For all that’s left unsettled and undetermined about the NBA’s plan to resume the 2019-20 season, this much we know for sure: Eight teams won’t be making the trip to Disney.
For the eight franchises at the bottom of the NBA’s standings—the Warriors, Cavaliers, Timberwolves, Hawks, Pistons, Knicks, Bulls, and Hornets—the 2019-20 campaign is officially, and perhaps mercifully, over. What’s just begun, though, is an offseason that will be both long as hell and truly unprecedented.
Those eight teams have a lot to figure out. Luckily, we’re here to help. Let’s take a look at the biggest questions facing four of the NBA teams that are done for the year. In Part 1, we covered the Warriors, Cavaliers, Timberwolves, and Hawks. Now we turn our attention to the other four teams, starting with the one that’s evidently worth more than all the rest, despite having the lowest winning percentage in the league over the past two decades:
New York Knicks
Record: 21-45 (12th in Eastern Conference)
2020 NBA draft picks (pre-lottery, per Tankathon.com): 6, 27, 38
Pending free agents: Bobby Portis (team option), Maurice Harkless, Allonzo Trier (restricted), Damyean Dotson (restricted)
The big question: Can Leon Rose lay a sound foundation to build on?
After seven straight sub-.500 seasons, the Knicks are back at the drawing board. The coach and team president who opened the 2019-20 season have both been fired, and owner James Dolan has tapped longtime CAA power broker Rose to lead New York’s basketball operations, a la Bob Myers with the Warriors and Rob Pelinka with the Lakers. He has his work cut out for him.
Rose must decide whether to remove the interim tag from coach Mike Miller, the assistant elevated to the top job following David Fizdale’s unceremonious firing. Miller led a brief pre-New Year’s resurgence before the team resumed sputtering, and had a young, ill-fitting version of the team flirting with .500 and a league-average defense over its final 20 games. SNY’s Ian Begley reports that some in the organization want to keep Miller on the staff even if Rose looks elsewhere. It seems likely Rose will: Speculation has long centered on former Knicks assistant/erstwhile Bulls and Wolves boss Tom Thibodeau as his top target. Kenny Atkinson (another ex-Knicks assistant who left the Nets just before the coronavirus shutdown) and Mike Woodson (who led the last good Knicks team, albeit one that was essentially a stylistic accident he never intended to replicate) are also reportedly under consideration.
Whichever coach Rose hires will join New York’s new braintrust in identifying which current Knicks should be considered building blocks. RJ Barrett likely tops that list: 2019’s no. 3 pick battled through an up-and-down rookie season (of 98 qualifying players this season who have used more than 20 percent of their team’s offensive possessions, he ranks 97th in true shooting percentage) but averaged 17.2 points on 45.2 percent shooting after the All-Star break, and showed signs of being a playmaker. Center Mitchell Robinson, the former second-round pick who has developed into one of the league’s premier shot-blockers and rim-running lob threats, is also on the list, as is—one would hope—the team’s forthcoming high lottery pick, which Rose needs to nail to give New York’s young core an infusion of playmaking talent. (Tyrese Haliburton, anybody?) But save for Julius Randle—a productive big, but one who doesn’t mesh all that well with Robinson, and whose $18.9 million contract might be tough to trade—pretty much everyone else is up in the air.
Frank Ntilikina feels destined to remain the rope in a tug of war between those who see him as a good multi-positional defender who always seems to make his team better, and those who see him as a passive observer who actively damages an offense. Dennis Smith Jr., Ntilikina’s stylistic inverse—a super-aggressive athlete willing to jack shots but not defend them—has been even less effective since coming over in the Kristaps Porzingis deal. Kevin Knox is a bigger question mark now than when he was drafted; no player in the league has a lower value over replacement player over the past two seasons. In fairness, though, no player was harmed more by the Knicks signing a phalanx of forwards last offseason than Knox, who saw his minutes and playmaking opportunities sharply curtailed.
And then there’s the veterans. Portis’s $15.8 million team option seems like one the Knicks should decline in favor of finding a better long-term fit with Barrett and Robinson. Gibson, Wayne Ellington, Elfrid Payton, and Reggie Bullock all have non-guaranteed contracts for next season; which, if any, should New York keep around to help spur the kids’ development? (I’d keep Gibson, still a quality interior defender, and Bullock, a credible 3-and-D wing to connect the front- and backcourt pieces.) Depending on which vets they shed, the Knicks could have somewhere around $36 million in cap space to spend. Rose will have to decide whether to go hard after one of the new potential difference-makers in this free-agent class at a position of need—Fred VanVleet would make a ton of sense, if the price is right—or just keep his powder dry for the 2021 class. (Just how attractive the Knicks are or will be to free agents, as always, remains a very big question.)
