Fringe NBA Teams Better off Blowing It Up
Context is important when discussing whether NBA teams should blow it up. Not every situation is the same, and pushing for demolition often ignores what that controlled roster razing should look like or whether it's actually feasible.
This conversation will attempt to exist a dimension—and hopefully more—above the usually cringey clickbait.
For starters, the entire exercise will take place in a gray area. Nothing written here is meant to be a declaration. It is instead a discussion about which teams might be better off tearing it down, as well as which squads may enter that clique depending on how the offseason shakes out.
The "why" behind every inclusion will vary, but each organization must meet a two-prong threshold to warrant entry. First and foremost, if next season began today, none of these teams would be considered bonafide playoff candidates or outright tankers; they'd be fringe postseason or play-in hopefuls. And finally, as currently constructed, none of them house a top-10 player who would embolden them to keep going all-in on the present nucleus. (You're welcome, Portland.)
Let's now take a look at which franchises may have the license to hit the teardown button before next year tips off.
Honorable Mention: Chicago Bulls
The Chicago Bulls are actively operating in opposition of a potential reset. Teams thinking about a rebuild don't surrender Wendell Carter Jr., the No. 8 pick and another top-10-protected first-rounder in 2023 and take on Al-Farouq Aminu's contract to snag Nikola Vucevic if they're not trying to remain relevant.
Here's the thing: Part of that plan has already backfired.
Chicago acquired Vooch at the trade deadline in part to crack this past year's play-in tournament, otherwise why shake things up midseason at all? A confluence of factors worked against the Bulls in the weeks following this move—including an extended absence from Zach LaVine—but the decision to mortgage a semi-significant portion of the future for a 30-year-old non-top-25-star always felt overzealous.
Next season doesn't offer much respite from the uncertainty. A fully healthy Chicago squad should jockey for lower-level playoff spots, but the roster is hardly perfect. It still needs a point guard to amp up the offense, and could use another primary-wing defender even if it's flat-out convinced Patrick Williams will be that dude as a sophomore. (Related: He might be.)
Whether the Bulls can improve the supporting cast enough—and get the requisite internal growth from guys like Williams and Coby White—to make a major leap remains to be seen. They need to first hash out LaVine's future. He is eligible for an extension he's not going to sign. The 120 percent raise they can dangle off his current salary for 2022-23 comes to $23.4 million and falls noticeably short of his projected max next summer ($34.7 million).
Hammering out a renegotiate-and-extend that promises LaVine an immediate raise while offering lucrative security over the long haul is the way to go. But it'll take cap space to bump up his 2021-22 earnings, and while the Bulls forecast to have a little over $12 million if they renounce all of their own free agents (including Lauri Markkanen), that sum doesn't bridge the full gap between LaVine's salary and his max.
Maybe he's willing to take a hair less, knowing his annual raise will bring him to eventual max in 2022-23. But that still leaves Chicago to burn its entire spending power on talent retention rather than acquisition.
Granted, it has no choice. LaVine has earned max-money consideration. If the Bulls don't want to pay him superstar money or, more likely, he's unwilling to renegotiate-and-extend, they have to look at tearing the whole thing down—starting with him and ending with everyone not named Patrick Williams.
Honorable Mention: Toronto Raptors
The Toronto Raptors are pretty much the inverse of the Bulls. Taking a stick of dynamite to the current infrastructure is more wholly optional than contingent upon any one offseason development swinging in their favor.
Kyle Lowry's free agency is part of the equation but doesn't define it. The Raptors outscored opponents by 5.8 points per 100 possessions when OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Gary Trent Jr. (restricted) and Fred VanVleet played without him, and they will have more than $16 million in cap space to work with should he leave and they waive the non-guaranteed salaries of Aron Baynes and Rodney Hood.
Bake in the addition of a top-four prospect, and a Toronto team without Lowry is more likely to crack the Eastern Conference postseason fracas than a Chicago squad with Zach LaVine.
This presumes, of course, the Raptors don't interpret Lowry's departure and the arrival of a top-four prospect as a chance to begin anew. They might. Their direction likely depends on what happens with team president Masai Ujiri, who is a free agent himself.
Regardless, though, moving up the draft-lottery ladder could embolden them to take aim at the bigger picture by reconfiguring the roster around whoever they select, a soon-to-be 24-year-old Anunoby and, depending on his market value, the 22-year-old Trent.
Looking into a rebuild must include gauging the trade values of Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet. Neither is ancient; they'll both turn 28 at some point next season. But that's on the older side for a team positioning itself to peak in the next two or three years.
Trade offers for both—and especially VanVleet—could end up being through the roof, as well. This year's free-agency market is shallow and light-to-nonexistent on game-changing targets. Teams will have no choice but to focus on alternative means of talent acquisition.
And if LaVine, Bradley Beal and Damian Lillard all remain off-limits, the Raptors could be in the driver's seat when it comes to setting the market for its fringe stars—a difficult-but-not-asinine direction that would allow them to load up their asset armory and begin a post-Lowry era rebuild on enviably high ground.
To anyone pointing out the Orlando Magic already blew it up at the trade deadline: I hear you. Dealing Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic absolutely counts as a teardown. They represented three of Orlando's four best players (Jonathan Isaac).
Consider this more of a call for continuation. The Magic initiated a full-on reset. The job's just not done.
