Biggest Offseason Challenge for Every NBA Team That Missed the Playoffs

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistMay 27, 2021

Biggest Offseason Challenge for Every NBA Team That Missed the Playoffs

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    David Dermer/Associated Press

    We interrupt your complete and total immersion in the NBA playoffs to discuss what lies ahead for all the teams that were left behind.

    Squads that miss the postseason often find themselves entering low-stakes summers. They don't have too much to worry about if they're in the early stages of their rebuild and not expected to compete for anything special next year.

    This offseason is different.

    A huge chunk of the missed-the-playoffs club is made up of wannabe immediate winners. Others, meanwhile, are faced with issues and questions pertaining to both their short- and long-term trajectories. Even the teams assuming gradual stances are not free from wholesale pressure.

    These hurdles will vary in scope and scale depending on the organization. All of them, though, will have a fundamental impact of where each goes from here.

Charlotte Hornets: Gauging Value of Their Own Players

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    Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

    Let's make one thing clear from the jump: The Charlotte Hornets' 2020-21 season goes down as a success.

    Not only did they manage to hang around play-in territory despite dealing with various injuries to key players, but the hardest and most important part of any rebuild is landing that north star around whom to structure everything. Charlotte has found their guidepost in LaMelo Ball. That is huuuge.

    Properly reacting to LaMelo's emergence is now the primary directive. And that demands the Hornets strike a delicate balance. Having someone with superstar potential embeds a sense of urgency into the franchise, but the push to accelerate the timeline should not result in slap-dash decision-making that threatens to upend future flexibility while capping the team's ceiling.

    Without a lottery miracle, Charlotte won't be positioned to draft another cornerstone. It can hammer out nearly $25 million in cap space, but that requires renouncing all incumbent free agents other than Devonte' Graham (restricted) and his teensy-tiny cap hold. Malik Monk (restricted) and Cody Zeller will join him on the open market, too.

    The Hornets' cap space quickly gets obliterated if they keep everyone. Related: They probably won't keep everyone. Re-signing both Graham and Monk feels redundant with LaMelo and Terry Rozier on the roster, not to mention Gordon Hayward. 

    Maybe the markets for Graham and Monk crater. Graham is coming off a rough season that saw him battle various injuries—the most serious of which was a left knee issue—and once again shoot under 40 percent on two-pointers. But his off-the-bounce shot-taking and capacity to launch deep threes still render him useful. Prior to suffering a sprained right ankle near the end of the season, Monk tantalized with a 40-plus three-point clip, an extra layer of shot creation and positional flexibility on defense that belies his 6'3" frame.

    Zeller's future is less crucial and, most likely, much less expensive. Charlotte was more inclined to roll with Bismack Biyombo or P.J. Washington at the 5 for stretches. But beefing up the center spot will be part of the offseason agenda. That'll cost actual cap space if the Hornets want to go after a pricier option like Richaun Holmes.

    Looming over all this is Miles Bridges' extension-eligibility. He expanded his offensive catalogue this season, even baking in some niftier passes, and did a little of everything on defense. The Hornets can wait until he hits restricted free agency in 2022 to make a call on his future, but that opens them up to spicy offer sheets from other teams. On the flip side, committing to him now adds money to their bottom line at a time when Hayward will still be on the books and Rozier will be hitting free agency.

    Fans shouldn't care about operating expenses for billion-dollar franchises. But effectively managing the payroll is part of on-court success. Charlotte is approaching a crucial point in its post-Kemba Walker era. Doubling down on this core too aggressively—and too soon—could set the organization back years. The Hornets have to decide how to value their own players before doing anything else.

Chicago Bulls: Zach LaVine's Future

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    Nell Redmond/Associated Press

    Zach LaVine's future is not a matter of whether the Chicago Bulls will trade him. They already showed their hand. You don't surrender two top-four-protected first-rounders and Wendell Carter Jr. and take on the final year of Al-Farouq Aminu's deal to acquire the very much win-now Nikola Vucevic if you're not married to keeping LaVine.

