NBA Teams That Should Start Planning Full Rebuilds
Getting past the NBA's trade deadline does not bring an end to roster talk. Buyout-market discussions rule the day until March, but teams cannot make wholesale changes until their seasons conclude. It is during this period of transactional void that larger, more complex and unequivocally uncomfortable conversations should take place.
Which franchises need to flip their directions and enter the offseason intending to fully and genuinely rebuild?
Calling for these total-tilt resets is not something we took lightly. The luxuries of general-managering from afar exist in stark contrast to reality. Teams must contend with market hurdles and the business side of basketball (profits!). Mediocrity alone was not enough to warrant inclusion. Some organizations will find value in competing for first- and second-round exits.
But the Association still has plenty of teams that are better off starting over. They were not spared from this exercise.
Rebuilds already underway were not included no matter how uncertain their directions. Squads like the Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers and Phoenix Suns fell under this category. Teams hedging their bets on free agency were similarly nixed from consideration. The Los Angeles Clippers, Toronto Raptors (Kawhi Leonard) and, yes, even the New York Knicks need a few more months before we consign them to a trajectory type.
And finally, the perennially competitive were also excluded. Blowing up the Portland Trail Blazers and San Antonio Spurs because they're faux title contenders was not an actual thing. This space is for the franchises with clearer paths to overhauls, near-unnavigable payrolls and big-picture ceilings that don't promise the most basic level of playoff contention.
The Easier-Said-Than-Done Rebuilding Candidates
Charlotte continues to sit in an unenviable situation. Avoiding the tax while re-upping Jeremy Lamb and Kemba Walker is out of the question without a serious salary trim. Keeping Walker alone will be a chore.
Assuming the Hornets finagle his return without dipping into the tax, their reward will be...a bloated salary sheet and no significant change. That's not really a "Hooray!" moment.
The upshot: Charlotte doesn't have a viable alternative. Letting Walker leave for nothing is a no-go. The Hornets have to re-sign him if they're to save any face. From there, they'll need to hope an All-Star becomes available—Blake Griffin, maybe?—for the assets they can offer or cross their fingers that whatever contract Walker signs remains a net-neutral asset until his trade restriction lifts ahead of next year's deadline.
Turning Reggie Bullock and Stanley Johnson into more cost-effective players were smart financial moves by the Pistons. Thon Maker and Svi Mykhailiuk will be under first-contract salaries next season, and re-signing the other two—specifically Bullock—would have made it harder for them to duck the luxury tax while adding any meaningful contributors.
Detroit now has a chance to keep Ish Smith, keep its draft pick, use the full non-taxpayer's mid-level exception ($9.2 million) over the summer and perhaps make some trades. That's not nothing when most signs point to the Pistons preferring to stay intact.
At the same time, Langston Galloway, Reggie Jackson and Jon Leuer have one year left on their deals, and Andre Drummond has a player option for 2020-21. If Blake Griffin plays at an All-NBA level for the rest of the season, Detroit won't have trouble moving him for assets and decongesting its books in advance of the following summer.
And unless the Pistons are certain they can swing a blockbuster trade for a co-headliner (Mike Conley?), abandoning the Eastern Conference's middle-tier rat race for a clean slate isn't nothing, either.
Conventional rebuilds aren't the Heat's speed. It would be one thing if they enjoyed access to cap space and could overturn the roster in free agency. They can't. That makes it less likely they embrace anything drastic before 2020-21, when Ryan Anderson, Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside will be off the books and James Johnson (player option), Kelly Olynyk (player option) and Dion Waiters transition into expiring contracts.
Jettisoning Wayne Ellington and Tyler Johnson at the trade deadline only helped the Heat tread water. They'll have a chance to duck the tax this season if Olynyk doesn't hit his playing-time bonus, as Heat Hoops' Albert Nahmad noted, and the money they save next year with Anderson's partial guarantee ($15.6 million) will leave them a waive-and-stretch or smaller-time salary dump away from staying under it in 2019-20.
Except, in that scenario, Miami would mirror Charlotte, traveling great lengths to keep an underwhelming core together without the capacity to make any consequential alterations. Re-signing Rodney McGruder (restricted) could even prove too rich for their blood.
Dragic would help the cause if he declines his player option this summer, but that's a pipe dream. He turns 33 in May and is coming off knee surgery. Nor does it help that the Heat are light on desirable assets. They don't have the tantalizing equity to swing a blockbuster trade, and offloading bad money requires sweeteners they don't have or shouldn't be giving up.
Bottoming out this season or getting steamrolled in the playoffs could change the Heat's calculus. They can use Anderson and Whiteside to take on 2020-21 money in exchange for draft compensation and wait out the rest of their crummy deals. But going that route would be tough to stomach without their 2021 first-rounder—particularly when they'll have to start thinking about new deals for Josh Richardson and Justise Winslow by the time they're ready to get after it again.
Caught in the Middle: Orlando Magic Edition
Acquiring Markelle Fultz from the Philadelphia 76ers for Jonathon Simmons and some low-end picks without expecting Fultz to play this season, per NBA writer Keith Smith, was rebuilding-team behavior. Holding on to the expiring contracts of Terrence Ross and Nikola Vucevic was not.
