It's Not Just The Cavs: NBA Teams That Need To Hit The Reset Button
Properly identifying NBA teams that should consider roster overhauls less than one month into the regular season is an art form.
Let's paint some masterpieces.
If it comes as any consolation to the fans who will inevitably be offended by their favorite squad's inclusion, this petition for change is not solely based on 2018-19's start. It dates back to the offseason—or in one case, training camp—and pre-existing issues that show no signs of reaching a resolution.
Hitting reset will mean something different for every team. For some, it will consist of bottoming out and starting anew. Others already have the framework of redirection in place and need to embrace it.
Candidates playing well enough to buy more time or total inoculation against pointed breakups—shout-out to the Detroit Pistons and Portland Trail Blazers—have been spared from our spotlight.
Fringe Candidate to Watch: Washington Wizards
This verdict could go either way. The Washington Wizards are not in immediate danger of falling outside the East's playoff fracas, so they needn't rush into a teardown or face-lift. At the same time, they don't profile as one of the conference's four best teams, and their bloated payroll is on the precipice of getting much worse.
Next season's salaries for Bradley Beal, Ian Mahinmi, Otto Porter Jr. and John Wall will run the Wizards roughly $108 million—about $1 million below the projected $109 million cap. Bake in cap holds for restricted free agents Kelly Oubre Jr. and Tomas Satoransky, along with Dwight Howard's player option and Troy Brown Jr.'s second-year salary, and poof! Washington is a tax team before even factoring in Markieff Morris and Austin Rivers.
It might be time for the Wizards to try something new if they don't go on a monthlong surge. Heck, it could be time for them to shake it up now, even if they're guaranteed a postseason bid. (I mean, they just lost to the Sacramento Kings.) As ESPN.com's Zach Lowe wrote:
"At some point, expensive 45- to 50-win teams that bump against the same second-round ceiling tend to break up. The results don't justify the salary outlay. Relationships fray, or grow stale. People get bored. Implosion here doesn't necessarily mean dismantling. It means that at least one central figure—player, coach, general manager—won't be around when the next season starts."
Washington has a finite number of dynamite sticks at its disposal, which could—and arguably already did—prolong the shelf life of this core. Swollen contracts make it difficult to deconstruct or refurbish the roster in a meaningful way.
No one's trading for Wall just before his four-year, $170.9 million extension kicks in while also sending back real value. Porter is a tick overpaid with two years and $55.7 million left on his deal after this season. Teams will absorb him; he's plug-and-play nirvana. But turning him into a net-plus collection of role players, picks and prospects will be tough.
Bradley Beal is the Wizards' quickest path to a midseason renovation. He's owed a reasonable two years and $55.8 million after 2018-19. Teams will fork over value for someone who can be the central focus of an offense while he moonlights as an orbiting marksman.
Whether the Wizards embrace drastic measures is a separate matter. Starting from scratch isn't an option with a 28-year-old Wall on the books. But substantive changes are a must if they're going to break their cycle of early playoff exits. That could mean an abbreviated reset or a blockbuster-star swap. They'll have to decide which makes more of a difference.
Charlotte Hornets fans are tired of seeing their team lumped into this same gaggle. They should be. This isn't an antagonistic inclusion. I picked them to make the playoffs.
But sneaking into the postseason doesn't move the needle, not when the Hornets will be starved for cap space next summer and prepping a four- or five-year near-max offer to Kemba Walker. And this assumes they even gain entry into the NBA's spring dance.
Fringe teams are never out of contention in the East. It's the conference of opportunity. But a fungible playoff picture has a way of lulling franchises into false senses of hope and security. Just as the Hornets are positioned to fight for a postseason spot, they're at risk of missing out.
Six slots are, in theory, already claimed by the Wizards, Boston Celtics, Indiana Pacers, Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers and Toronto Raptors. The Miami Heat are the Miami Heat and will be even more like the Miami Heat if they acquire Jimmy Butler. The Detroit Pistons are exceeding expectations. One of the Brooklyn Nets or Orlando Magic could hang around the postseason peripherals.
Where does that leave the Hornets? Maybe they make the cut and get bounced in the first round. Maybe they finish ninth or 10th. Either way, they're staring down the barrel of a 2019-20 season in which they have a higher forecasted payroll than the Wizards without the middle-tier playoff assurances.
Dying on that hill isn't smart. That was true over the summer. It holds firm. Walker is a terrific player, but shelling out superstar money for an undersized point guard (6'1", 184 lbs) who's entering his age-29 season could prove more constrictive than productive.
Steering into a thorough reset continues to make the most sense. The Hornets should still snag a nice pick or prospect for Walker. They might even be able to lop off one of their longer-term deals. It doesn't matter if they can't. They'll have the gradual timeline to let their worst contracts expire while they lean into the developments of Malik Monk, Miles Bridges and any assets they procure as part of a Walker deal.
LeBron James' departure should have pushed the Cleveland Cavaliers into a meticulous rebuild. They instead elected to float bottom-rung playoff hopes that have since faded. And now they're left to grapple with a lack of direction even after firing head coach Tyronn Lue.
