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Matthew Hinton/Associated Press
Congratulations to the eight NBA teams that are guaranteed, or overwhelmingly likely, to join the play-in tournament. As for the 10 franchises and their fanbases preparing to get left out in the cold, we wish you well, and we did not come empty-handed.
We’re here to send you off with a fun-slash-potentially-unsettling thought exercise in which the guiding question will be: So, what now?
Offseason priorities will vary by team. Those more locked into their cores or timelines have more granular queries to answer and holes to fill. They will lead us into the weeds.
Franchises in more of a flux, on the other hand, will be subjected to broader priorities that, in many cases, double as an existential crisis. Fans of these teams may want to pop some Tums before continuing onward.
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Nell Redmond/Associated Press
Bringing in Nikola Vucevic at the trade deadline for two top-four-protected first-rounders and Wendell Carter Jr., among other stuff, suggests on some level the Chicago Bulls have nothing to hammer out with Zach LaVine. They intend to keep him. Indefinitely. End of story.
Except, not quite.
LaVine’s foray into free agency still looms. He will hit the open market next offseason unless he hashes out an extension with Chicago. And going that route, while not impossible, is inherently problematic. The Bulls are limited to offering LaVine a 20 percent raise of his current salary in an extension. He stands to make an extra $10 million annually if he hits free agency and signs a max deal.
Renegotiating and extending LaVine’s pact—which would result in a raise to the max salary for next season—is on the table. But Chicago burned a chunk of its cap space by taking on Vooch’s multiyear contract. Its spending power is now firmly tethered to what it does with partially guaranteed agreements for Tomas Satoransky and Thaddeus Young, along with the fate of its first-round pick.
The Bulls have to get an ironclad grasp of LaVine’s future after this season, even if it doesn’t entail extending his contract in some form. They cannot risk losing him for nothing in 2022 free agency. And they definitely shouldn’t count on him giving them a discount next summer. If he’s going to stay on a cheaper rate, he’ll more likely than not consider inking the extension they can immediately offer him.
Do not confuse this as “The Bulls must trade LaVine!” They just need to be sure that he wants to stay, and that they’re subsequently willing to shell out as much as a five-year deal worth nearly $200 million if and when he hits the open market.
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Tony Dejak/Associated Press
Collin Sexton has remained a divisive topic of discussion among basketball circles even as he’s established himself as an incredibly valuable scorer. And make no mistake: He is just that.
Just 11 other players are averaging 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.
Though Sexton isn’t on the same level as any of those players, his marriage of high-volume scoring and efficiency cannot be treated as an anomaly. He pieced together a similar performance last season.
That abridged-yet-actual continuity stands to cost the Cleveland Cavaliers. Sexton is extension-eligible over the offseason, and while they can delay his contract decision until restricted free agency in 2022, they then open up themselves to wonky offer-sheet terms from other teams that compromise the length and franchise-friendliness of his next deal.
Then again, locking down Sexton now comes with its own risks. Doling out near-max money implies he is a bankable primary building block. The Cavs can’t say without absolute certainty that he’s the right alpha—or even co-alpha—to lead them out of the rebuilding trenches.
Darius Garland has somewhat quietly become the more tantalizing cornerstone. Sexton isn’t a net-zero passer, but he’s not wired to be the primary playmaking hub. Some of his on-ball decisions continue to grate on teammates, according The Athletic’s Joe Vardon.
These frustrations do not preclude the Cavs from keeping Sexton long term. He isn’t supposed to be the table-setting engine, and his scoring repertoire is intensely valuable. They can pay him a lucrative amount of money to be the second-most important player on a really good team.
This, however, presupposes they already have their “most important player on a really good team” pillar. In a way, then, the outcome of Sexton’s extension will say just as much about him as it does Cleveland’s view of Garland or whoever it drafts with this year’s first-rounder. (Apologies to Isaac Okoro.)
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Carlos Osorio/Associated Press
Jerami Grant’s functional expansion is a boon for the Detroit Pistons’ immediate direction. It is not their endgame.
His efficiency amid higher usage has been on decline for roughly half the season. More than that, he is not the guy who’s going to pass his teammates open. Hitting the occasional off-the-dribble jumper and putting pressure on defenses is the extent of his ball-handling bandwidth. Detroit needs more of a conventional playmaker to spearhead the offense.
Killian Hayes might be that player. It’s too early to tell for sure. Never mind his spotty efficiency. Chalk it up to being a rookie who missed most of the year with right hip issues. He has tossed some artful passes and shown composure in traffic.
