Every Tanking NBA Team's Biggest Need This Offseason
As a general rule, NBA tankers have more than one hole to fill.
That's why they stockpile young talent, trade for other teams' first-rounders and position themselves so their own picks are as valuable as possible. If the organizational outlook is dire enough to make deliberate losing the best way forward, it's usually because help is necessary on several fronts.
With that understanding, we'll highlight the most glaring area of need.
We're limiting the field of tanking teams to six. The Houston Rockets, Oklahoma City Thunder and Orlando Magic have all taken clear steps to defang their rosters this season, and none of them are making sincere efforts to pile up wins. Houston will have to send its 2021 first-rounder to OKC if it's outside the top four, and the Thunder are sidelining vets like Al Horford down the stretch. Orlando dealt its three best players for draft compensation and raw, untested talent at the deadline.
We know those teams are focused more on the future than the present.
Three other organizations—the Cleveland Cavaliers, Detroit Pistons and Minnesota Timberwolves—are miles from the play-in mix. Maybe they haven't punted on the season as egregiously as that first trio, but their records mean they're basically accidental tankers.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Another Switchable Frontcourt or Wing Defender
If you're going to build around two smallish guards, which looks like the way forward for the Cavs with Darius Garland and Collin Sexton in the fold, you might want to steal a glance at the Portland Trail Blazers. Garland and Sexton will be lucky if they ever justify the comparison to Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum from a production standpoint, but the roster-building parallels apply.
Portland has been best over the years with rangy, two-way forwards helping compensate for the defensive shortcomings that arise with an undersized backcourt. Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless gave cover for Dame and CJ from 2015-16 to 2018-19. Robert Covington, Norman Powell and Derrick Jones Jr. occupy similar roles today.
The Cavs may already have a better rim protector in Jarrett Allen than Portland ever did on Lillard's watch, and Isaac Okoro has shown the defensive potential to fill one of those forward roles. Okoro is a highly suspect offensive player at this stage of his career, and even if he rounds out his game with more reps, that still leaves the Cavaliers one switchy, two-way forward short of the Blazers blueprint.
We all love Larry Nance Jr., but he's more of a 4-5 than the true combo forward we're looking for.
Kelly Oubre Jr., 25, is shooting a passable 36.7 percent from deep since Feb. 1, and though he's still prone to tunnel vision and space-outs on both ends, he has the exact hybrid-forward physical profile Cleveland should be looking for. Added bonus: The unrestricted free agent is quick and determined enough to check point guards, which could take pressure off Garland and Sexton, who'll shoulder heavier offensive burdens.
This won't be the case for most of the other tankers here, but you can already see the outlines of an intriguing roster in Cleveland. Two exciting young guards, a defense-first wing in Okoro, a Swiss Army knife in Nance and a rim-rolling shot-swatter in Allen. Adding a quality young wing/forward could make those pieces fit even better.
Detroit Pistons: Full Health for Killian Hayes
Offseason improvement isn't always about adding a free agent or draft pick. And while the Pistons need talent infusions across the board, they'd benefit most from internal development.
Killian Hayes' growth matters more than anything else.
The point guard, whom Detroit grabbed with the seventh pick in 2020, started the first seven games of his career before a hip injury knocked him out for nearly three months. Hayes had barely dipped a toe in the water. He has promising instincts and shows flashes of good feel, but it takes even the best prospects a long time to learn how to swim at the point.
The Pistons are giving Hayes ample rest now that he's back, which will curb the value of his stretch-run experience. It's also not helpful that he's returning to a team circling the drain. The games he'll play for the balance of the season won't be worthless, but these remaining contests are basically garbage time. You can't glean as much from the reps that come at the end of a blowout.
Hayes needs a fully healthy offseason, which will afford him vital developmental time. Summer league, which should return after disappearing in 2020, will also be big for him.
Hayes' work after this season must provide some clarity. The Pistons need a sense of whether or not he's a cornerstone. That's almost impossible to know for certain this early—Hayes won't even turn 20 until July 27—but a few hints need to materialize.
Houston Rockets: Clarity of Direction
Credit the Houston Rockets for refusing to tank over the last 20 years or so. Not counting 2020-21, they have just one sub-.500 season since 2001-02. Their approach of cycling through several stars and styles over the years, without ever purposely packing it in and chasing draft picks, is laudable.
It's also really, really hard to pull off.
That's why it's alarming to hear general manager Rafael Stone suggest Houston may try to keep that tradition alive.
"We'll be aggressive on the trade market," Stone told Sean Salisbury of SportsTalk 790, "and we'll be aggressive on the free-agency market, but at the same time, trying to build really smart. We do think we can be competitive very quickly. We would hope to field a much more competitive team next year."
To be fair, Stone also acknowledged that rebuilds can take time. But the disconnect between the Rockets' plans and their clear incentives to keep losing is notable. We already mentioned Houston won't reap the benefits of this year's defeats if its first-round pick falls outside the top four. But the Rockets also have their own 2022 first-rounder, fully unencumbered. Bottoming out next year is the clear play—especially with such a deep field of contenders in the West.
