1 Hot-Take Prediction for Every NBA Team

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistMarch 5, 2020

1 Hot-Take Prediction for Every NBA Team

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    Who ordered the batch of burning-hot NBA takes, size grande, with a side of extra spice?

    Putting together a list of slightly contrarian predictions is difficult this late into the season without going completely off the wall. With that in mind, our purview has expanded to include the offseason. Trades, free agency, the draft, extensions—anything that could go down before the 2020-21 season tips off is fair game.

    Please do no interpret "hot take" as reckless clickbait. Some won't even burn your eyes if you rub them after consuming said content.

    Each instance of hot-takery instead aims to exist somewhere between reasonable to eyes-watering-yet-still-believable.

    Grab a glass of milk, jar of peanut butter, bottle of olive oil, cup full of sugar or whatever spice-resistant digestive you prefer. The heat is coming.

Atlanta Hawks: Sign or Trade for an Expensive Wing

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    "Team with lots of cap space plans to spend cap space" isn't the spiciest slant, but the Atlanta Hawks aren't the average offseason shopper. They've thus far resisted shelling out mammoth deals in free agency under general manager Travis Schlenk, preferring instead to soak up money via trades.

    Swallowing more unwanted deals isn't entirely out of the question. The Hawks have a path to almost $50 million in cap space. But the market for salary dumps won't be particularly robust. Teams will not trip over themselves to create last-minute space for a shallow 2020 free-agency class, and anyone trying to offload money in advance of 2021 should be more active around the trade deadline.

    Atlanta could preserve spending power by doling out one-plus-one contracts and leaving itself with some financial runway for midseason salary dumps. But the acquisition of Clint Capela—who has yet to play in his new digs—implies a more accelerated window.

    The bet here is that the Hawks are more aggressive than usual with their cap space, in no small part because they face so little competition. Only a handful of teams project to have real buying power, and among those select few, the New York Knicks are the sole suitor with the capacity to rival Atlanta's purse.

    More squads will have money to burn in 2021. This is the Hawks' chance to stand out. And while the talent well isn't particularly deep, they can talk themselves into overtures for certain playmaking wings.

    They could go with any number of options. They have the cash to drive up the price tag on restricted free agents like Malik Beasley and Bogdan Bogdanovic. Or maybe they overpay for Evan Fournier (player option) or Joe Harris.

    Gordon Hayward (player option) would be an interesting name to watch if he hits the open market—or if the Boston Celtics look to move him. Danilo Gallinari is less of an obvious fit with both Capela and John Collins up front, but throwing big money at Marcus Morris Sr. could be more Atlanta's speed.

Boston Celtics: Jayson Tatum Makes an All-NBA Team

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    Jayson Tatum has turned this into a medium-hot take. His All-NBA candidacy has gone from outside possibility to more of a given.

    This doesn't make him a lock for one of the six forward spots, though. Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard are all formalities, and Anthony Davis, another given, has logged most of his time at the 4.

    That leaves two slots to be divvied up among Tatum, Jimmy Butler, Brandon Ingram, Khris Middleton and Pascal Siakam. Luka Doncic or Ben Simmons could enter the fray if the NBA allows bigger point guards to be treated as wings, too.

    Tatum has the goods to snag one of the remaining spots if the league doesn't throw a curveball regarding the eligibility pool. He has been among the NBA's most dominant players since the start of December.

    Through those 37 appearances, Tatum is averaging 24.9 points, 7.1 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.1 blocks with a 59.1 true shooting percentage. The Boston Celtics offense no longer needs a point guard buffer for him to get by. He has turned into the one of the game's most reliable from-scratch creators.

    Boston has Tatum running more pick-and-rolls and leans on him to manufacture something out of nothing late in the shot clock. He's draining 40.4 percent of his pull-up threes, the best mark among everyone launching at least three such attempts per game. Only nine players have generated more points off unassisted treys, according to PBP Stats.

    Any hesitation to stick Tatum on an All-NBA team is meted out on the defensive end. He doesn't cover the toughest assignments in high volume, but he can get into primary scorers on-ball when called upon. His help defense has become an anchor for the Celtics. He mucks up shot attempts from behind, provides timely traps and can bait downhill attackers into bad decisions off the ball with his length.

    Few players have matched Tatum's two-way imprint. Antetokounmpo, James, Middleton and Chris Paul are the only other ones who place in the top 25 of luck adjusted real adjusted plus-minus (LA-RAPM) on both offense (LA-ORAPM) and defense (LA-DRAPM), according to NBA Shot Charts.

Brooklyn Nets: No Major Changes Over the Offseason

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    Kyrie Irving's sentiments following a Jan. 15 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers might suggest the Brooklyn Nets need to make a substantial change or two over the summer. 

    "I'm going to continue to reiterate it. We're going to do the best with the guys that we have in our locker room now, and we'll worry about all the other stuff, in terms of moving pieces and everything else, as an organization down the line in the summer...

    "Collectively, I feel like we have great pieces, but it's pretty glaring we need one more piece or two more pieces that will complement myself, [Kevin Durant], [DeAndre Jordan], [Garrett Temple], Spence [Dinwiddie], Caris [LeVert], and we'll see how that evolves."

    Read between the lines, and this feels like a thinly veiled shot at Jarrett Allen and Joe Harris. Irving has since insisted it isn't. But his comments were controversial because of the delivery and the source. Irving was only three appearances into his return from a 26-game absence at the time. He shouldn't have been the one conveying this message.

    That doesn't make him entirely wrong. A shakeup seems unavoidable once Brooklyn is at full strength. Dinwiddie, Durant, Irving and LeVert all like to work with the ball in their hands. It will be tough to navigate that offensive overlap—and potentially not worth trying when none of them are lockdown wing defenders.

    Pivoting away from that four-player core would demand moving Dinwiddie and/or LeVert. They are the assets best suited to help the Nets acquire another high-end impact player—a third star. Moving either ahead of this year's trade deadline didn't make much sense with both Durant and Irving on the sidelines, but their joint return next season gives Brooklyn the incentive to gauge their markets over the summer.

    Let's be (slightly) contrarian and trust that the Nets will stand mostly pat. LeVert is playing well enough that he might already be the team's third star. Failing that, Brooklyn has yet to see what it can be with him, Dinwiddie, Durant and Irving all available at the same time.

    Their futures together are better off being addressed at the 2021 trade deadline, after they get the chance to play in tandem, if they need to be addressed at all.

Charlotte Hornets: Tries to Overpay a Restricted Free Agent

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    The Charlotte Hornets are one of the scant few teams projected to have max-ish cap space this summer. That is, unequivocally, terrifying—for their fans.

    Letting Kemba Walker go last summer and buying out Marvin Williams after the trade deadline suggests the Hornets are committed to a more gradual timeline. But they also gave Terry Rozier way too much money last offseason and are light on cornerstone prospects.

    Spending big in free agency won't change their fortunes. They aren't prying Anthony Davis (player option) from the Los Angeles Lakers, and investing max money in Brandon Ingram will be a waste of time (restricted) unless the New Orleans Pelicans decide they're fine losing him for nothing.

    A skimpy free-agency class still probably won't deter the Hornets. They could have more cap space in 2021 if they bide their time and wait for Nicolas Batum's deal to come off the books, but they'll face stiffer competition that summer. Charlotte has never been a free-agent hot spot. This is a year in which the Hornets can realistically poach one of the more desirable names.

