Every NBA Lottery Team's Biggest Flaw to Address During the Offseason
NBA teams don't finish in the lottery because they are flawless organizations.
Some are there by design, intentionally depressing their chances of winning to ensure a better draft pick and a brighter future. Others dealt with injuries. Others struggled to make the most of the pieces they had on the roster, failing to excel on one end of the court—or, in some situations, both.
But these flaws can all be addressed, and the offseason is the prime time to do so. Whether a franchise requires an attitude adjustment, a commitment to a direction, a defensive fix or an influx of talent at a certain position, all 14 lottery teams can enter the summer months primed to improve in an area geared toward getting them back on track.
Of course, this is all easier said than done. Recognizing the primary problem is only the first step in the long trudge back to the postseason.
Atlanta Hawks: Draft-Day Success
If you look through the Atlanta Hawks' draft history, you will find yourself surrounded by busts and disappointments. You don't even have to jump all the way back to 2005 when the organization used the No. 2 pick to select Marvin Williams over some dude named Chris Paul. Just take a gander at the choices over the last five years:
- No. 17 in 2013: Dennis Schroder (now seems to want out of Atlanta and hasn't become anything more than a low-level starting point guard)
- No. 15 in 2014: Adreian Payne (played three games in Atlanta before he was traded for a lottery-protected pick)
- No. 43 in 2014: Edy Tavares (played 12 games in Atlanta before he was waived)
- No. 50 in 2015: Marcus Eriksson (has yet to make his NBA debut)
- No. 59 in 2015: Dimitrios Agravanis (has yet to make his NBA debut)
- No. 12 in 2016: Taurean Prince (trending toward status as a building block)
- No. 21 in 2016: DeAndre' Bembry (logged just 455 minutes as a sophomore while combatting injuries)
- No. 44 in 2016: Isaia Cordinier (has yet to make his NBA debut)
- No. 19 in 2017: John Collins (strong rookie season)
- No. 41 in 2017: Tyler Dorsey (played 17.4 minutes per game as a rookie)
- No. 60 in 2017: Alpha Kaba (has yet to make his NBA debut)
Perhaps Prince and Collins are indications that the Hawks are turning their draft-day luck around. But this is still a history checkered in mistakes, containing a distinct lack of star power. That has to change quickly, considering what Atlanta is working with in the talented 2018 NBA draft.
Not only do the Hawks boast the No. 3 pick, but they also have the Nos. 19, 30 and 34 selections. They have a chance to overload the roster with talented youngsters, expediting the rebuild and guaranteeing a brighter future around the Prince/Collins duo. They just have to evaluate the prospects properly and...wait, what's that?
"The growing consensus among NBA decision-makers in attendance at Stark Arena in Belgrade is that the teams drafting behind the Phoenix Suns at No. 1, the Sacramento Kings and Atlanta Hawks, are likely to pass on the European prodigy [Luka Doncic] in favor of American frontcourt players," ESPN.com's Jonathan Givony recently reported.
Anytime you can pass up a 19-year-old EuroLeague MVP widely perceived as a generational talent, you have to do so. And so, for the Hawks to fix this flaw, this report must be nothing more than a smokescreen.
Brooklyn Nets: Attractiveness
The Brooklyn Nets have been building up their roster in intelligent fashion ever since Sean Marks took over the front office. Rather than wasting their cap space on players who can't possibly help steer them back into the playoffs, he's used the excess financial flexibility to take on overpaid contributors and gain additional assets.
Doing so has landed D'Angelo Russell. It's gotten the Nets DeMarre Carroll. It's given them the ability to escape the mistakes of the previous brain trust and actually have a chance to make some draft-day selections.
But now the mentality has to change. Slightly.
For a few years running, the Nets have known they don't have the free-agency appeal to lock in marquee players without essentially writing blank checks. They've relied upon the rules of restricted free agency to offer max contracts and hope against hope the original teams wouldn't exercise their rights of first refusal. But as they grow more competitive, they have to fix their perception throughout the league.
Fortunately, winning is a panacea in professional sports.
If they're capable of continuing to build a cohesive roster by making intelligent selections in the annual prospect pageant, showing restraint on the free-agency market and fostering a culture of internal development and competitiveness, they'll be able to tempt some high-quality veterans and role players looking for a shot at a rotation spot.
They'll finally be capable of ending that playoff drought that stretches back to 2015, when Brook Lopez, Thaddeus Young, Joe Johnson, Deron Williams and Jarrett Jack functioned as double-digit scorers for Brooklyn.
Charlotte Hornets: Escape Purgatory
The Charlotte Hornets are not good.
