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.
Executives will have to make roster decisions in a financial landscape subject to sweeping change as the league and its players union enter collective bargaining over how to adjust the system to account for the economic fallout of COVID-19. Talent evaluators tasked with building boards for the 2020 NBA draft will have to do so based on a smaller sample of games to study, with scant access to prospects, and without in-person workouts, predraft combines, or pro days. And they’ll have to do it all on a dramatically tilted timeline, one that could see the draft and free agency take place two weeks before Halloween, training camps open in November, and a new season tip off in the final days of 2020, nearly nine months after COVID-19 shut everything down. (It probably won’t wind up being quite that long; the eight eliminated teams are pushing for increased offseason access to their players in the form of offseason minicamps, joint practices, mini summer leagues, and a head start on opening up training camp before next season.)
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, beginning with the one that sits at the bottom of the standings, but has designs on an immediate return to the top. (We’ll cover the other four in a second post later this week.)
Golden State Warriors
Record: 15-50 (last in Western Conference)
2020 NBA draft picks (pre-lottery, per Tankathon.com): 1, 48, 54
Pending free agents: None, though Marquese Chriss, Ky Bowman, Damion Lee, Mychal Mulder, and Juan Toscano-Anderson are all on nonguaranteed contracts for next season
The big question: Is ownership ready to go all in again?
With Kevin Durant leaving for Brooklyn, Andre Iguodala shipped out to create space for the D’Angelo Russell sign-and-trade, and Klay Thompson shelved as he rehabilitates a torn left ACL, we knew the best the Warriors could hope for this season was a fighting chance in the Western playoff chase. Then their power puncher broke his hand and everything went to the shithouse. Suddenly, glittering Golden State was going into battle every night led by unproven youngsters and an exasperated Draymond Green. The result was rough—an unceremonious dismount from the high horse on which the Warriors had ridden for a half-decade.
The good news: 2020-21 presents a prime opportunity for the Dubs to get back in the saddle. Stephen Curry, who returned from his injury for an invigorating one-game cameo the week before the league suspended play, will be back. So will Thompson, who may or may not be 100 percent right now but will likely be by December, and Green, a 16-game player who will once again have reason to get up for the preceding 82. Barring yet another blockbuster for general manager Bob Myers and the front office, so will Andrew Wiggins, who came over from Minnesota at the trade deadline and will slot into a supporting role on the wing.
Returning that core, though, comes at a heavy cost: Curry, Thompson, Wiggins, and Green are on the books for just under $130.2 million combined next season. A top-five draft pick—Georgia guard Anthony Edwards and Iowa State guard Tyrese Haliburton are reportedly among the prospects that have the Warriors’ eye—will add between $6.7 million (for the no. 5 slot) and $10.3 million (for no. 1) to the balance sheet. Golden State is holding onto a mammoth $17.2 million traded player exception, from sending Iguodala to Memphis last summer, that could be used to import a high-priced talent. (There are a slew of smaller exceptions the Warriors could also use, if need be, though they can’t be cobbled together.) It will also have its full taxpayer mid-level exception, which could come in around $6 million, and could be used to pursue veteran help.
These are the mechanisms the Warriors have at their disposal to find another option in the middle alongside the injury-plagued Kevon Looney and pleasant surprise Marquese Chriss, and to bolster a young and unproven second unit. But using them all could stick ownership with a total salary outlay of nearly $180 million for next season; the resultant luxury tax bill for such a top-heavy team, as The Athletic’s Anthony Slater writes, “would basically double those expenditures.” Whether it’s worth it to foot that kind of bill probably depends on whether the Warriors are able to hit a home run with the TPE and land a DeMarcus Cousins–level talent with the MLE. Paying up to land, say, Marc Gasol might go down a lot smoother than doing it for, I don’t know, Tony Snell and Avery Bradley.
Owner Joe Lacob has been willing to spend to win big in the past. In a wildly uncertain economic environment—one in which nobody knows when a full complement of fans will be able to attend Warriors games (or anything else) at Chase Center—will he be willing to pay to pry back open the championship window that slammed shut in the 2019 Finals, and to go from the league’s basement to light-years ahead once again?
“Depending on the economics, we have to be smart and pragmatic,” Myers told reporters in a Monday conference call. “If something makes sense, I can only look at past history where Joe has always been receptive to spending if it helps us win. We’re in a very unique situation now. I have no idea what the future holds. But I do know we have an ownership group that’s aggressive and always seems to push the limits. Resources have always been a huge positive in our organization, but I don’t know what it’s going to look like.”
“What it’s going to look like” could be the difference between the Warriors once again competing at the top of the West and another frustrating season far away from the heights of recent years.
Record: 19-46 (last in Eastern Conference)
2020 NBA draft picks (pre-lottery, per Tankathon.com): 2
Pending free agents: Andre Drummond (player option), Tristan Thompson, Matthew Dellavedova, Ante Zizic (who might be on his way to Israel)
The big question: What sort of team is Cleveland trying to build?
