NBA Teams with the Biggest Breakthrough Potential This Offseason
Next year's NBA landscape is ripe for upheaval. This summer's top-heavy free-agent class touts superstar volume that can tip balances of power, and more than a few teams finished 2018-19 after woefully underachieving or, often by default, positioning themselves for monster leaps.
Plucking out the squads poised for the biggest turnarounds typically entails plumbing the depths of the Association's standings. Franchises that forfeited any shot at respectability for cap space are our bread and butter, as are teams so terribly terrible they have nowhere to go but way up.
That tradition lives on. Lottery squads populate this laundry list of renaissance hopefuls. But we've also added a twist: Playoff teams are eligible for inclusion.
This goes against the usual grain because above-.500 squads only have so much room for improvement. But the Eastern Conference's postseason ranks are unimpressive enough to contemplate possible leaps, and certain cap-flush teams in the West have a puncher's hope of making the transition from good to great.
Win increases are essentially all that matter. Non-playoff squads earn bids if they have a path to racking up at least 12 to 15 extra victories. Playoff teams get the nod if they have realistic access to another eight to 10 dubyas.
2018-19 Record: 19-63
Larry Nance Jr., Cedi Osman and Collin Sexton, plus a fully healthy Kevin Love and a top-six prospect, makes for a semi-interesting nucleus in the Eastern Conference. It still doesn't feel like a noise-maker.
Love's return from left foot surgery this past season did not harsh the Cavaliers' tank, and surrounding him with youngsters won't portend a monster turnaround even if one of them is Zion Williamson.
And then Cleveland has to reconcile the pesky matter of...everyone else. The rest of the supporting cast isn't winning anyone over with their talent, and the expiring contracts of Jordan Clarkson, JR Smith ($3.9 million partial guarantee) and Tristan Thompson will be on trade or buyout watch. Love could join the chopping block, too.
Improving upon their 19-win mark is absolutely on the table, particularly if the Cavaliers hire a young, next-gen head coach who instills offensive structure. But too much about their immediate outlook is in limbo to peg them for a sizable jump.
2018-19 Record: 33-49
A revamped front office. A new head coach (eventually). Mike Conley. Jaren Jackson Jr. Kyle Anderson. C.J. Miles. Potentially Avery Bradley (non-guaranteed), Jonas Valanciunas (player option) and Delon Wright (restricted). This year's first-round pick (if it falls inside the top eight).
Left untouched, the Grizzlies have the personnel to talk themselves into making another (failed) run at one of the Western Conference's final playoff spots. They will resist that annual tug-of-war. I think.
Overhauling the front office and coaching staff suggests they're committed to starting over. Even if they aren't, Conley is the glue holding their massive bounce-back together, and he doesn't sound like someone who wants to invest any more of his prime in their balancing act.
2018-19 Record: 39-43
Considering a 12-to-15-win spike from the Kings is tough when they don't have a first-round pick. They'll have max cap space—and then some—but it isn't yet clear whether they're a free-agent destination.
Fringe playoff contention is their gift and curse. The Kings' outlook is bright. They have a nice stable of young talent and a lean cap sheet. By hovering so close to .500 in the West, though, they've made it much harder to finagle another single-season explosion.
2018-19 Record: 32-50
Bradley Beal's future has little to do with the Wizards' exclusion. He played himself into All-NBA candidacy this year. Going on 26, he's young enough to weather whatever storm of graduality Washington is about to endure.
John Wall's availability is instead the determining factor. His recovery from a ruptured Achilles tendon should end up costing him more than half of next season. The Wizards may elevate their floor without him, but their ceiling isn't nearly as high.
Reinforcements aren't on the way. Washington has a ton of key players entering free agency. Trevor Ariza, Thomas Bryant (restricted), Jeff Green, Bobby Portis (restricted) and Tomas Satoransky (restricted) are all set to hit the open market. The Wizards will have to pony up just to preserve the skeleton of a 32-win core.
That doesn't spell good times.
2018-19 Record: 29-53
Some gutsy victories from the Hawks over the latter half of the season fast-tracked development for a few youngsters and, by extension, their timeline.
Trae Young is already an offensive standout. His pull-up jumper will stabilize in time. That he showed a penchant for getting to the rim and the foul line while mixing in a few floaters and entrenching himself as one of the game's best passers is more important. He provides them with a clear All-Star prospect.
