Should Every Lottery Team Buy or Sell Heading into 2020 Draft?
Each front office enters the NBA draft with a clear path set for the ensuing season.
Sure, opportunities like the one that came the Los Angeles Clippers' way last season can change the battle plans of franchises across the league, forcing general managers such as Sam Presti of the Oklahoma City Thunder to alter their plans on the fly.
Without a landscape-altering move like the one that helped Paul George join Kawhi Leonard in L.A., though, a front office can set out upon that predetermined path.
A team can function as a buyer for many reasons, whether because of an owner in need of placating, an aging core or a superstar who's unenthused by recent playoff failures. Whatever the case may be, a buying front office is tasked with using the available resources and improving the core to drive deep into the playoffs.
As for the sellers, time is on their side. Either due to front-office turnover or the patience of an owner or superstar, a general manager of a seller can focus on the long game, completing a roster that can contend for years to come.
Some teams don't fit into either category and are content to stand pat. This unusual set of circumstances emerges when an organization has already invested heavily in a developing group of blue-chippers and needs to step back and evaluate exactly what its diligence has bought it. The clock is ticking on such a group, but it still has time to assess the makeup of its roster.
Atlanta Hawks: Stand Pat
Player empowerment strikes again, this time in the form of second-year superstar Trae Young.
"After a 130-118 home loss to Brooklyn on Wednesday, one high-ranking team official was seen telling Young that the team would be getting him some help on the roster soon," Shams Charania reported for The Athletic.
The front office obliged in the form of center Clint Capela, giving up only a protected Brooklyn Nets first-rounder and other spare parts to acquire him from the Houston Rockets. Following the deal, general manager Travis Schlenk finds himself on firm footing.
In addition to currently possessing the fourth-best lottery odds this summer, the Hawks have experienced some exceptional returns from their fresh-faced core. Young, Kevin Huerter, Cam Reddish, De'Andre Hunter and John Collins have outscored their opponents by 5.3 points per 100 possessions in over 200 minutes together.
And the Hawks will have more than $50 million available to them this summer, according to Bleacher Report's Eric Pincus.
Curbing Young's frustrations should be priority No. 1, and that starts with head coach Lloyd Pierce building this young group into a winner.
Of the five-man lineup listed above, only Hunter and Collins will turn 23 this year. Schlenk will also add a blue-chipper with Atlanta's first-round pick and can use much of the available space to acquire depth in the backcourt and on the perimeter. Adding short-term veterans like Goran Dragic and Jae Crowder could be a safe move for a franchise looking to retain flexibility while reinforcing its youth.
Charlotte Hornets: Sell
The offensive breakout of Devonte' Graham, coupled with impressive outings from Terry Rozier and PJ Washington, gives this group the semblance of hope going forward. With minimal expectation, the Hornets have managed 23 wins, placing them ahead of five Eastern Conference counterparts.
The eighth-best lottery odds could give the Hornets a prospect who should develop alongside the players mentioned above, plus Miles Bridges and Malik Monk. Still, that isn't nearly enough to push this squad anywhere near contention.
The Hornets are a long way away from that level, and taking in lousy salary in exchange for draft capital would help build toward the future.
The final year of Nicolas Batum's contract ($27.1 million player option) could provide a lifeline to a team looking for cap relief next summer. Just 27 years old, Cody Zeller is still a reliable low-post option who could help a team looking to fortify its paint.
Whatever options may present themselves, the Hornets should be active sellers and build toward the future. And yes, we know tanking goes against Michael Jordan's nature, but this group is devoid of the talent and resources to contend without a little help.
Chicago Bulls: Stand Pat
Rejoice, Bulls fans. After 18 years of Gar Forman and John Paxson, Chicago hired former Denver Nuggets executive Arturas Karnisovas to lead its front office.
The recent shakeup buys the organization some much-needed patience, and it could use some. The Bulls don't have a superstar to worry about appeasing and have lost 37 combined games in 2019-20 from Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr., the foundations of their core alongside point guard Coby White.
Losing Otto Porter Jr. for 51 games is also notable since he's placed in the 92nd percentile or higher in efficiency differential during three of the past four seasons. It seems all but inevitable he'll pick up his $28.5 million player option for 2020-21.
