Every NBA Franchise's Biggest Basketball Reason for Optimism
The NBA is neck-deep in "Bigger than basketball" territory.
As the coronavirus pandemic continues to warp everyday life, priorities have changed. Salvaging what's left of the 2019-20 season is a distant second to the well-being of players, coaches, arena employees, fans and everyone else under the sun.
Each new reported case of COVID-19 sends an unsettling tremor throughout the league—a reminder of everything that's at stake beyond the hardwood.
What remains of the Association, though, must go on. Sports are an escape, and focusing on actual basketball is a welcomed distraction. And in an effort to generate some feel-good vibes during these trying times, we're diving into the biggest source of optimism for each franchise's future.
These silver linings can be whatever: player performances, team trajectories, prospect development, salary-cap situations, improving health bills, clearer outlooks—anything that stands to buoy a squad's big picture. And while each vote of confidence doesn't guarantee an eventual title, it is something for fans to cling to whenever they peer into their squad's crystal ball.
"Inside The Green Room" podcast host and Los Angeles Laker, Danny Green, joins "The Full 48 with Howard Beck" to discuss the Lakers coronavirus testing and subsequent quarantine, his hopes for finishing the NBA season, his thoughts on how the playoffs should be structured, and how he’s spending this unexpected downtime.
Atlanta Hawks: The Right Combination of Star Power, Propsects and Flexibility
Win-loss sticklers will point out the Hawks are on pace to win fewer games than last year. That's not a big deal. John Collins' 25-game suspension torpedoed their season before it ever really got off the ground, and holding this squad to a fringe-postseason bar always overstated its situation.
Trae Young's entrenched stardom boosts Atlanta's outlook on its own. A strong close to his rookie season hinted at All-NBA tools, but his value as one of the league's premier offensive hubs is now inarguable.
Collins' play is likewise a victory. Extension-eligibility renders his future with the team iffy, but he's proved a little bit more viable defensively at the 4 and shot 44.4 percent on real volume from three-point range since the middle of January—mission-critical developments when looking at his eventual fit beside Clint Capela.
Giving up a first-round pick to bring in another big man didn't sit right with some. They can get over it. Capela is on a reasonable contract, and the opportunity cost was low. The Brooklyn Nets selection that the Hawks gave up will fall outside the lottery in a weak draft, and they still have a pathway to nearly $50 million in cap space this summer.
The jury is out on whether De'Andre Hunter can be a premier stopper. But he's shooting a fairly high clip from three over the past two months. Ditto for Cam Reddish. Atlanta has also steamrolled opponents without completely collapsing on defense when it runs out the all-kids combination of Collins, Hunter, Reddish, Young and Kevin Huerter.
Combining that asset base with plenty of cap space, another high pick in this year's draft and Capela's return from a right heel injury leaves the Hawks in great shape. Harp on wins and losses next season.
Boston Celtics: Jayson Tatum Has Entered Superstar Territory
Reducing the number of ball-handlers has injected clarity into Boston's pecking order. Shedding Al Horford, Kyrie Irving, Marcus Morris Sr. and Terry Rozier while adding only Kemba Walker has allowed Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum to branch out and facilitated Gordon Hayward's fit.
The result: A top-five offense spearheaded by Tatum, who has blossomed into both an All-NBA and All-Defensive candidate.
Boston's new hierarchy exists in service of everybody. Brown and Hayward have increased their usage rates, and Walker, after almost a decade as the Charlotte Hornets' all-everything, is leaned upon in more manageable doses. Marcus Smart's green light is also greener, though that has just as much to do with Marcus Smart's (warranted) confidence in Marcus Smart.
No one is benefiting from the Celtics' reformation more than Tatum. His pick-and-roll frequency has skyrocketed compared to last season, and he's established himself as one of the league's most reliable tough-shot makers. Among the 28 players attempting at least three pull-up triples per game, he ranks third in percentage (39.9), behind only Damian Lillard and Caris LeVert.
Calls for him to improve his playmaking and finishing at the rim and up his free-throw attempts continue to roll in. They're also growing quieter. He has done a better job getting to—and converting looks at—the basket over the past few months.
Few players, meanwhile, have rivaled Tatum's two-way impact. He doesn't pull the hardest assignments as often as Brown or Smart, but he can be thrown at star ball-handlers when called upon and capitalizes on the opportunity to bust up possessions as the helper. Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James are the only other players who rank inside the top 25 of luck-adjusted real adjusted plus-minus on both offense and defense, according to NBA Shot Charts.
Championship contention by committee is a cute concept. But superstars still make the world go 'round. Having at least one top-seven—maybe top-10—player is the most common denominator of pretty much every title push. Tatum gives the Celtics a cornerstone with that exact ceiling. Both their present and future are much better off because of it.
Brooklyn Nets: They Have a Clear, If Non-Guaranteed, Path to Title Contention
So much about the Brooklyn Nets' future is up in the air, and they've made that they can no longer play the "Darlings" card.
Head coach Kenny Atkinson's departure, however mutual, undermines everything that positioned them to draw in Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Maybe he wasn't the right person for this version of the Nets. Perhaps this ends up working out for them. It better.
Letting Atkinson walk before he had the chance to coach this roster at full strength erases Brooklyn's margin for error. Durant's recovery from a ruptured right Achilles and Irving's right shoulder injury gave the team cover—an excuse for a shrunken title window, and a shield to protect it against last summer's free-agency coup going entirely belly up. Those cushions are gone now.
The Nets are acting as if they're fast-tracked for championship contention, right down to next year's projected luxury-tax bill. This line of thinking is dangerous without knowing what Durant and Irving look like upon return.
Will Durant be the same player after his catastrophic injury? Close to it? Can Irving remain healthy enough for Brooklyn to remain a mainstay in the title discussion? The Nets have, to a degree, already answered these questions in the affirmative.
That's the point. It isn't the sturdiest leg to stand on, but their gambles aren't indefensible. They didn't have an obvious path to championship contention before, when Spencer Dinwiddie, Caris LeVert and D'Angelo Russell were jockeying for position as their best players. They do now.
Next year's peak with Durant and Irving, two superstars, is much higher than any of Brooklyn's previous iterations until proven otherwise.
Charlotte Hornets: They're Exiting Salary-Cap Purgatory
After what feels like an eternity of operating well over the salary cap, the Charlotte Hornets are about to have serious flexibility over the next two summers.
In the interest of full disclosure, this is somewhat terrifying.
The Hornets haven't yet shown they can be trusted with significant spending. The previous front office is responsible for loading up the ledger, most notably with Nicolas Batum, but Charlotte capitalized on Kemba Walker's departure last summer by shelling out too much money for Terry Rozier (three years, $56.7 million).
It isn't yet clear whether the Hornets are prepared to stomach a full-on rebuild. Just as you could see them rolling the dice on a younger free agent or preserving cap space to absorb unwanted salary attached to picks and prospects, you could also see them ponying up for someone who doesn't fit their timeline. Think: DeMar DeRozan (player option), Danilo Gallinari, Marc Gasol, Gordon Hayward (player option), etc.
