Top Offseason Goals for NBA's Worst Teams
More than two-thirds of the NBA's teams are either already thinking about the playoffs or still trying to clinch a postseason bid. For these squads, the priority is now.
The rest of the league needs to start planning for later.
Stretch runs are not entirely pointless for those who have seen their playoff hopes dashed. They can use what's left of this year to get a feel for who—and what—fits into their bigger picture. Prepping for the offseason is not their sole focus.
But it's still a pretty big one. So, let's talk about it.
FiveThirtyEight's playoff prediction model will be our guide to keep things ultra-objective. Only squads with a 2 percent or lower chance of cracking this year's postseason bracket will fall under the "Worst Team" umbrella. The San Antonio Spurs can thank us later.
Identifying the top offseason goal for each bottom-feeder will be case-specific. Roster holes completely ignore the draft. The lottery has yet to take place. Telling the New York Knicks to "Select a point guard who can actually run an offense, dammit" rings hollow without knowing when they'll be on the clock.
Everything else, from free agency and trades to organizational self-reflection, is fair game.
Lottery-bound squads angling for a postseason berth next year have to figure out how to properly upgrade their roster. Those in the earlier stages of a reset need to act like it. And some teams must decide whether they're rebuilding at all.
Atlanta Hawks: Land Another Playmaker
Shoring up the playmaking responsibilities behind Trae Young absolutely must top the Atlanta Hawks' to-do list.
For one, they're stocked just about everywhere else. They have wings galore, and the trio of Clint Capela (still injured), Dewayne Dedmon and John Collins satisfies their frontline quota—even if the latter's future is officially in question following the acquisition of Capela.
Mostly, though, Atlanta just desperately needs a ball-handling lifeline behind, and beside, Young.
Jeff Teague isn't it. Kevin Huerter, De'Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish are all fit for secondary duty, but they're not good enough to give Young a break when he's on the court or float their own lineups.
Forget without him. The Hawks can barely even function offensively with their All-Star sophomore running the show. They're pumping in 111.1 points per 100 possessions when he's on floor, a mark good enough for the 53rd percentile. That offensive rating drops to 98.3 (2nd percentile) whenever Young is on the bench.
Roster construction is part of the problem. Atlanta needs more established offensive talent in general. But the minutes without Young have to get better either way.
It almost doesn't matter who the Hawks target. They have a clear path to almost $50 million cap space. They can prioritize signing or trading for another point guard who's capable of playing in tandem with Young (Fred VanVleet), or they're free to chase a shot-creating wing like Bogdan Bogdanovic (restricted) or Gordon Hayward (player option).
Charlotte Hornets: Resist Chasing the Quick Fix While Signing an Impact Wing
Armed with cap space for the first time in forever, the Charlotte Hornets are among the NBA's biggest offseason wild cards.
Bidding farewell to Kemba Walker last summer and buying out Marvin Williams after the trade deadline suggests they're committed to a more gradual timeline. So does their record. But they paid Terry Rozier win-now money as part of Walker's departure, and team governor Michael Jordan has yet to prove he can stomach a full-on rebuild.
Cap space only increases the Hornets' range of offseason outcomes. They'll have more than $25 million to burn even if they land inside the top three of the draft lottery. That number climbs if they wind up with a lower pick or decide to stretch the final year of Nicolas Batum's contract, worth $27.1 million, over the next three seasons.
A shallow free-agent market protects the Hornets, on some level, against themselves. Finding a big-name to overpay figures to be almost impossible. They'll have to go out of their way to do something blasphemous if both DeMar DeRozan (player option) and Andre Drummond (player option) decline the chance to hit the open market.
Throwing the bag at Montrezl Harrell feels like a Hornets move and is definitely the wrong call. They need more of a defensive anchor or unicorn scorer in the frontcourt if they're not married to Cody Zeller, who comes off the books after next year. It also behooves them to limit the time Miles Bridges and, to a lesser extent, PJ Washington log at the 3.
Targeting a wing makes more sense—provided he fits the timeline. Backing up the Brinks truck for Danilo Gallinari or Gordon Hayward, who they signed to an offer sheet in 2014, puts them on the fast track back to sub-mediocrity.