With White, Zach Lavine, Porter, Markkanen, Carter and the veteran duo of Tomas Satoransky and Thaddeus Young off the bench, the Bulls have the building blocks for a group that could blossom into an Eastern Conference contender in time. Given the proper development, Chandler Hutchison and Daniel Gafford could help round out a steady nine-man rotation.
There is no pressure on this group to win and no need to acquire future assets. The team should focus on development and begin building a better culture after winning just 71 games (and possibly counting) over the previous three seasons.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Sell
Just two seasons separate the Cleveland Cavaliers from the LeBron James era, buying general manager Koby Altman the luxury of time. Owner Dan Gilbert isn't easily soothed, however. He'll want to build a winner—and build one quickly to detach himself from the past.
A possible top-four pick in 2020 would help shuffle along the rebuild, as will the backcourt of Darius Garland and Collin Sexton. Kevin Porter Jr., Larry Nance Jr. and Cedi Osman can continue to round out the rotation and develop into long-term pieces.
The Cavs need to solve their Kevin Love conundrum, though. His massive remaining salary (three years, $91.5 million) makes moving him all but hopeless, and he hasn't been helping build his value, either.
Extracting any value in exchange for Love should be the Cavs' first order of business entering the 2020 offseason. According to Chris Fedor of Cleveland.com, they "aren't going to give him away for nothing" and "aren't going to accept a salary dump, either."
If Altman softens his stance in the coming months, he could try to swap undesirable contracts with the Philadelphia 76ers (Al Horford) or Golden State Warriors (Andrew Wiggins). Such deals may not seem appealing due to Horford's advancing age and Wiggins' inefficiency, but a change of scenery may be the best course of action given Love's public and disruptive behavior in 2019-20.
Detroit Pistons: Sell
It has been another tough season for the Detroit Pistons, and the clouds don't appear to be clearing any time soon.
Former head coach and general manager Stan Van Gundy mortgaged the future to save his position by acquiring six-time All-Star Blake Griffin, but that move has had disastrous results in recent years. With Andre Drummond jettisoned to Cleveland in a salary dump, it's time for the Pistons to step back and evaluate.
They're not without resources. Derrick Rose is on a terrific deal and will be an expiring contract to boot. Christian Wood could prove a positive long-term project if the Pistons can lock him up on a cost-effective deal. There's also Sekou Doumbouya, another long-term project who has shown flashes of development. Luke Kennard can still become a high-level scorer or fetch something in return.
The Pistons have plenty of cap space and the fifth-best lottery odds, as well as all of their first-round picks going forward.
Moving off of Blake Griffin (would the New York Knicks be interested?) should be priority No. 1. Finding substantial compensation in exchange for bad salary and Derrick Rose should be priority No. 2. Then the Pistons can use what space they have in free agency to build a veteran wall around their blue-chip prospects and forge ahead to the future.
Golden State Warriors: Buy
This might be the most obvious of the bunch.
The three-man core of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green reached five consecutive Finals, winning three of them in the last six seasons. Time isn't on their side with Curry recently turning 32 and Thompson and Green reaching 30, so majority owner Joe Lacob needs to maximize this group now.
The Warriors sit in an excellent position with 52.1 percent odds of a top-four pick and a 14.0 percent chance at No. 1. While landing in the top three could earn them a favorable selection in Anthony Edwards, Obi Toppin or LaMelo Ball, they don't have the luxury of time.
The Warriors made a shrewd move by dealing D'Angelo Russell to the Minnesota Timberwolves in exchange for Andrew Wiggins' albatross contract. They must be betting that Minnesota's top-three-protected 2021 first-rounder and their potential top-three selection should be enough to entice a high-ticket trade candidate, even with Wiggins included.
Due to their financial commitments ($130.2 million owed to Curry, Klay, Dray and Wiggins in 2020-21), they can't spend much on a contributor in free agency. Sending out Wiggins becomes paramount.
But the NBA better brace itself. If the 2019-20 season should end prematurely rather than resume, a blockbuster trade could push Golden State to its sixth straight Finals.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Buy
Following the blockbuster deal for D'Angelo Russell, the Minnesota Timberwolves and president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas are in an excellent position to build a winner on the fly. While parting with their 2021 first-round pick in the Andrew Wiggins-D'Angelo Russell swap, they managed to keep the third-best lottery odds in 2020.