    That doesn't give them carte blanche to pay just anyone. They need a player who jibes with their situation—a team not quite looking to bottom out, but one that isn't anywhere near ready to punch a playoff ticket.

    Combing through restricted free agency is the default move in these instances. The top prizes are younger, and if aggressive offer sheets are matched, the Hornets will have at least messed with a competitor's cap sheet.

    Picking up a dynamic wing remains priority No. 1, so names to monitor for potential overbids include Malik Beasley, Bogdan Bogdanovic (even though he's older), Juan Hernangomez and Dario Saric. And if the Pelicans for some reason indicate they're not prepared to roll out the max-contract carpet for Ingram, the Hornets are among the teams that shouldn't hesitate to swoop in.

Chicago Bulls: Lauri Markkanen Gets an Extension

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    Lauri Markkanen's past two seasons haven't gone according to plan. Injuries have limited his availability, his efficiency from beyond the arc has dipped, and he hasn't expanded his offensive bag to include better consistency or more dynamic scoring.

    Fresh off a return from a stress reaction in his right pelvis, Markkanen's future with the Chicago Bulls hardly feels secure. They don't have a clear direction after (likely) missing the playoffs for a third straight year, and his extension eligibility this summer forces them to consider how important he is to the big picture.

    Some will see this as an impetus for the Bulls to move him. If they aren't prepared to pay him over the long term, they're better off capitalizing on whatever value he has left. The alternative would be losing him for nothing in restricted free agency or feeling obligated to match an offer sheet.

    On the flip side, Markkanen's struggles should make it easier for Chicago to retain him. Neither side has ruled out a multiyear partnership. Extension talks are expected to take place over the summer, per K.C. Johnson of NBC Sports Chicago, and Markkanen won't have a ton of leverage unless he finishes the season on a torrid hot streak.

    Even then, he might not be able to pass up the luxury of long-term security. He's missed 59 games (so far) through his first three seasons, and the free-agency landscape can be unforgiving to combo bigs who haven't branched out beyond a singular specialty.

    All of the mutual struggles they've experienced makes it more likely that Markkanen and the Bulls will find common ground. He should be motivated to grab the long-term bag, and Chicago should have the chance to lock him up at a reasonable rate.

    And if things don't pan out post-extension for either party, the Bulls could always trade Markkanen during the 2021 offseason, when he'd be on a multiyear deal with a salary that allows them to take back a more expensive return.

Cleveland Cavaliers: Kevin Porter Jr. Makes an All-Rookie Team

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    Kevin Porter Jr. is quietly piecing together a rock-solid rookie campaign for the Cleveland Cavaliers. His efficiency has been up and down for most of the year, but he's canning 50.8 percent of his two-pointers and converting 71.8 percent of his looks inside three feet.

    His stock has only skyrocketed in recent weeks after he returned from a left knee injury. In the 15 appearances since, he's averaging 13.9 points, 2.7 assists and 1.1 steals while drilling 38.8 percent of his three-point attempts, including a stellar 35.5 percent clip on his pull-up threes.

    Dante Exum's left ankle injury has opened the door for Porter to do even more. Interim head coach J.B. Bickerstaff is giving him extra pick-and-roll reps, and he's logged 30-plus minutes in four of his past five games, during which he's averaging 16.2 points and 4.2 assists.

    Cracking one of the two All-Rookie teams is still far from a given. Brandon Clarke, Rui Hachimura, Tyler Herro, Ja Morant, Kendrick Nunn and Zion Williamson are all locks. Terence Davis and Matisse Thybulle could be right there with them.

    After them, RJ Barrett, Darius Garland, Jaxson Hayes, Cameron Johnson, Cody Martin, Eric Paschall, Michael Porter Jr., P.J. Washington and Coby White all have their own cases. KPJ could easily get lost in that shuffle.

    But right now, he's scoring well enough—and working hard enough on defense—that his absence from an All-Rookie squad would be a snub.

Dallas Mavericks: Tim Hardaway Jr. Declines Player Option (or Signs Extension)

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    Tim Hardaway Jr.'s $19 million player option for next season isn't supposed to be an actual discussion. The Dallas Mavericks had to absorb him as part of the Kristaps Porzingis trade. There was no conceivable scenario in which he'd pass up that money to enter free agency.

    However, Hardaway has managed to turn his immediate future into a worthwhile talking point.

    He's become a valuable offensive outlet for Luka Doncic, as well as the Mavericks' most trusted three-point sniper. Bojan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari are the only players averaging as many points (15.5) and long-range attempts (7.0) while shooting 40 percent or better from beyond the arc.

    This isn't just a matter of Hardaway riding Doncic's coattails as a member of the starting lineup—though, that's part of it. He's shooting almost 40 percent on pull-up triples and establishing himself as someone who can knock down looks with a higher degree of difficulty, as The Athletic's Tim Cato wrote:

    "Per Second Spectrum data acquired by The Athletic, the average distance of a defender when Hardaway shoots a 3-pointer is 5.7 feet, or 43rd in the league. That's 43rd out of 223 qualifying players, which puts him among the upper echelon of taking tough shots. You know this from the eye test, probably. You've seen Hardaway rise up over defenders as often as he takes wide-open ones. The exact shot that comes to mind, for whatever reason, is a defender closing out within a few feet of Hardaway while he adjusts to a bad pass. The defender might be assuming he's not going to shoot it, not after he had to reach down to his ankles or sidestep several feet to secure it. And Hardaway stares him down for a moment and shoots anyway. That's a little too specific of a shot for even Second Spectrum to measure, but anecdotally, I swear Hardaway's shooting 75 percent on those."

    Guaranteeing that Hardaway enters free agency is a little too bold. Cap space around the league is scant. He'll need to secure a four-year deal for the full non-taxpayer's mid-level exception, worth slightly over $40 million in total, to make it a no-brainer decision.

    That contract should be out there if Hardaway remains on fire from deep—assuming he even wants to look for it. The Mavericks acquired him as a means to land Porzingis, but he's quickly turned into someone they might value over the long term. If he doesn't enter free agency, it's probably because they've shown interest in signing him to an extension, a la Dwight Powell last season, despite the strain it would put on their 2021 cap space.

Denver Nuggets: Gary Harris Wins Them a Playoff Series

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    Dedicating this spot to Michael Porter Jr. would be a hotter take and not completely unfounded. His shot-making from all levels can swing an entire playoff series if the Denver Nuggets give him the necessary floor time.

    Color me skeptical that head coach Mike Malone has that amount of trust in the rookie. Porter's minutes are prone to wild swings, and barring a major injury in front of him, he's unlikely to get noticeably more run in the postseason.

    Gary Harris' place on the Nuggets is less of a question. They cannot afford to curb his minutes even when he's clanging threes off the rim and missing bunnies from point-blank range. His defensive presence on the perimeter is too valuable, and they don't have any viable alternatives. Torrey Craig toes the line of non-shooter and devolves into more of a liability during the playoffs. Malik Beasley is gone.

    You might not consider this much of a hot take; it may seem more like an opinion covered in sriracha mayo. Harris' reputation as an undersized three-and-D wing who shares telepathic chemistry with Nikola Jokic precedes him.

    So, too, does his offensive performance since last season. Harris' efficiency has plummeted both inside and beyond the arc. His 47.1 effective field-goal percentage is his lowest since his historically bad rookie season.

    There may come a time when the Nuggets must write him and his fringe-star salary off as a net loss. They haven't reached that point yet, though. Denver is 27th in three-point-attempt rate and 17th in long-range accuracy. Harris is the player most equipped to properly weaponize their offense for the playoffs.