On the flip side, cap space will go a long way for the Hornets if they use it responsibly. At a time when only a half-dozen or so teams will have more than mid-level-exception money, they're on track for more than $25 million in room unless this summer's projections take a nosedive. They'll have max space and then some next year, when Batum and Cody Zeller come off the books and Devonte' Graham's cap hold is microscopic.
Flexibility is a useful rebuilding tool in the absence of a star prospect. And the Hornets' pool of possibilities isn't exactly barren. They have Graham, Miles Bridges, Caleb Martin, Cody Martin and P.J. Washington, and they'll add another high lottery pick in this year's draft.
Long-term outlooks get better than this, but Charlotte is about to have the means to escape the middle of nowhere.
Chicago Bulls: Health Has Held Them Back More Than Talent
Regardless of how the 2019-20 season ends, the Chicago Bulls will be remembered as a massive disappointment.
Optimists pegged them as a possible playoff squad in the Eastern Conference. Their offseason was that impressive. Re-signing head coach Jim Boylen invited "Ugh, whatever" vibes, but Tomas Satoransky and Thaddeus Young were objectively strong signings, Coby White gave them another ball-handler to futz around with, and Wendell Carter Jr., Lauri Markkanen and Otto Porter Jr. would finally all be available at the same time.
Chicago's season has unfolded in vastly different terms. Injuries have again been a huge issue, but a 27-win pace isn't loaded with silver linings. As The Athletic's Darnell Mayberry wrote:
Fifteen of Chicago’s 22 victories came against five opponents: Atlanta, Cleveland, Detroit, Memphis and Washington—teams that combined to go 115-212. When the Bulls weren’t beating teams as bad or worse than them, they typically weren’t beating anybody. They went 0-21 against teams in the top eight of the Eastern Conference. They were 2-23 against teams above .500, the fewest such victories among all teams.
Bleak much? Better availability up and down the roster could've helped. It wouldn't change everything. Satoransky and Young haven't lived up to their pay grades, and Markkanen has turned in another uneven offensive campaign.
Still, the Bulls don't yet have a firm grasp of what they can be at full capacity. Carter, Markkanen and Porter didn't play a second together last season, and they've logged just 282 possessions with another this year. Chicago, mind you, is a net plus through those minutes and has the outline of a much better team with White (scorer extraordinaire) and Zach LaVine (maker of ridiculously difficult threes) in tow.
People are quick to criticize the Bulls' ultra-aggressive defensive model. Who knows whether it's a sustainable model. But it's not not working. They are 14th in points allowed per 100 possessions and force more turnovers than any other team. Getting more games out of Carter, Porter (player option) and Markkanen next season, along with better performances from Satoranksy and Young, could put Chicago back on the playoff map.
Cleveland Cavaliers: The Young Guards Are All Right!
Whether the Cleveland Cavaliers have a blue-chip prospect on their roster remains debatable. Not one of Darius Garland, Kevin Porter Jr. and Collin Sexton has shown beyond a shadow of a doubt he can be the best player on a really good team.
Chances are none of them fit the bill. That's not the end of the world. Nor does it mean the Cavaliers whiffed on any one of them. They've each flashed staying power, particularly on the offensive end.
Sexton's outside shooting has waxed and waned all season, but his 38 percent clip from beyond the arc is the real deal. He's averaging 23.6 points while banging in 44.9 percent of his treys since Jan. 1. His 3.6 assists per game over this span are solid for someone who profiles as a combo guard, and he's notching a 59.4 true shooting percentage on a No. 1 option's workload. The pressure he puts on defenses off the dribble opens things up for everyone in the half-court.
Garland's outlook is tougher to pin down. He can get pushed around on the defensive end, and his shooting splits have been all over the place. But he's the closest Cleveland gets to a floor general among the three guards. His feel in the half-court is on the up-and-up; he's displayed patience attacking off the dribble and gotten better letting plays develop for his big men.
Porter's stock crescendoed following his return from a left knee injury. In the 15 appearances he's made since—not including the game he left against the Boston Celtics before entering concussion protocol—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 treys. He is shouldering more pick-and-roll responsibility under head coach J.B. Bickerstaff and arguably has the highest ceiling of Cleveland's three guards, if only because of his defensive activity away from the ball.
Is there a future All-Star among these three? Are any of them good enough to prevent the Cavs from taking another guard in the 2020 draft, whenever it's held? We don't yet know. Cleveland is in the infant stages of a rebuild that lacks concrete direction after trading for Andre Drummond and opting not to move Kevin Love. But the kids, in this case, are all right—and a viable starting point.
Dallas Mavericks: Luka Doncic Is Already an MVP Candidate
Here's to low-hanging fruit.
Luka Doncic isn't finishing outside the top four of this year's MVP ballot. He might even be a lock for third place.
And he's only 21.
What he's done this season is nothing short of absurd. His 28.7 points and 8.7 assists per game are gigantic increases over last year's averages (21.2 and 6.0, respectively), and they've come on just a small upsurge in playing time. Additional volume has not impacted his efficiency. His true shooting percentage (58.4) is nearly four points higher compared to his rookie year and comfortably above the league average of 56.4.
And he's only 21.
Some stars thrive as part of a larger entity. Doncic is an entire ecosystem unto himself. He bends defenses with step-back threes and a polished floater and vision that is somehow both effortless and complicated.
And he's only 21.
Yes, the Dallas Mavericks have other sources of optimism. Kristaps Porzingis turned in two duds prior to the work stoppage but looked more like a second star over the previous six weeks. The Mavericks could have a ton of cap space in 2021, depending on what happens this summer, along with a top-five player to help them recruit.
That all pales in comparison to Doncic himself. Finding best-player-on-a-championship-team superstars is the endgame of every rebuild. Dallas has one. And his rise isn't imminent or in progress. He's already that player.
And he's only 21.
Denver Nuggets: They're Still Pretty Young
Quibbling over whether the Denver Nuggets are a genuine title contender has become pastime. These discussions, while counterintuitive for a team within striking distance of the Western Conference's No. 2 seed, are not taking place in bad faith.
Denver is a model of inconsistency. Some of the awkwardness is granular and hasn't yet compromised its record. The offense is now 10th in efficiency after a slow start, but the Nuggets rank 27th in three-point-attempt rate and 20th in accuracy on above-the-break triples and subsist on an uncomfortable number of mid-range looks. They are 28th and 29th, respectively, in turnover and free-throw frequency since the All-Star break.
Other elements of their roller coaster are unbecoming of a contender. They're a rock solid 17-9 in games where neither team leads by more than three points entering the final three minutes and dominant at home. They're also turbulent on the road and have forfeited some big leads against clearly inferior teams.