Led by All-Star point guard Kemba Walker, an overpaid Dwight Howard and a declining version of Nicolas Batum, they've been unable to assert themselves as a consistent playoff force in the Eastern Conference. Though injuries and underachievement contributed to their lottery status after the 2017-18 season, they can't look too positively at a 36-46 record while playing the league's eighth-easiest schedule.
The Charlotte Hornets also aren't bad.
You simply can't be classified as "bad" when you played your way to a 0.0 net rating during the regular season. Jeremy Lamb, Frank Kaminsky, Cody Zeller, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Malik Monk give the franchise plenty of youthful talent, and it would be reasonable to expect postseason contention if the injury imp would only leave the Queen City alone.
See the problem?
The Hornets are caught between "good" and "bad," stuck squarely in the NBA's version of purgatory. And as they press closer toward luxury-tax ramifications with a roster devoid of top-tier upside, they need to pick a direction.
Are they going to continue running back the same core, hoping for natural growth and pushing toward a road battle in the opening round of the playoffs? Are they going to swallow the bitter pill associated with trading Walker and start a rebuild in earnest?
The latter is the better decision, but both are valid. They just have to choose and commit.
Chicago Bulls: Wing Depth
Per Rotoworld, this is how the Chicago Bulls' depth at the two wing positions stacks up:
- Shooting guard: Zach LaVine (expiring), Justin Holiday, Antonio Blakeney (two-way contract), Sean Kilpatrick (expiring)
- Small forward: Paul Zipser (non-guaranteed contract), Denzel Valentine, David Nwaba (expiring), Jarell Eddie (10-day contract)
A world exists in which Holiday and Valentine are the only incumbent wings on the 2018-19 roster. LaVine may seem likely to return, but what if he costs a max deal the Bulls are unwilling to pay, given his injury history and the struggles that greeted him upon his return from an ACL tear?
Even if the high-flying 2-guard is back in the Windy City for another go-round, that's not nearly enough. The Bulls desperately need more bodies on the wings, and they shouldn't be picky about the ones they get. Offensive production is needed to help alleviate the burdens endured by sweet-shooting rookie big Lauri Markkanen. Defensive ability is of paramount importance for a squad that finished just No. 28 in defensive rating during the 2017-18 campaign.
Chicago could choose to address this with the No. 7 pick in the 2018 NBA draft, electing to take either a shooting guard or a forward capable of lining up at the 3. In Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman's most recent mock draft, he had the Bulls rolling with Mikal Bridges:
"Assuming the Chicago Bulls are invested in Kris Dunn at point guard, they'll likely favor wings or centers at No. 7.
"Wendell Carter Jr. will earn consideration, but the rarity of two-way wings like Mikal Bridges—plus his signs of expanding offense—give him the edge.
"Bridges' 43.5 percent three-point shooting from this past season and defensive versatility suggest he's the ideal fit between scoring specialist Zach LaVine and stretch 4 Lauri Markkanen."
The Bulls could also address this flaw in free agency, but it's unlikely they'll be willing to spend on a player who doesn't fit the rebuilding timetable. The draft remains the far more reasonable option, and Chicago is in prime wing territory at No. 7.
Dallas Mavericks: Offensive Big Man
Maybe this seems like a strange choice for a team that will still feature Dirk Nowitzki (assuming he doesn't retire and the Dallas Mavericks pick up his $5 million team option), but this organization has to start thinking about the future. The 39-year-old living legend won't be around forever, and the Mavs will desperately need a floor-spacing big who can make life easier for Dennis Smith Jr., Harrison Barnes and the next generation of Dallas players.
In today's NBA, everything revolves around spacing.
Without it, defenses can compress toward the interior of the half-court set and muck things up. They can interrupt passing lanes. They can make life harder for driving guards—particularly worrisome when that's the primary strength of a certain point guard soon to enter his second season of professional basketball. But all that can be negated by an offensive threat at the 4 or 5 who's capable of both scoring from the blocks or stepping out to the arc and dragging his man away from the painted area.
Dallas only has one at the moment: Nowitzki.
Dwight Powell has shown signs of life from the perimeter, but he's more of a role player than a starting stalwart. And since the Mavericks are practically swimming in cap space while boasting the No. 5 pick in the 2018 NBA draft, they can attempt to address this issue in more ways than one.
Maybe they're looking at a play for Jabari Parker, who's a restricted free agent this offseason. They could be interested in a veteran such as Anthony Tolliver or Marreese Speights. When it's their turn to come to the podium, they could call out Mohamed Bamba's name, counting on improvement from the two-way big man after he hit 27.5 percent of his treys as a freshman at Texas.
