Quick Fixes for 2022 NBA Playoff's Biggest Losers
The NBA playoffs are a cruel exercise that eventually designates 15 of the 16 participants as losers.
Not every team that falls short of a title goes out in the same way, though. Some departures are more painful than others.
The squads we'll cover (and try to remedy) here suffered postseason defeats that came earlier or in more disappointing fashion than expected.
Low seeds that got bounced early are more than a quick fix away from avoiding the same fate next year. We aren't interested in them. Instead, we're looking for relatively simple, practical moves to shore up weaknesses on teams that may only need a little boost to advance past the level they reached in 2022.
In the emotional wake of elimination, it sometimes feels like wholesale changes are in order. But for the clubs we'll highlight, small tweaks may be all it takes.
Brooklyn Nets: Find Some Size on the Perimeter
With those two back in the fold along with a healthy Joe Harris, the Brooklyn Nets might not need much else to better their 44-38 record and first-round elimination from this past season.
The Nets didn't have enough size among their defensive wings and couldn't support Kevin Durant with enough shooting to challenge the Boston Celtics in the first round of the playoffs. Boston's ongoing run through the postseason makes the Nets' ability to hang tough in four close games look better in hindsight, but a sweep's a sweep.
Harris' return will be a boon to Brooklyn's spacing. Shooting won't be an issue with him, Patty Mills (player option) and Seth Curry dotting the perimeter.
Harris has also long been underrated defensively. He wasn't particularly mobile prior to the ankle surgery that cost him most of the season, though, and the Nets certainly can't go into next year relying on him as a second stopper next to Simmons.
Bruce Brown (unrestricted free agent) can defend, but his lack of shooting will make him difficult to play alongside Simmons. Yes, Brown shot an outlier 40.4 percent form deep last year, but on extremely low volume. He's still sitting at 32.7 percent for his career and doesn't scare defenses.
If Brooklyn could combine Harris' stroke and size with Brown's defense and athleticism, it'd really have something. Unfortunately for the Nets, gene-splicing technology isn't quite advanced enough, and the collective bargaining agreement probably frowns on playing God.
The Nets should throw their taxpayer mid-level exception at Otto Porter Jr. or Kyle Anderson. Both could command more money elsewhere, but they'd fill the need for more size and defensive heft around the Nets' stars.
Milwaukee Bucks: Land a Playmaker
It feels wrong to call the Milwaukee Bucks losers following a short-handed seven-game loss to a Celtics team playing some of the best defense we've ever seen in the playoffs. But the defending champs still bowed out before the conference finals, and that wasn't the plan.
The so-easy-it-hurts fix here is for Milwaukee to have a healthy Khris Middleton. His absence was impossible to miss against the Celtics. Every time Jrue Holiday (rightly) forced up five or six extra shots per game or Wesley Matthews (wrongly) tried to do anything off the dribble, the realization hit.
That's what Middleton would have been doing.
Even with Middleton back, the Bucks will need more creators. Boston held Milwaukee to 95 or fewer points three times in the East semifinals, even with Giannis Antetokounmpo's relentless attacking and all of the layups, kickouts and free throws it generated. The Bucks averaged the second-fewest passes per game among postseason teams and endured long stretches of stagnant play.
George Hill is the easy scapegoat here. The Bucks backup point guard played 76 minutes, shot the ball five times, scored only five points and handed out three assists in the series. Hill wasn't the only underwhelming performer in the playoff rotation (hi, Grayson Allen!), but his total inability to create opportunities for himself or others stood out.
As is the case for most teams at their level, the Bucks will likely be over the luxury-tax line next season, which limits their resources in free agency. That means they need to fined a distressed asset like, say, a 31-year-old point guard coming off a torn ACL—maybe one renowned for his passing.
Unrestricted free agent Ricky Rubio ranked sixth in assist percentage on drives last year (among players who drove at least 12 times per game). His shooting is an issue at 33.9 percent from distance with the Cleveland Cavaliers prior to his injury, but Hill was worse than that this season in Milwaukee. So the downgrade wouldn't hurt as much as it seems.
Even if Rubio's mobility is limited coming off his knee injury, he would get the ball hopping. He averaged 53.9 passes per game in 2021-22, more than any Milwaukee player, despite logging only 28.5 minutes per contest.
The Bucks may never look like the Beautiful Game San Antonio Spurs because of the way Antetokounmpo simplifies their approach. But better ball movement and more shot creation are musts.
Philadelphia 76ers: Trade for a 3-and-D Wing
It's so, so tempting to argue that the only quick fix the Philadelphia 76ers need is to convince James Harden to decline his player option and go away, or to somehow find a trade partner willing to take on the declining star's $47.4 million salary for 2022-23.