The 2020-21 Knicks will likely lose a lot of games no matter what roster moves Rose makes this offseason; young teams without clear All-Star talent typically do. But if he charts a course that prioritizes patience and player development over the sort of quick fix likely to cost future draft assets—New York has three extra first-round picks coming from the Clippers and Mavericks—he can point the franchise toward something that’s proven even more elusive at Madison Square Garden than winning: stability.
Record: 22-43 (11th in Eastern Conference)
2020 NBA draft picks (pre-lottery, per Tankathon.com): 7, 47
Pending free agents: Otto Porter Jr. (player option), Kris Dunn (restricted), Denzel Valentine (restricted), Shaquille Harrison (restricted)
The big question: Can the Bulls’ parts make a coherent whole?
It’s funny: For a team that has felt so blah for so long, there’s actually a lot I like about Chicago’s roster. Zach LaVine, for all his narcoleptic defense and shaky facilitating, is a hard-charging monster scorer, capable of shouldering a star’s share of the offensive load. Maybe he doesn’t do it quite as efficiently as the other dudes who average 25 a night, but still: he’s getting you those 25 a night. I thought the Otto Porter Jr. trade made a lot of sense, and I loved Thaddeus Young and Tomas Satoransky heading into free agency last summer; they all seemed like perfect young veteran pickups for a young team with designs on respectability.
Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. have battled injuries and inconsistency, but there’s clearly upside there. Rookie Coby White persevered through a shaky start and authored a furious finish to the season, averaging nearly 25 points per game on 47/41/90 shooting splits over his final 10 games. Kris Dunn and Shaquille Harrison have their respective issues on the offensive end, but they’re absolute dogs defensively. Denzel Valentine, when he’s healthy, can be a useful secondary playmaker and gap-filler on the wing; it’s always felt to me like there’s some Evan Turner to his game (and the statistical comparison actually bears that out). So why has Chicago felt—and, for that matter, played—like less than the sum of its parts?
Injuries played a major role. Dunn, Markkanen, Porter, Carter, and second-year wing Chandler Hutchison all missed at least 14 games this season, and the Bulls’ opening night starting lineup—Carter, Markkanen, Porter, LaVine, and Satoransky—shared the floor for just 119 total minutes, which makes it tough to develop chemistry and continuity. It sure seems like the coaching did, too. Let’s just say that Jim Boylen’s clock-punching, no-timeouts-left-behind act hasn’t seemed to go over too well with his young charges—most notably LaVine, who’s not exactly bending over backward to throw his support behind his head coach:
With financial flexibility limited by the virtual certainty of Porter picking up his $28.5 million player option next season, the Bulls likely won’t be big players in free agency, so improvement will have to come from internal development, landing the right fit in the draft—a table-setting playmaker like Haliburton, Deni Avdija, or Killian Hayes could be the missing link between the backcourt scorers and starving bigs—or from a shake-up on the bench. After years of frustrating and underwhelming results, the front office of John Paxson and Gar Forman is out, replaced by former Nuggets GM Arturas Karnisovas; might he choose to sweep Boylen out, too?
“We want to spend time internally to assure that we are thorough in our appraisals,” Karnisovas recently told local reporters. “I take pride in being deliberate and thoughtful in my decision-making and take the weight of my decisions seriously. I’m not inclined to make evaluations prematurely to satisfy our excitement to move this team forward.”
Whether or not you think evaluating Boylen’s work as lacking is “premature,” it’s clear that Karnisovas and new GM Marc Eversley plan to take their time in assessing what the organization needs. It’s also clear, though, that he expects a lot more from what’s already on hand than what the Bulls mustered this season.
“They definitely underperformed,” Karnisovas said. “[...] There’s not going to be any excuses. The youth, the injuries, all that stuff is not going to be an excuse moving forward. Because this group is too talented not to perform better.”