This becomes a different story should a bare-bones market squeezes someone like Gallinari, Evan Fournier (player option) or Joe Harris. Without getting a team-friendlier deal, Charlotte should focus on younger heads.
Pickings are admittedly slim in that department. The New Orleans Pelicans will no doubt match a max deal for Brandon Ingram (restricted)—if they even let him sign an offer sheet. Restricted free agents Malik Beasley, Juan Hernangomez and Dario Saric are worth a look, although none of them are pure wings. (Beasley comes closest.) Jerami Grant's price point is worth a look if he declines his player option.
In the event the Hornets are inclined to prioritize a big man, they should be thinking a little further outside the box. Jakob Poeltl (restricted) or Christian Wood would be mega interesting. And if finding a player worth semi-substantial money fails, Charlotte can always take fliers on cheaper wings and bigs, such as Chris Boucher, Harry Giles, Furkan Korkmaz, Kenrich Williams (restricted), etc.
Chicago Bulls: Change Up the Front Office
The Chicago Bulls' front office might, finally, be on the hot seat.
General manager Gar Forman has already seen his role pivot more toward scouting, and Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations John Paxson is running low on leeway almost three full seasons removed from the Jimmy Butler trade.
Chicago has at least thought about front-office alternatives, including Indiana Pacers general manager Chad Buchanan, according to NBC Sports' K.C. Johnson. That seems like progress. At the same time, the Bulls don't appear ready to completely move beyond the current regime:
As Johnson wrote:
"If the Bulls ask for and receive permission to interview Buchanan, his longstanding working relationship with [Kevin] Pritchard would seemingly indicate an ability to mesh with Bulls Executive Vice President John Paxson. As previously reported, ownership still values Paxson's leadership and vision for the direction of the franchise. Paxson long has publicly stated he's willing to accept any role the franchise thinks is best for the Bulls.
"The specific structure for the expected front-office changes hasn't been finalized, according to a source. The Bulls also are planning an overhaul of the scouting department, which is expected to grow. Current general manager Gar Forman is expected to be offered the opportunity to remain in the organization as a scout."
Whatever the Bulls do should be more decisive than reassigning Forman and restructuring the front office around Paxson. They've yet to make much progress since shipping out Butler in 2017.
Injuries haven't helped. Chicago is only now getting a look at what Wendell Carter Jr., Lauri Markkanen and Otto Porter Jr. can do together. But that's merely a fraction of the problem. The Bulls' lack of direction is a bigger issue. Their record infers rebuilding, but they haven't positioned themselves miles below .500 by design.
Taking on Porter's contract at last year's deadline and signing Tomas Satoransky and Thaddeus Young over the summer were win-now plays. And while none of those moves have proved detrimental—all of them were celebrated in real time—Chicago hasn't overseen vast improvements from the kids.
Coby White has probably shown the most advancement, and only in recent weeks. Carter and Markkanen have battled injuries, but neither has made appreciable jumps at the offensive end. Kris Dunn looked like a keeper before spraining his right MCL, but he's a restricted free agent, and to what extent he fits into the future is unclear.
To be clear: The Bulls are not in a damning position. They've yet to take a position at all. This should be the summer they install decision-makers with a more consistent and long-term vision.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Figure out the Head Coaching Situation
On the heels of the failed John Beilein experiment, the Cleveland Cavaliers need to hire a head coach they plan to keep for more than a microsecond. Their search figures to be...interesting.
It isn't necessarily that the Cleveland gig is unappealing. The NBA only has 30 head coaching jobs. Someone prominent will always be in play. The Cavaliers also have more young talent than advertised.
Collin Sexton is back to shooting the lights out from deep, Darius Garland was finding his groove as a playmaker before suffering a groin injury, and Kevin Porter Jr. has scored and hustled his way to All-Rookie consideration. Between this year's pick and Dylan Windler (presumably) making his debut next season, this team is hardly barren.
Cleveland's direction is still hard to discern. It defaults to a rebuilding squad but has a win-now frontline rotation in place.
