Every NBA Team's Weakest Link Heading into the Draft and Free Agency
The Golden State Warriors have checked the Cleveland Cavaliers into the NBA's championship-hope hospice, which can mean only one thing.
Draft and free-agency #SZN is here!
Prepping for this most wonderful time of the year takes us through every imaginable area of focus—including brutal honesty. Knowing where each team is at its weakest sets up a proper offseason wish list. And that allows for some meaningful discussion.
These cracks in the armor will mainly be tactical, shaped by depth charts and play styles. But surrounding vulnerabilities are fair game, be they certain contracts or front office mayhem.
Salary-cap situations and draft-day placement have no bearing on the selected roster voids. They're the tools that squads will use to address their most glaring flaws—if they can.
Atlanta Hawks: Frontcourt Running Mate for John Collins
John Collins is not completely alone in the Atlanta Hawks' frontcourt, per se.
Dewayne Dedmon and Mike Muscala could both be back in town if they pick up their player options. Rumor has it Miles Plumlee is a real, live person paid tens of millions of dollars to sometimes play basketball, too.
None of them are viable long-term partners in crime for the soon-to-be 21-year-old Collins. Dedmon is by far the best of the trio—he shoots threes now!—but he turns 29 in August.
Using Taurean Prince at the 4 with Collins at the 5 carries a certain yippee-ki-yay appeal in small doses. The former closed the season on a post-January hot streak, but he remains a tad overmatched against bigger wings—particularly with Collins as the primary line of defense behind him.
Atlanta allowed 119.3 points per 100 possessions whenever Prince and Collins populated the frontcourt by themselves, according to Cleaning The Glass. It'll take some time for that number to deflate, if it ever does.
Adding someone more interchangeable with Collins is paramount. At 6'10" with an in-progress frame, the center burden shouldn't fall entirely on him.
Brooklyn Nets: Stretchy Power Forward
Singling out the Brooklyn Nets' power forward rotation isn't a shot at the incumbents. They could just as easily prioritize reinforcements at the 5, where Jarrett Allen essentially stands alone.
Jahlil Okafor likely isn't coming back, and Timofey Mozgov, Brooklyn's second-highest paid player, remains unusable in an uptempo system. But Allen at least gives the Nets something resembling a mainstay center. He's more than just a rim-runner; he has some post moves, complete with a nifty hook, and he's already experimenting with corner threes.
Brooklyn's future at power forward is less certain. DeMarre Carroll works as a small-ball 4, but he turns 32 in July and is entering a contract year. He doesn't factor into the Nets' bigger picture.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson might. Head coach Kenny Atkinson has turned him into a tertiary pick-and-roll initiator, and he's expanded his range enough to include mid-range jumpers. He shot better than 45 percent this past year between 10 feet and just inside the three-point line.
That absence of long-range touch still works against him. More damningly, the Nets have yet to hold up defensively with him at the 4. They gave up almost 110 points per 100 possessions with him as a full-time power forward in 2016-17, and they were even worse in 2017-18 with him timesharing minutes at the 3, according to Cleaning The Glass.
Hollis-Jefferson is a switchy go-getter in his own right; he just might not be the answer for Brooklyn.
Turning to free agency allows the Nets to target higher-end or more established options. With Hollis-Jefferson one year out from restricted free agency, they could also use the draft to find a rookie-scale alternative who won't cost as much by 2019-20.
Boston Celtics: Cheap Size (?)
If this reads like a cowardly cop out, well, mission accomplished. Affordable size is the closest the Boston Celtics come to having a weak link.
Additional off-the-bounce playmaking? Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving won't be watching from the sidelines forever. And one-year-wiser versions of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are terrifying.
Lights-out shooters? Eh. Only the Golden State Warriors hit their threes at a higher clip than Boston during the regular season. Diving into potentially untenable accuracy from Brown (39.5 percent on threes), Tatum (43.4 percent) and Al Horford (42.9 percent) is overrated.
Irving's left knee? Hayward's left leg? Fair but lazy.
Questioning Boston's lack of size is a defensible crutch. But even that doesn't hold too much validity. The Celtics finished 11th in defensive rebounding rate and grabbed 82.6 percent of opponent misses when Horford and Aron Baynes played together. Also: This isn't 1998. They can get by without a battalion of behemoths behind Horford.
Cost-effective size is a good landing spot amid the holes in this argument. The Celtics will reach the tax if Marcus Smart signs a new contract rather than his qualifying offer in restricted free agency. Their talent lines up with a steep bill, but Brown (extension-eligible in 2019), Hayward (player option for 2020-21), Horford (player option for 2019-20), Irving (player option for 2019-20), Tatum (extension-eligible in 2020) and Terry Rozier will all command new investments over the next two summers.
Boston needs to curb its operating costs in advance of those decisions.
Charlotte Hornets: Backup Playmaking
Pretend this says "Kemba Walker replacement" if you're bullish on the Charlotte Hornets starting over. You won't be alone. They will struggle to avoid the luxury tax next season and shouldn't want any part of Walker's next deal if they crave meaningful flexibility before 2021.
Killing the Hornets for this absence of an heir apparent at point guard isn't so simple. For starters, they could turn loose the wildly disappointing Malik Monk after moving Walker's expiring contract. Mostly, though, they aren't hopeless enough to spin a possible teardown as inevitable.
"You simply can't be classified as 'bad' when you played your way to a 0.0 net rating during the regular season," Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal wrote. "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."
Bringing in a second-unit hub lets the Hornets talk themselves into renewed opportunity. And make no bones about it: They need that player.
