Biggest Basketball Concern for Every NBA Squad Moving Forward
Concern comes next.
View this as less of a slam session and more of an illustration that we care. We want your team to be aware of its most glaring big-picture issue.
Many of these macro problems aren't all that macro. Certain squads are dealing with warm champagne. They need to tie up odds and ends to float championship windows or pay the luxury-tax piper to do the same.
Other teams face more pressing dilemmas. Their futures are married to the return of injured stars. Or their rebuild is in the market for a face of the franchise. Or the cost of their roster is outpacing its ceiling. Or they're dealing with combustible on-court fits. Or they're in sore need of direction. Or of getting unstuck.
Or they're—well, you get the point.
Remember: We don't hate your team. We love your team. Probably. Possibly. But what are we to each other, aside from strangers on the internet, if we can't discuss hard, necessary truths?
Atlanta Hawks: The Capela-Collins Fit
Clint Capela has yet to make his debut for the Atlanta Hawks while dealing with a right heel injury. At this rate, he won't do so before 2020-21. He was making progress in practice, but even if the NBA does get to play any more regular-season games, Atlanta doesn't have much of an incentive to roll him out unless he's 100 percent.
Getting Capela back this year wouldn't answer all the questions about his potential fit up front with John Collins anyway. The sample wouldn't be large enough to glean anything substantive. It'd be a hint of a snapshot.
Figuring out the Collins-Capela partnership is, at this point, next season's issue. But the Hawks will have to pass some level of judgment before then. Collins is extension-eligible this summer and thinks he's worth a max deal.
Locking him down long term, at any price, amounts to a vote of confidence in a frontcourt not yet seen. Kicking the can allows the Hawks to collect more information, with the caveat they might rankle Collins' feelings about the organization in the process.
Waiting is still probably the best bet. Atlanta can match any offer Collins receives in 2021 restricted free agency, and every team needs to get a better understanding for how this work stoppage will impact future cap projections.
Beyond that, creating a sample size to work off is worth a roll of the dice. Collins and Capela will be fine on offense. Both can devastate as dive men, but they don't have to occupy the same space. Collins is (was?) shooting 44.4 percent on significant volume from deep since the middle of January.
Their partnership is more tenuous on defense. Collins has looked slightly more viable defending 4s this year, but Atlanta won't be able to move him around as freely. Shuttling him between power forward and center is a lot more difficult with both Capela and Dewayne Dedmon on the docket. If the Hawks aren't confident a pricier Collins can elevate their ceiling as the full-time 4, they may not only have to opt against an extension, but gauge his value on the trade market.
Boston Celtics: Mounting Cost of the Core
Finances are about to get tight in Beantown.
Jaylen Brown's extension kicks in next year, and assuming Gordon Hayward ($34.2 million) and Enes Kanter ($5 million) pick up their player options, the Boston Celtics will blow past the luxury-tax line. Their payroll could mushroom above $150 million depending on where their three first-rounders land and what happens with Brad Wanamaker's free agency (Early Bird restricted).
Next season's bottom line gets more expensive if the work stoppage impacts the projected $115 million cap. Lowering that number drags down the $139 million luxury-tax threshold.
Maybe the league institutes some sort of reverse smoothing. It can leave next year's forecast where it stands in exchange for a smaller jump in 2021-22. But while that helps tamp down the Celtics' tax payments in the interim, it doesn't much discount the cost of their future.
Jayson Tatum is extension-eligible this summer and has played his way into a max-contract formality. His 2021-22 salary will almost mirror what Hayward is being paid in 2020-21—again, depending on where the cap falls. Boston is beginning a stretch in which its three highest paid players will total more than $90 million per year.
Marcus Smart's salary only adds to those obligations, and he'll be due for another contract in 2022. The Celtics will be even further in the hole if they keep Hayward beyond next year. Eventual extensions for Robert Williams III and Grant Williams won't come super cheap if either develops into a rotation mainstay up front.
Footing luxury-tax bills isn't novel for championship contenders. The Celtics are more likely than other teams to eat the short-term costs. But this isn't a temporary problem. Fleshing out the roster will be harder—and more punitive—once Brown and Tatum are both on their new deals. If nothing else, impending tax concerns make it paramount they hit on cost-controlled talent in the draft and free agency.
Brooklyn Nets: Health of KD and Kyrie
So much has changed for the Brooklyn Nets—maybe too much. It is not unfair to argue they're worse off than a year ago. Head coach Kenny Atkinson's departure is proof the culture and process that positioned them to draw in Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving last summer has not survived their arrival.
This is not to say they are responsible for Brooklyn's behind-the-scenes facelift. What they represent—what they are supposed to represent—is the primary catalyst: an obvious path to title contention.
Last year's Nets squad, while plucky, did not have that luxury. A team built around Spencer Dinwiddie, Caris LeVert and D'Angelo Russell is fun, a potential noise-maker in the Eastern Conference, but superstars are championship prerequisites. Brooklyn did not have that player with a top-10-or-higher ceiling. It has two now.
Injuries to both Durant and Irving leave the Nets' outlook in a slight lurch. They need both to be available and at or near their peaks to join the title discussion. Neither is a given.
Durant is recovering from a ruptured right Achilles. No one has ever recaptured form for a long period of time after suffering the same injury. Durant is the best player to incur this setback in his prime, and his combination of size and shooting equip him to carve out a more effective new normal. But an element of uncertainty that wasn't there before is now baked into his future.
Irving is in the same boat, and he was there before Durant. His right shoulder injury isn't chronic, but the sheer breadth of his past issues is enough to put the most optimistic people on high alert: right shoulder, right knee (multiple times), lower back, left thigh, left hip, right quad, right eye, left knee, left shoulder, facial fracture—and that's just since the start of the 2017-18 campaign.
Getting rid of Atkinson was a statement. The Nets are all-in after this season. They don't have time to wait and see. There can be no middle ground. They're very much championship or bust. Whether they come closer to one or the other rests entirely on the health of Durant and Irving.
Charlotte Hornets: Who Is the Primary Building Block?
Exiting salary-cap purgatory this summer will ensure the Charlotte Hornets have a leg up on the free-agency field. It does not give them a distinct timeline. They need a primary cornerstone first.
No one on the roster fits that bill. Devonte' Graham entered the early running for Most Improved Player honors, and the Hornets continue to depend on his off-the-dribble work to open opportunities for those around him. But he's overextended as the focal point. He's shooting under 40 percent on twos for the season and 33.6 percent from distance since Dec. 15.
Neither P.J. Washington nor human roller coaster Miles Bridges has the shot-creation capacity or defensive bandwidth to be the anchor of an entire rebuild. Terry Rozier is paid like one but needs a buffer. His shooting splits without Graham are not pretty.
Finding that blue-chip prospect is not merely a matter of time. The Hornets will have access to more than $25 million in spending power even if the salary cap dips, but free agency isn't teeming with stars in the front end of their prime.
Anthony Davis (player option) alone falls under that umbrella, and he's not leaving the Los Angeles Lakers. Charlotte can max out Brandon Ingram, but the New Orleans Pelicans aren't about to let him walk for nothing. Bogdan Bogdanovic (restricted), DeMar DeRozan (player option), Andre Drummond (player option), Danilo Gallinari, Montrezl Harrell and Fred VanVleet are all poachable, but none of them come close to meeting primary-cornerstone criteria.
