NBA Lottery Teams 1 Trade or Free Agent Away from 2020 Playoffs
Predictable as the NBA often seems, the playoff field is anything but. New teams join the postseason ranks every year.
Thank you, Eastern Conference.
Next season's crop of playoff hopefuls is only going to grow. And this time, the Western Conference will be part of the uncertainty. No established postseason squad is on the brink of dissolution, but a handful of lottery teams are poised to pursue significant leaps.
Many of these hopefuls have a bunch of work to do. Others are so close to playoff contention they can already smell a first-round loss at the hands of the Golden State Warriors appearance. And then, as always, we have those with almost no prayer of postseason proximity.
Figuring out which lottery squads are one player away from mid-April relevancy is low-key difficult. Every team is technically one player away. The right superstar can change everything for a franchise no matter how far gone it seems.
Sorting our 14 candidates into tiers helps create some necessary distinction. Prospective playoff returns differ by the type of player needed, the methods by which a team must land him and the odds of a successful acquisition. Our hierarchy accounts for that variance.
Let's Talk If They Land Zion Williamson...
Who They Are: Teams probably headed back to the lottery unless they hit on a multitude of personnel fronts. They are, at best, one Zion Williamson away from being one player away.
Ruling out any Eastern Conference team from next year's postseason race is bad form. The bottom of the field remains wild—a revolving door of candidates. But we have to make some cuts for exclusivity's sake.
Chicago is a good bet to revisit the lottery in 2020. A frontcourt of Wendell Carter Jr., Lauri Markkanen and Otto Porter Jr. is promising, but injuries prevented them from seeing the floor together after the latter's arrival, and the point guard situation is worse than suspect.
Though the Bulls have a clear path to more than $15 million in space, they're not mentioned among this summer's top destinations, and floor generals who fall within their price range are uninspiring. They'll need to open up more room to look at a star (Kemba Walker) or make compelling bids for difference-making restricted free agents (Malcolm Brogdon, D'Angelo Russell).
Winning the Zion Williamson sweepstakes would simultaneously change everything and nothing. The Bulls would be hard-pressed to play him, Carter and Markkanen at the same time, but his arrival would beef up their best trade offer by virtue of rendering one or both of the other two expendable.
The Cavaliers are a wild card when it comes to direction. They have the profile of a gradual rebuild, but Collin Sexton's offensive progression—he shot 41.5 percent from deep on 5.7 attempts per game and noticeably advanced his playmaking from Feb. 1 on—and a healthy Kevin Love might tempt a team that has routinely shown disdain for process.
Failing the addition of Lord Zion, it makes more sense to assume the Cavaliers will stay the course. Perhaps they won't look at moving Love until the 2020 trade deadline, but a nucleus built around him, Sexton, Cedi Osman and a non-Zion draft pick wouldn't sniff the playoff spectrum.
Improving beyond that core is out of the question. Cleveland doesn't have highly coveted assets aside from expiring contracts or a path to cap space. It may take some maneuvering just for the Cavaliers to avoid the luxury tax.
Overhauling the front office and firing head coach J.B. Bickerstaff is nothing if not proof the Grizzlies are ready, at long last, to start from scratch. Then again, it won't take much for them to overturn this logic.
If they keep this year's first-round pick, the Grizzlies would pair another top-eight prospect with Jaren Jackson Jr., Kyle Anderson, Dillon Brooks (non-guaranteed), Bruno Caboclo (non-guaranteed), Mike Conley and a veteran supporting cast that could include Avery Bradley ($2 million partial guarantee), CJ Miles (picked up player option) and Jonas Valanciunas (player option). The next regime could talk itself into making a playoff push with that group.
Conley has already thrown a wrench in that potential, albeit unlikely, plan. As he told The Athletic's Peter Edmiston:
"I honestly think my ultimate goal of winning a championship, I don't know if it's going to happen in my next two years here. That has nothing to do with the talent we do have, because I think we have a hell of a squad if everybody's healthy. We can make some noise. But that puts me in the same situation I've been in for the past 10 years, just making noise. Do I want to continue to be making noise? I'm 31, I'm kind of past trying to make noise every year."
Not-so-hot prediction: The Grizzlies will trade Conley over the offseason—pay attention, Detroit and Utah!—and punt on feigned postseason contention for at least a year.
