Every Non-NBA Playoff Team's Key Offseason Decision
While fans may prefer to treat the NBA offseason as a time for unbridled optimism, it's more closely connected with buckle-your-seatbelt uncertainty.
The 2019 iteration has question marks of all types.
Draft stocks will rise and fall. Coaching and front-office vacancies may soon determine an organization's direction. Top-level free agents and trade candidates could reshape the entire basketball landscape.
In other words, it's business as usual for the sport that never sleeps.
The 14 non-playoff participants are already well into their offseasons, so we're here to examine the biggest issues on their plates.
Atlanta Hawks: The Lottery Pick(s)
The Atlanta Hawks entered 2018-19 with arguably the Association's longest rebuilding timeline, and they exited it feeling "so bullish on the development of [Trae] Young, fellow rookie Kevin Huerter and second-year big man John Collins that they want to explore even the biggest and boldest of offseason plans," Sam Amick of The Athletic reported.
Atlanta's future appears to be in tremendous shape thanks to Young's second-half surge, Collins' near-All-Star leap and Huerter's seldom-seen combination of three-point volume and efficiency. Adding a top-level talent would accelerate this project and should be explored from all angles.
But given where this group is at—Collins, 21, is the oldest of the three—it's a stretch to imagine NBA elites flocking to Atlanta. That means the most critical part of the rebuild still occurs on draft night, during which Atlanta could hold a pair of top-10 picks (the Dallas Mavericks' first-rounder has top-five protection). While the May 14 lottery will set the official order, Tankathon has the Hawks slated fifth and ninth for now.
Young, by the way, was last summer's No. 5 pick, and he's already changed this franchise's fortunes. Collins (No. 19 in 2017) and Huerter (No. 19 in 2018) weren't even lottery picks. Given how much value this front office has found in recent drafts, the Hawks could take another massive step forward on selection night.
Assuming they stay near their current selection spots, they could scratch itches for another two-way wing with Jarrett Culver, De'Andre Hunter or Cam Reddish and an interior anchor with Jaxson Hayes, Brandon Clarke or Bol Bol. If they somehow strike lottery gold, the addition of Zion Williamson would unquestionably give Atlanta the NBA's most exciting rebuild.
Charlotte Hornets: Kemba Walker's Free Agency
Kemba Walker isn't the most talented player in the 2019 free-agent class, but his decision will likely have the biggest impact on his current club.
For starters, he is the Charlotte Hornets. He's their career leader in myriad categories, their lone All-Star representative in the last nine seasons and the only reason to believe this overpriced roster is capable of making an occasional playoff appearance. Remove him from the equation, and Charlotte's most recognizable face might be whichever prospect it adds with its upcoming first-round pick.
That captures the colossal consequences of a Walker departure. The Hornets would then be staring at several years of cost-cutting maneuvers and fingers-crossed lottery selections. This would be an agonizing brick-by-brick reconstruction for an organization owned by one of the most competitive people this league has ever seen.
If Walker stays, he's likely getting paid through the roof, which squeezes an already tight Hornets' budget. He's worth major money, but that doesn't ease the burden of trying to an assemble a playoff-caliber roster while pinching pennies out of necessity.
Both paths are challenging, both steer the short- and long-term future of the franchise and both are entirely dependent on Walker's decision.
Chicago Bulls: Finding a Point Guard
The Chicago Bulls have four-fifths of an opening group that intrigues now and potentially makes annual playoff trips sooner than later. With Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen sharing the scoring load, Wendell Carter Jr. anchoring the interior and Otto Porter Jr. filling in the cracks, these young Bulls are almost ready to run.
But the point guard situation is untenable. Kris Dunn backtracked in his third NBA season, and the stopgaps behind him—Ryan Arcidiacono, Shaquille Harrison and Walt Lemon Jr.—are probably nothing more than that.
"We have to get better at that position," Bulls vice president of basketball operations John Paxson told reporters. "... We understand as an organization that's a position that if we're going to make a step in the right direction, that we're going to have to address. No beating around the bush on that one."