Still, Hayes’ game is, at its peak, ready-made to fit beside another ball-handler, particularly someone who profiles as more of an aggressive scorer. Also: One offensive primary is never enough, and the Pistons don’t have anyone else on the roster who projects to be that first or second option-type creator.
They might find that brand of building block in the draft. They will enter the lottery with a 52.1 percent chance of landing inside the top four. But they must also prepare to acquire one through alternative means. Slipping in the lottery or having to “settle” for Evan Mobley, a big man, or Jalen Suggs, whose handle isn’t ready to serve as an offensive fulcrum, leaves them without a surefire primary ball-handling prospect.
Poking around the free-agency market is the obvious place to start. Detroit should be a cap-space team, though it’ll most likely be operating with sub-$20 million in wiggle room. That isn’t enough to enter the Mike Conley and Kyle Lowry sweepstakes, and both players, along with most of the more attractive options, don’t jibe with the Pistons’ rebuilding timeline.
Lonzo Ball (restricted) doesn’t quite fit the bill, and Detroit once again figures to run into a money issue if targeting him. Talen Horton-Tucker (restricted) might be a quality dice roll. Keeping Hamidou Diallo (restricted) isn’t a bad idea. At 27, is Dennis Schroder too old? It might even turn out the Pistons are better off exploring the trade market for a youthfulish ball-handler. Either way, acquiring someone who can theoretically plug this void needs to be the utmost priority.
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Troy Taormina/Associated Press
Building up the arsenal of big-picture keepers will get a lot easier for the Houston Rockets if they keep their own first-round pick. 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 have the league’s worst record by a comfortable margin 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. They have to be ready for their selection to fall to No. 5 (as low as it can go) and head to Oklahoma City.
Stocking up on flier prospects will remain a priority even if the Rockets net a top-four choice. Their long-term cupboard isn’t exactly stocked. Kevin Porter Jr., Jae’Sean Tate and Christian Wood are, roughly, their lone starting points. They need more.
Having three first-round picks in this year’s draft will help. (They project to get selections from Milwaukee and Portland.) Just one of them, though, could fall inside the lottery. The Rockets will have zero lottery selections if their own first winds up with the Thunder.
Skulking around the trade market in hopes of landing distressed assets, like they did with Porter, most definitely needs to be their on their to-do list. It might also be their only play. They don’t forecast as a cap-space team if they’re interested in retaining Kelly Olynyk, as well as some of their other free agents, namely Sterling Brown and David Nwaba.
In the event they do dredge up spending power, the Rockets should target poachable names under the age of 25. Restricted free agents like Lonzo Ball, Zach Collins, Malik Monk and Gary Trent Jr. all spring to mind. Without cap space, they should be thinking smaller but along the same lines with players like Garrison Mathews, Rayjon Tucker, Jarred Vanderbilt, etc.
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Andy Clayton-King/Associated Press
Priorities this general can come off vague and lazy. This isn’t meant to be. Ambiguity is merely ingrained to the Minnesota Timberwolves’ DNA.
They have tethered themselves to a sense of urgency on multiple occasions during Gersson Rosas’ run as team president. Acquiring D’Angelo Russell, paying Malik Beasley last summer and even switching head coaches midstream were all win-now moves.
Karl-Anthony Towns’ overall superstardom only adds to that pressure. So, too, does Anthony Edwards’ midseason ascension. Minnesota now has a five-man base—Beasley, DLo, Edwards, KAT and, yes, Jaden McDaniels—that makes a ton of sense on paper. (Of note: Injuries have limited this quintet to just 26 possessions on the year.)
Where the Timberwolves go from here is not a cut-and-dry issue. Everything first and foremost hinges on the fate of their first-round pick. It is owed to the Golden State Warriors with top-three protection. Minnesota is currently on course to have a 27.6 percent chance of keeping it.
Conventional wisdom suggests the Timberwolves take one of Cade Cunningham (consensus No. 1), Jalen Green, Evan Mobley or Jalen Suggs if they retain their first-rounder. But might they consider moving it for whatever star is available this offseason? Especially if it’s not the Cade Cunningham pick?
This question persists even if Minnesota forfeits the selection. It can still dangle other first-rounders in trade talks to obtain more win-now talent. But is mortgaging more of its future worth the reward? Are the Timberwolves a playoff-worthy team next season with the current core plus some moves on the margins in free agency, where their best spending tool will be the mid-level exception?
