Should the NBA's 10 Worst Teams Build Through the Draft, Free Agency or Trade?
With the curtains dropping on the 2020-21 NBA season, 10 teams (for now) are trapped in the lottery and need a way out.
Even those who anticipated (or even desired) being in this position must form a plan to start climbing back up the standings, if not now then sometime in the near future.
Roster building 101 says there are three possible avenues to explore: the draft, the trade market and free agency. While clubs might pull from all three categories along the way, one stands out as the clear focal point for every organization.
We're here to help identify the path best suited to get these squads back on track.
Chicago Bulls: Free Agency
The Bulls have multiple All-Stars with Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic. That wasn't the case for the entire season (Vooch arrived at the deadline), and Chicago didn't win much even when it was (12-17 after the trade), but they still have multiple stars on the roster.
They could be in the market for finishing pieces soon, whether that's a playmaking point guard, a two-way wing or even a third star fit for the NBA's next Big Three.
"I...wouldn't be surprised to see the Bulls try to work their books so that they have significant cap space in 2022," NBC Sports Chicago's K.C. Johnson wrote. "There already is speculative talk around the league—emphasis on speculative—that Bradley Beal could be a target."
It's the logical next (and hopefully final) step in this rebuild.
They worked the trade market to find LaVine and Vucevic. They added intriguing talent through the draft, like Patrick Williams and Coby White. This roster could be close to completion, and some good fortune in free agency this summer or next might help it across the finish line.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Draft
Cleveland's three-year outlook is as bleak as it gets. At least, that's the opinion shared by ESPN's Bobby Marks and Kevin Pelton, who ranked the Cavaliers dead last in their future power rankings for the second straight year.
The ESPN scribes put the Cavs 28th or worse in players, market and management. The lack of talent means there isn't much to trade if Cleveland tried taking that route. The knocks on the market limit what the Cavs can do in free agency. No one needs to inform the franchise of that, since it couldn't lure talent to Northeast Ohio even when it had LeBron James doing the recruiting.
History shows there are two possible paths out of its latest post-LeBron funk.
One is to ace the draft year after year. The Cavs have done a decent job in that department. Collin Sexton and Darius Garland were solid hits—and Garland has flashed home run potential—and Isaac Okoro looks like a keeper. But for this foundation to support substantial winning down the line, it needs more layers.
The other option is coaxing King James back to Cleveland for a third time. That's not happening, but we still had to note the nearly 20 years of data that says this franchise is really good when he's around and pretty punchless when he isn't.
Detroit Pistons: Trade Now, Draft Later
Jerami Grant knows a thing or two about NBA rebuilds. He opened his career in one of the most radical reconstructions in league history, as a draft pick of the Trust the Process era in Philadelphia.
Detroit's winning percentage is in the same ballpark as those teams fared (.278), but Grant said the similarities stop there.
"It's not the same; it's a lot different," Grant said in April, per Rod Beard of the Detroit News. "It's not a rebuild—it's not three or four years into the future. We're looking forward to doing something big next year."
If Detroit's decision-makers do what's best for the franchise, they should respectfully disagree with Grant's assessment. The Pistons could be years away from making major noise in the East, and that's only if they make the right moves now to get there later.
They should be heavily working the phones this summer to flip the win-now talent they have for potential avenues to long-term building blocks. Grant could return a small fortune after his breakout season. Mason Plumlee should attract anyone with an interior opening. Cory Joseph is just waiting to perk up a playoff team's second unit.
Once Detroit converts these present pieces into future helpers, then it can shift all attention to the draft and try to figure out how to find another haul like the one that delivered Saddiq Bey, Isaiah Stewart and Killian Hayes in November.
Houston Rockets: Draft
After years of following James Harden's lead—usually to a place fairly deep in the Western Conference playoffs—the Rockets' first steps sans Beard featured a boatload of losses and hopefully high enough lottery odds to keep their top-four protected pick away from the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Now, Space City needs a talent upgrade in the worst kind of way. But there's no way to fast-track this process beyond catching some internal developmental breaks with the likes of Christian Wood, Jae'Sean Tate, Kevin Porter Jr. and Kenyon Martin Jr.
Slow and steady should be the way of the Rockets' future. It's probably not what the marketing team wants to hear—no one actually wants to be the tortoise—but Houston's roster requires an almost complete piece-by-piece overhaul.
Luckily, the Rockets have at least positioned themselves to see such a strategy through. Their collection of incoming picks bests that of anyone outside of OKC, and if the Rockets ace enough of those selections while also bringing their prospects along, then they can use free agency to supplement what they're building in-house over the next few years.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Trade
On the surface, Minnesota's 2020-21 season seems in the vicinity of an unmitigated disaster.
The attempt to accelerate their rebuild with last year's trade for D'Angelo Russell didn't work. Not yet, at least. In fact, the deal has double-whammy potential, since it didn't move the winning percentage much (.297 last season, .310 now) but might have done just enough to gift their top-three protected pick to the Golden State Warriors.
Look under the hood, though, and there are signs of hope.
The Wolves showed much more fight under midseason coaching hire Chris Finch. Top pick Anthony Edwards proved why he was drafted in that spot, flashing high-level shot-creation ability and upping his true shooting rate every month in 2021. And when Minnesota actually had Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns together, this club looked competent, going 13-11 with a plus-2.1 net rating with that twosome on the floor.
Like a side-view mirror, the Wolves are closer to being competitive than they initially appear. But the roster has holes that need correcting on the trade market, namely upgrading the power forward spot and finding a two-way wing. If they can scratch at least one of those itches without giving up another prime draft asset, that would make for a successful offseason.