Drafting in the top half of the lottery isn't a surefire solution either. The Hornets have the league's eighth-worst record, so they'd need to jump the order to begin with, and this June's summer's year's draft class doesn't have a consensus superstar.
Charlotte may have to wait until the 2021 offseason before getting a legitimate crack at landing the face of its rebuild. And that's assuming the folks upstairs are willing to go through a more gradual process. Team governor Michael Jordan hasn't shown the stomach for a thorough reinvention, and the decision to overpay Rozier as part of Kemba Walker's departure last summer only obfuscates the Hornets' short-term intentions.
Chicago Bulls: Grooming—or Acquiring—Their Blue-Chip Cornerstone
Back-to-back primary cornerstone concerns for the (unsettling) win.
Fortunately for the Chicago Bulls, they're not as far away from finding the face of their big picture. Probably. If they're lucky. Really, this boils down to the Bulls having in-house options.
Zach LaVine isn't one of them. His 38 percent clip from downtown is revelatory considering the level of difficulty on his attempts, and he's improved the frequency at which he attacks the rim over the past two seasons. But his own offense doesn't appreciably elevate those around him. He's overburdened as a primary table-setter, and his presence alone doesn't promise average offense in the aggregate. Chicago is in the 28th percentile of points scored per 100 possessions with him on the floor—up from the 24th percentile last season.
Wendell Carter Jr., Lauri Markkanen and Coby White are all better bets to fill this role, if only because they're lesser-known commodities. Even that might be overly generous.
Markkanen's development has been stagnant, if regressive, this season. Injuries once again haven't helped, but the Bulls are still waiting for him to be a more dynamic scorer. Carter has improved compared to his rookie year, but it isn't clear whether he'll have the offensive usage (and aggression) to be a primary hub.
White is a microwave-scoring prodigy. His efficiency has been all over the place, but rookies must be afforded a learning curve. His comfort working off the bounce is more important, and he entered the work stoppage on a tear. He's averaging 26.1 points and 4.4 assists while burying 43.2 percent of his 9.0 three-point attempts per game over his last nine outings.
The Bulls have to figure out if White can pilot an offense as the No. 1, or if he tilts more toward LaVine's end of the spectrum. They better cross their fingers he's closer to the former. Better health could vault them into next year's postseason conversation, but they'll most likely be absent a best-player-on-a-contender prospect if he's not it.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Defining Their Direction
Technically, if we wanted to, we could go for the primary-cornerstone trifecta.
Darius Garland, Kevin Porter Jr. and Collin Sexton haven't received much national shine, but they've each shown varying degrees of offensive potential. One of them may be an operable guiding light for the Cleveland Cavaliers' rebuild.
Avoiding that discussion now is less about the confidence in Garland, Porter or Sexton being the best player on a really good team and more about the team's choppy direction.
Trading for Andre Drummond implies the Cavaliers want him back next year even if he opts out of his contract (he probably will). Going on 27, he isn't totally out of place, but Larry Nance Jr. is one season into a four-year deal, and Cleveland hasn't yet ruled out re-signing Tristan Thompson.
Oh, and let's not forget about Kevin Love. Holding on to him past February's trade deadline made almost zero sense unless the Cavs are planning to accelerate their timeline. A cap-starved free-agent market could motivate certain teams to be ultra-aggressive in trade talks, but Love is owed $91.5 million and not a clear-cut fit anywhere right now. Keeping him doesn't position Cleveland to ask for more.
Generalized concerns can be hazy. This is no different. Asking the Cavs to define their direction is vague. Franchise timelines are open for interpretation and without uniform measure.
And yet, what are we to make of a team that could potentially have Drummond, Garland, Love, Porter, Sexton, Thompson, a hopefully healthy Dylan Windler and a top-three-to-five pick next season? That would be a truly bizarro roster construction, even if one of the bigs walks or, in Love's case, gets sent elsewhere. Cleveland needs to shed more light on where it's going and who it's hoping to rebuild around for the long haul.
Dallas Mavericks: Beefing Up the Wing Rotation
Shoring up the wing rotation is the single most important item on the Dallas Mavericks' immediate and long-term to-do list.
It doesn't matter what you consider Luka Doncic. He's more of a point guard than point forward. Dallas doesn't usually start him next to another primary ball-handler. He can play up to the 2, 3 and 4 spots. Whatever. The Mavericks' wing rotation either gets hairier after him or is bare-bones without him.
Adding a bigger playmaking hybrid who can defend bigger assignments at the 2 and 3 in addition to smaller 4s would be ideal. Dallas can join the list. Almost every team is lusting after that type of player.
Acquiring someone to tussle with tougher pulls on defense is the more pressing priority. The Mavericks' best options for that workload right now include Dorian Finney-Smith, Justin Jackson and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. That's not saying much.
Finney-Smith is the closest they get to being an answer. But he offers a prayer against Marcus Morris Sr.- and Brandon Ingram-types, not so much versus the LeBron Jameses, Kawhi Leonards and Paul Georges of the world.
Counterpoint: Few do. And even the best defensive options won't completely neutralize superstar wings. But Dallas must go through these players in the near and (probably) distant future to make it out of the Western Conference. Finney-Smith isn't going to cut it.
Finding someone who does won't be the easiest search. The Mavericks will have significant money to burn if Tim Hardaway Jr. declines his player option, but this isn't the summer to go big-game hunting. And while they're set up for maxish spending power in 2021, their projections change if they hash out any multiyear agreements—like a THJ extension—over the offseason.
Remaining in flux beyond then will only hurt Dallas. Both Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis will be on max deals after the 2021-22 season. If the Mavericks are going to make more than a marginal splash on the wings, they effectively have two summers do it.
Denver Nuggets: Guarding Bigger Wings
Unlike the Mavericks, the Denver Nuggets have more options to roll out against opposing wings. But that equates to luxury by volume, not effectiveness.
Will Barton and Gary Harris soak up most of the wing responsibilities, and both are undersized against the toughest matchups. Jerami Grant can hold his own, but pulling him too far away from the basket comes at a steep cost. He would need to spend more time beside Paul Millsap to take on that role.
Denver does have the league's third-best three-point defense, but that hardly renders this a non-issue. Some level of luck is at play. Opponents are shooting just 35.1 percent when a defender is four or more feet away, and the Nuggets are not immune to getting torched by rival wings. As Denver Stiffs' Ryan Blackburn wrote:
"They have been prone to giving up big scoring performances on the wings, especially to big small forwards. Among the 45 occasions an opposing player has scored 25+ points against the Nuggets, 12 of those have come from opposing small forwards. Players like LeBron James, Brandon Ingram, and Luka Doncic have given Denver fits this season.
"This isn't to say it't Barton's fault that good small forwards have had good scoring performances against the Nuggets, but this is a problem related to size for the Nuggets, and they just don't have a great way to solve it. As good as Barton's offensive production is, if opposing small forwards like LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, and others have limited resistance against them, that doesn't offer great confidence in a playoff setting in which matchups are so important."
