7 Eliminated NBA Playoff Teams with Most Work to Do During 2015 Offseason

Alec Nathan@@AlecBNathanFeatured ColumnistMay 18, 2015

7 Eliminated NBA Playoff Teams with Most Work to Do During 2015 Offseason

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    The offseason has arrived for all but four NBA teams, and with it comes pressing questions regarding personnel moves and on-court changes that must be made in preparation for deep postseason runs next year.

    Whether it's the Los Angeles Clippers seeking to retool their roster in hopes of breaking through the Western Conference Finals barrier, the Portland Trail Blazers facing the potential of a major shakeup or the Chicago Bulls eyeing a fresh start, a hectic summer of change is on the way. 

    Excluding teams that missed the playoffs and those still vying for conference championships, seven clubs were selected from an eligible field of 12. Although the handpicked franchises weren't ranked based on the perceived amount of work they need to do in the months ahead, specific criteria were used as a way to determine which candidates deserved to be highlighted. 

    Digging into the volatility of head coaching situations, flight risks in free agency, potential retirements and underachievement during postseason play, a handful of squads separated themselves from the pack and proved they need to embrace change in order to defeat playoff demons next time around.

Chicago Bulls

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    Change in Chicago has little to do with the composition of the Bulls roster and everything to do with a philosophical shift within the organization. 

    After five years at the head of Chicago's bench, head coach Tom Thibodeau and his .451 career playoff winning percentage appear headed for a divorce with the Bulls. 

    ESPN.com's Marc Stein has the details: 

    Yet there's little mystery surrounding what both sides want. The story is the same no matter who you check with: Thibodeau and his front-office superiors John Paxson and Gar Forman, despite their public pronouncements to the contrary, are utterly done with each other.

    As one source close to the situation puts it: 'Thibs is gone. They know it and he knows it.'

    To be sure, this isn't a hasty approach. As CBSSports.com's Ken Berger explained, the Bulls already have a replacement in mind. 

    "Atop that list is Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg, who league sources say would check all the boxes for the Bulls, including fixing the team's inconsistentand against the Cavs in Game 6, ineffectiveoffense," Berger wrote. 

    Despite finishing the regular season with the Eastern Conference's fourth-ranked offense (104.7 points per 100 possessions), the Bulls stalled in the postseason. En route to a second-round exit, Chicago mustered a shade over a point per possession (100.5 points per 100 possessions) but still managed to post a positive point differential thanks to a postseason-best defensive rating (98.1). 

    Outside of schematic adjustments, the Bulls need to make a few decisions regarding key personnel. 

    Restricted free agent Jimmy Butler will be at the forefront of the team's summer plans after his astounding 2014-15 campaign vaulted him into a max-contract stratosphere. Chicago will undoubtedly have competition, but it retains the right to match all offers and is the only team capable of offering a five-year pact. 

    The Bulls also have to address the unrestricted free agency of swingman Mike Dunleavy, who drilled playoff triples at a 48.2 percent clip. For a team that often had trouble spacing the floor, Dunleavy should be considered an invaluable cog worthy of a raise—if the Bulls aren't yet ready to trust 2014 first-round pick Doug McDermott.  

    Case in point: Among all Bulls players in the postseason, Dunleavy ranked No. 2 overall behind only Derrick Rose (plus-74) with a cumulative plus/minus rating of plus-72.   

Dallas Mavericks

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    Among 2015 NBA playoff qualifiers, no team is slated to undergo a more dramatic face-lift this summer than the Dallas Mavericks. 

    A quick summary of what's to come, before diving into the details: 

    • Rajon Rondo is an unrestricted free agent, and ESPN.com's Marc Stein reports Dallas has no interest in bringing him back. 
    • Monta Ellis can exercise a player option worth $8.7 million or decline it and test free agency. 
    • Tyson Chandler's deal is expiring, and he will become an unrestricted free agent on July 1. 

    Those are three core pieces who could be walking out the door. Rondo's exit is reportedly a given at this point, but the Ellis and Chandler cases are fascinating. 

