Top Offseason Priorities for the NBA's Worst Teams
Some NBA teams need more help than others.
The clubs that populate this exercise are the league's worst, which means they all have several offseason priorities to tackle. Knowing that, we're going to isolate one clear trouble spot that, if addressed, could get the team in question off this list next year.
We'll up the degree of difficulty by banning the most obvious need for most of these squads: the lack of a no-questions-asked foundational star. Instead, we'll highlight a glaring lineup issue, a major statistical deficiency or even an out-of-the-box problem area that needs a fix.
The "worst" teams are the ones we recently identified as tankers. Much to the chagrin of the Chicago Bulls and Sacramento Kings, that group has now expanded by two.
Let's get to fixin'.
Chicago Bulls: Learning the Orlando Magic's Playbook
Even the Orlando Magic don't aspire to be the Orlando Magic anymore, now that they've hopped off the mediocrity treadmill and engaged in a full rebuild. But the Chicago Bulls now employ Nikola Vucevic, the central figure in the Magic's last several seasons of semi-competitive sub-mediocrity.
If they're taking up the "let's go all out for the eighth playoff spot" mantle, they're going to need to know how to best utilize a talented but deeply flawed player.
A high-usage center who doesn't get to the foul line and whose lack of foot speed means he can only play in extreme drop coverage against the pick-and-roll presents major tactical challenges.
The last two Magic head coaches, Frank Vogel and Steve Clifford, managed to cobble together respectable defenses with Vucevic in the middle. Clifford's first two seasons with the team, 2018-19 and 2019-20, saw the Magic finish in the top 10 in defensive efficiency. Before that, Vogel somehow got Orlando to defend more effectively with Vooch on the floor.
Achievements like that would have seemed impossible earlier in Vucevic's career. Based on the Bulls' recent play, they also seem impossible right now.
Vogel and Clifford are among the league's most respected defensive minds. The former currently presides over the NBA's best defense with the Los Angeles Lakers. It's a lot to ask of Bulls head coach Billy Donovan to replicate their success, particularly when the other foundational piece in the organization is noted non-defender Zach LaVine.
But that's what has to happen if the Bulls, who dealt away top-four protected first-rounders in 2021 and 2023 to get Vucevic, are going to achieve what feel like modest short-term goals.
Nobody's suggesting espionage, but it wouldn't be the worst idea for the Bulls to infiltrate Clifford's office in Orlando and sneak a few peeks at his old notes on how to field a capable defense with Vucevic in the middle.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Develop an Offensive Identity
Call me an optimist, but I think the theory of the Cleveland Cavaliers suggests they're capable of more than they've shown in practice.
Darius Garland and Collin Sexton can both put pressure on the defense—the former with his more conventional point guard playmaking, and the latter with his bone-deep desire to light his man up. Jarrett Allen can catch lobs. Larry Nance Jr. can pass and generally knows what should happen on an offensive possession.
The pieces make sense. But the puzzle, at least on offense, remains unsolved.
Cleveland's attack is bad at, well, everything. It ranks 29th in offensive rating and effective field-goal percentage. And the real gut-punch is that the Cavs also turn the ball over more frequently than anyone. Unsurprising result: No team has failed to crack the meager 90-point barrier more often than the Cavs, who've fallen short of that figure nine times this year.
Back to the Cavs in theory.
A Garland-to-Allen pick-and-roll would seem to make sense as a foundation—except Garland has been absolutely awful as ball-handler in those situations this year. He ranks in the 29th percentile in scoring efficiency on such plays. He's only 21, though, and barely played in college. Cleveland should use this offseason and summer league to determine if he's hopeless in that role or, as seems more likely, just in need of heavy reps to learn the timing and nuance good PnR maestros need.
Sexton makes sense as a second-side attacker, and Nance Jr. could lead reserve units as an elbow facilitator. Maybe if Isaac Okoro develops his three-point shot, he could draw defenders out of the lane.
Squint hard, and you can almost see it working.
