After a postseason filled with unexpected runs and somewhat expected sweeps, the Eastern Conference is hitting the reset button and preparing for the post-postseason. The NBA draft and free agency can address each team’s biggest need—or be the source of their biggest mistakes. Here’s what each team in the East needs most, other than for LeBron to move to the Western Conference.
Biggest need: Frontcourt defense
After Atlanta let Paul Millsap walk last summer, it was destined for one of those “What are we doing here?” seasons. It was indeed that bad, as the Hawks finished 24-58. But their young players, specifically rookie John Collins and 24-year-old forward Taurean Prince, showed enough potential for the season to be worthwhile. Prince, Collins, and Dennis Schröder (also 24) are under contract for a combined $20 million next season, and Atlanta’s future flexibility doesn’t stop there. The front office owns four picks in the top 35 of the 2018 draft, including third overall. Pairing Collins with a prospect like Michigan State’s Jaren Jackson Jr. with the third pick would establish a young, up-and-coming frontcourt. Jackson, a highly regarded shot blocker, would address some of the issues Atlanta’s 21st-ranked defense had with rim protection last season. (Collins led the team in blocks, with 1.1 per game.)
Friendly suggestion: Draft Jaren Jackson Jr.
Biggest need: Run back as much of the roster as possible
Boston’s biggest need is healthy limbs, but since this is the trade market and not the black market, we’ll focus on their own players entering free agency. With Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving back, Al Horford still under contract, and Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown evolving, the Celtics don’t have clear gaps so much as they have a tricky cap situation. The team was unable to agree on a number in extension talks last year with Marcus Smart, meaning the guard will become a restricted free agent this summer. Smart said after Boston’s Game 7 elimination that he was “worth more than $12-14 million,” and ESPN reported that he isn’t interested in giving Boston a hometown discount. Even off the bench, Smart is crucial to the Celtics’ identity. Plus, he proved this postseason to be a capable defender on LeBron—which is important for any team with major postseason aspirations to have around.
Friendly suggestion: Keep Smart, if possible.
Biggest need: A stretch 4
In February, Nets GM Sean Marks summed up his front office philosophy to NetsDaily: “We’re going to keep hitting singles, and every now and then, we will tend to be opportunistic.” He later referenced Otto Porter Jr., whom Brooklyn offered a maximum contract to last summer. Signing Porter would’ve been a home run, except Washington matched the offer sheet. But the Nets didn’t sound the alarm and begin panic-signing players. That blueprint would serve them well this offseason, too, as Marks looks for a forward to pair with Jarrett Allen. Their “home run” this summer could be restricted free agent Aaron Gordon, as the Magic forward has the size, defensive ability, and versatility Brooklyn needs at the 4. Gordon’s 3-point shooting bump this season also makes him an ideal candidate for Kenny Atkinson’s system.
Friendly suggestion: Make an offer to Gordon, but have cheap, temporary options (Nemanja Bjelica, Ersan Ilyasova) for backup.
Biggest need: Smart guard decisions
There’s been chatter since the trade deadline that Michael Jordan might be moving on from the Hornets’ franchise point guard. “We would not just give him up,” Jordan said. “I love Kemba Walker. I would not trade him for anything but an All-Star player.” That sounds like he’s committed to Kemba, but it’s actually the owner saying we would trade you if the offer is good enough. Charlotte’s been stuck for some years now, but moving the most talented player on the roster isn’t the part of the team that needs fixing. Charlotte does have the 11th overall pick in the draft, which is high enough to select a guard to complement Walker or play behind him.
Friendly suggestion: Don’t let Malik Monk keep you from drafting a quality guard.
Biggest need: A 3-and-D guy
Chicago needs deep shooting almost as much as it needs perimeter defense. Mikal Bridges, out of Villanova, checks those boxes, despite most mock drafts slotting him a few spots lower than the Bulls’ seventh overall pick. Bridges, whose age will draw pause (he’s—gasp—21), can guard multiple positions and shoot off the dribble, which fits the vision Fred Hoiberg has been trying to execute since getting hired. The front office doesn’t necessarily have to fill the gap at wing through the draft; GarPax is projected to have $41.5 million in practical cap space this summer, second only to the Lakers. But overspending this early in a rebuild is almost as dangerous as making the wrong pick in the draft.