The ideal summer scenario would be moving into position to draft Ja Morant. But if the Murray State product is off the table, the Bulls could try a different option on draft night (Darius Garland, Coby White), explore the trade market (Jrue Holiday, Mike Conley), attack free agency (Kemba Walker, Derrick Rose, Ricky Rubio) or opt to leave the position in Dunn's hands.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Where To Send JR Smith's Contract
The Cleveland Cavaliers are in the asset-collecting, dart-throwing portion of their post-LeBron James rebuilding program. Offloading the cap-friendly contract attached to JR Smith at the right time and to the right suitor is their best chance of increasing draft capital, which makes the upcoming move even more important than the club's coaching search.
As Cleveland.com's Chris Fedor explained, Smith's contract is uniquely capable of allowing win-now hopefuls to offload bad money in a hurry, which should help the Cavs snag quite the sweetener:
"Smith's deal was signed in 2016, under the old Collective Bargaining Agreement. That was before the CBA changed the rules regarding how partially guaranteed contracts are handled in trades, especially when it comes to salary-matching purposes. Even though the CBA has changed, Smith's contract was grandfathered in, which allows the Cavs to take back a high-priced salary (more than $15 million) while the other team is only on the hook for $3.8 million. Other deals signed after 2016 would only work for the guaranteed amount on the contract when it comes to matching salaries—not nearly as appealing in trades."
Fedor later examined several potential return packages for Smith. Most involved draft considerations, but several mentioned prospects (Rodions Kurucs, Malik Monk, Terrance Ferguson). One was even built around Gordon Hayward.
In other words, expect Cleveland to get at least one interesting piece in return whenever a Smith swap goes down.
Dallas Mavericks: Adding an Elite
Luka Doncic boasts generational talent. He's only the second rookie to average 20.0 points, 6.0 rebounds and 6.0 assists. Kristaps Porzingis has generational gifts. If he isn't rare enough as a 7'3" shot-blocker and shot-maker, he's also the only player to average 20.0 points, 2.0 blocks and 1.5 triples.
The Dallas Mavericks plan to use both as post-Dirk Nowitzki cornerstones, but they're dreaming bigger than a pair of building blocks now that they have access to roughly $30 million in cap space.
"It's going to be a very interesting and opportunistic summer," Mavs president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson said, per Brad Townsend of the Dallas Morning News. "We certainly are positioned to make some noise. ... We're ridin' the Luka wave and the Kristaps wave and trying to surround these guys with the right young core."
Depending on its success this summer, Dallas could be competing for a playoff spot, home-court advantage in the opening round or lottery odds by the end of 2019-20. In short, this is a monumental offseason for the Mavericks.
Rather than pursue all top-tier targets, Dallas might consider zeroing in on the next-best options. Think Kemba Walker, Nikola Vucevic, Tobias Harris or Khris Middleton. Team one of those four with Doncic and Porzingis, and the Mavs might be playoff locks. Miss out on that tier, though, and they're probably better off grabbing placeholders to carry space over to the 2020 offseason.
Los Angeles Lakers: Who's Running the Show?
Last summer, the Los Angeles Lakers reeled in the biggest fish possible by inking LeBron James to a four-year deal. Now, they're scrambling to construct a contender around him before Father Time catches the 34-year-old.
Prior to making any roster moves, though, they must figure out who's running the show now that Magic Johnson has stepped away. One report says Johnson won't be replaced. Another says he already has. Conspiracy theorists will say it's all for show since LeBron is really pulling the strings.
The static is fine—simply a byproduct of being the mighty Purple and Gold. But the need for clarity and unification should be obvious since the scrutiny of this squad is seldom matched across all of professional sports.
L.A.'s offseason checklist is extensive. The club needs a new head coach, owns a lottery pick, hopes to add a second star in free agency and will surely pursue an Anthony Davis trade again. But none of those items can be addressed until the Lakers decide which direction their front office will take.
Memphis Grizzlies: Mike Conley's Future
The Memphis Grizzlies haven't completely shifted out of the grit-and-grind era, but they're as close as ever. Marc Gasol is gone. The front office has been restructured again. Mike Conley is still around, but the 31-year-old is no longer the most important player on the roster; that distinction goes to 19-year-old Jaren Jackson Jr.
That all leads us to wonder how much longer Conley has left on Beale Street, especially when even he knows his timeline likely doesn't fit with a team that hasn't won a playoff series since 2015.