Offseason priorities aren't always about changing personnel. The Cavs, who just need to get organized, can settle on an offensive plan and implement it.
Detroit Pistons: Secure Some Lottery Luck
It's hard to say exactly how the Detroit Pistons are supposed to make it happen, but nobody needs or deserves better fortune in the draft lottery than they do.
Maybe the universe will finally reward their patience. Whatever it takes, however the Pistons need to appease the cosmos, they need to end their streak of failing to move up in the draft lottery.
They've never done it. Not once.
That rotten luck has produced zero No. 1 overall picks and only one in the top three. Detroit selected second in 2003, but that was via a pick owed to them by the Memphis Grizzlies, and it yielded Darko Milicic in a draft that saw Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade come off the board after...
You know what? We should probably stop right there. This is getting cruel.
On the bright side, Detroit has been in the lottery less than half the time since its inception in 1985. That means the Pistons have generally been too good for their bad luck to matter.
Currently in possession of the league's third-worst record, the Pistons have a 14 percent chance at securing the top overall pick. That's the same odds as the Minnesota Timberwolves and Houston Rockets and better than the 27 other teams behind them.
Detroit is due, but that hasn't mattered much over the last 36 years.
Anybody know how easy it is to freeze an envelope?
Houston Rockets: Avoid Shortcuts
The Houston Rockets have a very obvious and immediate priority to address before the offseason: losing enough games to minimize the chance their pick falls outside the top four, which would result in them surrendering it in a three-way swap with the Oklahoma City Thunder and Miami Heat.
The patience and long-view perspective necessary to achieve that goal should persist once the 2020-21 campaign mercifully comes to a close.
This Rockets offseason cannot include shortcuts.
That means, for instance, walking away from potential John Wall trades that return negative value. The 2021-22 season should be another in the rebuild process, and the closer Wall gets to the end of his contract (he can opt out after next year), the easier it'll be to move him without having to attach precious draft equity. Plus, assuming the Rockets don't waver in their resolve and accept that a losing 2021-22 is for the best, Wall hasn't exactly shown he's capable of producing too many tank-ruining wins.
He could be valuable in more ways than one next season.
Houston is finishing up just its second losing season since 2001-02, and it owns the league's third-best winning percentage this century. That's quite a run.
This offseason, it's time for a breather.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Forwards
The Minnesota Timberwolves can confront their need for forwards however they want. Personally, a mid-2010s Portland Trail Blazers approach has the most appeal—assuming the 2015 versions of Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless exist on a limited free-agent market.
Minnesota projects to be over the cap, which will limit its ability to sign that type of in-demand player.
Other avenues are available. A banger 4 who could handle opposing 5s in a pinch, sparing Karl-Anthony Towns on occasion, might be nice. Alternatively, a rangy and fully switchable low-usage spot-up shooter like the Denver Nuggets version of Jerami Grant could fit into either forward spot nicely.
The rosiest outlook could feature a developing Jaden McDaniels occupying one of the vacant forward spots. He's shown increasing flashes of athleticism, defense and three-point shooting (37.5 percent), even if the broader basketball-watching public has understandably not paid enough attention to the Wolves to notice.
Jarrett Culver, picked sixth in 2019, hasn't done nearly enough to indicate he's going to help. And it might be time to give up on Josh Okogie developing an offensive game.
Minnesota has the latitude to experiment with how it addresses the issue. But for a team with both guard spots (D'Angelo Russell and Anthony Edwards) and center (Towns) spoken for, there's really no doubt about where help is needed.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Get After It in Restricted Free Agency
Our own Eric Pincus noted the Oklahoma City Thunder have more potential offseason spending clout than any team in the league.
They should use that to be the No. 1 power player in restricted free agency.
OKC could seek out intriguing support pieces to fit alongside Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and his on-ball, drive-heavy game. Spacers and rim-rollers could both work, though Al Horford's uncertain presence and role on next year's team could be a complicating factor.
