Every NBA Team's Biggest Hole to Fill in Free Agency

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistMay 7, 2022

Every NBA Team's Biggest Hole to Fill in Free Agency

0 of 30

    Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

    The NBA teams that failed to make the playoffs have been hard at work for weeks now, assessing roster needs and building big boards for free agency. Meanwhile, the clubs still fighting for a title are getting crash courses in their own frailties.

    The postseason highlights weakness, often cruelly.

    This summer's free-agency period will be unusual. Only a handful of teams will be able to spend more than the $10.3 million mid-level exception, and the market isn't flush with stars. That makes identifying specific trouble spots even more critical. When resources are scarce and demand exceeds supply, you have to shop carefully.

    Most teams have more than one shortcoming to address. Here, we'll hit the one they can't ignore.

Atlanta Hawks: Defense-First Guard

1 of 30

    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    The Atlanta Hawks' efficiency rankings, second on offense and 26th on defense, leave no doubt about where the trouble spots are.

    If this team wants to avoid another first-round elimination next postseason, it has to upgrade its backcourt defense.

    Trae Young is a singular offensive force, one of those rare players whose mere presence on the court almost guarantees efficient scoring. But he also produced the worst Defensive RAPTOR rating of any player who logged at least 2,000 minutes in 2021-22.

    Delon Wright is a free agent, and Atlanta could bring him back with Bird rights. The 30-year-old is more of a wing than a point guard these days, but he's adequate defensively. To offset the damage Young does on D, the Hawks need something more than "adequate." They need a disruptive shutdown defender in the mold of Gary Payton II—someone who could play alongside Young, match up against the toughest backcourt opponents and inject chaos into the proceedings on D. With Payton pressuring the ball and lurking in passing lanes, it would be harder for opposing offenses to stay organized and attack Young as deliberately as they want to.

    The Hawks can expect improvement from potential defensive star Onyeka Okongwu, and De'Andre Hunter could still take another step on the wing. But Atlanta's real need is in the backcourt.

Boston Celtics: Pass-First Point Guard

2 of 30

    Steven Senne/Associated Press

    The Boston Celtics closed the season on a historic run, finishing with a 31-10 flourish that makes the search for problem areas tricky.

    What do you get for the team that has everything...and has everyone who played rotation minutes under contract for next year?

    Many factors contributed to the Celtics' surge, but the turning point on offense came when Marcus Smart returned on Jan. 23 from health and safety protocols. With Smart back in the lineup and making a concerted effort to improve ball movement, Boston ran up the highest offensive rating in the league over the last three months of the season, notably ranking fifth in assists per game during that stretch.

    The Celtics' defense is wired tight. It'll be a shock if Boston isn't elite on that end in 2022-23, which leaves offense as the relative weakness. But Boston now knows that ball movement is the key to addressing that issue.

    Payton Pritchard has earned a role behind Smart, but he's no facilitator. A glance at his assist rate, which ranks in the 10th percentile at his position, confirms that. Derrick White is a solid connector on offense, and Boston could do worse than trying him out as a full-time backup 1, but he's still more of a wing than a lead guard.

    If the Celtics want to sustain the style that propelled their offense to the top of the NBA, they should target a pass-first distributor. Ricky Rubio will be a free agent. Just saying...

Brooklyn Nets: Size

3 of 30

    Steven Senne/Associated Press

    Look around at the playoff teams still standing, and you'll see no shortage of big wings and combo forwards across those rosters. That trend stands in stark contrast to the eliminated Brooklyn Nets, who spent significant chunks of their first-round series against the Celtics with three of their four small guards—Kyrie Irving, Seth Curry, Patty Mills and Goran Dragic—sharing the floor.

    Bruce Brown, a former point guard listed at 6'4", was a regular at power forward.

    Though skill and shot creation are prized commodities, basketball is still a sport that values size. And the Nets don't have enough.

    If 6'11" Ben Simmons ever plays basketball again, and if 6'6" Joe Harris returns to form following reconstructive ankle surgery, the issue could be moot. Simmons, in particular, could plug several holes with his versatile defense, passing and rebounding. But if Brooklyn is going to support star scorers Kevin Durant and Irving, it needs to populate the rotation with more multi-skilled players in the 6'7"-6'10" range.