Charlotte's Walker-less offense began to turn after the All-Star break. The bench finished first in points scored per 100 possessions down the stretch. That doesn't mean the second-stringers are in good hands. They placed 18th in offensive efficiency overall and were 29th prior to the All-Star Game.
Those bad vibes don't just go away. The Hornets would need to bank on a leap from Monk or ultra-stagger minutes for Nicolas Batum and Jeremy Lamb to read into this late-season surge.
They need an insurance policy behind Walker. Or in place of him. Whatever. It doesn't matter. They just need someone—and he has to come cheap, or at No. 11, because they don't have more than the taxpayer's mid-level exception at their disposal.
Chicago Bulls: Small Forward
David Nwaba is a keeper. After him, the Chicago Bulls have zero big-picture wings.
Resist pointing out Justin Holiday and Denzel Valentine. Neither one is an every-minute 3. On teams with more switchable bodies, their positional designations wouldn't matter. But the Bulls' roster imbalance has forced swingmen like Holiday and Valentine into the small-forward carousel.
Have a look:
- Guards and Swingmen: Kris Dunn, Jerian Grant, Justin Holiday, Sean Kilpatrick (non-guaranteed), Zach LaVine (restricted), Cameron Payne, Denzel Valentine
- Wings: David Nwaba (restricted), Paul Zipser (non-guaranteed)
The Bulls do own the No. 7 pick, which puts them in prime Michael Porter Jr. and Mikal Bridges territory. (Knowing them, they'll probably draft a combo big like Wendell Carter Jr.) They'll also have more than $20 million to spend in free agency after accounting for LaVine's cap hold.
Impact wings who fit the timeline for a rebuilding squad are few and far between in this year's market. The Bulls aren't signing a superstar unless Paul George (player option) despises the postseason.
But their money will go a long way. They need only be on the lookout for trap candidates—pricier options with tumbling upside whose names rhyme with Smodney Good.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Two-Way Wings
Virtually every team needs more two-way-wings. Players who switch between multiple spots on defense while splashing in deep looks at above-average clips without monopolizing offensive possessions are the dream.
The Cleveland Cavaliers' weakest link is not novel; it's just abnormally severe.
Cleveland and Golden State have turned the NBA Finals into a remake of Groundhog Day. The Celtics, Houston Rockets and Philadelphia 76ers will have something to say about this championship-round treadmill next season, but this meet-up will continue churning out reruns if LeBron James (player option) stays put.
To make this annual showdown into anything more than one-sided deja vu, the Cavaliers need to Warriors-proof their roster. Houston is the only team that has come remotely close to cutting down Golden State's dynastic pursuit since Kevin Durant agreed to become Stephen Curry's little brother.
This doesn't excuse the Cavaliers from trying. Their best wing options as of now include Jeff Green, Rodney Hood (restricted), Kyle Korver, JR Smith and the inexperienced Cedi Osman. Standing pat doesn't cut it.
Upgrading the wing rotation—and the roster in general—will be tough. The Cavaliers won't have more than the taxpayer's mid-level exception to spare with James in tow, and packages built around whoever they draft at No. 8 and salary filler are their top trade carrots.
Once more: That doesn't invite inaction. The Cavaliers don't stand a puncher's chance of ever properly defending the Warriors without an infusion of two-way wings.
If James stays in Cleveland, the Cavs will need to exhaust what few resources they have, including Kevin Love, to try to bridge the solar system between them and their championship roadblock.
Dallas Mavericks: Combo Wing
What? Expecting to see the Dallas Mavericks linked to a big for the umpteenth time?
Yeah, that schtick is overrated. They could use a big. Everyone's guilty of talking about it. But the Mavericks have Dirk Nowitzki (team option) and Dwight Powell to use in the middle, along with Maxi Kleber (non-guaranteed).
Fleshing out the depth chart with another combo wing takes priority. Harrison Barnes should be playing the 4, and Wesley Matthews is working his way back from a fracture in his right leg. Doug McDermott's defensive effort doesn't translate to results, and he's due a raise in restricted free agency. Dorian Finney-Smith (non-guarnateed) is a tough-nosed option, but he's one guy.
To the Mavericks' credit, drafting a big isn't taboo. Taking a wing fifth overall who isn't Luka Doncic constitutes a reach, and he isn't going to fall past the Memphis Grizzlies at No. 4. Jaren Jackson Jr. or Mohamed Bamba will be their safest option unless they're smitten with Mikal Bridges or Michael Porter Jr.
Surfing the free-agency waters is more the Mavericks' speed. They have a clear path to $20 million-plus in cap space and will be a magnet for any second-tier free agent looking to get paid.
If they aren't keen on spending money now, this sore spot will linger into next summer.
Denver Nuggets: Small Forward
Another team with wing issues!
The Denver Nuggets will lack answers at small forward if Wilson Chandler declines his $12.8 million player option. Juan Hernangomez should be a 4, and Torrey Craig is an off-the-bench Band-Aid. Trey Lyles is never, ever the answer at the 3.
Gary Harris can pitch in, but he's 6'4" and isn't especially long. Denver surrendered almost 111 points per 100 possessions with him as its nominal small forward, according to Cleaning The Glass. Malik Beasley deserves to be unbolted from the bench, but his 6'5" frame won't hold up versus bigger wings.
Relying on the draft for solutions is equally problematic. The Nuggets aren't getting a small forward immediately capable of contributing to a fringe contender at No. 14. They're more inclined to use that selection to lop off salary, according to ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski (via Denver Stiffs' Ryan Blackburn).
Free agency doesn't offer a safe haven. There are ways for them to dredge up cap space, but earmarking Nikola Jokic (team option) for max money triggers luxury-tax concerns.
