Will Your NBA Team Be Better or Worse Off in 5 Years?

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistAugust 24, 2018

Will Your NBA Team Be Better or Worse Off in 5 Years?

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    Skipping ahead five years into every NBA team's future would be far easier if crystal balls and tarot cards were more than decorative props.

    In the absence of accurate extrasensory perception, we have logic, reason, unapologetic inklings and the license to apply all three at the same time.

    From surprise trades and free-agency relocations to franchise-altering breakouts, injuries and everything in between, the next half-decade will be littered with unpredictable developments. We're using each team's present direction and hoping it clues us into where they'll stand entering the 2023 offseason.

    The goal isn't to be exact. That isn't possible. Our mission is to land inside the ballpark—to determine whether each squad is on course to be better or worse than it is right now.

Atlanta Hawks: Better

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    The Atlanta Hawks may come to regret trading back and drafting Trae Young instead of taking Luka Doncic. The latter has the look and feel of a transcendent cornerstone. Even if Young's best-case scenario comes to pass, the Hawks still might wind up on the wrong end of that deal.

    But their trajectory does not hinge on one hit or miss. They have their hands in enough opportunities to brighten up their outlook through opportunistic volume.

    Young and John Collins are two potential headliners for Atlanta. Taurean Prince should not be precluded from joining those ranks. At least one of DeAndre' Bembry, Kevin Huerter and Omari Spellman could turn into something notable, too. 

    Beyond that, the Hawks should retain open-ended access to max cap space for as long as they please. They'll have no trouble getting there next summer, and their most expensive pacts will be off the books by the time they need to re-invest in one of their kiddies.

    Toss in as many as eight first-round picks through 2023, including what could be three selections in 2019 alone, and the Hawks will be just fine. The bar for advancement isn't high relative to the current product, but they're equipped to aim for so much more than default improvement.

Boston Celtics: Better

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    Choosing a side for the Boston Celtics is tougher than you might think. A big, bold, beautiful "better" is the reflexive answer, and ultimately, the right one as well.

    But Boston's future is more complicated than advertised.

    Kyrie Irving (player option) and Terry Rozier (restricted) will be due for raises next summer. Al Horford (player option) could join them in free agency. Gordon Hayward can hit the open market in 2020 (player option), at which point Jaylen Brown is ticketed for restricted free agency and Jayson Tatum will be extension-eligible. 

    The Celtics are not bankrolling new contracts for all of these dudes. They will incur at least two significant departures over the next three years, and perhaps more. That's enough to ever so slightly harsh their "Kings of the LeBron James-less Eastern Conference" vibes. 

    It still makes more sense to bet on a rosier trajectory. 

    General manager Danny Ainge is a master at finishing on the right end of lopsided blockbusters, and the Celtics remain flush with assets. Neither Brown nor Tatum will hit the heart of their primes over the next half-decade, and draft-pick obligations from the Sacramento Kings (top-one protected in 2019), Los Angeles Clippers (lottery-protected in 2019) and Memphis Grizzlies (top-eight protected in 2019) make for great cost-controlled insurance policies or trade chips. 

    Maybe Boston loses Irving next July or trades him before then. Maybe Hayward and Horford get the shaft in the seasons to come. Maybe Ainge's hourly inquiries into Anthony Davis' availability go nowhere.

    Don't cry for the Celtics if they do. They're sitting pretty no matter what direction they take the roster.

Brooklyn Nets: Better

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    Green-lighting the Brooklyn Nets for a half-decade upswing requires little to no thought.

    Sure, general manager Sean Marks has some difficult decisions ahead of him. Spencer Dinwiddie, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (restricted) and D'Angelo Russell (restricted) need new deals before next season. Overpaying any one of them compromises the bottom line. 

    Brooklyn is also facing a dilemma after finally regaining control over its future first-rounders. Tanking continues to hold appeal in the new lottery era, but Marks' resourceful acquisition of talent could earmark this team for middle-rung purgatory.

    Consistently drafting outside the top eight would remove the Nets from franchise-pillar territory. But that jumps too far ahead of the game. Marks and Co. have been too calculated over the past few years to assume they'll fumble the rebuilding process when given more tools to get the job done.

    Jarrett Allen, Caris LeVert, cap space, Brooklyn's own picks and the Denver Nuggets' 2019 first-rounder (top-12-protected) lay a nice foundation independent of everything and everyone else in play. This Nets regime deserves the benefit of the doubt.

Charlotte Hornets: Worse

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    Nothing the Charlotte Hornets have done this offseason should instill confidence in the fanbase. They needed a fresh start—a full-tilt rebuild. Instead, they cannonballed deeper down their rabbit hole of mediocrity.

    Kemba Walker's future is the consummate bellwether for the Hornets' direction. And not one of the potential outcomes to his contract year portend anything better than what's happening now.

    Re-sign him, and the Hornets will be footing a near-max bill for a point guard set to turn 30 in the first year of his new deal. Let him leave in free agency, and they've lost a top-25 player without receiving a damn thing in return.