But somehow, they have to find an offensive, spacing-oriented punch to first complement Nowitzki and then take over in the future.
Denver Nuggets: Small Forward Depth
Rarely is a lottery team's flaw so glaringly obvious.
With Nikola Jokic (likely on a shiny, new max contract after Denver turns down his option and rewards him handsomely for his efforts) flanked by Paul Millsap in the frontcourt, the Denver Nuggets are entirely set at the two biggest positions in a traditional lineup. Gary Harris and Jamal Murray fill in the two smallest slots, and the Mile High City residents have plenty of depth at those four positions.
Seriously, just look at these players still under contract for 2018-19: Malik Beasley (SG), Kenneth Faried (PF), Juan Hernangomez (PF), Tyler Lydon (PF), Trey Lyles (PF), Mason Plumlee (C).
Finding a second point guard is important. But that doesn't come close to the magnitude of need at small forward, especially if Wilson Chandler opts out of his $12.8 million contract and Will Barton leaves in free agency. The Nuggets were already thin at the 3, but their supply at that middle position could become downright threadbare.
Chandler opting in would help remedy this, but two problems still exist: financial ones stemming from the luxury-tax implications of a new contract for Jokic, and the simple fact that the aging forward is better-suited lining up one slot higher in the order these days. The Nuggets could also fancy Hernangomez a small forward, but he's not ready to take on those kinds of responsibilities at this stage of his young career.
Whether through free agency, the draft or trades, Denver should be focused almost entirely on shoring up that singular spot in its lineup. Though this is already a should-be playoff team that likely would've made the trip with Millsap remaining healthy all year, it can get that much better if it lands a gem to join Murray, Harris, Millsap and Jokic in an opening quintet loaded with offensive ability.
Detroit Pistons: Perimeter Defenders
If the Detroit Pistons are going to make the interior tandem of Andre Drummond and Blake Griffin work, they'll need to surround them with high-quality perimeter defenders. Whether that means improvement from Reggie Jackson, more minutes for Stanley Johnson or finding external solutions remains to be seen, but this is already a potential problem for the 2018-19 campaign.
Though Drummond's defensive rebounding and quick hands allow him to avoid functioning as a liability on the preventing side, you'd be hard-pressed to make a case for him featuring on an All-Defense team (three voters still did, somehow). He actually finished the year at No. 39 in ESPN.com's defensive real plus/minus...but only among the 83 players qualified as centers.
Meanwhile, Griffin wasn't much better.
The uber-athletic power forward has gotten more disciplined as his NBA career has progressed, but it's still difficult for him to overcome the limitations of his short wingspan. He's not a primary rim-protector, and he's at his best when allowed to make the most of his lateral quickness by gambling in passing lanes and switching onto smaller players. Griffin wound up at No. 52 among the 90 qualified power forwards in ESPN.com's DRPM.
As you might expect, the limitations of these two standouts had far-reaching consequences. According to PBPStats.com, the Pistons allowed 106.5 points per 100 possessions when they were both on the floor in 2017-18, which would've left them at No. 16 in the season-long hierarchy. Even more troublingly, that number skyrocketed to 113.8 when playing without Johnson, who's easily the best defensive non-big on the roster.
Minimizing their responsibilities and covering up for their flaws is a must if this dual-big plan is to work.
Los Angeles Clippers: Better Defense
The Los Angeles Clippers defense should improve naturally in 2018-19, though potentially losing DeAndre Jordan, should he turn down a $24.1 million player option and depart in free agency, would lead to an inevitable step back. If Patrick Beverley and Danilo Gallinari are able to remain healthy, they'll have more capable stoppers in the lineup to mentor the youngsters with preventing potential scattered throughout the roster.
But that's not enough.
The Clippers often had trouble stopping nosebleeds throughout the 2017-18 campaign, to the extent that they finished the year ranked 19th in defensive rating by allowing 107.7 points per 100 possessions. And if we peer at the Four Factors, we can see the troubles weren't isolated to any one area:
- Opponents' effective field-goal percentage: 52.0 (No. 12)
- Opponents' turnover percentage: 12.6 (No. 20)
- Defensive rebounding percentage: 76.1 (No. 28)
- Opponents' free throws per field-goal attempt: 0.203 (No. 22).
None of that is encouraging.
The Clippers failed to force many turnovers, but it wasn't for a lack of gambles. That's evidenced in the bottom-10 finish for the fouling category, which so often stems from overaggressive play and a distinct lack of discipline. They were adequate at contesting shots and depressing their adversaries' shooting percentages, but they often gave up offensive rebounds and second-chance points.
