NBA Teams 1 Piece Away from Contending Next Season
The margin separating contender and pretender is razor thin in the NBA. Sometimes, all it takes is one personnel tweak and, voila, your 50-win, "good, but not great" also-ran squad vaults into the league's upper echelon.
Chris Paul joining the Houston Rockets is one recent example.
If a team is in the conference finals, by definition, it's contending. One good break means a shot at a title. So we won't consider the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Cleveland Cavaliers or Boston Celtics.
This leaves a tiny sliver of the NBA to consider: teams that didn't contend this year but have the financial flexibility to make a meaningful addition over the summer—one that'd get them into the top tier of competition. The presence of an incumbent star is also a must. Nobody contends without one.
Finances will be tight in most cases. Generally, clubs that are anywhere close to a level where thoughts about a ring aren't ridiculous have already expended all their resources. So we'll have to get creative for some of these.
Honorable Mention: Toronto Raptors
The Toronto Raptors belong on the outside of this discussion, but they were good enough last season to deserve an explanation for their exclusion.
They're a luxury-tax team, which means they've got virtually no roster resources available. Adding a significant piece is out of the question, and they'll be lucky if they retain restricted free agent Fred VanVleet at a price that doesn't send an already substantial tax bill into the stratosphere.
If anything, Toronto is likely to subtract from its payroll in an effort to minimize the tax penalty, possibly unloading Norman Powell and the deal he signed just last offseason. It cost the Raptors a first-rounder to ditch DeMarre Carroll in the summer of 2017. What might it cost to dispense with Powell?
There's no "one piece" out there for these guys. Not a realistic one, anyway.
Besides, last year's roster was good enough to win 59 games and should have been a contender already. Will a new coach be the key to a second cultural overhaul in as many seasons, one that finally gets the Raps deeper into the dance?
Will organic growth from a young bench be the difference?
Hard to say.
Easier to say: If Toronto contends next season, it won't be because of an offseason personnel tweak.
The Piece: LeBron James
We begin with the easiest option on the board—not just because LeBron James turns any team into an instant title threat, but also because the Philadelphia 76ers' performance this year marks them as the clearest contender-in-waiting.
Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid are as promising as young cornerstones get, and the Sixers need only fill in role-players around them to ensure perennial competitiveness.
Gunning for James would be part of an effort to do much more than that.
It feels a little ridiculous to try to explain why James would put the Sixers over the top. "He's LeBron James" states the case just fine. But for a Philly team that ranked last in the league in turnovers and struggled mightily to generate consistent offense in a five-game conference semifinal loss to the Celtics, adding one of the best passers and most unstoppable scorers of all time seems helpful.
Again, Philadelphia could just bring back JJ Redick, add another shooter or two and bank on Markelle Fultz finding his form. That'd probably be enough to push the Sixers a round deeper (at least) into the playoffs. But why preach patience? Why aim low?
The Process was a deliberate enterprise, but it was also exceptionally bold. Targeting James would actually be an on-brand move.
If the Sixers don't connect on a huge swing for James, they can use their cap space (which maxes out at just over $30 million but will probably be closer to $24 million) to grab some quality vets on one-year deals. Wayne Ellington, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Joe Harris would fill out the wings nicely.
From there, they can roll into the summer of 2019 with oodles of cash for Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard or the restricted free agents from the draft class of 2015.
The Piece: Wayne Ellington
This is a lot of pressure to put on a shooting specialist, but tabbing Ellington as the guy who'll push the Bucks over the top is really a bet on Mike Budenholzer properly organizing this group on both ends. A workable defensive scheme with much less gambling and a more fluid approach on offense might net Milwaukee another 10 regular-season wins—particularly if Giannis Antetokounmpo returns in 2018-19 with a trustworthy jumper.
We saw the Sixers build their stretch-run offense around the threat of the jump shot. JJ Redick, Marco Belinelli and Robert Covington zipped around screens, tied defenses in knots and opened opportunities all over the floor as opponents scrambled to account for them.
Ellington could do that for the Bucks.
He shot 39.2 percent from deep last year on a high volume of extremely difficult looks, nailing 38.5 percent of the 174 triples he shot against "tight" or "very tight" coverage for the Miami Heat. Always on the move, always just a hair off balance and always mere inches away from a trailing defender's desperate swipes, Ellington perfected the high-degree-of-difficulty triple in 2017-18.
For what it's worth, he also drilled 43.8 percent of his threes when wide open.
Set him loose in Budenholzer's egalitarian, pass-heavy system, and you've got a fully weaponized marksman.
