The Offseason Plan to Get NBA's 10 Worst Teams to 2021 Playoffs
There is plenty of tanking in the NBA. And for several of the league's worst teams, running with that philosophy in 2020-21 would be understandable.
The more cracks a team gets at the lottery, the more likely it is to eventually land a franchise cornerstone.
But if some of the league's worst squads want to speed up their rebuilding timeline, there may be some moves available in the offseason to do that.
For others, getting to the postseason might simply be about internal development, health of players already on the roster or retaining upcoming free agents.
Here's how each of the NBA's 10 worst teams (according to simple rating system, which combines point differential and strength of schedule) can return to the playoffs in 2020-21.
With the Sacramento Kings projected to be over the cap this offseason, per Yahoo Sports' Keith Smith, their top priority should be re-signing restricted free agent Bogdan Bogdanovic.
If they can get Bogdanovic to agree to a team-friendly deal before free agency begins, great. If not, they may have to match an offer sheet he signs with another team.
Bogdanovic may be older than you realize (he turns 28 in August), but he provides a solid mix of shooting and playmaking that seems to mesh well with De'Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield. That trio played fewer than 500 possessions together, but the Kings had a plus-2.1 net rating when it was on the floor (compared to minus-2.4 overall).
The development of Marvin Bagley III and more time with those three may be the key to next season. But Bogdanovic certainly isn't a star, and if some team throws $20-plus million per year at him, Sacramento might have to think about moving on.
Losing him and renouncing the rights to Kent Bazemore and his $28.9 million cap hold could give the Kings a little wiggle room under the cap (depending on where it falls post-hiatus). In that case, they should pursue mid-tier free agents who'll be looking at exception-level money such as Maurice Harkless, Justin Holiday and Alec Burks.
Much like the Kings, the Minnesota Timberwolves' primary goal of the offseason might be retaining their own restricted free agents.
Malik Beasley, who came over from the Denver Nuggets ahead of the trade deadline, averaged 20.7 points and 3.5 threes while shooting 42.6 percent from three for Minnesota. The Timberwolves scored 3.6 more points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor.
With a future built around a D'Angelo Russell-Karl-Anthony Towns pick-and-roll (or pick-and-pop), it will be important to have shooting on the wings. The more attention defenses have to pay to the other guys, the more room KAT and Russell will have in the middle of the floor.
Juan Hernangomez, who came to Minnesota in the same deal, can also help with spacing. The 6'9" forward is a 35.9 percent career three-point shooter, but with the Timberwolves, he averaged 12.9 points and 2.1 triples while shooting 45.3 percent from deep.
If Beasley and Hernangomez are both on the roster and anywhere near those percentages in 2020-21, it's going to be significantly more difficult for defenses to load up on Towns and Russell.
Those performances likely drove up their price tags ahead of restricted free agency, though. That means teams around the league with cap space could make the T-Wolves sweat when deciding whether to match whatever offer sheets they sign.
It's tough to imagine the combined value of their 2020-21 salaries falling below $20 million. That should wipe out the Timberwolves' available cap space.
Re-signing both, nailing the draft and selling someone on a mid-level exception would make for a winning offseason.
In the Eastern Conference, every team is seemingly never more than a year away from competing for a playoff spot.
Coming into 2019-20, there was guarded optimism that the Chicago Bulls might do exactly that. They had the 10th-best playoff odds among East teams before the season started.
A nagging injury that limited Otto Porter Jr. to 14 games cost them any chance to make bettors backing them happy. When he was on the floor, Chicago played like a 53-win team (compared to 29 when he was off).
A sample as limited as Porter's shouldn't lead to confident conclusions. It's hard to believe the Bulls would've gotten to 50 wins even if he had played a fully healthy, 82-game slate. But it isn't hard to imagine they would've competed for a playoff spot.
Porter is one of the league's best glue guys. He defends multiple positions, hits threes and doesn't dominate the ball. His game accentuates stars who need to use possessions to contribute, which is why he's an intriguing partner for Zach LaVine.
Next season, if he stays healthy, the Bulls should compete for the playoffs. That's why their plan should more or less be "run it back."
Defensive stalwart Kris Dunn is the biggest name among the Bulls' upcoming free agents. And in a league that prizes offense, it's hard to imagine his next average salary being more than his $16 million cap hold.
If they bring him back at around $10-12 million, keep guys relatively healthy and see internal development from the likes of Wendell Carter Jr., Lauri Markkanen and Coby White, the Bulls should be much better.
If it all goes sour again, they can entertain diving deeper into a rebuild ahead of the trade deadline. Teams assuredly would be interested in LaVine in particular.
The Detroit Pistons are another team that needs to prioritize bringing back the young free agent that gave them some hope in 2019-20. (You may be sensing a theme here.)
If you sort every NBA player with 500-plus minutes this season by the average of their ranks in various catch-all metrics from around the internet, Christian Wood comes in at No. 20. He averaged 22.6 points, 10.9 rebounds, 1.5 blocks and 1.5 threes per 75 possessions playing a thoroughly modern brand of center.