This isn't meant to shade the Orlando Magic. They're in a weird spot.
Fultz, Mo Bamba, Aaron Gordon on a declining contract, Jonathan Isaac and this year's pick make up a pretty good asset base. Re-signing Ross and/or Vucevic doesn't have to imply an expedited timeline. They can be moved later if they're not overpaid. But giving Vucevic the All-Star money he'll command would be a precarious gamble that invites all kinds of questions.
Will he be tradeable on his next deal? Should they keep him and reroute Bamba? What's the ceiling on a team that has Vucevic as its best or, should either Fultz or Gordon go boom, second-best player? Can Orlando justify letting Vooch walk for nothing after keeping him past the deadline?
Does an authentic rebuild also have to include shipping out one of Bamba, Gordon and Isaac in addition to losing Vucevic so the Magic can normalize the frontcourt rotation? Can any of this be decided without knowing what they have in Fultz?
Orlando's is a situation without one answer. But continuing to straddle two timelines is easily the least sensible approach.
Bringing back Vucevic cannot be the Magic's biggest move this summer. It would need to be in tandem with another impact acquisition. Otherwise, they're just remaining in the same awkward space they occupy now: They're not bad enough to net a cornerstone through the draft but not good enough to promise playoff contention.
Caught in the Middle: Washington Wizards Edition
John Wall's injury and contract hamstrings the Washington Wizards' direction. He's owed $170.9 million over the next four seasons, and his ruptured left Achilles tendon is going to sideline him for at least most of 2019-20.
Washington can rebuild only so much with his money on the cap sheet. Trading Bradley Beal and punting on next season would leave them in a precarious spot—with this year's (likely) lottery pick, a top 2020 prospect and a 30-year-old Wall coming off a major injury and earning $41.2 million.
Drastic measures always speak to the armchair general managers. The Wizards will be more reserved in their approach unless Beal demands a trade. And, well, he hasn't reached that breaking point.
"Look where that's gotten a lot of guys now," Beal told NBC Sports Washington's Chase Hughes. "It doesn't always play out in your favor. So, I'm thinking, like, 'What good could that bring me?' In my head, that's just more turmoil for the team."
Talk to Beal after the Wizards miss the playoffs this season, and his thoughts might waver. Or maybe he will hold strong only to crack next year amid further struggles. For now, he's anti-superteam, per The Athletic's Fred Katz. Washington can take solace in that schtick.
In lieu of setting off sticks of dynamite, the Wizards have to be smart about how they flesh out the cast around Beal. That's apparently a big ask. They want to re-sign Trevor Ariza and Jeff Green, per NBC Sports Washington's Ben Standig. They've already talked to Tomas Satoransky, a restricted free agent this summer, about signing an extension, according to Hughes. Jabari Parker (team option) or Bobby Portis (restricted) could play themselves into the same hashtag-stay discussion.
Everyone isn't coming back. The Wizards skirted under the tax this season, but even if they decline Parker's $20 million option, hanging on to Ariza, Green and Satoransky would be a good recipe for climbing back into it. That can't happen. The Wizards aren't good enough. They're better off with one-year placeholders and reassessing their situation in 2020, when Wall is healthy and they'll have a better grasp on the extent of Beal's loyalty one year out from free agency.
Call this whatever you want—a mini-rebuild, one-year transition, makeshift retool, a whole bunch of nothing, etc. The Wizards don't have another choice. A total rebuild is beyond reach, and they don't have the trade assets or cap flexibility for their all-in play to consist of more than doubling down on what's already in place. They shouldn't place stock in either. (That said, it would be so Washington to dangle this year's draft pick as part of a Blake Griffin package.)
Breaking up with Marc Gasol does not amount to the Memphis Grizzlies starting over. And to be fair, keeping Mike Conley does not prove they're against beginning anew.
Waiting to move the last remaining remnant from the Grit 'n Grind era might end up being the right call. Conley has two more years left on his contract, and jilted free-agency suitors will invariably get desperate. Memphis may fetch a larger premium by letting his availability leak into the summer.
Of course, the reverse could be equally true.
Let's say the Grizzlies don't convey their top-eight-protected pick to the Boston Celtics. It won't take much for them to talk themselves into making another playoff push. Their roster is almost set up to indulge that temptation.
They have Conley, Kyle Anderson and Jaren Jackson Jr. locked up. Jonas Valanciunas is most likely going to exercise his player option. Ditto for CJ Miles. They'll have "early Bird" rights on Justin Holiday and full Bird rights on Delon Wright (restricted). Dillon Brooks (non-guaranteed) should be healthy next year. They can fully guarantee the final year of Avery Bradley's contract ($13 million) knowing he's overpaid but that the investment will be short-lived.
What's to stop them from making their top pick, seeing all the veterans on the docket and deciding to give it another go? Very little. Bringing back everyone, including the keepable free agents, would vault the Grizzlies into the tax, but they can sidestep that by stretching Chandler Parsons or waiving Bradley ($2 million guaranteed).
