NBA Teams That Can't Just Keep Running It Back
Twenty-nine NBA teams fall short of winning a championship every year, so the vast majority of the league always has to settle for less than total success.
For some, making the playoffs is enough. For others, a positive step forward in a rebuild is sufficient. But what no team wants is stagnation.
That doesn't mean teams that have stalled out at a certain level of performance need to detonate their rosters. Strategic tweaks to address specific weaknesses are often enough to get things unstuck.
In some situations, organizations have no choice but to keep things together. Take the Charlotte Hornets, for example. They could let Kemba Walker leave in free agency, but keeping him (and the rest of the overpriced core) is better than the alternative: a rebuild without a foundation in place.
The following three teams are stocked with significant talent, but they all need to acknowledge that continuing to run back the same core may prevent them from taking a step forward.
The Orlando Magic won 17 more games last year than they did in 2017-18, making the playoffs for the first time since 2011-12. That's hardly the mark of a team on the treadmill of mediocrity.
But Orlando now faces a difficult decision. Should it retain the key pieces behind that growth, effectively locking itself into a roster that needed a lot to go right just to narrowly breach the .500 mark? Or should it embrace a near-term step backward in pursuit of more sustainable future success?
Since we're discussing the Magic here, you should know which way we're leaning.
New head coach Steve Clifford revamped a defense that jumped from 20th to eighth with largely the same personnel. He may deserve most of the credit for Orlando's climb. But plenty also belongs to free-agent center Nikola Vucevic, who turned in a career season at age 28. The 7-footer received his first All-Star nod and finished the year with averages of 20.8 points, 12.0 rebounds and 3.8 assists.
So, you can understand why the Magic might want to bring him back on a massive new contract.
There are scenarios in which it'd make sense for Orlando to retain Vucevic. A two-year deal for max annual value would be reasonable, as it'd make trading him in 2020-21 as an expiring contract easier. Gotta preserve that flexibility, right?
Similarly, a four-year contract that topped out at $20 million per season wouldn't be so bad. Vooch would be movable at that number, and a deal like that wouldn't mark him as a cornerstone.
But it's hard to imagine Vucevic accepting either of those hypothetical offers after a year like the one he just posted, especially with several suitors likely to bid up his value.
Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac and Mo Bamba need room to develop, and while it's possible they could improve with Vucevic locked into big minutes at the 5, progress would be easier to come by without a $100 million man in the middle. Bamba is strictly a center, while Gordon and Isaac belong at the 4 (Isaac may ultimately be best used as a switch-everything, rim-protecting 5). Re-signing Vucevic would preserve the costly, potentially growth-stunting logjam in Orlando's frontcourt.
Orlando shouldn't assume Vucevic's 2018-19 performance is repeatable. A breakout like that at age 24 is one thing. At age 28, it feels more like an outlier. Regression feels likely.
More than anything else, the increasing fungibility of conventional centers suggests max expenditures at the position should be reserved only for the absolute standouts with youth on their side.
Karl-Anthony Towns? Joel Embiid? Nikola Jokic? Maxes. No questions asked.
Vucevic isn't in that class, and Orlando has depth at his position.
If the Magic are going to build something lasting, something with a ceiling greater than 42 wins, they need to think about spending their money on something other than a 28-year-old center who can't be expected to repeat last year's performance.
This isn't an argument for trading Blake Griffin or Andre Drummond. It'd be difficult for the Detroit Pistons to get fair value for either player in a trade, as Griffin is due nearly $110 million over the next three years, and Drummond's stretch-free, switch-free profile is out of favor around the league.
Instead, this is about Detroit finally addressing the weakness of its supporting cast. If you watched Milwaukee Bucks sweep the Pistons from the playoffs while Detroit posted a minus-29.6 net rating with Griffin off the floor, you understand the gravity of the problem.
Reggie Jackson is entering the last year of his deal, which should make him easier to move. Jon Leuer and Langston Galloway, dead money and comatose money, respectively, are also expiring after next season.
To make the most of Griffin's playmaking, the Pistons need high-volume, high-efficiency three-point shooting from their wings and guards. A little defense wouldn't hurt either.
Sure, everybody wants two-way wings who can stretch the floor. But few teams stand to benefit more by subbing in that kind of talent than the Pistons, who had good ideas (sixth-most three-point attempts) but bad execution (23rd in three-point percentage) in 2018-19.
Retaining Wayne Ellington would help, and Luke Kennard could earn more minutes. But the Pistons should be trying to free up space by dumping expiring deals (perhaps with picks attached) and putting in calls to Seth Curry, Wesley Matthews, Patrick Beverley and the like.
No teardown is necessary here, but Detroit has to freshen up its wing and guard rotations. More shooting, more playmaking, more defense.
With Griffin and Drummond locked into big roles, the Pistons should again chase one of the bottom four playoff spots in the East. The pursuit will be far easier with some key changes.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Nothing highlights the need for a shakeup like three straight first-round eliminations.
The Oklahoma City Thunder exited the postseason early again this past year, and barring changes, they're likely headed for another offseason that starts before May. While plenty of teams would happily take OKC's 49 wins from this past season, the Thunder are built around Russell Westbrook, a former MVP, and Paul George, a player who was on the short list for last season's MVP before shoulder injuries knocked his three-point shot off line.
With top-end (and richly compensated) talent like that, respectable regular seasons and quick playoff ousters aren't enough.
The Thunder's financial outlook is bleak. They were a taxpayer this year, and they're in line for the repeater penalty next season unless they take drastic steps to cut costs, according to The Athletic's Danny Leroux. Their flexibility is nonexistent, and their free-agent options are limited to minimums and the mid-level exception.
That is, unless they can offload Steven Adams (owed $25.8 million next year and $27.5 million in 2020-21) and replace, say, 80 percent of his production with a minimum-salaried center, and convince another team Dennis Schroder is more than empty calories. Those paths to reinvention are both long shots, but they're the Thunder's only semi-plausible options.
OKC needs shooting, which is something we've been able to say since Kevin Durant left. In fact, even in KD's last year on the roster, the Thunder ranked only 17th in three-point percentage. In the three years without Durant, they've ranked 30th, 24th and 22nd.
Drafting athletic wings and hoping they learn to shoot from deep hasn't worked, so OKC should shift its focus to established marksmen. With Westbrook's outside shot now completely unreliable and the possibility of shooting struggles ahead for George, who underwent surgery on both shoulders after the playoffs, the need for spacing is only increasing.
If the Thunder can use Adams and Schroder to acquire shooting via trade, they have to do it. If they can free up money by sending either of those players into someone else's cap space, ditto.
OKC has been good for a long time, but it'll never be great unless it undergoes some significant changes.