Isaac and Markelle Fultz will both be returning from torn left ACLs next season. Neither has shown the offensive pizzazz to ferry Orlando into the playoff picture on his own, but this team features enough talent to regain its spot inside the East's sub-middle.
Take a gander at what a fully healthy Magic squad will have at their disposal: Isaac, Fultz, the No. 5 pick, the No. 8 pick, Cole Anthony, Mo Bamba, Wendell Carter Jr., R.J. Hampton, Gary Harris, Chuma Okeke and Terrence Ross. This core isn't winning any titles and is hardly guaranteed a spot in the postseason, but it's also not obviously bad enough to skirt no man's land.
Orlando is better off looking at additional wholesale auctions if it wants the next iteration of the team to do more than churn out first- and second-round exits. Nearly anyone aside from its two top-eight picks should be on the table.
Adding Anthony, Hampton and Okeke to the hands-off zone is fine. Everyone else? Not so much.
Fultz (three years, $50 million with $35 guaranteed) and Isaac (four years, $69.6 million guaranteed) are set to begin multiyear extensions. The Magic shouldn't necessarily care. Neither forecasts as best-player-on-a-contender material. Isaac comes closest, but while he's a defense unto himself, he's yet to flash enough offensive creation to adequately fill that alpha role.
Bamba and Carter, meanwhile, are entering contract years. The best-case scenario has one or both showing out and Orlando reconciling sizable raises for non-stars in the infancy of its rebuild. Harris and Ross are up-for-grabs givens. They don't factor into the Magic's longer-term view.
Just so we're clear: This isn't an everyone-must-go situation. But Orlando owes it to the bigger picture—or at least next year's draft-lottery odds—to contemplate another fire sale.
There is a chance the Sacramento Kings maneuver their way out of this discussion. If they can turn their hodgepodge of non-stars, the No. 9 pick and future first-rounders into another player who mirrors De'Aaron Fox's level of stardom, they'll have a path out of Western Conference purgatory.
Going that route is reasonable, particularly if it doesn't cost Tyrese Haliburton. The Kings have seen other non-glamour markets over the past few years consolidate assets into risky star acquisitions and come out smelling rosy on the other size. One such team is playing in the NBA Finals right now (Phoenix).
Failing the ability (or gall) to orchestrate a comparably impactful blockbuster acquisition, Sacramento needs to look at shipping out everyone except Fox, Haliburton and this year's first-rounder. Its immediate future is too nondescript otherwise.
Harrison Barnes and Buddy Hield are starting-caliber NBA players. Delon Wright is a quality backup point guard who will juice up the defense. Marvin Bagley III is better than he's shown. Richaun Holmes is at once a stud and, somehow, still one of the league's most underrated players.
But that talent base doesn't amount to anything special in the West. Nor does it offer a clear path to contention down the line. The Kings would need Bagley (extension-eligible) and Haliburton to explode, to hit a home run at No. 9, bang out another homer during the 2022 draft and bag a number of impactful steals in free agency.
Waiting for this nucleus to go boom poses too many risks even if the Kings can keep it intact. Emphasis on if.
Holmes is entering free agency this summer, and they only have his Early Bird rights. If he commands an annual salary north of $10.3 million, they'll need to re-sign hm using cap space—which they don't currently have. They can try shedding money to meet his (likely) price tag, but to what end does subtracting talent to retain their second- or third-best player actually help them?
This profiles as a commit-to-a-direction offseason for the Kings front office. Fans deserve better than perennial in-betweenness or worse. Either gamble on a star trade if one's even available, or deal the eminently movable supporting cast in exchange for picks, prospects and flexibility that can be used to nab more picks and prospects.
Bradley Beal has a significant say in whether the Washington Wizards belong here.
If he asks for a trade, there is no decision. Washington has to blow the roster to smithereens. If he promises to stick around beyond next season (2022-23 player option), the urgency to strip down the roster won't be as prevalent.
At the same time, the absence of a Beal trade request or demand is hardly an endorsement of the Wizards' future. Unless he signs an extension, he could always leave for nothing next season. More importantly, even with him in the fold, Washington isn't ideally positioned to escape the league's middle.
Improving the roster via free agency will be tough. Beal, Davis Bertans and Russell Westbrook eat up nearly $95 million in payroll combined next season. The Wizards will be hard-pressed to make more than mid-level-exception-type additions so long as Westbrook's megadeal is on the books.
Deni Avdija, Rui Hachimura and this year's draft pick (No. 15) represent Washington's swing pieces. Whether that's as long-term keepers or trade assets is anyone's guess. The latter seems more likely if the Wizards view acquiring a third star as a necessity. If they're not going to make a blockbuster-ish trade, they'll need at least one of those three to register on the fringe-star spectrum.
Winning titles isn't everything. The Wizards' future cannot be judged in championship-or-bust terms. But their issues are more about clawing their way comfortably beyond the play-in jumble. A fully healthy Westbrook and Beal give them a shot, make no mistake. But that's different from a guarantee.
The Brooklyn Nets, Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers don't look like they're going anywhere. The Atlanta Hawks are ascending. At least two, if not all, of the Boston Celtics, Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat should be better next season. The Raptors, Charlotte Hornets and New York Knicks are immediate wild cards, but they are all, for now, positioned on equal, if not better, footing compared to Washington.
Without an already-punched ticket into the East's top six, let alone the top three or four, the Wizards should be weighing all of their options—even if Beal continues to express a desire to stay.