NBA Teams That Need to Blow It Up This Offseason
Calls to blow up NBA teams are issued haphazardly, mounting in number as the offseason inches ever closer, usually without much substance and too much impulsion. Above all, these teardown mandates, both impassioned and unfeeling, typically fail to address one simple, underlying, all-too-important question.
Controlled demolition isn't easy. It presupposes that franchises exist without context or obligations or bottom lines, and that they have readily movable players other teams will fawn over or, at bottom, agree to acquire without any strings attached.
No organization operates within that vacuum. Similarly, not all situations are created equally. Roster deconstructions vary in scale. They differ even more in intent.
Should a team bulldoze the heart of its core or deal a singular star to facilitate the beginning of a reset? To further an existing one? Is a total undoing absolutely necessary? Purely a matter of opportunity? Or should it simply be on the table?
Nuance is required to answer questions. Let's add some, shall we?
Our "Blowup Watch" will take stock of the league's most tenable—and obviously expiring—situations. Squads will be sorted into the following tiers based on the urgency with which they should sell before next season:
- Please Hold While They See How the Playoffs Go: Perhaps this should say "...See If the Playoffs Go." Anyway, this spot will be for teams with big-name situations that at least somewhat hinge on postseason outcomes.
- Could-Be Sellers That Need to Keep an Open Mind: Squads that don't necessarily have to sell but should approach the offseason, whenever it begins, with an open mind.
- Sell High If You Can: These teams should absolutely sell. To what extent depends on the market.
- Lean-Further-into-the-Rebuild Sellers: This space is for squads housing players with warring timelines. Whether these players can be moved is a separate matter.
- It's Time to Make Some Major Changes: Bust out those sticks of dynamite and take near-indiscriminate aim.
Teams that don't really have a pathway to blowing it up or selling high will be spared from this exercise. Let's just call this the Charlotte Hornets and New York Knicks exception. Charlotte shed its franchise player last summer (Kemba Walker), and New York has too many players who could become free agents and not enough incumbents capable of generating robust auctions.
Please Hold While They See How the Playoffs Go
How much the Pacers glean from the upcoming postseason rests almost exclusively with Victor Oladipo. Will he play? Sit out? Can they determine how much of a flight risk he is in 2021 free agency either way?
Having him on the floor makes things easier. Maybe he won't be all the way back from his ruptured right quad, but Indiana will have a better idea of what it's working with moving forward if he's part of the rotation. He is both critical to determining how far the Pacers are from title contention and whether they should look into splitting up the Domantas Sabonis-Myles Turner frontcourt.
Just so we're clear: Indiana's inclusion isn't taken lightly. And it shouldn't be seen as egregious. Oladipo, Sabonis, Turner and Malcolm Brogdon are making nearly $80 million combined next season. That collective commitment will only balloon if Oladipo stays healthy. The Pacers are not pushing ahead with four fringe-max salaries on the roster.
To what end they could pivot is very much to be determined. They didn't prioritize the slow play when they traded Paul George. They're not assuming a different stance when moving lesser players. So don't think of them as a team on the verge of a rebuild but as a franchise that could look to reroute at least one of its four best players—and potentially two.
Please refrain from firing up the trade machine to plumb Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons scenarios. Moving one of them should be the Sixers' absolute last resort. They aren't yet at that point and won't be even if they flame out of the first round.
Everyone alongside them is a different story. This roster isn't tailored to prop up its two most important players. Shifting Simmons to the 4 and bringing Al Horford off the bench may help. The offense rates in the 93rd percentile when Embiid and Simmons play without Horford.
But that's hardly an endorsement of how the Sixers are built. They need more functional shooting and ball-handlers beside Embiid and Simmons. Injecting more of both into the roster has to be a priority over the offseason unless Philly wins a title.
It won't be easy. The Sixers will be taxpayers next season and aren't drowning in trade assets. Shake Milton, Matisse Thybulle and draft equity can be used to glitter up proposals, but their primary salary-matching tools are rough. Horford is owed $81 million over the next three seasons ($69 million guaranteed). Tobias Harris is on the books for $147.3 million through 2023-24.
Teams won't be tripping over themselves to acquire those contracts. Thybulle or Josh Richardson may need to be used as sweeteners just to get the money off. They'll have to great creative—read: expansive—with their offers.
Does attaching Harris or Horford to Richardson, Thybulle and draft picks get them in the conversation for an Oladipo or Bradley Beal? What would it cost to pry Chris Paul from the Oklahoma City Thunder using Horford? Is Buddy Hield gettable from the Sacramento Kings under the same framework? Is there a smaller-but-impactful move to be made? Philly should be kicking around all these questions already.
