The Offseason Blueprint for NBA Lottery Teams
The NBA lottery is always a fascinating group of teams.
Some expected to be here. They want to be in this position. Their rosters need major reinforcements, and they've identified the draft lottery as one of the best places to find them.
For others, a trip to the lottery is the manifestation of major disappointment. This group had legitimate playoff hopes. A few even entertained championship dreams. They might collect a consolation prize by way of a lottery pick—provided they didn't trade it away during a win-now pursuit—but this is not where they want to be.
Just like their paths to this point, lottery teams have all kinds of different roads going forward. Some are looking for the quickest avenue out of here. Others are in asset-accumulation mode and know they might have a few more years in the lottery ahead of them.
We'll get into the specifics of each situation with a team-by-team breakdown of the upcoming offseason.
Primary Offseason Objective: Use the roster to elevate LaMelo Ball to the highest possible heights.
The Hornets exceeded all reasonable expectations this year, finishing 10th in the Eastern Conference standings and scoring a play-in tournament ticket. They'll obviously aim even higher for the future, and they can dare to dream in the biggest way possible thanks to the arrival of LaMelo Ball.
Charlotte's 6'6", world-famous floor general could be the key to taking this franchise places it has never previously been. The Hornets should keep his future in mind with every offseason decision they make.
They need to upgrade at the 5—Cody Zeller and Bismack Biyombo are both unrestricted free agents anyway—and could use either the draft or free agency to do it. They might need to choose between restricted free agents Devonte' Graham and Malik Monk. They could entertain extension talks for one or both of Terry Rozier and Miles Bridges.
Charlotte has options. The ones that best position Ball for success are the ones worth exploring.
Primary Offseason Objective: Add a playmaker to bring this roster together.
The Bulls made an aggressive move to add Nikola Vucevic at the trade deadline and pair him with Zach LaVine. The trade, as Chicago's decision-makers have pointed out time and again, gave the franchise two All-Stars. Presumably, it was supposed to give this club a play-in tournament access pass, too, but the Bulls instead went 12-17 after the swap and finished 11th in the conference standings.
"The disappointment is short term, which is we assume that if you add another All-Star to your roster, usually you get better and improve your record. ... Unfortunately, that didn't happen," Bulls executive vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas said, per The Athletic's Darnell Mayberry.
Despite having two offense-first All-Stars on the roster, the Bulls didn't pack much of a scoring punch (22nd in offensive efficiency after the trade). They probably won't until they find the type of table-setter who can bring this roster together.
Chicago doesn't have a ton of flexibility. It owes a top-four protected first-round pick to the Orlando Magic for Vucevic, and it already cut into potential salary-cap space through its deadline activity. But the Bulls should make their presence felt around every available point guard, especially under-30 free agents Lonzo Ball and Dennis Schroder.
Primary Offseason Objective: Find a focal point.
The Cavaliers could have a busy summer. With three consecutive sub-.310 winning percentages on the books, they probably should.
Collin Sexton is eligible for an extension. Jarrett Allen is a restricted free agent. Kevin Love might be the league's most logical trade candidate.
A discussion (or several) might be warranted regarding the future of general manager Koby Altman, who took over roughly a year before LeBron James left for L.A. in 2018. The Cavs have the Association's worst winning percentage since James' departure (.274, Chicago is next at .342) and made their biggest financial investment in Love, a four-year, $120 million extension that appeared as an albatross almost the second the ink dried.
All of the above is important. It's also all window-dressing for as long as the franchise goes without a centerpiece-type talent.
Sexton, Allen, Darius Garland and Isaac Okoro might all be long-term keepers, but there probably isn't a future superstar among them. That needs to change, hopefully with the same kind of draft-lottery luck that once regularly reached this organization. If Cleveland walks into next season with a Cade Cunningham, Evan Mobley, Jalen Green or Jalen Suggs, this summer would have been a resounding success.
Primary Offseason Objective: Practice patience and deepen the talent pool.
The first year with general manager Troy Weaver at the controls of Detroit's rebuild was a success. The size and scope of that triumph will likely hinge on the development of 2020 No. 7 pick Killian Hayes, but the Pistons already have seen positive signs from fellow freshmen Saddiq Bey, Isaiah Stewart and Saben Lee.
Now, the Pistons need to continue pursuing and celebrating these developmental successes. As eager as breakout baller Jerami Grant might be to speed things up, Detroit could be years away from rejoining the playoff race.
However, the franchise should be fine with that. The Pistons wasted enough time in perpetual pursuit of the No. 8 seed. Their willingness to step back now might help them take several steps forward in the future, but they should be prepared to follow the slow-and-steady model for at least multiple offseasons.
The Pistons won't make a more important decision this summer than their first-round pick. If the ping-pong balls fall right, the player they select should immediately vault atop their entire rebuild. After draft night, Detroit can focus on the restricted free agency of Hamidou Diallo and whether it makes sense to field trade offers for Cory Joseph, Mason Plumlee, Josh Jackson or even Grant. (Spoiler alert: If the price is right, it absolutely does.)
Golden State Warriors
Primary Offseason Objective: Extend Stephen Curry and construct a contender around him.
