The Biggest 2016 Offseason Priority for Every Lottery-Bound NBA Team

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 12, 2016

The Biggest 2016 Offseason Priority for Every Lottery-Bound NBA Team

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    Lottery-bound NBA teams still have about a month before embarking on season-ending fishing trips. But summer itineraries are already filling up as their biggest problem areas become painfully clear.

    Non-participants may all have an excuse why they missed the postseason dance—too young, too injured, too short on talent—but they also have issues that need correcting. Using a combination of statistics and the eye test, we've pinpointed the biggest one facing all 14 teams that we think will miss the final cut.

    Some have specific needs, plus the assets (picks, cap space) to possibly address them. Others have steeper uphill battles ahead and limited means to complete their projects.

    As each club lottery club inches closer to the finish line, this is where the main offseason focus should be.

Brooklyn Nets: Find Youth

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    The Brooklyn Nets are basketball's version of the headless chicken. They have a bottom-of-the-barrel present and, at least in the short term, no discernible plan for the future.

    Their shortsighted attempts to construct a contender on the fly cost them valuable trade chips. They currently have the fourth-highest odds of landing this summer's top pick, per Tankathon.com, but it doesn't matter.

    That selection belongs to the Boston Celtics, one of several debts still owed for the 2013 acquisitions of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce.

    External assistance seems highly unlikely, unless some top-tier free agent happens to be a huge Brook Lopez fan. Complicating matters is that Brooklyn has few—if any—internal avenues to uncover a star.

    The rookie Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is a relentless defender, but his offense needs serious seasoning. And he's already lost three months of developmental time thanks to a broken ankle. Shane Larkin and Thomas Robinson are both journeymen. Markel Brown has struggled to find meaningful minutes. Freshman Chris McCullough only recently returned from a torn ACL.

    Brooklyn has to develop some of its own recruiting chips to make use of the roughly $40 million it will have in cap space. Identifying potential diamonds in the rough will be key, as will hiring the right coach to help those prospects maximize their abilities.

Chicago Bulls: Adjust Roster to Fit New Style

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    The Chicago Bulls have playoff talent. But their postseason bubble could well burst due to a combination of injuries, inconsistencies and an overall disconnect between philosophy and personnel.

    Despite sitting just a half-game back of the eighth-seeded Detroit Pistons, Chicago's climb seems much steeper. ESPN.com gives Detroit a 68 percent chance to reach the second season, while the Bulls only have a 30.7 percent shot. The gap between their yearlong performance is wider than that half-game, as Detroit boasts a plus-1.0 point differential (12th) to Chicago's minus-1.4 (18th).

    As a perennial playoff contender, the Bulls would disappoint if they miss this party. But it may not be such a bad thing.

    Chicago is transitioning under first-year coach Fred Hoiberg, and the roster still needs to catch up to his new approach. The offensive gains the Bulls were supposed to get by moving on from Tom Thibodeau haven't happened—the Bulls rank 26th in offensive efficiency and 27th in true shooting percentage.

    But those numbers aren't all on Hoiberg. He's trying to run a high-paced, spread-out system with a slew of players who worked best under Thibodeau's controlled, methodical direction.

    To play Hoiberg's preferred game, this roster needs more speed, better spacing and improved versatility. That should lead to potentially significant changes up front, with both Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol headed to free agency. The Bulls could also shop Taj Gibson for dynamic wings, which would open up more minutes for stretch bigs Nikola Mirotic and Bobby Portis.

Denver Nuggets: Shoot for the Stars

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    The Denver Nuggets may have the best collection of young talent that no one's talking about.

    Emmanuel Mudiay is a hyperathletic lead guard with the vision and selflessness of a natural floor general. Fellow freshman Nikola Jokic passes like a long lost Gasol brother. Gary Harris has the three-and-D skills every wing needs. Will Barton has the energy and explosiveness to put himself in the running for Most Improved Player.

    And that says nothing of this roster's established commodities. Before being sidelined by torn ankle ligaments, Danilo Gallinari was having the best scoring season of his career (19.5 points per game). Kenneth Faried constantly supplies infectious vitality. Wilson Chandler, lost for the season to hip surgery, boasts significant versatility on both sides of the court.

    But this roster has been missing a star since Carmelo Anthony forced his way out in 2011. For all the pieces Denver has added since, they would still be best in supportive roles behind an alpha dog.

    Armed to the teeth with incoming draft picks and possibly sitting on upwards of $28 million in cap room, the Nuggets should have the ammunition to spend their summer big-game hunting.

