NBA Teams with the Biggest Breakthrough Potential This Offseason
But that doesn't mean our minds can't stray from thinking about next season. The 2020-21 campaign isn't in jeopardy like the rest of this year. It might start later or be shortened, but next season, unlike this season, is guaranteed to happen. (We think. We hope.)
Anyway, with so few regular-season games on tap in the first place, plenty of the league's squads were already looking ahead to next year. Planning for the future never stops. Forecasting it must not relent, either.
In the spirit of that continuity, I present to you the teams best positioned to return from the upcoming offseason, whenever it may be, in the most improved forms.
This isn't merely a collection of bad squads with nowhere to go but way up. Those candidates are part of the calculus, like always. They're not the standard. That honor belongs to fallen giants on the precipice of becoming whole, rebuilding teams with budding assets and might-be contenders with the tools and flexibility to make themselves surer things.
Hiring Arturas Karnisovas to run basketball operations hints at a complete overhaul for the Bulls. He has already turned over a large part of the front office, and head coach Jim Boylen might be next—not just because he's Jim Boylen, but also because newly minted franchise figureheads are typically inclined to put their own spin on an organization from top to bottom.
This goes for the players, too. The Bulls could look drastically different next season. They don't employ anyone who flirts with inarguable untouchability. Wendell Carter Jr., Coby White and this year's first-round pick are as close as they come. Next season could see Chicago roll out a less competitive team by design.
On the off chance that Karnisovas keeps the skeleton of this squad intact, the Bulls have the talent necessary to leave their imprint on the Eastern Conference. That same sentiment dates back to the start of 2019-20. Chicago's subsequent performance—a 28-win pace—is both the byproduct of crappy health and underachieving.
Better availability from Carter, Lauri Markkanen and Otto Porter Jr. would go a long way. Maybe Markkanen finally diversifies his offensive game. Perhaps White's late-season hot streak spills into next year. Tomas Satoransky and Thaddeus Young could have bounce-back campaigns. Replacing Boylen could equate to its own upgrade.
It could happen.
The Bulls could likewise tear down a majority of their infrastructure. And if they don't, they're still left in a precarious spot in which their No. 1 scorer, Zach LaVine, really shouldn't be their No. 1 scorer but they don't have anyone capable of leapfrogging him on the food chain.
Phoenix's path up the Western Conference ladder is difficult to map out.
Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Ricky Rubio and Kelly Oubre Jr. are a good start. Mikal Bridges showed some spunk before the NBA closed its doors, Cam Johnson is eminently playable, and another top-10 pick could be en route. Bringing back Aron Baynes, figuring out what the hell to do with Dario Saric (restricted) and signing another playmaker would fast-track the Suns to fringe playoff contention.
Journeying beyond that point is less of an exact science. The Suns need a legitimate co-star for Booker before they can even think about sitting at the postseason-locks table. Ayton is their best hope, and he'll need to bust out more of a self-sufficient offensive bag to flirt with that stark of a leap.
And not even that would guarantee the Suns anything. The West is too brutal. Bridges needs to stick as a top-100 player, and the team has to add a difference-making free agent or two to earn the benefit of the doubt.
Skulking around the blockbuster trade market could do the trick, but Phoenix can offer only so much in addition to salary anchors (Oubre and Rubio) if Ayton, Booker and Bridges are all off-limits. (Count me among those who would implore the Suns to make a run at acquiring Chris Paul. Just saying.)
Playing at a 25-win pace doesn't exactly portend good times for the Atlanta Hawks. Trae Young is a top-25ish player but a bottom-oneish defender. Their wing rotation is begging for experience. Clint Capela adds a tantalizing rim-runner dynamic but has yet to suit up for Atlanta while recovering from a left heel injury.
The relative unknownness of the Hawks' core definitely matters. They'll need an internal leap or three to achieve a meaningful breakthrough. The thing is, they're well-positioned to get them.
John Collins may have already given them one. He and Young provide the basis of a great offense, and his three-point shooting is good enough to pair with Capela up front. Kevin Huerter has shown some creativity out of the pick-and-roll (when healthy).