Most importantly, can they significantly beef up the defense with the resources available to them? They are 26th in points allowed per 100 possessions and suffering from wholesale flaws. They allow too many looks at the rim and, though some of this might be bad luck, rank dead last in three-point defense.
Lowering their foul rate might be more of an institutional fix, but do they have someone to rumble with bigger wings who doesn’t crimp their offense? McDaniels and Naz Reid are basically their sole two-way players, depending on where you stand with Ricky Rubio.
Nothing is given in the Western Conference. The Timberwolves cannot simply count on internal improvement and better health vaulting them into the playoff discussion. Their situation gets a tad more discernible if this year’s first-round stays put, but given all they’ve already put into this roster, they’ll have to weigh more acts of doubling-down no matter how the draft lottery shakes out.
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Matthew Hinton/Associated Press
As maddeningly frustrating as the New Orleans Pelicans have been this year, theirs was not a lost season. They engaged in plenty of self-discovery that will help them soldier on.
Zion Williamson-the-primary-ball-handler needs to stay a thing. Lonzo Ball is worth keeping around, even at a premium in restricted free agency, and even if he doesn’t boost the half-court offense as an orthodox playmaker. Jaxson Hayes is good! He’s more disciplined on defense and may have more range to plumb on offense. (Anyone else still thinking about his 3-of-3 clip from distance against the Memphis Grizzlies?)
Nickeil Alexander-Walker can give the more variance in their half-court guard attack. Brandon Ingram’s Most Improved Player campaign wasn’t a blip. Naji Marshall is legit.
New Orleans is now tasked with applying its self-discovery. And this isn’t just a let-it-marinate situation. The Pelicans have some tough decisions to reconcile. How much is too much for Ball in restricted free agency? Ditto for Josh Hart? Is their defensive uptick for real, or will drop coverage get them into trouble over the longer term?
Everything they do from here on must be done with Zion in mind. If he’s going to have the ball in his hands (he should), they need to prioritize better floor balance. They are 26th in three-point-attempt rate and 27th in long-range efficiency for the season. They’ve struggled even more since April 1, a symptom of both injuries and their imperfect roster construction.
Increasing the room with which Zion has to work shouldn’t be too difficult. Better shooters can be had on the cheap. But it won’t necessarily be easy. The Pelicans aren’t in line for cap space and will have near-term luxury-tax concerns if they decide to pay Ball and Hart.
Polishing off the supporting cast around Zion may demand more aggressive measures on the trade market. New Orleans doesn’t have to go nuclear, but it shouldn’t rule out using one of the many future firsts it has banked to improve its flexibility (i.e shop Steven Adams and Eric Bledsoe) or acquire better-fitting players.
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Brynn Anderson/Associated Press
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s extension eligibility could be subbed in here…if it had any business registering as an issue. It doesn’t.
Pay him, Oklahoma City.
Any questions about Gilgeous-Alexander’s capacity to carry an offense should have dissipated. Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant are the only other players averaging over 20 points and five assists per game while shooting as efficiently on twos (54.7 percent) and threes (41.8 percent). And Gilgeous-Alexander has joined this club while subsisting on almost exclusively self-manufactured looks. Just over 87 percent of his made buckets have gone unassisted—the highest share among 432 players who have appeared in at least 20 games.
Maintaining this kind of workload may not be tenable. It’s the Thunder’s job to make sure they don’t need it to be. Gilgeous-Alexander needs another shot-creator beside him, and it’s unclear whether that player is on the roster.
Darius Bazley has shown he has more to offer on-ball. Theo Maledon is going to be good. Aleksej Pokusevski’s confidence is aspirational and potentially a sign he can eventually generate more of his own looks. Gabriel Deck has some off-the-dribble juice in him.
Chances are this isn’t enough. Nobody on Oklahoma City is creating 60 percent or more of their own looks since Gilgeous-Alexander left the rotation with plantar fasciitis in his right foot. Shoehorning any of the current players on the roster into a co-primary role will be an overextension, at least for the immediate future.
Fortunately for the Thunder, they will have a few chances to find a higher-end running mate for SGA. They should have a 52.1 percent chance of their own pick landing inside the top four, and the Rockets can feasibly send them the No. 5 selection. Failing lottery luck, they have the ability to chisel out more than $50 million in cap space ahead of free agency.
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Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press
Selling off Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic at the trade deadline consigned the Orlando Magic to a rebuild.
Or is this actually a retool?
