Building the 3-Year Plan for Every NBA Lottery Team
Failing to make the NBA playoffs doesn't have to mean getting a head start on summer vacation.
The Association's 14 less fortunate squads of 2018-19 should instead be keeping busy with opening windows to the postseasons of the near future.
Most contenders aren't built overnight. It often takes years of careful preparation, talent acquisition and player development to make the leap from afterthought to juggernaut.
We might not be able to help all 14 of this season's lottery-bound teams transform into title contenders, but we can ease that process a bit by drafting a blueprint to guide their future.
It's tempting to treat 2018-19 as an accelerator for the Atlanta Hawks, since Trae Young made a superstar turn in the second half of the season, John Collins posted All-Star-caliber numbers and Kevin Huerter did a convincing Klay Thompson impression. But all three building blocks are no older than 21, so patience should continue driving this rebuild.
The Hawks could have two top-10 picks in this summer's draft: their own and the Dallas Mavericks' from the Young-Luka Doncic swap. Those rookies-to-be might be Atlanta's biggest additions. Adding both a plug-and-play wing (RJ Barrett, De'Andre Hunter or Jarrett Culver) and an interior anchor (Jaxson Hayes, Bol Bol or Brandon Clarke) would be ideal.
If the Hawks can get a meeting with an elite 2019 free agent, they shouldn't turn it down. But the more realistic option might be adding a young restricted free agent who could grow with this core. Kelly Oubre Jr. and Malcolm Brogdon could both find themselves on the receiving end of midnight phone calls from Atlanta general manager Travis Schlenk.
The Hawks may prefer to wait for more flexibility—and presumably stronger on-court recruiting pitches from their youngsters—to chase a flashy free agent in 2020 or 2021. The list of potential targets is bound only by Atlanta's willingness to dream. In 2020, Anthony Davis, Andre Drummond and Pascal Siakam could top the wish list, while Giannis Antetokounmpo, Paul George and Rudy Gobert might lead the way in 2021.
Lottery teams rarely shape their offseason around a 29-year-old. But if the Charlotte Hornets wanted a future without Kemba Walker, they would have moved him at this trade deadline (or the last one) for assets.
Walker is the Hornets, and they don't want that to change.
"We'll do everything we can to bring him back here," Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak said, per Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer.
If Walker stays, the Hornets can forget about a three-year plan. They'll be racing to cut costs and add talent, both of which might be long-shot propositions before 2020. They should wait out potential bargains this summer, including No. 2 scorer Jeremy Lamb. Charlotte hasn't had financial flexibility in seemingly forever, but it could finally have breathing room next summer.
The Hornets should view any free-agent targets through the win-now lens, but draft night is different. Walker is the only star in Buzz City, and history offers no evidence this team can lure another there without drafting him. In the 2019 draft, it's better to gamble on what Bol Bol, Kevin Porter Jr., Romeo Langford or Sekou Doumbouya might become than add what Brandon Clarke, Cameron Johnson or Grant Williams already are.
If Walker exits, Charlotte immediately shifts to one of the league's longest rebuilding projects. Anything that isn't bolted down should be shopped for picks, prospects and/or salary relief, and the Hornets can spend the next three years throwing as many darts as the draft board as possible to unearth the next Kemba.
The Chicago Bulls furthered their rebuilding effort this season with Zach LaVine performing up to his new contract, Lauri Markkanen building on his rookie year, Wendell Carter Jr. fitting like a glove and Otto Porter Jr. fortifying the wing. But they never solved their point guard problem, which should be their first order of offseason business.
Murray State standout Ja Morant would be a dream draft target. If he's off the board, they can either address the position with Darius Garland or Coby White or take the best-player-available route and push the point guard search to free agency. Would Chicago consider a reunion with Derrick Rose? Another Windy City native, Patrick Beverley, offers all of the intensity and toughness head coach Jim Boylen could want.
Chicago should treat 2019-20 as an exploratory season. There was too much turmoil this campaign to get a firm grasp of this roster's potential.
Between an early coaching change, a rash of injuries and a major deadline deal, the foundation never had the chance to set. With a summer, training camp and full campaign together, this nucleus could prove it's further along than expected.
That means the free-agency focus belongs on the 2020 and 2021 summers, when the Bulls should have the funds to go big-game hunting. In 2020, they could test the commitment to restricted free agents Ben Simmons and Jamal Murray or chase an unrestricted veteran like Mike Conley or Kyle Lowry. A year later, Paul George, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bradley Beal, Damian Lillard and Donovan Mitchell (restricted) could all be on the radar.