Record: 23-42 (10th in Eastern Conference)
2020 NBA draft picks (pre-lottery, per Tankathon.com): 8, 32, 56
Pending free agents: Nicolas Batum (player option), Bismack Biyombo, Dwayne Bacon (restricted), Willy Hernangómez
The big question: How can Charlotte add top-end talent?
I don’t mean to be glib, but after following Kemba Walker’s departure with their worst season in seven years—one in which Charlotte finished 27th in offensive efficiency and 25th in defensive efficiency, according to Cleaning the Glass—the Hornets’ greatest roster need is … well, a better roster.
“We’ve got to add talent,” general manager Mitch Kupchak told reporters on Monday. “And then when we have talent, we can figure the rest out.”
That’ll start in the draft. Kupchak has done a pretty strong job on that front since taking the reins in 2018, adding three starters—breakout guard Devonte’ Graham, plus forwards Miles Bridges and PJ Washington—and some complementary pieces with promise (twins Cody and Caleb Martin, Jalen McDaniels) to head coach James Borrego’s rotation. With Biyombo now hitting the market and Cody Zeller heading into the final year of his contract, a versatile, defense-first big man like USC’s Onyeka Okongwu could make sense in the bottom half of the lottery; with little size in a Graham–Terry Rozier backcourt and a paucity of bankable perimeter play as Batum declines, so could a bigger swingman like Isaac Okoro or Devin Vassell.
Whether any of those players have All-Star potential, I’m not sure. But then, few thought Graham had a high ceiling after a rookie season in which he bounced between Charlotte and the G League. But he went on to become one of this season’s most pleasant surprises by developing into an accurate high-volume 3-point shooter and a top pick-and-roll orchestrator seemingly overnight; he was one of just four players in the league this season to make more than 200 3s and drop at least 400 dimes, joining All-Stars James Harden, Damian Lillard, and Trae Young. Guys can get better, and sometimes a lot better, fast. Charlotte hit the jackpot with Graham, and will need even more luck to start building a roster that can sustainably compete for playoff berths.
Kupchak might try to use some of Charlotte’s salary cap space—projected to land between $25 million and $30 million, though a post-coronavirus league audit could shift that down a bit—to sign Graham to an extension of his dirt-cheap second-round contract. The most the Hornets can offer is a four-year deal that would start in 2021-22 at 120 percent of the league’s estimated average salary—which, according to Danny Leroux and Roderick Boone of The Athletic, could fall in somewhere around $11.5 million—and total about $51.5 million. That would guarantee Graham a huge pay raise in 2021-22, but it would also prevent him from reaching restricted free agency in that summer. The two sides reportedly haven’t begun discussing a deal; it’ll be interesting to see whether the 25-year-old prioritizes long-term security or the freedom to find out whether continued stellar play might guarantee an even richer payday down the line.
However Graham’s extension talks shake out, even if Batum picks up his $27.1 million player option—a pretty sound bet, coming off an injury-plagued season in which he averaged just 3.6 points per game on 34 percent shooting—Charlotte will have some cash to spend, now that Biyombo’s mammoth deal (a four-year, $72 million eyebrow-raiser he inked with Orlando in the early hours of the fever-dream free-agency summer of 2016) is coming off the books. But the Hornets have rarely landed top-flight free agents and, as a rebuilding team in a mid-sized market, likely wouldn’t be in the running for the best players available even in a down summer.
The best course of action, then, might be for Kupchak to sit on that cap space and hunt for opportunities to rent it out to teams with bloated payrolls willing to give up young talent or draft capital to offload big salaries. That’s the tack the Grizzlies took last summer, and it landed them Andre Iguodala (whom they later flipped for Justise Winslow) and a future first-round pick from the Warriors; as the full extent of the economic damage the pandemic has wrought around the NBA isn’t yet known, it’s possible that a number of other teams might find themselves in need of a bailout, and that Charlotte can capitalize to help propel their rebuild along like Memphis did.
Record: 20-46 (13th in Eastern Conference)
2020 NBA draft picks (pre-lottery, per Tankathon.com): 5
Pending free agents: Brandon Knight, John Henson, Langston Galloway, Tony Snell (player option), Thon Maker (restricted), Christian Wood, Jordan Bone, Svi Mykhailiuk (team option)
The big question: Can Detroit move its most famous pieces to kickstart a rebuild—and does it want to?