Including Utah has little to do with the reported friction between Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell. The Jazz say they aren't worried about it, per ESPN's Tim MacMahon. Let's believe them.
That still doesn't let Utah off the hook. Pivotal contract negotiations are coming up, and this roster isn't exactly young.
Mike Conley and Joe Ingles will be in their age-33 seasons next year. Bojan Bogdanovic will be in his age-31 campaign. Gobert is supermax-eligible after this season, and his next deal, whenever it's signed, will kick in for his age-29 go-round. Donovan Mitchell is extension-eligible this year and should be taking home max money as of 2021-22.
Figuring out how to approach this offseason would be a lot easier if the Jazz were about to get a full-strength glimpse at their roster. They're not. Bogdanovic is done for the year after undergoing surgery on his right wrist, and who knows what Conley will look like. He's feeling good, but he's battled left hamstring issues all year while struggling to find his form within an offense that doesn't feature a floor-spacing big.
Utah's most seismic move this offseason could include doubling down. Conley's expiring contract would be a nice anchor in prospective CP3 packages. It could also include gauging the market for Gobert. This, again, isn't to say the Jazz will be at a Gobert-or-Mitchell crossroads. The latter is just easier to build around as a young primary scorer.
And if Gobert is looking for max or near-max money over the longer term, Utah might be better off shopping him now rather than compromising its bigger picture with a contract that, depending on length and cost, doesn't stand to age well.
Could-Be Sellers That Need to Keep an Open Mind
Oklahoma City Thunder
Demolishing a team that's currently playing at a 51-win pace doesn't usually sit right. It will be even harder to reconcile if Oklahoma City throws a wrench in the Western Conference's playoff pecking order by winning a series or two.
And yet, the Thunder have to least consider leaning into the rebuild on which they were supposed to embark after trading Paul George and Russell Westbrook, if only because it may prove too expensive not to do so.
Oklahoma City is in the tax for this season and could creep within sniffing distance of it again if Danilo Gallinari re-signs. Steven Adams and Dennis Schroder are free agents after next season, at which time Shai Gilgeous-Alexander will be extension-eligible. Paul is owed $85.6 million over the next two years.
This core is fun. And even if you thought the Thunder would stand pat this year, their success is unexpected. But is it worth reinvesting in the roster immediately? When Oklahoma City isn't among the top title contenders now? Debatable.
Fortunately for the Thunder, their future is malleable. They could net as many as 15 first-rounders between now and 2026. Attaching any combination of them to a salary anchor—Adams or Schroder—might put them in the conversation for the next available star. (See: below team.)
Then again, those picks might be cause for Oklahoma City to go the other way. Plenty of money is coming off the books next summer, and so much about the incumbents is unknown. What is Adams, a non-shooting big, worth in his next contract? Can Schroder replicate his career year? How many All-NBA seasons does Paul have left? Is Gilgeous-Alexander best-player-on-a-contender material?
Faced with this many questions, the Thunder have an obligation to weigh every scenario—including a relative teardown, insofar as the trade market makes one available to them.
Defaulting to "Washington must trade Bradley Beal!" oversimplifies the team's situation.
John Wall is still around...and owed $132.9 million over the next three seasons. Coming off a left Achilles injury that has sidelined him since December 2018, his trade value is nonexistent. Does it actually make sense to move Beal while he's still on the docket?
Maybe Wall won't be good enough post-injury to trap the Wizards in purgatory while they're trying to start over. Counterpoint: Maybe he will be. Washington might need to give the Beal-Wall dynamic the ol' college try before committing to a full-tilt rebuild, which would keep the former off the auction block until at least the 2021 trade deadline.
Plus, who's to say the Wizards can't keep Beal as part of a potential reset? He is still only 27 and has two years left on his contract. His window does not entirely diverge from a more gradual timeline.
The flip side: Beal and a fully recovered Wall don't render Washington a contender. The roster would be at least one piece short, and salaries for both stars, coupled with a shallow pool of assets, will make it difficult to bridge that gap.
Starting over might be easier. It would certainly be cheaper. And Beal's trade value will never be higher than it is now, on the heels of two fringe-All-NBA efforts and with free agency still two years away.
Sell High If You Can
New Bulls executive vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas is assuming control of a team in an interesting situation. Chicago has enough cost-controlled young talent and fair-weather contracts (Zach LaVine, Tomas Satoranaksy) that it doesn't need to be remade, but this also isn't a roster so obviously promising that it shouldn't be undone.