The details are fuzzy beyond this season. They should have a better than 55 percent chance of bagging a top-four pick, and the Bulls will send over their own selection if it drops outside the top four. That’s a quality springboard into the future when viewed against their acquisitions of Wendell Carter Jr. and R.J. Hampton. It may also mark the extent of their bottoming out.
Orlando isn’t necessarily built to go through a gradual revamp. It has already paid Markelle Fultz and Jonathan Isaac, both of whom will return from torn left ACLs next season. Some combination of Carter, Hampton, Cole Anthony, Mo Bamba and Chuma Okeke will improve.
Better health up and down the roster, plus this year’s draft pick(s), could fast track the Magic back toward the sub-middle of the Eastern Conference. That’s a competitive hellscape they should be bent on avoiding.
Maybe they don’t actually have to do anything. Their immediate crop of talent will look a lot less imposing if they slip in the lottery and/or the Bulls’ pick doesn’t convey.
Assuming the Magic are committed to forging something closer to a contender, though, they may need to be more aggressive in their rebuilding approach. That doesn’t just include shopping veterans like Terrence Ross and Gary Harris. It requires gauging the market for Carter (extension-eligible), Fultz and even Isaac.
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Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press
De’Aaron Fox and Tyrese Haliburton arm the Sacramento Kings with two ultra-high-end cornerstones they can use to flesh out the future. They should nab another intriguing name in this year’s draft lottery.
Sacramento can convince itself to follow the fight-for-a-play-in course. Fox, Haliburton, Marvin Bagley III, Harrison Barnes, Buddy Hield, Richaun Holmes, Delon Wright and a to-be-determined lottery pick is one helluva starting point.
Good luck figuring out where the nucleus finishes inside the Western Conference. Best of luck to the Kings in even keeping it together. Holmes hits free agency after this season, and they only have his Early Bird rights. They’ll need to dredge up cap space to afford him.
Cutting costs to re-sign Holmes is not short-sighted. He turns 28 in October, so his next deal will take him straight through the heart of his prime. But traveling extra lengths to keep him doesn’t make much sense if Sacramento fancies itself a work-in-progress. And it might.
Barnes spent a great deal of time in the rumor mill prior to the trade deadline, and Hields’ name is forever in the ether. The decision to let Bogdan Bogdanovic walk in restricted free agency last offseason still speaks volumes, too. General manager Monte McNair appears married to no one other than Fox (signed a max extension) and Haliburton.
Skewing toward a teardown around their two guards won’t earn the Kings any goodwill. Their fanbase has put up with a lot of crap. The organization has repaid them with a playoff drought dating back to 2006. But going that route at least qualifies as a tangible direction, a step up from the indistinct path Sacramento is following now.
If expediting a return to the postseason is the mandate, the Kings have to branch out beyond standing pat and hoping for internal improvement. The West does not forgive half-baked playoff pursuits. Sacramento needs to look at acquiring another star if it intends to make a ruckus next year—a move that puts them squarely at the mercy of the trade market and their capacity to outbid competing suitors without forking over Fox or Haliburton.
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Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press
Opting out of the play-in chase—which is effectively what they did—doesn’t have to infer anything about the Toronto Raptors’ future. This could be a one-year half-tank, in which they gain more insight into the long-term values of Khem Birch, Malachi Flynn, Freddie Gillespie and Yuta Watanabe, pick up another lottery prospect, re-sign Kyle Lowry and rejoin the Eastern Conference’s contender clique next season.
Perhaps the Raptors’ trajectory doesn’t play out in these exact terms. It would still be foolish to think they’re headed for a full-tilt rebuild. Their talent at the top is too damn good. Lowry, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet have outscored opponents by 9.1 points per 100 possessions on the year. Toronto is a shoo-in playoff team if it doesn’t battle injuries and COVID-19 complications galore before entering its, let’s say, incidental descent.
Mapping out a more concrete direction starts with Lowry’s future. Keeping him beyond the trade deadline could mean the Raptors are dead set on bring him back. It could also mean nothing.
Team president Masai Ujiri admitted that Toronto almost sent Lowry elsewhere. Holding onto to him could be a matter of last-second hiccups or cold feet on behalf of prospective suitors. And even if the Raptors care deeply about winning now, he could still decide to sign with a more universally accepted contender over the offseason.
Toronto needs to capitalize on his free agency either way. Pay him or work to sign-and-trade him. Letting the best player in franchise history walk for nothing would not be unforgivable, but it is less than ideal when he’s still an All-Star, and when the Raptors, by all appearances, are barreling their way toward a prolonged reset.