Getting Chandler back is ideal. He's a bit overpriced, but paying him for another year beats shelling out a long-term pact. From there, they'll have to hope Will Barton doesn't cost much, and that the bargain bin is sympathetic to their needs.
Detroit Pistons: Shooting
Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond need to be surrounded by shooters to headline an upper-echelon offense.
In other words, the Detroit Pistons have some work to do—particularly within their projected starting lineup.
Reggie Jackson has hit 35 percent or more of his threes only twice through his first seasons. Stanley Johnson is shooting under 30 percent from deep for his career. Griffin has outside range now, but he isn't a league-average marksman. Andre Drummond dreams of jacking mid-range jumpers on a regular basis, but no.
Attaching one outside buffer to these four only goes so far. Playing two of Reggie Bullock, James Ennis (free agent) and Luke Kennard at all times might barely do the trick.
Tilting toward lineups with three shooters orbiting Drummond and Griffin is the goal. That may call for fewer minutes with Jackson running beside both bigs. Detroit drilled 31 percent of its threes in the 44 minutes they played together. It most definitely calls for more floor balance up and down the roster.
Combo-wing snipers are always the most valuable, but with no cap space or first-round picks, the Pistons cannot be overly selective. If their top potential additions dictate they stagger the minutes of their three best players, then so be it.
Golden State Warriors: Second-Unit Shooting
Don't let Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson distract you from the fact that the Warriors aren't a merry band of uninhibited flamethrowers.
The soon-to-be champs finished 16th in three-point attempts per 100 possessions during the regular season. The Rockets, they are not.
Highlighting a dearth of shooters on the roster still feels weird. Golden State found nylon on a league-high 39.1 percent of its treys during the regular season.
But remove the starters from the picture, and things don't look so hot. The Warriors' second-stringers dropped in 33.3 percent of their triples, the third-worst mark among backups.
This problem persists when isolating the roster even further. Remove Curry, Durant and Thompson from consideration, and the rest of the team converted 33.4 percent of its threes—right in line with the Phoenix Suns' dead-last rate.
The Warriors can live without their nominal 5s dropping in deep looks. They can even bank on Draymond Green (30.1 percent) and Andre Iguodala (28.2 percent) putting down more of their attempts. But they're uncomfortably thin on the wings.
Shaun Livingston and Patrick McCaw (restricted) are non-shooters, and no generational superpower should have to treat Nick Young as indispensable. So while the No. 28 pick and the taxpayer's mid-level exception isn't much, Golden State needs them both to augment its non-star spacing.
Houston Rockets: Ryan Anderson's Contract
Identifying Ryan Anderson's contract as the Rockets' most vulnerable point is not meant to imply they're otherwise perfect. It more so nods to their mission of taking down the Warriors.
"I'd say 10," general manager Daryl Morey responded when ESPN's Cassidy Hubbarth asked him about his level of obsession with overthrowing Golden State. "I don't understand the teams that aren't obsessed with beating them. To win the championship, you have to beat the Warriors."
Sources told Rockets Wire's Kelly Iko that Morey will give chase to both Paul George and LeBron James in free agency. Wojnarowski reiterated as much, noting Houston will "be aggressive in trying to see if there’s a way to get [George] there" (via Brett Dawson of the Oklahoman).
Digging up the cap space to sign either player outright is off the table. Paul, Clint Capela (restricted) and George or James would need to accept major discounts in addition to the Rockets clearing the deck.
Sign-and-trade scenarios—or, in James' case, opt-in-and-trade possibilities—are Houston's primary source of hope. And to complete whatever form this pipe dream takes, the final two years and $41.7 million on Anderson's deal need to go.
You know, the same Anderson who became unplayable once the playoffs tipped off. The same Anderson who empowered teams to ask for two first-round picks in prospective salary dumps last summer, according to ESPN.com's Zach Lowe. That Anderson.
Various other roadblocks stand in the Rockets' way, including the number of future first-rounders they'd have to include in hypothetical deals with the Cavaliers or Oklahoma City Thunder. But Houston can reconcile whatever collateral damage landing James or George entails.
Finding a home for Anderson's contract is an entirely different, potentially unsolvable matter.
Indiana Pacers: Combo Forward
Going with wings is tempting here. Bojan Bogdanovic is the only 3-man on a guaranteed contract for the Indiana Pacers next season. But focusing solely on that need overlooks the awkward dynamics at the 4.
Thaddeus Young could leave a gaping hole at power forward if he declines his player option and explores free agency. Bogdanovic can soak up some time as a small-ball 4, but the defense was so-so in the minutes he spent there this past year, per Cleaning The Glass.
Most of Bogdanovic's power forward possessions came with Domantas Sabonis at the 5. That frontcourt partnership won't hold up full-time. It doesn't have the aggregate foot speed to stay in front of more explosive ball-handlers and rim-runners. Indiana will find itself committing more fouls and forcing fewer turnovers.
Different problems plague the Sabonis-Myles Turner duo. They make for a more disciplined pairing inside the arc, but they're even less equipped to recover and close out on perimeter-oriented frontcourts.
As Indy Cornrows' Caitlin Cooper noted, "Indiana already ranked among the bottom-five in the league in three-point attempts allowed per 100 possessions (30.9), but when the pair of 22-and-under bigs were on the floor together during the regular season, that number ballooned to an untenable 43.9 and opponents shot just a shade below 40 percent from distance."
Keeping Young mitigates the defensive warts. He's among the most underrated power forward stoppers. But his return doesn't help spacing. Excluding last-second heaves, he shot 36.1 percent outside of eight feet from the basket.