    Without those types of players, it'll be difficult to compete with teams like Boston and the Milwaukee Bucks that have plenty of length on the wing and bulk inside.

Charlotte Hornets: Center

4 of 30

    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    Another offseason means it's time for the Charlotte Hornets to begin their annual search for a quality starting center.

    Mason Plumlee, Charlotte's most used first-unit 5, acquired via draft-day trade in 2021, is on a partially guaranteed deal for next year. He'd make sense as a backup, albeit a slightly overpaid one on an expiring $9 million salary. But the Hornets need a young, dynamic, rim-running force at the position to better complement their guard and wing rotations.

    It's easy to imagine LaMelo Ball, Terry Rozier, restricted free agent Miles Bridges and Gordon Hayward sharing the floor in a playoff series. An upgrade from the 32-year-old Plumlee and his 6.5 points per game is the only thing missing in that next-step hypothetical for the Hornets.

    Restricted free agent Nic Claxton should be a target, as he'd deliver athleticism and defensive mobility that Plumlee can't. Failing that, Charlotte should take a shotgun approach and bring in as many lob-catching bigs who can move their feet as possible. Hopefully, one will stick.

Chicago Bulls: A Switchable Defensive 'Big Man'

5 of 30

    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    If Zach LaVine walks in unrestricted free agency, the Chicago Bulls will need to shift their offseason focus to replacing one of the most efficient high-volume scorers in the game. Assuming the two-time All-Star comes back on a max deal, the priority should be on finding a big man who can fit into the downsized lineups so many teams rely on in high-stakes playoff games.

    Nikola Vucevic offers stretch on offense, but he's strictly a one-position defender whose poor rim protection makes drop coverage dangerous. Bringing him to the level of the screen, much like the Denver Nuggets do with the athletically similar Nikola Jokic, still opens up attack lanes for offenses to get downhill in advantage situations. A forward with experience playing a variety of schemes and covering a wide breadth of positions is exactly the change of pace Chicago's defense needs.

    Juan Toscano-Anderson is as versatile and positionless as defenders get—literally, if you use BBall Index's Defensive Versatility score, where JTA ranked highest in the league in 2021-22. The Bulls should see if he's gettable for the minimum.

    Vucevic has his uses, but Chicago lacks a defensive option to deploy against smaller units and offenses that are adept at exploiting conventional bigs in the pick-and-roll. 

Cleveland Cavaliers: Playmaking Support for Darius Garland

6 of 30

    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Darius Garland busted out in his third season, posting averages of 21.7 points and 8.6 assists on a 46.2/38.3/89.2 shooting split. His first All-Star nod was richly deserved.

    While Ricky Rubio was healthy and playing the backup point guard spot, the Cleveland Cavaliers managed just fine with Garland on the bench. But the veteran tore his ACL on Dec. 28, and the non-Garland minutes almost immediately became a grind on offense.

    On the year, Cleveland's offensive rating dipped by 10.6 points per 100 possessions and its effective field-goal percentage fell by 5.1 percentage points when Garland was out of the game. Deadline acquisition Caris LeVert, purportedly a facilitating wing, wasn't a difference-maker.

    Cleveland could count on Collin Sexton's return, but he's more of a score-first operator. What the Cavs really need is a true backup who can threaten the defense in ways that create opportunities for teammates. Jarrett Allen, Evan Mobley and Lauri Markkanen can all put the ball in the basket, but they depend on setups for most of their offense.

    Garland can't be the only reliable distributor on the roster next year.

Dallas Mavericks: Paint Protection

7 of 30

    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Maxi Kleber might be one of a half-dozen three-and-D centers in the entire league—a dangerous marksman and a mobile stopper on the perimeter who, not so long ago, got the Kawhi Leonard assignment in a playoff series.

    Count on him playing the 5 in the moments that matter most as the Dallas Mavericks try to extend the depth of their playoff runs in the coming seasons.

