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The Biggest Offseason Questions for the NBA’s First-Round Losers

Do the Thunder blow it up or run it back? What can the Sixers realistically do this summer? And is Caris LeVert the third star in Brooklyn or the trade piece that nets the third star?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The first round of the 2020 NBA playoffs has drawn to a close, with eight teams advancing to the conference semifinals and the other eight ending their surreal stay inside the Disney World bubble. The latter group now enters an unprecedented offseason in which nearly everything remains in flux: As the league stitches together a new reality amid the coronavirus pandemic, we don’t yet know when the 2020 draft will be, where the salary cap and luxury tax lines will land, when free agency will open, when the 2020-21 season will tip off, or what the collective bargaining agreement governing it all might look like.

What we do know, though, is that our eight eliminated squads each have some problems to solve, so let’s lend a hand—or at least frame the issues they face. Let’s take a look at the biggest offseason questions for the teams who’ve just been ousted, starting with a squad looking to go from the fringes of the playoffs to the heart of the championship chase:

Brooklyn Nets

Record: 35-37 (seventh in Eastern Conference, lost 4-0 to Toronto)
2020 NBA draft picks: 19, 55
Pending free agents: Joe Harris, Wilson Chandler, and Tyler Johnson (unrestricted); Garrett Temple (team option); Chris Chiozza (restricted)

Is Caris LeVert the third guy, or the guy who gets you the third guy?

Pressed into duty as the no. 1 option for a Brooklyn team beset by injuries and illnesses, LeVert shined in Orlando, averaging 23.1 points, 7.8 assists, and 5.4 rebounds in 33.9 minutes per game in the bubble before the Raptors swept the Nets:

As impressive as those numbers are, though, when thinking about the next version of the Nets, three more stats seem just as noteworthy: 73.8, 6.5 minutes, and 32.6 percent. That’s LeVert’s touches per game, average time of possession, and usage rate during the seeding games, all of which ranked in the top 15 in the league. Here’s where we remind you that we’re 14 months removed from general manager Sean Marks spending a shade under $301 million—feel free to round it up to $341 million to include the DeAndre Jordan Friendship Tax—on two other guys to make most of the plays and take most of the shots.

It feels notable that Marks described re-signing Harris, an off-ball attention magnet who’s shot 43 percent from 3-point range over four seasons in Brooklyn and ranks among the league’s leaders in points per shot attempt, as “priority no. 1” last month. That stands to reason; an offensive structure built around Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving (or, in his stead, insurance policy/pick-and-roll maestro Spencer Dinwiddie) would seem to demand lower-usage complementary pieces who can contribute efficiently in limited opportunities. LeVert, meanwhile, is a dynamic playmaker who has thrived with the ball in his hands, attacking the rim or slaloming his way through the defense toward midrange pull-ups, and has made just 33.4 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s as a pro.

The 26-year-old swingman proved in the second half of the season that he’s got the game to be a star in this league. But is it the right kind of game to be the best third star for Brooklyn? And, if it’s not, did the gifts LeVert showed in the second half of the season make him too valuable a piece—especially on the below-market extension he signed last summer—to just flip in pursuit of a more snug fit?

(Oh: There’s also the whole “who is going to coach this team next season?” thing. That’s a pretty big question to answer, too.)

Philadelphia 76ers

Record: 43-30 (sixth in Eastern Conference, lost 4-0 to Boston)
2020 NBA draft picks: 21, 34, 36, 49, 58
Pending free agents: Alec Burks, Glenn Robinson III, Raul Neto, and Kyle O’Quinn (unrestricted)

What can the Sixers realistically change about this roster?

There will be a new head coach; that much, we know. And despite the calls for a total house-cleaning following a demoralizing sweep, it sounds like everybody’s favorite mock offseason lever won’t be getting pulled.

“I’m not looking to trade Ben [Simmons] or Joel [Embiid],” Sixers GM Elton Brand told reporters last week. “I’m trying to complement them. They’re 24 and 26 and want to be here. You try to make that fit as long as possible.”

Brand will apparently be the one trying to “make that fit,” consolidating decision-making power after “the collaboration days” that followed Bryan Colangelo’s ouster “didn’t work too well.” That assessment indicts the work of a power structure that took the reins post-Burnergate and presided over a string of nearly-as-preposterous events. (That Brand was part of that power structure seems noteworthy, but is evidently beside the point.)