The first step of the Cleveland Cavaliers' three-year plan is simple: figure out who will lead it.
After parting ways with head coach Larry Drew, the Cavs need a new skipper. It sounds like they'll take a more refreshing approach than the retread route, with Dallas Mavericks assistant Jamahl Mosley and Miami Heat assistant Juwan Howard securing the first two interviews, per Tom Withers of the Associated Press.
Next, all of Northeast Ohio needs to cross its fingers for the same kind of lottery luck that previously delivered LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. No one could electrify the post-LeBron era quite like Zion Williamson, the most physically advanced prospect since King James. But Ja Morant or RJ Barrett would be almost as exciting.
The Cavs must value upside over everything. Spend the 26th pick (via Houston) on a risk-reward prospect like Talen Horton-Tucker, Nassir Little or Mfiondu Kabengele. Plan on going for broke again with next year's first-rounder, which is top-10 protected and shouldn't be in jeopardy of changing hands.
Finally, the Cavs should steer clear of marquee free-agent signings until their youngsters develop. Cleveland needs dart throws right now, and those are easiest to acquire through the draft. The Cavs should continue chasing draft picks, either by shopping Jordan Clarkson, Tristan Thompson and JR Smith's contract this summer or renting out the cap space they'll open after next season.
With longtime face of the franchise Dirk Nowitzki riding off into the sunset, the Dallas Mavericks needed to swap out centerpieces. Luckily, they seem to have already done that through the draft-night trade for Luka Doncic and deadline deal for Kristaps Porzingis.
Armed with two potential cornerstones and cap flexibility, Dallas is poised to both retain its core members and add external help, potentially of the difference-making variety.
"We'll extend Dwight Powell and keep him around for another three years ... and probably bring back Maxi [Kleber] and Dodo [Dorian Finney-Smith]," Mavs owner Mark Cuban said, via SportsDayDFW.com. "I think we can add a free agent, we'll keep our guys for the most part, we'll see what happens in the draft, see what's available to us and go from there."
A guard who can play on or of the ball would help, with Kemba Walker perhaps as plan A and Patrick Beverley behind him. A versatile scoring wing like Khris Middleton, Tobias Harris or Bojan Bogdanovic would make a ton of sense, too.
If the Tier 1 and 2 options are gone, Dallas could add multiple players on short-team deals that maintain flexibility for 2020 or longer ones to ensure Doncic and Porzingis won't lack depth and support.
Los Angeles Lakers
What a strange spot for the Los Angeles Lakers.
Their six consecutive losing seasons, high-pedigree prospect collection and vacancies at head coach and team president all make it unfathomable to think their next few years will be graded on the championship-or-bust scale. But that's the only metric that the 34-year-old LeBron James knows, making it imperative the next front-office head can quickly assemble a contending roster around the King.
"The next Lakers president must fit one and only one criteria: the ability to attract one or more superstars to team up with LeBron James," Bleacher Report's Ken Berger wrote.
L.A. should again aggressively pursue an Anthony Davis trade, hoping the New Orleans Pelicans are now more receptive to their combination of prospects and draft picks. That would still leave money for a star free agent like Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson or James' old running mate, Kyrie Irving.
If a Davis trade doesn't happen, the Lakers should swing for the fences with their lottery pick and in free agency. If stars aren't keen on donning purple and gold, L.A. could again court plug-and-play veterans on cap-space-preserving short deals while prioritizing the perimeter shooting they neglected last summer. Bojan Bogdanovic, Danny Green and Dewayne Dedmon should all easily acclimate to a LeBron-centric offense.
At their peak, the Memphis Grizzlies preferred playing in the mud. It's only right, then, for their transition out of the Grit-'n'-Grind era to move at a similarly glacial pace.
Change has already come to Beale Street with head coach J.B. Bickerstaff sent packing and the front office realigned. But this organization must continue transforming, with a Mike Conley trade overdue at this point. The perpetually underrated point guard isn't bringing back a king's ransom anymore, but there could still be a path to multiple first-round picks.
Jaren Jackson Jr. is already Memphis' most important player, and the next three years should reflect that. The Grizzlies must find a coach capable of squeezing the most out of his potential, open doors to high-ceiling youngsters who can grow alongside him and hope lottery luck will keep their top-eight-protected pick away from the Boston Celtics.