Aaron Gordon (restricted) has become a popular free-agent suggestion given Indiana's limitations, but he shouldn't be sponging up minutes at small forward. Ask the Orlando Magic. And for all of their shortcomings at power forward, the Pacers shouldn't have to get by with Bogdanovic and three-guard lineups as their answer to puddle-deep options at the 3.
Los Angeles Clippers: Perimeter Defenders
This could be taken in myriad different directions if the Los Angeles Clippers indulge an offseason teardown that includes getting rid of DeAndre Jordan (player option) and selling off their other veterans.
"Reboot is starting over," Clippers vice president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank said at the end of the regular season, per the Orange County Register's Elliott Teaford. "We're not waving the flag. We're not going into the tank."
So much for that.
Los Angeles has plenty of combo wings on its payroll, from more expensive options like Danilo Gallinari, Tobias Harris and Austin Rivers (player option) to Sam Dekker, Wesley Johnson, Sindarius Thornwell and C.J. Williams. However, none of them are go-to stoppers. Johnson and Williams come fairly close, but there's an offensive trade-off with them.
Surviving the minutes Gallinari, Harris and Rivers log together, presumably in the starting lineup, figures to be especially difficult. They played 321 possessions with each other this past season, during which time the Clippers coughed up a defensive rating north of 110, per Cleaning The Glass.
Splitting up some of their minutes is critical. But Los Angeles first needs the complementary substitutes to do it. The 12th and 13th overall picks in this year's draft loom large here. Making a splash in free agency is out of the question. The Clippers will be up against the tax if they keep the nucleus intact, and re-signing Avery Bradley, while a condonable move, doesn't help them go toe-to-toe with the Association's bigger wings.
Los Angeles Lakers: Rim-Running Big
Contrary to pie-in-the-sky Paul George and LeBron James scenarios, the Los Angeles Lakers are not desperate for aid on the wings.
Whiffing on another free-agency coup still leaves them with Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma, with the inside track on keeping Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (non-Bird). Standing 6'6", Lonzo Ball also sniffs wing status, which allows for dual-point guard backcourts that don't give up size on the defensive end.
Signing George and/or James would be huge. But the Lakers' perimeter rotation will be in enviable shape no matter what.
Their big-man merry-go-round is a different story.
The Lakers' defense around the basket was pleasantly middle-of-the-road, but they forfeited point-blank looks more frequently than every squad except the Milwaukee Bucks, per Cleaning The Glass.
Re-signing Julius Randle to play the 5 is fine. He has nimble feet, mismatch handles and tallied some good middle-man minutes en route to a career year, but he's neither a rim-runner nor shot-swatter. Keeping Brook Lopez preserves length around the hoop, but he's more of a pick-and-pop plodder than an end-to-end finisher.
Gambling on a bouncy big with the No. 25 pick should be right up the Lakers' alley. Mitchell Robinson's name continues to pop up at that spot. A league-best cap situation arms them with unparalleled spending tools as well, but short of Clint Capela, this summer isn't brimming with no-brainer long-term investments up front.
Memphis Grizzlies: Playmaking Wing
Welcome to the 23rd annual "The Grizzlies Need a Playmaking Wing" predraft clambake, "Will They Ever Actually Get One?" edition.
Dillon Brooks' iron-man 2017-18 campaign gives Memphis an in-house candidate to groom. Stretch the criteria for a wing, and MarShon Brooks qualifies as another option. Warding off the Tyreke Evans vultures helps the search, too.
Still, the Grizzlies need higher-end possibilities—younger prospects who create their own shots off the bounce, set the table for others and have a puncher's hope of holding serve defensively across the 2, 3 and 4 spots.
Chandler Parsons is supposed to be that guy. He isn't. But the Grizzlies don't have the money to find the player they thought he was in 2016. If they're dangling the non-taxpayer's mid-level exception, Evans has signed elsewhere.
For Memphis' sake, here's hoping Luka Doncic falls to No. 4. Otherwise, see you at next year's get-together, tentatively themed "Chandler Parsons' Contract Expires in 389ish Days, So 2020's 'The Grizzlies Need a Playmaking Wing' Barbecue Is Going to Be Lit!"
Miami Heat: Off-the-Bounce Shot Creation
Goran Dragic is the Miami Heat's lone effective ground-up shot-maker. Tyler Johnson and Josh Richardson have some off-the-dribble juice in them, but creation isn't their bag. Justise Winslow is still coming into his own as a standalone option.
Putting the ball on the floor goes against Wayne Ellington's religion. (He's also an early-Bird free agent). James Johnson at times looks like a viable No. 2 weapon on offense, but he's inconsistent on the perimeter. He shot 33.6 percent on pull-up jumpers and 34.5 percent outside the paint.
"This was the sixth-least efficient team on isolations, a shortcoming made all the more obvious by the amount of late-game action that ran through [Dwyane] Wade, Bleacher Report's Zach Buckley wrote. "Sure, he's a future Hall of Famer, but he was second fiddle on last season's 41-loss Chicago Bulls and a support piece for a Cleveland Cavaliers club that required a midseason makeover."
Dion Waiters is bound to take all of this as a personal affront. He has our apologies. But he missed most of 2017-18 with an ankle injury, and he isn't a reliable No. 2 option.
No one on the Heat is even a pseudo-second in command. They topped out at 25th in effective field-goal percentage on pull-up jumpers, a symptom of their 20th-place finish in points scored per 100 possessions.
Filling this void anytime soon will be an issue. The Heat have zero draft picks this year, and it will take some maneuvering for them to elude the luxury tax if they re-sign Ellington.
