NBA Teams That Could Look Drastically Different Next Season
What would the NBA offseason be without certain teams affixing detonator-armed dynamite to their infrastructure, backing up to survey the landscape and, ultimately, hitting the "kaboom" button that totally exists?
Boring. Empty. Tedious. Staler than the overplayed lead-up to the NFL draft.
Luckily, the NBA's post-playoffs shindig never disappointments. Never, ever, ever. The Golden State Warriors' dominance was supposed to delegitimize the offseason—to scare the rest of the league into relative inaction until their title window closed roughly two decades down the line.
Last summer didn't get that memo. Nor did the one before it.
And this one won't, either.
Frantic upheaval is the NBA offseason's default setting. Free agents switch teams. Predictable trades are struck. Unanticipated relocation demands are made. Some teams decide to rebuild. Others try to accelerate their positions.
Six squads entered 2017-18 with nearly 60 percent or more of the prior season's minutes jettisoned from their rosters. We are on the prowl for the teams most likely to undergo similar face-lifts in the coming months.
One notable departure or addition doesn't qualify as a drastic difference. Fire sales, free-agency coups, mass exoduses, blockbuster trade acquisitions, any nucleus-nuking scenarios—that's what we are after.
All bets are off in Atlanta following head coach Mike Budenholzer's departure. The team looks to be gearing up for a protracted rebuild, the type of project with built-in turnover.
Dewayne Dedmon and Mike Muscala own player options for next season. One or both could be gone. Malcolm Delaney is set for restricted free agency and, at 29, doesn't really fit Atlanta's window.
Four other players have non-guaranteed contracts. Miles Plumlee is immovable, but Kent Bazemore's price point ($37.4 million through 2019-20) doesn't look so bad. Atlanta also has three first-round picks in June 21's draft at the Barclays Center, as well as oodles of cap space general manager Travis Schlenk intends to use as an unwanted-salary sponge.
This could go either way. Plumlee, John Collins and Taurean Prince are the the only Hawks ostensibly assured of a return. Probably DeAndre' Bembry too. But Atlanta won't look drastically different unless it finds new homes for some of its pricier players—including Dennis Schroder—and loses Dedmon and Muscala to free agency.
Nobody expects the Indiana Pacers to blow up their post-Paul George darling. They won 48 games during the regular season, Victor Oladipo played like a top-20 star, and their never-give-up scrap-and-claw party in the first round of the playoffs has further endeared them to Indiana.
Still, the Pacers' books are fluid.
Seven players have non-guaranteed salaries for 2018-19: Ike Anigbogu ($650,000), Bojan Bogdanovic ($1.5 million), Darren Collison ($2 million), Al Jefferson ($4 million), Alex Poythress (fully non-guaranteed), Lance Stephenson (team option) and Joe Young (team option). Both Cory Joseph and Thaddeus Young, meanwhile, hold player options.
Indiana has a standing dinner-date offer from Max Cap Space. But it entails busting up one of the rosier stories from this season. Moving on from Joseph and Young would be one thing if they opt out. Waiving Bogdanovic and Collison, along with declining Stephenson's option, is another matter.
The Pacers will have more cap space than most other teams, so change is inevitable. But they'll more likely than not keep the skeleton of their core together. About-facing into something different would be more expensive, and let's face it: They need to see whether their success can carry on for another year before pandering to a win-now timeline.
Portland Trail Blazers
So. Many. Questions.
Will the Portland Trail Blazers look to trade CJ McCollum after the New Orleans Pelicans swept them in the first round of the playoffs? Could Damian Lillard grow disenchanted with their lack of flexibility and request out?
Does general manager Neil Olshey have enough assets in the bank to pawn off the two years and $36.5 million remaining on Evan Turner's contract? What about the $21.9 million Meyers Leonard is owed through 2019-20?
Could Jusuf Nurkic price himself out of town in restricted free agency? What about Shabazz Napier? And Pat Connaughton? Is Ed Davis, an unrestricted free agent, good as gone?