Alternative options are in short supply. Torrey Craig still isn't a good enough shooter at the other end to eat into minutes for Barton and Harris. Michael Porter Jr. has the size, at 6'10", but needs to do more than make the occasional spot-on rotation to be deemed a solution.
Filling this void will only get harder. Both Craig (restricted) and Grant (player option) are scheduled to hit free agency, and the Nuggets won't be a cap-space team unless they let them, Millsap and Mason Plumlee walk. And even then, they wouldn't have that much more than the non-taxpayer's mid-level exception to offer. They're better off operating over the cap and skulking around the trade market while also hoping Porter develops into an answer.
Detroit Pistons: Blake Griffin's Health
Jettisoning Andre Drummond does not send the Detroit Pistons into a total rebuild. That move was more of an admission they didn't want to pay his player option or next deal.
Blake Griffin will say more about the Pistons' future. Starting over with him on the books for another two years and $75.8 million is difficult. No team is absorbing the balance of his contract without compensation, and Detroit will be hard-pressed to act like he doesn't exist if he recovers from the left knee injury that ruined the tail end of 2018-19 and basically this entire season.
Retooling the roster around Griffin is still on the table. The Pistons will have a top-five purse while carrying Christian Wood's free-agency hold (unrestricted) this summer. They'll have comfortably more than max money if Tony Snell declines his player option. With so few cap-space squads, they'll have the market leverage to sign an impact player or two.
Tacking even one free-agency addition and this year's draft pick on to a base of Snell, Wood, Bruce Brown, Luke Kennard, Sekou Doumbouya, Svi Mykhailiuk and Derrick Rose would fast-track Detroit for playoff contention. Whether it'd be more than a fringe hopeful would come back to Griffin.
Writing him off as damaged goods doesn't fly. His injury history is a problem, but he's working off an All-NBA bid in 2018-19. That version of Griffin is a terror. He ran more pick-and-rolls per game than Eric Bledsoe; hit more pull-up threes than rookie-year Trae Young; finished in isolation about as frequently as Paul George, Kyrie Irving, Zach LaVine and Damian Lillard; and assisted on a higher percentage of his team's baskets when in the game than Stephen Curry.
The problem: The Pistons are heading into free agency without ever seeing if Griffin rebounds from his latest setback. Waiting on his return doesn't directly impact their approach in the draft, but their faith in his recovery should dictate whether they enter the summer as buyers trying to spend themselves into a 2021 postseason chase or sellers prepared to go through a more methodical rebuild.
Golden State Warriors: Andrew Wiggins' Future
Andrew Wiggins' future with the Golden State Warriors can be viewed through two different lenses: Either they need to hope he's good enough to be the salary anchor as part of a larger trade, or he has to develop into a consistent contributor on the wings.
The latter informs the former.
Offering Wiggins and this year's first-round draft pick is a good blockbuster starting point. It's also eminently beatable. No one's drooling over the inbound rookie class, and Wiggins is a net-negative asset with three years and $94.7 million left on his deal. The Warriors need him to help a winning effort in order to create a market for him.
Squeezing him into the offense is a smaller undertaking. Head coach Steve Kerr might be smitten with Wiggins' relatively untapped passing ability, but he doesn't have to overcomplicate his integration. Playing off Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson translates to high-percentage scoring opportunities.
Golden State will lean harder on Wiggins at the defensive end, by virtue of having almost no one else. Thompson's limits are going to be tested following his return from a torn left ACL. He'll have to match up against bigger wings now that Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston are all gone. Much of that responsibility will also default to Wiggins.
Certain teams have two starry wings (Los Angeles Clippers). Others pose matchup issues for Thompson. He can't spend a ton of time on LeBron James against the Los Angeles Lakers, and Green is the team's best option to battle Anthony Davis. Wiggins will have to pitch in.
If he's at all up to the defensive challenges that await, the Warriors will be sitting prettier, both on the trade market and in the standings. If he's the same inefficient, uninspiring player he was with the Minnesota Timberwolves, Golden State's trek back to title contention gets that much tougher.
Houston Rockets: Fitting in Upgrades Around Harden and Westbrook
Microball should be here to stay for the Houston Rockets, almost regardless of how their postseason ends, should it ever begin.
They're 11-6 with a top-five offense and top-12 defense since Clint Capela left the rotation and then the team. P.J. Tucker-at-the-5 arrangements are pumping in 116.7 points per 100 possessions (93rd percentile), and the returns on both offense (75th percentile) and defense (86th percentile) are staggeringly good when he counts Robert Covington as his frontline partner.
Russell Westbrook is feasting more than anyone. None of his Oklahoma City Thunder teams ever consistently surrounded him with four shooters. He's averaging 31.0 points and 5.8 assists with a 57.5 true shooting percentage since the Rockets ditched playing a traditional center, during which time nearly 56 percent of his looks are coming within five feet of the hoop.
That's enough evidence to soldier on with this functional rebrand for the foreseeable future. Houston's problem now becomes improving it, which can only be done by upgrading the supporting cast. That's officially a tall ask (no pun intended).
Covington, Tucker, Westbrook, Eric Gordon and James Harden will take up nearly $120 million of next season's payroll. Carving out cap space is a non-starter for the next few years. The rest of the roster is cheap, so the Rockets should have no trouble accessing the full non-taxpayer's mid-level exception, projected to come in at, for now, $9.8 million.
But this assumes team governor Tilman Fertitta is at least open to dipping into the tax (yet under the hard cap). That's not a given. He's said he'll pay it, but Houston hasn't entered it under his rule. Also: This. If general manager Daryl Morey doesn't have carte blanche on the transaction market, he may not get to spend the full MLE.
In the event he does, the Rockets might need to divvy it up among multiple players. Tucker turns 35 in May. Westbrook hits 32 in November. Gordon and Harden will be 31 when next season tips off. Houston has to consider deepening its rotation to lighten individual workloads.
Working the trade market doesn't profile as a plausible alternative. The Rockets have neither the draft-pick equity nor attractive salary-matching fodder to broker a blockbuster. Gordon isn't getting it done. They'd have to include at least one of Covington and Tucker, and losing either defeats the purpose.
Morey always finds a way to do something. Anything. Perhaps Houston believes it can make an upgrade on the sidelines after head coach Mike D'Antoni's contract expires. That's debatable. It also might not matter. The Rockets are hamstrung elsewhere. A coaching shake-up is the easiest vessel for change should this season end without a championship banner.
Indiana Pacers: Victor Oladipo's Long-Term Health
What makes the Indiana Pacers' outlook so tantalizing is also what renders their future so touch-and-go: Victor Oladipo.
Flirting with a 50-win pace when he missed most of the season is a huge accomplishment. It sets the "Imagine what the Pacers can do at full strength" stage. Their projected starting five of Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis, Myles Turner, Malcolm Brogdon and T.J. Warren has tallied just 173 possessions together. They have a pathway to becoming more than an Eastern Conference irritant.
Riding out the injury streak is part of that process. Brogdon entered the unscheduled break dealing with a right hip injury, and Jeremy Lamb's torn left ACL is a matter that will spill into next season. But that's all secondary, albeit still important, compared to Oladipo. He is the Pacers' swing star, the All-NBA player who can take them into win-the-East territory—if he's unaffected long term by his recovery from a ruptured right quad.