    He might have already started. His scoring continues to be all over the place, but over his past nine games, he's putting down 52.6 percent of his treys. And over his last five appearances, he has paired a scorching-hot outside clip with better finishing inside the restricted area.

    Small samples cannot be trusted, and Harris hasn't earned the benefit of the doubt. But if this is the beginning of an offensive renaissance, he'll enter the postseason as Denver's biggest swing piece—the non-star on the roster most likely to turn an entire series.

Detroit Pistons: Christian Wood Gets More Than the Full MLE in Free Agency

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    Affording Christian Wood's next contract is not a direct concern for the Detroit Pistons. They have his Early Bird rights to go along with a boatload of cap space. Renouncing all of their other free agents would give them access to more than $30 million even after accounting for the hold of a top-five pick.

    Still, having the option of keeping Wood doesn't make his future a mindless decision.

    Detroit's outlook is murky in the aftermath of Andre Drummond's departure. Trading him for expiring contracts and a distant, less-favorable second-round pick infers a more gradual timeline, but the roster isn't currently built for a full-tilt rebuild.

    Blake Griffin (two years, $75.8 million) and Derrick Rose (one year, $7.7 million) are win-now players. Luke Kennard is only 23 but will be extension-eligible over the summer. Having cap space and adding, say, a top-seven prospect could convince the Pistons to chase a quicker turnaround.

    Footing the bill for Wood's next deal becomes a non-issue if that's the goal. But Detroit cannot default to an insta-reinvention when its core is so fragile. Griffin has missed most of this year with a left knee injury, Kennard is dealing with tendinitis in his knees and Rose, who is currently sidelined with an ankle injury, has never been a billboard for good health.

    Without a firm grasp on what the immediate future holds, the Pistons need to be wary of Wood's price point. They don't want to get locked into a contract they can't move or sacrifice future flexibility for a team not designed to win now.

    Coming to a consensus cost is out of the question. The free-agency landscape is too turbulent. Few teams have cap space, and even fewer have the motivation to pay a big man. But Wood has the tools to be more of a special case. He doesn't turn 25 until September and is more matchup-proof than a pure 4 or 5.

    Only four other players are clearing 20 points, 10 rebounds, one block and one made three per 36 minutes: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, Serge Ibaka and Kristaps Porzingis. Wood has played a much smaller role than his statistical peers for most of the year, but his output since joining Detroit's starting five closely aligns with his per-minute production.

    Bigs with deeper offensive bags can still get paid. Wood is comfortable squaring up for standstill triples, fanning out behind the rainbow, running into quick catch-and-launch looks, slipping to the basket off screens and beating closeouts off the dribble.

    Finite cap space won't prevent him from finding suitors. It isn't hard to envision max-money teams like the Charlotte Hornets, Miami Heat or New York Knicks throwing him a chunk of money, and squads like the Phoenix Suns and Toronto Raptors could loom if they decide to operate under the cap. If Wood doesn't get $10 million or more per year from the Pistons, he'll secure it elsewhere.

Golden State Warriors: Sign an Impactful Ring-Chaser

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    Not long ago, bagging impactful ring-chasers was an annual rite for the Golden State Warriors. No thought-to-be below-market signing stood out more than DeMarcus Cousins in 2018. He was recovering from an Achilles injury, but that made his arrival in the Bay Area no less polarizing.

    Golden State will not carry that same cachet this summer. Kevin Durant is gone. Stephen Curry missed most of this season with a broken left hand. Klay Thompson won't play this year while recovering from a torn left ACL. Draymond Green's offensive value has taken a nosedive while playing without his, ahem, superstar security blankets.

    Acquiring Andrew Wiggins only adds more uncertainty to the fold. The Warriors are betting they have the culture and player-development program to turn him into a net-plus contributor—you know, the same culture and player-development program that pulled the rip cord on D'Angelo Russell, an injury-replacement All-Star, mere months after the team declared it intended to keep him.

    Reconciling the age of Golden State's three stars is similarly difficult. Green and Thompson will be 30 when next season tips off. Curry will be 32. Their re-entry into title contention may not be a cakewalk. Two of the three are coming off lost seasons, and this trio is still working off five ultra-deep playoff runs over the past six years.

    Whatever. Age-35 LeBron James is tearing it up after half a gap year last season. Both Curry and Thompson are getting basically full-on breaks. This transition year might be what prolongs the length of their title window.

    Could-bes and should-bes won't sway every veteran free agent. That's fine. The taxpayer's mid-level exception ($6 million) figures to go further this year when so many teams will be working over the cap.

    Certain players who cannot nab much more on the open market should be inclined to give the Warriors a shot. Marvin Williams should cost less than the mini-MLE. Aron Baynes could end up inside that territory. Trevor Ariza has always prioritized the bag—and good for him—but he might not have a richer market if the Portland Trail Blazers waive his partially guaranteed contract.

    Paul Millsap is 35 and has dealt with injuries since joining the Denver Nuggets. Maybe he gives the Warriors a look. Or perhaps a 35-year-old Marc Gasol can be their supercharged Andrew Bogut, with actual outside shooting. The ring-chaser market is cloudy this far out from free agency, but let's agree to assume Golden State will grab one of the higher-end late-career mercenaries.

Houston Rockets: Mike D'Antoni Is Back Next Season

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    Since when does predicting a head coach will keep his job qualify as bold? Since Tilman Fertitta bought an NBA team.

    Mike D'Antoni is in the final year of his contract, and his return to the Houston Rockets has, for the most part, seemed as if it hinged on the team winning a title. As The Athletic's Shams Charania wrote in late December:

    Barring a Rockets championship that could spark a kumbaya healing of sorts and inspire Fertitta to open his wallet to meet that sort of moment, a source with direct knowledge of these dynamics expressed serious skepticism that D’Antoni would return after this season. To be more precise, the chances—per the source —are currently seen as 'slim.' This shouldn’t surprise anyone considering the context here.

    To review, D’Antoni wanted an extension last summer but didn’t come to terms with the Rockets and is now in the last year of his contract. Fertitta, in turn, said his agent, Warren LeGarie, did the Rockets a favor by turning down their offer and that 'I hope we win a championship and Mike comes and puts a gun to my head.'"

    Do not spin this as a "The Rockets are going to win the title!" declaration. It is instead a bet that Houston doesn't flame out in the first round, and that D'Antoni and the organization find common ground even if the season doesn't end with a banner.

    Microball is at the heart of this gut feeling. The Rockets are 10-3, with a top-three offense and top-eight defense, since PJ Tucker became the starting center. Lineups featuring him at the 5 are straight killing opponents, and they're even more effective—especially on defense—with Robert Covington as his frontcourt cohort.

    Playing small in the postseason could be a different beast. Both the Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Lakers are capable of exploiting Houston's dearth of size, while teams like the Los Angeles Clippers (Marcus Morris at center) and Oklahoma City Thunder (Danilo Gallinari at the 5) are suited to rival it.

    Regardless, in every potential matchup, the Rockets will force opponents to make identifying decisions. They'll have to choose between staying big (or biggish) or going small enough to compete with Houston's versatility.

    Win or lose, the Rockets, in most instances, will have dictated the rules of engagement. That far from guarantees a championship, but barring an early-round implosion, the returns so far warrant further exploration. Russell Westbrook's uptick in efficiency alone is enough to mandate Houston give this style more than a partial season to marinate.