Friendly suggestion: Draft Bridges.
Biggest Need: A once-in-a-lifetime superstar replacement. What, like it’s hard?
No team’s summer plans are more up in the air than Cleveland’s. GM Koby Altman has to prepare for two scenarios: Either LeBron James re-signs, or he leaves for the Lakers. (Wink, wink, Magic.) If LeBron leaves, the Cavs would go from being in four straight Finals to missing the playoffs altogether. Altman’s trade-deadline activity indicates he’s thinking long-term—Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr., and Rodney Hood are all 26 or under—as does Dan Gilbert’s reported fascination with the Brooklyn pick (now eighth overall in the 2018 draft). If that’s the case, Kevin Love’s perpetual trade rumors might finally become reality.
Friendly suggestion: Go young, keep the Brooklyn pick, and trade Love.
Biggest need: Time
Detroit regained direction when it hired Dwane Casey on Monday. Its mission has been contradictory for some time now: Former coach Stan Van Gundy needed perimeter players for his offense to work, then built a team limited in that area. SVG tried to right those wrongs by drafting Luke Kennard, only to pass up Donovan Mitchell. The Pistons then absorbed one of the worst contracts in the past two years when they traded for Blake Griffin. Casey is beginning his tenure with a roster stuck firmly in place—Detroit doesn’t have a first-round pick in this draft, is already far over the cap with a handful of unmovable contracts, and has last season’s 39-43 starters all under contract (Griffin, Andre Drummond, Reggie Jackson, Reggie Bullock, and Stanley Johnson). The most the Pistons can hope for is a season of growth from Kennard, Johnson, and Henry Ellenson.
Friendly suggestion: Focus on development.
Biggest need: Figuring out what to do at power forward
After Indiana was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs, GM Kevin Pritchard pictured the team with a “real stretch-four” in a season-ending press conference. “If you had a real shooting four, a real stretch-four to put out there with the same team,” Pritchard said, “it’s a tough defend.” Thaddeus Young, Indiana’s not-so-stretchy power forward, is “seriously considering” opting out of the final year of his deal ($13.7 million) with Indiana in order to enter free agency this offseason, according to ESPN. It’s in his best interest to, as Young is days away from turning 30 years old, and it could be the difference between years of security and getting usurped by Pritchard’s ideal stretch-4. Young was extremely valuable to the Pacers’ success on both ends of the court, though, and both sides have expressed wanting him to return. But the Pacers also have a wealth of cap space to play with this summer, and could pursue Aaron Gordon or one of the other power forwards on the market.
Friendly suggestion: Take Brooklyn’s “singles” advice—don’t overspend if a forward target doesn’t work out.
Biggest need: Cap space
Dwyane Wade’s midseason trade back to Miami seemed like a feel-good story more than anything else. He and the Heat could ride off into the sunset and grow old together. Then Wade was used as a spark, a go-to scorer, and a closer in the playoffs. It was a highly enjoyable, series-long Throwback Thursday, but having to rely on a 36-year-old was also a concerning sign for the Heat as a whole. As of now, there’s little Pat Riley can do about it. Miami has $120 million allocated in contracts for next season without an under-35 star to its name. On top of that, Phoenix owns the Heat’s first-round pick in this draft. The current roster has gusto, but it’s made entirely of role players with upside. There are multiple bad contracts worth dumping, like the one of backup point guard Tyler Johnson, which will pay him $19.2 million next season. But none are more expendable than Hassan Whiteside’s. After a season marked by injury, a reduced role, and shrunken minutes, the center is due $25.4 million in 2018-19.
Friendly suggestion: Get creative, and find a way to trade Whiteside.
Biggest need: Role players with understood roles
The Bucks need to figure out how to best surround Giannis Antetokounmpo. To do so, there are two glaring numbers new coach Mike Budenholzer and the rest of the basketball ops staff can focus on: rebounding, in which they finished dead last, and 3-point shooting, which was nearly as bad. Surrounding Giannis with shooters, second-chance opportunities, and defensive rebounds would allow the Bucks to push the pace and operate what some are calling an “offense.” Three-and-D guys are the most sought-after role players in the league right now, and Milwaukee has little money to acquire some in free agency. But the Bucks do have the 17th overall pick this year.