Kevin Love is still on the roster, and acquiring Andre Drummond implies the Cavaliers intend to keep him even if he opts to explore the open market. Tristan Thompson's future is uncertain ahead of free agency, but he and the team talked about an extension prior to the trade deadline, per Cleveland.com's Chris Fedor.
Retaining two of those three into next season would render the Cavaliers' timeline all sorts of murky. Beilein's arrival hinted at a slow-play rebuild. That's no longer the overwhelmingly obvious plan.
Choosing between a more gradual process or accelerated turnaround directly impacts the coaching search. Will the Cavs go younger? Tap into the college ranks again? Hire another first-timer? Will they opt for a more veteran presence? Does J.B. Bickerstaff have a real shot at keeping the job long term? Might Cleveland consider using him as a placeholder for another season before making a lengthy commitment?
Every summer is critical for teams traveling ambiguous paths. The Cavs will invariably lend more clarity to their direction over the offseason, but the process has to begin with hiring a head coach who fits with what they're trying to do.
Detroit Pistons: Clarify Their Direction in Post-Andre Drummond Era
Sending Andre Drummond to the Cleveland Cavaliers without receiving significant compensation doesn't necessarily portend much about the Detroit Pistons' direction. Expressing a desire not to shell out superstar money for a big man is different from committing to a full-tilt rebuild.
Trading Drummond afforded the Pistons flexibility, both for free agency and into their future. They'll have access to more than $30 million while carrying a cap hold for Christian Wood, a priority on his own. Their spending power will mushroom if Tony Snell declines his $12.2 million player option.
What Detroit plans to do with its space is, for now, anyone's guess.
Attempting to start over is difficult with Blake Griffin on the books for $75.8 million over the next two years. The Pistons aren't rerouting him at this point without including the type of sweetener they have zero business coughing up. They can write his money off as a sunk cost, but leaving that much money on the bench is impossible—particularly when Griffin remains an All-NBA player at full strength.
Keeping Derrick Rose past the trade deadline has similar implications. His $7.7 million salary is eminently movable, but Detroit rejected a deal from the Los Angeles Lakers built around Alex Caruso, according to The Athletic's Shams Charania. Offers won't get much better in the summer, if they do at all, with Rose on an expiring contract and working off an ankle injury.
Read between the lines, and it looks like the Pistons are more partial to an insta-reboot. They have the money to rejigger the roster around Griffin, Rose, Snell, Wood, Bruce Brown, Luke Kennard, Sekou Doumbouya, Svi Mykhailiuk and this year's draft pick. Landing a higher-end point guard (Fred VanVleet) or wing scorer (Evan Fournier, Danilo Gallinari, Marcus Morris) should vault them back into playoff territory.
But Detroit entertained moving Kennard to the Phoenix Suns at the trade deadline, per ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski. Shopping a 23-year-old nearing extension eligibility reeks of starting over, unless the team is irreversibly concerned about the tendinitis in his knees.
This is all different from an identity crisis. The Pistons are clearly open to shaking up the roster. They just need to figure out what form, and direction, next year's squad is going to take.
Golden State Warriors: Use the Andre Iguodala Trade Exception
Massive trade exceptions are seldom used in full. They get created. They get broken up. They expire. But they rarely turn into a single pricey player.
That makes sense for the most part. Expensive contracts are (supposed to be) reserved for impact players. Most teams won't jettison valuable rotation pieces without receiving anything in return, and trade exceptions cannot be used in combination with other players.
The Golden State Warriors need to hope their $17.2 million Andre Iguodala trade exception is, well, an exception.
They profile as a taxpayer next season, which often dissuades teams from taking back salary without sending some out. But they're trying to reenter the championship discourse, and Chase Center prints money. They can stomach the extra hit if it means acquiring a difference-maker.
Though the Iguodala exception could be used as part of a non-simultaneous trade that nets the Warriors a big name (say, Myles Turner), those scenarios would need to include this year's draft pick. That's not a card they're especially likely to play unless it brings back a superstar. They also don't have a lot of time to put everything together. The Iguodala exception expires July 7, a week into free agency.
Golden State is better off skulking around teams that will be interested in slashing costs, beginning a rebuild or both.