    Hypothetical trades only hold weight if he applies pressure on the team to move him in advance of 2022 free agency. Otherwise, the issue of his future comes down to the Bulls' approach.

    Signing him to a traditional extension that takes effect in 2022-23 is out of the question. They can't give him more than a 120 percent raise off next year's salary, which would amount to a $23.4 million. Entering free agency lets LaVine ink a max contract that projects to start at $33.7 million—a difference of more than $10 million.

    The Bulls can absolutely wait until next season. It doesn't matter when they pay him, just that they do. But they are first and foremost at the behest of LaVine's will. He will have the right to choose where he signs as an unrestricted free agent. And while he may be committed to Chicago now, what happens if it misses the playoffs again next year? Or flames out unconvincingly in the first round?

    Renegotiating and extending LaVine's contract is the Bulls' ticket out of that dilemma. It allows them to increase next season's salary as part of the new contract, disincentivizing him from exploring the open market in 2022. But that immediate uptick must be paid in cap space, so if Chicago plans on maxing him out, it'll need somewhere between $13 million and $14 million in spending power.

    Carving out that much wiggle room won't be effortless. The Bulls will be an over-the-cap team if they carry Lauri Markkanen's restricted-free-agent hold ($20.2 million). Renouncing him only dredges up slightly over $12 million, and that number will plunge if they don't convey their first-round pick to the Orlando Magic (top-four protection).

    Chicago can make up the difference by waiving partial guarantees for Tomas Satoransky and Thaddeus Young. But both are usable players. Young, in particular, was the team's second most valuable contributor for most of the year. The Bulls will be worse without him and won't have the scratch to adequately replace him. Nor will they have the flexibility to make additional upgrades.

    That's the pickle in which they finds themselves: Locking down LaVine over the long term makes sense, but doing so at the expense of improving—if not worsening—the roster around him is counterintuitive. Push comes to shove, the Bulls should figure out how to renegotiate-and-extend LaVine rather than risk losing him for nothing in 2022. It is not, however, an easy decision.

Cleveland Cavaliers: The Collin Sexton Extension

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Like the Hornets, the Cleveland Cavaliers are speeding toward some expensive decisions.

    Jarrett Allen's next contract is the more immediate issue. Except, it's actually a non-issue. Though he will command a lofty deal in restricted free agency, Cleveland is obligated to foot the bill after forking over a (low-end) first-rounder to acquire him.

    Collin Sexton's extension eligibility is much less of a no-brainer. Any decision the Cavs make on his future will have more of an impact on their direction.

    Kick the can until 2022 restricted free agency, and they open the door for max-money offers from rival suitors. If the money doesn't concern them, the tension that waiting to pay him incites should. The rumor mill will invariably interpret the absence of an extension as an openness to trade him.

    Hashing out a deal this offseason would be a smoother bit of business if Sexton has a consensus market value. He won't. He has remained a divisive topic of discussion among basketball circles even as he's established himself as a higher-end scorer.

    Just 11 other players this season averaged over 20 points while downing more than 50 percent of their twos and 37 percent of their threes. The list of inclusions reads like a who's who of stars who'd command automatic maxes if they were headed for free agency this summer: Jaylen Brown, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Joel Embiid, Kyrie Irving, Nikola Jokic, Zach LaVine, Kawhi Leonard, Damian Lillard, Jayson Tatum and Karl-Anthony Towns.

    Sexton isn't on the same level as any of those players, but melding high-volume scoring and efficiency pays. And for all the gripes about his low-ceiling, low-floor playmaking, he has broadened his tunnel vision on the move. Beyond that, it's unfair to view him through the lens of someone he's not supposed to be: a point guard.

    Darius Garland is instead the Cavaliers' best crack at a floor general of the future. He has a better feel for managing the half-court offense and noticeably progressed as an off-the-dribble scorer. And wouldn't you know it, he's extension-eligible in 2022.