Specific targets are hard to identify, but only because the Grizzlies should have maximum versatility with this roster. If Jackson (a shooter and shot-blocker), Kyle Anderson (a Swiss army knife) and Dillon Brooks (a quick-strike scorer with range) are the only keepers, those three can share the floor with anyone.
Star-hunting enthusiast and Miami Heat president Pat Riley knows his preferred pastime is probably off the table this summer. The club's 2019-20 payroll could soar as high as $138.5 million (not counting its first-round pick), and trimming it in a substantial way might prove impossible.
Come 2020, though, Riley will be ready to open July with a midnight chase.
"In 2020, we'll have a ton of room," Riley told Heat broadcaster Jason Jackson (via NBA.com). "We'll also have the possibility to have enough room to go after two max contracts. And we're going to do that. So, we're planning that 2020 will be the room year."
Miami fans shouldn't expect much difference in 2019-20, unless the Heat hit the lottery jackpot or aces their first-round pick. If their selection stays put near the end of the lottery, Romeo Langford, Kevin Porter Jr., Sekou Doumbouya or Tyler Herro could help perk up the perimeter group with scoring, shooting and/or athleticism.
Riley's 2020 plans likely start with an all-out pursuit of Anthony Davis. If that doesn't pan out, the Heat could shift over to Draymond Green (a fascinating fit in Erik Spoelstra's positionless style), DeMar DeRozan, Danilo Gallinari or Mike Conley. Miami could also aggressively attack the restricted free-agent class that may include Ben Simmons, Jamal Murray, Jaylen Brown, Caris LeVert and Buddy Hield.
The Minnesota Timberwolves had a tumultuous 2018-19 season, which featured a messy divorce from Jimmy Butler and an unceremonious split with head coach/team president Tom Thibodeau. But they might not have learned much about themselves, save for the fact they need a new president of basketball operations.
Karl-Anthony Towns is on a short list of the NBA's elite, but he needs more help. However, this roster is already expensive, and that won't change over the next few years. Since Minnesota isn't close to contending, a budget-conscious offseason that allows Derrick Rose, Taj Gibson and Anthony Tolliver to walk in free agency might be the best path forward.
The Wolves' biggest 2019 addition will likely come on draft night. It figures to be toward the bottom of the lottery, but perhaps the basketball gods feel this franchise could use some good fortune. While any non-center spot could use a lift, Minnesota might want to think about selecting a point guard, as both Rose and Tyus Jones (restricted) are entering free agency this summer and Jeff Teague will join them a year later.
Bigger-picture priorities include a possible extension for Dario Saric, combing for value veterans in free agency (such as Reggie Bullock, Marcus Morris or Terrence Ross) and identifying the best way to use Andrew Wiggins.
With so much money on the books, Minnesota's primary hopes for the coming years are tied to the draft and internal development.
New Orleans Pelicans
Godspeed, David Griffin.
Newly minted as the New Orleans Pelicans head of basketball operations, Griffin must untangle this web of roster questions headlined by Anthony Davis' impending trade. He also must decide upon Jrue Holiday's future—Holiday is the only Pelican with a guaranteed contract in 2020-21—and bolster a largely barren supporting cast.
At this point, the three-year plan is a blank canvass. The first step is maximizing the return for Davis.
While the Pelicans can't expect a top-10 talent in return for the Brow, they should demand a youngster with that type of potential. Perhaps that's Jayson Tatum or Brandon Ingram. Maybe it's the No. 1 pick. As long as the trade package includes someone with a sky-high ceiling, Griffin will have done his job.
Next, New Orleans must shift its attention to Holiday and decide whether he's a better centerpiece or trade chip. It's easy to assume the latter, but a teardown can be tricky for a small-market squad. If Holiday stays, the Pelicans could prioritize retaining their own free agents like Julius Randle (player option), Elfrid Payton and Darius Miller and chasing value buys to bulk up the supporting cast.
If Holiday follows Davis out the door, New Orleans would be starting from scratch. The franchise's future would thus take center stage, so the Pels should explore any possibility of adding picks and/or prospects.
New York Knicks
If the New York Knicks have their way, their three-year plan might be more of a seven-week strategy.