Consider this a mammoth if. His injury was a serious one. He already missed time shortly after his return with soreness in the same right knee, and his shooting percentages are sniffing rock-bottom.
Everything changes for the Pacers if he's not the player he was in 2017-18, before this injury started nagging him and eventually cost him most of last season. It weakens their incumbent structure and makes figuring out his next contract, either in 2021 free agency or as part an extension this summer, so much more difficult.
Indiana needs to hope Oladipo's most recent stretch is a harbinger of what's to come. He's averaging 19.5 points and four assists over his past four appearances while downing 42.9 percent of his threes. His finishing around the rim still needs to kick in, but he's generating more of his looks at the basket than last season, and he continues to bury his long twos at a ludicrously high clip.
Losing what's left of this year would be a blow for the Pacers' grasp of the tea leaves. They not only need to know where Oladipo is at, but they have to measure his impact on the Sabonis-Turner fit. His off-the-dribble attacks are paramount to balancing out the offense, and the returns for the trio so far aren't great. Paying all three of them and Brogdon becomes untenable if there's not a top-25 player in the quartet.
Los Angeles Clippers: Keeping the Title Window Open Beyond 2021
Title windows are more fleeting than ever. Teams are no longer built to last for five-plus seasons around the same core. Player contracts are shorter, trades and free-agency shake-ups are more common and front offices are more inclined to change directions on a whim.
Bagging both Paul George and Kawhi Leonard last summer shields the Los Angeles Clippers from some of the every-team urgency. They're California natives who have come "home," and a roster headlined by them is set up to contend for the foreseeable future.
Still, the Clippers remain on the clock.
Both George and Leonard are scheduled for free agency in 2021 (player options). Neither is especially likely to leave a destination he so recently chose, but their contract terms are leverage. Los Angeles doesn't have the luxury of absolute patience.
That's even more true now, with the NBA season in jeopardy. A canceled playoff push would leave the Clippers operating in a one-year window before their two franchise stars enter free agency. They're good enough to win a championship before then, either this season or next, but preserving their window gets harder the longer they don't make a title claim.
Montrezl Harrell and Marcus Morris Sr. are free agents this summer. Do the Clippers still commit to a payroll that could balloon past $150 million, before taxes, if they're bounced early from, or don't get a chance to play out, the postseason? Lou Williams turns 34 in October and is also a free agent in 2021. What happens to the bench if he's on the decline or leaves?
Shaking things up outside the Clippers' superstar duo only gets harder after this season. They've exhausted their ability to trade future first-round picks. Their best assets include salary-matching contracts, Landry Shamet, the Detroit Pistons' 2023 second and, in free agency, the mini mid-level exception.
Big-picture concerns don't get much less dire. The Clippers have the pieces to win a title. But they're not guaranteed one. The championship field is wider than in years past, and it may continue to grow. They have an obligation to juggle now with the upkeep it'll take to remain in this position later.
Los Angeles Lakers: Landing Another Bigger Wing Defender and Offensive Initiator
Relative to how their supporting cast was viewed, the Los Angeles Lakers are closer to a finished product than not, the kind of team that can enter this summer prioritizing continuity in a league that so often demands turnover. They have the NBA's second-best record to go along with a top-six offense and top-three defense, two megastars and a rotation that can comfortably stretch 10 to 11 deep after the addition of Markieff Morris.
The Lakers can still be better. This year has earned them the benefit of the doubt. They don't need to land another huge name or bank on Kyle Kuzma turning into their third star. They're also not beyond reproach. Certain gaps need to be filled.
Shoring up their stretches without LeBron James tops the list. The Lakers have improved during those stints more recently, and these minutes aren't as extensive in the playoffs. They need to survive maybe 10 minutes per game without him in the postseason. But entire series can shift those small samples.
More than that, next year will be LeBron's age-36 campaign. Regular load management isn't part of his routine, but the Lakers need to have the option of leaning on him less. They'll be more equipped to do that with additional playmaking.
What form this initiator takes isn't especially important. The Lakers can make room for another guard. But they also need a bigger wing defender. Their path to a title demands it. They'll have to go through some combination of Luka Doncic, Paul George, James Harden and Kawhi Leonard just to reach the NBA Finals. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton or Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum could await them if and when they get there.
Danny Green is overextended against many of those assignments. He's better covering point guards than bigger wings. Avery Bradley and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope are too small. Kyle Kuzma has the size but no business being responsible for opposing No. 1 options on a full-time basis. Mixing and matching with LeBron and Morris feels neither preferable nor sustainable.
Playmaking wings—who can ideally shoot—don't come cheap, and the Lakers won't have cap space this summer. But they will have the non-taxpayer's mid-level exception and playing time. For as deep as their rotation stretches, the drop-off between their two best players and everyone else opens the door for prospective newcomers.
Granted, the free-agent market isn't brimming with possibilities. The MLE isn't getting the Lakers any of the top options. They'll have to lean toward one or the other, defense or playmaking, if they plan to spend it on one player. Failing a surprise free-agency find, they may have to see what Kuzma-plus-salary-filler packages can net on the trade market.
Memphis Grizzlies: Justise Winslow's Fit
The Memphis Grizzlies have already alleviated one of their biggest concerns: the prospect of reading too much into this season's fringe-playoff bid.
Ja Morant affords their timeline flexibility. Rebuilding teams are trying to find the cornerstone who can be the best player on a contender. He's that guy. They can take more of a win-now approach while outfitting the roster around him, particularly with this year's first-round pick headed to the Boston Celtics.
But the Grizzlies already decided against a full-on acceleration at the trade deadline. They absorbed $42.9 million in additional salary for next season, punting on what would've been max cap room this summer, all for the opportunity to bring in Justise Winslow.
Responses to this gamble remain mixed. So much depends on Winslow's fit. It is not a formality. A back injury has cost him all but 11 games this season, and his shooting splits plunged in the appearances he made for the Miami Heat.
Integrating him into an offense that includes Morant and Kyle Anderson could get thorny. Winslow has proved at his best when operating on-ball. Last season's 41.2 percent clip on catch-and-shoot threes offers some hope, but that conversion rate has plunged to 19.0 percent this year on more limited volume.
Miami made it a point to stagger Winslow's minutes from its other primary ball-handler. Of the 723 possessions he logged, fewer than 26 percent (186) came alongside Jimmy Butler. Memphis should consider something similar.
Using Winslow off the bench would cap the time he has to spend playing off both Anderson and Morant. Separating him from the latter isn't as important either. Butler upped his playmaking this year, but Morant is more of a floor general and bends defenses with more misdirection. His fit with Winslow is cleaner.
Miami Heat: Timing Their Next Star Chase
Offloading James Johnson and Dion Waiters at the trade deadline has unlocked new spending avenues for the Miami Heat. They gave back some of that flexibility with Andre Iguodala's extension, but they'll have more than $30 million in room if they renounce all their own free agents save for Derrick Jones Jr., and if the initial salary-cap projection sticks.
Bake Jae Crowder's hold ($14.8 million) into the equation, and they're still looking at nearly $20 million in space. That number climbs past the $20 million marker if he puts pen to paper on a deal with a starting salary south of $14.8 million. Miami's purse skyrockets if Kelly Olynyk declines his player option.