    No coach is better suited to guide the Rockets through this experiment than D'Antoni. He is the pioneer of small ball, and downsizing even further has been his dream since his Phoenix Suns days. Fences will need to be mended, and Fertitta must warm up to the idea of shelling out a multiyear contract D'Antoni might not finish, but this marriage is quickly becoming one of necessity, even if only temporarily.

Indiana Pacers: Myles Turner Gets Traded Over the Summer

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    Waiting for the Indiana Pacers to break up the Domantas Sabonis-Myles Turner frontcourt is the new waiting for the Portland Trail Blazers to break up the Damian Lillard-CJ McCollum backcourt. Except this dissolution feels more inevitable.

    The "Well, actually" crowd will argue this translates to an ice-cold stance rather than a blistering slant. Maybe they're right. But predicting a trade always requires stepping out on a limb, and Indiana doesn't have to move one of its bigs.

    Neither Sabonis nor Turner has seemed unhappy to the point of demanding relocation. Even if they did, it wouldn't matter. Turner is signed through 2022-23, and Sabonis is on the books through 2023-24. They don't have the leverage to orchestrate their exit.

    Dealing one of them is more about a better allocation of resources. They'll earn a combined $37.8 million next season. That's a lot of coin to pay for two players who are best suited at center.

    Yes, the Pacers have effectively navigated their time on the court together. They're outscoring opponents by four points per 100 possessions when both bigs take the floor (74th percentile). But their offensive rating during that time sits at 107.4 (27th percentile) and has thus far been even worse with Victor Oladipo in the fold (3rd percentile).

    Increasing Turner's three-point volume has not helped alleviate the awkwardness. Indiana as a team still doesn't take enough triples, and his 5.2 outside attempts per 36 minutes, while a career high, don't even rank within the league's top 125.

    Getting Sabonis to let 'er rip from deep would make a difference. The process is already underway. He's taking more threes than he has since leaving the Oklahoma City Thunder. But he's shooting only 23 percent from downtown, and the Pacers haven't shown an aptitude for dramatically upping individual volume.

    Sabonis remains the more dynamic offensive player anyway, someone Indiana can trust to initiate the offense, create his own looks and bully opponents down low. He doesn't have the range Turner does on defense, but the Pacers are in the 60th percentile of points allowed per 100 possessions when he's at the 5. They can get by with him as their main big.

    This lines up with what Indiana will encounter on the trade market. Sabonis is less plug-and-play and unlikely command a small ransom. Turner will yield more as a floor-spacing rim protector and is, by extension, more likely to become collateral damage.

Los Angeles Clippers: Both Montrezl Harrell and Marcus Morris Sr. Stay

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    Ticketing Montrezl Harrell or Marcus Morris for new digs is bolder in a vacuum. But their future with the Los Angeles Clippers does not exist in a vacuum.

    Price will be a determining factor for both. Harrell is due for a substantive raise from his $6 million salary, and Morris' non-Bird cap hold will check in at $18 million before he signs a new contract. Los Angeles has interest in retaining both, per The Athletic's Jovan Buha, and team chairman Steve Ballmer has deep pockets, but every franchise will draw a line in the sand somewhere.

    Floating cap holds for both drags the Clippers past the $139 million luxury-tax threshold if JaMychal Green picks up his player option. Their commitments will balloon even further if Harrell and Morris net more than a combined $29.4 million in the first year of their deals.

    A cap-starved market works in the Clippers' favor. They cannot keep Morris if he commands more than his free-agent hold—which he shouldn't, at least not over the course of a multiyear deal. Harrell's cost should get beaten down by a dearth of max-space suitors also in need of a big man who doesn't stretch the floor.

    Certain wild cards do exist. The New York Knicks could have a ton of cap space if they waive their collection of nonguaranteed contracts, and they aren't the most rational organization. The Charlotte Hornets will have money to burn and could use another big to pair beside Miles Bridges and P.J. Washington with Cody Zeller slated for free agency in 2021. The Phoenix Suns, New Orleans Pelicans and Toronto Raptors could all end up operating under the cap depending on what they do with their own free agents.

    Prospective competition shouldn't hurt the Clippers. They'll have the bandwidth to keep Harrell and Morris unless the latter finds an $18-plus-million salary elsewhere. And they'll likely stomach the cost of both.

    Their payroll could mushroom past $150 million—and much higher if they use the taxpayer's mid-level exception—but they can't afford to care. They unloaded their best remaining assets to get Morris (this year's first-round pick, Detroit's 2021 second-rounder and Moe Harkless), and impending player options for Paul George and Kawhi Leonard in 2021-22 obligate them to do whatever it takes to continue fielding a title favorite.

    Things get a little more touch-and-go if the Clippers flame out before the Western Conference Finals. Without the resources to replace either Harrell or Morris, though, the length of this year's playoff run shouldn't impact the front office's thinking.

Los Angles Lakers: Kyle Kuzma Begins Next Season on the Roster

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    Trade rumors will swirl around Kyle Kuzma over the offseason unless the Los Angeles Lakers win this year's title. This is not a prediction that they'll be raising another banner in Staples. It more so acknowledges that they're better off waiting on a Kuzma trade.

    LeBron James' teams usually enter the summer dangerously close to, if not over, the luxury tax. The Lakers are once again different. They won't have the cap space they enjoyed last year, but even after re-signing Anthony Davis (player option) and assuming all of their player options get picked up, they'll retain access to the non-taxpayer's mid-level exception.

    Having nearly $10 million to spend goes a long way for any team that houses LeBron. It will be even more valuable this summer, when more than two-thirds of the league should be operating over the cap.

    Parlaying that money into another ball-handler, be it a point guard or playmaking wing, would incentivize the Lakers to hold onto their best future asset. Kuzma will be a more useful trade chip in the middle of next season when the league has more clarity on its pecking order. 

    Every Western Conference team can currently sell itself on a potential playoff push in 2021. That eats into the number of squads who will fancy them sellers over the offseason. Even if the Oklahoma City Thunder or San Antonio Spurs steer into a rebuild, there won't be many franchises looking to auction off impact talent.

    Waiting to decide on Kuzma's future until the 2021 trade deadline both gives his stock and the seller market time to develop. The Lakers will also have at least one more piece of trade-eligible salary fodder by that time, depending on how they use their MLE.

    Who knows? They might even decide that, for the time being, Kuzma is most valuable in-house—if only until he signs his next deal and is able to be moved as a larger salary anchor.

Memphis Grizzlies: De'Anthony Melton Gets the Full MLE—and Maybe a Poison Pill

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    De'Antony Melton leads the running for "Free Agent Most Like to Get Puh-Aid Who You Weren't Expecting to Get Puh-Aid."

    In his case, that means brokering a contract worth the full non-taxpayer's mid-level exception next season.

    As a restricted free agent with only two seasons of experience, teams cannot pay him more than $9.8 million in 2020-21 and the standard 5 percent bump in 2021-22 ($10.3 million). Rival suitors can, however, structure his contract with a massive jump in the third year, followed by a standard raise off that salary the following season.

    The Memphis Grizzlies shouldn't worry too much about matching a poison-pill contract. Teams are operating within shorter windows than ever. Few (if any) admirers will be open to hamstringing their books two and three years down the line.

    However, Melton is only 21 and boasts a strong defensive presence, improving touch around the basket and a good eye for finding his bigs in transition and when he's coming around screens. He's worth a semi-substantial commitment.