Before getting the ax, Lue told Channing Frye, Kyle Korver and JR Smith they would be out of the rotation for the "foreseeable future" while the Cavaliers prioritized the growth of their younger players, according to The Athletic's Joe Vardon. That feeble declaration was met with opposition from Kevin Love following Cleveland's Oct. 21 beatdown at the hands of the Atlanta Hawks.
"In our commitment to helping guys grow, the guys who know how to win have to play," he told Vardon. "I think having Kyle and Channing and JR, those guys know how to win in this league, and having them will help bring the others along. So they need to play."
And wouldn't you know it, both Korver and Smith were back in the fold for the next game. (Frye was never in the rotation.) A source has since told Vardon that Cleveland is "still committed to winning this year rather than tearing down."
Catering to what little youth they have on scene is the best thing the Cavaliers can do. Give more time to Collin Sexton. Start him over George Hill, even. Play Larry Nance Jr. and Ante Zizic over Tristan Thompson. See whether Sam Dekker factors into the plans beyond this season. Ditto for David Nwaba.
Losses will follow. Who cares? The Cavaliers are already losing en masse. They have a chance to be the league's worst team without ever committing to a youth movement. And that affords them a certain flexibility. They don't need to sell off their veterans to effectively tank, which is great, because only a select few of their elders are movable.
Of course, the Cavaliers aren't likely to plumb rock bottom on purpose. Not yet. Designed demolition went out the window once they inked Love to a four-year extension in July. He can't be traded until the end of January. A comprehensive reset won't take place until then if Cleveland has the guts to author one at all.
The Minnesota Timberwolves wouldn't be here without Jimmy Butler's trade request. But he has requested one—on multiple occasions, in fact, including shortly after last season ended, according to The Athletic's Jon Krawczynski. The time to move on isn't here. It's past due.
Coach-president Tom Thibodeau is under no obligation to accept lowball offers from Butler's suitors. There would be something admirable about the way he's resisted overtures, his flirtation with the Heat included, if he hadn't apparently known of his superstar's unhappiness for months.
That initial refusal to act on Butler's displeasure suggests Thibodeau's intentions aren't in line with what's best for the franchise. Even now, after owner Glen Taylor basically guaranteed the Timberwolves would make a move, Thibs' endgame isn't clear.
Is he trying to drive up the bidding on Butler? Does he hope a little more face time will remedy the relationship between player and team? Would he rather keep Butler through the season and risk losing him for nothing over the summer?
Letting Butler walk without capitalizing on said departure isn't an option. The Timberwolves paid a premium, in hindsight, to get him. They can get over losing Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine, but Lauri Markkanen's trajectory is too steep a cost for what would amount to a two-year rental.
Again: The Timberwolves have had time and squandered it. Maybe delaying the inevitable works out. A team that fancies itself one star away from contention could get wild near February 7's trade deadline.
Minnesota might also get burned by Thibs', ahem, patience. Suitors could start subtracting from their best packages as the weeks wear on. Or the Timberwolves could accept a win-now return, one built around players who help them immediately without positioning them to climb the Western Conference over the next few years.
Neither outcome is acceptable. The goal in trading Butler shouldn't be to preserve immediate postseason access. The Wolves have Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Tyus Jones and Josh Okogie. They should focus on adding to that nucleus and selling off veterans or letting their contracts age out. Teams are never better or equal for wear after flipping top-10 players, and in this case, Minnesota isn't guaranteed a playoff spot even if it does nothing.
Leave it to the Kings to join the ranks of teams that should consider hitting reset even though they're already rebuilding.
More specifcially, this is a plea for the big-man glut to go. Even with Zach Randolph out of the rotation and Kosta Koufos' right hamstring injury, Sacramento's frontcourt is overrun with bodies. Skal Labissiere is barely seeing the floor, and the Kings are still juggling a logjam.
Between Marvin Bagley III, Willie Cauley-Stein, Harry Giles III and power forward minutes for Nemanja Bjelica and Justin Jackson, a consistent rotation is out of the question. And the Kings know it. Head coach Dave Joerger lamented the front-line pileup after carving out only 12 minutes for Bagley in his NBA debut Oct. 17.
"It's going to be tough," Joerger said of playing Bagley more, per The Athletic's Jason Jones. "I thought he did fine. The game is moving really, really fast for him, especially defensively and especially against stretch guys and 3s and 2s sometimes that are playing power forward, getting out on the perimeter and guarding the 3."
Bagley has hovered between 22 and 32 minutes since, so hooray. But the personnel problems won't just go away.
For where the Kings are—essentially square one—they should look to move Cauley-Stein in advance of restricted free agency and lean into Bagley-Giles arrangements. Every veteran big needs to be on the block, including Bjelica once he's eligible to be dealt in mid-December. And with their first-rounder headed to Boston or Philadelphia, the Kings should also use their expiring-contract goulash to acquire steeper agreements that come with picks and/or prospects.
Renting out cap space beyond this season will cost flexibility for the next round of free agency, but the Kings have room to spare. They're in line for more than $55 million of spending power if they renounce Cauley-Stein. They can take on a bad deal attached to sweeteners without exhausting their maneuverability.