Crossing their fingers for a quantum leap from Richardson is all they have to go on.
Milwaukee Bucks: Physicality at the 5
Recently hired head coach Mike Budenholzer can work with Milwaukee's lanky frontcourt setup. He's deployed stifling defenses in the past that didn't feature a traditional top-tier center.
That doesn't absolve the Bucks from finding a burly body to stash in the middle for stretches at a time.
Milwaukee does not have a single big who serves as an interior deterrent or a dominant presence on the glass. This year's squad finished 29th in defensive rebounding rate and allowed opponents to reach the rim more often than any other team, according to Cleaning The Glass.
Installing a different head coach and new, more conservative schemes will not offset physical limitations. The Bucks are long and athletic, but they aren't the least bit imposing. Just look at how many points they allowed per 100 possessions during stints for their most-used centers:
- Giannis Antetokounmpo (232 possessions): 116.2
- John Henson (3,941 possessions): 107.1
- Thon Maker (2,334 possessions): 117.0
- Jabari Parker (108 possessions): 120.7
- Tyler Zeller (798 possessions): 110.7
Henson is the only big to anchor a defense that rated higher than the 31st percentile. Superfluous gambles on the perimeter are liable for some of the damage, but they aren't responsible for everything.
Addressing this problem over the offseason isn't impossible. The Bucks won't get the presence they need with the No. 17 pick, but they'll have access to the non-taxpayer's mid-level exception if they aren't planning to get swindled by Parker (restricted). That money should net them a capable second or third big behind Henson.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Two-Way Shooters
Please do not be fooled by the Minnesota Timberwolves' finishing fourth in points scored per 100 possessions.
Minnesota closed 2017-18 with the league's lowest three-point rate and placed second in mid-range reliance, according to Cleaning The Glass. That shot profile won't buoy a top-five offense forever. It was exposed in the first round against Houston and will be proven detrimental again.
Saving the non-taxpayer's mid-level exception for any ol' shooter would be easy enough. But the Timberwolves cannot emphasize spacing alone. They ranked inside the bottom 10 of points allowed per 100 possessions overall and were 29th in defensive efficiency after missing a shot or committing a turnover, according to Inpredictable.
Minnesota has to use the No. 20 pick and the MLE to properly arm itself with feisty perimeter defenders who don't eat into touches for Jimmy Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns or Andrew Wiggins at the other end.
Totally reasonable, right?
New Orleans Pelicans: Sweet-Shooting Wing Defender
Tired of so many weak links revolving around the wings? Well, this is 2018, and not everyone can be the Celtics and Rockets. The Pelicans will not be the last such example here.
New Orleans is, however, on the right track. The Anthony Davis-plus-shooters model received ample run following DeMarcus Cousins' Achilles injury and yielded encouraging returns.
Plopping Nikola Mirotic at the 4 and Davis at the 5 added an element of unpredictability and unchecked speed to the offense. The Pelicans outscored opponents by 10.7 points per 100 possessions, with a high-society true shooting percentage (57.5).
Leaning into this layout doesn't necessitate Cousins' departure. New Orleans shouldn't overpay for him without having a grasp on his post-recovery value, but that money cannot be spent anywhere else. No version of the mid-level exception will nab a star on the mend.
With or without him, though, the Pelicans need quick-trigger wings who won't get bulldozed on defense. They preserve the integrity of four-out combinations with Cousins or Davis jumping center and are non-negotiable preconditions of dual-big arrangements.
Darius Miller and E'Twaun Moore offer snapshots of these essential helpers, but they aren't quite them. Miller gets overpowered by larger wings, and though Moore is in-your-face pesky, he's undersized at 6'4".
Jrue Holiday saw spot minutes at small forward last year. That shouldn't happen again. Solomon Hill is switchable enough, but he's a non-shooter. Expecting DeAndre Liggins to drain 47.1 percent of his threes ever again is a good way to get burned.
Letting Cousins walk gives the Pelicans unfettered access to the non-taxpayer's MLE and, perhaps, an outside shot at poaching a Trevor Ariza, Avery Bradley, Wilson Chandler (player option) or Danny Green (player option). Keeping him leaves them with bi-annual-exception and mini-MLE options—James Ennis, Joe Harris, Josh Huestis—and whoever's left on the draft board at No. 51.
New York Knicks: Point Guard
The New York Knicks haven't employed a guard or wing fit to disrupt pick-and-rolls in approximately forever. Frank Ntilikina is already shaping up to break the curse.
Among the 184 players to spend 90 or more possessions guarding pick-and-roll ball-handlers this season, he placed fourth in points allowed per possession. And after growing an inch since the start of his rookie year, according to Marc Berman of the New York Post, the 6'6" combo guard has the size and length to pester positions 1 through 3.
Cracks begin creeping into his outlook on offense. His efficiency should improve with time, but he isn't a prototypical floor general. He's indecisive once he gets into the lane and is beyond hesitant to create his own shot.
That passivity may never go away. If it does, he might still be better off as a secondary ball-handler—in which case, New York needs more of a killer at the point of attack.
Lucking into that player in free agency is a fool's errand. The Knicks will have money to futz around with if Enes Kanter declines his player option, but the pool of talent at the point dissipates after Chris Paul. Fred VanVleet (restricted) is arguably the second-best setup man available.