That's not all. In the separate Robert Covington deal, they acquired Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez, along with the Brooklyn Nets' 2020 first-rounder (top-14 protected).
Armed with Russell, Josh Okogie, Beasley, Jarrett Culver, Hernanongomez, Karl-Anthony Towns and two first-round picks, the Wolves find themselves in a lovely spot after another disappointing go-round in 2020.
But time is not on Rossas' side. With just a 0.413 win percentage and one eighth-seeded finish in five seasons, KAT's patience may be running thin. The Wolves did right by him in adding Russell, but they also dealt one of his friends in Covington.
"I think it's very obvious [Covington is] my best friend on the team, so it would be very difficult if something like that was going to happen," Towns said in February before Covington was traded, per Chris Hine of the Star Tribune.
There's no time for developing their pair of 2020 first-round picks. With minimal space available, Rosas will need to strike a deal using James Johnson's expiring contract, plus one or both of those picks, to bring in a game-changer who can play at the 3 and 4. Aaron Gordon would be a perfect fit if the Orlando Magic make him available.
New Orleans Pelicans: Stand Pat
Executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin may possess the most enviable front office position in the NBA heading into 2020-21. With a three-man core of players no older than 22 (Zion Williamson, Lonzo Ball and restricted free agent Brandon Ingram) and the NBA's most effective starting unit (minimum 180 minutes), the New Orleans Pelicans can choose their adventure.
They can let veteran Derrick Favors walk. They can deal Jrue Holiday for draft capital.
But why? Armed with all of their future firsts, as well as three first-rounders from the Los Angeles Lakers, the Pelicans are hardly in need of down-the-road assets.
Plus, there's not a player on the market who can defend and create the way Holiday can. Favors helped reverse the Pelicans' fortune in 2019-20 and can give Jaxson Hayes extended time to develop.
Putting a contender around Zion and building a winning culture should take priority over an extensive rebuild, but the Pelicans don't need a deal to achieve those goals. They just need patience.
New York Knicks: Buy
No team fits the bill of a seller more than the New York Knicks, yet here we are.
The Knicks currently have a 37.2 percent chance of adding another top-four pick to pair with RJ Barrett and Mitchell Robinson, but they don't appear to be interested in player development.
"It's the best path for us," one front-office member recently told SNY's Ian Begley in reference to a trade for a superstar.
The Knicks don't have much to offer outside of Barrett, Robinson and future draft considerations, but they do have all of their own first-rounders along with a 2020 first-round pick from the Los Angeles Clippers and 2021 and 2023 first-rounders from the Dallas Mavericks. They could package some of that with any of their roughly 182 power forwards as salary ballast in a trade for a disgruntled superstar.
The Knicks likely could acquire Kevin Love, Blake Griffin or Al Horford without having to give up considerable assets, but to what end? Doing so would add plenty of future salary to their books without the benefit of these former stars' primes.
If the Knicks decline Bobby Portis' $15.8 million team option, they should come close to max-level cap space, which may be enough to entice Fred VanVleet, Gordon Hayward (player option), DeMar DeRozan (player option) or Evan Fournier (player option).
Regardless of which avenue they choose, standing pat and playing for the future doesn't appear to be in the cards.
Phoenix Suns: Buy
It's time to start thinking about Devin Booker's future in Phoenix.
A 23-year-old in the first of a five-year deal typically would grant a franchise some clemency, but these aren't normal times. In the age of player empowerment, teams are finding themselves at the mercy of their superstars, always fumbling over themselves in an attempt to avoid another public trade demand.
Since selecting Booker with the No. 13 overall pick in 2015, the Suns have gone 113-280. Heading into his sixth NBA season, he may be getting impatient.
Player development coupled with patience should pay off soon. The Suns have plenty of tools around him to reverse their fortunes.
Last offseason's addition of Ricky Rubio proved to be a difference-maker. The Suns outscored opponents by 3.8 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor and were outscored by 6.5 with him off, which was the widest discrepancy of any rotation player.