New Orleans Pelicans: Trade
There are some uncomfortably long looks in the mirror awaiting the Pelicans this summer.
Despite squeezing 60-plus games out of Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram, and despite getting some big-time contributions from a handful of players making rookie-scale salaries, New Orleans couldn't even snag a play-in tournament ticket.
That stings. So does landing 23rd in defensive rating despite making sizable investments in players acquired specifically to tackle that issue. The Pels spent serious cash on Steven Adams ($29.6 million salary) and Eric Bledsoe ($16.9 million) and could only watch helplessly—and often hopelessly—as the pair surrendered a 115.4 defensive rating together, a rate that would have ranked 29th overall.
New Orleans' first order of offseason business is the restricted free agency of Lonzo Ball. But as soon as that plays out—or perhaps while it's underway—the Pelicans have to find more complementary players to support their young star forwards.
They're desperate for shooting and defense. They can't count on the draft to quickly correct those imbalances, and they lack the wiggle room and the market appeal to tackle them in free agency. Trading for better-fitting role players not only gives Williamson and Ingram a chance to compete sooner than later but also sends the message that their futures are in good hands in the Big Easy.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Draft
Excuse me while I bend over to collect this low-hanging fruit.
But seriously, no squad has tied its future more directly to the draft than the Sooner State's finest.
The list of incoming draft picks owed to Oklahoma City looks like a novel, and not the quick-read kind, either. They're owed extra selections in every talent grab through 2027. They're holding an absurd 34 selections over the next seven drafts, and while they surely won't keep all of them, they'll invest plenty to beef up their young, unproven roster.
By the way, said roster sets up perfectly for that strategy.
Franchise face Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has the shape-shifting versatility that allows him to play with anyone. As long as defensive savant Lu Dort keeps splashing threes at a league-average rate, he's easy to build around, too. If less proven frontcourt players like Darius Bazley, Aleksej Pokusevski and Isaiah Roby pan out, they'll help keep all options open on the roster-building front.
As more of these prospects find their footing, OKC could eventually trade some of the picks for more immediate support. But that organizational shift might be multiple years down the line.
Orlando Magic: Trade First, Draft Second
If Orlando has its roster pegged correctly, then a good chunk of the foundation is already in place.
The Magic's deadline wheeling and dealing left Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz behind the controls of this rebuild. In an ideal world, Cole Anthony, Chuma Okeke, R.J. Hampton and one of Mo Bamba or Wendell Carter Jr. will cement themselves in the long-term plans, too.
That's a solid start, or maybe even more if a few of these players max out their potential. But the Magic probably need a few more throws at the draft dartboard before feeling great about their outlook, so there's a little more selling to do before settling into the draft-and-develop model.
Terrence Ross is just waiting for a scoring-needy win-now suitor to put him back in a playoff race. Gary Harris might generate trade interest if he rediscovers his three-point form on the final year of his contract. Michael Carter-Williams might emerge on the fringe market for pass-first point guards who hold their own on defense.
There isn't much to sell, admittedly, but all avenues to additional draft picks should be explored. A few more productive draft nights could do wonders for this team's trajectory.
Sacramento Kings: Draft
Patience is always a tricky sell, and maybe it's impossible to peddle to a fanbase already forced to practice so much of it during a record-tying playoff drought.
But the Kings are making progress and could build something sustainable if they just stay the course.
"I'm excited about the future," Kings coach Luke Walton said, per The Athletic's Jason Jones. "I'm excited about where some of the individual players are headed and where the team is headed as a whole. There's a lot we have to get better at, there's a lot we have to continue to try to clean up and improve on, but if you can play and make that a baseline for how you compete, we're going to put ourselves in a good position."
The Kings need more top-shelf talent. Even if young guards De'Aaron Fox and Tyrese Haliburton—the central figures of this young nucleus—hit their respective peaks, there isn't enough start power to make major noise in the West.
Sacramento isn't signing that kind of player in free agency, and trading for an impact player would require the sacrifice of one of its own. Buddy Hield and Harrison Barnes could have trade value in a vacuum, but on their bloated contracts they aren't moving the needle. Marvin Bagley III seems in need of a scenery change, but the fact that's true says everything you need to know about his current trade value.
The Kings are best off keeping and developing what they have in-house and working around the clock to find more Foxs and Haliburtons on draft night.
Toronto Raptors: Free Agency
Kyle Lowry quite possibly played his final game for Toronto on Sunday. As iconic as he is for the franchise, he's also a 35-year-old unrestricted free agent. With the Raptors having just posted a sub-.400 winning percentage, they might have trouble talking themselves into reasons for keeping Lowry that go beyond sentimentality, especially when Fred VanVleet is more than ready to steer this attack.
But life without Lowry doesn't have to mean life in basketball's basement. With players like VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby already in place (and perhaps restricted free agent Gary Trent Jr. too), the Raptors might be a strong offseason away from returning to relevance.
That could still happen with Lowry, by the way. Toronto had a .736 winning percentage just last season with Lowry leading the team in win shares. The Raptors could reasonably conclude a lot of their struggles were magnified by the challenges of COVID-19—which, among other things, forced them to find a temporary home in Tampa—and a reunion with their point guard could help rocket them back up the standings.
Or they could invest that money elsewhere (in a shot-making wing, perhaps), beef up the back end of their bench with reliable reserves and attempt their re-emergence that way.
With or without Lowry, it shouldn't take long to get this pointed in the right direction.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.