Top Offseason Priorities for NBA's 10 Worst Teams
Failures in planning and patience are hallmarks of the NBA's worst teams. A losing culture feeds on haphazard management and poor prioritization.
That's all the more reason to start focusing on what each of the league's 10 crummiest clubs should do this summer.
We'll sort out the 10 worst teams by winning percentage (with one notable exception) and lay out the single most pressing matter each one will have to address this offseason.
Certain teams should prioritize filling a specific need via free agency or a trade, while others have broader concerns. Some of these teams have been losing for so long that a top-down assessment of management and direction should be in order.
These teams all need to be looking ahead, preparing to perform organizational triage with clear eyes. That may seem easy, but none of these clubs would be part of this discussion if that were true.
New York Knicks: Make That Cap Space Count
A pair of first-rounders and Dennis Smith Jr. are a fine long-term return for Kristaps Porzingis, especially if a breakup was imminent anyway. But if the Knicks waste the cap space they cleared out with that trade, it will be hard to label the offseason anything but a failure.
Kemba Walker and Jimmy Butler can't fill those two max slots without triggering crippling disappointment. The same goes for Tobias Harris and Nikola Vucevic.
It seems like New York's cap-clearing happened with knowledge (or at least an informed hunch) about where KD and Kyrie would like to sign their next deals.
Knicks owner James Dolan expressed confidence in his team's free-agency prospects during a Tuesday interview on YES Network.
Meanwhile, Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports recently reported some in the Warriors organization already believe Durant has "one foot out the door." Irving has also backtracked from his preseason declaration of loyalty to Boston.
Both have player options they'll decline, and both could fit neatly into the room New York has set aside.
Drafting Zion Williamson after winning the top overall pick on lottery night would be a nice bonus, too.
Phoenix Suns: Stabilize, Stabilize, Stabilize
The Phoenix Suns would love to draft Zion Williamson first overall, avoid squandering their cap space and develop their young core of Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges and Josh Jackson this summer.
That's the easy part, though.
More challenging: establishing a semblance of order and a coherent vision of where this team is headed.
That'll require Suns owner Robert Sarver to objectively evaluate the coaching staff and top front office positions. But ESPN.com's Kevin Arnovitz recently laid bare Sarver's impulsiveness, which has contributed to win totals in the 20s during each of the last three seasons (and only 16 so far in 2018-19), in a damning report.
Vice president of basketball operations James Jones and assistant general manager Trevor Bukstein may or may not take over as the full-time GM. Head coach Igor Kokoskov could be yet another short-timer on the bench. Or, all three may stick around.
It's hard to say how things should play out, as one could argue another change in the management structure would only validate the air of capriciousness that has long defined the organization. At the same time, shouldn't change be afoot after yet another season in the cellar?
Whatever Phoenix does, it will have to evince clarity of purpose. The Suns must establish a direction, draw up a plan and stay the course. No more preseason playoff chatter, nonsensical veteran signings and abrupt pivots.
There's talent here, but it needs stability and sensible management to thrive.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Leverage Those Expiring Deals
If any team is going to luck out to land the top pick, history suggests it'll be the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Cavs picked first in 2011 (Kyrie Irving), 2013 (Anthony Bennett) and 2014 (Andrew Wiggins), even though they had only a 1.7 percent chance to move up to No. 1 in the Wiggins lottery.
Trusting fortune might be the Cavs' main priority. After that, it'll be all about asset accumulation.
Cleveland has a bevy of contracts on the books that expire after the 2019-20 season. As of now, the only players under team control beyond next year are Kevin Love, Collin Sexton, Ante Zizic and Larry Nance Jr. Their salaries total $51.8 million in 2020-21.
Without LeBron James, the Cavs can't expect their cap space to attract free agents, so the time to capitalize on those expiring deals starts this summer.
Cleveland should be willing to take on bad money that extends past the 2019-20 season with as many draft assets attached as possible. For example, Tristan Thompson's expiring $18.5 million salary could be the centerpiece of a deal that brings back Nicolas Batum—who'll make $25.6 million in 2019-20 with a $27.1 million player option for 2020-21—with a package of picks from Charlotte.
