6 NBA Contenders That Still Need an Offseason Move to Emerge from the Pack

Matthew SchmidtFeatured ColumnistJuly 19, 2015

6 NBA Contenders That Still Need an Offseason Move to Emerge from the Pack

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    The Thunder may have Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, but they still don't have enough.
    The Thunder may have Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, but they still don't have enough.Associated Press

    There is one simple rule for NBA fans during the summer: Don't blink, or you might miss the fireworks.

    If you can believe it, the 2015 offseason is drawing to a close. We are but one month removed from the Finals, and we are already almost prepared for the 2015-16 campaign.

    Not so fast, though: It isn't over yet.

    Numerous teams still have work to do, particularly those that have plans on contending next season.

    Look—we know the Portland Trail Blazers lost the offseason. We get that the Brooklyn Nets might be fighting with the Philadelphia 76ers to stay out of the Eastern Conference cellar. That's not what this is about.

    This concerns the clubs that are on the cusp of title contention but need one or two more moves to put them over the hump. The problem is, said clubs have not done that this summer.

    Sure, the big-name free agents are now off the market, but there is still time for shake-ups, and each and every one of the following teams needs one.

Atlanta Hawks

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    Jim Cowsert/Associated Press

    The Atlanta Hawks were a tale of two teams during the 2014-15 season.

    Prior to the All-Star break, they essentially looked invincible. They had strung together a 19-game winning streak behind sensational passing and lights-out shooting from Kyle Korver and were battling with the Golden State Warriors for the best record in the league.

    Then, things unraveled.

    Korver, while still good, came back down to earth, and so did Atlanta with him.

    The Hawks were able to win 60 games, but that seemed like a hollow victory. They clearly were not the same ballclub heading into the playoffs and were even tested in the first round by the eighth-seeded Brooklyn Nets.

    Atlanta managed to dispatch both the Nets and Washington Wizards in six games before being unceremoniously swept by a beaten-up Cleveland Cavaliers squad in the conference finals.

    In fairness, Mike Budenholzer's group had some nicks and bruises too, but even still, it was blatantly evident that its midseason dominance was long gone.

    "We kind of cruised our way into the No. 1 seed and we took our foot off the gas," now former Hawk DeMarre Carroll said on Bleacher Report Radio, per B/R's Ethan Skolnick.

    The Hawks entered the offseason knowing that they could potentially lose both Paul Millsap and Carroll to free agency. Fortunately for Atlanta, it retained Millsap, but Carroll bolted for the Toronto Raptors.

    While the Hawks acquired Tim Hardaway Jr. on draft night and swung a deal for Tiago Splitter shortly after, they have still been unable to replace Carroll.

    The bad news for Atlanta is that it doesn't just need to replace what Carroll brought to the table: It needs that and more.

    While the Hawks have a collection of good players like Al Horford, Millsap and Jeff Teague, the fact of the matter is that they lack that elite, star-level talent that is essentially a must on championship teams.

    Atlanta does have trade chips, particularly backup point guard Dennis Schroder. The question is, can it financially afford to make a trade for a star player without gutting its roster?

    More than likely, the Hawks will have to resort to filling out their roster with role players.

    They could have enough to earn a trip back to the conference finals in a weak East, but it does not appear that they have what it takes to win a title.

Chicago Bulls

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    The Chicago Bulls have had high expectations every year since the 2010-11 campaign. Unfortunately, a lack of offense and injuries have prevented them from ever living up to them.

    Gone is longtime fixture Tom Thibodeau, and in is rookie NBA coach Fred Hoiberg.

    Now, entering the 2015-16 campaign, one has to wonder if the Bulls' window has officially closed.

    Chicago lost to the Cavaliers in the second round of the 2015 playoffs, blowing a 2-1 series lead and dropping the final three games.

    There was plenty of foreshadowing leading up to that point, however.

    Derrick Rose was clearly not the same player he was several years ago. Joakim Noah was basically playing on one leg, and there was once again a shortage of firepower up and down the roster.

    While the Bulls boasted a starting lineup that included Rose, Noah, Jimmy Butler and Pau Gasol, their bench was lacking. Chicago finished 20th in bench scoring, per Hoops Stats, and has done nothing this offseason to rectify that problem.

    To be fair, the Bulls did take care of their most important order of business this summer, locking up Butler with a five-year, $95 million deal, per Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports.

    The problem is, they didn't add anyone else to improve the team.

    "I love this roster," Hoiberg said during his introductory press conference, via Brian Hamilton of Sports Illustrated. "I absolutely love this roster."

    Well, sure, it looks nice on paper, but if it didn't have the oomph to even reach the conference finals this past season, why should we believe it is going to be enough next year?

    Noah is 30 going on 31, and his balky knee is making life difficult for him on both ends of the floor. Rose is merely a shell of the player he was five years ago, and Gasol is another year older.

    Butler will almost certainly continue to improve, but what else is there to look forward to?

