10 Starting Lineups in Need of a Change During NBA Free Agency
Imagine the NBA's best one-man show, Russell Westbrook, adding a sidekick. Or the Houston Rockets following their Chris Paul pickup with a second star splash. Or the Minnesota Timberwolves turning the Jimmy Butler trade into their ultimate free-agency recruiting tool.
Thoughts like those make this the most exciting time on the hoops calendar. With 2017 NBA free agency mere hours from opening, optimism runs rampant amid this strategizing frenzy.
It's not always about finding the best talent, either. Depending on the situation, some clubs are better off letting their high-priced players take their talents elsewhere, while youth and upside become the preferred targets.
The 10 teams listed here come from all walks of basketball life, but they all share a common need for starting-lineup adjustments this offseason. Whether adding or subtracting, the key is for these clubs to be active and move themselves into more favorable positions.
Things operate a little slower in the South, and the Atlanta Hawks' reluctant rebuild has been no exception. Even last summer's changes—Jeff Teague and Al Horford out; Dwight Howard in—were less about backtracking and more moving lateral to something similar but different.
This summer should be more dramatic. There have already been changes to the front office (Travis Schlenk in for Wes Wilcox as general manager, Mike Budenholzer relinquishing president duties) and the roster (Howard to the Charlotte Hornets for Marco Belinelli and Miles Plumlee). But more dominoes need to drop, starting with the departure of 32-year-old All-Star Paul Millsap.
"The Hawks almost traded Millsap last season, and they just dumped Dwight Howard for pennies on the dollar, so it's hard to see them being able to persuade him to stay," The Ringer's Jonathan Tjarks wrote.
Moreover, Atlanta shouldn't want Millsap back. Skilled as he is, he doesn't fit their timeline, and his contract might not age well. Along that same line, Ersan Ilyasova, Kris Humphries, Thabo Sefolosha and Jose Calderon should all be allowed to walk.
The Hawks seem to recognize the need for change; now they need to embrace it.
The Boston Celtics have practiced patience long enough. Everything is aligned for them to wheel and deal their way from very good shadow contenders to full-fledged elites.
On the financial front, they are as flexible as an Olympic gymnast. Al Horford is the only player collecting an eight-figure salary, while All-Star Isaiah Thomas' $6.2 million rate might be the league's best bargain. The Celtics have also collected enough picks and prospects to broker a blockbuster trade without gutting their core.
The upside on Boston's offseason is incredible. The ideal heist includes both Gordon Hayward (or Blake Griffin as Plan B) and Paul George, league sources told Adrian Wojnarowski, then with The Vertical. If the master plan falls apart, the Shamrocks can always shift to next-tier targets like Danilo Gallinari or Paul Millsap.
The key will be acting with a sense of urgency. Securing the East's best record with 53 wins shows this group is close; being outscored by 100 points in the Conference Finals shows there's more work to do. Waiting no longer seems prudent, with Thomas, Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart all in need of new deals next summer.
If the Celtics are going to do anything with this core, they must make a major move in free agency.
This is demolition time for the Chicago Bulls. All-Star swingman Jimmy Butler is gone, a move that simultaneously sounded the death knell for delusions of 35-year-old Dwyane Wade and 31-year-old Rajon Rondo helping restore the Windy City's relevance.
Chicago's offseason aim should be acquiring as much youth as possible and removing the key components of a club that already seemed stuck on the treadmill of mediocrity.
"We've gone through the past where we'd make the playoffs but not at a level we wanted to. In this league, success is not determined that way," Bulls vice president of basketball operations John Paxson said, per NBA.com's Steve Aschburner. "So we've decided to make the change and rebuild this roster."
There's no reason to keep Rondo and his partially guaranteed $13.3 million salary. Not when the Bulls need to see what they have in young point guards Kris Dunn, Cameron Payne and Jerian Grant. Wade might be stuck—unless he'd give a lot back in a buyout—but the Bulls should shop Robin Lopez to further their youth movement.