The last part is most troubling, and it's where the Clippers should focus their offseason efforts. Even with Jordan, who led all qualified players in defensive rebounding percentage, on the court for 31.5 minutes per game and missing only five contests, the Clippers proved superior to just the Milwaukee Bucks and Orlando Magic.
That has to change even if the starting center returns, and we have no guarantee he will.
Los Angeles Lakers: Established Stars
If the Los Angeles Lakers can't address this flaw during the hottest months of the year, that's fine.
They already have Brandon Ingram on the roster, and the young small forward used the 2017-18 campaign to begin turning his flashes of raw potential into actual production. He's already a solid defensive presence, and he's starting to learn which shots he should be taking as the Purple and Gold place more talent around him.
That talent came in the forms of Kyle Kuzma (already an offensive weapon with plenty of growth needed in other areas) and Lonzo Ball (already a do-everything point guard with plenty of growth needed as an offensive weapon).
Those three alone form one of the NBA's most promising cores, and the young talent doesn't stop there with Josh Hart, Ivica Zubac and Thomas Bryant on the roster. Julius Randle could even add to the collection if he's re-signed as a restricted free agent.
But for the Lakers to become, well, the historic Lakers who are so used to serving as postseason mainstays, they need established stars. And they have the cap space necessary to draw them in, entering the offseason with the financial wherewithal to take legitimate shots at acquiring some combination of LeBron James, Paul George and virtually anyone else on the market.
The Lake Show already features defensive talent, especially with Ball proving such a gifted prospect on the less glamorous end of the floor. It has a go-to scorer in Ingram, as well as plenty of complementary talent and a top-tier offensive running mate in Kuzma.
To expedite the rebuild and get back into title contention, however, the Lakers can't be content with internal growth.
Memphis Grizzlies: Health
The Memphis Grizzlies are in a bit of a pickle.
Thanks to ill-fated contracts handed out during previous offseasons, they don't have the spending power necessary to lure any game-changing free agents to Beale Street. They can take advantage of the No. 4 pick in the 2018 NBA draft to land a high-upside rookie (as well as the less exciting selection at No. 32), but that might be it when looking for methods of external improvement.
Oh, and if they use both picks on incoming rookies and manage to convince Tyreke Evans he should return on the mid-level exception, they will already have 14 rostered players.
But they can still get significantly better just by staying healthier. That's why they need all their players to hit the weight room throughout the offseason, helping each of them get stronger and more durable before the 2018-19 campaign. Maybe that helps Marc Gasol stave off Father Time a while longer. Perhaps it allows Mike Conley to avoid another season-ending injury. There's even a chance the process could make Chandler Parsons rediscover his usefulness.
If all that happens, the Grizzlies won't need any free agents to help boost their playoff prospects. Gasol and Conley alone make for a promising enough core, especially when flanked by Evans, an All-Rookie front-runner to be named and some useful returning rotation members such as JaMychal Green and Dillon Brooks.
The Grizzlies finished 2017-18 ranked No. 27 in offensive rating. Only the Brooklyn Nets, Denver Nuggets, Sacramento Kings, Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers and Phoenix Suns fared worse in the defensive counterpart.
And yet, health was still, rather easily, the franchise's biggest flaw.
New York Knicks: 2-Way Wings
"He's a Swiss Army knife type of player that can guard multiple positions, and you can run offense through him," New York Knicks head coach David Fizdale said on WFAN (h/t New York Daily News' Stefan Bondy). "I think he can push the ball off the break a lot like Draymond Green plays. Obviously the thing I'm going to demand from Lance is to play defense like Draymond. And be a guy that's pushing to be a First Team All-Defender."
That was in reference to Lance Thomas.
No punchline is coming.
Thomas probably hasn't been mentioned in the same sentence as Draymond Green before, and certainly not in a manner that conflates the two players with vastly different skill levels. Whereas the Golden State Warriors' defensive ace is one of the NBA's 20 best players, the 30-year-old Knick has never once submitted a positive score in either the offensive or defensive component of box plus/minus.
But while this comparison is a bit ludicrous, it does underscore the deep-rooted desire for a two-way wing in the Big Apple. The Knicks don't have a reliable presence capable of shouldering a heavy offensive burden and continuing to serve as a positive defender. Courtney Lee is the best candidate, but he'll turn 33 before the start of 2018-19 and is coming off a campaign in which he scored just a dozen points per game.