    Dejounte Murray and Ben Simmons are the only other players averaging more than 15 points, five assists and two steals per 36 minutes. Melton also ranks fourth in deflections per 36 minutes among everyone who has appeared in at least 40 games, and he has the highest net-rating swing (by a light year) among Memphis' everyday players.

    Paying him as a floor general of the future is an overextension of his skill set until he splashes in more of his jumpers, but he has the chops to be groomed into a good team's top reserve. That ceiling is worth the full MLE to most squads—including the Grizzlies.

Miami Heat: Will Eat into 2021 Cap Space Through Free Agency or Trade

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    Pretty much no one expects the Miami Heat to do anything over the offseason that cuts into their 2021 cap space and matter-of-fact plans to chase Giannis Antetokounmpo and other stars.

    That is, apparently, except for me.

    Miami trimmed enough money from next year's ledger to access more than $30 million in room. By virtue of location, team president Pat Riley's front-office voodoo and few squads operating under the cap, the Heat are easily the most intriguing free-agent destination this summer.

    Conventional wisdom has them skirting the opportunity to do anything major. Nobody is worth maxing out if Anthony Davis re-signs with the Los Angeles Lakers, and their activity at the trade deadline was specifically geared toward preserving 2021 cap space. They signed Andre Iguodala to an extension with a team option after next season, and their dalliance with Danilo Gallinari presumably fell apart because he wouldn't agree to his own extension that fit into those same plans.

    Riley and Co. aren't about to deviate from visions of another coup. They also don't need to choose between spending money this summer and next year.

    Jimmy Butler, Tyler Herro and Bam Adebayo's cap hold are the must-keeps on their books for 2021. Those three together total around $55.4 million. Adding in this year's first-round pick, Chris Silva's team option and holds for Kendrick Nunn and Duncan Robinson raises that collective commitment to $64 million.

    Without a first-round pick in the 2021 draft or another can't-lose player on the roster, the Heat could get by clearing the rest of the deck and entering free agency with minimum holds filling out the rest of the roster. That requires them letting Derrick Jones Jr. walk this summer and trading KZ Okpala before July 2021. Neither should be a deal-breaker.

    Slapping on five minimum holds in 2021 adds another $5.2 million to the table, bringing the Heat's (loosely) projected obligations to a little over $69 million. That still leaves them more than $55 million beneath the expected $125 million cap.

    Using Antetokounmpo's max number as a baseline ($37.5 million), Miami can spend close to $20 million this summer without torpedoing its 2021 pipe dream. A lower cap projection puts this scenario on tilt—and is probably likely. The Heat will have multiyear money to peddle either way.

    They may even be compelled to hand out long-term deals or pursue expensive trade options (Jrue Holiday, Bradley Beal) should Antetokounmpo sign a supermax extension with the Milwaukee Bucks this summer.

Milwaukee Bucks: Giannis Antetokounmpo Wins MVP and DPOY

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    Giannis Antetokounmpo is doing his damnedest to render this prediction a cop-out.

    His MVP candidacy has long been a formality. Late-season pushes for LeBron James won't put in a dent in his case. It doesn't matter that he's 35 years old and in his 17th season. This isn't the Most Valuable AARP Card-Carrier award.

    Citing the Los Angeles Lakers' struggles without LeBron doesn't do the trick, either. Their net rating goes from minus-1.0 without him (48th percentile) to plus-10.5 with him (95th percentile), an 11.5-point swing that is nothing if not airtight proof of his value.

    But Antetokounmpo cannot be punished for a having a deeper supporting cast. And the Lakers, mind you, have another top-seven star on their roster. Their net-negative showing when Anthony Davis plays without LeBron says less about the former's value and more about the latter's limitations as a primary superstar and the amount of time he's forced to spend beside Kyle Kuzma and Rajon Rondo.

    What's more, Antetokounmpo owns a net-rating swing almost identical to LeBron's. The Milwaukee Bucks go from outscoring opponents by 5.1 points per 100 possessions without him (79th percentile) to a plus-16.4 with him (99th percentile).

    Taking a team from respectable to indomitable is the harder leap to make. This isn't a shot at LeBron. That's what sucks about the MVP discourse. Someone is always getting propped up at the expense of another.

    Defensive Player of the Year is the tougher box for Antetokounmpo to check off. Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon are the only other players who have won both awards in the same year, and this season boasts plenty of alternative DPOY candidates.

    Two-time reigning winner Rudy Gobert, Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Marcus Smart all have a chance to crash the party. So does Davis. And Kawhi Leonard. And potentially Brook Lopez.

    Voting in favor of the field is the safest option because it's so huge. To hell with that, though. Antetokounmpo is a legitimate deterrent around the rim, contests everything within wingspan's length inside the arc, doesn't give a damn about getting posterized, ends possessions as the helper and spends time at center.

    Most catch-all metrics will agree, as does the Bucks' defensive rating swing without him on the court, which just so happens to be the largest among every player who has logged at least 500 minutes: Antetokounmpo is both this year's most valuable player and defender.

Minnesota Timberwolves: Emerge as a Strong Suitor for Al Horford

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    You're free to interpret this ghost-pepper take in one of many different ways.

    Have I lost my mind? Do I have no strong feelings about the Minnesota Timberwolves and what will happen over the next seven months? Am I being held hostage by a member of the Philadelphia 76ers front office who's looking to drum up Al Horford's trade value in advance of the offseason? Is this a classic case of drunkenly blindfolding yourself, spinning in a circle 60 times and throwing a wet paper towel in a random direction and seeing whether it sticks to a wall or someone's forehead?

    Truthfully, this is whatever you want it to be. You're welcome. 

    It is also a nod to the semi-immediacy the Timberwolves ingrained into their timeline by trading for D'Angelo Russell. They not only have two players on max deals, but they sent a top-three-protected pick to the Golden State Warriors. That price implies they expect to be good sooner than later.

    Minnesota needs to collect more talent—and hope Jarrett Culver eventually hits—if that's the internal impression of its future. Those additions won't come in free agency. The T-Wolves project as an over-the-cap team unless they renounce Malik Beasley (restricted) and Juan Hernangomez (restricted) and clear off another salary or two.

    Working the trade market is easier. Andthe Sixers may be itching to end the Horford experiment.

    "Short of a deep and surprising run in the playoffs, where do the Sixers go from here?" USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt wrote. "Though the Sixers did not try to move Horford at the trade deadline, that might be a possibility in the offseason—if they can send that contract to another team and get shooting in return."

    Philly needs to ditch the idea of bagging adequate value for Horford. He is owed $81 million over the next three years ($69 million guaranteed), hasn't shot well from beyond the arc and has dealt with knee issues this season. Teams won't treat him as an asset at that price point when he turns 34 in June.

    The Timberwolves can build a lower-end package around James Johnson's expiring salary (player option) if the Sixers are interested in shedding long-term money. Horford is more of a natural fit next to Karl-Anthony Towns, who has no qualms about living beyond the arc, and Russell than Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. His contract is no doubt an issue, but if the opportunity cost isn't too steep, Minnesota seems like a team that would willing to roll the dice on the back end of his career.

New Orleans Pelicans: Make the Playoffs

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    Projection models don't consider this provocative enough.

    FiveThirtyEight gives the New Orleans Pelicans a 43 percent chance of making the playoffs, undoubtedly aided by a relatively cupcake close to the regular season. They have the NBA's third-easiest schedule moving forward, while the Memphis Grizzlies, current owners of eighth place in the Western Conference, have the second-hardest remaining docket, according to PlayoffStatus.com.