    Welcome to the complicated outlook in Cleveland. It is marching toward substantive reinvestments in three core players without proof of playoff viability. Funneling more money into the roster might get easier if they strike gold with their top-five lottery odds.

    Even then, though, they have to decide whether the Allen-Garland-Sexton trio is the blueprint for the big picture, or if it makes sense over the long haul to pay two 6'1" guards star money. The process by which they'll render that verdict begins this offseason, with Sexton.

Detroit Pistons: Drafting Their Tent-Pole Building Block

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Mini victories were peppered throughout a Detroit Pistons season that wanted, somewhat by design, for many actual wins. (The lack of development from Sekou Doumbouya notwithstanding.)

    Jerami Grant's augmented scoring profile is a boon for the short term. Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart should both make All-Rookie squads. Wayne Ellington spit fire. Killian Hayes, last year's No. 7 pick, missed most of the season with right hip issues and was hardly efficient when he played. But he tossed some wily passes and flashed composure in traffic. His ceiling is far from defined after just 26 appearances...in a good way.

    And yet, the Pistons still lack that tent-pole cornerstone—their obvious, inarguable prospect with star potential. Grant is never reaching that apex. He is 27 years old and doesn't have the handle or vision to wear both the primary scorer and table-setter hats. Hayes cannot be written off, but Detroit hasn't seen enough to pencil him in as its primary, and his game should lend itself to playing beside a ball-dominant creator.

    The Pistons should have the chance to bring in someone who checks this box during the draft. They have a 52 percent shot of landing a top-four pick in a class that's generating the most buzz within the top four. One of Cade Cunningham, Jalen Green and Jalen Suggs would be ideal. They profile as No. 1 options more than Evan Mobley, who has open-floor ball-handling and a face-up arsenal to offer but doesn't fit the conventional bill as a center.

    Falling to fifth or sixth in the lottery wouldn't be the end of the world. And Detroit needs to prepare for that scenario. It has a 48 percent chance of dipping to the No. 5 or No. 6 slot.

    Do the Pistons default to Jonathan Kuminga or Keon Johnson in those spots? Give Scottie Barnes consideration? Roll the dice on Jalen Johnson? Wherever they land in the draft order, this will be their best, most logical crack at nabbing a blue-chip prospect to serve as the basis for everything they do moving forward.

Golden State Warriors: Reopening the Title Window

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Optimists will insist the Golden State Warriors need only patience to reopen their title window. They have Stephen Curry. They have Draymond Green. Klay Thompson will be back. James Wiseman has NBA experience under his belt. Jordan Poole showed something, at both ends, by the end of this year. They will get another lottery prospect with their own pick. They might bag another one with the Minnesota Timberwolves' selection (top-three protection).

    Buy the Warriors' ability to futz and fiddle without making seismic changes if you're feeling generous. Reality isn't as rosy. Green himself seems to know it. As he said when asked about how involved he'll be with Golden State's decision-making this summer, per The Ahtletic's Anthony Slater:

    “I expect to be extremely involved. It’s just the way it’s gotta be. We have to dive in. Looking back on this year, I think there were a lot of successes that came out of this year, but we did not win a championship. … There are some things that need to be discussed between myself, Steph, Klay, coaching staff, front office. This has always been a group thing.”

    Standing pat is not akin to making major strides. Wiseman may now have NBA experience, but he appeared in just 39 games, and his torn right meniscus could limit his offseason development. Thompson is working his way back from a torn right Achilles tendon and torn left ACL. Lottery prospects are seldom ready to significantly help a contender, no matter how high they're selected. (See: Wiseman, James.)

    Golden State isn't hitting a home run in free agency, either. It's capped out and then some. Re-signing Kelly Oubre Jr. and using the mini mid-level exception are its splashiest tools.

    Holding serve and making additions on the margins could fast-track the Warriors for a 50-win campaign. That's different from legitimate title contention. They need another high-end shot-creator and -maker, at minimum, to enter that clique.