Stephen Curry's 2020-21 season was majestic. Historic, even.
In addition to becoming the oldest scoring champion since Michael Jordan in 1997-98, Curry also authored just the third season ever with 30-plus points per game and a 65-plus true-shooting percentage. The other such campaigns belonged to Adrian Dantley (a Hall of Famer and two-time scoring champ) and Curry himself (during his unanimous MVP season of 2015-16).
It was enough to make Curry an MVP finalist, but almost certainly not enough for him to win it. Through no fault of his own, Golden State's ninth-place finish in the conference standings probably pulled him out of the running. The Warriors had some excuses (none greater than Klay Thompson's torn right Achilles tendon), but those are out the window now, and time is of the essence to capitalize on however many prime years Curry has left.
"Joe Lacob, Bob Myers and his front office, Steve Kerr—they owe Curry," The Athletic's Marcus Thompson II wrote. "He turned a lost season into something memorable. He reshaped the immediate future with his dominance, re-injecting championship hope into the mix."
The Warriors can reward Curry twice this offseason. First, they can extend him for another four years and $215.4 million. Then, they can convert some of their long-term assets (namely, draft picks and possibly young center James Wiseman) into win-now tools. If they get enough things right this summer, they can follow Curry's lead and rejoin the championship race as soon as next season.
Primary Offseason Objective: Hope for lottery luck and continue their top-to-bottom rebuild.
Considering how early Houston is into the post-James Harden overhaul, the organization can count a decent number of successes already.
Christian Wood played his way onto the short list of the league's best bargain contracts. Jae'Sean Tate emerged as an early rotation player, and Kenyon Martin Jr. did the same later in the season. Kevin Porter Jr. dazzled as a low-cost reclamation project. A young nucleus is already taking shape.
But the Rockets need more young talent. Getting a top prospect to guide this rebuild would be huge for Houston.
They'll have several chances to find it this summer with three first-round draft picks, though it gets a lot easier if their top-four protected pick stays with them. If Houston gets unlucky in the lottery and drops to pick No. 5, its selection will instead go to the Oklahoma City Thunder, and the Rockets will receive the No. 18 pick from the Miami Heat.
As long as the Rockets are hoping for good fortune, why not keep working the phones in search of a trade partner to take John Wall or Eric Gordon (or both)? Neither will have much value on his current contract, but maybe a win-now shopper short on backcourt options would be willing to take one off of Houston's hands.
Primary Offseason Objective: Choose an overall direction.
The Pacers already have nine players with fully guaranteed contracts for next season. That number could quickly jump to 12 if the club exercises its option on Edmond Sumner and guarantees the deals of Oshae Brissett and Kelan Martin.
And yet, so much feels up in the air for this franchise after its first losing season since 2014-15.
Pacers president of basketball operations Kevin Pritchard has yet to decide the fate of first-year coach Nate Bjorkgren. The annual Myles Turner trade winds breezed around the deadline and could pick up again soon. Free agents Doug McDermott and T.J. McConnell potentially priced themselves out of Indy's budget. Aaron Holiday, Jeremy Lamb and T.J. Warren could all be shopped if the Pacers don't plan to pay them in 2022.
Big changes could be coming to the Circle City. Or the decision-makers might write off the recent stumbles as the byproduct of an injury-riddled campaign and keep this roster largely intact. Either way, the Pacers should choose a clear vision and make sure all of their offseason moves are in line with it.
Primary Offseason Objective: Good fortune at the lottery, then focus on the margins.
The main summer storyline around the Timberwolves is something they can't control: the fate of the top-three protected pick they owe the Warriors from the D'Angelo Russell deal.
Keeping the selection would be a massive victory. This draft class starts with five potential franchise players at the top, and Minnesota would have no fewer than three to choose from. Get it right, and the Wolves would be good enough next season to dampen a lot of the damage done by then owing Golden State an unprotected first in 2022.
Externally, Minnesota doesn't have many decisions to make. Ed Davis and Jarred Vanderbilt (restricted) need new deals if the Wolves want to pay them. Ricky Rubio, Malik Beasley, Jarrett Culver and Josh Okogie could all be shopped for better roster balance. Ideally, a two-way power forward will somehow find his way to the Gopher State.
The Wolves could be closer to being competitive than people think. Karl-Anthony Towns is a foundational talent, and Anthony Edwards might be another. If Russell stays healthy and efficient, Minnesota might have a Big Three, at least on the offensive end. Fill out the rest of this roster with complementary pieces, and maybe the Wolves are competing for a 2022 playoff spot.
New Orleans Pelicans
Primary Offseason Objective: Guess right on free-agent guards.
New Orleans is going somewhere soon. We can't say where or when exactly, but a team with both Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram can only be characterized as on the rise.
This past season, the Pels' wings were clipped by a disastrous defense and lack of offensive support. On a macro level, both issues need to be addressed to bring the best out of their stars. However, New Orleans needs more than an offseason to get this right.
Having said that, New Orleans could shape a decent chunk of its future through the free agencies of Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart (both restricted). Each has had his moments, but also battled injuries and inconsistency. Keeping both could be costly, but letting them walk and perhaps figure it all out elsewhere might be even more damaging.