Ideally, they can find someone capable of making life easier for Kristaps Porzingis (or holding down the fort in his enduring absence). They also need to seek out a stopper who's able to lift the team out of the defensive dumps.
But the roster only holds so many players, hence the desire—nay, need—for those skills to come in a single package.
Orlando Magic: Direction
The Orlando Magic are stuck in a perpetual rut.
As covered in more detail when breaking down which teams should look to a full rebuild this offseason (spoiler alert: The Magic are included), they've cycled through four different head coaches and 15 different members of seasonal most-used starting fives since trading away Dwight Howard during the 2012 offseason. The first number will soon swell to five after the firing of Frank Vogel, but even that won't be enough to bump up the average wins per year from 26.2 without picking a direction for the franchise.
Who are the Magic building around at this point?
Elfrid Payton was offloaded for nothing more than a second-round pick during the middle of the 2017-18 season. Aaron Gordon is set to hit restricted free agency this summer, and Orlando might reasonably balk if he signs a max offer sheet with a different organization. Jonathan Isaac is the most promising remaining player, and he averaged just 5.4 points, 3.7 rebounds, 0.7 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.1 blocks while slashing 37.9/34.8/76.0 as a rookie.
Are the Magic planning to maximize Isaac's defensive ability by surrounding him with more stoppers? Are they looking for offensive contributors who can score in a variety of manners? Do they even know right now while their search for a new head coach is still in progress?
Enough with the waffling. Enough with the penchant for overpaying veterans and attempting to circumvent the typical rebuilding process. Enough with the failure to build a cohesive roster that features an actual identity.
Fix that last flaw, and wins should start coming more frequently.
Phoenix Suns: Everything?
This isn't meant as a shot at the Phoenix Suns.
They have young talent scattered throughout the roster. They boast a legitimate burgeoning star in Devin Booker. Josh Jackson started playing more consistently during the second half of the season, putting his dizzying two-way potential on full display. With cap space working to their advantage and the Nos. 1, 16, 31 and 59 selections at their disposal, they should soon have one of the NBA's most intriguing nuclei.
But they weren't good at anything in 2017-18, which makes picking out a singular flaw an impossible task. That's not an exaggeration, either.
Checking in with a meager 100.8 points per 100 possessions, the Suns were dead last in offensive rating; the Sacramento Kings were next at 101.1. They also finished at No. 30 in defensive rating (110.6), sitting substantially behind the Cleveland Cavaliers (109.5) and Chicago Bulls (109.1). Ready for the complete list of teams this millennium to finish last on both ends of the floor during the same season?
- 2017-18 Phoenix Suns
- 2011-12 Charlotte Bobcats
That's it. And considering those '12 Bobcats went just 7-59 during a lockout-shortened season and haven't advanced past the first round of the playoffs ever since, that's not exactly the type of company these desert-dwellers should want to keep.
The Suns are, quite obviously, in better shape than Charlotte was a half-dozen years ago. But singling out one flaw doesn't make sense when improvements are needed across the board.
Sacramento Kings: Attitude
Don't take my word for it. Here's what Jason Jones of the Sacramento Bee had to say—in full so nothing is lost in translation—when asked what the Sacramento Kings' biggest need was this offseason:
"Adding a dynamic wing player with size is perhaps the biggest roster need, but I'd say the Kings' biggest need isn't based on position, rather persona.
"The Kings need what I call a 'dog' of a player. Someone who doesn't back down, plays with an edge, picks up some technical fouls every now and then and doesn't mind being the bad guy.
"Collectively, the Kings are too nice. I'd love to see more players take it personally when they give up easy drives. How about a hard foul at the rim?
"[Kosta] Koufos doesn't concede anything easily. Frank Mason III shows that, too. But that needs to infect the team more, and adding another rugged piece that doesn't mind stirring the pot with his teammates and opponents would be a step in the right direction."
Expanding on that a bit, the Kings need to establish the culture that has eluded them for so long. They can't be content to make small strides with a growing collection of young players. Nor can they be pleased with veteran signees, only to see them moved at the trade deadline during a disappointing season (see: Hill, George).
This is an organization that needs to learn how to win basketball games, and that only happens after you've established that beneficial culture that holds players to the highest of standards and leads to plenty of internal growth. If that means leaning on Koufos and Mason more, so be it. Ditto if De'Aaron Fox, fresh off an up-and-down rookie season, blossoms into a bona fide leader who holds his teammates accountable and refuses to cede an inch to opponents.
By whatever means necessary, the Kings need to sharpen the attitude and then watch as the on-court gains start accompanying that primary change.