All of which makes the Nuggets' present tough to project. They have a superstar in Nikola Jokic and a deep supporting cast. Their top-three conference record comes in the face of spotty health. Jokic, Jerami Grant and Monte Morris are the only players who've missed fewer than nine games. It still feels like they're a cut below winning a prospective seven-game series against the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers—and perhaps even the Houston Rockets.
This will rankle more than a few believers. It shouldn't. The Nuggets are not operating on the most urgent timeline. They have a few key free agents this summer, namely Grant (player option) and Paul Millsap, but the heart and soul of their core isn't close to aging out of title contention.
Jokic is just 25. Jamal Murray is only 23. Michael Porter Jr., a potential swing piece for both now and down the line, doesn't turn 22 until June. Gary Harris (perking up!) is 25.
Big changes may befall the Nuggets if they flame out early in the playoffs. The same might be true if the season doesn't resume. They are among the teams most primed for a big trade, insofar as Harris and Murray (extension kicks in next season) are viewed as assets on their big-money deals. But it should come as no surprise to anyone if they run things back, in 2020-21 and beyond. Their window is not indentured to immediacy.
Detroit Pistons: No Longer Confined to Sub-Mediocrity
Dealing Andre Drummond to the Cleveland Cavaliers for a low-rung return doesn't give the Detroit Pistons an obvious course to follow. Maybe they're leaning toward a gradual rebuild. Perhaps they're hoping for more of an instant turnaround. Maybe they're not quite sure what comes next.
This is neither ideal nor an identity crisis. Keeping Drummond would've meant footing the bill for next year's $28.8 million player option or a longer-term contract. Both outcomes would've locked them into the 25-to-44-win treadmill the franchise has been running for so long.
Cap projections will be all over the place following the NBA's shutdown, but the Pistons are sitting prettier than most. Carrying Christian Wood's (tiny) hold will leave them with top-five spending power. They'll have noticeably more than max space if Tony Snell declines his $12.2 million player option.
Available cash won't go as far in Detroit as it does in other markets. At the same time, pickings are slim. Free agents looking for more than the mid-level exception won't have as many suitors. The Pistons can stand out by default.
Bagging a higher-end name seems like it might be the plan. Adding a bigger-time point guard (Fred VanVleet) or wing scorer (Danilo Gallinari, Marcus Morris Sr.) to the base of Snell, Wood, Bruce Brown, Blake Griffin, Luke Kennard, Sekou Doumbouya, Svi Mykhailiuk, Derrick Rose and this year's draft pick should slingshot Detroit back into the postseason.
But this doesn't have to be the only plan. Starting over is difficult with Griffin on the books for $75.8 million over the next two years. It's not impossible. Riding out the final couple seasons of his contract is different from re-upping Drummond on a long-term pact. Teams can navigate around one massive deal on the ledger.
Other squads are in better situations. That's not up for debate. But the Pistons are willing to shake things up. Moving Drummond proved as much, as did their apparent willingness to shop Kennard at the trade deadline, per ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski. That openness to change is big when coupled with Detroit's access to different directions.
Golden State Warriors: Surviving the Gap Year Will Result in a Deeper Roster
Doubting the Golden State Warriors' capacity to recapture championship form next season is fair. Stephen Curry is 32. Draymond Green and Klay Thompson are now on the wrong side of 30, and the latter will be working his way back from a torn left ACL.
Five years of deep playoff pushes could extract a toll on the core as the Warriors' original Big Three nears the back end of its prime. Golden State also turned its D'Angelo Russell gamble into an equally risky, if not riskier, Andrew Wiggins venture. This team is no longer above getting lost in the Western Conference shuffle, even at full strength.
Penciling in the Warriors as a non-powerhouse still takes the pessimism too far. Their gap year has put them in a semi-encouraging position.
Curry, Thompson and Kevon Looney should be healthier next year. Green will play harder. All four will be well-rested relative to seasons past. They alone are enough to bankroll a return relevance—and they won't be alone.
Surviving this season will deepen the Warriors' rotation in the ensuing years. They still have to see who from the current rotation can play for a more competitive team, but Damion Lee, Eric Paschall and Jordan Poole each looks like a potential keeper. Wiggins is at least intriguing as a prospective No. 4 option rather than a No. 2.
Golden State also has this year's draft pick and the Andre Iguodala trade exception ($17.2 million) in its tool belt. Both could be good for adding a long-term rotation staple apiece, and a top-five selection will vault the Warriors into blockbuster discussions they would otherwise have to sit out. Theirs is a situation with options—and a cleaner path back to title contention than advertised.
Houston Rockets: This Is the Best Version of Russell Westbrook We've Seen
Not enough is known about the Houston Rockets' microball experiment to render a verdict on their big-picture viability. The playoffs will provide the ultimate test—best-of-seven sets allow teams to adjust—and nobody knows whether postseason basketball will see the light of day.
Even if it does, the Rockets have to account for whatever rust accumulates during this extended layoff. Players are no doubt training, and the league won't return to business as usual without providing a practice-time buffer. But a mini-camp and, if teams are lucky, a few tune-up regular-season contests won't negate all the ill effects of a months-long shutdown.
Seeking cover behind a sample size cut short will not spare Houston from scrutiny if basketball doesn't resume or its playoff trek ends without a title. Head coach Mike D'Antoni's job will still be in jeopardy. General manager Daryl Morey could be on the hot seat, too.
Wholesale changes shouldn't extend beyond the suits, though. The Rockets will work the trade market—they'll always work the trade market if Morey is around—but a fuller-scale pivot or teardown is out of the question. The logistics of an overhaul are too complex with James Harden and Russell Westbrook eating up $82.6 million of next year's cap, but mostly, the returns from small-ball-on-steroids are good enough to demand the experiment last into next season.
Houston is 11-6 with a top-five offense and top-12 defense since Clint Capela was last in the rotation. Lineups with P.J. Tucker manning the 5 are scoring 116.7 points per 100 possessions (93rd percentile) and have thrived at both ends when Robert Covington is at the 4.
Equally important: Westbrook has inched closer to world domination when surrounded by four shooters. He's averaging 31.0 points and 5.8 assists with a 57.5 true shooting percentage since Capela left the rotation. Almost 56 percent of his looks are coming inside five feet during this time, compared to 46.3 percent beforehand, where he's shooting 63.4 percent, up from 58.8 percent.
Giving Westbrook more space is a boon for the offense, not just because of his finishing, but because it drives down his three-point volume. He's shooting 35.5 percent from beyond the arc in the post-Capela era, but his long-range attempts have been cut almost in half (2.4 per game, down from 4.3).
Many, if not most, will still consider the Westbrook trade an unnecessary risk. He's owed $132.6 million over the next three years, and starting over or taking the team in a different direction is exponentially harder when he's on the books for one season longer than Chris Paul. But this isn't July. The Rockets have moved beyond that uncertainty and found a way to optimize Westbrook. That's a bigger-than-huge deal.
Indiana Pacers: They've Yet to Sniff Full Strength
Health works both for and against the Indiana Pacers' future.