New Orleans Pelicans
Newly installed executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin is a great hire by the Pelicans. He will give the franchise direction in the aftermath of the inevitable Anthony Davis trade.
That Davis' departure is inevitable, though, says it all. New Orleans isn't rejoining the ranks of the Western Conference's playoff hopefuls without working miracles.
Think: The Pelicans win the lottery, and Davis, smitten by the opportunity to play with Williamson instead of an AARP-card-carrying LeBron James, has a change of heart he conveys via a custom T-shirt that reads, "Just kidding, folks!"
Sheesh, was this difficult.
On the one hand, the Suns have a nice stable of youngsters with Deandre Ayton, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, restricted free agent Kelly Oubre Jr. and TJ Warren (still just 25). They'll be joined by yet another top prospect, and Phoenix has a couple of swing projects in Richaun Holmes (unrestricted), Josh Jackson, De'Anthony Melton and Elie Okobo.
On the other hand, the West is brutal, and the Suns finished the regular season tied for the league's second-worst record. No non-superstar is bridging that gap, and Phoenix won't have access to that kind of money without renouncing Oubre and dumping other salary. Ayton needs to become a top-25 player as a sophomore to fill the co-star void from within.
Working the trade market is a viable option. This year's pick plus any combination of future selections and anyone other than Ayton and Booker makes for an interesting package. And yet, is this Suns team playoff-bound with, say, Conley, Bradley Beal or Jrue Holiday added to the roster?
Maybe. But probably not.
Might Be Set Already
Who They Are: Teams that don't necessarily need an additional player to crack the postseason discussion. They might have the means to make a substantial upgrade and can strengthen their case by doing anything at all, but they needn't get too creative.
The Kings will ideally make a splashy addition to this year's 39-win upstart. What they lack in draft equity they make up for with cap space. By renouncing Willie Cauley-Stein (restricted) and waiving non-guaranteed deals for Yogi Ferrell and Frank Mason III, they can drum up nearly $40 million in spending power even if Harrison Barnes exercises his $25.1 million player option.
Blowing past the max-money threshold is fait accompli. Parting with Cauley-Stein is all it takes, and the combination of Marvin Bagley III, Nemanja Bejlica and Harry Giles makes him inessential. The Kings will have an embarrassment of flexibility if Barnes decides to pursue a longer-term agreement on the open market.
Not all signs point to Sacramento being ultra-aggressive in free agency, though. Vice president of basketball operations Vlade Divac ransacked the front office and coaching staff after the Kings obliterated expectations. Maximizing his control was the priority, but this brand of turnover—if executed properly—doesn't follow success without a certain commitment to the bigger picture.
Whatever the Kings decide can only improve their postseason stock. Landing another impact player would further accelerate an already fast-moving trajectory, but they currently have the incumbent talent to crash the bottom of the playoff field.
De'Aaron Fox has his star designation on lock. Buddy Hield played his way into the Most Improved Player conversation. Bagley is a breakout candidate after an encouraging rookie campaign. Giles is more of an unknown, but his bounce and playmaking leave him in a similar boat. Do not underestimate Bogdan Bogdanovic.
All told, the Kings may enter next season with a top-30 player and up to five supporting-cast members, including Barnes, who comfortably rank within the league's top 100. And that's without doing a damn thing. To say they need one more player, while not entirely inaccurate, understates their status quo.
Miami's core competed for a playoff spot this year. Losing Dwyane Wade to retirement and Rodney McGruder to luxury-tax concerns doesn't jeopardize that fringe standing. McGruder was out of the rotation when the Heat waived him, and a 37-year-old Wade is not functionally irreplaceable.
Goran Dragic warps the outlook if he declines his player option. Miami has its sights set on dual-max spots in 2020 and won't get there by doling out multiyear pacts this summer.
Cost-cutting trades may also come into play. The Heat project to be a taxpayer even if they waive Ryan Anderson ($15.6 million partial guarantee) and will need to trim money from the following season's bottom line if they're serious about signing two stars next summer. (Aside: The 2020 offseason is not the time to chase a free-agency coup.)
But the Heat benefit from a lack of indispensable names. Josh Richardson and maaaybe Justise Winslow are the only players whose departures would torpedo their immediate orbit, and team president Pat Riley won't use either of them to facilitate a salary dump.