Delaying the rebuild usually wouldn't look so hot. The Grizzlies could get around that as well if Wright were their only new multiyear investment. Few would fault them for retaining a 27-year-old point guard with his length and defensive portability if it required Anderson money (four years, $37.2 million).
Taking that stance would be dangerous, but Memphis has effectively already done it. Last year's tank was supposed to be a pitstop—an incidental way of securing another needle-mover (Jackson) before rejoining the Western Conference's postseason gauntlet.
That cannot fly this time around. Like, at all. A Grizzlies rebuild could take many different permutations. It can include re-signing Wright. The nuclear, trade-everyone blueprint is not their lone option. And yet we won't know they're serious about rebuilding until—or rather, unless—they move Conley.
Having Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins on max deals with Robert Covington in the fold and Dario Saric's next contract swiftly approach is a pretty strong argument against the Minnesota Timberwolves firing up another rebuild.
Plus, you know, the pain.
Minnesota just kiboshed a 13-year playoff drought. Steering into another makeover would come with the risk, if not unassailable hazard, of another seasons-long absence. Being caught in the thick of the West's fringe race doesn't help matters. The Timberwolves are neither likely to make the playoffs nor secure a top-end draft pick.
Standing pat at the trade deadline inferred a certain commitment to a quicker turnaround. Wiggins generated some interest, according to ESPN.com's Zach Lowe, but the Timberwolves, for whatever reason, weren't ready to sell the four years and $122.2 million left on his deal.
They should reconsider that response over the offseason. They'd open up a world of possibilities if they flip him for someone who comes off the books next year or even after 2020-21, when Gorgui Dieng's cap-clogger expires.
It might only take a year to recover. Towns is that good despite the warts in his defensive game—which aren't as pronounced as they were last season. Snag a high pick next year, and they'll be looking at a worthwhile 2020-21 even if they're still paying unwanted leftovers from a Wiggins trade.
Forecasting a longer-term rehabilitation is where the logic gets hairy. The Timberwolves don't have to worry about a disenchanted Towns demanding a trade; he's signed through 2023-24. But a more protracted project would necessitate auctioning Covington and Saric, and Minnesota has no assurances of finding better cornerstone options in the draft.
A more gradual approach should be on the table this summer anyway. Realistically, though, we cannot expect the Timberwolves to tear the roster down to Towns, Josh Okogie and this year's draft pick.
New Orleans Pelicans
Picking the New Orleans Pelicans amid the Anthony Davis saga isn't so self-explanatory. Selling off a superstar doesn't always end with a team tethering itself to a full-scale rebuild.
The San Antonio Spurs opted for a win-now return when they sent Kawhi Leonard to the Raptors. The Timberwolves didn't go that far when they sent Jimmy Butler to the Sixers, but a package built around a soon-to-be-extension-eligible Dario Saric, a 27-year-old Robert Covington and zero first-round picks was hardly a from-scratch special.
Leverage is a factor in every instance. Upcoming player options and trade demands restricted what the Spurs and Timberwolves could get for their superstars. The Pelicans are no different. Davis said on NBA TV over All-Star Weekend that "all 29 other teams" are on his list of preferred destinations, but that contradicted the timing of his request and his own words. Also: We know better.
Still, New Orleans has more strength in negotiations than Minnesota and San Antonio. Davis is better than Butler and will have an entire season left on his deal, and unlike Leonard, he's not working off a major injury that functionally cost him an entire year. (His latest shoulder injury does not qualify as a concern.)
Don't confuse the Pelicans' decision to wait as a tacit devotion to that line of thinking. Holding out to see what the Celtics will offer this summer (Jayson Tatum?) and the outcome of the Zion Williamson sweepstakes (Knicks?) is smart. But New Orleans rebuffed interest in Jrue Holiday at the deadline, according to ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski, and any rebuild needs to include moving the final three years of his contract.
Maybe that initial resistance doesn't speak to the grand scheme. Dealing a fringe All-Star under team control who won't turn 30 until the end of 2019-20 is not a process that should be rushed. The Pelicans could be waiting to survey the landscape until after Davis' departure.
On the flip side, they have not moved Davis yet. They don't even have a permanent GM in place after parting ways with Dell Demps. Pelicans owner Gayle Benson might not be up for starting from square one.
She is "adamant with the organization about finding a pathway to sustainable winning in one of the league's smallest markets and plans to be aggressive in pursuing the best available candidates to oversee basketball operations," according to Wojnarowski. That doesn't nod to any specific intentions. Benson's next hire—or interim GM Danny Ferry—could get Tatum or Williamson and then decide New Orleans is ready to resume chasing playoff berths.
Contemplating that direction is the Pelicans' obligation. Enduring a few years of crappy basketball is harder in New Orleans than in New York, Los Angeles or Philadelphia. But attempts to accelerate their timeline helped get the Pelicans into this mess. They cannot subscribe to the same logic to get out of it. Cleaning the deck would be smarter, even if it'll also be substantially more painful.