This is more about subtracting than adding, though Chicago could throw a massive amount of money at a sub-25-year-old in restricted free agency like Otto Porter.
"Daryl Morey is not done," Bleacher Report's Howard Beck wrote. "That much, I guarantee you."
The Houston Rockets already made their summer splash. Paying a half-cent on the dollar, they snagged nine-time All-Star Chris Paul, who is now one-half of the league's most intriguing—if not, most talented—backcourt alongside MVP runner-up James Harden.
And like Beck wrote, this is just the beginning.
Sources told ESPN.com's Tim MacMahon that Houston thinks it can also reel in either Paul George or Carmelo Anthony. It's hard to tell if either are remotely likely—George should command more than the Rockets can offer, and Anthony still holds his no-trade clause—but the targets are at least set at All-Star levels.
Beyond that, Houston has all of its exceptions to add parts. Barring further changes, four of the five starting spots are probably filled by Paul, Harden, Trevor Ariza and Clint Capela. But a two-way upgrade over Ryan Anderson at power forward like JaMychal Green or Patrick Patterson would better balance this roster.
Paul George wants out.
There are other offseason angles for the Indiana Pacers as well, but that's the only one that matters. He can opt out of his deal next summer and has reportedly already informed the franchise he plans to get out of both his contract and the Hoosier State, sources told Wojnarowski. There's only one way this story ends.
"They didn't execute a George deal before the draft," NBA.com's David Aldridge wrote, "but it's just a matter of when. And that puts incredible pressure on the GM or exec that has to pull the trigger on moving a team's franchise player."
Indy needs to not only extract value; it also must begin to form its next iteration. Whether young players or future picks, the Pacers need to find materials for a reconstruction. Assuming more are available now than will be at the trade deadline—when George is, at most, a four-month rental—Indy should try to get this settled early in the summer.
Without George, the Pacers don't need to foot the free-agency bills of Jeff Teague or C.J. Miles. In fact, they should try to trim more financial fat beyond that and pursue young perimeter talent in restricted free agency (Otto Porter, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Tim Hardaway Jr).
Los Angeles Clippers
The Los Angeles Clippers never clicked quite how we thought they could. They started out as Lob City, a company of aerial acrobats directed by floor-general extraordinaire Chris Paul. They later became Sob City, perpetually injured at the wrong time and unable to launch beyond the second round after five consecutive 50-win seasons.
Paul's trade closes that chapter, but the Clippers can't stop there. As Ball Don't Lie's Eric Freeman observed, this roster isn't built to function without the point god:
"[Blake] Griffin and [DeAndre] Jordan have always benefited from playing with such an effective distributor, and score-first role players such as [Jamal] Crawford and [Lou] Williams can only maximize their worth if they’re coming off the bench as a change of pace. This roster needs more creators, and it’s not clear that any good ones are on the market in the Clippers' price range."
Giving a five-year pact to a player with Griffin's injury history is never easy; it's misguided when the team won't contend for a title. Jordan won't be the same without Paul, so the Clippers must use their high-flying center to help address their neglected asset pool. J.J. Redick and Luc Mbah a Moute can walk, while the under-contract veterans should all be shopped for rebuilding tools.
The Miami Heat seem to have a simple strategy for free agency. They'll embark on Pat Riley's annual whale hunt, this time most likely pursuing Gordon Hayward and Blake Griffin. If they come up empty, they seem content to ink new arrangements with their own players headed to the open market.
"We have a Plan A. And we have a Plan B. There's no D, E, F or G," Riley said, per Tom D'Angelo of the Palm Beach Post. "We feel good about the plan. ... But, we'll see what happens on July 1st."
No matter how this goes down, Miami's directive should be the same: upgrading the opening five. For all the improbabilities that surfaced during the Heat's 30-11 second half, the fact they managed the feat while starting Rodney McGruder and Luke Babbitt may have been the most unlikely.
