With the draft set for Thursday and the free-agent negotiating period beginning on Sunday, here's a look at the needs and key decisions for each team:
Will the Hawks finally break up their core trio of Al Horford, Josh Smith and Joe Johnson? Is there a way for them to improve even if they do trade one or more of them? Those are the questions facing management in the wake of a fifth straight season in which Atlanta made the playoffs but fell short of the conference finals despite handsome payments to their three stars that rose to a combined $43.4 million last season and will climb to $45 million next season.
With a more punishing luxury tax penalty built into the new collective bargaining agreement, it won't be easy for Atlanta to move Johnson (owed an average of more than $22 million over the next four years) or even Horford (owed $12 million each of the next four years) and get value in return. Smith is much more attractive with his expiring $13.2 million contract, but he is coming off a career year in which he led the team in points, rebounds and blocks, finished second in assists and anchored a defense that was sixth in points allowed per possession, according to Basketball-Reference.
Even if Atlanta is able to get to the next level with an improving nucleus that also includes point guard Jeff Teague, it risks getting nothing in return for Smith at the end of the season. But re-signing Smith without trading Johnson or Horford ensures an even more expensive status quo. Unless the team can steal a quality center or swingman with the 23rd pick, there is no easy scenario going forward.
With nine unrestricted free agents, the Celtics are certainly in position to blow up the team after a five-year run with the Big Three of Paul Pierce, Garnett and Allen. But with a couple of superb cornerstones in Pierce and point guard Rajon Rondo, along with a solid sidekick for Rondo in defensive ace Avery Bradley, Boston likely will retool more than rebuild. Whether or not the Celtics can persuade Garnett to return, they need at least one classic big man who can score and rebound in the low post. And the frontcourt becomes even more of a priority if KG signs elsewhere or retires, or if power forward Bass leaves after opting out of his contract. To seriously contend, the Celtics also need a shooting guard taller than the 6-2 Bradley who can fill it up from outside -- like Allen, in other words, though the soon-to-be 37-year-old is no cinch to come back. The Celtics have two first-round picks and the potential for significant cap space, assets they could use to help lift an offense that finished 27th in points per possession.
The grand design of billionaire owner Mikhail Prokhorov was to sacrifice lottery picks and stockpile stars in time to make a big splash when the team moved from New Jersey to its new arena in Brooklyn next season. That blueprint now hangs in the balance. If neither Williams nor Wallace plays again for the Nets, the team will have squandered its past three lottery picks -- its own 2010 selection, Derrick Favors, and its 2011 pick (which turned into Enes Kanter) in the Williams trade with Utah, and its 2012 pick (No. 6) to acquire Wallace from Portland -- for no future return. The Nets will continue to pursue a long-term contract with Williams in hopes of resurrecting the original plan of uniting him with Dwight Howard, whose deal with Orlando expires next season. But without Williams and/or Wallace, the danger is that a desperate Prokhorov will compound his woes and overpay on his Plan B acquisitions, as he did with Travis Outlaw two seasons ago.
Pity the Bobcats, who finished with the lowest winning percentage in NBA history last season, ranked last in both offensive and defensive efficiency, and then, despite having the best odds for winning the No. 1 pick, finished second to New Orleans in the lottery. That means almost certainly missing out on consensus top pick Anthony Davis, who would have made an immediate impact in a frontcourt rotation that features raw, 20-year-old leaper Bismack Biyombo and jump-shooting 7-footer Byron Mullens.
It is no exaggeration to say that the Bobcats need help everywhere: Their best player last season, swingman Gerald Henderson, would have trouble cracking the starting lineup of many teams. None of their seven free agents is vital to the future (the top performer, 6-foot point guard Augustin, is redundant with Kemba Walker), and if the team cleans house and amnesties often-injured underachiever Corey Maggette ($10.9 million contract for next season), it would create even more flexibility to pursue free agents (a tough sell) or trade players into what could be $20-plus million in cap space.