The “collaboration days” saw the end of the Markelle Fultz saga; the souring of an apparently savvy draft-night deal, thanks in part to a sesame allergy; trading four draft picks and Landry Shamet for the right to pay Tobias Harris $180 million; telegraphing their infatuation with Matisse Thybulle so much that Danny Ainge was able to soak them for a high second-rounder; and quintupling down on size by paying Al Horford $109 million to play out of position while fielding a roster parched for guards who can dribble, pass, and shoot. As a result, the Sixers—who were on pace for a third straight 50-win season before the hiatus and employ two prime-aged All-Stars—seem like a screwed and bloated disaster. Woof.

Since Brand can’t time-travel back to before the Jimmy Butler trade, and since getting off Philly’s worst contracts would likely require a bunch of draft-capital sweeteners—especially that Harris deal; dude’ll make $39.3 million in 2024—his best bet might be to take a deep breath and think smaller. Canvas the league to see whether trading Josh Richardson can get you a more reliable shooter and/or shot creator. Focus on developing the in-house options on the wing—Thybulle, Shake Milton, Furkan Korkmaz, Zhaire Smith (who shot 37.6 percent from 3 in the G League this season). Work the draft, the bargain bin, and undrafted free agency to get more bites at the apple; try like hell to be the team that finds the next Danuel House, Terence Davis, Duncan Robinson, or Luguentz Dort.

Swallow hard and make Horford the league’s richest backup center. Do everything you can to put shooting around Embiid and Simmons, entrust your new head coach to maximize their potential, and see where that lands you. Worst-case scenario? You can still revisit the league’s most well-worn “will they/won’t they?” drama next offseason.

Indiana Pacers

Record: 45-28 (fourth in Eastern Conference, lost 4-0 to Miami)
2020 NBA draft picks: 54
Pending free agents: Justin Holiday and JaKarr Sampson (unrestricted); Alize Johnson, Brian Bowen, and Naz Mitrou-Long (restricted)

What does Victor Oladipo’s future look like, and will the Pacers tie themselves to it?

Like the Nets and Sixers, the Pacers have a coaching vacancy to fill, and reportedly have someone particular in mind. There’s a certain logic to the idea of trading Nate McMillan’s slow-down-and-hunt-the-midrange offense for a spread-out and sped-up attack, and seeing how that might unleash a built-for-speed stud like Oladipo, who torched the league en route to All-NBA honors two seasons ago.

We haven’t seen that guy much lately, though. A ruptured quadriceps tendon in his right knee put Oladipo on the shelf for a year, and in both his brief return before the league’s March 11 shutdown and in the bubble, he often looked like someone trying to rediscover his touch and burst. Across 23 games, Oladipo averaged 15 points in 28.3 minutes a night, shooting under 40 percent from the field and 33 percent from 3-point range, with nearly as many turnovers (61) as assists (66).

There were flashes of the old stuff. For the most part, though, the extra gear he had pre-injury just wasn’t there, too often leading him to settle for ill-advised jumpers. The Pacers suffered for all that settling, scoring 3.5 fewer points per 100 possessions with Oladipo on the court this season, according to Cleaning the Glass.

Maybe all Oladipo needs is another offseason to get back to 100 percent. A Pacers team built around that version of Vic, All-Star big man Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon, T.J. Warren, and Myles Turner with some fresh ideas on offense could be pretty damn good. But would it be good enough to entice Oladipo—whose extension talks before the season reportedly never went anywhere, whom the Pacers can only offer a deal worth $77 million less than the max he could make on the open market next offseason, and who’s widely expected to opt out of the final year of his contract to pursue precisely that sort of lucrative payday—to stick around in Indianapolis rather than seek greener pastures?

Conversely: With a small sample of post-injury play that casts at least some uncertainty on whether he’ll be That Version of Vic again, will the small-market Pacers be willing to wait around and pony up to try to keep him? Or, three years removed from the similarly pitched Paul George deal that made Oladipo a Pacer, will Kevin Pritchard and Co. feel compelled to repeat history?

Orlando Magic

Record: 33-40 (eighth in Eastern Conference, lost 4-1 to Milwaukee)
2020 NBA draft picks: 15
Pending free agents: D.J. Augustin and Michael Carter-Williams (unrestricted); Evan Fournier (player option); James Ennis (player option); Melvin Frazier (team option); Wesley Iwundu, Gary Clark, B.J. Johnson, and Vic Law (restricted)

Can the Magic find a playmaker in the backcourt?

