via Adam Green of ArizonaSports.com), Suns general manager Ryan McDonough acknowledged wanting to re-sign Knight but promptly hedged his bets:
We'd certainly like to re-sign him, but we're going to do what's best for the team. Long-term, he's a free agent, he's going to do whatever's best for himself and his family, and hopefully for the Suns as well. No, we don't feel any immediate pressure, 'Oh my gosh, we have to do this or that' based on public reaction or based on what we gave up in the trade.
While McDonough's point is sound—there's no sense in dramatically overpaying Knight just because of what the Suns gave up—it's also largely untrue. As Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes wrote, "If all the Suns have to show for the assets they gave up to get Knight is a top-10-protected first-round pick from the Cleveland Cavaliers, it's hard to see that as anything other than a massive mistake."
Re-signing Knight likely caps the ceiling on this Suns team, so a sign-and-trade might be the best-case scenario for both sides. In the absence of such a move, though, the Suns must re-sign him this summer to reap some reward on the assets they shipped out in February.
Sacramento Kings: Acquire a DeMarcus Cousins Complement
Assuming owner Vivek Ranadive can stop meddling with the Sacramento Kings for a hot second, the team has legitimate promise heading into the offseason. DeMarcus Cousins is taking no prisoners, emerging as one of the league's top big men, while Rudy Gay has become a shockingly efficient No. 2 option behind Big Cuz.
With a hip flexor injury sidelining point guard Darren Collison for the year, second-year point guard Ray McCallum has gotten some valuable experience running the team, while Ben McLemore is rounding into form after a rough rookie season, too. If Nik "Sauce Castillo" Stauskas makes a similar rookie-to-sophomore leap, the Kings backcourt should be relatively set in stone already.
Sacramento's frontcourt beyond Cousins, meanwhile, remains much more of a question mark. Though the Kings have Jason Thompson and Carl Landry signed at roughly $13 million each through the 2016-17 season, neither player's skill set complements the franchise big man very well.
In recognition of this, Sacramento reportedly shopped around for "either a stretch 4 or above-the-rim defender" at the trade deadline, according to CBS Sports' Ken Berger. The Kings were even willing to include Stauskas in trade talks, per Berger, but weren't able to find a suitable deal at the time.
With a top-10 pick headed their way this June—if they finish with the league's sixth-worst record, they have a 21.5 percent chance of falling in the top three—the Kings won't lack ways to upgrade this summer. Latvia's Kristaps Porzingis, a career 37 percent three-point shooter, could be an especially intriguing fit if Sacramento winds up with the No. 6 pick.
Whether through the draft, trade or free agency, the Kings need to enter training camp with an upgrade at the 4. With roughly $10 million in available salary-cap space (after factoring in their first-round pick and cap holds), they likely won't be able to snag a top-tier free agent, so drafting Porzingis might be their best bet.
Utah Jazz: Land a Stretch 4
In Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert, the Utah Jazz have their frontcourt of the future. They now must fill out the remainder of their rotation of bigs around those two.
Since shipping out former starting center Enes Kanter to the Oklahoma City Thunder at the trade deadline, the Jazz have allowed just 93.8 points per 100 possession, by far the league's best mark in that span. They've gone 17-9 since the All-Star break, which represents a 54-win pace over a full 82-game season.
Utah's offense, however, hasn't been nearly as lethal as its defense. The Jazz have scored 101.8 points per 100 possessions with an effective field-goal percentage of .492 since moving Kanter, which ranks 17th and 16th in the league, respectively.
Accordingly, the Jazz should look to improve their offensive production this offseason, and there's no easier solution than adding a stretch 4. Gobert hasn't knocked down a shot 10 feet or further from the basket all year, while Favors is shooting just 37.6 percent from that range, including 1-of-5 on three-pointers.
Adding a three-point-shooting big man would help Utah improve its floor spacing significantly, which should open up more driving lanes for Dante Exum, Gordon Hayward and Co. Though there won't be a Ryan Anderson or Channing Frye on this year's free-agent market, Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky stands out as a potential late-lottery target in the draft.
If their play over the past month-and-a-half is any indication, the Jazz will be a force to be reckoned with in 2015-16, especially with Alec Burks coming back from season-ending surgery on his injured left shoulder. If they obtain a stretch big man via the draft or free agency, they'll become that much more dangerous.