    Shopping their primary assets—Wiseman, the Minnesota picks and their own picks—is an obligation. They cannot afford to waste another year of Curry's prime. He is a top-three player now. At the same time, they are at the mercy of the trade market. Acquiring a star assumes there will be one available.

    There probably will be. That's how the NBA works. But who? Bradley Beal? Zach LaVine? Someone unforeseen? And does that someone elevate the Warriors to championship territory? And do they even have the most attractive package following Wiseman's lackluster rookie campaign? And when that Minnesota pick could defer until 2022? Is Golden State willing to unload any of its main assets for a hodgepodge of impact role players rather than a star?

    This is the highest-stakes offseason the Warriors have faced in the Stephen Curry era. That includes 2016, when they signed Kevin Durant. Back then, they were trying to enter dynastic mode. Right now, they're fighting to remain relevant.

Houston Rockets: The Draft Lottery

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    Aaron Gash/Associated Press

    "I never thought I could feel this good after winning only 16 games," Houston Rockets team governor Tilman Fertitta told ESPN's Tim MacMahon. "I never thought I could feel this good when I've been so upset about losing. But when I look at all the draft picks that we have and the future, I'm just happy. I know it's unusual to feel this good with your coach and your general manager, but I do."

    Fertitta is not entirely wrong. The Rockets recouped a lot of draft equity in the James Harden trade. They have unearthed at least a handful of keepers in KJ Martin, Kevin Porter Jr., Jae'Sean Tate and Christian Wood. They have a fairly lean cap sheet in the years to come, even with Eric Gordon and John Wall on the books.

    Still, with all due respect to the development of KPJ and Wood, Houston doesn't have the most important ingredient to any rebuilding process: a superstar prospect. And depending on how the lottery shakes out, it won't have a ready-made opportunity to land one until the 2022 draft.

    The Oklahoma City Thunder can swap the Miami Heat's selection with Houston's if it lands outside the top four. The Rockets have done all they can to ensure that doesn't happen. They finished with the league's worst record and will enter the lottery with a 52.1 percent chance of keeping their pick. That's still only a little more than a coin toss. Their selection could feasibly fall to No. 5 (as low as it can go) and head to Oklahoma City.

    Having three first-round picks in this year's draft helps soften the blow of the worst-case scenario. (They project to get selections from Milwaukee and Portland.) That means only so much when there's a chance none of them land inside the top 14, let alone the top five.

    So much of Rockets' future is riding on the outcome of this year's lottery. If they retain their own pick, they can move on to more welcoming issues, like nailing the draft itself or trying to reroute the expensive pacts of Gordon and Wall to increase their flexibility and maximize next year's lottery odds.

    Send the pick to Oklahoma City, and everything changes. Houston will have two years of controlling its own first-rounders after this one, coupled with total ownership of Brooklyn's draft selections. But without this year's choice, the search for a defining building block will, in all likelihood, be delayed by an entire season.

Indiana Pacers: Figuring Out How—or IF—to Run It Back

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    Consider this a two-step challenge for the Indiana Pacers, the first of which entails determining the fate of Nate Bjorkgren.

    First-year head coaches almost never get put on the hot seat. Bjorkgren's was on fire by the end of the season. ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski first reported his job was hanging in the balance. Shortly thereafter, Bleacher Report's Jake Fischer detailed Bjorkgren's turbulent and, perhaps, damning start in Indiana.

    To cap it all off, team president Kevin Pritchard was non-committal when pressed about the issue once the Pacers were eliminated from the play-in tournament.

    "No decisions have been made," he said. "I’m being evaluated. I’m being evaluated every day. [Team governor] Herb [Simon] has to decide if I’m fit for this job and what I need to improve on. Then Nate and I will have a long conversation over many days on what he needs to improve on. He is our coach as of now and I’ll have a fair discussion with him."

    Mind you, this isn't even the Pacers' biggest issue. They have tough on-court decisions to make, beginning with the free agencies Doug McDermott and T.J. McConnell. Both played pivotal roles while helping Indiana navigate a ton of injuries and should be up for semi-serious raises. That becomes an issue when looking at the cap sheet.