Coby White should be the Bulls' only untouchable player. He closed the season on an offensive tear and will only be entering his sophomore year. Wendell Carter Jr. flirts with this status, as well, since he's yet to be fully unleashed on offense. But with two years under his belt, Chicago has to begin thinking about his next contract. (He's extension-eligible in 2021.)
Everyone else on the team should be decidedly up for grabs—not flipped on a whim, but available.
Lauri Markkanen's extension eligibility makes him a no-brainer target. The Bulls aren't good enough to begin reinvesting in current players. (That could make for awkward negotiations with restricted free agent Kris Dunn.) Satoransky and Thaddeus Young are not part of the cornerstone discussion. Otto Porter Jr. (player option) is headed for free agency next summer and hasn't stayed healthy enough to endear himself to Chicago's picture.
That brings us to LaVine.
Borderline All-Stars on reasonable contracts (two years, $39 million) should not be flipped just because. But the Bulls have to consider how much he'll cost in his next deal and whether they'll be ready to contend by then. He can't be untouchable, not when his trade value is at its peak—the sweet spot in which he's not too old, is viewed as a quasi-star and won't be a free agent for two seasons.
Chicago has the license to play hardball. LaVine doesn't need to be moved. He's not a blemish on the Bulls' ledger or carrying them too far outside rebuilding territory. The touches he sponges up at the expense of developmental projects are worth a conversation, but that's a more navigable dilemma than the previous two.
His availability is more so a matter of opportunity for Chicago. If another team considers him its missing piece—the No. 2 or No. 3 who puts them over the edge—and is willing to pony up for his services, the Bulls should be all ears.
The Cavaliers' outlook is complicated. They could fall into the sell-high category alongside the Chicago Bulls. Darius Garland, Kevin Porter Jr. and Collin Sexton give them plenty of young guards to groom, but not one has established himself as an airtight cornerstone, and the top of this year's draft lottery is littered with other guard options.
Should Cleveland be open to moving one or two of its youngsters? Should any of them be untouchable? Definitely Porter. No, wait, Sexton. Actually, both. Or is it neither?
Without many other younglings to develop—rumor has it Dylan Windler still exists—the Cavs are in a weird spot. We're defaulting to a less-nuclear approach on their behalf.
Kevin Love has virtually no business being on this roster. He turns 32 in September, is owed $91.5 million over the next three years and doesn't appear particularly interested in being a part of what, right now, feels like a feckless rebuild. Sending him elsewhere is best for everyone unless he's suddenly smitten at the thought of mentoring KPJ, Garland, Sexton and this year's draft pick.
Actually moving Love won't be easy. It has, in fact, already proved difficult. The Portland Trail Blazers were reportedly only willing to give up expiring contracts for him at the trade deadline, according to The Athletic's Jason Lloyd. The Cavs clearly want more—as in, an asset of any kind—after rolling the dice on his extension following LeBron James' second departure.
Tough noogies. Or something. Cleveland doesn't have the leverage to be choosy. Love's contract starts looking a lot hairier after next year when he's on the books for near-max money and entering his age-33 season. The Cavs shouldn't attach an asset to him in any deal, but they may need to get comfortable with cap-relief scenarios.
Where Andre Drummond fits into all this is anyone's guess. He is picking up his $28.8 million player option—because, duh—and shouldn't cost an arm or a leg in 2021 free agency. That doesn't make him a part of the future. Cleveland can use a behemoth to gobble up its young guards' misses for now, but Drummond turns 28 next summer and hasn't negotiated the league's center revolution all that well.
No one is trading for him as a straight value play. That shouldn't be the Cavs' endgame. But his expiring contract will be useful if any other teams are looking to offload unwanted long-term money and are willing to attach an asset.
Are the Pistons rebuilding? It's a fair question.
Jettisoning Drummond at the trade deadline for 10 cents on the dollar implies yes. What's left of their roster tells a different story.
Drummond wasn't the glue holding Detroit's bottom-rung playoff hopes together. That honor belongs to Blake "Imagine If He's Healthy" Griffin. The Pistons also have Luke Kennard and Derrick Rose, two players to float win-now hopes. Throw soon-to-be free agent Christian Wood in there, as well. He entrenched himself as a top-15 center while spending half the season in playing-time limbo.
Using this as justification for an insta-turnaround doesn't cut the mustard. Griffin missed most of the year with left knee problems. Hip and ankle issues plagued Rose. Kennard battled tendinitis in his knees. The full-strength Pistons are not playoff formalities—and probably not genuinely at full strength.
Burning down the entire core save for Wood (assuming he re-signs), Sekou Doumbouya and maybe Kennard and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk makes all the sense in the world. Detroit risks remaining stuck in the middle without a full-on redo.