It’s likely that Drummond will answer Cleveland’s most significant financial question early. Chris Fedor of Cleveland.com reported back in April that the two-time All-Star center will “most likely” pick up his $28.8 million player option, rather than opt out to hit the unrestricted market. If he stays put, and if Kevin Love does too—there’s still $91.5 million left on that contract over the next three years—next season’s Cavs will be built around a frontcourt combo that got drilled by nearly 10 points per 100 possessions in limited late-season run, and a backcourt duo of Collin Sexton and Darius Garland, which got drilled by a little more than 10 points per 100 in a much larger sample this season. Tough stuff.
If you squint a little, you can see the logic behind some of the Cavs’ moves in the past couple of years. Extending Love was an attempt to show that the team wanted to be more competitive after LeBron’s second exit than his first. (And to lock in a potentially valuable trade chip, which the Cavs haven’t found a willing partner for.) Sexton wasn’t a consensus pick—our site mocked Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to Cleveland, for what it’s worth—but a lot of people loved his scoring ability and relentless motor at Alabama. After an up-and-down rookie season, Sexton as the point guard of the future was no sure thing; enter the highly touted Garland, and the launching of a flotilla of hopeful “Dame and CJ works!” comparisons. Four years and $44.8 million is a pretty good price for Larry Nance Jr. Selling high on Jordan Clarkson makes sense. If you’re not going to be a free-agent destination anyway, and Detroit’s just giving him away, why not trade for Drummond?
Relax your eyes, though, and the picture that comes into focus looks less like a schooner and more like … well, just a random jumble of dots and lines.
Sexton made strides this season: He averaged 23.6 points per game on 49/45/87 shooting after the calendar flipped to 2020, took a higher share of his shots in the paint, and drew fouls more frequently. But he still doesn’t facilitate much, and it remains unclear whether he and Garland (who struggled mightily as a rookie) can become potent enough together offensively to mitigate the liability of starting two 6-foot-1 combo guards. Was Drummond a dice roll, or do he and the Cavs want this partnership to last beyond this season to a big-money extension or a new deal come next summer?
As intriguing as J.B. Bickerstaff’s experiments with three-big-man lineups were—Thompson-Love-Nance were plus-19 in 40 minutes, and Drummond-Love-Nance were plus-25 in 30—the Cavs need an answer on the wing better than Nance’s (very effective) turn as a monster 3. Cedi Osman has underwhelmed in two seasons as a starting small forward; will rising sophomore Kevin Porter Jr. slide into that spot? If not, what does that mean for the Sexton-Garland combo? Do you bring a top-eight pick off the bench one or two seasons into his career if it gives you the best shot of having a competitive defense after ranking dead last in points allowed per possession two seasons ago and second to last this season?
Many of the top draft prospects would represent positional overlaps either up front (James Wiseman, Obi Toppin, Onyeka Okongwu) or at the guard spot (Anthony Edwards, LaMelo Ball). The way the ping-pong balls bounce will go a long way toward determining whether they land a wing playmaker (Deni Avdija?) or defender (Isaac Okoro? Devin Vassell?) who could better balance a rotation that’s been reeling ever since the King abdicated his throne.
Record: 19-45 (14th in Western Conference)
2020 NBA draft picks (pre-lottery, per Tankathon.com): 3, 16, 33
Pending free agents: Evan Turner, James Johnson (player option), Malik Beasley (restricted), Juancho Hernangómez (restricted)
The big question: Do the Wolves already have their core?
The Wolves’ long-hoped-for reboot around Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell lasted all of 25 minutes and one game before Towns went down with a fractured left wrist. A Minnesota team that had struggled with KAT in the lineup predictably struggled even more in his absence, going 3-9 in its final 12 games before the coronavirus shutdown.
While Towns’s absence means you have to take the losses with a grain of salt, the ways the team sputtered down the stretch were all too familiar to those who have watched both the Wolves (excepting the brief and almost unbelievable Jimmy Butler era) and Russell’s teams in recent years. After D-Lo came to town, the Wolves scored an average of 111 points per 100 possessions, an improvement over their previous mark that left them tied for 17th in the league in the final few weeks. On the other end, though, they hemorrhaged points, allowing a ghastly 119.4 points per 100—worst in the league in that span.
It’s tough to see Minnesota’s most recent refresh paying greater dividends than its predecessors until Towns and Russell make notable improvements defensively; it would help, though, if Gersson Rosas and Co. can find more harmonious talent to put between the franchise’s two bookends. It looks like they found one valuable piece in Beasley, who largely served as a complementary reserve in Denver, but averaged 20.7 points on 47.2 percent shooting (including a 42.6 percent mark from 3-point range on 8.2 attempts a night) in Minnesota to go with 5.1 rebounds and 1.9 assists in 33.1 minutes per game over 14 starts at shooting guard:
The Wolves were outscored by just two points per 100 in minutes with Russell and Beasley on the floor together, scoring like gangbusters. Plug Towns into the middle as another long-range threat and beast on the block, and those three could become the pillars of an awfully dynamic offense.