Everything still hinges on Victor Oladipo. His return from a ruptured right quad tendon has not been without issue. He is not shooting well from the floor and has missed time with soreness in the same right knee. He's also been active inside Indiana's half-court defense, and he flashed more offensive panache just before the league's shutdown. His road to normal feels navigable.
But the Pacers aren't waiting on only him. Malcolm Brogdon is sidelined with a hip injury, and Jeremy Lamb's torn left ACL figures to keep him out for a large chunk of next season. Indiana won't be whole until sometime in 2020-21, if at all.
That's part of the Pacers' charm. I don't mean this in a sick, twisted way. They were almost on a 50-win pace while only having Oladipo for 13 games. That's kind of, sort of, definitely bonkers.
Lamb's injury throws a wrinkle in next year's aggregate availability, but Indiana should at least have the chance to regularly roll out its projected starting five. Brogdon, Oladipo, Myles Turner, Domantas Sabonis and T.J. Warren have logged just 173 possessions together, through which they have a net rating of 11.6.
Offseason finagling may force adjustments. The Sabonis-Turner frontcourt doesn't seem sustainable in the NBA's current offensive climate. But whatever version of the Pacers takes the floor next season should be a fuller one, if only because they'll no longer be waiting on Oladipo.
Los Angeles Clippers: Imagine What They'll Be with a Full Year of PG13
Remember when a swath of hoops heads were faux-worried about the Los Angeles Clippers? Good times.
Dropping four of five wasn't a great way to come out of the trade deadline. Kawhi Leonard was dragged for being outplayed in crunch time by Jayson Tatum during Los Angeles' Feb. 13 loss to the Boston Celtics. People questioned Marcus Morris Sr.'s fit, prematurely deeming his offensive skill set superfluous. Ivica Zubac and Montrezl Harrell held it down at the 5, but they were regular-season centers more likely to be schemed off the floor in the playoffs.
Again: Good times.
Every inquest into the Clippers' place among the league's scant few juggernauts always needed to be conditional. They've dealt with too many injuries. Harrell, Zubac and Lou Williams are the only players who've missed fewer than nine games. Paul George has been sidelined for more than one-third of the season. Leonard has missed 13 tilts. The two stars have played in just 32 games together.
In many ways, the Clippers remain a bit of an unknown. That's rarely spun into a positive for contenders. Absent day-to-day continuity in the wake of two major acquisitions, even the most level-headed take artists are inclined to express doubt. Mystery is typically the enemy of title contention.
Except in this case.
Injuries and all, the Clippers have the West's second-best record. They're 24-8 in games both George and Leonard play and nuking opponents when they share the floor. They're also the only team to beat the Los Angeles Lakers more than once.
If this is what they've done while juggling limited availability from so many key cogs, imagine what they'll do next year, when they'll presumably have a full(er) season of Paul George.
Los Angeles Lakers: No LeBron-Led Team Has Been Better Prepared for the Future
Translation: The Los Angeles Lakers have Anthony Davis.
Ignore the net-negative splits when he plays without LeBron James. The Lakers are closer to dead even than not during those minutes, and non-ball-handlers have less control over offensive outcomes when going it alone. Davis' solo stints would be more worrisome if Los Angeles employed a better backup playmaker, or if he wasn't so often responsible for carrying a defense with Kyle Kuzma at the 4 and Rajon Rondo running point.
Focusing on how much the Lakers have struggled during LeBron-less minutes matters this year. It is fuel for his MVP case, insofar as he has one over Giannis Antetokounmpo, and a point of emphasis for the postseason, where entire series can shift over teeny-tiny samples.
Treading water without LeBron is much less of a concern over the long haul. Davis is only 27, still has a claim to top-five status and isn't in danger of dropping from the top-10 discussion anytime soon. Contrary to Kyrie Irving, he also vibes with LeBron off the court. That BFF factor isn't everything, but it matters.
None of LeBron's teams have ever been better prepared for a future that includes his decline. Irving and Kevin Love were supposed to grant Cleveland that peace of mind. They never did. Davis is better than both were then, and they routinely struggled to win the small bursts they spent without LeBron.
Davis does need an offensive buffer and more reliable perimeter stoppers around him. Neither is an unreasonable condition. The Lakers will have the non-taxpayer mid-level exception this summer, a rarity for LeBron's squads, and could create meaningful cap space in the summer of 2021, when James has a player option.
This all assumes the Lakers need to fret about life after Prime LeBron at all. Next year may be his age-36 campaign, but the usual rules of time don't apply to him. If this season is any indication, he's a ways off from non-MVP form. Whenever his twilight hits, assuming it even does, the Lakers are set up to be just fine—so long as they have Davis.
Memphis Grizzlies: Ja Morant
That's it. That's the reason. Ja Morant.
To be sure, the Memphis Grizzlies have plenty of other things going for them. Brandon Clarke and Jaren Jackson Jr. are chief among them. Dillon Brooks (recently extended) and De'Anthony Melton (Early Bird restricted free agent this summer) are big-picture keepers. Kyle Anderson (26) and Jonas Valanciunas (27) are younger than you think. Justise Winslow's acquisition will be worth every penny of cap space burned if he recovers from his back injury and plays like he did in 2018-19.
It is Morant's development, though, that changes everything for the franchise. Rebuilding teams thirst after MVP-type cornerstones often without nabbing them. The Grizzlies have theirs.
This is not an overstatement of Morant's career arc. He's shouldering a star's workload on above-average efficiency...at the age of 20. His rookie season is basically beyond compare.
Oscar Robertson and Trae Young are the only other first-year players to clear 20 points and eight assists per 36 minutes. That Morant's true shooting percentage (56.8) hovers above the league average (56.4) is just as impressive. He already owns one of the NBA's 30 highest usage rates and has scored more points on unassisted twos than Devin Booker, according to PBP Stats.
Having an offensive maestro on Morant's level both expedites and simplifies the Grizzlies' timeline. He is already good enough for them to act with more urgency after this season—within reason, of course. And his emergence, by extension, lowers the bar for what Jackson must become.
Please don't mistake this for throwing shade. Jackson is the ideal big-man archetype: a high-volume three-point shooter with All-Defensive versatility. Memphis will be able to get by with him at either the 4 or 5 once he has his fouling under wraps. He has the tools of someone who can be the No. 2 on a contender.
Playing beside Morant instead frees Jackson from the pressure of developing into a No. 1. He doesn't drastically need to expand his offense to include off-the-bounce jumpers or point forwardy. He can be the guy who churns out 20-plus points per game within the flow of the offense while Morant operates as the lifeline. And though this structure doesn't guarantee the Grizzlies anything, fleshing out the rest of the roster will be a much easier endeavor because of it.
Miami Heat: Bam Adebayo Made the Leap
"Pat Riley exists" is a close second to Bam Adebayo's leap. The face of the Miami Heat's front office continues to prove the team will never be more than a stone's throw away from winning the transaction market.