The Thunder might be the only team in the conference without realistic 2022 playoff aspirations. If everyone else is trying to win, the race to the bottom is easier to run.
If John Wall, Eric Gordon and Christian Wood—the three highest-priced members of Houston's remaining core—profiled as the foundation of a short-term winner, maybe the Rockets would be justified in aiming for a quick turnaround. But they don't, and Wood is the only one of the three who makes sense as a longer-term fit. That means this offseason should be about accumulating picks, finding more young lottery tickets like Kevin Porter Jr. in the discard pile and seeing what, if anything, might be out there in trade for Wall and Gordon, who are owed a combined $62.5 million next year.
If the choice is giving up assets to move their costly deals or holding onto those players and enduring another down year, it has to be the latter. Houston can't hope to keep operating like it did over the past 20 years. It has to lean all the way into this rebuild.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Defense
This feels familiar, doesn't it?
The lack of defensive punch in Minnesota has been an issue for a while now. The Wolves have ranked in the bottom 10 in defensive efficiency in 13 of the last 15 seasons and sit 27th this year.
Just last season, improving the defense was top of mind.
A roster built around D'Angelo Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns, a pair of noted sieves, needed an armada of supporting defenders. Otherwise, the Wolves' two best offensive players would get pick-and-rolled into oblivion. It wouldn't matter how easily Minnesota could score; opponents would just get everything back (and more) on the other end.
The 2020-21 season never even gave Minnesota the chance to gauge how much help KAT and D-Lo needed. The two theoretical cornerstones (in fairness, Towns warrants that description; Russell probably doesn't) have played a grand total of six games together this season after sharing the floor in only one contest last year.
Rookie Anthony Edwards is the most notable change to this Wolves roster, but if he achieves stardom someday, it'll be on the strength of his offensive game. If anything, Minnesota's need for defensive help is greater this offseason than last.
It may be impossible to field a quality defense with Towns and Russell logging major minutes. That's the fundamental concern that caps Minnesota's long-tern ceiling with this core. But a couple of stout wings who could mitigate the stars' mistakes would go a long way toward getting the Wolves to league average on D. Score enough on the other end, and that modest goal might allow Minnesota to make some noise.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Frontcourt Spacing
Other than Al Horford, who isn't part of the big-picture plan, the Thunder don't have a single player guaranteed more than $6 million in salary next year. That fact, coupled with the largest cache of incoming first-round picks in the league, illustrates OKC's unparalleled flexibility.
If the Thunder opt to use what could be as much as $55 million in cap space to add talent through free agency, they should focus on surrounding Shai Gilgeous-Alexander with as much frontcourt shooting as possible.
SGA enjoyed a full-scale breakout this season. Though plantar fasciitis knocked him out of action in late March and could keep him sidelined for several more weeks, Gilgeous-Alexander demonstrated a specific skill set that should give OKC some roster-building direction.
Put simply, SGA is one of the best defense-piercers in the league. He leads the NBA in drives and points scored on drives per game while ranking fourth in assists. The Thunder have to surround him with as much shooting as possible, particularly from the 4 and 5 positions. When you've got a player as gifted at getting into the lane as Gilgeous-Alexander, the natural performance-enhancer is spacing.
If opponents have to stay home on their assignments beyond the arc, Gilgeous-Alexander will feast on layups and in the short mid-range. OKC already has a promising roll-man option in Moses Brown, who dunks everything, and it's typically easy enough to find non-spacing bigs who can go get a lob. SGA will still produce with surrounding talent like that.
But if Oklahoma City can unleash Gilgeous-Alexander in five-out looks? Just put him on an All-NBA team now to save time.
Orlando Magic: The Next Great Scorer (Via Lottery Tickets)
After a trade deadline that saw the Magic jettison their top three veterans, I guess we can quit crying about the organization's refusal to start all the way over.
The Magic are now a walking, talking question mark. Their top prospective long-term keepers, Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz, have wildly uncertain futures because of the major injuries they're currently rehabbing. And if you think you've got a sense of Mo Bamba's long-term trajectory, you might want to look into fortune-telling. He's still a mystery to everyone without true clairvoyance.
Chuma Okeke, a tantalizing forward who's played a grand total of 35 games in his career, might actually be the safest bet to achieve reliable rotation status going forward. Isaac definitely had the highest upside prior to his latest knee injury, but he profiled (at his peak) as a DPOY candidate—not a top scoring option on a winner.
The Magic have their own first-rounder in 2021, and they'll also get the Chicago Bulls' pick it falls outside the top four. That means Orlando may get two great shots at landing a franchise scorer in the lottery. It could also package those two selections in a deal to add a young star on the rise. Bradley Beal comes to mind, but then again, he comes to mind whenever you're looking for ways to immediately improve any team.
Realistically, the Magic should proceed with caution and avoid the temptation of the quick fix. They spent years on the mediocrity treadmill and shouldn't be so eager to hop back on. Orlando must take its swings at finding an alpha offensive star in the draft and then hope Fultz's playmaking and Isaac's defense eventually produce a balanced roster with real promise.