Standing relatively pat doesn't make the Heat a postseason shoo-in. But they'll come pretty damn close by doing nothing at all or by wooing the right veteran on a bargain contract.
The Cap-Space Players
Who They Are: Squads that aren't getting back into the playoff picture without winning free agency. They either don't have the supporting cast to prop up incumbent star power or, without landing Zion Williamson, lack the trade assets necessary to go out and deal for the requisite extra oomph.
Luka Doncic and a healthy Kristaps Porzingis (restricted) are a nice start for the Mavericks, and their supporting cast is hardly barren.
Courtney Lee feels like a good fit for head coach Rick Carlisle, Tim Hardaway Jr. has value if he's moved into a fourth-option, sixth-man-type role, and Dwight Powell shot 39.2 percent from deep for more than half the season. Dallas will have the option to retain restricted free agents Dorian Finney-Smith and Maxi Kleber, and everyone would do well to keep an eye on Jaylen Brunson. I still stan for Justin Jackson.
The West is the West is the West. A 20-year-old Doncic, however transcendent, and a rusty Porzingis aren't spearheading a playoff team without another co-headliner. Any rookie aside from Zion wouldn't do the trick, and Dallas won't even have a first-round pick if it lands outside the top five.
Fortunately for the Mavericks, they have cap space. Carrying Porzingis' free-agent hold gives them more than $28 million in room if the Atlanta Hawks get their first-rounder. They can open up a max slot for a star in the Jimmy Butler/Kyrie Irving/Klay Thompson tier by renouncing Finney-Smith and Kleber and flipping Jackson, or by offloading one of their larger salaries.
Kemba Walker is expected to be the Mavs' top target, according to the Charlotte Observer's Rick Bonnell. He's at the tail end of the superstar pecking order, but he's enough on his own to ignite legitimate playoff talk in Dallas.
New York Knicks
The Knicks barely made this cut. Yes, they have access to a pair of max spots. We get it. But we're trafficking solely in single-player additions. It will take a megastar to thrust them into the playoff conversation.
And what's more, the Knicks can only get that player in free agency. Their best trade package wouldn't touch competing offers for potentially available superstars unless they win the draft lottery and take Zion Williamson.
Free agency alone is the Knicks' lifeline. And only one, maybe two, prospective targets would put them on the playoff track: Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard. Anyone else—be it Butler, Irving or Walker—would need another alpha.
Luckily for the Knicks, most people in the know think Durant is headed to the Big Apple, as noted ad nauseam. Hooray and stuff, but the possibility remains he (or Leonard) wouldn't be enough. LeBron James missed the playoffs with a more impressive supporting cast than the Knicks currently have in tow. Even with Durant, their return to the postseason would rest on competent players following his lead.
That makes New York something of an exception—but not really. Counting on others to join a top-five player in one of the NBA's glamour markets is not an unreasonable assumption. Get Durant, and the Knicks are back in business.
1 Blockbuster Trade Away
Who They Are: Maybe these teams can re-enter the playoff picture without doing anything, but, well, probably not. And without cap space to spare, they must look to the trade market for their much-needed addition.
Kemba Walker needs to re-sign with the Hornets for them to stay in this tier. His return is no sure thing.
"I have no feeling right now, I don't know," Walker told reporters of his impending free agency at the end of the regular season. "Honestly, I don't know what to expect. I guess it's a lot of different emotions bottled up into one. I'm not sure. I don't know."
Charlotte can get in Walker's good graces by offering him the full boat. He's eligible for a five-year deal worth $189.7 million unless he makes an All-NBA team, in which case he can get five years and $221.3 million.
Keeping Walker is only part of the battle. The Hornets have work to do after that and no cap space at their disposal. Maxing out Walker puts them up against the tax even if they don't re-sign Jeremy Lamb, who they also need.
Striking a blockbuster trade won't be easy. Charlotte is light on flashy assets. Miles Bridges, a first-rounder or two and salary fillers have sway, but mortgaging that much of the future is a killer. Bridges is going to be really good.
Finding a seller looking for long-term cap relief is the Hornets' dream scenario. They'll have three expiring contracts to use as salary anchors if Michael Kidd-Gilchrist joins Marvin Williams and Bismack Biyombo in exercising his player option.
Pairing some combination of them with this year's pick and future selections might get Charlotte into discussions that revolve around Mike Conley or Jrue Holiday.