Looking to the draft is the more productive. ESPN.com's Jonathan Givony argued Colin Sexton would be a good bet at No. 9, assuming Trae Young is off the board:
"Enter Sexton, with his tremendous aggressiveness driving the lane, taking off-the-dribble jumpers and putting defensive pressure on opposing guards. NBA teams have some concerns about Sexton's decision-making and reckless style of play. Fiercely competitive, Sexton has shown enough flashes in the right areas to be comfortably projected as a starting-caliber point guard with plenty of upside."
Sound the "New York needs three-and-D wings" alarm if you're so inclined. Courtney Lee stands alone under this umbrella, and he isn't suited to tussle with Adonises at the 3 or 4. But the Knicks already started developing Ntilikina like an off-guard, and neither Trey Burke nor Emmanuel Emudiay have top-end staying power.
The 1 spot must remain the weakest link until the incumbents prove otherwise.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Power Forward
Rescuing Carmelo Anthony from the Knicks seemed like a smart move for the Thunder. But if Oklahoma City could turn back the clock, it would likely call for a mulligan.
Anthony grappled with his accessory role, turning in a career-worst true shooting percentage. He mostly said all the right things through the regular season and playoffs, but he began the summer seething at the notion of additional concession.
With a $27.9 million early termination option he has no reason to use, Anthony is now a stain on the Thunder's books. They'll persevere and perhaps even imitate progress with the return of Paul George and a healthy Andre Roberson. But their glass ceiling will persist so long as Anthony is at the 4, fancying himself anything more than an offensive subsidiary or second-unit hub.
At the same time, Oklahoma City is light on impactful pivots. Josh Huestis and Jerami Grant are both free agents, and their defensive activity comes at a spacing cost the offense remains ill-equipped to withstand. Patrick Patterson flopped during his first year on the Thunder. He canned 38.6 percent of his treys, but on negligible volume and as an afterthought in a rotation that so badly needs him to be its backup 5.
Allocating more time for George at power forward has its advantages, but the Thunder have to keep him first. And then they must be sold on Alex Abrines assuming a larger role, lest they run into personnel shortages in the 2-3 zone.
What of Melo through all this? The Thunder cannot forget about him. Pawning off his $27.9 million salary on the trade market isn't feasible. With no first-round picks and only the mini mid-level to spend, they need him—in a lower-key capacity, sure, but need all the same.
Orlando Magic: Point Guard
Running through the Magic's point guard rotation is among the most depressing offseason exercises. They have D.J. Augustin and Shelvin Mack and...and...well, that's it.
Referencing the Elfrid Payton trade is not an effective mode of cover. Nor is the music Evan Fournier and Jonathon Simmons can make out of the pick-and-roll as supplementary ball-handlers.
This patchwork rotation might fly if the Magic had vast amounts of cap space or if the free-agency ranks were teeming with talented floor generals. But they don't, and it isn't.
Orlando will have the non-taxpayer's mid-level exception as its guiding light after baking in Aaron Gordon's restricted free-agent hold. That might be enough to craft an offer sheet for Fred VanVleet that the Toronto Raptors have to think about before matching.
The Magic's No. 6 pick is everything under the circumstances, as Trae Young should still be up for grabs. If he isn't, they must give serious consideration to Collin Sexton—by no means the best player available at that spot, but a fit for the Magic's most overt void nevertheless.
Philadelphia 76ers: Bryan Colangelo
Team president Bryan Colangelo will unquestionably be Philly's weakest link if his Twitter soap opera spills into free agency.
The Sixers' ownership group has contemplated firing Colangelo since the social media allegations first surfaced last week, according to Wojnarowski. But as NBC Sports Philadelphia's John Clark reported Wednesday, prevailing belief inside the organization is starting to err in his favor.
"While the Sixers' investigation into president of basketball operations Bryan Colangelo's Twitter fiasco is ongoing, the general belief within the organization is that it believes Colangelo's assertion he had no knowledge of the Twitter accounts, did not send the messages or had known the messages were being sent, according to a source. The Sixers are trying to decide if they can go forward with Colangelo after sensitive team information went public."
Regardless of whether Colangelo is innocent or guilty, it almost doesn't matter. The damage has been done.
The Sixers are now tied to this episodic, made-for-ClickHole drama. Having a cleaner cap sheet than every team that doesn't wear purple and gold won't inoculate them against association-by-perception. They'll need tangible proof Colangelo is the uninstructed victim.
Fair or not, he'll be deemed guilty to some extent without verifiable absolution. And good luck winning over Paul George or LeBron James when your general manager may be linked to a handful of Twitter aliases that took aim at his team's own players and divulged confidential intel about failed trades and health bills.
Phoenix Suns: Point Guard
The Suns have a pivotal decision on deck as owners of the No. 1 pick. They need another cornerstone to pair with Devin Booker, and Deandre Ayton or Luka Doncic is the way to go.
However, neither of them plugs Phoenix's biggest hole.
The Suns could use a superstar frontcourt prospect like Ayton, but they have still-developing question marks in Dragan Bender, Marquese Chriss and Alan Williams (non-guaranteed). Doncic is almost everything teams look for in playmaking wings with All-NBA potential, but the roster is not barren of perimeter firepower. Booker, Josh Jackson and T.J. Warren could be the 2-3-4 triumvirate of the future.
Solidifying the point guard rotation is the more pressing matter. Six different floor generals took up the starter's mantle for the Suns this season, yet they're no closer to housing a permanent fixture. Elfrid Payton (restricted) could be long-term material, but the offense imploded with him playing beside Booker. A healthy Brandon Knight shouldn't be anybody's answer to run the point.
Phoenix needs someone to bolster its league-worst offense with a blended skill set. A primary pick-and-roll ball-handler would be nice, but he cannot cannibalize half-court touches. Last year's team ranked dead last in efficiency on both spot-ups and wide-open threes. The next point man must be comfortable ceding possession to Booker and firing off the catch.