Zero cap space? No problem. The Heat will still land Jimmy Butler.
Limited trade assets? And a few bloated contracts? All good. Miami will shed more than $40 million in payroll for the following season without surrendering one of its top cost-controlled assets.
Adebayo's transition from tantalizing prospect to All-Star is more important, mostly because it's a known quantity. The Heat will be among the five or six teams with the most cap space this summer and can chisel out amply more money in 2021 if they play their cards right. But what becomes of that flexibility, despite Riley's track record, isn't a given.
Hassan Whiteside's exit left the door ajar enough for Adebayo's leap. He drop-kicked through it. His lack of conventional shooting range is offset by...everything else. He can face up and put the ball on the floor; spin through traffic; find holes in the defense as the roll man; pump-fake opponents into futile contests; stutter-step his way past blockades at the rim; and captain fast-break opportunities, as both the finisher and primary playmaker.
Beefier frontcourts can give Adebayo some issues at the other end, but good luck trying to mismatch him off the floor. He has absurdly quick hands and feet when guarding in space and won't get readily pushed around lining up against bigger centers.
Miami allows 109 points per 100 possessions with him at the 5, a mark that places in the 67th percentile and is made all the more impressive by how many sub-average defenders he played alongside prior to the trade deadline. He isn't traditional rim deterrent, but he's a capable anchor in the middle.
Free agents can view the Heat in a different light following Adebayo's jump. That's terrifying when you consider how much of a destination Miami remained without the bells and whistles. Butler is no longer the lone star. The Heat have two. Adebayo allows them to pitch stars—or chase win-now trades—accordingly.
Milwaukee Bucks: Giannis Antetokounmpo's Future Is Being Overanalyzed
Made-for-TV conjecture will run amok if the season gets kiboshed or the Milwaukee Bucks flame out before the NBA Finals.
They missed their best chance to win a title! The Boston Celtics are coming! The Toronto Raptors aren't going anywhere! The Miami Heat have two stars and cap space! How is Antetokounmpo supposed to sign the supermax now?!? #HeGone.
In the interest of brutal honesty, a canceled postseason won't do the Bucks any favors. Antetokounmpo's future is a lot easier to understand if they finish out the playoffs. This may not be their absolute best chance to win a title if he sticks around, but it is their best chance to date.
Milwaukee has the league's No. 1 record and is decidedly outplaying opponents when Antetokounmpo sits. Only two other teams have a claim to being the title favorite: the Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers. That field could expand next year. If this season doesn't end with a championship—or end at all—it puts a wrench in the long-term pitch to Antetokounmpo.
That's different from hurting the Bucks' chances of locking him down.
For starters, the odds of him starting (or finishing) next season elsewhere are almost nonexistent. He is the type of star you wait on if he declines the supermax. He'll need to demand a trade for Milwaukee's concern to reach critical mass.
Nothing Antetokounmpo has ever said hints at that being an actual option. It is even less likely when the Bucks are this good.
At worst, if this year ends without a title, he figures to let the team play out next season and reevaluate his options. At best, he looks at the Bucks' record, Khris Middleton's inevitable All-NBA selection and the East's unsettled pecking order beneath Milwaukee and puts pen to paper on the supermax.
One scenario is clearly better than the other. Neither is a nightmare outcome. How the Bucks invariably reach the summer of 2021 doesn't matter. They're heavy favorites to have Antetokounmpo at the start of 2021-22.
Minnesota Timberwolves: KAT and DLo Are a Perfect (Offensive) Match
Karl-Anthony Towns has been waiting for the Minnesota Timberwolves to find him the ideal running mate his entire career. Partnering with D'Angelo Russell makes for a tenuous defensive fit, but it's the closest the team has come to giving its cornerstone a long-term equal.
Ricky Rubio never shot well enough—or looked for his own scoring opportunities enough. The Timberwolves never had the latest version of Zach LaVine, the one who consistently splashes in ridiculously difficult off-the-dribble jumpers and doesn't over-rely on his explosion. And even if they did, he is more of a secondary playmaker than offensive-floor raiser.
Jimmy Butler is the best player Towns has suited up beside (KAT-era Kevin Garnett was years removed from his prime). That's different from the best fit. Butler's grating leadership isn't for everyone, and then-coach-and-president Tom Thibodeau's failure to broker a renegotiate-and-extend turned his superstar into a disgruntled mercenary who preferred to beat up on the rest of Minnesota's core while playing next to third-stringers.
Andrew Wiggins...well, you remember how that turned out. He never came close to being the player he was (inexplicably) paid to be.
Russell is a more organic fit, both on and off the court. He and Towns are essentially B.F.F.L.s. That never hurts. Their offensive skill sets also happen to seamlessly mesh.
Towns is a pick-and-pop big man who can devastate off the bounce and with his back to the basket as well—all on extreme volume. Russell is best suited initiating pick-and-rolls to no end: slinging passes around screens, dribbling into jumpers and finessing and change-of-pacing his way to floaters.
There is almost zero overlap between the two. Russell was always miscast in a Golden State offense that didn't call for as many pick-and-rolls, and that would eventually task him with working off the ball more. Ceding post touches to Towns will be no problem. He is a good enough standstill shooter to space the floor around back-to-the-basket sets in smaller doses.
Building the rest of the roster around Russell and Towns will be a challenge. Minnesota needs to surround them with strong perimeter defenders and at least one combo-big stopper. Malik Beasley (restricted) and Jarrett Culver will be crucial to this dyad panning out. The Timberwolves will take it.
When the alternative is not having two 24-year-old stars, why wouldn't they?
New Orleans Pelicans: They're Destroying Opponents with Zion on the Floor
Zion Williamson alone is enough to be unbelievably bullish on the New Orleans Pelicans' future.
He is what happens when an unstoppable force marries an immovable object and has a baby. His per-minute production is unreal, and he hasn't yet expanded his game beyond dominating within the flow of the offense. He has the IQ to do more on the ball and be an impactful team defender. His prime is going to be hell for the rest of the league.
But the Pelicans' future also needs to be evaluated outside the "They have Zion, so who cares?" scope.
Brandon Ingram is headed for a max payday in restricted free agency. Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart are both extension-eligible this summer and will hit the (semi-)open market in 2021 if they don't have new deals. Jrue Holiday has a player option that same offseason.
Expensive decisions are coming. Unlike most squads who recently traded a top-seven player (Anthony Davis), the Pelicans have to place more stock in what's happening now; they need a firmer grasp on whether this core is worth a long-term investment.
Reconciling that urgency with the larger picture isn't an enviable position. Buying too high into the incumbent nucleus mistakenly rushes the rebuild in a way that consigns the team to mediocrity or worse. (New Orleans knows a think or two about this.) Selling on the surrounding core too early minimizes the net gains from the Davis trade.
Striking the right balance between now and later will be a matter of price point. Ingram isn't going anywhere after contending for Most Improved Player honors. Ball and Hart will be more fluid situations. But New Orleans can take solace in knowing the present foundation is making inevitable decisions easier.