Odds are the Blazers will err on the side of continuity next season, mostly because they don't have much of a choice. They're light on desirable trade chips, and it'll take some nifty maneuvering to duck next year's luxury tax. A potential blow-up probably won't come until later, in 2019, if it comes at all.
Significant roster turnover is unavoidable for the Cleveland Cavaliers regardless of what happens with LeBron James' free agency.
Losing him will presumably trigger a fire sale. Maybe the Cavaliers could talk themselves into mirroring the Utah Jazz's sustained relevance following Gordon Hayward's exit if Kyrie Irving were still around. He's not. They don't have the pieces to chase wins without someone like him in tow.
Trying to float fringe-playoff hopes without James would be a disaster. Kevin Love doesn't work on his own. The Cavaliers are a net minus in the time he spends without James. He retains the offensive clout to drag a more talented team to the postseason's peripherals—assuming his current freezing-cold streak turns—but Cleveland is barren of reliable talent on the margins.
Moving Love makes far more sense if James heads elsewhere. He's ticketed for free agency in 2019 (player option), and the Cavaliers will have no business hanging on to a then-30-year-old stretch big with an extensive history of freak injuries.
Rodney Hood's future in Cleveland would be in similar jeopardy. He hits restricted free agency this summer and, going on 26, isn't quite young enough (or good enough) to warrant a substantive investment from a LeBron-less team.
Every other player would be fair game on the trade block—with the exception of whoever the Cavs draft with the Brooklyn Nets' 2018 first-round pick and, probably, Cedi Osman. Ante Zizic could be looped in there too.
George Hill, Kyle Korver, JR Smith and Tristan Thompson all become nonessential without James. (Everyone other than Korver could be pointless now). Even Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. are questionable fits for a rebuilding squad. Clarkson turns 26 in June and costs $25.9 million through 2019-20, while Nance, 25, will be slated for a raise in restricted free agency next summer.
Some unnecessary incumbents would stick in the Cavaliers' worst-case scenario. Thompson is immovable without sweeteners at an average of $18 million per year. Dealing Hill and Smith will be difficult even with their partial guarantees—$1 million and $3.9 million, respectively—for the 2019-20 campaign.
Re-signing James adds a touch of stability to Cleveland's depth chart, but not really. This group mustered just 50 victories with him appearing in all 82 games for this first time of his career. Last year's squad tallied 51 wins despite going 0-8 when he didn't play.
No way, no how, does James return without the Cavaliers flipping over every trade-market rock. They'll use the Nets selection as blockbuster bait and be more than open to dangling anyone from their supporting cast—minus Korver, maybe—in exchange for alternative helping hands.
Los Angeles Clippers
Don't worry, ye Los Angeles Clippers faithful. Danilo Gallinari and the two years and $44.2 million left on his contract aren't going anywhere.
Basically everyone else, though? Yeah, who knows.
Escaping the final four years and $142.3 million on Blake Griffin's deal should have signaled the start of a teardown—especially since the Clippers already lost three other starters from the 2016-17 squad by that time. It didn't. Not immediately.
That could change over the offseason.
Lou Williams' three-year, $24 million extension suggests Los Angeles holds a certain affinity for standing pat. But that deal will be super movable when his trade restriction lifts in August. It includes a partial guarantee in the final season, and Williams is working off a career crusade, during which he carried the offensive load of a star.
His future, along with the franchise's direction, is tied to DeAndre Jordan. Most expect him to decline his player option and enter free agency. The Clippers have not made it clear what they are hoping will happen.
They have yet to clarify anything.
"The Clippers have yet to actually say what they’re doing, leaving [head coach Doc] Rivers as spokesman, the role he handles gracefully, making it sound as though everything is proceeding according to plan and he’s in on the planning," the Orange County Register's Mark Heisler wrote. "Maybe they’re saving the explanation for an offseason surprise...or trying to think of a way to break the bad news while continuing to sell courtside seats for $2,840, more than the Lakers' $2,750."