Both options are reactionary and practically impossible, but you can't deny that ditching Harden would improve the toxic vibes coming out of Philly after its unceremonious elimination by the Miami Heat. Team president Daryl Morey made this Beard bed, and his team has to lie in it for at least another year.
To make the best of it and hopefully contend more seriously in 2023, the Sixers need wing defenders who can shoot. Danny Green was the only trustworthy Sixer in that role against Miami, but he'll almost certainly be out for all of next year after suffering a devastating knee injury in Game 6.
Shake Milton lacks the size for the gig, Georges Niang shot 16.0 percent from deep against the Heat, Matisse Thybulle became unplayable in the playoffs, and Furkan Korkmaz has hit only 31.9 percent of his threes across 30 career postseason games.
Let's get bold, assume the Nets defer their rights to Philadelphia's 2022 first-rounder until 2023 (an option they secured in the Harden trade) and hope the Oklahoma City Thunder think they can teach Thybulle how to shoot.
Philadelphia 76ers Receive: Luguentz Dort
Oklahoma City Thunder Receive: Matisse Thybulle, 2022 first-round pick
Is that enough to keep the Thunder from laughing and hanging up? Maybe not, but Dort is precisely the kind of stout defender the Sixers need, and he shot a just-barely-respectable 33.2 percent on 7.7 long-range tries per game last year.
Both Thybulle and Dort are in the last year of their deals, but the former will be a restricted free agent next summer, giving OKC more control than it would have with Dort, who's unrestricted, in 2023.
Failing that unlikely deal, Philadelphia could throw the taxpayer mid-level exception at Gary Harris or Danuel House Jr. and hope for the best. If the Sixers wind up having enough space under the apron to use the full $10.3 million non-taxpayer MLE, T.J. Warren could be a more ambitious, high-risk target.
Phoenix Suns: Sign a Backup Point Guard
The Phoenix Suns won 64 games during the regular season as Chris Paul fought off Father Time and inserted himself into the fringes of the MVP debate, but everything fell apart against the Dallas Mavericks. CP3 was brilliant in the first two games of that series, but in a manner befitting a player who looked like a shell of himself, he then laid five straight eggs.
If the Suns are going to run this thing back, they have to find someone to lighten the 37-year-old point guard's load.
Cameron Payne fell out of the rotation as the playoffs progressed, and Landry Shamet isn't a full-time option in that role, especially if it requires dramatically more volume next year. This is all assuming the Suns can convince Paul to embrace load management for the first time in his career.
Delon Wright isn't the purest point guard, but that could work just fine if much of his time spent relieving Paul comes alongside Devin Booker, a stellar playmaker at the 2. Phoenix could even use Wright as a wing when necessary, as his ranginess allows him to guard both backcourt spots as well as the small forward position.
Wright is highly durable, having played 77 games last year. He's missed an average of only 5.25 contests per season over the last four years. He's also become a reliable shooter, as his three straight seasons of shooting at least 37.0 percent from long distance attest.
Phoenix will have a hefty tax bill assuming Deandre Ayton stays on a max or near-max salary in restricted free agency, which means it can only use the $6.4 million taxpayer mid-level exception on Wright. The 30-year-old made $8.5 million in 2021-22, but there isn't a ton of money available in free agency, and the Suns could offer him a major role on a contender.
Utah Jazz: Get Athletic
The Utah Jazz finished fifth in the West this year, which makes their first-round ouster less disappointing in a vacuum than the one they suffered last season after running up the league's best record, only to fail spectacularly against the undermanned Los Angeles Clippers.
Together, though, those defeats have Utah at a point where changes—maybe big ones—are in the offing.
Utah should resist breaking up the Rudy Gobert-Donovan Mitchell duo if it can. The first approach should be retooling around them with a focus on upgrading athleticism and defense at the point of attack. The plodding Jazz perimeter defenders were to blame for each of the team's two most recent postseason defeats.
Would the Toronto Raptors consider giving up OG Anunoby for Bojan Bogdanovic and a future first-rounder (or two)? Might Royce O'Neale entice the Sixers to part with Matisse Thybulle? Does anybody want Mike Conley so Utah can slide Mitchell to the point and add another wing-sized weapon to the starting five?
If the Jazz can't trade their way out of this, they should set their free-agent sights on springy defenders like Derrick Jones Jr. and Gary Payton II. Utah could even dig deeper into the Golden State Warriors' sack full of free agents and come up with the versatile Juan Toscano-Anderson. He'd bring the added bonus of being a small-ball center option who can switch across five positions.
The Jazz will be giving up offense and spacing in every one of these hypotheticals, but they should trust in the system that produced a top-three points-per-100-possessions figure in each of the last two seasons to compensate for that. Few teams are better at creating advantage situations on offense by encouraging ball and player movement than the Jazz.
And more importantly, playoff defense has been the problem.
To avoid suffering the same fate for a third time, Utah has to get bigger, stronger, quicker and more capable on that end.