    Perhaps rookie big man Bobby Portis can inject some life into the ballclub, but what Chicago really needed was more depth at the wing spots.

    Maybe Tony Snell and second-year player Doug McDermott will get more run under Hoiberg, but Snell is probably nothing more than a serviceable three-and-D guy. McDermott has yet to show he can be productive on the NBA level.

    What's difficult to understand is why the Bulls didn't even pursue any of the cheaper swingmen out there, and it's also fair to question why they went with Portis over Rondae Hollis-Jefferson in the draft.

    After all, Chicago already had Noah, Gasol, Taj Gibson and Nikola Mirotic up front.

    Maybe the Bulls can try to put together a deal centered on Gibson. That being said, his value is not what it once was. Believe it or not, he's 30 years old and has missed a decent chunk of time with injuries over two of the past three seasons.

Memphis Grizzlies

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    Brandon Dill/Associated Press

    The Memphis Grizzlies had a similar offseason to that of Chicago's.

    They had a star player hitting the market, but they acted and locked him up, bringing back Marc Gasol on a five-year, $110 million pact, per Wojnarowski.

    However, other than that, the Grizzlies have been relatively quiet this summer.

    Yes, they acquired Matt Barnes to add to their already stingy perimeter defense and replaced the departed Kosta Koufos with Brandan Wright, but where is the wing scoring that they so desperately need?

    Memphis is relying on Jeff Green and Courtney Lee as its top guns on the wing, and as we all saw last year, that is a recipe for disaster.

    The Grizzlies had a chance to add a perimeter shooter in the draft but passed up on R.J. Hunter to instead select power forward Jarell Martin at No. 25.

    Huh? Memphis already has Gasol and Zach Randolph. Why add another big man into the mix when you clearly need outside shooting? Per Team Rankings, the Grizz ranked 23rd in three-point percentage and next-to-last in three-point makes this past season.

    Memphis is a very good ballclub. It is an outstanding defensive team and can beat you up inside. However, it just does not have the kind of offensive firepower to win a title, and it has done nothing to address that problem.

    This isn't anything new for the Grizzlies, either. A lack of scoring (particularly at small forward and shooting guard) has been their central issue for several years running. Say what you want about Rudy Gay, but Memphis has not been able to replace what he brought to the table since trading him during the middle of the 2012-13 campaign.

    It isn't so easy where Memphis can just "make a trade" now, either. It doesn't have many assets, with Jordan Adams likely being its No. 1 piece.

    Prior to the draft, the Grizzlies were pursuing a deal with the Denver Nuggets for Danilo Gallinari, per Marc Stein of ESPN.com.

    That would have been perfect for Memphis; Gallinari is a sharpshooter who can also do some creating offensively. However, the Grizzlies could not get a deal done, and most recently, the Nuggets were discussing Gallinari with the Boston Celtics, per Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald.

    A team like the Celtics would certainly have more chips of interest to Denver than Memphis does, leaving the Grizzlies out in the cold.

    That's why Memphis' best shot was to make a move in free agency. Yes, Gasol's contract was the No. 1 priority, and that is perfectly understandable, but when rival teams like the San Antonio Spurs are hauling in LaMarcus Aldridge and David West, you have to do something to keep up.

New Orleans Pelicans

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    The New Orleans Pelicans were one of the nice stories in the NBA last season, featuring an MVP-caliber season from Anthony Davis and a playoff appearance in the rugged Western Conference.

    However, despite the Pelicans' solid season, there were clear issues.

    First of all, they finished 23rd in defensive efficiency despite a frontcourt pairing of Omer Asik and Davis, per Team Rankings. Second, their backcourt had injury issues. Jrue Holiday and Eric Gordon both missed significant time, and Tyreke Evans had some nicks and bruises late in the year.

    Plus, you have to wonder how well the triumvirate of Holiday, Gordon and Evans actually fits together, anyway.

    Gordon has always had a penchant toward getting hurt, and Evans' style clashes with both Gordon and Holiday.

    Nevertheless, barring a trade, New Orleans, which has replaced coach Monty Williams with Alvin Gentry, will enter the 2015-16 campaign with all three players on the roster.

    As far as the front line goes, it's the same as last year. The Pelicans re-signed Asik on a five-year, $60 million deal and also brought back reserve center Alexis Ajinca for four years and $20 million, per Sam Amick of USA Today.

    Honestly, was re-upping with both big men necessary? Asik is overpaid, even with the rising cap. He was brutal in the Pelicans' first-round loss to Golden State and really has not shown any improvement over the past several seasons.

    The Ajinca contract is no doubt a bargain, as he was impressive last year. Based on how well he played during New Orleans' run to the playoffs, you have to ask yourself if the Pelicans would have been better off just re-signing Ajinca and letting Asik walk.