The question facing team president Pat Riley and friends: Do the Heat wield the full extent of their wiggle room this summer?
Answering in the affirmative is tempting. Fewer than a half-dozen squads are projected to have as much money to burn. Miami is the most attractive landing spot, and it isn't all that close when considering the competition in its cap-space tier: Atlanta, Charlotte, Detroit and New York.
This breathing room can also be used to facilitate acquisitions by trade. The Heat are infinitely more enticing to break bread with if they can absorb lopsided salary returns. Their flexibility is a potential boon in theoretical negotiations for Bradley Beal, Jrue Holiday, Chris Paul or any other marquee name that might be available.
At the same time, Riley has designs on striking gold in 2021 free agency. Giving out multiyear contracts this summer threatens that plan. They can dole out a substantial amount of cash while remaining on course for maxish money in 2021, but they'd have to finagle their books down to the cent.
Balancing this offseason with next gets even harder if the cap projections drop. Said dip feels inevitable following the suspension of play. It makes more sense to count on the 2021-22 salary cap falling noticeably below the $125 million forecast.
Riley's job becomes a little easier if Giannis Antetokounmpo signs a supermax extension this summer. There will be other names on the 2021 market, but Paul George (player option), LeBron James (player option) and Kawhi Leonard (player option) won't be huge flight risks, and alternative targets such as Holiday (player option), Gordon Hayward (player option this summer) and Kyle Lowry aren't the type teams plan their future around.
Kicking the can to 2021 isn't without downside either. Butler turns 31 in September. Next year is Iguodala's age-37 season. Bam Adebayo has made the leap. The Heat's window is more immediate than gradual. Going all-in this offseason is probably the better option. They can always try opening up cap space if and when they need it. Riley has shown that's not a problem.
Milwaukee Bucks: Giannis Antetokounmpo's Future
The Milwaukee Bucks have every reason to believe they're in the driver's seat with Giannis Antetokounmpo. This isn't a declaration that they're anything other than the overwhelming favorites to keep him long term. It is merely the flip side of that argument.
Antetokounmpo's immediate future isn't the Bucks' concern. He's not leaving Milwaukee before next season. Even if he doesn't sign the supermax extension, he's the brand of transcendence you wait on. It will be a different story if he requests a trade, but nothing he's ever said suggests he'll consider an early exit.
This comes as only so much comfort. Antetokounmpo's future needs to turn into a non-issue before the Bucks rest easy. Winning a title is the most effective way to reach that point, and Milwaukee's best opportunity to date is navigating a major detour.
Missing the chance to play out this year's postseason wouldn't mean Antetokounmpo won't sign the supermax, but it definitely is a blow to the Bucks' sales pitch. Even if they flame out of the playoffs early, at least they'd have a known outcome.
Surrendering that certainty would make it harder to map out a direction over the summer—to know whether standing pat or looking at more substantive change via trade is the right call. They still have next year to make their case and are poised to finish with the best record regardless of how this season ends, but forfeiting a title push now bilks them of at least some agency.
Again: This all becomes moot if the league starts back up and the Bucks win a championship and/or Antetokounmpo signs a supermax extension. Frankly, though, his future in Milwaukee must remain a concern until, well, it isn't.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Piecing Together an Average Defense Around KAT-DLo
Karl-Anthony Towns and D'Angelo Russell give the Minnesota Timberwolves their sturdiest launching pad since drafting the former. They are an idealistic offensive match; each complements the other without overlap. That they're also friends and years away from free agency makes this a more natural pairing than the partnership Towns had once upon a time with Jimmy Butler.
Squaring away the rest of the roster is still going to be a challenge. The Timberwolves need to load up on switchy wings and at least one combo big if they're going to field a league-average defense around their two offensive stars.
Minnesota has some in-house options in the pipeline, though not enough. Jarrett Culver and Josh Okogie offer a level of physical portability on the perimeter. Malik Beasley (restricted) has the tools to wreak havoc on 1s, 2s and some 3s, but he needs to be more consistent and doesn't have the size to stand up against bigger wings.
Landing a frontline sidekick for Towns is the bigger need for now. James Johnson is a less reliable backline defender than Gorgui Dieng, but it's easier for the Timberwolves to play he and Towns in tandem on offense. Jarred Vanderbilt can cover a ton of ground and works his butt off on the glass, but there will be some redundancy with Towns. Both are better suited to defend like roving 4s.
For all the crap that Towns takes, this mobility is a source of hope. He gets tripped up dropping back and trying to cover both the ball-handler and big, but he's shown time and again he can hang in space when switching onto smaller, more explosive creators.
Players who defend like 5s and function as offensive 4s aren't dime a dozen, and the Timberwolves don't have a ton of cash to dangle this summer. They're limited to the non-taxpayer's mid-level exception, and that's assuming they don't pay an arm and leg to keep both Beasley and Juan Hernangomez (restricted).
Paul Millsap would be an interesting fit if he's cheap enough. He's also 35. Jerami Grant (player option) will probably be too expensive. Aron Baynes and Marc Gasol check the defensive box but could be too traditional on offense. Serge Ibaka could be intriguing. Derrick Favors, too. Al Horford might be worth a look if the Philadelphia 76ers aren't looking for anything beyond matching salary.
New Orleans Pelicans: The Cost of Talent Retention
Most teams less than a year removed from trading a top-seven player aren't worried about becoming too expensive. They're more concerned with starting over, a process usually underwritten by cost-controlled draft prospects and reclamation projects.
The New Orleans Pelicans are on a different timeline after moving Anthony Davis—urgent not in the sense they need to be contending, but they're facing pricey contract decisions.
Everyone they acquired from the Los Angeles Lakers will be on a new deal by 2021-22. Brandon Ingram is hitting restricted free agency this summer and bound to command a max-money investment. Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart are both extension-eligible after this season and will reach restricted free agency next year if they don't hash out new deals.
Jrue Holiday has a $26.2 million player option that same summer. He'll be a tier below the max-contract givens, but at 31 and with a staunch defensive presence, he'll still fetch a fortune. Opting out will be in his best interests. (JJ Redick is scheduled for free agency in 2021 as well.)
New Orleans won't lose much sleep over E'Twaun Moore, Jahlil Okafor and Kenrich Williams hitting the open market this year. Derrick Favors is a separate matter. He's been a huge part of stabilizing the defense, and the Pelicans are outscoring opponents by 16.9 points per 100 possessions when he plays with Zion Williamson.
Re-signing both Favors and Ingram this summer is in play. Tougher decisions await next year. The Pelicans' performance with Zion green-lights them to pay higher premiums for an expedited return to the playoffs, but keeping the band together beyond 2020-21 will cost a pretty penny. It shouldn't vault them into the tax unless Ball or Hart gets star money, but their rotation would be populated by players mostly on market-level to above-market deals.
Put another way: The Pelicans have, at most, another year to decide whether this is the exact core with which they'll push forward, or if they'll bid farewell to some combination of those due for long-term paydays and significant raises.