    Sending him elsewhere ahead of February's trade deadline doesn't help matters. Teams won't trip over themselves to land an expiring contract. The Hornets would have to sell low on one of the league's 10 best floor generals. They'd be lucky unload Nicolas Batum (three years, $76.7 million), Bismack Biyombo (two years, $34 million), Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (two years, $26 million), Marvin Williams (two years, $29.1 million) or Cody Zeller (three years, $43.4 million) as part of any fire sale.

    Jettisoning Walker is still the most prudent play. And even then, Hornets won't ditch the balance of their bad money until 2021. They have all of their first-round picks, but they aren't bad enough to tank with the current core, and it remains to be seen how well the new front office and coaching staff can identify and develop talent.

Chicago Bulls: Better

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    Plenty of people have eviscerated the Chicago Bulls this summer. They deserved it. 

    Signing Jabari Parker to play small forward and overcrowd the frontcourt rotation lacks logic. Matching Zach LaVine's four-year, $78 million offer sheet from the Kings is justifiable, but it's also steeped in risk. Paying that much money for a sure thing is tough when teams are in the early stages of a rebuild. LaVine is no certainty. His deal could tilt toward untradable in no time.

    Still, LaVine's contract is the Bulls' sole long-term obstacle. Omer Asik is guaranteed only $3 million after this season, and Cristiano Felicio doesn't add untenable weight to the ledger. If your most lucrative big-picture wart is a 23-year-old scorer, you'll take it.

    Chicago's prospect pool is likewise alive and well. Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. are the future, and Kris Dunn, Chandler Hutchison and Bobby Portis are semi-interesting pieces to monitor.

    With all of their own first-rounders in place, a team option on Parker in 2019 and at least two more years of top-shelf breathing room left in the bank, the Bulls are on the up-and-up. The front office's penchant for questionable investments might cap the progress shown during this time, but Chicago will not profile as a bottom-five outfit a half-decade from now.

Cleveland Cavaliers: Worse

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    The Cleveland Cavaliers' decision to give Kevin Love a four-year extension ruined any chance they had of completing their post-LeBron transition in the near future. 

    Treating Love as an eventual trade chip doesn't shift the calculus. The Cavaliers have forfeited at least one year of tanking, which is one too many for a team in their situation. Their draft-pick cupboard is bare, they aren't blessed with a stable of prospects and their salary-cap outlook will not reach peachy-keen levels until 2020 at the earliest.

    Holding on to Love past next season only exacerbates these circumstances. With him as their No. 1 option, they will never broach the contender's circle, yet they won't be bad enough to inflate the loss column.

    Re-upping Larry Nance Jr. (extension-eligible) or Rodney Hood (restricted) would advance this stay in mediocrity's basement, so Clevelanders may want to sit tight. The Cavs are going to be bad for a while unless they strike gold with Cedi Osman, Collin Sexton, a mid-lottery selection or James' foray into 2021 free agency (player option).

Dallas Mavericks: Better

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    The Dallas Mavericks are receiving too much love in the interim after trading up for Luka Doncic and signing DeAndre Jordan. They surrendered next year's first-rounder to get Doncic (top-five-protected), and a 30-year-old Jordan isn't anchoring a first-rate defense. Dallas will be fortunate to remain on the postseason periphery heading into Jan. 1.

    Step back, and the concerns dissipate.

    Doncic alone puts the Mavericks' rebuild on the fast track toward completion. As The Stepien's Jackson Hoy wrote ahead of the draft:

    "Doncic is a truly unique prospect as a 6'8" primary initiator who is a legitimate outside shooting threat. His amazing production at the highest level of non-NBA basketball sets him apart from past international prospects, as there's really no way to know how his game will translate to the NBA and continue to progress. This both works for and against him; he could either come into the league as an All-Star-caliber player from day one who continues to improve, or he could follow in the paths of past young European stars like Nikola Mirotic and Ricky Rubio and fail to improve much once he gets to the NBA.

    "That said, he's an elite shot-creator with generational basketball IQ and an incredible overall skill level for a player his size. He projects to add a ton of value right away in the NBA, and with athletic improvement and consistent three-point shooting could become one of the top players in the world."

    Risk, schmisk. Getting this type of player when you entered the draft outside of the top three is a huge deal. Doncic has MVP potential, and the Mavericks are partnering him with Dennis Smith Jr., an innovative coaching staff and max cap space in each of the next two summers as Jordan, Harrison Barnes and Dwight Powell slink off the books.

Denver Nuggets: Better

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    Counterarguments to this decision need to be entertained. The Denver Nuggets have already paid Will Barton, Gary Harris and Nikola Jokic, and they must account for Jamal Murray's second contract during this five-year span. Their ability to climb up the Western Conference ladder rests almost entirely upon in-house development.

    That shouldn't scare anyone into a "worse off" verdict. Denver is young enough at its core to lean on internal leaps. Harris is the eldest of the three most important building blocks, and he's only entering his age-24 season. Jokic doesn't turn 24 until Feb. 19, and Murray will turn 22 four days later.