    Carrying free-agent holds for both drags the Pacers into the tax. This matters. They're not a team that's going to pay the tax. They also need to munch on the future of T.J. Warren. He missed basically the entire season with a stress fracture in his left foot and is scheduled for free agency in 2022.

    Juggling contract questions in the context of this year won't be easy. Calling for wholesale changes is hard when the Pacers' projected best five-man unit—Warren, Malcolm Brogdon, Caris LeVert, Domantas Sabonis, Myles Turner—didn't see a second of action.

    Letting both McDermott and McConnell walk takes care of the cap crunch, but doesn't feel like a viable option after all the injuries Indiana dealt with this year. Cutting costs via alternative avenues isn't a simple endeavor, either. Who are they dumping?

    Insisting the Pacers break up the Sabonis-Turner frontline is an oversimplification of the situation. They have shown they can work together. Jeremy Lamb might be expendable, but jettisoning his $10.5 million salary (without taking back any money in return) still leaves Indiana within sniffing distance of the tax.

    What will the Pacers do? It's a great question. One to which they can't even know the answer.

Minnesota Timberwolves: Deciding How Close They Are to the Playoffs

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    Craig Lassig/Associated Press

    The Minnesota Timberwolves put a somewhat positive spin on an otherwise dismal season with a strong closing kick. They went 8-6 after April 20, with a top-10 offense and 11th-place defense.

    Riveting end-of-the-year displays must be taken with a grain of salt. Certain teams aren't trying to win as enthusiastically, and this season's truncated schedule paved the way for higher-variance outcomes from start to finish.

    Then again, the Timberwolves' come-on doesn't feel like a mirage. They were working with something resembling a full-strength roster and played better. Go figure.

    Injuries limited the quartet of Malik Beasley, Anthony Edwards, D'Angelo Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns to a 26-possession sample size. This group didn't see a single second with Jaden McDaniels as its fifth. Better health partnered with Edwards' midseason leap and an inbound lottery pick gives Minnesota a path to monumental improvement.

    Here's the thing: The Timberwolves might not have an incoming lottery pick. They keep their first-rounder if it lands inside the top-three, something it has a 27.6 percent chance of doing. Golden State receives their pick if it tumbles outside that range.

    Getting lucky and retaining this year's first-rounder is an ideal outcome. It doesn't make the Timberwolves' job that much easier. A top-three prospect probably won't vault them into the playoffs on their own. Rookies are up against a steep learning curve, and the opportunities awarded to Minnesota's newbie would be partially limited by the usages of Beasley, Edwards, Russell and Towns.

    Are the Timberwolves close enough to the outright playoff bracket to consider dealing this year's pick if it stays put? Is there even a player who will be available that's worth such draft equity?

    Minnesota's offseason is comparably, if not more, complicated should Golden State gets its first-rounder. It doesn't have cap space to burn. The mid-level exception will be its biggest spending tool. No one signed with that will push this core over the top.

    Should the Timberwolves then consider shipping out future firsts, in 2022 and beyond, to upgrade the roster? Or do they stand still and bank on internal growth and smaller-time moves pushing them into contention for a top-six Western Conference seed?

    Minnesota will have more clarity on its options after the draft lottery. But those results are merely a measure of the uncertainty it's up against.

New Orleans Pelicans: Next Contracts for Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    Idealizing the roster around Zion Williamson—i.e. improve the floor spacing and deepen the wing rotation—registers as the New Orleans Pelicans' largest priority this offseason. What happens with restricted free agents Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart will inform that process. Both could be in line for over-the-top offer sheets.

    Ball has limitations as a half-court facilitator and finisher, but he averaged 15.3 points and 6.0 assists while banging in 39.8 percent of his 8.6 three-point attempts per game after his name hit the early-season rumor mill. Malik Beasley and Stephen Curry were the only players to match his long-range efficiency and volume over this span. There might be a team willing to throw him $20-plus million per year.