What the Bulls need most, of course, is a healthy body for Derrick Rose, who will miss at least the first part of next season while recovering from knee surgery. Assuming they retain Asik and do not trade Luol Deng, the Bulls' frontcourt rotation is staunch, deep, expensive and settled. But in the backcourt, 34-year-old shooting guard Rip Hamilton disappointed because of age and injuries, and Rose's backups, C.J. Watson and John Lucas III, were found wanting in the crucible of the playoffs. Taking a luxury-tax hit for a better backup (and early-season starter) for Rose and an upgrade at shooting guard would be worth it if it takes coach Tom Thibodeau's team to the next level.
The Cavs have Rookie of the Year and former No. 1 pick Kyrie Irving at point guard and a frontcourt that includes high-motor center Anderson Varejao and power forward Tristan Thompson, the No. 4 pick in the 2011 draft. With Jamison set to depart, and with the shooting guard position not producing much offense, Cleveland sorely needs a wing scorer. The team also could use athletic defenders and a legitimate big man to match up with the more brutish 7-footers in the game. The good news is that Cleveland will have four top 34 picks and major cap space to address their weaknesses.
Detroit's biggest need is fiscal discipline. When president Joe Dumars signed shooting guard Ben Gordon and forward Charlie Villanueva to five-year contracts totaling more than $95 million back in July 2009, it damaged the team's salary cap flexibility and, once both proved to be major busts, doomed the team's chances on the court. Throwing good money after bad right after the lockout last December, Dumars re-signed past-his-prime forward Tayshaun Prince for $28 million over four years and guard Rodney Stuckey -- whose skill set is redundant to those of Gordon and 2011 top pick Brandon Knight -- for up to $25.5 million over three years. Despite the presence of Stuckey, Gordon and Knight, the Pistons lack a quality pure point guard, which is why they ranked 28th in assists and 26th in points scored per possession last season.
Center Greg Monroe was a bright spot in his second season, but he's a finesse-oriented big man better suited to playing power forward alongside a classic rim protector at center. Unfortunately, Detroit is already paying Jason Maxiell, Jonas Jerebko and Villanueva a combined $17 million to be the power forward next season, while the team's lone backup center, Wallace, is prepared to retire. The Pistons could use their first-round pick to get Monroe some help up front.
The Pacers appear to be in fabulous shape after their best season in eight years, during which they joined Miami and San Antonio as the only teams to finish in the top 10 in points scored and allowed per possession. Indiana has a good deal of cap room and the ability to match offers for its top free agent, All-Star Hibbert, who could command a big contract on the heels of what centers DeAndre Jordan (four years, $43 million), Nene (five years, $65 million), Marc Gasol (four years, $57.5 million) and Tyson Chandler (four years, $55.4 million) received last year. Point guard will be a position to watch: Indiana ranked 29th in assists last season with Hill and Darren Collison (a free agent next summer) playing most of the minutes. Also, the drop-off from Hibbert to Amundson at center, and from David West to Tyler Hansbrough at power forward, is steep, and given the team's bruising, physical style, it might be prudent to upgrade the frontcourt depth.
A steady stream of underwhelming centers have toiled in the pivot in the two years since LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh united in Miami. They have been old (Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Erick Dampier), unseasoned (Dexter Pittman), chronically injured (Eddy Curry) and undersized (the 6-9 Joel Anthony has played more minutes than anyone at the position the past two seasons). Another quality big man is the Heat's biggest need, even if they intend to play small-ball more often. But they've done pretty well without one.
Hyper-disciplined, defensive-oriented coach Scott Skiles surprisingly bought into the run-and-gun approach last season as Milwaukee played at the third-fastest pace and went 12-9 with shameless gunners Brandon Jennings and midseason acquisition Monta Ellis in the backcourt. But the unsung hero in that arrangement was Ilyasova, who, along with Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, backstopped the sieve-like perimeter defense of Jennings and Ellis, was a beast on the offensive glass (3.3 per game in 27.6 minutes) cleaning up the starting guards' many misses and ranked second in the NBA in three-point shooting at 45.5 percent. Now Ilyasova is a free agent, and though Milwaukee has frontcourt players who can defend (Mbah a Moute, Ekpe Udoh) and score (Drew Gooden), Ilyasova was the only front-line Buck who could do both in the wake of center Andrew Bogut's departure. To balance the go-go attitude of the backcourt scorers with Skiles' appreciation for hard-nosed fundamentals, the Bucks need an unselfish but skilled, defensive-oriented big man.