With Brandon Knight, Jordan Clarkson, John Henson and Matthew Dellavedova all entering the final year of their contracts next season, the Cavs will have plenty of options.
James isn't coming back to save the franchise a third time, so the Cavaliers will have to rebuild through the draft. Under no circumstances should Cleveland try to speed up its rebuild. Winning too many games next year could cost it the top-10-protected first-rounder it owes the Hawks.
The pick-hoarding, made easier with expiring deals, must start this summer.
Chicago Bulls: Find a Starting Point Guard
Kris Dunn has had three seasons—the last two as a starter—to prove he's a first-unit point guard.
The results suggest he isn't cut out for that role.
Though he's shooting above 34 percent from deep for the first time in his career, Dunn is a reluctant shooter who finishes poorly at close range and has gone from bad to worse as a foul-drawer. He ranks in the bottom third at his position in conversion rate at the rim and has never come close to the league average in overall effective field-goal percentage, according to Cleaning the Glass.
Though Dunn's athleticism and reputation as an active defender mean he'll stick in the league for several more years, the Chicago Bulls can't rely on him as their point guard of the future—not when Zach LaVine, Otto Porter Jr. and Lauri Markkanen have such obvious offensive potential.
Dunn's limitations can't be allowed to stunt the growth of this core.
The easy solution will arise if the Bulls don't win the lottery. With Zion Williamson off the board, Murray State's Ja Morant profiles as the prime target. The nation's leader in assist percentage, Morant has shown flashes of just about everything the Bulls could want at the point: elite athleticism, above-average vision as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, spot-up shooting and quick-fire reads in transition.
If Chicago wins the lottery, it ought to take Williamson and figure out the rest later. Dunn might still have value as a trade piece, and the Bulls could do worse than picking from a group of free-agent stopgaps such as Ricky Rubio, Darren Collison and Patrick Beverley. D'Angelo Russell might be worth an offer sheet as well, but it's tough to imagine a backcourt of Russell and LaVine not getting torched nightly.
The Bulls have a clear need and several ways to address it. If they make the right move at the 1 this summer, this rebuild could be on the fast track.
Atlanta Hawks: Get a Draymond Green-Lite
Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk, who previously served as assistant GM for the Warriors, is building a core that feels a bit like the one that came together nearly a decade ago in Golden State.
Trae Young is the defense-bending guard with deep range and preternatural playmaking instincts, while Kevin Huerter is the rangy wing with a feathery catch-and-shoot touch. Neither is Stephen Curry or Klay Thompson yet (and they probably never will be), but the similarities are hard to ignore.
Also difficult to overlook on Atlanta's rebuilding roster: the lack of a do-it-all defender to tie the whole thing together.
The Hawks need their version of Draymond Green, if only to show the kids what it takes to win consistently when shots aren't falling. They currently boast a bottom-five defense, and John Collins, who's best suited to the center spot, is a glaring minus on D.
Unfortunately for Atlanta, there isn't a "Draymond Green type." Five-position defenders who ignite teams with energy and facilitate from the forward position aren't just scarce; they're nonexistent apart from Green. But the Hawks need a guy who can fill some of the gaps Green does in Golden State.
Al-Farouq Aminu and Thaddeus Young are the kinds of free-agent forwards Atlanta should pursue. Neither fits into the age range of the team's core, but there aren't a heap of young players with the skill set Atlanta needs at the 4. If the Denver Nuggets decline Paul Millsap's $30 million team option, perhaps he'd be willing to return to the team where he became a dirty-work star a half-decade ago.
The Hawks are a cut above the other bottom-feeders we've hit so far, which makes it easier to counsel moves that aren't strictly youth-focused. After accumulating talent and establishing an identity, the next step in a rebuild is supporting the inexperienced cornerstones with an on-the-margins role-filler.