After adding a playmaker alongside Booker, the Suns saw Ricky Rubio's positive 9.9 on/off mark begin to shift their luck. The five-man lineup of Rubio, Booker, Kelly Oubre Jr., Mikal Bridges and Aron Baynes boasted a net rating of plus-26.7, the NBA's 12th-best mark among five-man groups that played at least 50 minutes.
Reinforcing this young core with improved depth should be general manager James Jones' offseason priority. After six seasons of sub-.500 basketball, it's time to put together a winner in the Valley of the Sun.
Portland Trail Blazers: Buy
Good luck getting Damian Lillard to sign off on a rebuild, especially after the five-time All-Star helped pave the Portland Trail Blazers' way to the Western Conference Finals last season.
The Blazers lost center Jusuf Nurkic to a leg injury late in the 2018-19 season, which was a significant blow. With his return imminent, they should be in far better shape heading into 2020-21.
However, the Blazers still have plenty of work to do this offseason. With more than $75 million dedicated to Dame, CJ McCollum and Nurkic, general manager Neil Oshey will have to get creative with cap space and future draft capital.
The ongoing development of young players such as Anfernee Simons, Nassir Little and Zach Collins will help, but the Blazers still need plenty of help on the wing. Bringing back Carmelo Anthony and Hassan Whiteside at cost-effective prices may prove to be a necessity.
The Blazers have all of their future first-round picks as well as their 2022 second and a 2024 second from Atlanta. With Dame's contract set to explode to nearly $43.8 million in 2021-22, this offseason may be the front office's last opportunity to add notable salary.
San Antonio Spurs: Sell
As long as head coach Gregg Popovich is in San Antonio, the Spurs aren't likely to blow up their roster. But when the 2019-20 season went on hiatus in mid-March, they were four games behind the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies.
There's no blue-chip prospect coming down the pipeline to reinvigorate this group, and the Spurs currently have a 2.0 percent chance of lucking into the No. 1 overall pick. Even if they do win the lottery, they'll be hard-pressed to find the next Tim Duncan or David Robinson in this year's subpar draft class.
A rebuild is inevitable, regardless of whether DeRozan picks up his 2020-21 player option. The Spurs can either make moves this offseason or wait until next year's trade deadline, when they can dangle the expiring contracts of Aldridge, Mills, Gay and possibly DeRozan.
Sacramento Kings: Sell
Sacramento Kings general manager Vlade Divac put himself in quite the predicament last summer when he gave Buddy Hield and Harrison Barnes four-year deals worth nearly $180 million combined.
This offseason, the Kings face a decision on restricted free agent Bogdan Bogdanovic, whom they attempted to extend last summer. After benching Hield in favor of Bogdanovic, head coach Luke Walton may have forced the organization's hand with regard to re-signing him.
Franchise cornerstone De'Aaron Fox becomes extension-eligible this summer and will likely expect a five-year maxdeal, much like Jamal Murray received from the Denver Nuggets last summer. The organization declined to pick up Harry Giles' fourth-year option last fall, so the fan favorite is now set for unrestricted free agency. Will the Kings lock him up, too?
Sacramento's salary-cap sheet is already getting out of hand. Dealing salary for future assets seems inevitable.
Washington Wizards: Buy
With relentless speculation surrounding Bradley Beal's long-term future, the best thing that Washington Wizards general manager Tommy Sheppard can do is put another winner back on the floor.
And with a healthy John Wall set to return in 2020-21, the odds are much better than you might think for this 24-win bottom-feeder.
Beal's offseason extension was both a show of faith and a win-now mandate. While he's stated his hope to finish his career in Washington, he's also shown visible frustration with the team's persistent shortcomings.
Wall's return nexton season likely won't reverse the fortunes of the league's 30th-ranked defense. The Wizards need immediately defensive help on the wing to support Rui Hachimura and move Davis Bertans back to the bench. Finding a rim protector to complement Thomas Bryant will also be an offseason boon for this squad.
With $70 million dedicated to Wall and Ball in 2020-21 and Bertans set to become an unrestricted free agent, the Wizards likely won't be able to make major upgrades in free agency this offseason. They'll need to deal future draft capital to reinforce their superstar backcourt.
Preston Ellis covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@PrestonEllis).