Assuming Lin returns -- and a recent arbitrator's ruling, if it holds up on appeal, means that the Knicks do not have to use their mid-level exception to re-sign the point guard and potentially can keep it available for another player -- the major pieces are locked in and need to learn how to work together. (Though the Knicks played better without Amar'e Stoudemire, his injury history and big, uninsured contract make him very difficult to deal, and owner James Dolan won't countenance a trade of Carmelo Anthony.) The best strategy is retaining the cultural change toward tenacious defense that Tyson Chandler fostered last season (much as he had in Dallas the year before), with the healthy recovery of perimeter stopper Iman Shumpert from knee surgery a key component of that process. On offense, coach Mike Woodson has to find a system that blends isolation plays for Anthony with pick-and-rolls for Stoudemire, and both stars need to up their energy level and commitment to team play. The Knicks have plenty of talent -- indeed, they're stuck with it for the near future. What they need next season is more character and familiarity.
By now we should all have learned that nobody knows what Dwight Howard is going to do -- including Howard. The NBA's premier center, who will be a free agent next summer, has agonized and vacillated for months now over whether to stay with the Magic, re-sign with the Magic, demand a trade or simply wait for his chance to hit the market. The Magic can't afford to lose him -- but if his leaving is inevitable, they have to get something in return. Aside from Anderson, a restricted free agent, there is no other crucial cog on the roster. Nelson isn't certain to pick up his $8.6 million player option for this season. Small forward Hedo Turkoglu is past his prime and owed $23 million over the next two years. Along with Jason Richardson and J.J. Redick, all these players are three-point shooters who are more effective with Howard dominating down low.
To state the obvious then, if Howard leaves, the Magic need at least a quality center and a wing player who can score and pass off the dribble. And if Howard stays, Orlando needs younger players to upgrade the defense and retain former coach Stan Van Gundy's inside-outside offense -- and a coach who in Howard's eyes is apparently less abrasive than Van Gundy.
Starting power forward Elton Brand could be amnestied, starting center Hawes is a free agent and the team already lacks the sort of bruising but skilled low-post performer who can get to the free-throw line and limit opposing points in the paint. Coach Doug Collins has successfully molded a deep rotation that emphasized its length and quickness on the perimeter to finish third in points allowed per possession while committing the fewest turnovers. But the absence of a star, go-to scorer on the wing (sixth man Williams led the team with 14.9 points) or a low-post anchor led to a No. 20 ranking in points per possession and a particularly difficult time generating offense late in close games.
Coach Dwane Casey came in last season and transformed the culture of the team from soft and nonchalant to disciplined and hard-nosed -- especially on defense, where Toronto jumped from 30th the last two seasons in points per possession to 14th, with essentially the same personnel. Among the Raptors' needs is a point guard to replace Jose Calderon, a capable, sure-handed floor general in the half-court offense but one Raptor whose defense didn't improve much under Casey. Calderon has one year and $10.6 million left on his contract. The team could also use a classic big man to body up opposing centers while Jonas Valanciunas matures. (Valanciunas, the No. 5 pick in 2011, is expected to join the team from Europe for the 2012-13 season). In addition, Toronto would benefit from a wing scorer to provide points off the bench or push DeMar DeRozan into that role.
The Wizards removed the possibility for big cap space this summer and next by acquiring Trevor Ariza and Emeka Okafor from New Orleans. Ariza and Okafor add to a crowded frontcourt that includes late-season surprise Kevin Seraphin, steady banger Trevor Booker, 2011 first-round picks Jan Vesely and Chris Singleton, high-priced center Nene and amnesty candidate Andray Blatche. Now the Wizards have to find a capable shooting guard who can defend and select shots better than Jordan Crawford alongside point guard and former No. 1 pick John Wall. The Wizards ranked 28th in three-point accuracy and 25th in three-pointers made, with Crawford shooting 28.9 percent from long range and only 40 percent overall in his second season.