In the 1,233 possessions Zion has played outside garbage time this season, the Pelicans have a net rating of 10.2 to go along with top-shelf offensive and defensive numbers. They are even better in the minutes he spends with Ingram (plus-14.1) and even better than that when Ball and Holiday join them (plus-24.5).
New Orleans has to see whether its main lineup combinations hold their returns. But this feels more sustainable than not across fairly sizable samples. The Pelicans have, at the bare minimum, seen enough to approach the expensive choices in front of them with an open mind.
New York Knicks: RJ Barrett Is an Actual Starting Point
Trust the New York Knicks with nothing. They haven't earned the benefit of doubt. Maybe team president Leon Rose ushers in a new culture and way of doing business. Or maybe, by bringing in a player agent with strong connections, New York is repackaging more of the same.
Counting on the latter is always the safest decision for Knicks fans. Expect something worse than the absolute worst. Pray for something a little better than that.
That makes it difficult to isolate an adequate source of hope. New York is in line for a high draft pick—plus the Los Angeles Clippers' first-rounder—and will have the means to create max space regardless of how much cap projections fall.
To what end a top-fiveish selection and plenty of spending power actually matter is unknown. Neither the Knicks' free-agency decision-making nor player development is bankable. It is best to work with what's already in place.
RJ Barrett is their brightest ray of light.
By the numbers, Mitchell Robinson is their most impactful player. But primary ball-handlers have more influence over the offense and, therefore, more say over a team's fate. Barrett is New York's only potential superstar prospect, and he maintains that sheen despite being overshadowed by fellow rookies Ja Morant, Zion Williamson and, at times, players drafted behind him, including Brandon Clarke, Jaxson Hayes, Tyler Herro, Matisse Thybulle and P.J. Washington.
This isn't meant to presage anything sinister about Barrett's future. The DeMar DeRozan comps write themselves, but he has delivered more advanced playmaking at this stage of his career and looks more comfortable firing away from deep.
Barrett hit his stride right before the league suspended play. Over his past eight games, he's averaging 18.3 points and 3.5 assists while banging in 37.5 percent of his triples on moderate volume. He stands to be much more effective if New York surrounds him with shooters.
Running out Barrett and Robinson plus three snipers is the model they should strive for entering free agency and in the draft. That won't accelerate their journey to title contention, but optimizing the play of their most important prospect is an actual blueprint—which makes it infinitely better than what they have in place now.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Unmatched Optionality
Most smart people entered this season wondering when, not if, the Oklahoma City would blow up the rest of their roster after trading Paul George and Russell Westbrook. They stood pat and are in line to make noise during the postseason should basketball resume, but many are still waiting for them to hit reset. Others will argue in favor of their keeping the best five players and souping up their timeline.
Oklahoma City's unofficial response to all the speculation: Why choose?
Rare is the rebuild that can balance postseason berths with player development. The San Antonio Spurs were the anomaly of anomalies for so long. The Thunder have a chance to be next.
Trading George and Westbrook has left them with as many as 15 first-round selections between now and 2026. They will view many of those picks as building blocks they'll try to groom, but they can also be used as part of blockbuster packages that inject a little more big-name oomph into the roster.
Accelerating timelines is not always accepted practice so early into a post-superstar(s) era. With Danilo Gallinari entering free agency this summer and Steven Adams and Dennis Schroder following suit next year, Oklahoma City must be careful not to over-invest in this season.
Then again, that's less of a concern when Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is already so good and Chris Paul has two years and $85.6 million left on his contract. Even if the Thunder trade the latter, they may be too good for a conventional rebuild. Gilgeous-Alexander is overtaxed as a primary floor general, but he's that much of a difference-maker.
Steering down either path is Oklahoma City's right. Running it back for another year or two while using those draft picks to deepen the rotation or land more established talent is perfectly acceptable. Selling off the veterans and beginning anew is similarly fine. Straddling the line between the two is also cool.
On top of everything they received for George and Westbrook, the Thunder acquired something just as valuable in the grand scheme: the freedom to pick from every imaginable rebuilding scenario.
Orlando Magic: Aaron Gordon the Playmaker Has Arrived
Aaron Gordon has for so long seemed like a combo big masquerading as a wannabe wing. The Orlando Magic's makeup has never allowed him to transition into that 4-5 role, and he's always appeared to enjoy handling the ball as opposed to functioning as a pure finisher.
This identity crisis is ongoing. Gordon isn't efficient on drives or when pulling up off the dribble, and the Magic can have only so many initiators who are lukewarm threats from the perimeter. He's making his case to be one of them.
Orlando has saddled him with more playmaking responsibility in recent months, upping both his post-ups and pick-and-roll volume. He's responded by averaging 5.0 assists—and 8.3 potential assists—over his past 25 games.
"It adds another dimension to our team," head coach Steve Clifford said at the end of February, per Magic.com's John Denton. "As we go forward, you have to constantly look for different ways during a season that you can add to your offense. His passing out of the post against the zone and in pick-and-rolls has gotten better and better and we’re trying to take more advantage of it."
This stretch just so happens to coincide with Gordon knocking down 39.3 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes. The Magic aren't yet running him out independent of D.J. Augustin and Markelle Fultz for long periods of time, but he's exponentially more useful if he can hit set threes while orchestrating this current share of the offense—and not just to Orlando.
Gordon was pegged as a trade candidate long before now. The Magic tried hard to move him at February's deadline, according to Heavy's Sean Deveney. They'll have no trouble brokering a rock-solid return over the summer if this is Gordon's new offensive normal, making him both a valuable keeper and market asset.
Philadelphia 76ers: Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons Are Still on the Team
Joel Embiid or Ben Simmons?
It's a decision the Philadelphia 76ers may someday have to make. Their two stars are not idealistic fits. Simmons isn't a threat to score outside eight feet and is best served with the ball in hands. Embiid can space the floor, but not with league-average efficiency, and he is a back-to-basket behemoth at heart.
Public service announcement: Their future together also isn't hopeless. Surrounding them with three shooters who can score in motion would alleviate most of the offensive congestion. The Sixers have just chosen to go in the complete opposite direction. Al Horford is an awkward complement within a system that doesn't cater to his pick-and-pop chops, and while Tobias Harris can shoot, his preference to work on-ball is a functional overlap.
Philly's offensive clumpiness is a byproduct of the supporting cast's construction just as much as the Embiid-Simmons fit. General manager Elton Brand will have to choose between his two stars only if he's unable to properly rejigger the roster around them.
Ending up in that either-or scenario is a distinct possibility. The Sixers are slated to blow past the luxury tax next season and don't have a ton of salary-matching fodder after Embiid and Simmons. Few teams will be open to swallowing the three years and $81 million left on Horford's deal ($69 million guaranteed), and Harris is a tough sell when he's owed $147.3 million over the next four seasons.