    Michael Porter Jr. is the low-risk wild card in all of this. If back issues prohibit him from ever making an impact, the Nuggets will go about business as usual. If he recovers and becomes the player who was at one time a near-consensus No. 1 prospect, then they're in line for lasting superpower status.

    Missing on him doesn't necessarily displace the Nuggets from that flight path. They will have two more chances to make a splash in free agency before Murray gets a new contract. 

    Declining Paul Millsap's team option while offloading Mason Plumlee's deal next summer would open meaningful cap space. They could also sit tight, delay Murray's extension, play out 2019-20 and enter that offseason with the means to carve out $20 million or more in room. 

    Continue buying stock in Denver's future. You'll be glad you did.

Detroit Pistons: Worse

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    Anticipating a more hunky-dory direction for the Detroit Pistons takes a leap of faith they don't quite warrant.

    Controlling all of their own first-round picks helps on the most fundamental level, but the push to make immediate noise in the Eastern Conference could coax them into mortgaging the future. They don't have the assets to broker impact moves otherwise.

    None of their players on non-rookie deals hold plus-trade value. Blake Griffin (four years, $141.7 million) and Reggie Jackson (two years, $35.1 million) need sweeteners to be considered movable. Ditto for Jon Leuer (two years, $19.5 million). Andre Drummond (three years, $81.3 million) might net a neutral return, but he could also be in a similar boat.

    Detroit isn't in line for cap space until 2020, and re-signing Stanley Johnson next summer (restricted) would knife into that wiggle room. Griffin is currently the only player-controlled money on the books for 2021, but his $38.9 million option is a cap-clogger on its own, and keeping Drummond that summer will presumably crack the list of priorities.

    Even if you trust the Pistons to slow-play their situation (you shouldn't), they won't have the chance to noticeably reverse their fortunes for another three years without getting absurdly lucky in the draft or on the trade market. Five years from now, they're more likely to be in the same spot or embarking upon an extensive remodeling project.

Golden State Warriors: Worse

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    Retaining the Fantabulous Four indefinitely does not spare the Golden State Warriors from an unflattering prognosis. They'll all be past their primes entering 2023-24. Draymond Green and Klay Thompson are the youngest of the quartet, and they'll be playing out their age-33 seasons. Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant will be marching through their age-35 campaigns. 

    Assume best-case scenarios for Jordan Bell, Jacob Evans and all future draft picks, and the Warriors still won't be the same. Not even close. They probably won't even be together.

    Some people close to Durant have already painted him as an inevitable goner, according to ESPN.com's Zach Lowe. Aside from that, the Warriors will be on the hook for the repeater tax beginning next season if they keep the band intact. As The Athletic's Danny Leroux outlined last summer:

    "That timing could end up being very significant in a few years. In 2020-2021, if the key players return, all four of the Warriors' current All-Stars will be on contracts they signed after the salary-cap spike.

    "The youngest, Draymond Green, will turn 31 before the start of those playoffs. That season would be ownership's fourth consecutive year of paying the luxury tax and second dealing with the repeater tax. Stable financial footing in the Chase Center will help, and this team could still be competitive enough to justify that level of spending, but a clear-eyed vision of that future is helpful—especially since most, likely all, of that All-Star quartet will still have more years under contract beyond 2020-2021 if they choose to stay."

    Remove finances from the equation, and Golden State is still subject to general fidgetiness. Durant, Green or Thompson could get the itch to lead his own team. Any one of the four superstars could also age poorly.

    The Warriors will gladly take whatever blows await them. They'll be working off a dynasty, and large-scale falls from grace are typically the cost of championship continuity.

Houston Rockets: Worse

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    Father Time once again emerges victorious in this discussion. And you know what? The Houston Rockets won't care.

    They are devoted to taking down the Warriors. They aren't hiding from that agenda. General manager Daryl Morey has stated as much in the past, and their roster makeup backs his claim.

    Chris Paul's four-year, $159.7 million contract is an open admission the Rockets aren't getting caught up in the big picture. He'll be 37 by the time he re-enters free agency. Houston's brass is too smart to think he'll make good on the back end of that deal.

    James Harden poses a comparative dilemma. He's owed nearly $200 million through 2022-23, by which time he'll be 33 going on 34. His deal will age better than Paul's pact, but it still takes him right up to the end of (if not past) his salad days.

    Houston will do something unexpected over the next half-decade, because, well, Morey always has a million different scenarios mapped out in advance. But Harden, Paul and Clint Capela will soak up $92.7 million in cap space during the 2019-20 season and cost more than $100 million combined in 2020-21 and 2021-22. That doesn't leave the Rockets with many options beyond riding out the shelf life of a core built to win now, not later.

Indiana Pacers: Worse

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    Picking against the Indiana Pacers is tough. No one should feel good about it.

    Victor Oladipo has morphed into a top-25 player since arriving in Indiana last summer, and he'll only be in his early 30s by the time this five-year period expires and he signs another contract. Myles Turner will remain under team control if Indiana wants him and will be just exiting his mid-20s. This one-two punch, should it ever fully manifest (looking at you, Myles), won't be close to its last leg.