Los Angeles Lakers: Get Defensive

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    The Los Angeles Lakers have put their future offense in great hands. The rookie D'Angelo Russell looks like a budding star, averaging 19.8 points on 47.2 percent shooting (46.3 from deep) since the All-Star break. Julius Randle continues tapping into a potentially lethal off-the-dribble game. Jordan Clarkson has picked up where he left off after a first-team All-Rookie debut.

    But, unless the Lakers plan on routinely outscoring teams 150-149, they desperately need to upgrade the opposite end.

    They've surrendered 109.7 points per 100 possessions, the league's worst mark by nearly two full points. Plagued both by a leaky perimeter and a soft interior, they've been particularly vulnerable from close range. Opponents are shooting an NBA-high 56.7 percent at the rim against them.

    "I thought our guards would do a little better job of keeping guys in front of them. We haven't done a very good job of that and they know that," Lakers coach Byron Scott said, per Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times. "Our back-line defense still has to do a better job of reacting. It's not one thing. It's five or six things."

    Case in point—Randle leads the Lakers' regulars with a 108 defensive rating. That's tied for 142nd out of the 232 players to log at least 1,000 minutes this season.

    L.A. needs stoppers like the rest of us need air. If it can salvage its top-three protected pick, the franchise should spend that and its potential $64 million of cap room on defenders.

Milwaukee Bucks: Add Outside Shooting

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    The Milwaukee Bucks have so many reasons to be excited about their future. But nearly all of them exist inside the three-point arc.

    Their top five minutes leaders are all 25 or under: Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Greg Monroe, Jabari Parker and Michael Carter-Williams. Only one has proved to be a legitimate long-distance threat—Middleton, who has 127 makes on 41 percent shooting.

    The other four have combined to make 34 threes. That's less than three times as many as the Golden State Warriors average per night (12.8). And the Dubs convert 41.4 percent of those shots. Milwaukee's quartet has posted a grisly 23.6 percent accuracy rate.

    That doesn't just deny the Bucks one of the most important shots in today's game. It also shrinks the offensive end of the floor, suffocating their other scoring options in the process. An overpacked paint increases the degree of difficulty on Antetokounmpo's slashes, Monroe's post-ups and Parker's dribble penetrations.

    The Bucks need better balance. They addressed this void once during last year's draft by adding perimeter scorer Rashad Vaughn, but they must continue focusing on this area to help unlock their massive potential.

Minnesota Timberwolves: Space the Floor

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    The Minnesota Timberwolves' future grows brighter by the minute.

    They should have their second Rookie of the Year in as many seasons, with Karl-Anthony Towns poised to follow in Andrew Wiggins' footsteps. Zach LaVine is the kind of turbo-charged wild card who could accelerate this rebuild if he fully harnesses his physical tools. Ricky Rubio continues to flash top-shelf court vision, while Gorgui Dieng and Shabazz Muhammad could both be part of the club's long-term plans.

    But the missing piece from this puzzle is a major one. The Wolves are woefully understaffed with long-distance snipers. Minnesota ranks 30th in three-point takes (15.6 per game) and makes (5.2) while sitting one notch from the bottom in percentage (33.0).

    "Minnesota is in desperate need of shooting on the wing," wrote ESPN.com's Zach Lowe. "Andrew Wiggins is shooting [28.2] percent from deep and passes up open shots. Tayshaun Prince has made four threes all season, and Shabazz Muhammad...is only a threat on short corner threes."

    The Wolves aren't without hope. LaVine is a capable spacer (36.4 percent), and Towns already looks like the rare 7-foot center with three-point range. But that still leaves Minnesota lacking both quantity and quality from distance.

New Orleans Pelicans: Support the Brow

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    The New Orleans Pelicans' present and future hopes both stretch across the broad shoulders of 23-year-old phenom Anthony Davis.

    That, in itself, isn't a problem. The single-browed superstar is already among the league's most productive players. He's averaging better than 24 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks for the second consecutive season. The last player to accomplish that was four-time champion and future Hall of Famer Shaquille O'Neal.

    Davis is an ideal centerpiece for any franchise to build around. But, despite mortgaging some of their future for immediate relief, the Pelicans have failed to surround him with substance.

    "The Pelicans have done a horrendous job building around their organization's sturdiest pillar," Michael Pina wrote for Fox Sports. "The strategy of surrounding him with 'young veterans,' talented-but-flawed pieces like Tyreke Evans, Jrue Holiday, Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon, isn't working out."