    Ellis is going to be 30 years old when the 2015-16 season starts, so this may be his last, best chance to ink a lucrative long-term deal. However, postponing that decision by a year could be in his best interest considering a sizable cap spike is looming in 2016. The question, then, revolves around Ellis' patience to maximize his earning power. 

    According to Stein, both sides have mixed feelings regarding a return: 

    Word is he's not looking to leave Dallas, where he remade his reputation with last season's strong showing before this season's ups and downs, but Ellis also has the ability to opt out and become a free agent after playing for the (relative) bargain price of $8 million (and change) in each of the past two seasons.‎

    Passing on the opportunity to test the market and see if he can land a more lucrative annual salary might be hard to resist. The Mavs themselves, according to our own Tim MacMahon, are working through their own conflicted feelings about Ellis' future with the club.

    Then there's Chandler, the soon-to-be 33-year-old center who recorded the second-highest net rating (plus-5.5 points per 100 possessions) among all Dallas players who appeared in at least 50 games. 

    Difference-making as Chandler maybe, it's hard to envision him earning anything close to the $14.8 million he raked in during the final year of his deal. 

    Instead, the Mavs may have their sights set on the younger, more athletic DeAndre Jordan to occupy the middle. 

    According to Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, "The Dallas Mavericks are chief among several significant suitors, and the questions for Jordan are these: Does he want a larger offensive role elsewhere, and does he think the organization can win a championship with the co-existence of Paul and Griffin?"

    As Chandler has demonstrated during his time in Dallas, bouncy bigs can flourish in Dallas' spread pick-and-roll attack as they repeatedly dive to the basket for big flushes. However, the Los Angeles Clippers' system offers similar rewards, and their contending status has been validated to a more significant degree than Dallas'. 

    However, striking out on Jordan wouldn't be the end of the world. That is, if Dallas can facilitate a homecoming with LaMarcus Aldridge

    According to Stein, Dallas believes it has a "shot" at persuading Aldridge to join its ranks. With Dirk Nowitzki firmly in the twilight of his career, there would be no better replacement than a fellow mid-range savant. 

    Time to flip open that checkbook, Mr. Cuban. 

Los Angeles Clippers

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    Another year, another postseason exit for Chris Paul and the Los Angeles Clippers with the Western Conference Finals in their sights. 

    And now the questions will crop up at a fast and furious pace.

    Is the roster, as constructed, a viable threat to win an NBA title? Should the team do whatever it takes to re-sign DeAndre Jordan? How can the Clippers—with limited cap flexibility—make moves to improve their depth? 

    At present, the answers are complicated.

    As the Clippers' Western Conference Semifinals collapse indicated, L.A. isn't in a position advantageous to serious title contention—and it all relates back to a staggering lack of depth. 

    Not only did Doc Rivers flip swingman Jared Dudley and a protected 2017 first-round pick to the Milwaukee Bucks to clear cap room, but he proceeded to use the available space to sign Spencer Hawes, who logged a grand total of 57 minutes in the playoffs. 

    By committing to Hawes for four years and $23 million, the Clippers became hard-capped, which then restricted them to hunting for bargain-bin contributors (read: Austin Rivers) at the trade deadline.    

    "The core isn't the problem," ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne wrote. "The depth is, and that's on Doc Rivers, president of basketball operations, more than anyone else. He's the man who constructed a roster that hasn't been particularly flexible, deep or dynamic all season. Griffin and Paul each took turns taking the blame for not getting this group out of the second round. As the All-Stars here, they should."

    And with the Clippers inclined to offer Jordan a five-year, $108.7 million max deal, per Shelburne, cap space figures to be tight again should the big man opt to stay in Hollywood. 

    That would leave Rivers to atone for last summer's costly mistakes, a feat which won't be simple given the Clippers' inability to offer much more than deals at the veteran's minimum. 

Memphis Grizzlies

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    The Memphis Grizzlies' offseason will be defined by their ability to retain Marc Gasol, who is destined for max dollars. 