Injuries scuttled any hopes the Pistons had of returning to the playoffs after their 2019 postseason appearance (which would’ve marked the first back-to-back trips since 2008-09). All-NBA power forward Blake Griffin, starting point guard Reggie Jackson, and bright-spot shooting guard Luke Kennard all missed more than half of this season, removing three important sources of shot creation and buckets from an attack that already struggled to consistently generate and convert efficient looks; the result was a bottom-10 offense, the NBA’s third-worst efficiency differential from mid-December on, and the league’s worst record in that span.
There was a silver lining to all that losing, though: It spurred owner Tom Gores (and, by extension, lead basketball executive Ed Stefanski) to decide it was time to aspire “to something bigger than what we’ve been doing.” Which is to say: just trying to sneak into the eighth seed every year, say you made the playoffs, get a couple of extra home games’ worth of gate receipts, and then shuffle off the postseason coil before things get interesting. That meant transitioning to a youth movement—suddenly rookie Sekou Doumbouya was in the starting lineup—and, in February, letting go of vets Jackson (who took a buyout and joined the Clippers), Markieff Morris (who took a buyout and joined the Lakers), and Andre Drummond (who was sent to Cleveland for expiring contracts, a 2023 second-round pick, and the certainty that his $28.7 million player option and eventual rich new deal would be somebody else’s problem).
The Pistons didn’t come away from those moves with much, but they did wind up with a direction. With more than $30 million in cap space on the horizon, control over all of its own first-round draft picks (including this year’s, likely to be the franchise’s first top-five pick since 2003 … which, um, maybe the less said about that one, the better), some intriguing young pieces in the fold, and a bona fide revelation in ascendant frontcourt stud Christian Wood, Detroit had clearly entered a rebuilding phase. The choice now facing Stefanski and whoever he hires as Detroit’s new GM is just how aggressively to move through it.
Back in 2018, Stan Van Gundy moved heaven, earth, Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic, Avery Bradley, and a draft pick that would turn into Shai Gilgeous-Alexander for Griffin in hopes that the All-Star forward could lift long-dormant Detroit out of the doldrums. And Griffin turned in one of the finest all-around seasons of his career in 2018-19, essentially carrying the Pistons back to the playoffs … before breaking down just before their first-round matchup with Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks, and never being able to get right last season.
When the former no. 1 pick is on the court, he’s good enough to make the Pistons watchable, and to serve as an offensive focal point who can take pressure off the youngsters and help foster their development. He’s also 31 with a litany of leg injuries, has played more than 65 games just twice in the past six seasons, and is on the books for $75.8 million over the next two seasons. All of that makes him a hard player to rely on and a hard player to move on from. Will Detroit’s front office beat the bushes for a trade partner for Griffin to fully close the book on the previous era and start a new chapter for the organization—even if moving his mammoth deal would require attaching draft capital or a young piece to pay his freight?
Derrick Rose poses a similar, though less financially dire, quandary: He was fantastic last season when pressed into duty soaking up a superstar’s share of offensive possessions, to the point that he seemed like a perfect trade target for would-be contenders in the market for an extra jolt of offense off the bench. But Rose reportedly wasn’t interested in a deal, and the Pistons reportedly didn’t dangle him at the deadline, preferring to hang on to a player who was significantly outperforming his two-year, $15 million contract. With the 31-year-old now moving into the final season of that bargain deal, and the Pistons starting over, will both sides stick to that script? Or could the former MVP return some raw materials for the Detroit brain trust to use around the rookie-scale pieces already on board and on the way in future drafts?
If Detroit’s going full “blow it up,” you’d expect Rose to be on the move, Griffin to be shopped, Wood to be re-signed (he’s due a steep raise, but something starting at around $10 million a year could get the job done), and head coach Dwane Casey to gird his loins for a long season of watching last year’s kids plus a high-lottery pick—KOC’s got them taking Okoro, though given the glaring lack of backcourt playmakers on the roster, a guard like Haliburton, Tyrese Maxey, or Killian Hayes might be good fits, too—take their lumps. But committing to suck is hard; doing it in a market where you’re already struggling to fill the seats is harder; and doing it in the aftermath of a season stoppage due to a pandemic that’s wreaking havoc on balance sheets across the league might be hardest of all. It’ll be interesting to see whether, when push comes to shove, Gores, Stefanski, and Co. decide that the best course of action for next season might just be hanging on to their name-brand stars and trying to sneak back into the eighth seed after all.