NBA Teams Best Positioned to Win the Offseason
Don't let those who traffic in absolutes fool you: There will never be one way to win an NBA offseason.
Big-time victories manifest in all different forms. A-plus drafts can set organizational tones for years to come. Blockbuster trades can divert trajectories or significantly boost championship equity. Free agency is a minefield of possibility on which lie splashy additions and unforeseen bargains.
This summer will follow a similarly broad blueprint. It will also be a touch more interesting. So little cap space is floating around that it increases the importance of flexibility across all mediums: the draft, trade and free-agency markets.
Just like last year's peek into the crystal ball, this aims to pluck out the franchises best positioned and most willing to soup up their immediate outlook. The latter is an important sticking point. Teams must be open to expending their best resources. Just because the Golden State Warriors can use Jonathan Kuminga to flesh out blockbuster-trade offers doesn't mean they will. And just because the Orlando Magic may wind up with more cap space than anyone doesn't mean they'll spend it all on long-term keepers.
Special consideration will be given to teams with higher-end outcomes built into their summer. Having the bandwidth and drive to chase the most aggressive upgrades matters in perpetuity but is especially critical this offseason.
Mostly, though, this exercise favors optionality. Teams that aren't locked into one method of progression or overall direction remain our catnip. They not only have the means and motive to get much better before next season, but they're built to roll with the punches and motivated to seize hold of different opportunities, including those that arise on a whim.
Landing at No. 3 in the draft lottery absolutely juices up the Houston Rockets' offseason arc. They're free from the burden of choosing between Paolo Banchero, Chet Holmgren and Jabari Smith and can instead select whomever is left over. Regardless of whom they get, they'll have added a second cornerstone prospect beside Jalen Green.
That's a pretty cushy spot to be in when your rebuild isn't yet two years old. Having the No. 17 pick is the cherry atop Houston's youth movement. It can enter next season with Green, one of the three marquee big-man prospects, another first-round selection, Kevin Porter Jr., Alperen Sengun, Josh Christopher, K.J. Martin, and Usman Garuba. This says nothing of the older-but-not-ancient Jae'Sean Tate (26) and Garrison Mathews (25).
And yet, the pendulum reaaaally swings in Houston's favor when surveying the trade market. A finite amount of cap space coupled with a relatively shallow free-agency class should leave teams pining for alternative measures of improvement. It just so happens the Rockets have what should be two of the most highly sought-after targets: Eric Gordon and Christian Wood.
Gordon may be 33, but he injects rim pressure and ultra-deep shooting in every offense without needing to dominate the ball. Wood is just 26, and the combination of his floor game and outside shooting remains a scorching-hot commodity at the center spot.
Houston won't exactly be able to name its price for either player. But the trade market, not unlike the free-agency pool, is currently thin on available high-impact players. Potential options get harder to find after blowing through Jerami Grant in Detroit and Malcolm Brogdon in Indiana, without knowing for sure whether the Utah Jazz will entertain a teardown.
In many ways, then, the Rockets may be the apple of every buyer's affection. They have two quality names ostensibly up for grabs—enough to start a bidding war and continue stockpiling their asset chest.
You name the method by which you'd like to see them dominate the offseason, and chances are the Memphis Grizzlies are built to deliver it.
Set off fireworks on draft night? No problem. They have pick Nos. 22 and 29. Maybe they move up. Or maybe they unearth the next Desmond Bane, only not at the expense of the Boston Celtics.
Bag a red-carpet name in free agency? Sure, why not. The Grizzlies can chisel out more than $24 million in room if they renounce all their own free agents.
Granted, they're not likely to go this route, since it entails parting ways with Kyle Anderson and Tyus Jones. But even keeping both leaves them with enough flexibility to use the non-taxpayer mid-level exception, a $10.3 million chip that's worth quite a bit in the current landscape.
How about brokering an earth-shattering trade? Yep, the Grizzlies are wired to do that, too. They have all their own future first-rounders, in addition to the Warriors' 2024 selection (top-four protected).
Between this draft-pick stash, a handful of desirable and short-term contracts and the capacity to include sweeteners who range from rock solid (Brandon Clarke, Xavier Tillman) to pleasant unknowns (Ziaire Williams) to outright centerpieces (Desmond Bane), they have the goods to join any sweepstakes that surface without touching the Ja Morant-Jaren Jackson Jr. foundation. They won't even need to dangle Bane unless they go superstar hunting.
Whether the Grizzlies will prioritize taking bigger swings is a separate matter. Tinkering with their core for a blockbuster move would be out of character. But the Western Conference isn't getting any easier, and Memphis will be held to a much higher bar next season. When you're this good, going all out has to be on the table.
The Miami Heat don't belong here at first glance. They won't have any cap space, and drafting at No. 27 won't turn any heads.