    Favorable circumstances don't quite amount to a given. Five losses separate the Pelicans from the No. 8 seed, and they aren't just chasing the Grizzlies. The Portland Trail Blazers, Sacramento Kings and San Antonio Spurs are in front of them, and they each also have one of the six easiest schedules moving forward.

    Viewed another way: The Pelicans are almost as close to the 14th-place Minnesota Timberwolves as the West's No. 8 spot. They still have an uphill climb that will require a punchy stretch run and plenty of luck.

    New Orleans' soaring stock predates Zion Williamson's debut. The team has a top-10 offense and defense since Derrick Favors rejoined the rotation in the middle of December.

    Zion's arrival is more so responsible for accelerating a rise already in progress. The Pelicans are playing about .500 basketball since his debut, but they rank sixth in offensive efficiency and ninth in points allowed per 100 possessions and are absolutely wrecking opponents when he's on the floor. 

    Predicting a playoff berth for New Orleans isn't exactly the safe call. But it definitely feels like the right one.

New York Knicks: Offer Fred VanVleet Near-Max Money

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    The New York Knicks have some work to do before they can throw the bag at Fred VanVleet.

    Picking up Bobby Portis' team option and guaranteeing all of next year's one-plus-one salaries would displace them from max-space territory and into mid-level-exception range. That scenario is not out of the question if the Knicks care only about keeping their books squeaky clean for 2021, but it seems increasingly unlikely.

    New team president Leon Rose is bound to try leaving his mark on the roster. He won't do that by running it back. And it isn't like the Knicks need to get rid of everybody to enter the serious cap-space tier. Declining Portis' team option alone gives them a line to more than $20 million in room depending on where their draft pick lands.

    New York is not above throwing that much—and more—in VanVleet's direction. The Knicks' point guard situation has been that dire for approximately forever.

    Dennis Smith Jr. has devolved into the NBA's least efficient scorer. Frank Ntilikina is a future Hall of Famer deserves more playing time for his defensive intensity alone, but he's yet to develop a feel for running an offense. Elfrid Payton is not the long-term answer.

    Drafting another guard could preclude the Knicks from spending on VanVleet. They are in play for any one of Cole Anthony, LaMelo Ball, Anthony Edwards and Nico Mannion. But the beauty of VanVleet is his versatility. He has played alongside ball-dominant teammates his entire career and cut his teeth by complementing them with reliable shooting, invasive defense and, when needed, larger doses of off-the-bounce creation.

    Offering VanVleet all of the money won't fast-track the Knicks toward contention. He is not a superstar. They've also made dumber investments. VanVleet is 26 and can fit into whatever iteration of New York takes the floor over the next few years.

    Now for the kicker: The official prediction is that, despite the Knicks backing up the Brink's truck, they won't actually land him. The Toronto Raptors become heavy favorites to keep him if they're willing to pony up, and he can get comparable money from more promising situations in Atlanta and Miami should he be compelled to find new digs.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Win a Playoff Series

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    This prediction felt a lot trendier a few days ago when I first started workshopping it. The Oklahoma City Thunder have since gotten blown out by the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Clippers, dropping their record against teams above .500 to 9-18 on the season. 

    Oh, well. I'm standing by this anyway.

    The Thunder's top five players can give fits to every potential opponent. They're outscoring teams by 30 points per 100 possessions (!) with Chris Paul, Dennis Schroder, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams on the floor.

    That lineup should become more of a staple in the playoffs, when head coach Billy Donovan doesn't have to worry as much about monitoring minutes. Gallinari and Paul specifically have room for more burn when the stakes go higher.

    Oklahoma City's reserve rotation is a little too reliant on unseasoned wings Luguentz Dort (two-way contract), Hamidou Diallo, Terrance Ferguson, Abdel Nader and, when healthy, Darius Bazley. Shrinking the rotation and expanding the workload of its five best players should keep the game-by-game variance in check.

    Granted, the Thunder's first-round success still comes down to pulling the right matchup. They're on track to avoid the Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers. That's a good start.

    The newly pint-sized Houston Rockets don't profile as the ideal opponent. Oklahoma City hasn't faced them since they leaned into microball, and P.J. Tucker-at-the-5 arrangements could cause problems for Adams, Nerlens Noel and Mike Muscala. But the Thunder have a matchup-proof card they've yet to play for long spurts: using Gallinari at center.

    Avoiding the Dallas Mavericks strictly because of Luka Doncic would also be nice. Earning a first-round bid versus the Denver Nuggets or Utah Jazz is more up the Thunder's alley. So long as they don't stumble into a matchup with the Clippers—they aren't dropping to eighth and facing the Lakers—this is a limb on which I'm prepared to remain.

Orlando Magic: Aaron Gordon and/or Evan Fournier Will Be Gone by Next Season

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    Changing is coming for the Orlando Magic.

    Aaron Gordon is under contract for another two years at a reasonable price point ($34.5 million), and they can pay Evan Fournier (player option) more than anyone else if he enters free agency. But keeping the band together has fast become the least enticing offseason outcome.

    Orlando bet on last year's No. 7 seed having a higher ceiling. That gamble has gone belly up. The Magic are contending for the same playoff territory they were in last season, with a far worse record and a more discouraging offense. Injuries aren't a good enough excuse for their slide.

    Bringing in a primary ball-handler who can stroke jumpers off the dribble has to be their top priority. Markelle Fultz's return to the court is a feel-good story, but he has yet to break through his long-range limitations. Fournier doesn't fit that bill in a No. 1 capacity. You're in good shape if he's your third-best scorer and a secondary facilitator, but Orlando would have to pay him to be something more.

    Gordon is even further away from filling that void, but he might be the trade chip that reels in a better option. The Magic entertained moving him at the deadline to no avail, according to Heavy's Sean Deveney. His market should heat up over the summer, when teams are looking to make the kind of improvement they cannot afford or won't find on the free-agency market.

    This is not an either-or prediction. Orlando could bid farewell to both Fournier and Gordon. Paying Fournier market value for another three to four years doesn't sit right even if the Magic land a playmaking upgrade. They already gave a big deal to Terrence Ross last summer and need to hedge against the possibility of a more thorough rebuild.

    Keeping Gordon arguably runs counter to any direction Orlando chooses. Al-Farouq Aminu, Jonathan Isaac and redshirt rookie Chuma Okeke should be ready to go next season, and the Magic still have Mo Bamba, Khem Birch and Nikola Vucevic on the frontline. If Gordon can help get them a purer wing or guard—Spencer Dinwiddie? Gordon Hayward? Kyle Lowry?—their rotation will be better off.

Philadelphia 76ers: Lose in the First Round

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    Penciling in a six seed for a first-round exit isn't usually the least bit divisive. It's chalk. 

    The Philadelphia 76ers are not the typical six seed. They're supposed to be much better. They still have time to catch the fifth-place Indiana Pacers and maaaybe the fourth-place Miami Heat, but they're never going to broach their regular-season peak. The East was billed as a two-team race between them and the Milwaukee Bucks. They're galaxies away from where they're expected to be.

    Bits and pieces of offseason optimism endure. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons should be healthier when the postseason rolls around, and the Sixers have obliterated opponents in the time both stars have spent with Tobias Harris, Josh Richardson and Al Horford. That lineup is allowing an extra-stingy 97.5 points per 100 possessions (99th percentile) and owns a 9.2 net rating.