The real fun would come not just in potentially getting a restricted free agent like Lonzo Ball, John Collins or Lauri Markkanen, but also in putting opposing teams to tough matching decisions. The Thunder can really mess with the opposition if they want to, especially if they embrace being every agent's leverage play.
Expect to see reports that OKC has interest in every notable free agent that's not nailed down. That's how agents create the impression of a bidding war for their clients.
Are the Atlanta Hawks really committed to Collins at a max pay rate? The Thunder can force them to prove it. It's entirely possible OKC would want no part of Collins for such a hefty payday, but it can also toss more modest offer sheets for Ball or even someone from the lower-end group—Josh Hart, Malik Monk, Talen Horton-Tucker and the like—putting the New Orleans Pelicans, Charlotte Hornets and Los Angeles Lakers' financial resolve to the test.
The Thunder don't need to be major free-agency winners; they've got enough incoming draft picks to build from within. But it's rare to have this kind of spending-power advantage.
Oklahoma City should obviously try to improve its roster. That's Priority 1A. Priority 1B should be to cause some trouble.
Orlando Magic: Calibrate
OK, sure, the Orlando Magic need to get healthy. Theoretical cornerstones Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz are recovering from major injuries, and it's going to be difficult to determine a direction or timeline until they're back.
But as the Magic await better health for key players, they need to keep an overarching idea in mind.
This season is not the first of their long-awaited rebuild. Next year is.
So if Orlando intends to make significant signings, the focus should be on an "adult in the room" vet to act as caretaker and tone-setter. Terrence Ross is too close to his prime to occupy that role. The Magic need someone who can still play spot minutes, but whose voice matters more than his production.
A Garrett Temple or Taj Gibson type would be ideal.
With that understanding in place, Orlando can use the summer/fall to form opinions on whether Wendell Carter Jr. or Mo Bamba is the center of the future, or if either warrants a rookie-scale extension. And how the Cole Anthony-Fultz dynamic might work best. And how Chuma Okeke and Isaac might function in the same frontcourt. And on and on, making fresh, eyes-open evaluations of the entire young roster.
Then, if those opinions need alteration based on summer league and training camp (which will hopefully feature every young player we've named), the Magic should adjust. Because remember, 2021-22 is step one.
Sacramento Kings: Cut Bait
Let's proceed on the premise that head coach Luke Walton isn't the problem. This will surely anger the loud contingent of Kings fans who are sure he is, but it feels too easy to make "change coaches" the top offseason priority. Instead, the focus should be on cutting loose the players who've underperformed and don't project as core pieces.
That starts with Marvin Bagley III and Buddy Hield.
The former never made sense as the No. 2 overall pick, and that's without even acknowledging that Luka Doncic was available. The theory of Bagley just didn't check out. He didn't project as a center because he couldn't protect the rim, but he was also a stationary pylon on the perimeter whom forwards could easily blow by.
Add to that a suspect three-point shot, no passing vision and limited use in the pick-and-roll, and it was always hard to see how he fit into a major role on a good team. It's even harder now. If there are takers out there for Bagley, the Kings should be givers. That's assuming anyone wants to deal with the prospect of his rookie-scale extension, which could come this offseason.
Hield is an elite three-point shooter, but he's in the way of Tyrese Haliburton at the 2. Good luck trying to get Hield to accept a bench role going forward. That never goes well. And even if he were willing to be a reserve, what kind of sensible roster-building plan features a backup one-way shooting guard who can't dribble but is also making $20 million per season?
Hield is also in his age-28 season. He doesn't fit on a team with a timeline built around De'Aaron Fox, 23, and Haliburton, 21.
The Kings are on pace to be the worst defense in NBA history, and while moving on from Bagley and Hield won't turn that performance all the way around, it'll help. Ultimately, those two players, once thought of as foundational, are both more valuable to Sacramento as trade chips.
Sacramento tried fishing with those two, and all it caught were L's. Now, it's time to cut bait.