    Holiday looks like a keeper—provided he can stay healthy—but it's tough to tell if New Orleans has found any others. Anderson is a one-way player, Gordon can't stay on the floor, and Evans, who's had three surgeries on his right knee since May, continues to frustrate with questionable decision-making.

    As supremely talented as Davis is, he needs far more help than the Pelicans have provided.

New York Knicks: Bolster Backcourt

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    The New York Knicks held distinct playoff hopes for a good portion of this campaign, but they've been trapped in a tailspin for the better part of the last two months. With 20 losses over their last 27 games, their postseason ambitions have devolved into a pipe dream.

    But this roster isn't broken, even if it's clearly flawed. They actually have the league's third-highest scoring frontcourt (66.7 points per game, via HoopsStats.com), thanks in large part to All-Star Carmelo Anthony, rising rookie Kristaps Porzingis and steady veteran Robin Lopez.

    However, the backcourt is a different story, particularly at point guard.

    Jose Calderon is a turnstile defensively. Freshman Jerian Grant can't find a shooting touch from anywhere (37.1 percent from the field, 17.7 from deep). Langston Galloway works best as an energetic reserve.

    "More than any other time in the league, it's important to have an elite point guard," former All-Star and current ESPN analyst Chauncey Billups told the New York Post's Marc Berman. "It's a guard's league. Most top point guards are lead guards who can get it done. No disrespect to anyone in a Knicks jersey, [but] they don't have a guy on the roster who plays that position who can do that."

    It's clear the Knicks need to address that position this summer, but their means of doing so remains murky. They've already traded away both of their picks in the upcoming draft. And while they could have approximately $19 million in cap space, their buying power could be limited by underwhelming play and uncertainty at head coach.

Orlando Magic: Strike Free-Agent Gold

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    Despite drafting well in recent seasons, the Orlando Magic are still star searching. And they're seemingly convinced they can scratch that itch once the 2016 free-agent market opens.

    They planned their entire trade-deadline strategy around doing exactly that. They let go of plug-and-play stretch big Channing Frye and 23-year-old scoring forward Tobias Harris without adding a first-round pick in either transaction.

    Still, their ultimate take-home prize sounds sweet$45 million in potential cap space. They chased All-Star forward Paul Millsap hard last summer and look ready to target another top-tier player, or players, this time around.

    But, as Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel explained, this is far from a foolproof plan:

    First, the 2016 NBA free-agent class is top heavy, with too few star-quality free agents to satisfy the massive demand from teams throughout the league.

    Second, other teams besides the Lakers, Celtics, Mavericks and Sixers will have enough money to attract at least one maximum-salary free agent.

    Third, there are no guarantees that top-flight free agents would want to join the Magic.

    It'll be a tough trek forward without a major market or successful track record to sell to prospective targets. But the reward would be ultra-rich, since this roster is already overflowing with promising support pieces.

Philadelphia 76ers: Balance the Roster

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    As the Philadelphia 76ers' woeful 9-56 record can attest, their multiyear tank job remains a work in progress.

    Part of the problem is they've yet to reap the full rewards of their embracing the loss column. Former lottery picks Joel Embiid (multiple foot surgeries) and Dario Saric (still overseas) have yet to make their NBA debuts.

    But the other issue is the way they've hoarded assets as opposed to constructing a roster. Philly's four prized possessions—Embiid, Saric, Nerlens Noel and rookie Jahlil Okafor—are all power forwards and centers.

    It's tough to tell if this group has any perimeter players in place for the future. Robert Covington and Nik Stauskas are both shooting below 40 percent from the field, and speedy point guard Ish Smith has yet to harness a serviceable three-point stroke (career 28.1 percent). Third-year swingman Hollis Thompson owns a single-digit career player efficiency rating (9.7).

    Philly's backcourt has produced the fourth-fewest points in the league (35.9 per game, via HoopsStats.com). More worrisome, the Sixers should thrive in volume categories, since they play at the sixth-fastest pace.

    But there's no way to mask that this roster is largely devoid of perimeter talent. That has to change this summer, especially with the franchise potentially holding four first-round picks in the upcoming draft.

Phoenix Suns: Find Long-Term Focus

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    The Phoenix Suns have fallen off a cliff. Losing 32 of their last 37 games, they're on pace to post the second-lowest winning percentage in franchise history (.262).

    They have to pick their direction for moving forward. There are enough prospects around to call this a youth movement, but what would that mean for the costly trio of Brandon Knight, Eric Bledsoe and Tyson Chandler?