Somewhat lost within this messy game: The Sixers really, actually have Embiid and Simmons, two All-NBA-level building blocks on multiyear contracts. They can make lemonade if forced into the worst-case outcome.
Centers are deemphasized these days, but Embiid is among the most worthwhile exceptions. He should rack up numerous Defensive Player of the Year awards if he stays healthy, and back-to-the-basket scoring isn't as taboo when he's averaging 1.12 points per post-up possession—roughly the equivalent of San Antonio's 11th-place offense.
Simmons has entered superstar territory without a jumper. He'll be a perennial MVP candidate if he ever develops even a hint of one: floater, mid-range touch, set three-point shot, whatever. In the meantime, he's one of the NBA's two most versatile defenders (shout-out Giannis Antetokounmpo) and a supernatural playmaker.
Anything is possible with both Embiid and Simmons on the roster. The Sixers could get bounced in the first round if the roster stays the same. They could also win the title. And if they're ever compelled to break up the band, they'll be well compensated for their trouble. Both Embiid and Simmons would fetch a monster haul on the trade market.
Phoenix Suns: They're 1 Player Away from the Postseason
Just how close are the Phoenix Suns to ending what will be a 10-year playoff drought? Oh-so-very close.
Like, one player away.
Perhaps this slightly exaggerates their position. If it does, that's only because the West is scheduled to become more of a bloodbath next year. Without any major selloffs or injuries, all 15 teams will be able to justify chasing a postseason bid.
Phoenix still seems roughly one player away from tilting the odds for a top-eight finish in its favor—a dynamic scoring partner for Devin Booker, to be more exact.
The Suns are averaging 113.9 points per 100 possessions (79th percentile) with their All-Star scorer in the game. That mark plunges to 101.2 (6th percentile) when he's on the bench. Phoenix needs someone who can float the offense during those latter stretches while further alleviating Booker's on-ball responsibility when they play together.
Ricky Rubio isn't that guy. He has given the Suns a steady defensive and playmaking presence at the point guard spot. But he's not someone who looks for his own shot. Defenses aren't worried about him nailing jumpers off the dribble and will still evacuate the area when he's not on the ball. Phoenix's offense rates in the 2nd percentile when he plays without Booker.
Nobody else on the roster begins to fill the void. Kelly Oubre Jr. isn't a mindful enough passer. Deandre Ayton doesn't yet generate enough of his own offense. The Suns are heavy on wings—Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson, Dario Saric—but not one of them qualifies as a secondary playmaker.
Looking to free agency might reveal an answer. Phoenix won't be working with significant cap space without jettisoning some combination of Oubre, Rubio, Saric (restricted), Aron Baynes (unrestricted) and Frank Kaminsky (team option) but doesn't need to make a gigantic splash.
Someone like Bogdan Bogdanovic (restricted), Evan Fournier (player option) or Danilo Gallinari would be interesting, but a smaller-time buffer will also do the trick. The Suns should have no trouble finding a possible solution for the non-taxpayer mid-level exception or less. Alec Burks, Bryn Forbes (restricted) or Langston Galloway could wind up moving the needle just enough during no-Booker minutes.
Portland Trail Blazers: Their Roster Is Better Than Their Record
A prospective lottery finish—actual or, in the wake of COVID-19, hypothetical—shouldn't put a damper on the Portland Trail Blazers' outlook. Their roster is better than their record.
Injuries all but torpedoed their season. Jusuf Nurkic has yet to play while recovering from compound fractures in his left leg that he suffered last year. Zach Collins made just three appearances before dislocating his left shoulder. Rodney Hood played in 21 games before tearing his left Achilles.
That the Blazers are fighting for the West's final playoff spot at all is something of a minor miracle. Damian Lillard's eight missed games are the second-most of his career, they traded for the up-and-down Hassan Whiteside over the offseason, and they needed to pluck Carmelo Anthony out of an empty gym near you to get by.
Next season should be easier to navigate with a healthy Collins and Nurkic—who, by the way, have tallied just 231 possessions together since 2017-18. Guaranteeing Trevor Ariza's salary is a borderline no-brainer given how well he's shot from three in Portland, and the Blazers will have the non-taxpayer's mid-level exception to throw at players in free agency.
The upshot: Standing pat isn't necessarily enough for a return to the conference finals.
Portland has enjoyed ideal availability from Lillard and CJ McCollum over the years. The team's entire trajectory changes if one of them misses time. And even with them, the Blazers are one player shy of measuring up to the West's heavyweights.
Now still isn't the time to talk about busting up the Lillard-McCollum backcourt. The Blazers have other assets they can dangle in blockbusters. Some combination of Collins, Nassir Little, Anfernee Simons and future picks can get them into meaningful conversations.
Adding to the Lillard-McCollum base is the route to go until, frankly, it isn't. And after a season derailed by injuries, Portland isn't yet at the point.
Sacramento Kings: This Year's Midseason Turnaround
Viewed against last season's 39-win uprising, the 2019-20 Sacramento Kings are a massive letdown. They were on pace for roughly 36 victories at the time of the NBA's shutdown, but that was on the heels of a mid-year epiphany. It still feels like they should be playing faster, and they need to get more reps with both Marvin Bagley III and Richaun Holmes in the rotation.
Sacramento's more recent play is a backhanded compliment—proof that the team is more capable than it showed during the first half of the season.
Since Jan. 24, the Kings are 13-7 with offensive and defensive ratings that rank in the top half of the league. That's not earning them any awards, but it represents improvement. Their half-court offense doesn't look as choppy, and they're getting molten-lava performances from De'Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Nemanja Bjelica, Kent Bazemore and Harrison Barnes.
Cory Joseph is even shooting north of 41 percent from deep during this stretch. Harry Giles III is dropping the more-than-occasional "Why did they decline his team option again?" highlight. The defense has settled into a groove. The shaky clips they give up at the rim and beyond the arc are neutralized by a rosy shot profile; only seven teams are forcing opponents into mid-range jumpers more frequently over this 20-game span.
Hard decisions await the Kings. They've already paid Barnes and Hield, who may be unhappy coming off the bench. Bogdanovic (restricted) and Fox (extension-eligible) are on deck. This core is about to get incredibly expensive without the promise of playoff contention, and Sacramento still needs a better sense of Bagley's ceiling and fit.
Going off for one-quarter of the season doesn't much simplify the Kings' position. It is, at the very least, a possible sign of progress.
San Antonio Spurs: A Natural Crossroads Is Coming
The San Antonio Spurs explored starting over around the trade deadline, according to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski. They ended up doing nothing, but that reset point is coming.
Deconstructing the roster shouldn't entail much this summer. The values of DeMar DeRozan (player option) and, less so, LaMarcus Aldridge have cratered. But they, along with Rudy Gay and Patty Mills, will be much easier to move on expiring contracts.
In the event the Spurs float this nucleus for another season, transitioning to a new era will be almost effortless. Dejounte Murray is the most expensive player on their 2021-22 ledger as of now, at $15.4 million. Lonnie Walker IV checks in at second, with a $4.5 million salary.