"I want to be an impact player on a championship team," Conley told The Athletic's Peter Edmiston. "That's what I dream of doing. ... I've told Marc plenty of times how jealous I am of him, how excited I am for him, I'd love to be competing where he is now, with the opportunity to play for a championship."
A change of scenery, then, is probably best for Conley. But the Grizzlies' only concern should be what's best for them. He should be marketable as a rock-solid, two-way contributor. Then again, he's also a 30-something making $30-something million who's missed at least a dozen games each of the past five seasons. Someone will want him, but that only matters if that someone is willing to meet Memphis' asking price.
Miami Heat: Now Who Leads?
Dwyane Wade has danced off into the sunset. Miami Heat team president Pat Riley has spoken of possible top-level reinforcements arriving in 2020. That leaves a clear leadership void for the 2019-20 squad, and it's tough to tell how the team will attack it.
Goran Dragic is the most accomplished player on the roster, but he's coming off an injury-riddled campaign that dragged his numbers lower than they'd been in years. Hassan Whiteside is paid the most, but he just logged his fewest minutes in five years with the Heat. Dion Waiters has been a cold-blooded closer before, but he let his conditioning get away from him.
Miami has some interesting young players, but none have flashed centerpiece potential. This was Justise Winslow's best season, and his 12.8 player efficiency rating didn't even match the league average. Josh Richardson's attempts to add volume have cost him efficiency. Bam Adebayo has yet to average 24 minutes. The jury remains out on whether Derrick Jones Jr. can be more than an aerial artist.
Even if 2019-20 is a transitional season, the Heat will have the payroll of a playoff team and, as usual, the desire to make the big dance. They have the talent to chase a low-level seed, but they need a leader to emerge and bring them together.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Top Front Office Executive
One year after the Minnesota Timberwolves ended their decade-plus playoff drought, they crash-landed back in the lottery during a tumultuous season. Jimmy Butler forced his way out, ex-head coach Tom Thibodeau was given his walking papers and the Wolves now enter the summer with major questions about how to maximize their competitiveness during Karl-Anthony Towns' peak.
Step one of that process involves finding a new head of their front office. That clearly wasn't Thibodeau's cup of tea, and his attempt to rush the rebuild has left the Wolves with a roster weighed down by big contracts and underwhelming upside.
Towns' presence, though, offers hope of eventually assembling a contender with him at its center. He might be the most offensively skilled big man in the Association, and he could potentially anchor a champion if he had the right help around him.
It's imperative, then, for Minnesota to ace this hire. The organization is casting a wide net, with everyone from Chauncey Billups (per The Athletic's Shams Charania) to Trajan Langdon (per ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski) discussing the position. Given the stakes, a patient, well-planned approach is more than warranted.
New Orleans Pelicans: Where To Send Anthony Davis
You have to hand it to David Griffin. The New Orleans Pelicans' new executive vice president of basketball operations isn't hurting for optimism.
Though we're approaching the three-month mark since Anthony Davis requested a trade away from New Orleans, Griffin isn't accepting that fate without a fight.
"I'm extremely optimistic relative to the opportunity that lies ahead of us in the form of Anthony Davis," he said, per NOLA.com's Andrew Lopez.
Unfortunately for Griffin, nothing other than his hopes are hinting the Davis situation can be resolved with anything but a blockbuster deal. But he should see major opportunity on that front, too. Davis is a 26-year-old with the third-highest career PER in NBA history. Griffin can and surely will seek out a fortune in return for the six-time All-Star.
However, he must also decide what type of trade package he's after. Are young prospects such as Jayson Tatum or Brandon Ingram still driving these discussions, does he want more established help around Jrue Holiday or might multiple lottery picks ultimately win over the Pelicans?
The answer to that question could shape the entire NBA offseason.
New York Knicks: What's Plan B?
Plan A for the New York Knicks is to dream as big as humanly possible. They have cap space and a major market to sell—a combination so potent it could lure multiple elites to the Empire State. Add an early lottery selection to the equation, and it's not outside the realm of possibilities that Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Anthony Davis are all rocking blue and orange together next season.