The Pistons played like a 48-win team with him on the floor and a 21-win team with him off. His impact was huge, and his payday might be as well.
Since Wood will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason, the Pistons won't have the luxury of knowing it can match any offer sheet he signs with another team. They'll likely have to be aggressive to get him to stay, but they have a tricky balancing act to pull off, as James L. Edwards of The Athletic noted.
"The Pistons own Wood's 'Early Bird' rights, which means if they can sign Wood for roughly $10 million per year—or whatever the league-average salary ends up being—his contract will count only $1.7 million against their salary cap. As former NBA executive John Hollinger pointed out in our piece last month, getting Wood for that number, 'as long as the first year is at or below the Early Bird Exception limit,' wouldn't impact the rest of the Pistons' $35 million in cap space."
Wood won't turn 25 until September, and he's coming off an exceptional performance in his first season with a steady role. He may be willing to give something of a hometown discount to the team that gave him that stability, but it only takes one team to come up with a huge offer.
Unless the cost becomes prohibitive, the Pistons should do whatever they can to bring him back.
The next item on the agenda might be seeing whether any teams are willing to take on Blake Griffin's contract. After a monster 2018-19 season, the six-time All-Star was plagued with injuries in 2019-20. Unloading the remaining two years and $75.6 million on his contract could open up a lot of flexibility.
But if the goal is the playoffs next season, and trading that contract proves impossible, perhaps a role that protects Griffin's health could be in order. If he can go only 25-30 minutes per game, it'd be nice to have a big man with plenty of potential to pick up the slack.
The Washington Wizards are almost certain to be operating over the cap this offseason.
Between the contracts of John Wall and Bradley Beal and the cap holds of Ian Mahinmi and Davis Bertans, Washington is already at $107.5 million. Throw in C.J. Miles' cap hold, and that number jumps to $120.6 million.
Once again, the goal should be retaining the strong free agent who's already there. In this case, that's Bertans.
According to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski and Tim Bontemps, the Wizards "hope to retain" the sweet-shooting forward. It isn't hard to see why.
This season, when Beal and Bertans shared the floor, Washington was plus-2.4 points per 100 possessions and scored 121.7 points per 100 possessions (99th percentile). When Beal played without Bertans, those numbers plummeted to minus-11.5 and 106.2 (19th percentile), respectively.
Having a forward who can reliably space the floor out to 30-plus feet did wonders for Beal. It's a lot harder to help on drives if you know Bertans is ready for a catch-and-shoot opportunity outside. By the same logic, he should also offer plenty of help to Wall, who missed all of this season with an Achilles injury.
Bringing him back at around $10-15 million per year would be a win for the Wizards. And since they have his Bird rights, they can do that while operating over the cap.
That kind of a deal, a mid-level exception to a multipositional defender like Jae Crowder or Maurice Harkless and no hiccups in Wall's recovery would make Washington another Eastern Conference team that might be only a year away from contending for the playoffs.
New York Knicks
Few teams in the NBA need a shakeup as badly as the New York Knicks, who have the league's worst winning percentage over the last 20 seasons.
Some will understandably insist on the Knicks taking it slow. The patient approach could yield dividends in a few years if RJ Barrett, Kevin Knox, Dennis Smith Jr. or some other prospect catches up to the development of Mitchell Robinson.
But that's a hypothetical. And though he's 35, Chris Paul is much closer to a sure thing and showed he has plenty left to offer in a stellar campaign for the surprising Oklahoma City Thunder that New York seemed to notice.
"The Knicks, according to NBA sources, have been gathering intel on All Star Chris Paul and could make a run at him this summer," SiriusXM NBA Radio's Frank Isola tweeted in March. "Paul, 34, carries a huge contract but he’s had a resurgent season in OKC & is proven leader. (He was also once represented by...Leon Rose.)"
Rose now runs the Knicks. And he has plenty of tradable contracts to add up to CP3's massive $41.4 million salary for 2020-21. If he can get a deal done without giving up Robinson (or too many picks), he should do it.
Paul-Robinson pick-and-rolls would be a solid foundation for an offense (much like the Paul-Tyson Chandler pick-and-rolls once were). The veteran guard could tutor Barrett (or whichever youngsters are left after the trade) in a fashion similar to what he did with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander this season.
He would also bring a level of competence to the floor that New York has lacked in recent years. Just having a solid decision-maker out there could go a long way. And over the course of his career, Paul has been perhaps the prime example of that kind of player.
If CP3 is on an Eastern Conference team with even minimal help, he'll likely drag it into playoff contention.
The Charlotte Hornets are pretty clearly in need of a change as well. Few teams evoke the thought of mediocrity quite as well over the last few years.
One potential problem is that their offseason largely comes down to Nicolas Batum and his $27.1 million player option. If he opts out (he shouldn't), Charlotte will have a ton of flexibility. If he doesn't, things will get a bit more cramped.
There's still a pathway toward an impact free agent, though.
With the salaries of Batum, Terry Rozier, Cody Zeller, Malik Monk, PJ Washington, Miles Bridges, Cody Martin and Devonte' Graham, the Hornets have just under $78 million committed to 2020-21. Bismack Biyombo's cap hold is $25.5 million. Renouncing his rights should be a no-brainer.