Jordan would pick up his player option in an ideal world. Wesley Johnson, Austin Rivers and Milos Teodosic are, in all likelihood, going to do the same, and the Clippers only have $30.6 million in guaranteed salary on their 2019-20 books. That number will balloon as they sign first-round picks. They have two this year and will keep next season's if they miss the playoffs. But they still enjoy a clear path to $60 million in space for the summer of 2019.
Signing Jordan to a long-term deal compromises that squeaky-clean ledger. The same goes for Avery Bradley. The Clippers could let them walk rather than contend for on-the-brink status in the Western Conference. Almost every remaining player will be up for grabs if they do—from Gallinari (good luck) and Williams to the expiring contracts of Johnson, Rivers, Teodosic, Patrick Beverley, Tobias Harris and, yes, even Boban Marjanovic.
And remember: Running it back won't preclude the Clippers from a wholesale pivot. They have the option of test-driving this framework until February and then auctioning off everyone, including any contracts they dole out this summer, at the trade deadline.
Los Angeles Lakers
Admit it: You're surprised. Shocked. Floored. The Los Angeles Lakers are the NBA's placard of continuity. They seldom position themselves for a revolving-door offseason or count on ultramassive free-agency coups.
(Turns off sarcasm font.)
Of course the Lakers are here. They have to be. They have gone to great lengths since last summer to create a passageway toward two max-contract slots, beginning with the D'Angelo Russell-Timofey Mozgov dump and ending on the Jordan Clarkson trade at this year's Feb. 8 deadline.
No one is safe in Los Angeles. Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma come close to being off-limits, but the Lakers would have to at least consider unloading any one of them should it mean shedding Luol Deng's contract (two years, $36.8 million) and reeling in Paul George and LeBron James.
Deng's future is up in the air even if his deals proves immovable. The Lakers can stretch him as a way of maximizing their cap space while retaining Julius Randle and his $12.4 million restricted free-agent hold. On the flip side, a refusal to pay Deng $7.4 million for the next half-decade could necessitate Randle's departure.
Smaller forms of collateral damage would be inevitable as well. Thomas Bryant (non-guaranteed), Tyler Ennis (non-guaranteed), Andre Ingram (qualifying offer), Travis Wear (qualifying offer) and Ivica Zubac (non-guaranteed) are all no-brainer cuts if Los Angeles needs to scrape and scrimp for every available penny.
Striking out in free agency promises nothing. The Lakers will be hard-pressed to keep all of their incumbent market-surfers if they are prioritizing one-year place holders.
Any one of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Brook Lopez and Isaiah Thomas could secure a longer-term deal. The Lakers can offer to overcompensate them in 2018-19—a la KCP last summer—but big-picture stability sometimes trumps ad-hoc windfalls. Paying Randle over the next three or four years may not sit right if team president Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka shift focus to 2019 free agency.
Los Angeles' ceiling for change isn't merely tied to free agency either. Whiff or win at the Post-Tampering Championships, it will have both the assets and well-chronicled impatience to gauge the disgruntled-superstar-under-contract market.
Perhaps the San Antonio Spurs begin shopping Kawhi Leonard for trying to live out the plot to Ghost Protocol. Maybe the Lakers talk to the Thunder about Russell Westbrook if George spurns them both. Bradley Beal or CJ McCollum could tickle their fancy if they sign another star and the Washington Wizards or Blazers look to shake up things following postseason disappointment.
Name your star. Any star. Fringe star, regular All-Star, All-NBA megahuman—it doesn't matter. Whoever becomes available, regardless of his potential path to Hollywood, the Lakers will be be there, most likely ready and willing to pull the strings and ditch the baggage it takes to poach him.
Unlike most of the other teams to crack this list, the Phoenix Suns have to go out of their way to blow up the roster.
Alex Len and Elfrid Payton could be shown the door in free agency, and they have a handful of non-guaranteed commitments for Shaquille Harrison, Davon Reed, Tyler Ulis and Alan Williams. But not one of these players sparks an impromptu overhaul (like LeBron James in Cleveland) or saves the Suns consequential money (sup, Lakers?) with their departure.