    Would keeping those players stunt the development of Devin Booker, Archie Goodwin and Alex Len? Is interim coach Earl Watson a long-term fit or just a stopgap solution?

    For now, these pressing questions all remain unanswered, though the Suns sound intrigued by the idea of a patient climb to the top.

    "What we're looking for mainly are effort, structure, development and just playing the right way,” Suns general manager Ryan McDonough said, per Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe. "Just building a foundation for the future. If we can get the young guys to do that the rest of the year, we'll view that as progress."

    Good days should be on the horizon. The Suns are polishing their prospects and should expand that collection with as many as three first-round picks in the 2016 talent grab. But they may have tough calls to make with their veterans and stand-in skipper.

Sacramento Kings: Find Stability at Shooting Guard

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    The Sacramento Kings have a walking question mark at shooting guard, one which they've tried to answer multiple times over the last few seasons.

    They've invested two of their last three top-10 picks into the spot, grabbing Ben McLemore at No. 7 in 2013 and then using the eighth pick on the since-traded Nik Stauskas a year later. This past summer, they reportedly targeted Wesley Matthews and Monta Ellis, per ESPN.com's Marc Stein, before ultimately signing Marco Belinelli, James Anderson and Seth Curry.

    All three have suited up this season, and Kings coach George Karl has also trotted out two-point guard lineups with Rajon Rondo and Darren Collison. None of the options has proved reliable. According to HoopsStats.com, Sacramento's shooting guards rank 22nd in overall efficiency and 27th in efficiency difference.

    "I think all of them at times have had good opportunities and good moments," Karl said, per Jason Jones of the Sacramento Bee. "I would think my worry is we haven't had a consistent confidence at that position."

    That will leave the Kings tapping into an all-too-familiar well this summer, searching for the stability they've yet to unearth.

Utah Jazz: Build Point Guard Depth

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    Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

    The Utah Jazz appear to be one point guard shy of terrifying.

    Their monstrous frontcourt tandem of Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert plays a bruising game at both ends. Rookie Trey Lyles adds a unique element with a smooth jump shot. Gordon Hayward's jack-of-all-trades game lacks any glaring holes. Rodney Hood packs a similarly versatile punch, and when healthy, Alec Burks isn't far behind.

    But they've fielded one of the NBA's least productive point guard crops this season. Between Raul Neto, Trey Burke and Shelvin Mack, they rank just 19th in scoring (19.6 points per game) and 30th in both assists (5.2) and rebounds (4.0), per HoopsStats.com.

    "What we haven't had over the course of the year is consistency at that position," Jazz coach Quin Snyder said, per Kurt Kragthorpe of the Salt Lake Tribune. "That's not to diminish anything any one guy's done, because it's not really any one person."

    Granted, Utah has been without last season's No. 5 pick, Dante Exum, the entire year. His campaign closed before it ever started after a torn ACL in August. But the 6'6" floor general provided little outside of disruptive defense during his debut season. In 2014-15, he had the worst efficiency rating (5.7) and eighth-lowest true shooting percentage (45.7) among the 274 players who cleared 1,000 minutes.

    With the rest of this roster looking ready to rise, the Jazz can't let this position hold them back. Whether that means supporting Exum with more depth or adding competition for his starting spot, it will likely require some action.

Washington Wizards: Re-Sign Bradley Beal

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    The Washington Wizards have long viewed 2016 as the summer of Kevin Durant.

    They have carefully constructed their roster to preserve cap space in case the Washington, D.C. native feels a little homesick. But the perennial All-Star's desires are outside the organization's control. And regardless of what KD chooses, the Wizards must still take care of one of their own.

    Silky-smooth scoring guard Bradley Beal is sprinting toward restricted free agency. Despite repeat run-ins with stress reactions in his right leg, the 22-year-old still owns a skyscraper's ceiling. Even though he's getting a career-low 30.7 minutes per night, he's posting personal bests in points per game (17.8), player efficiency rating (15.7) and true shooting percentage (54.8).

    His health history adds an undeniable risk to any long-term deal, but it's nothing like what the Wizards would face if they let him depart.

    "Scorers in today's NBA are more valuable than ever," wrote CSN Mid-Atlantic's J. Michael. "Beal has a good reputation because of his character and attitude, too. A replacement player of that level, which they'd have to have in stow before allowing Beal to leave, aren't just waiting around in bunches."

    Missing out on Durant might feel deflating, but failing to lock up Beal would be disastrous.

    Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com and are current through March 11. Salary information obtained via Basketball Insiders, and draft pick transactions obtained via RealGM.

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