Dallas Mavericks: Tread Carefully with Kristaps Porzingis
Considering the sacrifices the Mavericks made to acquire him at the deadline—they became the first team since the Miami Heat in 2015 to trade two first-rounders in the same deal—Dallas won't get to negotiate Kristaps Porzingis' contract from a position of strength.
Though Porzingis' reported intention to sign his qualifying offer this summer looked like an empty threat, the Mavericks mortgaged their future on a player who is eligible for (and should want) a max extension. Paying $158 million over five years for a guy who's recovering from a torn ACL, has missed time with a boatload of other injuries and whose production diminishes month-by-month during the season would be wildly risky.
Would Porzingis bristle at the mere mention of a below-max contract? Would the inclusion of injury-related nonguarantee clauses (think Joel Embiid) cause talks to crumble?
Dallas could limit its downside by offering a max annual salary over a shorter term. Perhaps a two-year deal with a third-year player option would please everyone. But if the Mavs weren't convinced Porzingis was worth a long-term investment, how do they justify surrendering so many assets—not to mention taking on Courtney Lee and Tim Hardaway Jr.'s onerous contracts—to get him?
No team would give up as much as Dallas did unless it's certain the return is worthwhile.
Still, the Mavs must approach Porzingis' next contract with eyes wide open. There's immense injury risk here, and no shortage of uncertainty. Max salaries are supposed to be reserved for surefire, no-questions-asked cornerstones...and Andrew Wiggins. Porzingis is a massive talent with max-level upside, but a full five-year commitment starting at around $27.3 million with 8 percent raises feels like a stretch.
If Dallas can secure KP for four or five years at an average annual value of around $25 million, that'd count as a win. If it instead commits the full $158 million or ticks off Porzingis enough to alienate him and bring the qualifying offer back into play, the disaster potential for this deal quintuples.
Memphis Grizzlies: Do Whatever Mike Conley Wants
If Mike Conley wants to hang around and mentor the Memphis Grizzlies' young players for another season, he's earned the right. And it'd be hard for Memphis to find a veteran better suited to the task.
Even though the Grizzlies are still actively trying to win games so they can convey their top-eight protected pick to the Celtics this summer, this is still very much a lost season.
That fact hasn't prevented Conley from setting an ideal example. He just earned the first Western Conference Player of the Week honor of his career. There'll be no mailing it in, no formation of bad habits, no late-season malaise as long as he's around. That'll be doubly important next year when the Grizzlies will have greater incentive to tank.
But if Conley wants to play for a contender, he deserves that, too. A trade request would be well within his rights, and it should spur quick action from the Grizzlies, too.
Structuring the offseason around Conley's desires isn't just a sentimental approach. It'll inform Memphis' other moves. If Conley is going to be part of the roster in 2019-20, the Grizzlies should seek out a few low-cost vets to improve the rotation. If he's not, the focus should be on younger talent and draft assets.
There aren't many players who warrant treatment like this, but Conley—the last vestige of Memphis' Grit 'n Grind era and a consummate professional—is a special case.
Washington Wizards: Be Smart with Restricted Free Agency
The Washington Wizards' salary-cap sheet means a reset isn't in the cards for the 2019-20 offseason.
It isn't just John Wall's $38.2 million salary clogging the books; it's the combined $21.1 million Washington will owe Ian Mahinmi and Dwight Howard (assuming Howard picks up his $5.6 million player option). That's a total of nearly $60 million, more than half the projected $109 million cap, devoted to players who can't be counted on to contribute.
As a result, the Wizards' offseason focus must be low-cost talent retention. They're still in the East, and if they hang on to the right restricted free agents for the right prices, they can fill in the remaining roster spots for minimums and roster exceptions, possibly cobbling together a group that could win 40-something games and reach the playoffs.
Tomas Satoransky and Thomas Bryant should be the top priorities. Bobby Portis is also restricted, but he reportedly turned down an extension offer from the Bulls for $40-50 million last offseason, per K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune. It seems unlikely he'll stick around at a bargain rate. He's also shown flashes of capable stretch play as a center since coming to Washington at the trade deadline, so it's easy to imagine another team throwing a hefty offer sheet at the high-energy 24-year-old.