    But the Pacers are thin on mainstays after those two. Their depth chart is pieced together with talented placeholders who don't jibe with a long-term ascent.

    Darren Collison and Thaddeus Young have already celebrated their 30th birthdays. Bojan Bogdanovic (29) and Tyreke Evans (going on 29) aren't far behind. They will all hit free agency in 2019.

    Indiana enjoys a malleable cap sheet, but free agents have not historically flocked to this market. A new deal for Turner (restricted in 2019) will chisel into that rainy-day fund, and money will get tighter if the Pacers elect to re-sign any of their stopgaps.

    Controlling all of their own first-round picks is a weak silver lining. The Pacers are looking at choices in the early to mid-20s so long as Oladipo remains on his superstar orbit. They'll need to find late-round gems or cash in on disgruntled-player trade demands to continue hiking up the NBA's pecking order.

Los Angeles Clippers: Better

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    Jerry "The Logo" West has pull within the Clippers front office, and so, here they are. It really is that simple.

    Few teams will enter next summer with more cap space. The Clippers can eke out close to $60 million in wiggle room by renouncing all of their free agents and waiving Avery Bradley ($2 million guaranteed). They'll flirt with dual-max slots if they reroute movable deals for Montrezl Harrell (two years, $12 million) and Lou Williams (two years, $14 million).

    Strike out in 2019, and their salary-cap outlook barely suffers. Tobias Harris will fetch a pretty penny, but they have under $2 million in guaranteed money on the 2020-21 ledger. They'll again dance around multiple max slots if they keep only their youngsters and curb long-term spending elsewhere.

    This cap space matters. The Clippers are not irrelevant free-agent suitors just because they share a market with the Los Angeles Lakers. Kawhi Leonard's "preference" is to join one of Hollywood's two teams next summer, according to ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski. The Clippers are on the map.

    If their offseason pipe dreams don't come to fruition, then so be it. The Clippers don't employ a single veteran who disincentivizes tanking efforts, and their lottery-protected draft-pick obligation to Boston divests into a second-rounder if it doesn't convey by 2020. They can bottom out and reinvent themselves through the draft if they're so inclined.

Los Angeles Lakers: Worse

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    Consider all of the Lakers' plausible directions before rejecting this worse-off guesstimate. 

    LeBron James won't embrace the long view forever. The Lakers will have to go for it at some point. That all-in play could entail nothing more than a Kawhi Leonard or Kevin Durant signing. It could also involve consolidating some combination of Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma into another star.

    Surrendering any part of the future puts the Lakers at risk of a shorter-lived title window. James will hit free agency again after his age-36 (player option) or age-37 seasons. He could leave before this half-decade is up or be ebbing into his twilight on a cap-crimping salary.

    All the while, the Lakers will be drafting late in the first-round—and that's only if they don't flip those picks for established names. Either way, they won't have an obvious avenue toward significant talent infusions after they complete their next big signing. 

    Maybe the Lakers and LeBron wind up being in complete lockstep and are intent on pandering to the bigger picture. They could keep all of the kiddies, watch Ball and Ingram blossom into All-NBA candidates and be fit to navigate the end of James' career or even his departure. But that assumes too much patience and too many best-case developments.

Memphis Grizzlies: Worse

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    Attempting to juggle the future with the present positions the Grizzlies for an extended stay in the middle.

    Kyle Anderson and Jaren Jackson Jr. provide bridges into a new era. Dillon Brooks and Wayne Selden Jr. might, too. But Memphis needs to terminate the existing regime first. That isn't happening for at least another two years.

    Catering to the future is off the table next season. The Grizzlies must tank hard and in succession just to avoid sending a first-round pick to the Celtics before 2021. Their selection is top-eight protected in 2019, top-six protected in 2020 and unprotected in 2021. 

    Starting over after that still isn't easy. Marc Gasol will probably exercise his $25.6 million player option for 2019-20 and remain on the books, along with Chandler Parsons, until the following summer. Mike Conley is signed on a hard-to-dump deal through 2020-21. Memphis won't be operating with a blank slate until his money comes off the ledger, which coincides with when Jackson will be extension-eligible.

    Counting on the Grizzlies to transcend the fringe-playoff ranking they hold now is akin to trusting that they'll initiate a wholesale facelift before the Conley-Gasol partnership runs its course. And we can't do that.

Miami Heat: Worse

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    Betting against the Miami Heat and team president Pat Riley is typically taboo, but they're making it difficult not to.

    For starters, who knows how much longer the slick-haired free-agent whisperer will be around? Riley is 73 and has traveled great lengths to duck a comprehensive rebuild since LeBron James' 2014 departure. He is both a retirement risk and—deep breaths, everyone—part of the problem.

    Spending big money on Tyler Johnson and Hassan Whiteside is coming back to bite the Heat. Doubling down on a plucky finish to 2016-17 is doing the same. They're teeming with contracts oozing net-negative or almost-even value. Josh Richardson's four-year, $42 million deal is their sole exception.