On the other hand: The Heat have a first-round pick at all. That will turn all the heads. Are they going to use it? Trade it? Bake it into a larger deal for another household name?
Things get interesting when delving into trade scenarios. The Heat amended a draft obligation to the Oklahoma City Thunder that now conveys in 2025, a move that technically allows them to flip up to four first-rounders this summer: No. 27 (post-draft), 2023, 2027 (pending OKC obligation in 2025) and 2029.
Before you say Miami won't mortgage the hell out of its future, consider that Pat Riley is still running the front office. And then consider how the team hasn't shied away from dealing first-rounders to increase flexibility or acquire gargantuan fish in the past.
Everything is in play. That is true #HeatCulture. Their best trade offer isn't the usual contender's medley of mediocrity, either. They have not only multiple firsts to peddle, but they can include a legit blue-chip youngster in Tyler Herro, and there are much worse salary-matching tools than the balance of Duncan Robinson's contract (four years, $74.4 million).
Maybe I'm getting ahead of myself. Then again, the Heat had to recalibrate their obligation to the Thunder for a reason. And let's not forget that Victor Oladipo's free agency looms as a potential tool. Miami retained his Bird rights when it kept him last summer. It can facilitate a sign-and-trade to capitalize on his rising stock, or it could decide that paying him makes more sense than bankrolling deals for Herro or Kyle Lowry.
No matter how you look at it, the Heat have the resources to do something big. And history tells us that when they have said resources, they intend to use them.
New Orleans Pelicans
It won't take much for the New Orleans Pelicans to churn out a wildly successful offseason. They can sit relatively tight and still add Zion Williamson, the No. 8 pick and signings via the mid-level and/or biannual exceptions. That's...a pretty substantial haul. This doesn't even account for the return of Kira Lewis Jr. from a torn right ACL.
This also doesn't factor in the Pelicans' stomach for taking risks. Trading for CJ McCollum was not the move of a franchise living in the distant future. It was one of a team angling for an immediate, and appreciable, leap up the Western Conference pecking order.
Perhaps the emergences of Jose Alvarado, Herb Jones and Trey Murphy III convince New Orleans to play it safe and let internal development run its course. Or maybe their rookie-year performances embolden the Pelicans to chase another blockbuster addition, something they are adequately equipped to do.
On top of No. 8 in this year's draft, New Orleans has all its own firsts beyond 2022, the Los Angeles Lakers' 2024 pick (with rights to defer until 2025) and Milwaukee's unprotected 2027 selection. Start attaching this treasure trove of imminent and distant draft choices to a combination of Lewis, Jaxson Hayes, Jonas Valanciunas, Larry Nance Jr. and Devonte' Graham, and the Pelicans have some real ammo on their hands.
And do not for a second underestimate their incentive to exhaust it. They just pushed the best-in-the-league-during-the-regular-season Phoenix Suns to the brink after salvaging their year on the heels of a 3-16 start—all without Zion.
Their record doesn't necessarily reflect a path toward contention; not even after the McCollum trade. But if you look at the way head coach Willie Green eventually got them to defend in transition, the individual strides made by Brandon Ingram (holy playmaking), McCollum's offensive fit, the steady stoutness of Valanciunas and the compilation of intriguing Year 1s, you can see it.
San Antonio Spurs
There is a certain aimlessness to the San Antonio Spurs' current place inside the NBA's hierarchy. They are coming off a 34-win season in which they cracked the play-in and oversaw pivotal progress from individual players, but the results invariably spawn more questions than answers.
Is Dejounte Murray a full-fledged star? How far can you get with him as your best player? If he can't be the 1A on a contender, is there anyone else currently on the roster who might one day leapfrog him in the pecking order?
If you're answering yes to that last question, who is it? Devin Vassell? Keldon Johnson? Joshua Primo? And if the Spurs don't yet have their best-player-on-a-contender prospect, can they expect to draft him at No. 9? Or No. 20? Or No. 25?
Can they even expect to draft him in the years to come when the roster is built to neither tank nor triumph? And who aside from Murray is actually important enough to the product for them to jettison and lean further into a rebuild? Are they willing to accelerate their position instead via free agency and trades? Is that type of jump even within the realm of possibility if they're open to it?
This stream-of-consciousness avalanche is part of the Spurs' offseason appeal. Uncertainty and inexactness are their measures for versatility. They are not married to any one direction. They can do anything.
That might amount to doing nothing. San Antonio is the king of reinvention from within. But it also has a cachet of tantalizing youngsters, three first-round picks, all its own first-rounders moving forward and fairly effortless access to max cap space.
The stage is set for the Spurs to at once continue building and run the tables in free agency and trades. And if their recent willingness to talk shop is any indication (see: DeMar DeRozan, Derrick White and Thaddeus Young deals), they won't let their armory of assets go unused.