De'Andre Hunter is downing 35.5 percent of his threes on moderate volume. Cam Reddish is averaging 14.6 points while converting 41.7 percent of his treys over his past 21 games. Capela offers a viable defensive presence in the middle.
Atlanta will partner its core, which, thanks to Young, includes an entrenched All-Star, with another high draft pick and a mountain of cap space. The latter is going to be more valuable than ever.
Everyone is expecting the league to lower its 2020-21 salary cap from the projected $115 million. No drop, however steep, will torpedo the Hawks' flexibility. They're on course for more than $45 million in wiggle room if they renounce most of their own free agents. It'll take a cataclysmic cratering to remove them from the max-money tier.
Star power is scarce on this year's open market. That's not going to change. Nor do the Hawks need it to change. They were never going to be in play for the typical All-NBA free agent (of which there are few this year).
But their flexibility is now infinitely more appealing to the above-replacement-level veterans looking to sign contracts worth more than whatever the mid-level exception winds up being. They're liable to enter the running for players they may not have attracted before or, if those cases don't exist, be cap-rich enough to stock up on impact talent.
Look, the Brooklyn Nets' immediate future isn't unconditionally enviable. They have a lot to figure out between now and next season, and the conditions under which they're assembling a contender are riddled with landmines.
What will Durant look like following his recovery from one of the most devastating injuries in sports? Can Irving stay healthy? How many games can the Nets expect to get from the two of them? What will become of Jarrett Allen? Is he now DeAndre Jordan's backup? Will they re-sign Joe Harris?
Do they have the assets necessary to acquire a third star? Do they even need a third star? Can Caris LeVert be that third star if they do? And if they decide they don't, how difficult will it be to strike an offensive balance between Durant, Irving, LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie, all of whom are at their most comfortable operating with the ball?
Beyond all that, Brooklyn has the tiny little undertaking of choosing a new head coach from a prospective pool that isn't overrun with obvious upgrades compared to Kenny Atkinson.
Potential championship contenders aren't supposed to face so much uncertainty. That has to count for something. Expecting the Nets to run roughshod over this season's 39-win pace is a smidgen too ambitious. Their largest jump could come in 2021-22 when they have a firmer hold on their new world order.
At the same time, we needn't overcomplicate things.
Brooklyn will, if all goes according to plan, have both Durant and Irving in its rotation next season. That's good enough for a 10-plus-win bump, even if either one is a lesser version of himself. LeVert's progression from intriguing younger-but-not-so-young player who struggles to remain healthy into something more also still looms.
And let's not rule out a major acquisition.
The Nets can cobble together some interesting trade packages around Allen, Dinwiddie and LeVert, who, together, amount to a unique mixture of immediate impact and future potential. Entering the Bradley Beal sweepstakes is likely an overstretch of their assets (and, perhaps, functionally superfluous), but what they have on hand could sneak them into theoretical Jrue Holiday or Victor Oladipo negotiations.
Golden State Warriors
Similar to the Brooklyn Nets, the Golden State Warriors are battling the occult. They don't know for sure that this gap year is actually a gap year. It could be something more sinister—something more permanent.
Then again, maybe not. They're getting back stars and gaining asset juice. The list of inbound benefits they'll receive or have to use between now and next season is sort of ridiculous:
- Healthier Stephen Curry
- Healthy Klay Thompson
- More engaged Draymond Green
- A top-five pick
- The Andre Iguodala trade exception ($17.2 million)
That trade exception, specifically, could hold unprecedented value. Any number of teams will be looking to trim their payroll should the salary cap plummet. Golden State might luck into a better player than usually available if the suits upstairs are willing to pony up.
Spicier trade packages can be built around the Warriors' lottery pick and the Minnesota Timberwolves' 2021 first-rounder (top-three protection). That combination isn't landing them Giannis Antetokounmpo, but they have the capacity to take back serious salary if they attach one or both selections to Andrew Wiggins.
Whether it makes sense for Golden State to go that route depends on the auction block. High-level players are always available, but the most likely candidates—Bradley Beal, Jrue Holiday, Kevin Love, etc.—don't address the team's depth on the wings.