    Looking past Philly's offensive warts is still a big ask. The Fab Five is pumping in just 106.7 points per 100 possessions when they're together (27th percentile), and the team as a whole ranks 24th in three-point efficiency since the trade deadline.

    Relegating Horford to the bench—when they're at full strength—arms the Sixers with more space in the half court, but they haven't exactly gone supernova when their other four starters play without him. Sticking him in the second unit doesn't qualify as wholesale change if they use him down the stretch of close games beside Embiid and Simmons.

    Philly's defense could still muck up an entire series, and the Sixers have beaten the Boston Celtics three times. They won't flinch at a first-round matchup with them—or, for that matter, anyone. But they are a combined 2-5 against the Heat and Toronto Raptors and a ghastly 9-23 overall on the road.

    For as much as we can kind of, sort of, envision them winning the East, the Sixers' offensive clumpiness makes it more likely they're dispatched in the first round and faced with a mountain of awkward and difficult questions entering the offseason.

Phoenix Suns: Operate as a Cap-Space Team in Free Agency

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    Whether this satisfies your appetite for predictions with a kick depends on how attached you believe the Phoenix Suns are to Aron Baynes, Frank Kaminsky (team option) and Dario Saric (restricted). They'll need to ditch at least two of them to have more money than they'd have with the non-taxpayer's mid-level exception.

    This will go down as a generous projection if the Suns fall within the top five of the draft order. Showing both Kaminsky and Saric the door while landing the No. 5 pick would leave them with under $11 million to burn—and that's assuming they drop one of Jevon Carter (restricted), Cheick Diallo (team option) or Elie Okobo (non-guaranteed). The full MLE is worth close to $9.8 million.

    Phoenix will have to renounce both Baynes and Saric, in addition to declining Kaminsky's option, to chisel out meaningful cap space. That's not happening.

    Baynes' minutes dipped right before he missed time with an injured left hip and haven't recovered since his return, and the Suns have plenty of wings to offset Saric's potential departure. They're still not giving up two rotation players for nothing unless their markets demand significant overpays.

    Slating Phoenix for actual cap space is more about believing the front office will explore alternative means of cutting salary. Translation: Expect Ricky Rubio and Kelly Oubre Jr. to become available.

    Trading the latter stands as the more likely scenario. Rubio is the tougher sell. He has two years and $34.8 million left on his contract and hasn't run an efficient offense in the time he logs without Devin Booker. 

    Combo wings like Oubre who play at full tilt are in higher demand. The Suns took calls on him at the trade deadline, according to the New York TimesMarc Stein, and that interest should persist even after he suffered a torn meniscus in his right knee. He has just one year and $14.4 million left on his deal, is volcanic in transition and is nailing 49 percent of his pull-up jumpers inside the arc. 

    Plenty of teams will be open to absorbing the bulk of his salary. The Atlanta Hawks, Detroit Pistons and New York Knicks should be interested if it's a straight salary dump. The Charlotte Hornets (Miles Bridges?) and Miami Heat (Kendrick Nunn?) might be open to sending back a cheaper asset.

    Turning Oubre into cap space—either outright or while acquiring a small-time salary—would allow the Suns to go after a more reliable defensive option (Jerami Grant) or more dynamic scorer (Evan Fournier, Danilo Gallinari). Whether any of the most gettable free agents vault them back into the playoff picture is a different story. The Suns are close enough to eighth place now to believe prioritizing free agency when other teams are punting on it will make the difference.

Portland Trail Blazers: Neil Olshey Trades Anfernee Simons This Summer

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    Expecting the Portland Trail Blazers to dissolve the Damian Lillard-CJ McCollum partnership is tired. Too many people have been there and predicted that, only for the team to reinvest in both.

    Flipping McCollum will make even less sense this summer. The Blazers are on course to miss the playoffs after, let's say, a questionable 2019 offseason, but injuries are more responsible for their tumble down the Western Conference ladder. They can't glean anything from the roster when Jusuf Nurkic hasn't played (leg), Zach Collins has made just three appearances (shoulder) and Rodney Hood will finish with 21 games under his belt (Achilles).

    Giving McCollum a three-year, $100 million extension last summer only complicates his appeal on the trade market. Teams will have interest in acquiring a primary scorer with four total seasons left on his contract, but the balance on his entire deal ($129.4 million) isn't netting an upgrade. Portland will have to include other assets, in which case McCollum is more valuable as a mainstay unless a top-10ish player comes back as part of a larger deal.

    Anfernee Simons is now the more sensible trade chip. He retains his blue-chip-prospect mystique and is on a cost-controlled contract through the next two seasons, and he's redundant when the Blazers are paying superstar money to both Lillard and McCollum.

    Keeping Simons has its merits if Portland sees him as someone who can spearhead the second unit as the primary ball-handler and scorer. He hasn't seen enough time in that role, and the offense has mustered an Evan Turnery 95.8 points per 100 possessions with him at point guard (1st percentile).

    Squeezing him into the Lillard-McCollum dynamic is equally tough. His efficiency alongside both is unspectacular and descends into the toilet on his own. The Blazers have steamrolled opponents during the stints in which they play all three guards, but they need to surround them with better defenders for those returns to hold over a larger sample.

    Counting on Portland to deal one of its own isn't taken lightly. General manager Neil Olshey has always gotten high on his own supply (of prospects). Simons will carry much more value internally than he does on the trade market. The Blazers might be content to guarantee Trevor Ariza's 2020-21 salary, use the non-taxpayer's mid-level exception and bank on better health from Collins, Hood (player option) and Nurkic catapulting them up the Western Conference hierarchy.

    But even the best-case scenario of standing pat doesn't spare them from thinking about the bigger picture. Simons will be extension-eligible after next year. They can't commit what it'll take to keep all three of their guards long term. Flipping Simons for a higher end first-rounder or prospect or using him as the centerpiece of a larger deal that brings back a fringe star is more in tune with where Portland appears to be headed.

Sacramento King: Bogdan Bogdanovic Costs $18 Million or More Per Year

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    Bogdan Bogdanovic's forthcoming windfall is an expense the Sacramento Kings seem prepared to fund. They sent Dewayne Dedmon to the Atlanta Hawks at the deadline to lower next year's commitments and give themselves more breathing room under the tax in advance of his restricted free agency, per the New York TimesMarc Stein.

    Smart thinking.

    Proximity to the luxury tax didn't technically matter. The Kings can match any offer sheet Bogdanovic signs. But fringe-playoff contenders aren't as willing to cannonball into the tax. Nor should they be.

    Insofar as Sacramento will ever be open to paying the tax, next year's team won't be worth that kind of investment. Completing the Dedmon deal allows general manager Vlade Divac to match max-salary offer sheets for Bogdanovic without having to worry about the tax line. 

    The Kings don't have to fret about top-of-the-line overtures. Bogdanovic isn't brokering a starting salary of $28.8 million in his next deal.

    Something closer to $20 million is absolutely in play. Bogdanovic straddles the line between offensive complement and featured option. He can work beside a ball-dominant floor general like De'Aaron Fox while dabbling in from-scratch creation for both himself and others.

    Only seven non-bigs are averaging as many points per 36 minutes (18.3) with a lower usage rate. Bogdanovic pairs this modest-maintenance offense with a fair-weather on-ball ceiling. He is in the 60th percentile of efficiency as the pick-and-roll ball-handler and the 88th percentile as a low-volume iso scorer. His off-the-dribble three isn't a sure thing, but he will take them, and he's converting more than 50 percent of his pull-up twos.