Hey, here’s a bummer: Orlando hasn’t had an above-average offense—not even a good one, just one that finished higher than 15th in a 30-team league—since 2011-12, a.k.a. The Season Before Dwight Howard Left.

Nikola Vucevic has turned into a consistent 20-and-10 threat who can facilitate offense from the post and step out to drill 3s; he shot 40.9 percent from distance against Milwaukee’s drop coverage in Round 1 on 8.8 attempts per game. Even so, the Magic are just dead in the water on offense most nights, lacking the off-the-dribble juice (23rd in the league in drives per game and points per half-court play) and floor-spacing shooting (25th in team 3-point percentage) to compete. (That need will be even more acute if Fournier, who struggled against Milwaukee after a career season, decides not to pick up his player option and finds a richer long-term deal elsewhere this offseason.)

D.J. Augustin’s been a quality caretaker, but he’d be best served as a steady backup behind the real answer. Head coach Steve Clifford bumped him into that role to make room for Fultz, who made a quantum leap from his Philly nadir to look like a credible NBA player, averaging 12.1 points, 5.1 assists, and 3.3 rebounds per game, while shooting 46.5 percent from the field and 73 percent from the line (and actually taking 3-pointers). But while Orlando’s offense performed better with Augustin on the floor than off it, the Magic still scored at roughly a bottom-third-of-the-league clip in his minutes; they could use another source of scoring and ballhandling dynamism.

There were rumblings around the trade deadline that the Magic had checked in with Brooklyn about Dinwiddie; maybe the two sides revisit discussions, with a deal built around Aaron Gordon? That might be a tougher sell for Orlando now that Jonathan Isaac’s going to miss all of next season rehabilitating the torn ACL and meniscus in his left knee, but maybe the return of Al-Farouq Aminu and the debut of redshirted 2019 first-round pick Chuma Okeke give the Magic enough frontcourt depth to take a big swing. Orlando could also take aim at a guard in the draft. Our Kevin O’Connor has the Magic taking Stanford shooter Tyrell Terry at no. 15 overall in his latest mock draft, though depending on how the lottery shakes out, several other intriguing prospects—Cole Anthony, Kira Lewis, R.J. Hampton, Tyrese Maxey—could also be available to add to the crop of under-25 talent that Clifford’s developing.

Dallas Mavericks

Record: 43-32 (seventh in Western Conference, lost 4-2 to Clippers)
2020 NBA draft picks: 18, 31
Pending free agents: Tim Hardaway Jr. (player option); Courtney Lee, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and J.J. Barea (unrestricted); Josh Reaves and Antonius Cleveland (restricted)

How can the Mavs make life easier on Luka Doncic?

Three and a half minutes into his NBA playoff debut, with a smothering Clippers defense already forcing him into five turnovers and a 16-point deficit, you had to wonder for a moment whether Doncic might finally experience some turbulence on his rocket ride to superstardom. So much for that: Doncic averaged nearly 31 points, 10 rebounds, and nine assists per game in his first playoff series—Oscar, LeBron, Russ numbers—while combining staggering usage and shooting efficiency to a degree that only LeBron and MJ had achieved before these playoffs.

Save for dicey free throw shooting (just 54.1 percent at the stripe in games 3 through 6) and some bouts with turnovers against Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and the immortal Ivica Zubac, the dude who’d been the MVP of the EuroLeague Final Four as a teenager turned out to be ready for the brightest lights after all. “We’re so fortunate to have him,” head coach Rick Carlisle told reporters after the Clippers ended Dallas’s season. “Now we’ve got to get our roster completely healthy and keep working to get the right players around him.”

Healthy returns from no. 2 option Kristaps Porzingis, who tore his right meniscus in Game 1, and Dwight Powell, who was one of the league’s best pick-and-roll finishers before rupturing his right Achilles tendon in January, would certainly help. But a team that might be poised for some point-scoring regression after famously posting the highest offensive efficiency mark in league history would do well to bolster a defense that ranked 18th in points allowed per possession. Ideally, by supplementing the excellent but slightly undersized Dorian Finney-Smith with bigger wing defenders who can go toe-to-toe with players like Leonard, George, LeBron James, and the other perimeter luminaries Dallas must vanquish to survive out West.