Phoenix is primed to order the apple-turnover, thrice turned over, anyway. General manager Ryan McDonough has emphasized the need to be active, and franchise cornerstone Devin Booker has lobbed warning shots of the "I'm ready to win" variety in the front office's direction.
Cap space alone arms the Suns with a vessel for noticeable change. They have an open-ended invitation to more than $25 million in wiggle room if they hit the peace-out buttons on Len, Payton and Williams.
Sure, they need a point guard and non-antiquated rim protector, so losing Payton and two bigs might sting. But they own two first-round picks in this year's draft—their own and the Miami Heat's—and owner Robert Sarver has a thing for headline-making dalliances. (See: flirtations with LaMarcus Aldridge and Paul Millsap, plus Tyson Chandler's contract.)
Few teams are also capable of matching the Suns' best trade packages. Expiring deals for Chandler ($13.6 million) and Jared Dudley ($9.5 million) are digestible salary-matching tools, and they have assets galore in this year's first-rounders, Miami's 2021 pick, Dragan Bender and Josh Jackson. Marquese Chriss will enamor prospective partners as a premier(ish) throw-in.
Think of the Suns as a toned-down version of the Lakers. They won't get face-time with James or Paul George, but they'll have plenty of money to burn and can inject themselves into sad-faced-star conversations.
Equally important: The Suns will not be as choosy. They cannot spin patience. Booker's cap hold will explode next summer, in advance of his restricted free agency or on the heels of an extension, and they don't have the big-market pizzazz to count on marquee free agents flocking their way in 2019.
Whereas the Lakers could steer clear of second-tier or wildly expensive trade targets, the Suns won't be so quick to distance themselves from hypothetical Kevin Love, Kemba Walker, John Wall or Andrew Wiggins sweepstakes. And they sure as hell won't need any assurances from Kawhi Leonard's, ahem, group to party-crash that kind of trade negotiation.
San Antonio Spurs
Kawhi Leonard is only part of the equation for the San Antonio Spurs.
"You never know what happens, right, during the summer," Pau Gasol said after the Warriors eliminated San Antonio from the playoffs, per ESPN.com's Michael C. Wright. "What moves can happen. On our team, from my understanding, there are six or seven guys who are restricted free agents or [have] player options, and then we have the situation that we all know of [Leonard] that we don't know how that's going to resolve, to be honest."
Right you are, Pau.
Kyle Anderson, Davis Bertans and Bryn Forbes are hitting restricted free agency. Rudy Gay, Danny Green and Joffrey Lauvergne have player options. Tony Parker just closed out the last year of his deal.
On top of all that, Manu Ginobili could—chokes back tears—decide to retire. And Brandon Paul's 2018-19 salary is non-guaranteed until the start of August.
Everyone could come back. No one could come back. Somewhere between no one and everyone could come back. It all depends on the Spurs' direction.
Staying the course invites any number of returns. Bringing back Anderson, Green (if he opts out) and Parker (if the price is right) tracks for a team chasing victories. Steering into a quasi-rebuild or partial youth movement diminishes the need for expensive veterans and, really, pricey contracts at all.
Trading Leonard is the only way San Antonio cannonballs into a major restructure. Even then, LaMarcus Aldridge's lone-wolf showing this season could sell the front office on juggling now with later.
None of this may matter. The Spurs made nice with Aldridge last summer, and head coach Gregg Popovich plans to quarterback a reconciliation with Leonard at some point over the offseason, per Wright. Keeping him, even if they don't sign him to the super-duper max he's eligible for until July 1, quashes the appeal of starting over or initiating a half-baked do-over.
Then again, maybe not.
San Antonio has a somewhat navigable road to meaningful cap space, depending on how Gay and Green handle their player options. Salvaging the relationship with Leonard could prompt the front office to dump salary—namely Patty Mills' contract—and measure the free-agency clout that net Aldridge in 2015 but failed to convince Chris Paul to reach the open market in 2017.