    Basically every team with significant cap space can sell themselves on making a run at Bogdanovic if they don't care about torching flexibility for 2021. At 28, he doesn't perfectly fit the timeline of a rebuilding squad, but he's complementary enough that he doesn't jeopardize the development of more important cornerstones around him.

    Teams interested in making noise next season are easier sells. Bogdanovic would fill holes on the Atlanta Hawks, Detroit Pistons and Miami Heat, and both the Phoenix Suns and Toronto Raptors could stand to make an offer if they wind up working under the cap. The Kings seem prepared to break open their piggy bank to keep him—and they better be. He is among the few free agents who stand to solicit lucrative commitments in a small-time market.

San Antonio Spurs: The Roster Gets a Serious Face-Lift

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    Roster continuity is no longer doing the San Antonio Spurs any good. They're 11th in the Western Conference, three losses off the eighth-place Memphis Grizzlies, and FiveThirtyEight gives them a damningly low 3 percent chance of making the playoffs despite having one of the league's six easiest schedules down the stretch, per PlayoffStatus.com.

    A major shakeup isn't just a distinct possibility. It is actively seeking out the Spurs. And if their 22-year playoff streak ends, they have to embrace it. 

    That doesn't automatically equate to a full-on, grass-roots youth movement. It could, but San Antonio has spent itself out of conventional rebuild territory.

    LaMarcus Aldridge, Rudy Gay and Patty Mills are on the books for a combined $51.8 million next season, and DeMar DeRozan seems destined to pick up his $27.7 million player option. Only two of those four—Gay and Mills—are eminently movable. Aldridge and DeRozan won't be impossible to trade as expiring contracts, but higher salaries and play styles that clash with today's most popular aesthetics complicate the road to early exits.

    The Spurs will reach an organic reset point in 2021, when they have a ton of money washing off the bottom line. Their openness to starting anew before then—or even by then—hinges on 71-year-old Gregg Popovich's own plan. They're unlikely to take the long-term view while he's on the sidelines.

    Bet on them exploring some type of middle ground over the offseason. Their wealth of expiring contracts is conducive to overhauling the roster. They have the salary anchors to take back unwanted deals attached to assets and, more likely, to build sweetened-up packages for win-now returns.

    Both scenarios are out of character for the Spurs. So is missing the playoffs. Something should give this offseason—and whatever it is better noticeably change the make-up of this roster.

Toronto Raptors: Make the Conference Finals

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    Two seeds do not make the conference finals out of nowhere. The Toronto Raptors, despite pacing themselves for 58 wins after losing both Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green over the summer, are no exception. They have the league's second-best defense and are still built to shape-shift their rotation and play style in ways best tailored to their opponents.


    The Eastern Conference is wide-open between seeds two through six. Any team from that pack can beat another over the course of a seven-game series without it being dubbed an upset or foregone conclusion. 

    Such parity puts the Raptors on inherently thin ice. It doesn't help that they sport a 10-14 record against teams above .500, including a combined 6-8 showing against the East's five other best playoff squads. The Philadelphia 76ers are the only fellow top-six seed with a lower winning percentage against above-.500 factions. 

    Toronto is still at a huge advantage by virtue of contending for second place. It delays a potential matchup with the Milwaukee Bucks until the Eastern Conference Finals and sets up a first-round showdown with a steppingstone like the Brooklyn Nets or Orlando Magic, against whom the Raptors are a combined 3-1.

    Advancing past a potential second-round sparring with the Sixers, Boston Celtics or Miami Heat wouldn't be a cinch, but again: those teams aren't the Bucks. And the Raptors, just like last season, may not sniff their peak until the playoffs begin and their roster is closer to whole. They're dealing with fewer long-term absences now, but Marc Gasol hasn't played since Jan. 28, and they continue to lead the league in wins forfeited because of injury, according to Man Games Lost.

Utah Jazz: Finish Outside Top 12 of Defensive Efficiency

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    Predicting what's almost already true can ring a little hollow. The Utah Jazz are 11th in points allowed per 100 possessions, with one-quarter of the season left to play.

    Maintaining the status quo shouldn't be a hot take. It is for the Jazz. They have ranked no lower than seventh in defensive rating over the past four seasons (2015-16) and are working off three straight top-three finishes. Landing outside the top 12 without seriously overhauling their roster would constitute a collapse.

    Incidentally, self-destruction is exactly what the Jazz are up against. They were eighth in defensive efficiency at their halfway mark. They rank 22nd since and have been even worse over the past month-plus, checking in at 26th since Feb. 1

    Opposing offenses are feasting at the rim, from beyond the arc and in transition during this stretch. Rudy Gobert doesn't look as interested in swallowing every shot attempt around the rim. Utah is hemorrhaging quality three-point attempts when Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell share the floor. Royce O'Neale seems like the only one interested in consistently getting back on defense after missed shots.

    To the Jazz's credit, they played through a gauntlet of postseason locks and hopefuls in February. They have time—and the personnel—to shore up their defense. But life isn't guaranteed to get much easier. 

    Utah doesn't have one of the easiest remaining schedules, per PlayoffStatus.com, and the ongoing integration of Conley will only put more pressure on Gobert to be his shot-gobbling, two-time-Defensive Player of the Year self. This isn't a team that has it together, and with a mere 0.2 points separating them from the 14th-place defense, it's entirely fair to expect their slippage to continue.

Washington Wizards: Bradley Beal DOESN'T Get Traded over the Offseason

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    Bradley Beal doesn't like losing, and the Washington Wizards have done a whole lot of that this season, including consecutive letdowns in games that their All-Star snub dropped 50 points. They still have an outside shot at making the playoffs, but they'll need help in the form of implosions from the Brooklyn Nets or Orlando Magic down the stretch.

    Missing the postseason won't bode well for those hoping Beal sticks around beyond this year. Most viewed his extension as a delay in verdict. The Wizards bought themselves another year—Beal can now hit free agency in 2022 (player option) rather than 2021—to sell him on their macro picture.

    This season's performance without John Wall hasn't done much to sway perception. It is neither better nor worse than expected. Washington's outlook remains blurry, verging on depressing.

    Career seasons from Davis Bertans (a free agent this summer) and Mo Wagner aren't the strongest selling points, and the Wizards won't have the cap space to make a major splash over the next two summers. There will only ever be so much they can do with both Beal and Wall on the payroll—especially if they bring back Bertans.

    Trade-machine sharks will be circling Washington all offseason. The assumption will be that Beal wants out, even if he doesn't make a behind-the-scenes demand, because the Wizards cannot pitch him on a concrete plan without knowing what they do or don't have in Wall following his recovery from an Achilles injury.

    That's actually the point of this prediction. Beal's extension wasn't so much about giving Washington a longer leash this season (while adding to his financial security). It was a mutual, if tacit, agreement to ride this out until at least next year's trade deadline, by which time the Wizards will have a better hold of Wall's outlook as well as their own.

    If they're not on the path toward Eastern Conference contention, Beal will still be just 27, with a season-and-a-half left on his contract. Someone will fork over the moon for that much face time with him.

    None of this says much about Beal's long-term future. That's still up in the air. For now, though, it seems like he'll at least begin next season in Washington.


    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.comBasketball Reference or Cleaning the Glass. Salary and cap-hold information via Basketball InsidersEarly Bird Rights and Spotrac.

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by B/R's Andrew Bailey.