    Kleber is a solid shot-blocker in space, and his rapid reaction times enable quick help-side recoveries. But he's not a dominant interior force and is a poor defensive rebounder for his position. He's a "fly around and put out fires" defender, not an intimidating presence underneath.

    Dwight Powell, whom we haven't even mentioned yet, graded out poorly at basically everything—shot-blocking, defensive rebounding, steal rate and foul frequency—you'd want a big man to do on D.

    The Mavs ranked 23rd in opponent accuracy at the rim this season, a good indicator that they don't have many deterrents inside.

    Dallas is equipped to downsize, switch and generally play modern playoff basketball. But sometimes you still need a more conventional big to keep opposing scorers from feasting at the rim and to spare guys like Kleber and Powell from the pounding of going up against true centers all year.

Denver Nuggets: Defensive Disruptor

8 of 30

    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    The Denver Nuggets ranked 28th in opponent turnover rate, a result of their conservative scheme but also a sign that the roster lacks impact defenders.

    Forcing mistakes isn't necessarily a sign of a great defense. The Utah Jazz were even worse than Denver at generating giveaways but still ranked ninth in defensive efficiency because Rudy Gobert was so potent on the back line. Still, it's worth noting that each of the league's top five defenses this past season ranked in the top 10 in opponent turnover percentage.

    Denver is going to get Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. back next season, which should immediately vault the offense into elite territory. That means every offseason resource must be spent on improving the other end of the floor.

    If the Nuggets can cause teams to sweat a little more defensively, it will only make guarding them on the other end more difficult. Aaron Gordon works hard and can handle multiple positions, but he's never been a high-turnover defender, ranking in the 34th percentile or lower in steal rate over the last four years.

    Denver's targets should include energetic ballhawks like Gary Payton II and Bruce Brown.

Detroit Pistons: Not Having Deandre Ayton

9 of 30

    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    We're getting extremely specific here, as the Detroit Pistons' biggest hole to fill is their lack of Deandre Ayton.

    Sure, some other young, max-caliber star would be welcome on a rebuilding roster that already has Cade Cunningham to run the show. But Ayton just fits so perfectly into the mix that we might as well focus on him. His soft hands and vast catch radius would give Cunningham an ideal outlet on lobs, and his defensive mobility would cover up for mistakes committed by a young roster.

    The Pistons are one of just five teams projected to have at least $20 million in cap space this offseason. Without moving money around, that won't be enough to give Ayton a max offer sheet, and the Suns can match whatever comes across the table anyway. Realistically, something would have to go horribly wrong during Phoenix's ongoing playoff run to make Ayton-to-Detroit plausible.

    Remember, though, the Suns could have maxed Ayton out prior to the season. They didn't, and you just never know how the dynamics between player and team can shift with a perceived slight like that—particularly when the player goes out and proves he was worth the money his team wouldn't give him.

    If Ayton doesn't become available and/or the Pistons get intel that Phoenix is going to match a hypothetical offer sheet, it'll be on to the next up-and-coming target. Miles Bridges (RFA), Jalen Brunson and Anfernee Simons (RFA) should all be considerations.

Golden State Warriors: Defensive Role Players

10 of 30

    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    The Golden State Warriors could lose seven players—Otto Porter Jr., Gary Payton II, Kevon Looney, Juan Toscano-Anderson, Damion Lee, Nemanja Bjelica and Andre Iguodala—who spent time in the rotation this year. So when asking what they might need to replenish by way of free agency, your first thought should be "a lot."

    As a likely contender with significant minutes available, Golden State's taxpayer mid-level exception and minimum salaries will go farther than most teams'. The Warriors will still have to prioritize, though, and replacing some of the defensive punch they're likely to lose should be job No. 1.

    Payton was the team's most impactful backcourt defender this year, and Porter saw time against wings and, surprisingly, as a small-ball center. Looney started every game and averaged just 6.0 points, which tells you his value was mostly on defense as well. We also noted JTA's versatility in the Bulls' section, and Andre Iguodala (likely to retire) should go down as one of the savviest, handsiest stoppers of all time.