    The Heat should have some money to burn in 2020 after deals for Johnson, Whiteside and Goran Dragic expire. But they won't boast their usual curb appeal until 2021, when James Johnson, Kelly Olynyk and Dion Waiters all close out their pacts. The unprotected pick they'll send to the Philadelphia 76ers that year (via the Phoenix Suns) only complicates matters. It makes offloading any of their unsavory deals or brokering an impact trade that much harder.

    A complete about-face feels unlikely before Miami conveys that selection. Riley isn't one for gradual timelines, and his successor, should he need one, won't have the tools to manufacture assets out of thin air. The Heat may find themselves running in place (or worse) through 2021-22—and maybe longer depending on whether they front the money for Dragic's and Justise Winslow's next contracts.

Milwaukee Bucks: Better

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    More than a few skeptics will demand a bleaker rendering for the Milwaukee Bucks. That's fair.

    Milwaukee hasn't done a bang-up job of capitalizing on Giannis Antetokounmpo's trek toward MVP contention, and the luxury tax, along with the inflexibility it promises, looms large with Eric Bledsoe, Malcolm Brogdon (restricted) and Khris Middleton (player option) scheduled for raises in 2019.

    Giving the Bucks a better-off hug is more about taking their 23-year-old megastar at his word. As he tweeted in July 2014: "I'll never leave the team and the city of Milwaukee till we build the team to a championship-level team."

    Fast-forward four years, and his sentiments have not changed. 

    "My goal is to win in Milwaukee, bring a championship to the city and make the team better," he said during an appearance on Fox Sports' The Herd with Colin Cowherd this past July. "I would never leave for L.A."

    Antetokounmpo may sing a different tune by the time he enters free agency in 2021. Teams have already started plotting his escape from Milwaukee, as Wojnarowski noted last summer. But the Bucks should have the designated veteran extension in their back pocket, and Antetokounmpo has shown no signs of wandering eyes.

    If he sticks around for the next phase of his career, the Bucks will be much better off for it.

Minnesota Timberwolves: Worse

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    Jumping ahead five years is not something the Minnesota Timberwolves are in a rush to do. Their future is not nearly as secure as it should be.

    Having Karl-Anthony Towns under team control for at least that long (courtesy of restricted free agency) is supposed to give them a head start. The same goes for owning Jimmy Butler's Bird rights in advance of his free agency next summer (player option).

    The Timberwolves are instead on the road to being stuck.

    Andrew Wiggins will have four years and $122.2 million left on his contract after next season. New deals for Butler and Towns will leave Minnesota with more than $90 million allocated to three players—a figure that will rise as their agreements age.

    Tack on what's left of pacts for Gorgui Dieng (signed through 2020-21) and Jeff Teague (player option for 2019-20), and the Timberwolves' financial nadir will last for at least another two summers.

    This says nothing of Butler's potential departure. He wants to play alongside Kyrie Irving, per Lowe, and he might be reaching his wit's end with Towns and Wiggins, according to Chicago Sun-Times' Joe Cowley and Sporting News' Sean Deveney.

    Losing Butler does little to help the Timberwolves' cap situation before 2021. Nor will it give them a clear path to the league's doldrums. Towns is too good, despite the cracks in his defense, and coach-president Tom Thibodeau would indulge more win-now dice rolls as he tries to save his job.

New Orleans Pelicans: Worse

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    Wipe those smirks off your face, Celtics fans. The New Orleans Pelicans' half-decade arc isn't contingent upon Anthony Davis following Danny Ainge on Twitter.

    Yes, Davis could request a trade or leave during the summer of 2020 (player option). That could happen. But the Pelicans are in a prickly spot even if he stays.

    Fleshing out the supporting cast around Davis has proved to be a chore, and it won't get any easier. Keeping him implies he'll be on the designated veteran extension, which starts at 35 percent of the cap. It'll be hard for the Pelicans to create cap space before Jrue Holiday's deal expires in 2022.

    Next summer will be their best shot, and they still have to jump through a few hoops. Their primary source of advancement is otherwise smaller-time signings and mid-to-late first-round picks they might feel an urgency to trade.

    Correlations can be drawn between Davis and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Their loyalties will be similarly tested. Davis figures to be more of a flight risk, if only because he is a touch older and enters free agency sooner. But the difference in case studies more so lies with their potential returns.

    Whereas Milwaukee has shown an aptitude for keeping its own picks and completing trades with minimal overhead, New Orleans predominantly acts on knee-jerk impulse that lowers its ceiling even with Davis in tow.

New York Knicks: Better

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    Feel free to go back and forth on this one. The New York Knicks have earned your doubt. 

    Kristaps Porzingis' future works both for and against them. He's a bona fide star when healthy, but his frequent run-ins with injuries, including his current recovery from a torn left ACL, are a potential red flag. The money he'll command as a restricted free agent next summer could devolve into a liability if he's incapable of playing out entire seasons.

