Fringe NBA Playoff Teams Better off Tearing It Down
While the NBA is lauded for its parity, perhaps now more than ever before, it has long thrived on a class system.
Four tiers of teams exist in the league at any given time: title contenders, teams on the rise, rebuilders and the mediocre middle. The first three often have distinct, long-term, goal-oriented plans and usually feed into one another. A good rebuild can result in a team on the rise, or a championship contender can become a rebuilder once it wins and accomplishes its long-pursued objective.
The last one, however, features organizations who defy the first three labels. These teams either have no long-term plan, or they have several long-term plans that don't necessarily align.
It's best not to overthink things and operate in multiple timelines at once like the following organizations are doing. Each of them should think about resetting their rosters and expectations over the next year.
The Detroit Pistons have some decent players. Despite not being the world-class athlete he once was, Blake Griffin is still elite and actually posted a career-high scoring average last year. And for all their warts, Andre Drummond is a tremendous interior presence who gobbles up rebounds while Reggie Jackson is a competent starting point guard.
So, why aren't the Pistons better?
Well, it likely has to do with Drummond and Jackson's exorbitant contracts. Next year, they will make $27.1 million and $18.1 million—not ideal amounts to spend on two players with so many obvious holes in their games. Drummond is a famously bad shooter, while Jackson has recorded a negative defensive real plus-minus five years running and has a history of ball-dominant play.
Plus, Detroit has not exactly been successful in its pursuit of role players. The Pistons' wing rotation is arguably one of the worst position groups in the NBA, and Drummond's immediate backup at center is Thon Maker, who has never recorded an average player efficiency rating.
The reason Detroit is so hopeless, though, is not solely due to that lack of talent. It's because the franchise is hard-capped into this roster and can't make many moves to improve its situation. Griffin's lengthy injury history and increasing age and Drummond's old-fashioned offensive game make them difficult to trade given their large salaries, though Griffin was already moved once on his current deal.
The Pistons should exhaust every possible option to move their large contracts and regain some financial flexibility going forward.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Speaking of teams pursuing multiple goals at once, how about the Oklahoma City Thunder?
Even after trading away Paul George and Russell Westbrook, they still appear to be in win-now mode. ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported July 17 that after weeks of speculation, Chris Paul will be staying with the Thunder, and established contributors Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams also remain in Oklahoma City.
On the other hand, a much more appealing franchise direction just appeared after an offseason of wheeling and dealing. Oklahoma City now has access to 15 first-round picks through 2026 plus standout sophomore point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Basically, any conceivable future is available with that collection of assets and talent.
Bradley Beal is off the table? Not for three first-round picks and Gilgeous-Alexander, he isn't. Giannis Antetokounmpo is a Milwaukee Buck for life? Maybe not anymore. Zion Williamson wants to dance in New Orleans? Well, he probably isn't going anywhere yet, but you can't blame Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin for calling a meeting if the Thunder ring.
Most of those picks may turn into insignificant NBA players, but just the idea of having that many is the theory behind Sam Hinkie's now-omnipresent Process: The more opportunities you have in the draft, the likelier you are to pick a star. That line of thinking helped the Philadelphia 76ers get Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, and the Sixers didn't have as many picks as Oklahoma City does now.
Where could the Thunder go from here? The possibilities are close to endless. They just have to accept that this era of contention is over and move on from the veterans still on the roster.
It may seem rude to call for a fire sale months after the Magic finally broke a six-year playoff drought, but if we may: What is going on in Orlando?
The issue is not that the Magic lack talent; they actually have several intriguing players. It's that all of them play the same positions. Why did Orlando bring back Nikola Vucevic, draft Chuma Okeke and sign Al-Farouq Aminu when it already had a fine frontcourt trio in Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac and Mo Bamba?
Of course, having depth at multiple spots is fantastic.
But the Magic also appear to be running back last year's trio of D.J. Augustin, Markelle Fultz and Michael Carter-Williams at point guard, and there is no way that ends well barring a miracle Fultz transformation. In case you missed it, yet another Fultz hype video dropped recently. But let us know when those videos translate into production during live action.
However, Orlando can still salvage this situation.
As the first few months of the season progress, general manager John Hammond must keep an eye out for point guards in bad situations like D'Angelo Russell and Goran Dragic. When the time comes, he can then package several of the Magic's many big men in order to obtain a real starting point guard and roll out a team that could be an actual contender in a few years.
San Antonio Spurs
This is a famous-last-words moment.
Pundits have been predicting the end of the Spurs dynasty for years, and yet they've still made the playoffs every season since drafting Tim Duncan in 1997.
However, the end might finally be arriving. San Antonio has a deadly combination of traits that put it behind the eight ball in the loaded Western Conference: It lacks a top-tier star, plays anachronistically and seems to be operating on two different timelines.
Of course, the Spurs have good players. DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge each own at least four All-Star berths, and the rest of the team is surprisingly deep. But without a go-to three-level scorer like many teams in the West have, San Antonio has limited upside.
DeRozan would have to channel Kobe Bryant's level of mid-range mastery for that strategy to pay off in the playoffs, and we've seen him play for long enough to know he is no Kobe. Plus, his contract is up this year, and he is already a sketchy fit with San Antonio's cadre of young, promising guards. Head coach Gregg Popovich has to find playing time for Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Bryn Forbes, Patty Mills, Marco Belinelli and Lonnie Walker IV in addition to DeRozan.
With DeRozan possibly on his last legs in San Antonio and Aldridge's contract set to run out after the 2020-21 season, the Spurs can trade them and finally jump-start the rebuild they've successfully delayed for so long. San Antonio has not yet ruled out giving DeRozan a max-level extension, but so much can change in a year. RC Buford and Popovich should consider all possibilities, including a rebuild, before deciding on his future and that of the franchise.
We're going to look back on the Raptors' 2018-19 title as one of the great oddities in NBA history. For years, they failed to get past LeBron James in the Eastern Conference playoffs. But in the first season after he went West, they won the championship.
However, while most teams that win one title are usually in the mix for several, the Raptors' window lasted just a single year, slamming shut after Kawhi Leonard exited his Toronto home.
Not only have their chances at another title dwindled, but they might also be completely rebuilding this time next year.
Three of their key veterans—Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol—will be unrestricted free agents next summer. And while Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet will likely stick around to lead the next phase of Toronto basketball, they'll also be free agents in 2020 and could draw large offers from teams attempting to outbid the Raptors.
Lowry has proclaimed his love for Toronto on many occasions, but president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri is one of the smartest executives in the league. He knows undersized, injury-prone point guards have checkered histories and that Ibaka and Gasol are already showing signs of decline.
Given all that, don't be surprised if the Raptors look completely different come summer 2020.