    If the Warriors manage to bring Payton and Porter back, they'll be fine. But if other teams swoop in with offers beyond what the tax-hit Warriors are comfortable matching, Moses Moody, Jonathan Kuminga and James Wiseman may be forced to take on responsibilities they haven't yet proved themselves ready to handle.

Houston Rockets: Rim Protection

11 of 30

    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    With Jalen Green, Kevin Porter Jr. and Alperen Sengun, the rebuilding Houston Rockets have the young pieces to build a dynamic offense. All that potential scoring punch won't matter if opponents keep getting whatever they want on the other end.

    The Rockets posted the league's worst defensive rating in 2021-22.

    When you rank last on defense, there's never just one problem. Houston's young guards struggled to stay in front of their matchups on the perimeter, and constant penetration put wings and bigs in compromised positions. Constantly scrambling or, sometimes, just a step slow to recognize the offensive actions taking place around them, Rockets defenders piled up the fifth-most personal fouls per game.

    The biggest issue, though? Once opposing drivers or cutters got into the lane, there was no resistance. Houston allowed the fifth-highest attempt frequency and the second-highest conversion rate at the rim.

    Sengun profiles as the center of the future on a Rockets team that spreads the floor and wins high-scoring affairs. But he's not a deterrent inside. Even just as a change of pace, Houston needs someone to make opponents think twice at close range.

Indiana Pacers: Forward Depth

12 of 30

    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    Unless they shake things up with an offseason trade, the Indiana Pacers guard rotation could be among the best in the league. Tyrese Haliburton, Malcolm Brogdon, Buddy Hield, Chris Duarte and T.J. McConnell cover all the bases—from playmaking, to shooting, to energetic defense.

    Even if T.J. Warren returns in free agency and looks like the player he was in the 2020 bubble (unlikely after two years on the shelf), the team's forward depth won't be nearly as impressive.

    Oshae Brissett (team option) has showed some promise in short stretches, but it's not a good sign that he's currently the only forward under team control for next year.

    If worse comes to worst, the Pacers could lean on three- or four-guard lineups around Myles Turner. Trying Turner and Isaiah Jackson together is also an option, although the organization that finally broke up Domantas Sabonis and Turner might be hesitant to go right back to two-big looks.

    If Indiana intends to turn things around quickly after a down year, it'll need bigger wings and combo forwards. Those are prerequisites for playoff success these days.

Los Angeles Clippers: A Pure Point Guard

13 of 30

    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    The Los Angeles Clippers may prove that conventional points guards are obsolete as they stockpile wings, forwards and even centers (like Isaiah Hartenstein) who can distribute the ball and run pick-and-rolls. The trend toward rangy, positionless lineups isn't going away any time soon.

    However, it might be nice to have just one old-school facilitator on the roster—if only to lighten the playmaking load on Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Among players under contract, Reggie Jackson comes closest to filling that role. But even he hasn't averaged more than 5.0 assists per game in a half-decade.

    It's admittedly exciting to imagine the Clippers completely ignoring positions and closing every game with five forwards who can switch defensively, shoot and make plays. The league may be headed that way, and L.A. deserves credit for being on the vanguard.

    Just as insurance, the Clips should earmark a minimum salary for someone like Raul Neto or Elfrid Payton.

Los Angeles Lakers: Take Your Pick

14 of 30

    Ron Schwane/Associated Press

    If you gave them the option, the Los Angeles Lakers would gladly wipe every contract not signed by LeBron James or Anthony Davis off their books. They'd still have spending constraints with two max slots already filled, but at least then they'd be free of Russell Westbrook's albatross salary and the overpay they lavished on Talen Horton-Tucker.

    Los Angeles needs shooting on the wing, a backup center (who can start when Davis inevitably misses time with injury), switchable defenders, a point guard, a head coach and, probably, a partridge in a pear tree. The Lakers don't have a hole to fill in free agency; they have an entire roster to rebuild.

    If forced to pick one short-staffed position among many, we should go with what we know: James needs to be surrounded by shooters who can defend. That recipe has worked forever, which makes it all the stranger that the Lakers deviated from it during James' first season with the team and his most recent one.