With or without Jabari Parker (for my money, it'd be better to let him walk than pay him $20 million per season on a multiyear deal), the Bucks are going to operate this offseason with the full mid-level exception as their best roster-building tool.
That $8.6 million chunk should be enough to grab Ellington—who'll be in demand but also made just over $6 million last season.
The Piece: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
If the Utah Jazz retain Derrick Favors and Dante Exum in free agency, they're unlikely to do much on the market. Like the Bucks, Utah figures to be over the cap with the full MLE at its disposal.
Moving on from Favors and Exum while cutting bait on nonguaranteed contracts for Thabo Sefolosha, Jonas Jerebko and Ekpe Udo would open up some more flexibility. Even in that scenario, Utah would be looking at less than $20 million in space.
KCP may not seem like a difference-maker, but you've got to consider how close the Jazz were to contention this past season. There's no shame in a five-game loss to the 65-win Rockets—especially when Donovan Mitchell's NBA experience could only be measured in months, not years, at the time. Utah ranked first in net rating after the All-Star break, defended at an elite level all year and should improve organically as Mitchell grows and gets more comfortable in Quin Snyder's offense.
Adding Caldwell-Pope would be part of a larger commitment to putting the ball in Mitchell's hands as the primary point guard. Ricky Rubio had a banner year, but for the Jazz to reach their absolute ceiling, they need more dynamic scoring and court-expanding stretch.
Caldwell-Pope is a capable defender who can handle either backcourt position. Still just 25, he also fits into Utah's age band, which is built around Mitchell (21) and Rudy Gobert (26 on June 26). It helps that he hit 38.3 percent of his threes a year ago.
It'll be tempting for Utah to hold fast, saving its ammo for a 2019 offseason in which it could have up to $50 million available. But the Jazz are closer to serious contention than most think, and the incremental improvement of KCP over Royce O'Neale could be all it takes to elevate this roster.
New Orleans Pelicans
The Piece: Danny Green
To even be part of the conversation about adding pieces, the New Orleans Pelicans have to let DeMarcus Cousins walk. That goes for Rajon Rondo, too.
Maybe it sounds cold, but waving goodbye to both vets is the smart play. Don't retain damaged goods and aging vets just because it gives the appearance of a team that is serious about winning. Instead, consider the history of Achilles tears, the obviously improved offensive flow that resulted from Anthony Davis playing as the lone big and the low odds of Rondo discovering the jump shot that might make him a playoff factor at age 32.
Without those two, the Pels will still only have the MLE. But that might be enough to get Green, precisely the three-and-D wing they need.
New Orleans was a long shot against the Warriors in the second round, but its total lack of a wing with decent size effectively removed any chance of an upset. Kevin Durant presents a unique problem to opposing defenses; his height and high release make it impossible for guards to bother his shot.
But guards were all the Pels had to throw at him.
Jrue Holiday is one of the best backcourt defenders in the NBA, but he had no chance against KD.
Green is bigger, has a long track record of elite defense and, critically, is a career 39.5 percent shooter from deep. He's exactly the type of two-way threat playoff teams need on the wing. It's true he's never been more than a complementary player, but that's fine. New Orleans has its star in Davis and its second option in Holiday.
Green can space the floor, guard three positions and help the Pels construct what might be the best guard-wing-big defensive trio in the NBA.
The Piece: Avery Bradley
The warning sirens should be blaring right now, as Bradley is coming off a lost season that saw his stock drop significantly. But when you're as cap-strapped as the Minnesota Timberwolves, you've got to extend your level of risk tolerance.
Minnesota can't even use the full MLE without getting hard-capped, according to ESPN's Bobby Marks. That means it'll only have $5.4 million of the exception at its disposal (plus minimum salary slots) to fill out the roster.
Bradley fits Tom Thibodeau's defense-first, veteran-biased approach to roster building. If the Wolves ever decide to embrace the three-point revolution, Bradley would make a fine addition to their closing lineup. Take Taj Gibson off the floor and trot Bradley out with Jeff Teague, Andrew Wiggins, Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns, and you've got scoring and shot creation across several positions without giving much back on D.
The Timberwolves were 37-22 in games Butler played last year, giving them a winning percentage that would have ranked third in the West. That's not to say Bradley would be joining a team ticketed for home-court advantage in the 2019 playoffs; Butler will probably miss more time next season. But Minnesota's performance when its key players were healthy suggests it's closer to making real noise than it seems.
Get some good luck on the health front, add a dynamic two-way guard with tons to prove in Bradley, price in growth from Towns and Wiggins, and it's not that hard to see the Wolves advancing much further into the postseason—perhaps even to the conference finals.