Good help may be hard to find for a Dallas team that will be right at the salary cap line if (read: when) Tim Hardaway Jr. picks up his $19 million player option. “Sources said the Mavs aren’t likely to make major roster changes right away,” according to ESPN’s Tim MacMahon, and they’re not likely to look to add significant multiyear salary that would impinge on their ability to carve out max cap space for the free-agent bonanza of 2021. The $9.3 million midlevel exception can start some conversations, but there doesn’t appear to be a ready-made free-agent fit for what Dallas needs. (Except, ironically, Marcus Morris, though his extracurriculars with Doncic during Round 1 make that pretty unlikely.) Donnie Nelson and Co. might have to take fliers on the fringes (Andre Roberson? Rondae Hollis-Jefferson?) or try to rejuvenate a distressed asset (any chance in hell Nicolas Batum declines his $24 million player option?) while keeping their powder dry, scouring the trade market, and relying on Doncic to lift all boats. There are worse plans.

Portland Trail Blazers

Record: 35-39 (eighth in Western Conference, lost 4-1 to Lakers)
2020 NBA draft picks: 16, 46
Pending free agents: Carmelo Anthony, Hassan Whiteside, and Caleb Swanigan (unrestricted); Mario Hezonja and Rodney Hood (player option); Wenyen Gabriel, Jaylen Hoard, and Moses Brown (restricted)

What’s the best way forward around Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum?

I’m kind of sick of the framing that the only answer for the Blazers is trading McCollum—who, it’s worth remembering, is a filthy one-on-one scorer who shoots about 40 percent from 3 on volume, and whom the face of the franchise trusts implicitly—for Insert Roster-Balancing Wing Here. I get the underlying reasoning, but the Blazers clearly disagree with it; they have never been interested in taking that road, preferring instead to bank on the backcourt bond that’s led to seven consecutive playoff berths and the seventh-best winning percentage over that span. They’ve even lined up Dame and CJ’s contract extensions, ensuring they’re locked up for the same stretch. Whether or not you think they should trade CJ, they’re not. So: what, then?

Returning that backcourt with Jusuf Nurkic (a sight for sore eyes in Orlando, but he clearly labored after 16 months away), Zach Collins (who struggled in eight bubble appearances before suffering a season-ending ankle injury), and Rodney Hood (coming back from a ruptured left Achilles tendon) would add frontcourt depth to a rotation that was decimated all season long. If Carmelo Anthony—a net positive in nearly 2,000 minutes this season, a 45.1 percent 3-point shooter in the bubble, a committed (if flawed) defender, and a cool-ass story in a tough-ass season—is willing to come back on the cheap, he could join Hood, bubble revelation Gary Trent Jr., Trevor Ariza (if the Blazers guarantee the final season of his deal), and rising sophomore Nassir Little in a deeper and more versatile wing corps than Portland had this season.

If Portland uses the $9.3 million midlevel exception to find another veteran rotation helper, it could be right back in the mix for 50 wins and a top-four playoff seed—and maybe more than that, if president of basketball operations Neil Olshey can package a combination of youth and matching salary for one more quality piece. With a little luck, the Blazers may well be only one move away from something serious. It just might not be the move everybody keeps talking about.

Utah Jazz

Record: 44-28 (sixth in Western Conference, lost 4-3 to Denver)
2020 NBA draft picks: 23
Pending free agents: Mike Conley (early termination option); Jordan Clarkson and Emmanuel Mudiay (unrestricted); Jarrell Brantley and Justin Wright-Foreman (restricted)

What does Utah do with Rudy Gobert?

Yahoo’s Chris Haynes reported on Wednesday that the Jazz and Donovan Mitchell will finalize a projected five-year, $158 million maximum contract extension when free agency opens in October. While there was an argument for delaying Mitchell’s payday—which would have allowed the Jazz more financial flexibility to shop for high-priced help next offseason—ponying up now boxes out any potential suitors and mitigates any bad vibes fermenting should things go south next season. (Utah has some experience there.) Better to remove all doubt, pay up to lock in one cornerstone, and figure out the rest.