But what if this pipe dream proves nothing more than that? Maybe Durant isn't keen on leaving what might be a three-peating champion, or Irving isn't ready to relinquish his leadership post in Boston, or the lottery gods don't gift New York a draft pick early enough to acquire Davis via trade.
What happens next?
Even if the Knicks see this as their disaster scenario, they still need their emergency-response plan in place. Does it involve shifting to second-tier targets such as Kemba Walker, Jimmy Butler or Tobias Harris? Would they consider signing one elite now while hoping they can add another down the line? If one or none are incoming, do the 'Bockers acquire a slew of stopgaps who allow them to reenter the market next summer?
New York can't decide this on the fly. It should know both its primary focus and pivot points well before the market opens.
Phoenix Suns: Setting the Draft Board
The Phoenix Suns have lost 241 games over the last four seasons. If that number sounds tragically high, that's because it is. It's the NBA's worst mark by 22 games. In other words, the Suns have been, on average, 5.5 losses worse than the league's 29th-ranked team each of the last four years.
And yet, they might be ready to turn the corner. We think. This roster seems like it's bristling with young talent, but the point guard situation has been so abysmal that it's been impossible to see how all the pieces fit.
That's created a ton of intrigue surrounding the Suns' first-rounder, which should land either at or very near the top. If Phoenix snags the first overall selection, it might be the only team that doesn't consider Zion Williamson an automatic lock at No. 1.
"Sources around the NBA are buzzing that [Ja] Morant is actually the player the Suns prefer to end up with," The Athletic's Sam Vecenie reported.
The first question for Phoenix is whether it would actually take Morant over Williamson. Even with the Suns' dire need at lead guard, that feels like a stretch. The next question is what this club would do if both Williamson and Morant are off the board when it's time to make a pick. Would it reach for a need-filler like Darius Garland or Coby White, go the best-player-available route or trade out of the spot?
Sacramento Kings: How to Handle Harrison Barnes
Emboldened by a better-than-expected first half, the Sacramento Kings made a relatively major move by adding Harrison Barnes at the trade deadline. While the former top prospect arrived with a $25.1 million player option for next season, the Kings hoped for a longer commitment.
On the court, Barnes gives them a bigger body at the forward spot to help plug their worst defensive leak. While capable of creating his own shot in a pinch, he's best utilized off the ball, and he sizzled as a safety valve for De'Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield while posting a 45.5/40.8/80.0 shooting slash over 28 games in Sacramento.
Off the court, Barnes looks like the ideal veteran for this talented, young roster to follow.
"Barnes, 26, is 'not old, older' in a locker room with a lot of youngsters," The Athletic's Jason Jones wrote. "He's played on a championship team (Golden State, 2015) and for coaches who have won championships in college (Roy Williams) and in the NBA (Steve Kerr, Rick Carlisle)."
Barnes isn't a star, though, so that might make his perfect price difficult to determine—especially while asking him to walk away from a bloated $25.1 million salary. It makes sense for both sides to extend this relationship, but the economic aspect could get messy.
Washington Wizards: The Curious Case of Bradley Beal
Nestled between a rock and a hard place in our nation's capital are the Washington Wizards—a semi-interesting team in the not-so-distant past that suddenly seems like it might be trapped.
Their supermax commitment to John Wall already appears an overpay after his body betrayed him in consecutive seasons. The cupboards are almost empty thanks to several win-now attempts that didn't produce much winning. Scott Brooks has raised as many questions as answers in three years on the job as head coach. The dismissal of longtime executive Ernie Grunfeld was overdue, but it's only progress if the Wizards tab the right replacement.
Now, Washington is forced to decide the fate of Bradley Beal, who'd be a no-brainer keeper under almost any other circumstances.
He's a 25-year-old two-time All-Star with a (relatively) reasonably priced contract. But he's also arguably the only asset the Wizards have, meaning he probably must be moved in order to assemble a rebuilding kit if a reset is indeed necessary.
He might be up for a supermax extension, and that could decide his fate. An All-NBA selection would make him eligible, so if he earns one and Washington doesn't extend the offer or he declines to sign it, that almost certainly puts the wheels in motion for a move. But if the supermax is removed from the equation, the Wizards must decide whether he's more valuable as a building block or a trade chip.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.