    Gasol's talent is among the rarest in NBA, evidenced by his ability to operate as the team's go-to distributor from the high post, a face-up scorer or a conventional back-to-the-basket big. This season, he was one of four players—along with Russell Westbrook, Blake Griffin and DeMarcus Cousins—to average at least 17 points, seven boards and three assists. 

    Those are numbers that should have practically every team with an available max salary slot kicking down Gasol's door to present him with an enticing offer. 

    However, USA Today's Sam Amick reports "There is confidence among Gasol's teammates that he won't want to leave their Grit & Grind core, but that Spurs possibility worries them."

    An opportunity to play the role of successor to Tim Duncan should intrigue Gasol plenty, but it's clear he has some unfinished business in Memphis. In order to finally reach the elusive championship plateau, though, the Grizzlies will need to work on shoring up other pieces of their roster.

    During the playoffs, a dearth of reliable outside scorers capped Memphis' upside, leaving Courtney Lee and a banged up Mike Conley to do most of the team's three-point scoring. In fact, Lee (14) and Conley (10) were the only Grizzlies players who knocked down at least 10 threes in the playoffs. That duo wound up accounting for 50 percent of the team's made treys during postseason play. 

    After ranking 29th in threes attempted (15.2 per game) and 22nd in conversion rate (33.9 percent) during the regular season, Memphis desperately needs upgrades on the wing. That said, the Grizzlies won't have much wiggle room to make serious improvements if Gasol re-ups at the max and Jeff Green exercises his $9.2 million player option.

Portland Trail Blazers

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    It would have sounded hyperbolic a few months ago, but it's increasingly likely that this summer will have the potential to change the course of the Portland Trail Blazers franchise. 

    LaMarcus Aldridge is ready to hit the open market, and the same holds true for Wesley Matthews and Robin Lopez. Plus, Arron Afflalo has the ability to opt out of a $7.7 million player option and Damian Lillard's ready to cash in on his stellar play and earn a major pay raise prior to the four-year extension deadline in October. 

    Aldridge is the biggest prize, though, so we'll start with him. 

    According to ESPN.com's Marc Stein, Aldridge is on the fence regarding a return to Portland, with the Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs emerging as primary contenders to swipe his services away from the Blazers: 

    But the consistent word on the personnel grapevine at the minute informs us that San Antonio and Dallas not only both believe they have a real shot at signing him but are also legitimately in Aldridge's thoughts.

    Does Aldridge, even accounting for his Dallas upbringing, really want to go home to North Texas or down to South Texas, where he'd essentially be casting himself as the heir apparent to either Dirk Nowitzki or Tim Duncan? Wouldn't he be putting himself in some awfully challenging circumstances to try to live up to the legacies of either of those certifiable legends?

    Answer: We're hearing Aldridge connected to both of those teams so frequently that you can only conclude that neither idea scares him.

    "We will sit down and figure it out,'' Aldridge said after the season, according to The Oregonian's Jason Quick. "I'm not going to get into the percentages. I've always loved being here and I've had a great 9 years here -- that's always going to have more weight than anything else.'' 

    All of that isn't necessarily ominous for Rip City, but it hardly falls on the encouraging end of the spectrum.

    As for Matthews, his value was skyrocketing prior to suffering a ruptured Achilles. He was on pace to drill 200 threes in back-to-back seasons, and his refined ability to score out of the post was an added bonus. Matthews is a three-and-D prototype, and one that teams should be dying to sign—medical concerns be damned. 

    On the Afflalo front, Stein reports the swingman acquired from the Denver Nuggets "intends to go ahead with plans to opt out this summer even though a right shoulder injury obviously prevented him from making the post-trade deadline smash in Portland that he'd hoped."

    Prioritizing such a diverse range of talents won't be easy, so it's on general manager Neil Olshey to put the franchise in a place conducive to long-term success while not sacrificing significant gains in the interim. 