    Typical Knicks behavior also runs the risk of interfering with anticipated progress. They're "absolutely planning" their 2019 offseason around Kevin Durant's free agency, according to Lowe. That longstanding lust for other teams' superstars can lead to some sketchy decisions, like stretching the final year of Joakim Noah's contract over three seasons to open up an additional $12.9 million in cap space prior to next summer.

    On the bright side, New York's front office tandem of general manager Scott Perry and president Steve Mills has thus far drawn a hard line when it comes to using first-round picks to facilitate salary dumps and slapdash trades. For the Knicks, this constitutes a major breakthrough.

    Kevin Knox and Frank Ntilikina are both top-10 prospects. Mitchell Robinson could be a first-round diamond found in the second-round rough. Fliers on Kadeem Allen, Trey Burke, Damyean Dotson, Mario Hezonja, Emmanuel Mudiay and Noah Vonleh may yield one or two serviceable staples. Porzingis is still Porzingis. 

    Pair every project and prospect they have with a 2019 first-round pick that should fall early in the lottery, and the Knicks don't lack potential building blocks. Keep all of their future selections, and they'll even be well-compensated in the event they whiff on next summer's top free-agent targets. 

Oklahoma City Thunder: Worse

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    Here's a glance at what the Oklahoma City Thunder are facing between now and the summer of 2023:

    • Steven Adams, Paul George, Dennis Schroder and Russell Westbrook will combine to make more than $105 million per year through 2020-21
    • Adams and George (player option) will be free agents in 2022
    • First-round picks could be sent to Orlando in 2020 (top-20-protected) and Atlanta in 2022 (lottery-protected)
    • A 34-year-old Russell Westbrook will earn $47.1 million in the final season of his deal (2022-23)

    Surprise trades and draft-day finds could shake things up for Oklahoma City. General manager Sam Presti has been known to keep an ace or five hidden in his sleeves.

    But the Thunder do not forecast as a free-agency player with both George and Westbrook on the docket. If they do open up cap space or restock their draft-pick cupboard, it'll be on the heels of one or both leaving and in conjunction with a total overhaul.

Orlando Magic: Better

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    Patience will be paramount for the Orlando Magic to uphold this designation. Trying to expedite their process (again) would throw another few years by the wayside.

    Signing Aaron Gordon to a four-year, $76 million deal toes the line of unnecessary acceleration. Orlando isn't at a point where it should be paying anyone that much money, let alone a could-be-but-might-not-be cornerstone like Gordon.

    His declining salary scale helps, as does his age. He'll be approaching his 26th birthday when the Magic escape the last of their cumbersome contracts (Evan Fournier) in 2021. 

    Handing out another big-money deal changes this projection, but Orlando has ample motivation to pace its rebuild. The Warriors aren't going anywhere over the next few years, and it will take some time to catch Eastern Conference contenders such as the Celtics, Sixers, Bucks and, if Kawhi Leonard stays, Toronto Raptors.

    In the meantime, the Magic have pre-adults to groom. Mo Bamba (20) and Jonathan Isaac (20) are basically teenagers, and Gordon, going on 23, is hardly a seasoned vet. Bide enough time on the free-agent and trade markets, and the Magic should have another two or three top-seven lottery finishes in them before the urgency to win sets in.

Philadelphia 76ers: Better

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    David Dow/Getty Images

    Joel Embiid's health and Markelle Fultz's development could turn the Sixers' happy-go-lucky outlook on its head, but banking on nightmare outcomes is a special brand of sinister nitpicking. 

    Philly remains in line to battle for the Eastern Conference throne. Boston and Toronto may steal the show next season, but like the Celtics, the Sixers are built to outlast everyone. Robert Covington, 27, is the old head among their long-term fixtures—which, wow.

    Embiid and Saric won't celebrate their 25th birthday until the 2018-19 season is nearing its close. Simmons, 22, could be a top-10 player before he turns 24. Fultz cannot legally order his own bacon-cherry martinis until the end of May. Rookie Zhaire Smith is recovering from foot surgery, but he's all of 19. 

    No team is more blockbuster-trade ready than Philly, not even Boston. The Sixers control all of their own first-round picks and tout the perfect mix of prospects and salary filler. Fultz will remain one of the most tantalizing bargaining chips for at least another season, maybe longer.

    Whiffing on 2018 free agency is an ancillary concern, if it warrants a second thought at all. Philly should retain access to max space for the next two summers; it doesn't have to worry about raises for the rest of the core until 2020, when Saric and Simmons are slated for restricted free agency.

    Perhaps the Sixers look drastically different five years from now. Their cap-space and asset management suggests they will. But they don't need to. That's the beauty of their situation: Holding serve will secure them a seat at the big-kids table almost as quickly as a free-agency coup or superstar trade.

Phoenix Suns: Better

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    Devouring low-hanging fruit is always fun.

    The Suns are coming off a 2017-18 crusade in which they placed dead last in both offensive and defensive efficiency en route to finishing with the league's worst record. They shored up parts of the roster over the summer, but they haven't done anything that brings them within spitting distance of a postseason dalliance. Of course they'll be better off in five years.