Friendly suggestion: Package the pick or use it on a 3-and-Der.
New York Knicks
Biggest need: Mikal Bridges, according to Mikal Bridges (a point guard, according to everyone else)
Unfortunately for Bridges, one of many recurring Knicks problems is not being able to settle on a point guard. Trey Burke, at 25, is old news; Jarrett Jack is older news that was also eating up Frank Ntilikina’s minutes; Ntilikina had all the adoration of a franchise point guard without the production; and then Emmanuel Mudiay was added to the mix at the trade deadline. Alabama’s Collin Sexton is the shot creator Frankie Smokes couldn’t quite sell himself as. Sexton can also catch and shoot or hit shots off the dribble. And while Ntilikina has been described as “passive” on offense, Sexton is the opposite: In The Ringer’s NBA Draft Guide, Kevin O’Connor wrote that he’s a “fearless score-first point guard who needs to learn how to control his intensity.”
Friendly suggestion: Get intense. Draft Sexton.
Biggest need: What do you get for the franchise that has nothing?
Joking! Orlando has soon-to-be restricted free agent Aaron Gordon ... whom the front office was possibly looking to trade before the deadline. Now, if the Magic want to let him go, they’ll be left with nothing in return. AG, for one, hopes that the market will appreciate his breakthrough on offense this past season. “Ideal is max,” Gordon said in April. (Same.) Yahoo Sports’ Shams Charania said on Chris Mannix’s podcast last week that the “sentiment” he’s gotten from the Magic is that they’ll match offers for Gordon. The capped-out Magic do have the option of holding onto Gordon and addressing other roster issues (like defense) with the sixth overall pick in the 2018 draft. The Magic need a point guard, and Trae Young and Sexton will likely be available when they get on the clock. But interesting prospects at other positions may also be on the board, like Mohamed Bamba and Michael Porter Jr.
Friendly suggestion: Keep AG; consider drafting outside the point guard position.
Biggest need: LeBron
Actual biggest need: A guard who can create his own shot
Finding a new general manager ahead of the draft is probably the franchise’s most pressing need. But no one understands roster gaps more intimately than interim GM and head coach Brett Brown, who has been in Philly since the beginning of the Process. What Brown and the rest of the front office are lacking is a guard who can create his own shot (and take the shot, unlike Ben Simmons, and make the shot, unlike Markelle Fultz). Young could still be around when Philadelphia picks 10th overall in the draft, but the franchise also has the cap space to think even bigger by adding someone like Paul George in free agency to fill the hole. The Sixers have the best seat in the house this summer; they’re a young team with time, but are also developing in hyperspeed.
Friendly suggestion: Draft Young.
Biggest need: A new coach and wing depth.
Toronto is the last team with a coaching vacancy. The new hire will inherit a complete roster capable of making the playoffs, unless team president Masai Ujiri decides it’s time for a change more drastic than firing Casey. (Ironically, the reason for action, LeBron James, might not even be in the same conference next season.) The Raptors are without a draft pick or any cap space. If the major personnel stays the same, then the Raptors don’t have means to add pieces other than the midlevel exception.
Friendly suggestion: Utilize the MLE for a backup wing.
Biggest need: A viable center
This year, after 15 seasons on the job, Wizards GM Ernie Grunfeld was given a contract extension, according to The Washington Post. In that time, Washington has never advanced past Round 2 of the playoffs. To be fair, Grunfeld started to follow the Warriors’ build-a-dynasty instruction manual by drafting well (John Wall, Bradley Beal, and Otto Porter Jr.). But Grunfeld has struggled to put much around them as their salaries soar to over $70 million combined next season. There also aren’t any valid excuses for signing Ian Mahinmi to a four-year, $64 million contract. Between him and Marcin Gortat, who reached his ceiling long ago, Washington hasn’t found the one additional player it needs to push it over the top.
Friendly suggestion: Sign-and-trade for DeMarcus Cousins.