Beasley reportedly rejected a three-year, $30 million extension offer from the Nuggets last offseason, preferring to bet on himself and seek a richer payday in restricted free agency. Whether any other teams are willing to throw a big offer sheet his way remains to be seen, but Rosas has said he wants to keep both Beasley and Spanish combo forward Juancho Hernangómez in Minnesota. If Beasley’s late-season surge winds up being the real deal rather than just a post-trade blip on the radar, and hoped-for defensive helpers like Josh Okogie and 2019 lottery pick Jarrett Culver can grow enough to bring Rosas’s vision of a team built around one big, one point, and three wings to fruition, the Wolves might have the beginnings of something to build around. But if a bidding war for Beasley’s services materializes in a talent-light 2020 free-agent class and drives his price range too high, there may be another frustrating setback in Minnesota’s years-long search for the right kind of partners to put next to Towns.
Record: 20-47 (14th in Eastern Conference)
2020 NBA draft picks (pre-lottery, per Tankathon.com): 4, 52
Pending free agents: Jeff Teague, Vince Carter, Treveon Graham, DeAndre’ Bembry (restricted), Skal Labissiere (restricted), Damian Jones (restricted)
The big question: What does Atlanta think it needs to level up?
The Hawks want to make the playoffs next year. We know this because despite being one of the worst teams in the league this season, they shipped out the Nets’ lottery-protected 2020 first-round pick to bring in Clint Capela, a rim-running, shot-blocking center in his prime, in hopes that he might be the answer to ascendant pick-and-roll playmaker Trae Young’s postseason prayers. We also know this because they followed the Capela deal by swinging a second deal for ex-Hawk Dewayne Dedmon, another shot-blocking center—this one with some stretch to his game—who can act as a backline anchor and ensure 48 minutes of rim protection for a team that’s fielded a bottom-five defense in each of the past three seasons. We also know the Hawks want to make the playoffs next year because, y’know, they said so.
So: Given that organizational goal, how does Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk elevate his team from the basement to the postseason bracket? Internal growth is likely a big part of the plan. In his second season, Young became an All-Star, currently ranking fourth in the league in scoring and second in assists, and creating more buckets for his teammates at the rim than any other player in the league, according to pbpstats.com. After slow starts to their careers, De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish both came on as their rookie seasons progressed. A left rotator cuff strain threw a wrench into Kevin Huerter’s sophomore season, but he still shot 38 percent from 3-point range on six attempts per game and posted a strong 2.45-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. And after returning from his 25-game PED suspension, John Collins averaged 22.2 points, 10.3 rebounds, 1.6 blocks, and 1.4 assists per game, shooting 59 percent from the field and 39.1 percent from 3-point land on 3.6 attempts a night—an indicator of the ongoing diversification of his offensive game and a promising sign for his potential fit as an occasional floor-spacing 4 alongside Capela. All of those players are 22 or younger; while growth and development aren’t linear and constant, the Hawks are betting that, even for Young, the best is yet to come.
The only one of those core pieces due for an immediate raise is Collins, who becomes eligible for an extension this offseason. That means, if you’ll permit me a brief Jean-Ralphio reference, the Hawks are flush with cash: They’re projected to have more than $47 million in cap space. We know that the free-agent market isn’t especially exciting this offseason for a variety of reasons, but there are some intriguing players on it, and Atlanta will have the wherewithal to splash the pot and try to make improvements.
I don’t think the Pelicans will let Brandon Ingram even approach city limits, but he’s a 22-year-old combo forward who proved this season he can thrive as a no. 1 option and after Zion Williamson’s debut, he started to show that he could still shine in a complementary role, too; why not make New Orleans prove it’s willing to pony up the max to keep him? Sure, Sacramento signaled its intention to keep ace combo guard Bogdan Bogdanovic by offloading Dedmon’s deal, but the Serbian playmaker could work on or off the ball as a smart facilitator, knockdown shooter, and gutsy late-game option alongside or backing up Young. Among more attainable options, Nets marksman Joe Harris has blossomed next to high-usage, ball-dominant point guards in Brooklyn, and might be a nice fit on the wing for a team that could use more perimeter shooting.
If none of those options pan out, maybe Schlenk decides not to waste any time and makes Collins a big offer now. Or, he might prefer to wait the year, see how the former Wake Forest big man meshes with Capela, maintain financial flexibility in the event that a superstar demands a change of scenery, and then use the right of first refusal in restricted free agency to match any offer sheet he receives next summer. Or he could dangle Atlanta’s top-half-of-the-lottery pick at the draft for immediate help. Or he could stand pat, take the best player available, trust that Trae’s playmaking brilliance plus the developing young wings are enough to at least lift Atlanta into the neighborhood of the Orlandos of the world, and keep that cap-space powder dry to try make an even bigger explosion in the summer of 2021.
Atlanta has the youth, money, and talent to put together something interesting. The question is whether Schlenk, Lloyd Pierce, and Co. can find a way to bring it all together.