New York Knicks: Reinventing the Culture
Installing a permanent head coach, be it Mike Miller or someone else, has to be among the New York Knicks' chief concerns. But their organizational struggles are more wholesale than any one personnel move or on-court need.
New York has the league's worst record since making the Finals in 1999. That is beyond absurd, and it speaks to an incompetence now ingrained into the franchise's DNA. The process by which the Knicks have failed over the past two decades is repetitive. They short-circuit rebuilds, fall in love with the idea of completing free-agency coups and invest heavily, and mistakenly, into half-baked alternatives and detours.
Breaking this pattern won't take a genius. It also won't be easy. New York's issues start at the top. Madison Square Garden chairman James Dolan has granted absolute power to no one—Phil Jackson came closest—and the people he puts in place either lack vision or aren't empowered to implement the right one.
Something needs to give if the Knicks are ever going to be a cool thing. They need a blue-chip prospect to direct their rebuild (it could still be RJ Barrett), more serious commitment to player development and rhyme or reason to their free-agency spending. More than that, though, they need someone to reinvent the culture.
New team president Leon Rose could be that guy. We can't be sure. Not yet. His introductory statement wanted for substance. Cookie-cutter buzzphrases don't mean he'll be a flop, but he, like the rest of the organization, hasn't earned the benefit of the doubt. That only comes with meaningful change. We'll know the Knicks are different when they're actually different.
Youngsters won't be stuck behind placeholder veterans in the rotation. They'll give a longer leash and more consistent role to the Kevin Knoxes and Frank Ntilikinas. They won't view free agency, alone, as their ticket to relevance. They'll take on a bad salary or two in exchange for picks and prospects rather than compensating teams to swallow their own crummy contract.
They will, in other words, operate with an air of consistency and hint of direction.
Oklahoma City Thunder: How Much Do They Read into This Season?
Choice is the Oklahoma City Thunder's right. Their post-Russell Westbrook era team is built in a way that allows them to decide between a full-scale teardown, win-now window or somewhere in the middle of those two without the possibility of making the wrong call.
Having this optionality, while enviable, isn't the same as enjoying a carefree future. The Thunder have smaller decisions to make that will inevitably shape their bigger picture.
Standing pat isn't as simple as doing nothing. Danilo Gallinari is entering free agency and will be one of the most coveted targets in a market craving anything resembling star power. They can re-sign him with the intent to move him later if they start over, but shelling out money comparable to what he's making now ($22.6 million) will limit their breathing room under the tax.
Retaining access to the larger mid-level exception while remaining below the tax line may not be a concern. Oklahoma City has two first-rounders in this year's draft. Both, though, will convey in the 20s. They're unlikely to land a wing who can contribute immediately.
Keeping Chris Paul isn't much of a thought exercise. He's under contract for two more years. If he's movable this offseason, he'll be movable later on. But Steven Adams and Dennis Schroder are entering the final year of their deals. Do the Thunder look to relocate them over the summer? Wait until the trade deadline? See what their price points are in 2021?
Nearly everything Oklahoma City does next hinges on how much it buys into this season's success. Competing for a top-three playoff seed is no joke, but the Thunder are 9-17 against teams under .500, the second-worst record among all Western Conference postseason squads. They could be theoretically overmatched in any best-of-seven set.
Paul's age matters just as much. He's defying the career arc of undersized point guards, but he'll be 35 in May. Can Oklahoma City count on him to play at an All-NBA level in the near term?
General manager Sam Presti and the rest of the front office also have to weigh the importance of incoming draft picks. They will have as many as 15 first-rounders between now and 2026. They're not keeping all of them. How extensively they consolidate, though, is directly related to which window of opportunity they prioritize: the now or the later.
Orlando Magic: Escaping the Middle
Name another franchise more likely than the Orlando Magic to indefinitely trap itself in the middle: that no-man's land space in which teams are neither good enough to contend for more than first-round exits nor bad enough to speed up a reboot.
The Washington Wizards? Maybe. But they at least have a star, in Bradley Beal, they can dangle during trade talks who will net a small ransom and displace them from mediocrity. The Charlotte Hornets, Chicago Bulls and Detroit Pistons are always possibilities, but they're all bad enough right now to avoid overtaking the Magic.
Select Western Conference teams might qualify. The Minnesota Timberwolves, Phoenix Suns, Sacramento Kings and San Antonio Spurs are on the verge of, or already, flirting with that line. But the middle of the West is different from the middle of the East. It isn't as hopeless of a position.
Orlando has the most restrictive outlook in the league right now, with no clear path to the bottom or the top.
Ponying up for Al-Farouq Aminu, Terrence Ross and Nikola Vucevic last summer has contributed to the lack of wiggle room. The Magic aren't loaded with trade assets on desirable contracts and don't have the money to be aggressive in free agency. They're better off operating as an over-the-cap team this summer even if Evan Fournier declines his player option and they renounce him.
Staying the course might be Orlando's best—perhaps only—play now. That shouldn't incite much confidence. The Magic are light on swing pieces. Markelle Fultz's resurgence has been nice to watch, but he'll need a consistent off-the-dribble jumper to be termed a cornerstone. Aaron Gordon's playmaking uptick is a boon for the offense, but he too is limited as an off-the-bounce scorer.
Jonathan Isaac is a defensive monster, and the Magic wouldn't have such a sad-sack record if he never suffered his left knee injury. But he's in the same boat as Fultz and Gordon. His upside as a from-scratch scorer appears finite.
Perhaps Orlando reaches a point where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This rotation will be able to stretch 12 deep next season without breaking a sweat when Aminu, Isaac and red-shirt rookie Chuma Okeke are all healthy. Adding a singular shooter who can score off the dribble could buoy the team's trajectory.
Good luck finding that player for what the Magic can offer in free agency or, more realistically, on the trade market. Gordon's advancement as a passer boosts his value, but Orlando struggled to drum up interest at all leading into February's deadline, according to Heavy's Sean Deveney. Suitors would line up to bid on Isaac, but he's more useful as a keeper until he signs his next deal.
To what end striking a high-profile trade would even matter is debatable. The Magic could feasibly lose both Fournier and D.J. Augustin this summer, handcuffing their offense even further. But paying them both could prove equally, if not more, confining. Such is the dilemma this organization faces. Orlando has no clear way out from where it is now.
Philadelphia 76ers: Acquiring the Optimal Supporting Cast
Say it with me: The Joel Embiid-Ben Simmons partnership is not the Philadelphia 76ers' problem.
Pretty much every team would kill for having a young, two-superstar base around which to build. Embiid and Simmons are not the cleanest fit, but they are not the root cause of a clunky offense. Philly exacerbated the half-court congestion by investing in a supporting cast that wants for off-ball floor spacers who can score in motion. Overlooking the importance of the backup point guard spot hasn't helped either.
Tobias Harris, Al Horford and Josh Richardson can all shoot, but they're not knockdown snipers. Harris is more comfortable on-ball. Horford is an imperfect fit within an offense that doesn't run out four floor spacers or use the pick-and-pop as a crutch. Richardson has never been the guy to fire up jumpers coming off screens.
Sources tell Bleacher Report that going back in time and re-signing Jimmy Butler (not the best shooter, but good face-up attacker) and JJ Redick rather than maxing out Harris and overpaying Horford isn't an option. Tough stuff. The Sixers don't have a ton of feasible or obvious alternatives without busting up the Embiid-Simmons core.