    The task of turning the Lakers into a contender is overwhelming, but the front office has to start somewhere. Three-and-D wings are in demand everywhere, but nowhere more so than here.

Memphis Grizzlies: Backup Point Guard

15 of 30

    Brandon Dill/Associated Press

    The good news is the Memphis Grizzlies already have a relationship with one of the best backup point guards in the league. Tyus Jones has starred in that role for Memphis over the last three seasons.

    The bad news: Jones is an unrestricted free agent that many teams will view as a starter, which means his price tag could get prohibitively high.

    Memphis should be willing to splurge. Jones has been immensely valuable for the Grizzlies, particularly this year when he helped the team to a 19-4 record in games he started. It might seem unwise to spend big on a backup when the guy ahead of him is sure to get a max extension, but Ja Morant's reckless style is likely to cost him several games every season. A premium backup will be a must if Morant continues to miss 20 contests per year.

    Jones should be the Grizzlies' top retention priority. If he departs, no one else on the market can replicate his 39.0 percent three-point shooting and familiarity with the team's offense.

Miami Heat: A Poor Man's Bam Adebayo

16 of 30

    Marta Lavandier/Associated Press

    The Miami Heat have a good thing going with Bam Adebayo, whose versatility enables maximum switching on defense and whose passing opens up endless opportunities for creative, movement-heavy offensive sets.

    There isn't another player in the league quite like the 24-year-old All-Star, but Miami should do what it can to find someone capable of a decent Adebayo impression for a few minutes per game. That way, the Heat could maintain their signature style on both ends for the full 48 minutes.

    Kevon Looney is nowhere near the athlete Adebayo is, but his comfort as a passer and screener in Golden State's complex offense suggests he could operate somewhat like Adebayo in Miami's attack. And though he doesn't always look fleet of foot, Looney long ago established himself as a capable perimeter defender on switches.

    As it stands, Miami's only other center under contract for next year is Omer Yurtseven, a promising 23-year-old who's shown some passing acumen (63rd percentile in assist rate among bigs), but who is mainly a rebounder and one-position defender at this stage.

    Most teams would fall all over themselves to have just one player like Adebayo. Miami should get greedy and search for another.

Milwaukee Bucks: Two-Way Wing

17 of 30

    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    The Milwaukee Bucks plucked Wesley Matthews off the scrap heap (for the second time in three years) and handed the 35-year-old a rotation role that turned into a starting gig down the stretch.

    Matthews is an unrestricted free agent this summer. And while it may not seem like a challenge to replace his 5.1 points per game and acceptable wing defense, that doesn't change the fact that Matthews' spot in the rotation/first unit is the one that most needs upgrading.

    The Bucks could go back to starting Grayson Allen, which they did for most of 2021-22, or they could toggle between Pat Connaughton and Bobby Portis depending on matchups. Both Portis and Connaughton have player options that cast some doubt on a return.

    Khris Middleton is 30 and slipping to a defensive level below "wing stopper," and Jrue Holiday can't guard everyone at once. Matthews probably can't be counted on to improve at his age, so the search for replacements should see Milwaukee target someone like Danuel House Jr. or Caleb Martin (RFA). Either of those two could exceed Matthews' production on the wing while upping the roster's athleticism.

Minnesota Timberwolves: Backup Center

18 of 30

    Andy Clayton-King/Associated Press

    The Minnesota Timberwolves are now at a spot in their development trajectory where they need to think about how their roster is set up to handle postseason basketball.

    That's good news! It means they've graduated from the level below that, where winning often enough in the regular season to make the playoffs is counted as success.

    While we could go with the fallback suggestion to find more defensive-minded wings who can shoot (a la unrestricted Warriors free agent Damion Lee), the Wolves' first-round series against the Grizzlies revealed some issues at backup center. Naz Reid posted a strong block rate and improved Minnesota's defensive rating when on the floor during the year, and he did it while shooting a respectable 34.3 percent from deep. But his lack of size at 6'9" and poor rebounding gave the Grizzlies carte blanche to run amok inside.