But steering into a blank slate is implausible. Griffin is owed $75.8 million over the next two years. The odds of a team just taking on that contract aren't great, and the Pistons shouldn't surrender assets to grease the wheels of a deal. And if they're going to retain and play him, busting up the rest of the roster rings hollow.
It's Time to Make Some Major Changes
The Magic are hopelessly mediocre. Even if they go on a wonderfully, whimsically deep playoff run, they still face the same limitations they've grappled with since Dwight Howard's departure: the absence of a franchise star and, by extension, the path to title contention that comes with him.
As The Athletic's John Hollinger wrote:
"Where does the star come from? Is he in this year's draft? (Doubtful.) Can they trade Aaron Gordon for him? (Doubtful.) Is he Mo Bamba or Markelle Fultz or Chuma Okeke? (Doubtful.) That player isn't rolling into town a la Anthony Davis either, not in the Orlando market.
"I didn't mention Jonathan Isaac yet, who is the one player local fans can discuss playing in an All-Star Game in the near future without being accused of pie-in-the-sky optimism. Even he, however, is unlikely to be a franchise focal point in the manner of a Dwight, Shaq or Penny—Isaac's upside is more as an All-Defense pterodactyl who can be the third option in a good offense."
Orlando's situation is both aided and complicated by its cap sheet. No truly prohibitive contracts are on the books, theoretically making it easier to tear everything down but also making it more tempting to stay the course.
Markelle Fultz's extension eligibility and Evan Fournier's potential free agency (player option) aren't helping matters. The Magic are again at a point at which they have to reinvest in the current nucleus, just like they were last summer. They doubled down then. Doing the same now verges on reckless without a North star to direct them.
At the same time, the sheer breadth of what it would take for Orlando to start over is exhausting. Let's say Isaac, Okeke, this year's pick and, perhaps, Bamba are untouchable. That leaves the Magic to shop Fultz, Gordon, Al-Farouq Aminu, Terrence Ross and Nikola Vucevic, not to mention Fournier if he picks up his player option.
That's...unlikely. For as well as Orlando has done to avoid truly terrible contracts, price points for Aminu (two years, $19.9 million), Ross (three years, $37.5 million) and Vucevic (three years, $72 million) aren't bargains. The market for Fultz won't be so hot, either. He's not a reliable shooter or foul-drawer, and even a remotely promising performance next season makes his restricted free agency hell to figure out.
This isn't an excuse for the Magic to let it ride. Their current setup doesn't put them within proximity of anything special. If they can't go for total deconstruction, they need to at least dismantle part of the roadblock in front of them: a core that prevents them from adequately loading via the draft.
San Antonio Spurs
Listing the Spurs is stomach-churning. Their postseason streak has spanned longer than certain players' lives. Tearing it down hasn't been their style. They didn't need it to be.
They do now.
San Antonio's streak of 22 consecutive playoff bids is just about dunzo. Beating out four other teams to get the eighth seed was unlikely to begin with, and LaMarcus Aldridge's season-ending right shoulder surgery makes it that much harder.
Picking up the pieces from this letdown and getting right back to it would be more the Spurs' style. That might be the route they go. Head coach Gregg Popovich is 71. A rebuild may not be in the cards if he wants to stick around.
Waiting for a natural crossroads wouldn't be the worst move ever. Aldridge, DeMar DeRozan (player option for 2020-21), Rudy Gay and Patty Mills all come off the books next summer. San Antonio can take that opportunity to begin anew.
Except why wait for the inevitable, even when factoring in Pop? Angling to compete next season might compel the Spurs to pay Jakob Poeltl (restricted) or give out a three-year mid-level exception to a player who doesn't fit into their long-term plan. (Related: That DeMarre Carroll contract last summer...woof.)
Starting over on their own terms is better—assuming they can. Mills ($13.3 million) should be effortless to move. The same can possibly be said for Gay ($14 million). Relocating Aldridge ($24 million) and DeRozan ($27.7 million) is more complex. None of the scant few teams with cap space need either. San Antonio may have to warm up to packages assembled around longer-term deals or slight cap relief.
There's also the matter of the Spurs' youngsters. Dejounte Murray's extension kicks in next season. Is he untouchable? What about the extension-eligible Derrick White? Lonnie Walker IV is easier to keep with two cost-controlled years left on his deal. Keldon Johnson and Luka Samanic are in the same boat but with three years.
Draft equity or more cost-controlled prospects could technically be more valuable than Murray or White. It depends on the exact return. Admitting as much doesn't equate to a resolution. The Spurs are in too much of a gray area for explicit blueprints. Their offseason responsibility is more abstract: cater not to next year but all the ones thereafter, in whatever way they can.
Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @danfavale.