    How much better remains to be seen. The Suns have a ton of to-be-determined projects in progress.

    Devin Booker has grown as both a scorer and playmaker, but he needs to show he can be the hub for an above-average attack. Josh Jackson must hone his three-point stroke and get in more reps as a small-ball 4. It would be nice if TJ Warren followed suit.

    Deandre Ayton needs to make better reads as a roving defensive anchor while channelling his Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns on offense. Mikal Bridges has to be a three-and-D spark plug worthy of Zhaire Smith and Miami's 2021 first-round pick.

    Elie Okobo needs to be the answer at point guard or a temporary fix who gives the Suns time to find a permanent solution. One of Phoenix's young, non-Ayton bigs—Dragan Bender, Marquese Chriss or Richaun Holmes—must establish himself as a keeper. Cap space needs to eventually amount to more than an overpriced Trevor Ariza rental.

    Again: The Suns have a bunch of different angles to work. Their rebuild is not above going sideways. They're light on sure things. They're also heavy on tantalizing maybes. That'll do for now.

Portland Trail Blazers: Worse

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    Scott Threlkeld/Associated Press

    It takes a great deal of optimism to picture the Portland Trail Blazers taking a sustainable step forward over the next five years.

    Failing a series of epic salary dumps, they're in a holding pattern until 2020, when deals for Moe Harkless, Meyers Leonard and Evan Turner get purged from the ledger. And by then, it may be too late for them to salvage the Damian Lillard-CJ McCollum duo. 

    Reasonable people will expect the Blazers to explore busting up the backcourt beforehand. If they don't, they'll reach an organic crossroads once the pair enters shared contract years in 2020-21. Lillard specifically puts the Blazers in a bind as the organizational lifeline. They cannot leave his future to chance, as Blazer's Edge Dave Deckard wrote:

    "Though neither party has a firm decision to make now, the franchise is on notice that Lillard's outlook could be an issue. Whatever disappointment lingers, it's likely to intensify as the critical decision point approaches. If the Blazers can improve markedly and retain obviously talented players over the next two years, that might be enough to parlay Lillard's affinity towards them into a new deal. If they can't do those things, they do not have the option of pretending that they didn't know he was discontented on some level.

    "That knowledge has to influence how they approach the last two years of Lillard's contract. They cannot get to July 2021 without the face of the franchise accounted for one way or another. They probably can't make definitive moves in the summer of 2020 without having a good idea where he stands."

    Short of the Blazers lucking into an addition they have neither the assets nor cap space to make, this doesn't look like a situation fated to end well. They don't even have the time to let Zach Collins, Anfernee Simons, Gary Trent Jr. or future prospects marinate. At some point, someone is going to leave or be traded, and Portland will be left to make up lost ground or start fresh.

Sacramento Kings: The Same

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    Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

    Insert your favorite Sacramento punchline or cry "Hater!" as you wish. This isn't meant to be a potshot.

    Everything the Kings have done this summer signals an exhaustive lack of direction. Passing on Luka Doncic for Marvin Bagley III has the makings of an all-time misstep. And after worrying about how Doncic would take the ball out of De'Aaron Fox's hands, per the Sacramento Bee's Jason Jones, they threw $78 million at Zach LaVine (and missed) and then signed Yogi Ferrell. Defend that logic.

    Bringing in a 30-year-old Nemanja Bjelica to both play out of position at the 3 and sponge up minutes that should go to younger players is the cherry atop the melted ice cream sundae that remains Sacramento's vision.

    None of these moves are singularly detrimental or crippling to the big picture. The Kings will have almost effortless access to $60 million in cap space next summer, and they control all of their own first-rounders beyond 2019. But what happens then?

    Do the Kings have the stomach for a tank job when they're approaching reinvestment points for Willie Cauley-Stein (2019), Buddy Hield (2020), Skal Labissiere (2020), Bogdan Bogdanovic (2020) and Fox (2021), among others?

    It might seem comical to think about restricted free-agent negotiations in 2021, but it isn't. Throw Bagley's 2022 foray into the ring of consideration. It all matters. The Kings have potentially crucial contract decisions awaiting them in each of the next four summers, and they've yet to show evidence of the institutional change necessary to alter the trajectory that has kept them outside the playoffs since 2006.

San Antonio Spurs: Worse

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    Mark Sobhani/Getty Images

    Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green are members of the Raptors. Kyle Anderson is with the Grizzlies. Manu Ginobili could retire before you finish reading this sentence, according to Wojnarowski. A 69-year-old Gregg Popovich isn't far behind him. Many don't expect him to be on the sidelines past 2020, per Woj.

    LaMarcus Aldridge is 33. Pau Gasol is 38. Rudy Gay is 32. Patty Mills is 30. Dejounte Murray doesn't shoot threes. Lonnie Walker has fantastic hair but is otherwise an unknown. Derrick White has yet to initiate summer-league mode in the regular season. 

    Tony Parker is in Charlotte—and, well, that one's actually OK. DeMar DeRozan will keep the immediate playoff window open, but he's on the precipice of 30 and is booked for free agency no later than 2021.