    Hart's market shouldn't be as lucrative. He still struggles to upkeep the "three" in three-and-D, and his rebounding is probably a tad overrated. But his defensive range transcends his size. At 6'5", New Orleans used him to chase around 1s through 4s. Ball is the only player on the team who spent more time guarding No. 1 options, per Bball Index. A $12 million-per-year offer feels like Hart's floor.

    The math quickly gets ultra-tight for the Pelicans. They already maxed out Brandon Ingram and extended Steven Adams. Eric Bledsoe has one more fully guaranteed season at $18.1 million.

    Paying a combined $38 million for Ball and Hart—roughly the sum of their cap holds—would put New Orleans right at the luxury-tax line depending on where its first-round pick falls. That's not a check this team will write. The Pelicans have loads of talent, but much of it's an awkward fit, and this core has failed to crack the play-in tournament so far.

    Significant changes seem unavoidable. Do the Pelicans let one or both of Ball and Hart walk? Can they broker sign-and-trades? Can they move Adams or Bledsoe to trim costs without attaching assets to grease the wheels? Are they willing to include a sweetener if that's what it takes? And beyond addressing the futures of their own, who can they reasonably acquire to move their needle closer toward postseason-lock status?

    New Orleans' summer is very much a matter of course. No matter its direction, though, everything begins with the free agencies of Ball and Hart.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Juggling Their Flexibility

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    No non-playoff team enters the offseason in a better position than the Thunder. They have their primary cornerstone in place (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander), a collection of tantalizing mystery boxes around him, an embarrassment of future picks (34 over the next seven drafts), gobs of cap space and zero expectation of making the playoffs next season.

    Harping on their finite number of roster spots is the default challenge—and a relatively enviable dilemma.

    Eleven of next year's slots are gone when looking at players under contract and non-guarantees they're likely to retain. Another two openings will be filled by draft picks (their own and either Houston's or Miami's first). Thirteen spots, in all, seem spoken for—and that's on the low-end.

    Oklahoma City has a couple of free agents it could look to keep in Tony Bradley (restricted), Mike Muscala and Svi Mykhailiuk (restricted). It may also need an extra roster spot (or two) to facilitate an Al Horford trade; his $27 million price point makes an identical player-for-player swap difficult, if not unlikely.

    This says nothing of the Thunder's projected cap space. They'll have more than max money available if they carry all of their incumbent free-agent holds, and chiseling out between $45 and $50-plus million in spending power is a fairly effortless venture. Oklahoma City is not yet good enough to go star-hunting or throw money at veterans willy-nilly, but it won't be standing entirely idle. New faces will be part of the plan.

    All of this pretty much ensures the Thunder will be coaxed into some medium-hard to extremely tough decisions. SGA, Darius Bazley, Lu Dort, Aleksej Pokusevski and this year's draft picks all forecast as absolute keepers. The rest of the roster has no such assurances.

Orlando Magic: Nailing the Draft

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    Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    After finally tearing down a core trapped in NBA purgatory (aka the sub-middle), the Magic are now tasked with the most arduous part of their rebuild: giving it discernible shape.

    Trading Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic nodded to their intent. It is not a blueprint. Nor is acquiring Wendell Carter Jr., R.J. Hampton and draft equity. Each of them represent an undefined opportunity, embodying the overarching position in which the Magic sit. As Mike Cali wrote back in March for the Orlando Pinstripe Post:

    "The jarring part isn’t the dismantling itself—shocking as it may be that a two-time All-Star somewhat unexpectedly was sent packing—it’s that the Magic have very little of a tangible nature to show for it compared to what they gave up. That’s not to say in any way that the trades were a failure, because they weren’t.

    "But you can’t buy a Traded Player Exception jersey. Well, I guess you technically can have one made and it would actually be pretty funny. Nevertheless, after these trades, the Orlando Magic are no longer the basketball team you see on the court. The Magic are draft picks, and salary cap flexibility, and ACL rehabs, and hope."

