5 NBA Teams Destined to Take a Step Back This Offseason
Optimism is the lifeblood of the NBA offseason.
But we're realists, and as such, we know not everyone will have their wishes granted over the summer. Only one team can sign LeBron James or Paul George or trade for Kawhi Leonard (or all of the above), after all.
Inflated hopes are fine, since the right free-agency move can change a franchise's trajectory. But the five following teams are displaying enough warning signs that we're here to dash dreams and deflate any bubbles of unrealistic positivity.
Between disgruntled stars eyeing the exits, bloated financial books dimming free-agency hopes and misguided draft decisions that neglected obvious needs, there are reasons to think all five are headed toward a summer step back.
Los Angeles Clippers
The market hasn't even opened yet, and free agency is already costing the Los Angeles Clippers.
Austin Rivers and Milos Teodosic opted against testing it, adding at least $14.8 million to next season's payroll (if they waive Teodosic; it's $19.0 million if they don't). DeAndre Jordan hasn't decided on his $24.1 million player option, per Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times, but L.A. will soon learn if it's losing its interior anchor or owing superstar money to a 29-year-old who just averaged 12.0 points and 0.9 blocks per game.
The free-agency costs may soon shift.
There should be a robust market for Avery Bradley, a plucky on-ball defender who owns a good-enough 36.6 career three-point percentage. Montrezl Harrell might command an offer sheet in restricted free agency that's too rich for the Clippers to match if they're stuck spending large on Jordan. Harrell's per-36-minute production last season included 23.3 points on 63.5 percent shooting, 2.1 assists and 1.4 blocks.
And this roster seems to be screaming for a trade after draft night caused worse congestion in the backcourt than that which clogs L.A. freeways. Take Teodosic out of the equation, and there are still seven guards: Rivers, Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley, Jawun Evans, Sindarius Thornwell, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jerome Robinson. There's also only Boban Marjanovic behind Jordan and limited defense at the forward spots.
At the least, there needs to be some reshuffling—which is so obvious it'll harm the Clippers' leverage. But really, this roster might need to be demolished at some point. It's almost impossible to lose players the caliber of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin and avoid a significant step back.
New York Knicks
Kristaps Porzingis' ACL tear in February not only closed the door on any lingering 2017-18 playoff dreams for the New York Knicks, it knocked them out of the 2018-19 race, too. Owner James Dolan has raised the possibility that Porzingis will miss next season, per Larry Brooks of the New York Post.
Even if the Knicks wanted to chase a target next summer, they won't have the horsepower.
But New York's motivations have nothing to do with next season's wins column. They're tied to improving its 2019 free-agency recruitment efforts through developing its young talent and maximizing cap space.
"Their plan is to not sign anyone to long-term deals and to shed contracts that have more than one year remaining," Newsday's Al Iannazzone wrote. "That means Courtney Lee and Joakim Noah might not be Knicks much longer."
Kyle O'Quinn reportedly declined his $4.3 million option, and the Knicks should use second-rounder Mitchell Robinson to fill O'Quinn's old minutes. It makes little sense to bring back Michael Beasley since he'd dominate possessions that could otherwise go to prospects. Jarrett Jack proved a useful stopgap and sage veteran, but there are better ways for rebuilders to use roster spots than on a 34-year-old reserve.
Granted, this isn't exactly a talent exodus—the Knicks were a 53-loss squad last season—but the on-court product figures to worsen before it gets any better. As big as 'Bockers backers tend to dream, this season should be about cherishing baby-step progress by Robinson, Kevin Knox, Frank Ntilikina, Emmanuel Mudiay, Trey Burke and Damyean Dotson.
Portland Trail Blazers
The Portland Trail Blazers got a head start on their step back. Following a 1-4 stretch to close the regular season, they were swept out of the opening round of the playoffs for the second year in a row.
Their roster is flawed. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum contribute 48.0 points per game, and there's still the wonder if that's enough because they're such a mess on defense. The wing rotation is overpaid ($28.7 million for Evan Turner and Maurice Harkless next season) and underwhelming. The center spot needs more shooting and/or shot-blocking.