San Antonio Spurs

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    The buzz word for the San Antonio Spurs these days is uncertainty—which is shrouding the futures of Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan, each of whom is entering the summer sans contractual stability. 

    The Spurs' aged heroes have reached the point where retirement is a distinct possibility, but as Duncan proved throughout the postseason, he still has plenty left in the tank. 

    "People ask me about Tim [Duncan] and Manu [Ginobili] and myself for the last five years, what we're going to do," head coach Gregg Popovich said, according to ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne. "It's all psycho babble. I have no clue. We'll probably come back. Paycheck is pretty good. You think I'm lying."

    While Popovich's words are reassuring for Spurs fans, it's hard to ignore the decline in Ginobili's play—which was a far departure from the stunning sixth-man displays we had become accustomed to. Through seven playoff games against the Los Angeles Clippers, Ginobili averaged just eight points, 4.6 assists and two turnovers while shooting 34.9 percent from the field. His burst was gone, and suddenly, his effectiveness started to wane.

    Following the Spurs' Game 7 ouster, Ginobili sounded torn about his future.

    "Some days you feel proud and you think you did great," Ginobili said, per Shelburne. "Other games you think, 'What the hell am I doing here? I might as well stay home and enjoy my kids.' It's a tough moment. You just have to sit, wait, let it all go and make a decision."

    However, good news may be on the horizon.

    According to Bleacher Report's Ric Bucher, "all indications are that the Spurs are planning for them to be back in some capacity. The only question is what sort of contracts they're going to sign and for how long."  

    But even if Duncan and Ginobili return, the Spurs need to prepare for a day when Duncan no longer dons silver and black. 

    Given the franchise's championship pedigree, pitching Marc Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge—both of whom are potential offseason targets, according to ESPN.com's Marc Steinon joining the league's most esteemed dynasty wouldn't figure to be a particularly difficult task. The rings speak for themselves.

    Beyond retooling the frontcourt for the future, the Spurs also need to gauge the market for shooters Danny Green and Marco Belinelli. Both have proved capable of carving out niches in Popovich's system, and that prosperity could parlay itself into interest from contenders willing to overpay for outside shooting.    

    But if general manager R.C. Buford's track record is any indication, San Antonio will continue to reside near the top of the NBA's championship hierarchy one way or another. 

Toronto Raptors

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    Is it possible the Toronto Raptors, as currently constructed, have peaked? 

    The Raptors finished the regular season ranked No. 3 overall in offensive efficiency, and that prolific power masked some core defensive issues that cropped up during their four-game first-round exit against the Washington Wizards. 

    And while head coach Dwane Casey is reportedly set to return, according to NBC New York's Mitch Lawrence, a roster that's made first-round exits in each of the past two postseasons stands to be be tinkered with.

    "The evaluation here will be more drawn out," ESPN.com's Marc Stein wrote. "And the Raptors have a variety of directions they can go. Yet the early word on the personnel grapevine is that Lowry, DeRozan and big man Jonas Valanciunas (who's eligible for a contract extension this summer) are the only players on the roster who can feel with a healthy sense of confidence that they're likely to stay right where they are."

    Assuming those high-profile names are safe, it'll be worth watching what happens with Toronto's supporting cast. 

    Reigning Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams is set to become an unrestricted free agent, as are Amir Johnson, Landry Fields, Chuck Hayes, Tyler Hansbrough and Greg Stiemsma. With just $49 million in guaranteed money on the books entering the summer, Toronto should have enough cash to shop for role-playing upgrades.

    That said, letting most—or all—of those players walk would leave Toronto with roughly $18 million to plug six spots as the salary cap projects to increase incrementally to $67.1 million, according to DraftExpress.com's Jonathan Givony.

    For so many potential openings, that's hardly a big chunk of change. However, if general manager Masai Ujiri is able to work some magic, the Raptors could find their stock climbing as the 2015-16 season approaches. 


    All statistics are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com unless noted otherwise. 

    Alec Nathan covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @AlecBNathan