If they win the draft lottery on May 14, they could perhaps use the No. 1 pick to acquire Anthony Davis and find the Brow a pair of superfriends in July. If the Knicks leave this summer with Davis, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, they'll be one of the biggest free-agency winners in NBA history.
But New York can't afford a repeat of 2010, when dreams of LeBron James, Chris Bosh and others devolved into one blockbuster pickup: Amar'e Stoudemire and his bad knee. If the Knicks can't get grade-A stars to sign on the dotted line, they must not rush into any panicked decisions.
"It's got to be Durant and Irving, with maybe a Plan B that includes Kemba Walker and some well-priced second-tier free agents," Sean Deveney of Sporting News wrote. "But it can't include a Plan C and Plan D that has the Knicks giving away max contracts to sub-All-Stars."
Remember, the Knicks have an intriguing young core in Kevin Knox, Mitchell Robinson, Dennis Smith Jr. and Frank Ntilikina. If stars don't come this summer, New York should use its lottery pick on the latest member of that core, develop the prospects it has and remain flexible for future free-agency pursuits.
Last April, Devin Booker said he was tired of losing. The Phoenix Suns spoke of an aggressive push toward competitiveness and half-followed through by throwing a one-year, $15 million deal at Trevor Ariza.
But losses mounted almost immediately (Phoenix started 1-7), the Suns traded Ariza as soon as they legally could, and they finished with the second-worst record in franchise history.
This roster needs better balance, with clear voids at point guard and power forward. They'll aim to fill one of those on draft night, as a top-two pick could net the Suns either Zion Williamson or Ja Morant. Phoenix then has the financial flexibility to attack the other in free agency, perhaps with Patrick Beverley, Terry Rozier or Ricky Rubio at point or Marcus Morris, Tobias Harris or Nikola Mirotic at the 4.
Down the road, Phoenix may want to use a trade to clear up its crowded wing spots in exchange for picks or prospects. It could also save some of its spending money this summer and wait a year or two for this nucleus to mature and potentially expand its recruiting reach.
A number of key contributors have multiple seasons left on their rookie deals, so the Suns should remember patience is an option, even if it's not the preferred path.
The Sacramento Kings were the surprise team of 2018-19, obliterating preseason projections by remaining in playoff contention through late March and finishing with 39 wins, their highest total since 2005-06. But if their recent dismissals of head coach Dave Joerger and assistant general manager Brandon Williams are any indication, the Kings are aiming even higher moving forward.
"For me to move away from them, I'm hoping to improve the team," general manager Vlade Divac said, per Jason Anderson of the Sacramento Bee. "Not just on the court, but (also in) basketball operations, and I felt like those things have to be done to move forward."
Sacramento's next jumps—from mediocre to good, then hopefully good to great—are the most challenging in basketball, but the heavy lifting may already be done. This roster is talented, young and inexpensive next season and beyond. New head coach Luke Walton might be the perfect person to oversee it.
The next three years are about developing this core, but the Kings have a chance to add to it this summer. They'll have money to spend regardless of whether Harrison Barnes exercises his $25.1 million player option, and the Kings might consider using it on a stretch big like Nikola Vucevic or Brook Lopez.
They also could roll it over to next summer, and they should already be planning for the next contracts of Buddy Hield, Bogdan Bogdanovic and De'Aaron Fox.
The Washington Wizards need a new general manager after giving Ernie Grunfeld his walking papers. Shortly after that hire, they'll need a clear direction, too.
Washington could continue to build around Bradley Beal, who might be supermax eligible depending on All-NBA voting, and John Wall, who ruptured his Achilles in February. It's a costly endeavor—Beal and Wall will make a combined $65.2 million next season and nearly $70 million in 2020-21—but one that could work with deft handling of the draft and free agency.
Conversely, the Wizards might realize Beal is their only tradable asset and move him to kickstart a multiple-season rebuild. The 25-year-old was one of only six players to average 25 points, five assists and five rebounds this past season. He has also quieted past durability concerns by playing at least 77 games each of the last three seasons.
In other words, the Wizards would need a ton in return to consider trading Beal.
Either way, it makes sense to cover the restricted free-agency costs of Tomas Satoransky, Bobby Portis and Thomas Bryant. But there's no point in keeping Trevor Ariza or Jeff Green if the front office opts for the long view. The Wizards must ace their upcoming first-round pick—which is their first top-10 selection since 2013—and identify the ideal role for last summer's 15th overall pick, Troy Brown Jr.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.