But the Blazers don't have money to address these deficiencies. In fact, with Ed Davis, Jusuf Nurkic, Shabazz Napier and Pat Connaughton entering free agency, Portland is likely building its priority list with the knowledge it can't keep all of them.
Given the financial crunch, the Blazers seemed sure to use the draft to correct some of their issues. As Joe Freeman of the Oregonian wrote, Portland's itch for immediate relief went unscratched: "The Portland Trail Blazers entered the 2018 NBA draft looking for veteran difference-makers and playoff help. Instead, they settled for teenagers and shooting potential.
"The NBA's second-youngest team was hoping to add an experienced wing to bolster a maturing roster. Instead, it became even younger."
Fun fact: Rookies Anfernee Simons and Gary Trent Jr. are more than young and unpolished; as offensive-minded guards who don't always defend, they're also awkward fits with Lillard and McCollum.
Draft night, then, was a disappointing start to the summer, and free agency could feature more subtractions than additions.
San Antonio Spurs
The San Antonio Spurs might not have accepted this fate, but that doesn't change its near-certainty: Doomsday is approaching the Alamo City.
Kawhi Leonard wants out, ESPN.com's Chris Haynes reported. That probably doesn't carry apocalyptic meanings for everyone, but losing an in-prime, top-five talent is about as brutal as it gets inside the Association. That's why the Spurs are searching for any way around that reality.
"We will explore all of our options, but the first one would be to keep Kawhi as part of our group," Spurs general manager R.C. Buford said, per Sam Amick of USA Today.
Problem is, this isn't up to Buford, Gregg Popovich or anyone other than Leonard. If he's done with San Antonio—he feels betrayed by the organization, per Haynes, and "isn't concerned" about costing himself a supermax extension as a result of this—he can facilitate his exit either by forcing a trade between now and February or bolting via free agency in 2019.
If Leonard goes, San Antonio's structure could collapse. Its highest-paid players would be the 32-year-old LaMarcus Aldridge and 37-year-old Pau Gasol. This might be a complete gut job, with Dejounte Murray and Lonnie Walker IV serving as the foundation of a suddenly future-focused franchise. You wonder, then, if the 69-year-old Popovich would want to oversee such a rebuild.
But even if the Spurs don't cater to Leonard's request, it could still be a costly summer. Tony Parker and Rudy Gay are heading to unrestricted free agency, while Kyle Anderson, Davis Bertans and Bryn Forbes are slated for the restricted version. And let's not forget, the 40-year-old Manu Ginobili is undecided in his latest retirement debate.
John Wall publicly provided the Washington Wizards with his offseason wish list.
"There's a lot that we can use," Wall said, per NBC Sports Washington's Chase Hughes. "... I think the way the league is going, you need athletic bigs, you need scoring off the bench, you need all of those types of things."
Wing depth was another focus for Wall.
The Wizards, of course, don't have the funds to cross off every item on that list. With Jodie Meeks and Jason Smith (predictably) picking up their player options, Washington has $124.8 million committed to the 2018-19 payroll. And that total doesn't include new deals for Mike Scott, who ranked second among its reserves with 8.8 points per game, or Ty Lawson, who averaged the eighth-most minutes on the team in the postseason.
Wall knew—or should have known—the front office can't afford all his desires, but making his request in that manner pressured the Wizards to get at least one of those things. The draft didn't inspire any hope they will. Rather than pursuing plug-and-play options, Washington opted to pick 18-year-olds Troy Brown Jr., a non-shooting wing, and Issuf Sanon, who will be stashed overseas.
"The draft did nothing to address the immediate needs of a thin roster that's set to pay the luxury tax next season," Osman Baig of Bullets Forever wrote.
It's hard to imagine free agency going any better. It might even hurt if Scott scored his way out of the budget or someone eyes Lawson as a sneaky-good bargain buy.
Whether Washington backtracks or treads water this summer, either will feel deflating since the good parts of the roster are seemingly ready to rise.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.