    The extent of the Magic's hope is in the eye of the beholder. Left relatively untouched heading into next season, they are neither playoff-bound nor roaring toward rock bottom. Markelle Fultz and Jonathan Isaac will return from ACL injuries, deepening the roster's well of talent without profoundly reinventing it.

    Isaac comes closest to meeting the alpha-cornerstone criteria, someone who seems fully capable, at peak health, of winning Defensive Player of the Year. But apex building blocks need to have fleshed out offensive games, whether they're from-scratch creators or play-finishers. Isaac's utility is more nonspecific, though he tilts toward the latter. His struggles to stay healthy bring his polestar status into further question.

    Nailing the draft isn't just the Magic's best shot at reeling in their face of the future. It could be their only one unless they hold an additional fire sale before next season. On the bright side, Orlando may get two bites at the apple. It has a 66.8 percent chance of landing a top-five pick and will slip no lower than seventh. It has a 79.2 percent chance of netting an additional top-10 pick from Chicago.

    Past draft results should leave fans skeptical. The Magic have housed five top-seven prospects since 2013: Victor Oladipo (No. 2 in 2013), Aaron Gordon (No. 4 in 2014), Mario Hezonja (No. 5 in 2015), Isaac (No. 6 in 2017) and Mo Bamba (No. 6 in 2018). None of them turned into The Guy.

    Hitting on this year's class will be slightly easier if Orlando lands inside the top four. The hierarchy seems set within that range. Selecting any lower turns the draft into more of a crapshoot, increasing the odds that the Magic enter next season with a potpourri nucleus: youngsters of varying ceilings who don't offer a singular springboard into the future.

    The pressure is on Orlando to hit with this year's draft pick(s) either way. Failing that, there must be a commitment to remaining in the top-pick hunt next season.

Sacramento Kings: Richaun Holmes' Free Agency

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Mapping out a concrete direction tops the Sacramento Kings' to-do list this offseason. They need to get out of this horrifyingly gray area in which they're operating.

    If they want to tear it down—an implied consideration after letting Bogdan Bogdanovic sign in Atlanta and having Harrison Barnes' name marinate in the rumor mill—then tear it down. Rebuilding around De'Aaron Fox, Tyrese Haliburton and this year's lotto pick is fine. But actually rebuild.

    If immediately entering the postseason discussion is the primary aim, well, act like it. Don't stand pat. That's play-in stuff. Make like the Phoenix Suns and chase the all-in blockbuster trade, insofar as it's available.

    Moral of the story: No more hedging. Sacramento's fans deserve better.

    Richaun Holmes' free agency is at the heart of everything the Kings might do. He wants a deal worth $20 million per year, according to Bleacher Report's Jake Fischer. Color me surprised if he gets that much, but as the best center on the open market, he's definitely getting two-syllable paid.

    Moving on without him requires no effort. The implication is the Kings aren't prepared to show him the door. They should have more aggressively shopped him for something, anything, at the trade deadline if they weren't bent on the keeping him.

    Bringing him back, though, requires some light-yet-not-insubstantial finagling. They are only working with his Early Bird rights, which allow them to offer him 105 percent of the league's average salary before they have to use cap space. Holmes is definitely worth more than 105 percent of the league's average salary—roughly $10.5 million—and Sacramento doesn't forecast as a cap-space team.

    Thus, the dilemma. Should the Kings offload salary to keep Holmes, a soon-to-be 28-year-old who won't jibe with the timeline of a full-tilt rebuild at his next sticker price? Who should become collateral damage if they do? Barnes? Buddy Hield? Marvin Bagley III? Would offloading the latter drag them far enough beneath the cap to pay Holmes? Is turning him into spending power alone defensible? (To answer the last question: Probably not. There's a real offensive player in a healthy Bagley.)

    As ever, and like always, the Kings' situation is complicated.

San Antonio Spurs: Gregg Popovich's Future

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Head coach Gregg Popovich's future will be an annual challenge for the San Antonio Spurs from hereon. At age 72, he has carte blanche to stay as long as he wants—and leave on a whim. His is likely a fluid future, an issue he'll pore over every offseason.