According to USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt, Philly would be open to moving Horford this summer in a package that brings back some much-needed shooting. Oh. Best of luck to general manager Elton Brand. Horford is owed $81 million over the next three years ($69 million guaranteed). The Sixers will be lucky to get more than long-term cap relief.
Ditto for the case of Harris. He will only be 28 when next season tips off and is a certified bucket-getter, but the $147.3 million he'll earn over the next four years is a lot to pay for someone who isn't especially close to the top-25 conversation.
Philly has some draft equity to hawk but wants for salary-matching tools outside its five highest-paid players. Retooling the supporting cast through free agency is almost a non-option. The Sixers will cruise past the luxury-tax line even if next year's cap projections don't fall. They won't have more than the mini mid-level exception to peddle, and that's only if Brand is given the green light to increase the expenses of what will be one of the league's two priciest rosters.
Selling high on Embiid or Simmons will not be the Sixers' first choice. In time, and by their own hand, it might be the only one.
Phoenix Suns: Surviving the Western Conference
Glass-half-full take: The Phoenix Suns are one player away from entering the postseason picture.
Glass-half-empty take: They still play in the West.
Each of the 14 other teams can currently talk themselves into going after a playoff spot next season. The Golden State Warriors and Portland Trail Blazers will be healthier. The Memphis Grizzlies aren't a flash in the pan. The New Orleans Pelicans are already coming.
The Sacramento Kings may have turned a corner, and De'Aaron Fox isn't going anywhere. The Minnesota Timberwolves have D'Angelo Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns. The San Antonio Spurs haven't yet torn everything down.
Wild cards will invariably help thin out the West's playoff gauntlet. The Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder could steer into more top-down rebuilds. The Timberwolves will need to get a few in-house leaps and hit a home run with their mid-level exception in free agency to crash the party. Never trust the Kings.
Of note: Most of the West's uncertainty lies in the lottery. Not one of the eight current playoff teams are poised for a demonstrative setback unless they hit reset (OKC) or suffer serious injuries. Meanwhile, the Blazers (healthy Zach Collins and Jusuf Nurkic), Pelicans (more Zion Williamson) and Warriors (return of the original Big Three) will all be better.
On the smaller end, then, the Suns are facing a 10-to-11 team free-for-fall. That is...not ideal. Yes, they have something going with the current core. Devin Booker is All-NBA worthy, and they're outscoring opponents by 7.2 points per 100 possessions (89th percentile) with a top-flight offense when he shares the floor alongside Deandre Ayton and Ricky Rubio.
Sprinkle in a mid-level free agent who can help tread water during Booker's stays on the bench, and the Suns will be on course to make another meaningful jump. Whether that's enough to put them in the playoffs remains to be seen—and isn't up to them.
Portland Trail Blazers: Develop or Double-Down?
Missing the playoffs on the heels of making the Western Conference Finals would be a disaster for the Portland Trail Blazers' optics. Talking heads and keyboard warriors have labored over the future of the Damian Lillard-CJ McCollum duo while having far less cause to argue as much. A lottery berth would seem to give those same critics credibility.
It shouldn't. The Blazers are in a pretty good spot relative to their record. Next season will be better barring the unforeseen. They'll get more than a combined three appearances from Zach Collins and Jusuf Nurkic. Anfernee Simons' lightning-quick release and off-the-bounce escapism will go a longer way in a fuller rotation. And Portland will have the option of guaranteeing Trevor Ariza's contract while remaining far enough below the luxury tax to use the full mid-level exception without issue.
Leave the roster untouched, and the Blazers should regain their spot in the "They've got a path to making the conference finals" discussion. That's huge. They just need to decide whether it's enough.
Nurkic will have to wait until next year to take the floor post-recovery if the NBA doesn't reopen for business. Collins will have basically lost an entire season as well. Simons retains his offensive upside, but after a scorching-hot start, it's clear he needs time to marinate.
Maybe Nurkic isn't the same defensive bellwether in the middle or brute-force/short-roll offensive threat after suffering compound fractures in his left leg. Maybe Collins' 42.9 percent clip from long range through three games is a complete mirage. Maybe the offensive fit between he and Nurkic is too clumpy. Maybe Portland never trusts Simons enough to soak up second-string point guard reps. Maybe he's never fully unleashed with Lillard and McCollum in front of him.
Remaining patient is worthwhile in a vacuum. But the Blazers have to treat their current window with a sense of urgency even after signing Lillard and McCollum to extensions. Both are in the heart of their primes. Lillard turns 30 in July. The time to capitalize on them, together, is now.
General manager Neil Olshey needs to figure out what exactly that entails. Is developing Collins and Simons the top-most priority? Will the Blazers not make a major move without first seeing what Nurkic looks like? Or is this finally the offseason in which they use some combination of youngsters, picks and salary filler to swing big on the trade market?
Sacramento Kings: Rising Cost of the Core
Mounting roster costs are one thing when a team has entered the title-contention discussion (Boston) or appears to be on that track (New Orleans). They are a special genre of uncomfortable for squads that are neither.
Or in this case, they are the Sacramento Kings.
Harrison Barnes and Buddy Hield have already been paid. Bogdan Bogdanovic (restricted) is next up. De'Aaron Fox is extension-eligible this summer and a max-contract lock. This adds up.
Salary-cap projections are far from set in stone following the current work stoppage, but if the Kings don't trade one of their core pieces, they'll be doling out between $90 and $100 million for Barnes, Bogdanovic, Fox and Hield entering 2021-22. That would certainly be, uh, a choice.
Marvin Bagley III, whose rookie-scale salary that year isn't peanuts ($11.8 million), will be extension-eligible by this point. Nemanja Bjelica and Richaun Holmes are also scheduled to hit free agency in 2021. Keeping all seven players shouldn't catapult Sacramento into the tax, but their combined salaries would eat up close to, maybe more than, the cap.
Chances are the Kings don't retain everyone. They can't. Not unless they scoot into airtight playoff contention next season. Even then, funneling what amounts to, let's say, the entire salary cap into seven players who don't constitute a championship core is wildly problematic.
Sacramento has time to weigh its options. A year-and-change is an eternity in the NBA. Maybe Bagley blows up. Or Hield gets changed out for cheaper, happier-to-be-here role players. The Kings are not doomed to the most expensive, ill-conceived scenario. They do, however, have an obligation to make sure it stays that way.
San Antonio Spurs: Figuring Out Which Major Changes They Can/Will Make
With the San Antonio Spurs' 22-year playoff streak in jeopardy, the fact that they're nearing a natural pivot point is refreshing. LaMarcus Aldridge, DeMar DeRozan (player option this summer), Rudy Gay and Patty Mills all come off the books next summer. They'll have the opportunity to rebuild around a blankish slate.
Will they take it? Who knows.
Entirely resetting is probably out of the question so long as Gregg Popovich, 71, remains the head coach. But standing pat should be considered similarly taboo.
Left alone, this roster isn't good enough to sing Pop's swan song. FiveThirtyEight gives the Spurs a 2 percent chance of snagging the West's eighth seed. A canceled season is officially their best shot at keeping their playoff streak alive.