Returning someone along the lines of Rudy Gay or Tony Snell would count as a win. Evan Fournier (player option) and Tomas Satoransky are probably too ambitious unless the Orlando Magic and Chicago Bulls, respectively, decide to lean into more wholesale rebuilds. Thaddeus Young might be kind of interesting. Kelly Oubre Jr. would be extremely intriguing if the Phoenix Suns are trying to create cap space for a run at someone else.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Beef Up the Frontline Depth Next to KAT
Finding worthwhile cornerstones is the hardest aspect of any rebuild. The Minnesota Timberwolves have now checked that box. Twice. D'Angelo Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns give them two franchise pillars around which to build. Fleshing out the core around them comes next.
Both Malik Beasley and Juan Hernangomez are playing well enough since coming over from the Denver Nuggets to be part of the future. Re-signing them in restricted free agency has to be a priority unless the market inflates their price tags beyond reason.
Jarrett Culver isn't going anywhere. Nor should he. He's struggled to find his chi on offense this year, but his efficiency has picked up since the All-Star break, and he offers more positional versatility on defense than any of the Timberwolves' other wings. Josh Okogie is a keeper.
Minnesota still needs a more dynamic defender to pair with Towns in the frontcourt—someone who can rove around outside the paint but also make reads and get stops around the rim.
James Johnson is playable but is only a temporary solution. Culver and Hernangomez should never be tussling with bigs. Omari Spellman and Jarred Vanderbilt, both playing in the G League, are worth keeping around, but the Timberwolves' timeline after sending next year's first-round pick to the Golden State Warriors (top-three protection) is a tad too immediate to bank on either of them.
Filling this gap in free agency won't be easy. Minnesota will be over the cap, and its capacity to use the full non-taxpayer's mid-level exception ($9.8 million) depends on how much it costs to re-sign Beasley and Hernangomez and whether the powers up top are willing to pay the tax.
Some of the best fits will still be out of reach even if the Timberwolves have the full MLE. Marcus Morris will get comfortably more than that on the open market. Ditto for Jerami Grant if he declines his player option.
Jae Crowder should fall within that range, but his defensive bandwidth tops out at power forward. Paul Millsap fits the bill if Minnesota isn't worried about his 36th birthday next February and the injuries he's incurred since joining the Nuggets.
Using Johnson's expiring contract to anchor a trade might be the Timberwolves' best bet. Aaron Gordon would be a fantastic get beside Towns but might require cutting bait on Culver, this year's pick (after he signs) or a distant first-rounder that conveys after they fulfill their obligations to the Golden State Warriors.
Al Horford could work if Minnesota feels like stepping out on a limb. He's a more natural fit beside the shifty Towns and Russell than Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. A source told USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt the Philadelphia 76ers would want shooting back in any potential Horford package, but the Timberwolves should have an easier time selling them on an offer assembled around relief from the three years and $81 million ($70 million guaranteed) he's still owed.
New York Knicks: Act Like a Rebuilding Team
Hammering out the head-coaching spot should technically top the New York Knicks' list of priorities. But they burn through those like sticks of gum, and the direction they take the roster will inform who they should hire.
New team president Leon Rose can pretty easily win over fans and media by presiding over an actual rebuild. Half-hatched schemes to bring the Knicks back to former glory need to go. Youth has to be the priority. The days of Elfrid Payton getting more run than Frank Ntilikina and Dennis Smith Jr and Moe Harkless, Reggie Bullock and Bobby Portis playing over Kevin Knox have to stop.
Rose's job is made infinitely harder by the absence of clear-cut cornerstones. RJ Barrett and Mitchell Robinson are the closest New York comes to untouchable building blocks, and neither is actually at that level.
To this end, the Knicks needn't remain married to all of their kiddies. Smith has, quite literally, turned into the NBA's least efficient scorer. They can move him without losing the press conference. Giving up on Knox (has a good-looking jumper) and Ntilikina (defensive worker bee) is tougher to justify, but selling high doesn't have to be out of the question.
New York likewise has the license to spend its cap space on roster upgrades. Only the Atlanta Hawks project to have more money if the Knicks renounce Harkless, decline Bobby Portis' player option and waive Taj Gibson and Wayne Ellington.