    That includes this year. As the San Antonio Express-News' Mike Finger noted, Pop has not committed to a decision one way or the other. He said there's "a lot of time" for him to figure out his next move.

    Existing in limbo isn't the Spurs' style, but it would be doable if they weren't approaching a crossroads. They are.

    Veterans DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay and Patty Mills are all free agents this summer. San Antonio's interest in re-signing them—or spending what could be nearly $57 million in cap space on win-now players—is no doubt tied to Pop's own future.

    While he has leaned into the development of the team's kiddies, the Spurs aren't cannonballing into a full-scale rebuild so long as he's on the sidelines. His presence infers a commitment to winning and, by extension, taking bigger swings over the offseason.

    In the event Pop opts to walk away, San Antonio's course isn't exactly settled. It'll be easier to bid farewell to all of their own free agents, but does that, plus the addition of a lottery pick, imply a reset? A core of Keldon Johnson, Dejounte Murray, Jakob Poeltl, Devin Vassell and Derrick White doesn't amount to a contender, but it's also not bottom-of-the-barrel material.

Toronto Raptors: Navigating Free Agencies of Kyle Lowry and Masai Ujiri

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    Tony Avelar/Associated Press

    Rebuilding? Retooling? Gearing up for an immediate return to contention? Fringe contention?

    If you know what the Toronto Raptors are doing, please loop me in. It doesn't even feel like they have a firm grasp on the next step. Trading Kyle Lowry at the deadline might've provided a modicum of clarity. Keeping him confuses their outlook.

    Perhaps it makes it more likely they want to re-sign Lowry. Based on how close they came to moving him, maybe it doesn't mean anything. It could be a sign they plan to work with him on sign-and-trade scenarios over the summer. It could be telltale of nothing at all.

    Masai Ujiri's own free agency might be the bigger harbinger of where the Raptors go from here. He won't want for aggressive suitors peddling extravagant salaries, and it sounds like he's prepared to entertain his options—unless the team governorship makes it impossible for him to leave. As he told reporters at season's end, per ESPN's Tim Bontemps:

    "I want to know, 'So what's the next lift? What's the next five years? What's the next 10 years? What are we doing to put ourselves in the conversation with all the great teams and all the winners?' That's what we want to do, and that's the conversation that I'm going to have with [ownership]. And, yes, I'm going to have asks, and I'm going to have a lot of things that I think we need to put forward here to address these things, and I think ownership is open to hear this."

    Losing Ujiri would suggest the Raptors are prepping for more of an overhaul. It would certainly seem to portend Lowry's exit. But it isn't quite clear what an overhaul would look like.

    OG Anunoby, Chris Boucher (non-guaranteed), Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet have the makings of a playoff nucleus. They outscored opponents by 33.4 points per 100 possessions in the (limited) reps they tallied without Lowry on the floor. Re-signing Gary Trent Jr. (restricted) and adding a lottery pick to the party even better equips Toronto to compete without Lowry. Malachi Flynn, Freddie Gillespie (non-guaranteed) and Yuta Watanabe (non-guaranteed) could all make jumps, too.

    Does that, in turn, convince the Raptors to make this year a placeholder partial-tank regardless of what happens with Lowry? And does that view motivate them to shell out the $20-plus million annually it'll undoubtedly take to keep him around?

    Shifting gears, are more nuclear scenarios on the table? Is Ujiri or his successor (presumably Bobby Webster) married to this core without Lowry? Is there a world in which both Siakam and VanVleet find themselves on the trade block this offseason?

    Don't pretend to have the answers to these questions now. The Raptors' situation typifies fluid. Solidifying their arc must be this offseason's primary aim, a philosophical coagulation that begins with resolving the futures of this franchise's two most important people.

      

    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference, Stathead or Cleaning the Glass. Salary information via Basketball Insiders and Spotrac.

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale), and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by Adam Fromal.

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