Putting Minnesota here is insulting if you still believe in Andrew Wiggins.
Pretty much no one should be insulted.
Karl-Anthony Towns is an offensive system unto himself, and the Timberwolves are not without help around him. Robert Covington is an All-NBA defender when healthy. Dario Saric recaptured his offensive form over the final 30 games. Josh Okogie is officially a verb.
Keita Bates-Diop has the defensive tools to scrap his way into rotation minutes next season and flashed some nifty finishing around the rim to close the year. Jeff Teague is just fine, which is just fine. Tyus Jones (restricted) and Derrick Rose can help if they stick around.
Minnesota, in other words, has the makings of a promising outfit. Covington's knee injury limited the sample size of the main core, but the Timberwolves outscored opponents by 15.8 points per 100 possessions when he played with Teague, Towns and Saric but without Taj Gibson.
Something's here. It isn't quite enough to enter a Western Conference playoff race that doesn't feature any given goners from this year's melee. The Timberwolves need a concrete No. 2. They don't have him. Nor can they afford to sign him. The Jimmy Butler trade assures them access to the non-taxpayer's mid-level exception ($9.2 million), but that's not netting them a second in command.
Scouring the trade market might not, either. Towns is off-limits, and giving up Covington diminishes the appeal of consolidating assets into a superstar. Much like the Hornets, the Timberwolves have to hope expiring contracts (Teague) and picks get the job done.
This presumes they're looking to expedite their rebuild. They might not be. They're straddling a weird line as currently constructed—not good enough to aim for the playoffs, but not bad enough to place themselves among the league's biggest projects. Their offseason needs to be about leaning one way or the other, and that decision isn't a no-brainer.
Less Than a Star Trade or Signing Away
Who They Are: These teams may hit the postseason radar without doing anything. But in all likelihood, they'll need a little extra push from the free-agent or trade market. That nudge just doesn't need to include a superstar arrival—even though it might anyway.
If this is too ambitious a placement for the Hawks, they're not being oversold by much.
Trae Young played himself into Rookie of the Year Not Named Luka honors. John Collins developed into one of the league's most effective offensive big men. Kevin Huerter did more than shoot; he made plays off the dribble. DeAndre' Bembry terrified opposing offenses. Taurean Prince lost his 2017-18 luster and may never live up to his defensive billing, but he's still a reliable shooting wing who can initiate some half-court actions.
Following the All-Star break, the Hawks ranked 12th in offensive efficiency while notching a better net rating than the Hornets, Wizards and Indiana Pacers. They outscored opponents by 7.1 points per 100 possessions whenever Collins, Huerter, Prince and Young played together.
Adding one top pick to Atlanta's foundation means something in the East, and the Hawks could get two if the Mavericks convey their pick. They don't need a star acquisition to earn postseason mettle.
In the event they do, they have the means. The Hawks will have max cap space and then some while carrying Dewayne Dedmon's free-agent hold, and they plan to use it, per The Athletic's Sam Amick. Atlanta isn't a market known for poaching marquee names, but the talent already in place should convince some of this summer's top prizes to take a meeting.
Los Angeles Lakers
Feel free to disagree. The Lakers themselves sort of do. They're superstar-obsessed. But that obsession doesn't amount to a need.
LeBron James can ferry a team to the playoffs. He can't do so while missing one-third of the schedule and navigating a slew of injuries to his teammates, but he doesn't need a star-stuffed supporting cast to crack the postseason.
Remember: The Lakers owned a top-nine point differential per 100 possessions and the West's fourth-best record at the time of LeBron's Christmas Day groin injury. Gradual improvement from the youngsters alone is enough to avoid a repeat of this season's fate.
Running it back, of course, isn't an option. James is entering his age-35 season. The Lakers have to do something. They have max cap space, and no one on their team—aside from the four-time MVP—will be untouchable in trade talks.
Still, few expect the Lakers to land one of this summer's superstar free agents, according to Bill Oram of The Athletic. Their best Anthony Davis trade package doesn't look any better than it did in February. They may end up having to settle for Plan J, K or L at this point.
That's not ideal. Nor is it the end of the world. A fully healthy James remains everything. He needs superstar reinforcements to chase a title, but playoff berths are feats he can still churn out on his own.