McGruder stands to lose his spot to Justise Winslow, or any stud small forward free agency delivers. Babbitt's spot could go to Griffin or James Johnson, but if the latter returns, he'd look best off the bench. Whale or not, the Heat need some external acquisitions at forward—particularly those with shooting range and a scoring punch.
Encouraging as that turnaround was, this group still finished at .500 and outside the playoffs.
Remember those 50-win predictions that sprouted up around the Minnesota Timberwolves last summer? Well, get ready for their return—and maybe something even more audacious given the moves already made and those still to come.
The draft-night deal to reunite Jimmy Butler with Tom Thibodeau accelerated everything. The Timberpups have their leader, plus a 20-point scorer and lockdown defender to boot. But they also have the cap room to keep maneuvering and, with Butler, perhaps more cachet with top targets than ever.
"It's one thing to have young, potential stars to pitch to free agents," FanRag's Zach Harper wrote. " ... Add Butler to that equation, and it adds credit to Thibodeau's pitch. Here plays an All-NBA-level player who has won within this system. He can pitch to potential free agents that trusting this destination becomes a good gamble to take for your career."
At the least, Minnesota can seek out a frontcourt upgrade alongside Karl-Anthony Towns. Paul Millsap would be a snug fit, and JaMychal Green could prove a sneaky-good find. If this is the summer when the Wolves finally move Ricky Rubio, they can pursue everyone from Kyle Lowry to Jrue Holiday to George Hill.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Russell Westbrook vs. The World was a historic, award-winning performance. It was also a clear indication of how far the Oklahoma City Thunder can advance as currently restricted.
OKC proved uncomfortably dependent on the MVP. His 41.7 usage percentage was the highest ever recorded. His floor presence basically meant the difference between being a high-level playoff team (plus-3.3 net rating with him; would have been seventh) or a dumpster fire (minus-8.9; dead last).
It's an untenable reliance, even if it produces more triple-doubles than ever before. The Brodie needs help, and OKC must try everything it can to give him some. The Thunder have Rudy Gay on the radar, sources told Wojnarowski, and long-shot hopes of landing Blake Griffin, per ESPN.com's Royce Young. Either could achieve the pressing task of letting Westbrook occasionally breathe.
It might take a miracle to get one. The Thunder already have $89.8 million of next season's payroll committed to just Westbrook, Steven Adams, Victor Oladipo and Enes Kanter. There are sign-and-trade possibilities, but not any really compelling ones. Still, the need for upgrades is glaring.
Even if OKC only has exceptions to burn, it has to track down some shooting.
San Antonio Spurs
No one came closer to the world champion Golden State Warriors than the San Antonio Spurs this past season—not in wins, not in net efficiency, not in postseason scares. Add in the Alamo City's background of continuity and internal development, and this doesn't look like a free-agency shopper.
But that Goliath out in Golden State has changed everything.
"To be an elite team in this next stage of the superteam era, it's not enough to simply foster the talent on hand," The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor wrote. "This summer could be the official end of 'Built, Not Bought' in San Antonio."
The Spurs seem ripe for a shakeup. They might have the league's best two-way player, and he just reached the prime age of 26. This is the time to assemble the proper chess pieces around him, which could require quite a bit of reshuffling. Not to worry, as the Spurs are reportedly open to moving both LaMarcus Aldridge and Danny Green, sources told Jabari Young of the San Antonio Express-News.
If San Antonio can open up max (or near-max) space, it can turn any number of directions. Point guard is a need with Tony Parker hobbled and aging, so Kyle Lowry (who desperately wants a ring) could be a target. Wings are always needed against the Warriors, so maybe a late charge at Gordon Hayward isn't out of the question. Or if Aldridge goes out, maybe Blake Griffin comes in to help boost the offensive creativity.
The alarm will sound early this year—don't sleep on the Spurs.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.