John Collins gives them another. His defensive awareness is a problem if Atlanta wants him to play the 5, but he fits both the power forward and center bills on offense. Kevin Huerter is a hidden two-way gem, and Taurean Prince can still hit threes. The Hawks outscored opponents by 7.1 points per 100 possessions after the All-Star break with all four of their primary younglings on the floor.
Adding another top prospect to the fold will be massive, and Atlanta might get two. The Dallas Mavericks will convey their pick if it falls outside the top five, which gives the Hawks a crack at the projected No. 9 selection in addition to wherever their own first-rounder lands.
This says nothing of their cap flexibility. The Hawks can theoretically win the draft lottery, get Dallas' pick at No. 9, carry Dewayne Dedmon's free-agent hold and still dredge up nearly $29 million in spending power. Carving out max money in that scenario is a matter of one tiny salary dump (Alex Len!) or a multiyear contract for Dedmon with a smaller annual value.
Atlanta is not a premier free-agent destination, but the Hawks plan to be aggressive, according to The Athletic's Sam Amick. Getting to pitch even one of the marquee names will put them on the map with second- and third-tier options. And if we're being brutally honest, the Eastern Conference doesn't demand Atlanta procure more than a mid-level veteran wing to enter the postseason discussion.
2018-19 Record: 22-60
Acquiring a point guard is mission critical if the Bulls are going to make a demonstrative leap. Kris Dunn should not be captaining an offense, and Ryan Arcidiacono (restricted), Shaquille Harrison (non-guaranteed) and Walt Lemon Jr. (non-guaranteed) are all best served as second- and third-string options. The Zach LaVine-as-primary-playmaker arrangements need to go.
Chicago will have the opportunity to upgrade its cast of floor generals. Winning the draft lottery is the goal for every participating team. It is the difference between having Zion Williamson and not having Zion Williamson. But the Bulls could end up with Ja Morant or Darius Garland even if fate isn't on their side.
Failing that good fortune, they will have cap space. Taking on Otto Porter Jr.'s $27.3 million salary impedes their access to max room, but they'll have more than $15 million to burn if they renounce all their own free agents. That number climbs in the event they don't have to pay the No. 1 pick.
Give the Bulls a replacement-level point guard, and they become something resembling an Eastern Conference irritant. A frontline of Porter, Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. intrigues, and LaVine remains a capable scorer both on and off the ball.
And don't forget about Denzel Valentine. His return from a left ankle injury boosts the Bulls' spacing. He will be a boon for their bench. Pair his return with one adequate free agent and a top prospect, and Chicago is in business.
New York Knicks
2018-19 Record: 17-65
For most teams working off a 17-win disasterpiece, there would be an element of "Things can only get better from here!" caked into the equation. The Knicks do not have that going for them.
Their offseason is very much an all-or-nothing value proposition. They have a line to two max slots, but existing infrastructure was the opportunity cost of that wiggle room.
Whiff on the superstar front, and the Knicks are left with Damyean Dotson (non-guaranteed), Kevin Knox, Frank Ntilikina, Mitchell Robinson, Dennis Smith Jr., Allonzo Trier (team option) and whoever they take with their first-round pick. Zion himself isn't leading that crew to more than 23 to 25 wins.
Luckily for the Knicks, they are, perhaps inexplicably, considered near-locks to land not one but two superstars—most likely Kevin Durant (player option) and Kyrie Irving (player option). As The Athletic's Frank Isola wrote: "So sure are some executives and player agents of a Durant-Irving pairing in New York, that one agent told The Athletic that Durant and Irving are debating on who will sign first."
Bagging one or both of them instantly ushers the Knicks to the forefront of the Anthony Davis sweepstakes—provided their draft position doesn't bomb during the lottery. Even if they don't have the asset juice to also get him, netting a single top-10 talent equips them to crash the Eastern Conference playoff discussion.
2018-19 Record: 33-49
Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis (restricted) are either instantly enough for the Mavericks to blow past the .500 mark or in need of another year before they spearhead a cosmic leap. A lot depends on the 7'3" Latvian.
Dallas is reportedly prepared to max out Porzingis, according to ESPN.com's Tim MacMahon, but he's working his way back from a torn left ACL. His return to form might take time. He's a top-25 talent at full strength, but he's hardly a billboard for durability, and any rusty grace period he incurs will be a setback for the entire team.
The Mavericks can shield themselves against his recovery process, however long it lasts, with a big splash in free agency. They don't project to have max cap space, but they'll come pretty darn close if their draft pick conveys to the Hawks (top-five protection).