The Mavs are expected to make a concerted effort to sign Dallas native Deron Williams, a pursuit that will affect their approach in dealing with their own free-agent guards in veterans Terry, Kidd and West. If Williams doesn't sign, the team will need quality players at both guard positions. A hole opens at center, too, if Dallas amnesties Brendan Haywood, who is owed $27.2 million over the next three years.
Depth is the Nuggets' strength, but they'll suffer if they don't retain two of their three free agents. Miller is Denver's resident adult on the court, a calming presence who is an ideal complement to Ty Lawson in a dual point guard lineup late in close games. And McGee is the team's most talented big man, known for his immaturity in Washington but slowly putting it together in Denver, climaxed by his inspired games against the Lakers in the playoffs. Without Miller, Denver tends to tromp the throttle and play out of control. Without McGee, it lacks what could be a crucial counter to the elite opposing centers in the league. Without both, or a major free agent to compensate, the Nuggets will live and die on the speedy lineups featuring the quickness of Lawson and the uber-athleticism of undersized forward Kenneth Faried.
There will still be plenty of depth from among floor-stretching sharpshooters Danilo Gallinari and Al Harrington, swingmen Arron Afflalo and Wilson Chandler, mediocre big men Kosta Koufos and Timofey Mozgov, energy guy Corey Brewer and their first-round pick. That's a solid, exciting team, but probably not a championship contender.
The Warriors' future hinges on injury-plagued Stephen Curry and Andrew Bogut. For the first time in his career, Curry next season won't have to share the playmaking with the ball-dominant Monta Ellis. The sweet-shooting Curry will have a wealth of scorers around him, including Bogut, power forward David Lee, second-year shooting guard Klay Thompson and two three-point specialists, Richard Jefferson and Dorell Wright, at small forward.
But aside from Bogut, this is a wretched defensive unit. The Warriors have finished among the NBA's bottom five in points allowed per possession in each of the last four seasons. Drafting defensive-minded players should be the priority, because the capped-out Warriors will be hard-pressed to upgrade through free agency. Bogut and Lee will command more than $25 million next season, but what really hurts is the $19 million owed Jefferson and backup center Andris Biedrins, whose deal is a textbook case for the amnesty provision if the team hadn't used that one-time provision on the expiring $4.1 million contract of Charlie Bell last year as part of its failed pursuit of DeAndre Jordan. In 2013-14, the Warriors are looking at a scenario where both Jefferson and Biedrins exercise their options to stay at the same time Curry becomes a restricted free agent. They desperately need Bogut to remain healthy and productive.
After three straight years of narrowly missing the playoffs, expect Houston to be aggressive about overhauling its roster. Its two highest-paid players for next season, shooting guard Kevin Martin and power forward Luis Scola, who were part of an aborted trade for Pau Gasol last December, produced seasons that hurt their value. Houston's two point guards were arguably its best players, but Dragic will be expensive to keep and Kyle Lowry told the
The Clippers began last season with a point guard, Billups, as their starting shooting guard, and, after he got hurt, they ended it with two 40 percent shooters, Foye and Young, sharing the position with help from another point guard, Mo Williams (who plans to exercise his $8.5 million player option for next season). Finding a bigger shooting guard who can defend and perhaps be more efficient offensively is important as the Clippers look to become a title contender. Beyond that, Los Angeles has to create quality depth behind power forward Blake Griffin and center DeAndre Jordan, especially considering the duo's lackluster defensive performance last season.
The status quo no longer seems capable of meeting the franchise's high expectations. Payments to Kobe Bryant, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol alone exceeded the salary cap last season but weren't sufficient to prevent the Lakers' second conference semifinals loss in a row. The Lakers already have more than $78 million in payroll for next season, a number that exceeds the luxury tax, and that's with only one point guard (Steve Blake) under contract after Sessions' decision to opt out. The situation becomes especially onerous for the 2013-14 season, when Bryant will make more than $30 million, Bynum commands a new deal and stiffer luxury tax rules wreak havoc on the team's bottom line.