    Finding someone to handle no more than 10 minutes per playoff game in relief of Karl-Anthony Towns may seem like a small problem, but the Wolves have solved most of their big ones.

New Orleans Pelicans: Zion Williamson's Extension

19 of 30

    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    The gang is all coming back for the New Orleans Pelicans, who will look to build on the momentum of their strong first-round showing against the Phoenix Suns—with the assistance, hopefully, of a healthy Zion Williamson. No rotation pieces from New Orleans' roster will hit the open market, as a whopping 14 players are under team control for next year.

    The Pelicans may not sign a single outside free agent if they bring back Tony Snell, so their offseason focus won't be on talent acquisition. We have to pivot just a little by acknowledging that holes on rosters are really just vulnerabilities. And there's no bigger potential pitfall for the Pels than Williamson's rookie contract extension.

    The star scorer's injury history is a giant red flag, and New Orleans can't open itself up to the downside risk of inking him to the full max without contingencies. We're talking specific language that gets the Pelicans off the hook in the event of injuries to Zion's feet and knees, plus games-played clauses that ensure Williamson won't get every cent if he's not on the floor often enough.

    Joel Embiid's 2017 extension included clauses that protected the Philadelphia 76ers from disaster if specific injuries arose. That agreement should guide New Orleans' negotiations and save the franchise from major risk exposure.

New York Knicks: Starting Point Guard

20 of 30

    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Alec Burks is a fine player who's fought through injuries and contributed to all six teams for which he's played during an 11-year career. He's sitting at a solid 10.6 points per game for his career and has shot 38.0 percent from deep while grading out well above average as a facilitator for his position.

    But if you think for one second that Burks playing the point guard spot in critical moments of multiple games during 2021-22 was anything other than a total failure of roster management, you've got another thing coming.

    The New York Knicks cannot go into next season without upgrading the 1.

    Derrick Rose has been the Knicks' best point guard when healthy which, during his current tenure with the team, has been much less than half the time. Given his laundry list of injuries over the years, Rose cannot be expected to handle major minutes. Ditto for Kemba Walker, whose balky knees have turned him into a part-time player and full-time target on defense.

    Tyus Jones should top the Knicks' list, but almost anyone would be an upgrade over what the team got from its point guards last year.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Shooting

21 of 30

    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Among Oklahoma City Thunder players who attempted at least 200 three-point shots in 2021-22, Tre Mann's 36.0 percent hit rate led the way. Knowing that, it's no great shock that OKC ranked dead last in the league from beyond the arc at a stomach-turning 32.3 percent for the year.

    Every team should be on the lookout for more shooting in free agency, but Oklahoma City's inaccuracy from distance deserves special attention.

    Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is the Thunder's best player, a slithery guard who's led the league in drives per game in each of the last two years. His ability to break the paint should produce a heap of open kickout threes, but his top skill, penetration, means a lot less if the shooters around him can't hit anything. Another tantalizing thought: Imagine the wider driving lanes SGA would see if defenders actually had to stay home on shooters instead of sagging into the lane.

    Josh Giddey comes in second in OKC's talent hierarchy, and his creative passing is also tailor-made for a team that can space the court with shooters.

    If Oklahoma City finds some snipers, SGA and Giddey could pilot a top-10 offense next season.

Orlando Magic: Disruption

22 of 30

    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    The Orlando Magic struggled to make opponents uncomfortable last season.

    Some of that owed to youth; most of Orlando's rotation players were 23 or younger and still in the very earliest stages of finding their way as professionals. But the Magic's low steal rate, No. 29 ranking in free-throw attempts per game and uninspiring transition offense combined to expose a key missing piece.

    The Magic didn't have players who forced the issue on either end. No ballhawk defenders. No head-down, "I'm barreling into the lane and hoping for the best" attackers. No relentless pace-pushers who could finish.

    The good news is that Orlando can try to tackle the problem at almost any position. A lead guard or scoring wing who can draw a foul would be nice, as would a chaos-agent wing defender. The Magic need to seek disruptive talent wherever they can find it.