Doncic helps remedy many of the offensive wrinkles if the Suns go positionless. But their backcourt is also the Achilles heel of a league-worst defense. No collection of guards gave up more points per 100 possessions.
Sticking with Ayton or Doncic at No. 1, as they should, leaves the Suns with the 16th overall pick and a flexible cap sheet to find a conventional point guard or an additional playmaker. It's anyone's guess as to whether the right fits will be out there after the lottery and in free agency.
Portland Trail Blazers: Volume off-Ball Shooters
NBC Sports' Dane Carbaugh laid bare the Portland Trail Blazers' greatest pitfall within his playoff postmortem for the team.
"There was a similar issue this season as [Al-Farouq] Aminu's shooting percentages rose while [Moe] Harkless sat on the bench in the middle of the year. Without Harkless or [Allen] Crabbe to anchor the three-point line, that left Portland with just one shooter outside of [Damian] Lillard and [CJ] McCollum in Aminu. Teams drifted toward Aminu, leaving [Evan] Turner as the open shooter on the three-point line. He shot 32 percent from deep, and Portland went from eight in three-point percentage to 16th in a year."
Playing Aminu and Harkless at the same time begins to alleviate this spacing crunch. The Blazers hit 38.1 percent of their threes and outpaced opponents by 5.6 points per 100 possessions when they shared the floor.
However, neither one engenders fear with his quick-fire releases or efficiency. Aminu is a roller coaster from beyond the arc, and defenses will live with Harkless draining 41.5 percent of his triples when he's ninth on the team in attempts per 36 minutes.
Portland needs complementary marksmen who beg its three-point volume to increase and diminish its dependence on off-the-bounce creation. Houston was the only team to take a larger share of its looks when using seven or more dribbles.
Busting up the Lillard-McCollum backcourt is an overreaction to this pickle, as the Blazers won't generate a return that validates dissolution. Portland is better off using the No. 24 pick and—if owner Paul Allen is willing to pay the tax—the mini mid-level to restock its shooting cupboards.
Someone as cheap as Omri Casspi or as understated as Joe Harris could end up doing wonders for the offense's balance.
Sacramento Kings: Playmaking 4
Skal Labissiere was supposed to render this moot with his scorching-hot finish to 2016-17. He did not.
Ankle and shoulder issues hindered his availability, but his efficiency and usage dipped within the Sacramento Kings' frontcourt hodgepodge. The off-the-dribble finesse and spunk he flashed as a rookie vanished into nothingness. He shot 27.3 percent on pull-up jumpers compared to 52.6 in 2016-17, and 33.0 percent on post-ups, down from 46.3.
Labissiere retains his standstill appeal, but his future will lie at the 5 if the Kings can figure out the defensive logistics. That, or he'll trickle outside their plans altogether.
Sacramento doesn't have another playmaking 4 in waiting behind Labissiere. Harry Giles is more of a rim-runner. Justin Jackson shouldn't be asked to branch out beyond a pump-and-dump role—and that's assuming he's ever allowed to do more than dabble at power forward. Please don't bring up Zach Randolph.
Both the draft and free agency offer the Kings an avenue to upgrades. Marvin Bagley III and Jaren Jackson Jr. will be available for them at No. 2 if the Suns take Deandre Ayton and they aren't sold on Luka Doncic. And they're one of eight or nine teams with unimpeded access to almost $20 million in cap space—wiggle room that invites them to party-crash the bidding for restricted free agents like Aaron Gordon, Jabari Parker and Julius Randle.
Open their minds to small-ball options, and the Kings can add some alternatively cheaper options to their shopping list: Mario Hezonja, Rodney Hood (restricted), Jerami Grant, etc.
San Antonio Spurs: Athletic Playmaking Wing
Kawhi Leonard's rickety relationship with the San Antonio Spurs is not factored into their weak link. They've yet to entertain trade proposals, and the two-time Defensive Player of the Year plans to meet with head coach Gregg Popovich prior to the draft, according to Woj (via Def Pen Hoops' Rob Lopez).
Even if Leonard stays in San Antonio, the minutes around him at the 2 and 4 could be decimated by free agency.
Both Rudy Gay and Danny Green have player options, and Kyle Anderson is slated for restricted free agency. The Spurs aren't bringing back all three if they reach the open market. They've compromised their long-term ledger enough following last summer's deals for LaMarcus Aldridge (extension), Pau Gasol (partial guarantee in 2019-20) and Patty Mills (signed through 2020-21).
If Gay and Green play out the final year of their deals, San Antonio will likely keep its wing rotation intact. Anderson shouldn't cost that much in a market starved for cap space.
Regardless, keeping all three wouldn't mark the end of Spurs' offseason workload. They need another on-the-move maestro to make Leonard's life easier, to leverage against Patty Mills' fits of hesitance and to cushion the growing pains tied to Dejounte Murray's learning curve.
Aldridge is an expert tough-shot maker, having swished 58.6 percent of his turnaround fadeaways this season. However, he isn't an above-the-break attacker. Gay was in a past life, but not so much anymore. Green tried to widen his offensive horizons this past season, but he needs to focus on recapturing his three-point efficiency from 2014-15.
Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker (unrestricted) would have sufficed...a half-decade ago. They aren't fit for No. 2 duty these days. Anderson's slow-then-slower-then-slowest change-of-pace handles can be disarming, but he's no head-down blitzer or pull-up maestro.
San Antonio does have the No. 18 pick. Yours truly already has his Troy Brown Spurs jersey on special order. But no rookie is filling this role on a championship hopeful out of the gate.