The most logical response is to trade Gasol, who has two years and $38.3 million left on his deal and disappointed in the last two postseasons, but how much can the soon-to-be 32-year-old fetch? Can a package involving Bynum be put together for Dwight Howard? Will the Lakers amnesty Metta World Peace (two years, $15 million remaining) to clear his salary from the cap and luxury-tax bill? The team needs to get younger, quicker and more athletic, especially on defense, where it ranked last in forcing turnovers and among the worst five teams in fast break points allowed, a major reason for a mediocre No. 13 ranking in points allowed per possession.
While ownership could soon change hands from Michael Heisley to technology magnate Robert Pera, the Grizzlies enjoy plenty of stability on their roster. Four starters -- power forward Zach Randolph, center Marc Gasol, point guard Mike Conley and small forward Rudy Gay (whom Memphis insists is not being shopped) -- have at least three years left on their contracts and the fifth, shooting guard Tony Allen, is in the fold for next season. Even if Mayo, the team leader in three-pointers made, returns, Memphis is still short on perimeter shooting to help space the floor for Randolph and Gasol down low and Gay on the wing. Another area of weakness is backup point guard, where Gilbert Arenas struggled behind Conley last season.
It is no secret what the Timberwolves need: wing scorers who can catch-and-shoot on kick-outs from point guard Ricky Rubio and drive to the hoop in the space provided when power forward Kevin Love draws opposing big men out with him to the three-point line. A parade of nonentities -- Wes Johnson, Martell Webster, Wayne Ellington -- at small forward and shooting guard, plus coach Rick Adelman's heavy use of small backcourts involving Luke Ridnour and J.J. Barea at shooting guard, had the Wolves being outscored at those positions by an average of 10.7 points per game, according to 82games.com.
Once Rubio recovers from knee surgery (he's not expected to be ready until at least a month or two into the season), Minnesota is in good shape with him, Love and emerging center Nikola Pekovic as its foundation and Barea as a spark plug off the bench. Beasley remains too immature and unreliable, so the hope is that last year's No. 2 pick, Derrick Williams, can slim down and slide over to small forward after a disappointing rookie season. But with a floor-spacing star like Love (who can also score inside), Rubio's passing and Adelman's prowess as an offensive strategist, the situation is ripe for the Wolves to find a swingman who specializes in scoring.
The Hornets are set to add power forward Anthony Davis as the No. 1 pick, and they intend to re-sign Gordon to form what they hope is a dynamic inside-outside combo for years to come. The Hornets need a healthy Gordon after ranking 28th in points per possession while playing at the league's slowest pace last season. New Orleans also looked to the future with its recent trade of established, defensive-minded veterans Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza, a deal that has created more financial flexibility (the two will make a combined $43 million through 2014) but won't result in immediate help because the one player acquired from the Wizards, declining forward Rashard Lewis, could be bought out before suiting up for the Hornets. But with Davis, Gordon, the No. 10 pick, cap space over the next few years, new ownership and a coach (Monty Williams) who always has his team playing hard, the Hornets have a promising foundation.
Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have their extensions, and James Harden and Serge Ibaka are up next. Whether the Thunder can keep the latter two remains to be seen, as the luxury tax likely would come into play. (Harden and Ibaka are eligible for extensions this summer; if they don't sign then, they would become restricted free agents next year.) If the Thunder are concerned about Eric Maynor's recovery from an ACL tear -- he's already resumed workouts -- they could look to add another point guard. A backup for Durant would help. Oklahoma City doesn't get much scoring from its power forwards or centers, but then again, its Big Three make up for a lot of that. Assuming the Thunder can keep their nucleus in place, it's all about tinkering around the edges.
So much will depend on whether Nash leaves after an eight-year run in his second stint with Phoenix. If Nash and the Suns part ways, the team will have potentially more than $20 million in cap space and a lottery pick available to rebuild around center Marcin Gortat, swingman Jared Dudley, stretch power forward Channing Frye and second-year forward Markieff Morris, all under contract for at least the next two seasons. Notably missing from that group is a creative, productive offensive player at shooting guard or small forward, and the post-Nash Suns would require a point guard even if they retain Brooks, who played in China last season. Meanwhile, losing Hill would hurt a defense that ranked only 24th in points allowed per possession.