Philadelphia 76ers: Backup Center

23 of 30

    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    It doesn't matter if Joel Embiid's constant injury issues are the product of bad luck or the natural result of his huge frame moving more quickly and skillfully than should be possible. We see the fallout of Embiid's missed time every year: The Sixers are always, always, dead in the water when their big man goes down.

    So while it's not an ideal use of resources to spend on a backup center when you already have an MVP finalist at the position, the Sixers have no choice but to prioritize an Embiid contingency plan.

    Andre Drummond was solid in that role prior to his trade to the Brooklyn Nets, but DeAndre Jordan and Paul Reed have collectively failed as his replacements. An upgrade wouldn't even necessarily have to be a conventional big man. The 76ers could try to find a small-ball 5 who could switch and stretch the floor when Embiid is on the bench or unavailable.

    Realistically, Philadelphia's status as a contender depends entirely on Embiid. If he's hurt in the postseason, it won't matter who's playing in his stead. But a quality backup 5 could keep Embiid's minutes under control in the regular season and, hypothetically, give head coach Doc Rivers the confidence to pull the superstar out of playoff games a little earlier than he has in the past.

Phoenix Suns: Backup Guards

24 of 30

    Matt York/Associated Press

    The ageless Chris Paul is dominating the postseason in his late 30s, and Devin Booker is more than capable of running the Phoenix Suns offense when necessary. But beyond those two, the Suns are surprisingly shaky in the backcourt.

    Cameron Payne didn't shoot it nearly as well from two- or three-point range this year as he did in his breakthrough 2020-21 campaign, which should raise concerns that he's come back to earth after an outlier season. Phoenix's two most used lineups featuring Payne without Paul or Booker were soundly outscored this year.

    Landry Shamet got most of the minutes at the backup 2, and he didn't exactly set the world on fire either. Sure, the 24-year-old shot 36.8 percent from deep, but he was under 40.0 percent from two-point range and posted the worst Defensive Estimated Plus/Minus of any Suns player who saw at least 1,000 minutes of action.

    Zooming out, the Suns won a league-high 64 games despite this particular "hole" on the roster. They'll be fine if Payne and Shamet are just as disappointing next year. But great teams stay greedy, and Phoenix could hit an even higher level with better backcourt depth.

Portland Trail Blazers: Small Forward

25 of 30

    John Minchillo/Associated Press

    Assuming the Portland Trail Blazers retain restricted free agent Anfernee Simons to play alongside Damian Lillard, which seems likely, they're going to face the same defensive issues that arose when CJ McCollum was Lillard's running mate.

    Josh Hart rebounds like a big, but he's a little undersized as a defender against wings, so he might be best used off the bench. Nassir Little should probably get most of his time at the 4 next season, where his fantastic rebounding and shot-blocking should play just fine, offsetting his lack of height at 6'5".

    That leaves a hole at the starting small forward spot. Even if Hart fills it, Portland will be undersized at four positions and in need of a big wing to either enable five-out closing lineups or to ensure Jusuf Nurkic (also a free agent) isn't the only guy providing heft.

    The Blazers needing a quality defensive forward with length isn't new. The position has been in flux since Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless left town in 2019. Justise Winslow fits the profile, but his shot his broken and he's averaged just 28 games played over the last three seasons.

    Maybe Portland could take a flier on unrestricted free agent T.J. Warren.

Sacramento Kings: A Defender

26 of 30

    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    The record is clear on De'Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis: They're not helpful defenders. That fact is particularly troubling for Fox, who's always had the speed and length but apparently not the "want-to" to perform well on that end.

    With those two as the Sacramento Kings' cornerstones and high-minute players, there will be no shortage of defensive fires to extinguish.

    Davion Mitchell brings intensity in one-on-one situations against opposing guards, but he's too small to impact an overall team scheme. Presumptive starting power forward Harrison Barnes is usually in the right place, but he's not a shutdown type and is aging out of being a real switch option against guards.

    The Kings were 27th on D this past season, 30th the year before and haven't ranked higher than 18th since 2005-06. The first thing Sacramento should do this offseason is look into lifting whatever hex has ruined its defense over the last couple of decades. After that, a combo forward who can stay in front of someone would be nice.