The non-taxpayer's mid-level is the Spurs' lifeline for immediate help. Someone along the lines of Avery Bradley, Tyreke Evans or, less likely, Will Barton noticeably beefs up the offensive pecking order.
Toronto Raptors: Switchy Bigs
Toronto has more prominent weaknesses to choose from than any contender should.
Another knockdown shooter or two comes close to cracking the discussion. The Raptors liberally launched threes but finished an uninspiring 18th in long-range accuracy.
Getting even more specific with a small-ball 4 is in play. OG Anunoby is a good start, but he's the extent of their options unless they're cool with C.J. Miles and the buried-on-the-bench Norman Powell being pummeled by bigger wings.
The sheer equity Toronto has invested in the frontcourt leads us here. Besides, any tweaks to the power forward rotation fall into this category.
Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas will take home a combined $38.2 million next season, which is too much for two bigs best suited at center. Slotting Ibaka at the 4 flies during the regular season, but it won't hold up in the postseason—especially when his outside touch retreats into oblivion.
Pascal Siakam's trajectory means the world to this snafu. The Raptors don't have a draft pick or cap space. Short of adding a Trevor Ariza, James Ennis or Luc Mbah a Moute with the mini mid-level exception, they need Siakam to round out his game.
He already has the lateral gait to wreak havoc at both the 4 and 5, and his off-the-dribble vision is ahead of schedule. He just needs to inflate his corner-three percentage (25.7) by 10 or 12 percentage points to be the exact player Toronto's rotation is currently missing.
Utah Jazz: No. 2 Scorer
Donovan Mitchell needs an aggressive running mate. The panic he instills with his attacks are not enough on their own—and it showed.
The Utah Jazz placed 21st in field-goal percentage on drives and 29th in efficiency when using three to six dribbles. Ricky Rubio was their only player to average more than one pull-up jumper per game and hit at least 37 percent of them.
Head coach Quin Snyder's equal-opportunity constructs offset the absence of an inarguable No. 2 to some degree. Utah does not need a megastar alongside Mitchell to hang with glitzier offenses. Ball movement and quick half-court decision-making are effective camouflage.
However, the current crop of sidekicks doesn't meet the bare-minimum requirements.
Joe Ingles would work if his me-first spells lasted longer than a possession or two.Rubio is good to pick up the slack for the second half of the season. Jae Crowder and Royce O'Neale should not have to bear self-sufficient burdens for more than a quarter.
Alec Burks might do the trick if he wouldn't inevitably deviate from Snyder's system often enough to warrant extended stays in the doghouse. Thabo Sefolosha (non-guaranteed) is a no. Dante Exum (restricted) needs to begin or finish consecutive seasons without being injured before waxing about his peak. Derrick Favors is 10 to 15 years too late for this job. Anyone imploring Rudy Gobert to develop a jumper or outside-in handles should consider spending less time with Hassan Whiteside.
Utah could hope to strike draft-day gold for a second year in a row. Selecting at No. 21 opens the door for fliers on Troy Brown, Donte DiVincenzo, Kevin Huerter, Chandler Hutchinson and Jerome Robinson, among others.
Carving out cap space is within the realm of possibility, but the Jazz shouldn't jump through the requisite hoops to gum up their squeaky-clean 2019 ledger. Dangling the non-taxpayer's mid-level exception likely meets the asking price of an interim No. 2 if they aren't content to tread water.
Washington Wizards: Antiquated Centers
Wing depth could get the Anne Robinson treatment. But the Washington Wizards' 2-3-4 rotation isn't in dire straits. Markieff Morris Morris, Kelly Oubre, Otto Porter and Tomas Satoransky are all replacement-level castmates or better. And though another body would be nice, Mike Scott (non-Bird) can be declared an honorary wing at the 4.
Modernizing the center rotation is a harder obstacle to navigate. Marcin Gortat's defensive regression has been that stark, as Bullets Forever's Ben Mehic wrote.
"The most egregious part of Gortat's decline has been his inability to protect the paint. As is the case with any center who's been in the NBA for a decade, his athleticism has withered, which makes him a bigger and bigger liability on the defensive end. He's incapable of switching onto guards, staying in front of versatile centers, and he averaged less than a block per game for the second straight season."
Ian Mahinmi brings a touch more mobility to the 5 without conceding Gortat's well-placed screens, but he's strictly a rim-runner. He cannot pop out off screens.
Increasing Scott's workload at center has to be on the table, should he return. But he tilts toward Gortat's end of the spectrum. He's a work-in-progress rim-roller and unlikely to dissuade drives to the basket—a problem for an offense that ranked 28th in shot frequency around the hoop and a defense that placed 27th in point-blank prevention, per Cleaning The Glass.
Washington needs a hybrid of Gortat and Mahinmi: a screen-setting, pick-and-roll-diving, shot-swatting center with range that spans outside the paint. And for the record, more Jason Smith (player option) is not the answer.
Trying to land that player while facing the luxury tax will be a wild goose chase. DeMarcus Cousins sign-and-trade scenarios are beyond unlikely (and barely help the defense), and the Wizards don't have the expendable assets or desirable salary filler to grease the wheels of other blockbusters.
Choosing a big with the 15th overall pick is touch-and-go. The uber-springy Robert Williams could be available, but he could just as easily go in the lottery. More pointedly, the Wizards' urgency to win now may not afford head coach Scott Brooks the license to entrust any youngster with prime-time minutes.
With nothing other than the mini mid-level to burn, Washington must look to the clearance rack for a state-of-the-art center. What could go wrong?