The Blazers need help everywhere but forward, where All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge should be fully recovered from hip surgery by training camp, and where Batum and swingman Wes Matthews are also being counted on to assist in the rebuilding effort. In the backcourt, point guard Raymond Felton won't be re-signed after his disastrous one season in Portland, and combo guard Jamal Crawford, also a disappointment, can opt out. Either way, the Blazers will be in the market for guards and a center, the latter a position at which Joel Przybilla started after the midseason trade of Marcus Camby.
What Sacramento needs the most is veteran leadership. The team has opted for high-profile talent in the last three drafts, initially scoring with 2009-10 Rookie of the Year Tyreke Evans only to watch him regress last season because he hasn't found a way to utilize his extraordinary size and quickness in a manner that improves his teammates; his move to small forward produced mixed results and obviously didn't do anything to address Sacramento's lack of outside shooting. Center DeMarcus Cousins, the No. 5 pick in 2010, has been as advertised: incredibly skilled and emotionally immature, though he took a step forward in his second season. And last year Sacramento added Jimmer Fredette in a draft-night trade but watched him struggle as a rookie and get passed in the rotation by point guard Isaiah Thomas, the last player taken in the second round.
All of this young talent -- which also includes 25-year-old shooting guard Marcus Thornton and two free agents in the 25-year-old Thompson and 24-year-old Williams -- is desperate for mentorship and guidance (whether they know it or not), but the only two Kings over 30 are journeyman John Salmons and fringe player Francisco Garcia, who have never won a playoff series in their careers. With cap space, the fifth pick and a beguiling but disgruntled talent in Evans, the Kings have the resources to go out and get players who will improve the team in the locker room as well as on the court. Both aspects are necessary if Sacramento is to improve a defense that ranked 29th in points allowed per possession.
It is foolish to pronounce the Spurs as being too old -- what has become old over the years is the inaccurate naysaying regarding their sustained excellence. General manager R.C. Buford and coach Gregg Popovich have done a tremendous job in aging the core trio of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. The youngest of the three, Parker, has become increasingly dominant at the expense of the eldest, Duncan. Popovich has moved away from a deliberate, low-post offense to a league-leading one that relies on rapid ball movement and penetration by Parker to generate open three-pointers (the Spurs were second in threes made and first in accuracy last season), putting less wear and tear on Duncan, who is also playing fewer minutes.
Not everything is perfect, of course. The defense is good but not as fearsome as it used to be, and the Spurs could still use an athletic rim protector to join Duncan and Tiago Splitter. But every year, Buford finds unsung players who flourish playing Spurs basketball. And while it is true that the Spurs haven't won a title since 2007, they are 111-37 in the last two seasons and have won at least 61 percent of their games in each of Popovich's 15 full seasons. They'll be back at it next season, still aging, still not old.
The Jazz do not have a first-round pick, but obtaining more young talent in the draft is not as much of an immediate priority as rectifying a roster imbalance of having several quality centers and power forwards and a shortage of swingmen. The most impressive thing about Utah's return to the playoffs last season was that coach Ty Corbin didn't need to sacrifice rebuilding for victories, providing more than 20 minutes per game for second-year players Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors and more than 13 minutes per game for rookies Alec Burks and Enes Kanter. Favors and Kanter join Jefferson and Paul Millsap at the center and power forward slots, a logjam only partially remedied if Millsap spends more time playing small forward as part of a huge front line. Ideally, Utah would swap a big man -- preferably Jefferson, a proficient low-post scorer but a lousy defender with an expiring $15 million contract -- for a dynamic wing player who can penetrate and shoot the three-pointer (Utah had the lowest percentage of its points from long range in the NBA), or perhaps a point guard to push or replace Devin Harris, who has an $8.5 million expiring contract. A lockdown perimeter defender would also be a boon, though more minutes for Favors and the maturation of Kanter and Hayward will beef up a defense that ranked 19th in points allowed per possession.