Waiving Ryan Broekhoff's non-guaranteed salary, renouncing Dorian Finney-Smith (restricted) and unloading Justin Jackson makes up the difference. Parting ways with Dwight Powell if he declines his player option creates more than enough room, but it seems like he'll be sticking around.
Flipping one of their larger salaries is also worth considering. The Mavericks probably don't have the asset equity to pawn off the two years and $37.1 million remaining on Tim Hardaway Jr.'s contract, but Courtney Lee's expiring pact is more than dumpable.
Sending him and a second-rounder or two to Cleveland in exchange for JR Smith's partial guarantee ($3.9 million) saves them nearly $8.9 million. The Cavaliers must reckon with their close proximity to the luxury tax, but they have a score of vets they can try to move or buy out. They'll find ways to save elsewhere.
Sources told the New York Times' Marc Stein the Mavericks "intend to fling themselves into the chase for Khris Middleton (player option) and/or Kemba Walker with gusto in hopes that they have a shot at one of them."
Either is a perfect fit, but Walker will be far more gettable after he missed the playoffs for the sixth time in his eight-year career. Pairing him—or another star—with Doncic and Porzingis would accelerate Dallas' window, most likely to the tune of 15 or more additional victories.
Los Angeles Lakers
2018-19 Record: 37-45
Max cap space is part of the Lakers' turnaround appeal. Poaching Walker, Jimmy Butler (player option), Kyrie Irving or Kawhi Leonard (player option) arms them with the star power necessary to creep above the 50-win mark.
Anthony Davis looms large here, too. Not many expect the New Orleans Pelicans to break bread with Los Angeles' best package. But if they do, the Lakers will have two top-seven players and potentially a third top-10 guy, depending on how free agency shakes out.
All the could-bes and might-bes are secondary to LeBron James. He doesn't need another megastar to pilot a winning-percentage surge. He is still one of the game's three best players when fully healthy, and even that may undersell his place in the NBA's individual pecking order.
James is entering his age-35 season and coming off the most serious injury of his career. That matters. But he just missed the playoffs for the first time since 2005 as his team devolved into a retweet-friendly punchline. That matters, too. He will want vindication, and that's patently terrifying, even if only for a season.
Linking him up with another star or two has to be the goal. But progress and, for a change, good health from the youngsters would also do the trick. And that's just as well, because few around the league believe the Lakers will successfully woo one of this summer's biggest names, according to Bill Oram of The Athletic.
Los Angeles 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. A more complementary supporting cast—i.e. better shooters—is all that stands between the Lakers and a chance to re-ignite 50-something-win expectations.
2018-19 Record: 19-63
Trusting the Suns to improve by leaps and bounds is a good way to invite disappointment. They don't yet have a head coach, and their roster wants for experience and direction. Their best player, Devin Booker, is not quite top-25 material.
But the "It can't get any worse!" rallying cry works for the Suns. They can luck their way into 15 extra victories.
Booker is still really good. Deandre Ayton is almost an offensive dream up front, and his pick-and-roll defense showed signs of life as 2018-19 soldiered on. Mikal Bridges is going to be a quintessential low-usage three-and-D wing.
TJ Warren shoots threes now. Kelly Oubre Jr. (restricted) is a two-way asset at the right price. Josh Jackson has another quarter season's worth of top-five-pick cachet before his stock flatlines.
Phoenix will add another top prospect to this group. It could be Zion Williamson or Ja Morant. Both are ideal. If they don't get either, they'll still be in RJ Barrett, Jarrett Culver, Darius Garland, De'Andre Hunter or Cam Reddish territory. None of them moves the 2019-20 needle quite like Williamson or Morant—shoutout to my fellow Culver and Reddish stans—but they're all fit for regular-rotation minutes.
Banking on in-house steps forward is always a little unsettling. The Suns won't have meaningful cap space without renouncing Oubre or pawning off other salaries. They'll make do. The silver lining of their recent incompetence is that they've stockpiled upside. They'll default to a massive jump if enough of their non-Booker prospects pan out.
2018-19 Record: 42-40
Few had the Nets making the playoffs. Even the most optimistic supporters couldn't have expected them to finish above .500 after they started 8-18 and lost LeVert for basically half the year with a dislocated right foot. They closed the season on a 34-22 tear, during which they fielded a top-10 defense and notched a better net rating than the plucky, never-say-die Los Angeles Clippers.