The Wizards likely could keep Bryant for half of what Portis commands on the open market, and Satoransky will be vital as a likely full-season stand-in for Wall. If Washington can keep both for less than a combined $18 million per season, that'll constitute success.
Chasson Randle and Sam Dekker are also restricted, but the Wizards shouldn't be willing to match anything that values them at annual rates above their current qualifying offers. Both profile as league-minimum contributors.
Finally, Washington needs to decline its $20 million team option on Jabari Parker unless it loses all of its RFAs and has a sudden windfall of cap space. Parker has scored at career-best efficiency levels in his short stint with the Wizards, but he's still a net-negative player.
The best version of Parker isn't good enough to justify $20 million unless circumstances dictate Washington has no better use for its money. If the Wizards want to keep him, they can still pursue a new contract after declining his option.
New Orleans Pelicans: Squeeze Every Last Drop Out of Anthony Davis' Trade Value
It's almost impossible to win a trade when giving up a franchise player in his prime, but the New Orleans Pelicans need to do everything they can to come close with Anthony Davis.
Breaking even would count as a win.
There are some necessary precursors to dealing AD, not the least of which is identifying a general manager who'll oversee trade talks. But the main focus of the 2019 offseason must be securing a package of young players and picks that sets up the franchise for years to come.
The Pelicans still have Davis under team control for the 2019-20 season. Though their leverage diminishes with each passing day, it isn't gone yet. That means New Orleans must insist on at least two first-round picks and a potential cornerstone. If the Pels can offload bad money without taking on too much in return (which'll be tricky considering Davis's outgoing $27.1 million salary), all the better.
New Orleans must start negotiations with unreasonably high demands. See if the Lakers are still willing to deal their entire young core and two first-rounders. Tell the Celtics both Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown need to be involved.
The Lakers' desperation in the wake of a wasted LeBron James season should keep the market competitive. It's up to the Pelicans to capitalize.
Los Angeles Lakers: Get Anthony Davis, and Don't Stop There
No, the Lakers aren't technically among the NBA's 10 worst teams in terms of winning percentage. But they're close enough, and you'd rather read about them than the Charlotte Hornets or Orlando Magic, right?
There's a way to frame the Lakers' squandered 2018-19 season that absolves the braintrust of Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka for misfiring on virtually every move since they acquired LeBron James. You have to make the case that the real juggernaut construction was always meant to begin in the summer of 2019.
That's a tough argument to pull off with a straight face, largely because it requires accepting the Lakers' decision to waste what might be one of James' final seasons as a true superstar. The guy is 34 and has obscene mileage on his odometer. Nothing lasts forever.
But if we embrace that mindset, the one-year deals for ill-fitting vets are slightly more excusable. The Lakers' 2019-20 books include James' max salary, $5 million for Luol Deng (waived via the stretch provision) and rookie-scale deals for six other players, which comes out to $65.8 million in salary. L.A.'s slate is largely clean going forward.
Anthony Davis must be the Lakers' primary target, and acquiring him will likely cost at least four of the aforementioned rookie-scale players. Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma will probably be gone at a minimum.
That'll leave a bare-bones roster, which Johnson and Pelinka will have to enrich with veteran talent. There's no point in focusing on youth ahead of James' age-35 season. This is where the concept of Lakers exceptionalism (which has made the organization desirable despite mismanagement and loads of recent losing) will have to do the heavy lifting.
The Lakers will need shooting around James and Davis to make this work. A supporting cast of playmakers predictably fell short this season. Danny Green, Nikola Mirotic, Bojan Bogdanovic and JJ Redick should all be targets if Klay Thompson isn't interested in leaving Golden State.
Landing Davis won't be enough on its own. The Lakers have to validate their plan to this point by constructing a true contender in one summer. Otherwise, Johnson and Pelinka will be saddled with one of the great screwups in league history.
Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Cleaning the Glass or Basketball Reference and accurate through games played Tuesday, March 12. Salary and cap-hold information via Basketball Insiders.