Spending that cash on the right players is paramount. New York should be in the market for shooting—which is why keeping Reggie Bullock makes sense—to simplify the life of their primary ball-handlers. Especially Barrett. Signing vets who actively complement the youth, as opposed to overshadowing it, is always OK.
Even breaking open the piggy bank for Fred VanVleet would be fine. He's still just 26, and the Knicks have rarely employed an above-average floor general over the past two decades—and never for more than one season at a time.
Kicking the tires on players who more so defy the team's timeline is where things get hairy. The Knicks are doing their due diligence on Chris Paul's availability, according The Athletic's Frank Isola and SNY's Ian Begley. That's not a problem in a vacuum.
Paul is going to make an All-NBA team this season. He's still someone who elevates those around him. Playing beside him would be a boon for Barret, Knox, Robinson and anyone the Knicks draft this year.
Compromising their first-round stock in 2021 and 2022 isn't an issue, either. Fringe playoff contention has its value to internal development, and tanking doesn't hold as much merit under the current lottery format. Even floating the remainder of Paul's deal isn't a major concern. The two years and $85.6 million he has left could end up looking terrible, but alternative scenarios include New York doling out cap space to inferior players at a time when the salary-dumping market won't be particularly robust.
Reconciling Paul's arrival with what it costs to get him and what the Knicks must do to keep him happy is tougher. The Oklahoma City Thunder are going to want more than straight cap relief given how this season has unfolded, and New York shouldn't be surrendering the tiniest future asset while assuming so much risk.
Meanwhile, the Knicks would most likely be compelled, verging on forced, to speed up their timeline if they get Paul. He's too good to play out the next two years as the mentor on a non-competitive team. That paves the way for some impulsive decisions.
Rebuilding is hard. Acting like a team that cares about rebuilding is not. Rose can gain some serious goodwill if he gets the Knicks to, for once, take the long-term view.
Phoenix Suns: Partner Devin Booker with Another Dynamic Scorer
All of the Phoenix Suns' maneuvering last summer didn't address their primary problem. They still need someone who can impact the offense independent of Devin Booker.
Phoenix is scoring 113.1 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor (70th percentile). That number nosedives to 101.2 when he's catching a breather (6th percentile). No one currently on the roster is equipped to soften that drop-off.
Signing Ricky Rubio has only helped so much. He can lighten Booker's ball-handling workload, but he's not someone who prioritizes looking for his own shot, and he's not going to splash in jumpers off the dribble. The Suns are pumping in just 97.5 points per 100 possessions when he plays without Booker (2nd percentile).
Kelly Oubre Jr. doesn't have the playmaking instincts to be that guy. Deandre Ayton needs to do more of his own lifting and increase his face-up reps before attempting to conquer that solo frontier. Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson and Dario Saric don't have a deep enough offensive bag.
Opting not to make a strong push for D'Angelo Russell last summer qualifies as a missed opportunity. The Suns need that type of co-scorer—someone who can initiate the offense, score at all levels and help navigate Booker's stints on the bench and his midseason slumps (like the one he's in now).
Free agency isn't teeming with comparable players this summer, and the Suns don't have the cap equity to sign the best fits. They have a path to opening up meaningful room, but it includes parting ways with all three of Saric (restricted), Aron Baynes and Frank Kaminsky (team option) or offloading Oubre or Rubio.
Bogdan Bogdanovic (restricted), Evan Fournier (player option) and Danilo Gallinari all loom as quality options if Phoenix jumps through the hoops necessary to create space. The Suns are otherwise best served testing the trade waters.
They're a sneaky-good landing spot for Chris Paul if the Oklahoma City Thunder don't demand much beyond Oubre and Rubio. Kyle Lowry would be everything if the Toronto Raptors decide to rebuild or choose paying Fred VanVleet over him.
Spencer Dinwiddie will be up there if the Brooklyn Nets are smitten with a package of Oubre and other stuff. Will Barton and Luke Kennard, who Phoenix sniffed around at the deadline, aren't as ideal, but they'd work.