Derrick White will invariably take that spot—or the No. 1 slot—if he signs an extension ahead of restricted free agency, but the point stands: The Spurs are nearing a natural crossroads. They should seize the opportunity to go down it.
Bottoming out isn't supposed to be a silver lining. But the Spurs need fresh perspective. It doesn't matter whether Gregg Popovich is still their head coach. Hitting the reset button is better than being stuck in basketball purgatory, where they are now—on the periphery of the postseason picture, neither good enough to be considered a contender nor bad enough to maximize their draft lottery odds.
Granted, this next phase of Spurs basketball doesn't have to include sniffing rock bottom. This could be an abbreviated rebuild. Maybe Murray and White make the leap while Walker, Keldon Johnson, Luka Samanic and this year's first-round pick develop faster with more playing time.
What comes next should be more of a controlled demolition—a commitment to thoroughly reconfiguring the roster around youth and high upside. Stark action isn't the Spurs' style, but they're out of excuses. They're not contending for a title without the addition of at least one superstar, and preserving their 22-year playoff streak will no longer be an issue if this season resumes and they, as expected, finish in the lottery. Embracing the drastic should now be seen as a welcome break from character.
Toronto Raptors: Look at What They've Done Post-Kawhi
It is getting harder and harder to keep track of all the Toronto Raptors have accomplished this season.
Pascal Siakam's ascent into superstardom. A shape-shifting, matchup-proof defense that ranks second in points allowed per 100 possessions. Contributions from castoffs (Chris Boucher, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson) and the undrafted (Terence Davis, Matt Thomas). Norman Powell going boom. Wins in the face of injuries, so many injuries. The third-best record in the league.
The list goes on and on. And on. The Raptors are staging a legitimate title defense, the kind they weren't supposed to after losing Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard. It isn't possible to view this season as anything other than a statement: that their culture and on-court product transcends any one player.
Still, uncertainty looms.
Boucher (Early Bird restricted), Hollis-Jefferson, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka and Fred VanVleet are all free agents this summer. After signing a one-year extension, Kyle Lowry is scheduled to hit the open market in 2021, along with Powell. Even if the Raptors run everyone back, it'll feel like a one-season stopgap. Team president Masai Ujiri has eyes on Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Toronto has to be wary of getting into its aging vets for too many years.
Losing two of Gasol, Ibaka and VanVleet in free agency could compel the Raptors to think longer term. They could shop Lowry and Powell and aim for a full-scale teardown around Siakam. They could line the roster with one-year placeholders to maximize cap space in 2021. They could look to parlay the stocks of their younger prospects, including OG Anunoby, and salary fodder into an available star. Their range of directions after this season is vast.
No team with Siakam, Ujiri, head coach Nick Nurse, a handful of cost-controlled assets and serious cap flexibility is in bad shape. For the Raptors, uncertainty amounts to opportunity.
Utah Jazz: Donovan Mitchell Is Only 23
Signing Bojan Bogdanovic and trading for Mike Conley was the Utah Jazz's way of certifying their title window. It hasn't worked out.
Weirder things are seldom said about teams on pace to win 50-plus games. To that end, the Jazz are not a monumental letdown. The Western Conference exists to reduce would-be contenders to potential first-round steppingstones. Dallas, Denver and Houston find themselves in similar boats.
Utah is only at greater risk because Conley's integration hasn't gone according to plan. He started the season ice cold, unable to find his touch from the floor or develop a reliable feel out of the pick-and-roll, and lost valuable time while nursing a left hamstring injury. He amped up his performance at the beginning of February but entered the shutdown with a whimper, turning in two uneven offensive performances.
The Jazz's midseason defensive decline has only complicated their postseason stock. They were eighth in points allowed per 100 possessions at their halfway mark. They rank 18th since, and they've fared even worse checking since Feb. 1 (26th).
Rudy Gobert has been uncharacteristically penetrable over this stretch, and Utah as a whole seems less interested in getting back on defense. Offenses are feasting from beyond the arc and in transition and finishing at a higher-than-normal clip around the rim.
Substantially upgrading the roster after this season will be a chore—hence the urgency. If they're lucky, the Jazz might be able to re-sign Jordan Clarkson and retain access of the full mid-level exception. The math gets tighter if the salary cap comes in significantly lower than $109.1 million projection.
It isn't any friendlier in the years to come. Both Gobert and Donovan Mitchell are extension-eligible this summer and will be on new deals the year after next. This could be the Jazz's last chance to do more than marginal upkeep for a while.
Fortunately for them, they're not up against a now-or-never timeline. They're by no means Denver; the crux of their roster isn't that young. But Mitchell doesn't turn 24 until September, and he's fast approaching All-NBA territory.
Brandon Ingram, Zach LaVine, Kawhi Leonard and Damian Lillard are the only other players averaging as many points (24.2) and assists (4.2) while shooting as well from downtown (36.4 percent). Others are more efficient overall, but Mitchell still has room to improve his shot selection, and Utah has cycled through some of its best offense with him running point.
Washington Wizards: The East Is Still Forgiving
Almost no one expects John Wall to mirror his former self after rupturing his left Achilles. So much of his game is rooted in speed and explosion, and he suffered an injury that compromises both.
Bradley Beal's departure has been deemed inevitable in response to the Washington Wizards' timeline gone awry. They don't have a line to title contention if Wall isn't Wall and they're paying him $40 million-plus per year.
That train of thought isn't off base, but it does undersell Washington's outlook. The East remains forgiving. The Wizards entered the indefinite break 16 games under .500 and were still only five losses back of the eighth seed. Wall has the IQ to impact the offense without his usual end-to-end burst. If he's 70 to 80 percent of the player he was before, he's a fringe All-Star.
Washington has the surrounding pieces to work with that. Davis Bertans (unrestricted) and Moritz Wagner are keepers. Thomas Bryant is the same player he was last season, with more efficient three-point touch. Troy Brown Jr. has gotten his feet wet and added value as a rebounder and demonstrated solid decision-making with the ball in his hands. He's shooting better than 40 percent from deep over his past 30 games.
Rui Hachimura has a long way to go on defense but has a better-than-expected, albeit still developing, feel when working on-ball. Ish Smith remains a spark plug. The Wizards will add a lottery pick to the equation and have the non-taxpayer mid-level exception in free agency. They have the pieces necessary for a return to the playoffs—if Beal stays.
News flash: He might. He has said he wants to retire in Washington, and his extension wasn't a purely a way of delaying the inevitable. It allows he and the Wizards to stick together at least until next year's trade deadline. If they're not on the right track by then, Beal will be just 27, with a season-and-a-half left on his contract. He'd still command a premium from suitors.
A half-season to understand what the Wizards are working with doesn't seem like much. They might not even get it if things change over the offseason. But time is important, particularly for teams contemplating a directional shift. The Wizards may have more of it than you think.