Still, the Warriors' possible, if inevitable, return to prominence isn't solely tied to players not yet on the payroll. Having Curry, Green and Thompson back together sets the stage for a remarkable boon by itself. This says nothing of newly discovered keepers. (How will Eric Paschall look next to multiple stars?) That Golden State also has a top pick and primo trade chips at its disposal is, frankly, more than a little terrifying.
Giving a nod to the Miami Heat is a calculated risk. They don't have an in-built runway for improvement. They were on track for more than 50 wins when the NBA halted play, and their megastar, Jimmy Butler, is past the point of getting noticeably better.
Bam Adebayo is not. Ditto for Tyler Herro. The same goes for Kendrick Nunn and Duncan Robinson, albeit to lesser extents.
For all their acclaim this season, the Heat are not riding the coattails of finished products. Some of their most important players—namely Adebayo—are already leaving a mark without having entered their prime. Miami, by extension, is not a finished product, either.
It also doesn't hurt that the Heat have yet to reap the spoils from their trade-deadline home-run swing. Next year is Andre Iguodala's age-37 season, and he's appeared in just 14 games since last June, but he's an extra ball-handler and wing defender. Jae Crowder will afford Miami similar optionality on defense—if he's retained in free agency.
To that end, the Heat are staring down an opportunistic offseason, whenever it begins. They were slated for more than $30 million in space, assuming they renounced their own free agents, before the coronavirus pandemic forced the league to shut down. They'll have more money to play with than most teams no matter what happens to the salary cap and forever remain one of the Association's most player-friendly destinations.
There even exists the possibility that Miami doesn't need near-max space to make a dent on the market.
A one-time amnesty clause could be part of whatever changes the league and players association agree to in the collective bargaining agreement. Any big names that become casualties of such a provision—Chris Paul? John Wall? Mike Conley? Russell Westbrook?—would be immediately linked to the Heat, who can offer both more than the mid-level (while keeping Crowder) and proximity to title contention.
A lot has to happen for Miami to stumble into that ultra-comfy position. Never mind the actual implementation of an amnesty clause. (It has happened before.) No one can know for sure which players will be shown the door. Teams have to be the right mix of desperate and financially able to foot the full bill, minus potential luxury taxes, of a player suiting up for another squad.
Fortunately for the Heat, their breakthrough upside doesn't rest with luck alone. Adebayo, Herro and this year's midseason additions arm them with enough internal-improvement candidates to go from a fringe contender to the real friggin' deal without making substantive changes.
New Orleans Pelicans
Others will have the New Orleans Pelicans charted for a different direction. Those people aren't off-base.
Perhaps the Pelicans shop and eventually move Jrue Holiday with his 2021 foray into free agency on deck (player option). Perhaps they do the same with JJ Redick. Perhaps they don't look to re-sign Derrick Favors. Perhaps they don't use their mid-level exception on a win-now player. Perhaps, instead, they decide to re-up Brandon Ingram (restricted) and lean into a rebuild around him, Lonzo Ball and Zion Williamson.
That scenario is absolutely on the table, even if only by default. So, too, is the exact opposite.
Maybe the Pelicans stand pat, keeping both Holiday and Redick while re-signing Favors. Maybe they look to add a veteran with their MLE. Maybe, just maybe, they view themselves not as plucky upstarts with the impetus to run it back but as buyers with the motivation to double-down.
New Orleans has the assets to be aggressive. Most blockbuster hunters will have a tough time matching some combination of Ball, Josh Hart, Jaxson Hayes, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, the Pelicans' own future first-rounders and the two Los Angeles Lakers firsts they own (2021 protected Nos. 8-30 and then unprotected in 2022; 2024 with the option to defer until 2025).
Any marquee player who hits the auction block is, relative to its assets, within New Orleans' reach. Executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin just has to be willing to dangle, if not unload, the clip.
Even if he isn't, the Pelicans aren't automatically removed from the running. Moving Holiday might bring them close, but it depends on what they'd get in return.
Left alone, though, they're a budding force with which to be reckoned. They have pummeled opponents with Zion on the floor and will, presumably, get better availability next season from him, Favors and Redick.
What's in place isn't enough for bona fide title contention, at least not right now. But the early returns suggest it's shaping up to be the next best thing: a thorn in the side of every Western Conference team angling for a top-five playoff spot.