Brooklyn is sitting pretty before projecting any wholesale moves. D'Angelo Russell's shaky performance against the Philadelphia 76ers in his playoff debut changes nothing about his regular season. He joined Stephen Curry and James Harden as the only players in league history to clear 25 points, eight assists and three made triples per 36 minutes. He's an offensive star.
LeVert was the Nets' go-to player before his right foot injury, and he recaptured that form by year's end. Over his final 13 games—the end of the regular season (eight games) and the playoffs (five)—he averaged 17.9 points and 3.8 assists while shooting 45.6 percent from deep and nearly 44 percent on pull-up threes.
Spencer Dinwiddie's efficiency plunged once he returned from his right thumb injury, but he's a Sixth Man of the Year candidate waiting to happen. Jarrett Allen still gets overpowered by certain bigs, but he's more than just a rim protector on defense. Rodion Kurucs is a player. It would behoove you to learn how to pronounce Dzanan Musa's name.
The Nets have two first-rounders and the Knicks' second-rounder (No. 31) on top of all that. General manager Sean Marks has a knack for finding value on the margins. At least one of those selections may turn into a player who has an immediate impact.
Oh, and Brooklyn will have cap space—plenty of it. Carrying Russell's free-agent hold ($21.1 million) prevents the Nets from cakewalking into max room, but they'll come close ($30-plus million) if they renounce and waive all other non-guaranteed deals.
Superstar money is just a small salary dump away. Or the Nets can try attaching a sweetener to Allen Crabbe's expiring deal. Moving him without taking back any money gives them more than max room. Go that route, and Brooklyn can also dredge up two superstar slots if it renounces Russell.
That latter scenario is incredibly drastic and beyond unlikely. It is not out of the question. Sources told SNY's Anthony Puccio that A-list free agents such as Kevin Durant, Tobias Harris and Kawhi Leonard will give Brooklyn consideration. The Nets can accommodate one or two of them if they're serious about boarding the bandwagon.
Either way, Brooklyn is positioned for exponential growth in a wide-open Eastern Conference.
Los Angeles Clippers
2018-19 Record: 48-34
Merely entertaining noticeable upswings for West playoff teams is risky business. Going from 48 wins to the mid- and upper 50s is the hardest jump to complete, and playing amid a contender-crammed conference only complicates the transition.
The Clippers are a good bet to figure it out. They'll have more than $55 million in cap room if they renounce all their own free agents, and sussing out suitors for Danilo Gallinari's expiring contract gives them a path to dual maxes.
And yet, they don't need to go nuclear.
They are punchy and deep as currently constructed. The six-game fight they put up against the Golden State Warriors was not a fluke, but rather a measurement of their depth and direction.
Putting one star on this roster would go a long way. The Clippers can afford Kawhi Leonard—who "kind of wants to be on the West Coast," according to ESPN's Brian Windhorst—and look to bring back Patrick Beverley, JaMychal Green, Garrett Temple and Ivica Zubac (restricted). That core would be a problem for everyone else in the West, especially if Shai Gilgeous-Alexander stays the course on offense.
Strike out in free agency, and the Clippers will have a tougher time significantly drumming up their win total. Fleshing out the roster with odds and ends might be enough to get them into mid-50s country, but it'll take a superstar arrival to catapult them toward home-court advantage.
San Antonio Spurs
2018-19 Record: 48-34
Counting on the Spurs to rejoin the West's super-elite ranks has all sorts of long-shot vibes. They won't have more than the non-taxpayer's mid-level exception to upgrade the roster, and so much of their offensive livelihood is tethered to an aging LaMarcus Aldridge continuing to knock down difficult shots in droves.
Still, the pieces necessary for a mega-ascension may already be in place.
Head coach Gregg Popovich is expected to sign a three-year extension, per ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski. He has shown time and again, including this season, that his teams strive to overachieve. And he's going to have more to work with next year.
Dejounte Murray will be back from a torn right ACL. Derrick White will be working off a breakout season. DeMar DeRozan won't be a stranger to San Antonio's system. Lonnie Walker IV could turn into something. And most importantly, the Spurs have two first-rounders in this year's draft. Both will come in the bottom 12, but they are wizards at finding value with late picks.
If they can turn their MLE into a three-and-D wing—someone from the Reggie Bullock/DeMarre Carroll/Wesley Matthews tier—the Spurs should be considered sleeper candidates for a top-three playoff seed. Seriously.