    '"The center position is covered,'' Gentry said, via John Reid of the Times Picayune. "It was really important to try and bring all of the guys back because I thought they laid a really good foundation here when you think about the fact that you won 45 games and really Anthony ended up missing 12 to 14 games (due to injury)."

    That's all well and good, but because of the fact New Orleans has decided to roll with both Asik and Ajinca, it has been unable to do anything else to augment its roster this summer.

    At this point in time, the Pelicans should still be a playoff squad thanks to the probable decline of the Blazers and the Dallas Mavericks, but they are one Davis ankle roll away from being a lottery team.

    The problem with New Orleans is that it doesn't have any great trade chips. Gordon has some value, seeing as how he is an expiring contract and is coming off a season in which he shot 44.8 percent from three-point range, but his checkered injury history douses that flame a bit.

    Holiday could be moved, but would that really be worth it?

    Fortunately for the Pelicans, they have a guy in Davis who is likely to end up taking the reins from LeBron James as the NBA's best player sooner rather than later. It's just a shame they don't have enough talent around him.

Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

    The Oklahoma City Thunder seem to find themselves on these types of lists every summer.

    We know they have a talented core of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka. The trio is sound on both ends of the floor and can cause matchup problems against virtually any team in the league due to its blend of size, athleticism and pure skill.

    The problem with the Thunder, who are now under the reign of new head coach Billy Donovan, is that they have been unable to reach the promise land because of a lack of surrounding talent.

    Yes, injuries were certainly the defining factor in Oklahoma City's missing the playoffs last season, but the team is now entering its fifth or sixth year (depending on whether or not you considered it a contender in 2010-11) of being a contender and still has nothing to show for it.

    The only moves the Thunder have made this offseason have been dumping Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones and re-signing two of their own players: Kyle Singler to a five-year, $25 million deal and Enes Kanter to a four-year, $70 million contract, both of which have raised eyebrows.

    Otherwise, OKC has stood pat. It had a good draft, picking up Cameron Payne and Dakari Johnson, but it has done nothing to address its bench issues and is putting an awful lot of pressure on Dion Waiters to be a consistent scorer.

    Oklahoma City has some depth up front in the form of Ibaka, Kanter, Steven Adams, Mitch McGary and Nick Collison, but it is thin at the wing spots. Its main reserves at small forward and shooting guard are Anthony Morrow, Andre Roberson and Singler. Of those three, Morrow is probably the only one who should be seeing regular minutes on an elite team.

    The Thunder should be a top-five team (and probably better) in the Western Conference based on their Big Three alone, but do they have enough ammo to get past the likes of the Spurs and the defending champion Golden State Warriors? Heck, even the Los Angeles Clippers, who have revamped their squad this summer, may end up being too deep for them at this point.

    Remember: Durant is a free agent next offseason, so there is pressure on OKC to win now.

    Back in April, Durant said, per Royce Young of ESPN.com"I love it here, man. I love my teammates, I love the city, I don't really think about anywhere else."

    However, Durant would add, "But you never know what the future holds sometimes and how teams may feel about you after a while, but I love it here and I would love to get my jersey retired here."

    If the Thunder are unable to win a title this season because of their unwillingness to make significant moves to improve the roster, you have to wonder how much consideration Durant will give to going elsewhere.

    Fortunately for general manager Sam Presti, he has plenty of trade chips at his disposal, so he does have the pieces to get a deal done. But will he actually do it?

Washington Wizards

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    It's hard to figure out just what the Washington Wizards have been doing this summer.

    They have made a few low-key signings, nabbing Alan Anderson, Jared Dudley and Gary Neal, but otherwise, they have been quiet. And remember: The Wizards were one of the league's most active teams in free agency last year.

    Washington lost Paul Pierce to the Los Angeles Clippers and appears to be in no hurry to find a replacement. That could prove dangerous, as he was essential last year with his uncanny ability to make big shots late in games. In that regard, the Wizards are putting an awful lot of faith in Otto Porter to fill Pierce's shoes.

    Porter had a nice sophomore season in 2014-15, but is he ready for that type of role on a squad that is only a couple of pieces away from being a threat to make the Finals?

    Like a lot of the teams on this list, Washington does not exactly have much flexibility in terms of making trades. It does have incoming rookie Kelly Oubre, and Porter is also a trade piece, but the Wizards seem to be depending on the latter.

    This is a good ballclub when everyone is healthy. Marcin Gortat and Nene are tough up front, and John Wall and Bradley Beal comprise one of the league's most talented backcourts. Of course, the "when healthy" caveat is big.

    Beal in particular has had trouble staying on the floor, missing significant time in two of his first three seasons. He is also yet to show much improvement, displaying iffy efficiency (51.3 career true-shooting percentage and 48.1 career effective field-goal percentage) and an inability to get to the free-throw line.

    There a lot of "ifs" surrounding the Wizards entering this coming season, and that is why it would behoove them to make another move this summer.

    That's easier said than done, though.