Without knowing exactly what the 2020-21 cap will be, that should give Charlotte enough room to go after a plus player who may not command max money.
Years ago, the Hornets signed Gordon Hayward to an offer sheet. It's hard to imagine him opting out of the final year of his deal with the Boston Celtics, but perhaps there is still a spark there if he enters free agency and is looking for another long-term deal.
A more realistic option might be Danilo Gallinari. He'll be an unrestricted free agent this offseason.
For the second straight season, he averaged more than 19 points with a 60-plus true shooting percentage. His ability to shoot from the outside and draw fouls could go a long way toward helping a team that ranks 27th in effective field-goal percentage and 22nd in free-throw-attempt rate.
Small-ball lineups with he and Washington in the frontcourt and Rozier and Graham in the backcourt could cause plenty of damage.
If the thrust of this article was "rational approaches to the offseason," the Cleveland Cavaliers would likely attempt to find a team to take on the rest of Kevin Love's contract (and maybe even Andre Drummond's, assuming he picks up his $28.8 million player option).
But if the Cavs decide they want to make a run at the 2021 playoffs, keeping Love and operating over the salary cap makes sense (keeping Drummond may be unavoidable).
This season, Love averaged 20.2 points, 11.2 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 3.0 threes per 75 possessions and posted a positive net rating swing. When he shared the floor with potential franchise building blocks Collin Sexton and Larry Nance Jr., the Cavs were plus-1.7 points per 100 possessions, compared to minus-7.8 overall. (They were minus-9.9 points per 100 possessions when Love played with Drummond.)
The most important part of this keep-Kevin plan, then, may be finding wings to supplement those three. Those could conceivably be Cedi Osman, Dante Exum, Darius Garland and Kevin Porter Jr., but landing a solid vet for the mid-level exception may yield earlier returns.
Players who may be available around that salary range include Crowder, Burks, Bazemore or Harkless.
This blueprint wouldn't make the Cavs postseason locks, but another year of development for the youngsters and some time for Love and Drummond to jell could put them in contention for a spot in the ever-open East.
Unlike most of the other teams detailed here, the Atlanta Hawks have an easy path to plenty of cap space.
Renouncing the rights to Chandler Parsons ($37.7 million cap hold) and Jeff Teague ($28.5 million) are no-brainers. And the plan for the space created by those renunciations should be one the Brooklyn Nets employed shortly after Sean Marks took over as general manager.
Atlanta should throw monster offers at restricted free agents around the league. There may be some concern about the eventual extensions of Trae Young and John Collins, but if the goal is winning now, it shouldn't be a big one.
It'd be difficult to pry Brandon Ingram away from the New Orleans Pelicans, but the Hawks should go for it (assuming New Orleans allows him to get to restricted free agency). Above-market offers for Beasley or Bogdanovic would make some sense, too.
This approach has a couple benefits.
First, it opens up the possibility of adding a good player on a similar timeline to a team that already boasts Young, Collins and Clint Capela. It's easy to imagine the fit of any of the above with those three.
Second, signing a restricted free agent to a huge deal can mess up the cap situation of the incumbent team or tie its hands during the moratorium on signing deals.
The regular season isn't the only time when competition exists in the NBA. The Hawks are in a unique position to go after solid names while simultaneously sticking it to teams around the league.
Golden State Warriors
There isn't much suspense here. Assuming relatively decent health, the Golden State Warriors are going to compete for a playoff spot in 2021 following a gap year in which Klay Thompson didn't play a single game and Stephen Curry only managed five.
Since the start of the 2014-15 season, the Warriors are plus-15.8 points per 100 possessions in the regular season and playoffs combined when Curry, Thompson and Draymond Green are on the floor.
If you're wondering how good that is, the Los Angeles Lakers' most-used trio this season (LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Danny Green) is plus-10.5 points per 100 possessions.
The most fascinating part of the Warriors' 2020-21 season might be the impact of that trio on Andrew Wiggins. Where will his career go now that he's the clear third option on a good team?
We can't end the analysis there, though. Not suggesting moves of any kind is boring. And the Warriors have a trade chip that could bring them to the Aaron Gordon sweepstakes.
"This can't work as a straight-up swap, but we'll present it as such to avoid getting entangled in the salary-cap weeds," B/R's Zach Buckley wrote after proposing a 2020 pick swap between Golden State and the Orlando Magic. "The Warriors would first need to use the Andre Iguodala trade exception on a player in a separate deal and then attach that player to this deal to match the money owed to Aaron Gordon."
Such a move would give the Warriors one of the most top-heavy rosters in the league, but a new "death lineup" with Curry, Thompson, Wiggins, Green and Gordon could be nightmarish for opponents.
The switchability of that group is off the charts. And with Curry and Thompson spacing the floor, slashing lanes would be open for Wiggins and Gordon.
Golden State playing it safe by running back mostly the same roster and adding this year's draft pick to the mix would be fine, but it has some other cards to play.