San Antonio Spurs: Small-Ball Center

27 of 30

    Steve Dykes/Associated Press

    We've reached the point in the NBA's evolution where all 30 teams should have a small-ball 5. They're the key to speeding up the game, which allows overmatched teams to punch above their weight during the regular season, and they're even more important in the playoffs.

    The San Antonio Spurs don't seem to agree. Or at least they didn't in 2021-22, when Thaddeus Young languished on the bench until the team traded him to the Toronto Raptors.

    Jakob Poeltl is a quality starter, perhaps even an underrated one given his ability to defend the rim, control the defensive glass and move his feet reasonably well for his size. But the Spurs can't expect him to handle five-out looks or aggressive pick-and-roll guards who force him to move in space—both of which they're likely to encounter if they make the 2023 postseason.

    Hopefully, San Antonio's unwillingness to play Young this past year had more to do with him residing outside the age band of its 25-and-under core. And even more hopefully, the Spurs will use free agency to hunt down a younger version of the small-ball center they traded away.

Toronto Raptors: A Conventional Big

28 of 30

    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    There's a decent argument to be made that the Toronto Raptors are onto something.

    Their strategy of cramming as many players between 6'7" and 6'9" onto the floor as possible could mark the them as early adopters of a trend that sweeps the league. Then again, Toronto head coach Nick Nurse has a history of trying all sorts of weird stuff, some of which hasn't caught on.

    Let's not discourage innovation. Instead, we should gently suggest the Raptors hedge on their strategy by adding one old-school, throwback, conventional big to the rotation.

    Chris Boucher and Thaddeus Young are both free agents other teams will pursue, and the combo of Khem Birch and Precious Achiuwa (who's really a supersized wing) gives away a ton of strength and length against opposing bigs.

    The lack of a lumbering 7-footer isn't as big of a problem as it was just a few years ago, and maybe we'll look back on this suggestion as quaint. There aren't many Joel Embiids or Nikola Jokics to contend with anymore. But Toronto has 15 roster spots. It should give one of them to a legitimate big man.

Utah Jazz: Athletic Wing Defender(s)

29 of 30

    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    The Utah Jazz have a franchise-altering, foundational decision to make this offseason. Nothing will be more important than how the organization decides to move forward on potential trades for Rudy Gobert and/or (but probably "or") Donovan Mitchell.

    Fortunately, the Jazz's other to-do item is uncomplicated. Whether Mitchell or Gobert is the player to go, Utah has to find someone—or several someones—to slow down opposing guards and wings.

    Mitchell's lack of defensive grit is alarming, but he's been far from the only culprit in this era of Jazz basketball. Mike Conley couldn't stay in front of anyone, Bojan Bogdanovic didn't put up much resistance and even Royce O'Neale, whose entire job is defense, underwhelmed. Gobert caught heat for the Jazz's playoff departure in 2021, but everyone has now correctly realized it was the team's perimeter defense that failed.

    Humble suggestion: Keep Mitchell and Gobert, but blow everything else up to make room for three-and-D wings.

Washington Wizards: Starting Point Guard

30 of 30

    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Bradley Beal's potential return on a player option or a new extension will ease the Washington Wizards' playmaking problems, but it won't solve them. Beal is a quality secondary creator who'd benefit from someone else creating shots for him once in a while.

    Deni Avdija has also shown burgeoning playmaking instincts. But he, like Beal, isn't the true point guard Washington needs.

    The good news is it will be exceedingly easy to improve on what the Wizards got from the position this past season when Raul Neto, Aaron Holiday, Ish Smith and Tomas Satoransky sopped up most of the minutes at the 1. No one from that quartet graded out in the top 50 among qualified point guards in FiveThirtyEight's RAPTOR metric.

    Washington's wing and forward depth is solid. It's easy to imagine Beal, Avdija, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Kyle Kuzma playing big minutes on a postseason team. They just need someone to get them the ball and run the offense.   


    Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass. Accurate through 2021-22 season. Salary info via Spotrac.