    Blind faith in the San Antonio Spurs is a default setting, but fare thee well if you're trying to explain how they'll be better off in five years. The nucleus is old. The most prominent building blocks are untested. The coaching staff is speeding toward a seismic shift.

    Leonard represented the Spurs' only real constant. He's gone. And while they may have mitigated the suffering now, they'll have to endure later. Will they land another marquee free agent? Find their next Kawhi Leonard outside the lottery? Miss the playoffs next season and trigger an impromptu rebuild that takes shape or wraps up by 2023?

    Too much about the Spurs' future is up in the air. If any team can weather this fundamental ambiguity to better days, it's them. Then again, they were supposed to be above the soap-opera dramatics behind Leonard's departure. Their return to the top of the NBA's food chain is by no means a given.

Toronto Raptors: Better

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    Ron Turenne/Getty Images

    All of the Kawhi Leonard disclaimers apply here. He maintains an affinity for the Clippers and Lakers, per Woj. He could leave Toronto with nothing next summer.

    The Raptors know this. They're fine with it. And given the wide range of outcomes with regard to his return or departure, they have every right to be. As Lowe put it just after their trade with the Spurs:

    "If Leonard walks for nothing, the full rebuild is on. Toronto is clearly fine shedding the final two guaranteed years of DeRozan's contract, at $27.7 million a pop, and bailing out before it faces the dilemma of signing DeRozan to another megadeal into his 30s.

    "Leonard at his apex is good enough to transition the Raptors as Kyle Lowry agesgood enough that you can justify avoiding a rebuild. DeRozan isn't."

    Toronto's future isn't subject to debate if Leonard stays in town. Team president Masai Ujiri won't max him out if he doesn't recapture his previous form. He's more self-aware than that.

    Losing Leonard would be the Raptors' only potential setback—and not exactly a monumental one. They'll still have OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, all of their first-round picks after 2019, squeaky-clean books in 2020 and plenty of time to cobble together another Eastern Conference irritant before our superimposed five-year clock strikes zero.

Utah Jazz: Better

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    Aaron Gash/Associated Press

    Join me out on this limb, won't you?

    Fine, fine, fine. This really isn't much of a leap. The Utah Jazz are built to traverse the next five years without surviving much of a drop-off. They may even be better for wear.

    Rudy Gobert will be older, not ancient—just rounding into his early 30s. Jae Crowder, Derrick Favors, Joe Ingles and Ricky Rubio may have aged or priced themselves off the team, but the Jazz have a knack for unearthing value on the margins. Royce O'Neale is proof. Grayson Allen's summer-league flashes—particularly his passing—suggest he might be the next modest success.

    Every now and then, the Jazz hit a home run. They traded for Gobert after the Nuggets selected him 27th overall. Most recently, they scooped up Donovan Mitchell at No. 13 after trading No. 24 and Trey Lyles to Denver. (Related: Jeez, Nuggets.)

    Mitchell is the trump card for this decision. He'll have just put a bow on his age-26 season and will still be in the thick of his prime five years from now. 

    And let's not forget that Dante Exum is only 23. Or that the Jazz have all of their own picks, both in the first and second rounds. Or that their books are structured for maximum flexibility not just next summer, but for the foreseeable future—or until they land the kind of big fish who turns this matter into the non-issue it's already being pegged as.

Washington Wizards: Worse

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    Ned Dishman/Getty Images

    Best of luck to the Washington Wizards. They're going to need it.

    Bradley Beal, Otto Porter and John Wall will cost them a combined $92.5 million once Wall's extension takes effect in 2019-20. That number jumps to $98.4 million during the 2020-21 season, after which both Beal and Porter will enter free agency. (Porter has a player option for 2020-21.)

    Keeping this trio intact will consign the Wizards to a cramped cap outlook and a finite peak in the Eastern Conference. And that's without considering eventual contract decisions for Markieff Morris (2019), Kelly Oubre Jr. (restricted in 2019) or Tomas Satoransky (restricted in 2019).

    At the same time, dissolving this core doesn't guarantee a reprieve. Wall is more albatross than asset at his current price point (five years, $190.1 million), and Porter is simultaneously indispensable and overpaid. Beal should be a hot commodity on the chopping block, but he isn't inviting a king's ransom. Superstar trade markets have crested, and Beal is not a top-20 player.

    Luxury-tax concerns will be a fact of life unless the Wizards eighty-six a member of their Big Three. They won't have cap space until 2021 at the earliest, and that's only if they curtail their spending in the interim and part ways with Beal, Porter or Wall. 

    Hitting on this year's pick, Troy Brown Jr., or a future first-rounder helps. It's also non-negotiable. Never mind getting lucky for the sake of improvement. The Wizards need to connect on prospects and bargain-bin finds just to run in place—and with a 32-year-old Wall on the books for $47.3 million in 2022-23, even that may be asking a lot.


    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com or Basketball Reference. Salary and cap-hold information via Basketball Insiders and RealGM.

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by B/R's Andrew Bailey.