There isn't an obvious answer here. Only time will illuminate the correct—or incorrect—path. The Pels need to get this correct, especially after seemingly misfiring on both Eric Bledsoe and Steven Adams.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Primary Offseason Objective: Continue collecting assets.
Presumably, someone in the Sooner State can see the proverbial light at the end of tunnel for the Thunder's radical rebuild. But Oklahoma City surely isn't in a rush to reach it.
The Thunder have spent the past two years stockpiling draft picks. Some have already been invested in intriguing young talents. Many, many others are still to come.
OKC won't play the draft-and-develop game forever, but that seems to be the strategy for the foreseeable future. And why wouldn't it be? The Thunder clearly have a keen eye for young talent—Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Lu Dort, Darius Bazley, Aleksej Pokusevski, Theo Maledon—and if they ever have too much of it, they can flip it for additional draft picks.
Oklahoma City will make two first-round picks. The Thunder have their own and either the Rockets' (if it falls outside of the top four) or the Miami Heat's. The success of OKC's offseason will come down to those draft picks and the franchise's ability to add even more to the pile.
Primary Offseason Objective: Consolidate the roster.
It says a lot about modern medical science, but even more about the Magic that the closest they have to sure-thing keepers are Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz. Both players are working their way back from ACL tears.
Granted, Orlando is months into a major rebuilding project. The Magic traded three of their top four scorers at the deadline. In the immediate aftermath, they were taking fliers and filling roster spots to get through the season.
Now, it's about sifting through this revamped roster and figuring out who all is worth keeping. Free agency won't settle much, as Otto Porter Jr. and Dwayne Bacon are as noteworthy as Orlando's free agents get.
On the trade market, though, this organization could be active. Terrence Ross will interest competitive clubs and could deliver more rebuilding tools. Sooner than later, the Magic must decide between Mo Bamba and Wendell Carter Jr. A similar crossroads between Cole Anthony and R.J. Hampton might be coming down the line. With more young talent arriving this summer (perhaps in the form of two top-10 picks), Orlando might want to thin its prospect ranks a bit ahead of time.
Primary Offseason Objective: Build around the backcourt.
Fifteen years have passed since Sacramento last secured a ticket to the postseason party. While it's impossible to spin that in a positive way, here's our best attempt: It almost certainly won't take another 15 years to end this drought.
De'Aaron Fox is knocking on the door of stardom. Tyrese Haliburton quickly established himself as one of the top rookies in his class. That gives Kings general manager Monte McNair a foundation to build around. It's not a ton, but it's something, and Sacramento hasn't always had that during this historic drought.
Once the Kings make their latest lottery pick, they'll turn their attention toward filling out the rest of this roster. They need to tackle the upcoming free agency of starting center Richaun Holmes, then try bulking up one of the worst-ranked bench groups in the NBA.
Through all of this, though, they need to exercise some patience and restraint. They have chased quick-fix vets before—in 2017, they signed Zach Randolph, Vince Carter and George Hill—and haven't had success with it. Fox is 23 years old, and Haliburton is 21.
Sacramento must be open to taking its time if that's what is needed to get this right.
San Antonio Spurs
Primary Offseason Objective: Choose a timetable.
A new day could be dawning in the Alamo City.
Forever chasing maximum competitiveness—and supremely good at consistently finding it—the Spurs might finally be ready to ease off the throttle. Veterans DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay and Patty Mills are all approaching unrestricted free agency. A strong case can be made for cutting ties with all three and handing over club control to the likes of Dejounte Murray, Derrick White and the rest of this young nucleus.
Then again, as long as Gregg Popovich is calling the shots, the Spurs might have at least passing interest in the standings. They aren't tankers—at least, not unless Tim Duncan is on the draft board—and might see value in remaining competitive and passing on winning habits to the next generation.
Outside looking in, this seems like the perfect time to turn the page and start a new chapter. Internally, though, the discussion is likely more complex with support from both sides.
Primary Offseason Objective: Decide the futures of franchise icons.
Hoops historians who one day retrace the Raptors' rise to world champions might focus on a pair of dates in the early 2010s: July 11, 2012 and May 31, 2013. The former marked the arrival of fearless floor general Kyle Lowry in a trade with the Houston Rockets. The latter was the day Masai Ujiri decided to ditch the Denver Nuggets and take over Toronto's basketball operations.
Lowry and Ujiri have since become organizational pillars, but both have unsettled futures that will dominate the Raptors' summer.
Lowry is an unrestricted free agency who will attract every win-now shopper in the point-guard market. He told reporters "money talks, and years talk" regarding his decision, and "I want more championships."
Ujiri needs a new contract and said "I'm not as much focused on a blank check," per ESPN's Tim Bontemps. Instead, "This is all about winning a championship again."
The Lowry and Ujiri decisions are monumentally important. Once those are made—by the franchise and the individuals—then the Raptors can push their attention to things like finding another big, handling Gary Trent Jr.'s restricted free agency and readying this roster to chase championships now or in the future.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.