San Antonio cannot hope for internal jumps to get by when looking ahead. Dejounte Murray, Lonnie Walker IV and Derrick White could all get better, but the ceiling on a team with DeRozan and an aging Aldridge as its two most featured players is finite.
Then again, urging the Spurs to make changes before next season assumes that they can. They might be stuck. They won't have more than the non-taxpayer's mid-level exception to spend in free agency, and neither Aldridge nor DeRozan is yielding a premium on the trade market.
There may be some moves for the Spurs to make if they're willing to break character. Mortgaging their future via trade has always been a no-no. They are not the team to unload prospects or future first-round picks. If they're open to moving off that stance, they have the expiring salary anchors to be opportunistic.
What that opportunity looks like is anyone's guess. The Spurs' best packages are beatable. Offering something like White, filler and picks probably isn't getting them into hypothetical discussions for Bradley Beal. Going after Aaron Gordon or Myles Turner is more their speed, and someone along those lines, while an intriguing fit, isn't necessarily enough to inoculate them against starting over.
Toronto Raptors: Deciding How Much to Prioritize 2021 Free Agency
Uncertainty is flexibility in the Toronto Raptors' case. They have earned that type of trust.
Team president Masai Ujiri has instilled a culture that transcends any one player. Toronto doesn't so seamlessly transition from the departures of DeMar DeRozan and Kawhi Leonard if that isn't true. The organization at large does a masterful job of thinking outside the box. The Raptors have hit on a number of undervalued prospects, both in (OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam) and outside (Terence Davis, Matt Thomas) the draft. Head coach Nick Nurse has made use of myriad defensive approaches and extracted value from castoffs (Chris Boucher, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson).
Everything Toronto does has coalesced into a genuine title defense. It is both enviable and complicated. Enviable given the circumstances under which it's come; complicated in what it does to their long-term plan.
Ujiri (and everyone else) has eyes for Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2021. The Raptors are well-positioned to make a run at him if he reaches free agency. Siakam and this year's first-round pick are the only guaranteed salaries on the books that summer. But Toronto has to make plenty of calls between now and then.
Boucher (Early Bird restricted), Hollis-Jefferson, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka and Fred VanVleet will all hit free agency over the offseason. The number of players the Raptors bring back, along with the length of their deals, will hint at how committed they are to making a splash in 2021.
Ibaka and VanVleet should be the barometers. Everyone else's market should be limited in the scope of cost or length. Ibaka and VanVleet will have more leverage. Toronto probably cannot re-sign both and count on having the room for Antetokounmpo without calling some audibles later. Ujiri has thus far taught a clinic in sustaining relevance while preserving flexibility, but there will be a limit to the one-year deals he can sell to free agents with other suitors.
Antetokounmpo can remove some of the guesswork by signing a supermax extension with Milwaukee. That would free up the Raptors to think longer term this summer unless they see one of the stars from the Los Angeles teams switching digs. Either way, next year's roster will reflect their plans—not just their commitment to the current core, but how invested they are in other teams' players.
Utah Jazz: Rudy Gobert's Next Contract
Rudy Gobert will be eligible to sign a supermax extension this summer. Initial forecasts have a five-year deal checking in at $253.8 million, though that stands to change if the 2021-22 salary cap drops below its $125 million projection.
Committing that type of money to a big man who neither spaces the floor nor orchestrates the offense would be a massive gamble. Gobert at least makes it an interesting debate. With the exception of a portion of this season, he has anchored the NBA's most formidable defense over the past few years.
Bigs primarily responsible for locking down the paint are often seen as plodders. Gobert breaks that mold. Certain opponents are harder for him to grapple with than others (Houston), but he's not some slow-footed behemoth who will be spin-cycled to the floor every time he switches onto guards and wings.
"Per tracking data via a source, Rudy Gobert has been switched onto a guard in isolation on 117 possessions since the start of 18-19," Forbes' Ben Dowsett tweeted in late February. "Opponents have scored 0.748 points per chance, one of the five lowest figures among volume minute centers in the NBA."
This doesn't make Gobert's extension a mindless decision. He falls shy of matchup-proof, and a five-year extension would take him through his age-33 season. The Jazz can offer him a cheaper and shorter deal, but in all likelihood, they'd still be getting him for an additional three or four years at superstar money.
Investing so much in any center who doesn't shoot threes or put the ball on the floor is inherently risky given the league's current direction. Utah's situation is even more shaky. Donovan Mitchell will be in the first year of his inevitable max extension when 2021-22 tips off. Depending on where the cap lands, the Jazz could have more than $60 million committed to he and Gobert, plus two pricey years of Bojan Bogdanovic left on the ledger.
Paying near-max money for two stars isn't an unworkable scenario. But it is slightly restrictive when neither cornerstone is a wing. The Jazz would probably be better off, financially, allowing Gobert to reach free agency in 2021 and letting the market set his value. They'll still have the juice to pay him more than any team.
Except, contract negotiations don't exist in an emotionless bubble. Egos are involved. Gobert will remember if Utah doesn't extend him. Letting him hit free agency risks hurt feelings and his departure. The Jazz, as of now, aren't built to rise above that outcome either.
Washington Wizards: What John Wall Looks Like Post-Recovery
Achilles injuries can be devastating. In most cases, they're career-altering. In some instances, they're career-ending.
John Wall shouldn't be at risk of falling into the latter category. So much of his game is rooted in speed and burst, but he'll offset some of whatever athletic deficit he suffers with high-IQ passing.
Still, he hasn't played since basically Christmas 2018. When he returns in 2020-21, he'll have missed at least half of the Washington Wizards' games in three consecutive years. Left knee injuries cost him a chunk of 2017-18, and most of the last two seasons were ruined by his torn left Achilles.
Predicting what Wall looks like in the aftermath is futile. His age and stardom might safeguard him to some extent, but the track record of players recovering from Wall's injury isn't great. As the New York Post's Marc Berman wrote after speaking with Northwestern University's Dr. Anish Kadakia, a leading Achilles expert, about Kevin Durant's ruptured Achilles:
"According to Kadakia, 68 percent return and 32 percent never play again. Further, it takes until the second season back for the player to return to his normal ability, taking into consideration 'aged matched controls,' he said.
"'Very few players play past two seasons,' Kadakia told The Post. 'Two seasons and that's it. But after two years and you're still playing, studies show you'll be as good as you'd be as if you didn't rupture—factoring in decline with age. You probably haven't lost anything but time. But in three years, it's not the same Durant from three weeks ago.'"
This timeline, or something similar, isn't hopeless. But it does put the Wizards in a bind.
They bought themselves a cushion by extending Bradley Beal. They can see how Wall fares at the beginning of next year and reevaluate their position heading into the 2021 trade deadline. If they're not fit to contend by then or don't see themselves hitting that apex in the near future, they can still maximize Beal's value by flipping him with a season-and-a-half left on his deal.
But that doesn't give the Wizards a ton of time. If they can't know what version of the 29-year-old Wall they're having for another year or more, they'll have to decide between keeping their two-star core intact and starting over, presumably by trading Beal, without having the full picture in view.
Franchise trajectories don't get more tenuous.