In the short term, “the rest” for a team that sounds unlikely to take a big swing mostly entails maintenance and augmentation: getting Bojan Bogdanovic back after wrist surgery, ensuring Conley continues to perform like he did from February on (17.6 points, 5.0 assists against 1.8 turnovers, and 3.4 rebounds in 32 minutes per game on 46/44/89 shooting splits), trying to keep Clarkson in what could be a competitive free agent market, hoping to score a rotation piece with the MLE, and continuing to work the margins in search of the next player-development success story. (I’m intrigued by what I’ve seen of 24-year-old Jarrell Brantley.) Zoom out, though, and the status of Gobert—the backbone of everything Utah’s built, but a player whose highly specific game makes it incredibly tough for him to be a viable championship centerpiece—looms large.

A two-time Defensive Player of the Year, Gobert is eligible for a supermax extension worth a whopping $221 million. It’s unlikely that the Jazz will actually offer him that; those deals have largely been earmarked for ball-dominant, high-scoring players expected to serve as the engines of title-contending offenses. Maybe they offer a smaller deal that still pays him handsomely and locks him in alongside Mitchell; as our Jonathan Tjarks noted Wednesday, though, paying Mitchell and Gobert without much high-ceiling young talent in the wings could make it awfully tough for Utah to improve over the duration of their contracts.

And that’s if Gobert takes the money. While it sounds like life in the bubble galvanized a Jazz team that was seriously strained after he and Mitchell tested positive for coronavirus back in March, what if Gobert—who has reportedly fumed over a perceived lack of recognition over the years—chafes at a sub-full-freight offer? If the bad vibes return with Gobert entering the final year of his contract, Jazz personnel chief Dennis Lindsey might have to consider all options—including one that would bring about some massive upheaval in Utah.

Oklahoma City Thunder

Record: 44-28 (fifth in Western Conference, lost 4-3 to Houston)
2020 NBA draft picks: 25, 53
Pending free agents: Danilo Gallinari, Nerlens Noel, and Andre Roberson (unrestricted); Mike Muscala (player option); Hamidou Diallo and Abdel Nader (team option); Kevin Hervey (restricted)

Run it back or blow it up?

Even the most ardent Sam Presti advocates couldn’t have foreseen just how successful (OKC’s highest winning percentage since Kevin Durant left town!) or how much of a damned delight this Thunder team would be. Chris Paul proved not only that he had something left in the tank, but also that he remains one of the game’s most fearsome crunch-time performers. Dennis Schröder cemented himself as one of the league’s premier reserves and helped unlock a surprisingly dominant late-game lineup. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander emerged during the regular season; Luguentz Dort broke out during the Rockets series.

From the beginning of December through the closing seconds of Game 7, few teams squeezed more production from their talent or more joy from their circumstances than the Thunder. Now that the season’s over, though, Presti and Co. must weigh that production and joy against the broader goal of building a sustainable championship contender for years to come—which could mean moving on from some of the key pieces behind this season’s run.

After a second straight mostly healthy season in which he averaged more than 30 points per 100 possessions and made more than 40 percent of his 3-pointers, the 32-year-old Gallinari should generate plenty of interest in free agency. But with an estimated $25 million in space below the projected luxury tax line, could the Thunder—who hold Gallo’s Bird rights, and thus can go over the salary cap to retain him—decide his scoring touch and floor spacing is worth ponying up to keep around? Noel, a springy defensive game changer who was one of just eight players to log at least 75 blocks and 50 steals this season, could be in line for both a raise and a larger role.

Paul’s contract remains massive, but two years and $85.6 million isn’t nearly as gnarly to import as three years and $124.1 million, especially after an All-NBA-caliber season; you could absolutely envision a team desperate to add a top-flight ball handler deciding that a CP3 trade is the home run swing they need. Schröder, 26 years old and owed just $15.5 million in the final season of his deal, might be an attractive target for teams seeking an offensive jolt off the bench. Steven Adams, owed $27.5 million in his final season, might not; the Thunder’s long-tenured giving tree is just 27, but has wound up looking more like a weathered stump by the end of OKC’s last two playoff series. But if teams came calling, Presti would have to listen to their offers … right?

Maybe not. After all, OKC already has a ludicrous amount of future draft capital thanks to the Westbrook, George, and Jerami Grant trades. It also already has a few intriguing young pieces (SGA, Dort, and Darius Bazley, who showed some impressive flashes against Houston) to develop. And it’s in line to have some $50 million to play with come the 2021 offseason. With all that plus the good vibes from this surprising playoff run, Presti doesn’t have to do a thing just yet … which, of course, means he just might do anything.