NBA teams poised for pivotal offseasons
Basketball season may be over, but the NBA world has plenty of business to attend to in the coming months. Next week brings the NBA Draft and the week after comes free agency. As such, it's as opportune of a time as ever to glance ahead at the teams posed for particularly eventful offseasons -- whether due to cap flexibility, roster instability or countless other variables. Let the games begin.
Brooklyn Nets: Dark times ahead?
In evaluating offseason intrigue, the most notable teams are typically those positioned to improve. Brooklyn instead makes this list for its quietly implosive potential; having locked up so much salary in a few core contracts. The Nets are now at risk of losing key pieces without the means to replace them. Paul Pierce and Shaun Livingston will be unrestricted free agents this summer, free to sign with the teams of their choosing. Alan Anderson, Andray Blatche and Andrei Kirilenko all have below-market player options that they may well choose to decline, affording them the same opportunity. Four of those potential free agents ranked in the Nets' top six in minutes played this season, yet if all were to walk Brooklyn would have but meager cap exceptions to compensate.
To put the Nets' cap sheet in perspective: Even without Pierce, Livingston, Anderson, Blatche and Kirilenko, Brooklyn has over $85 million committed to eight players. Even more concerning is how few moves can realistically be made; Joe Johnson's deal prices him out of realistic trade scenarios; Deron Williams isn't producing at a level that justifies his salary; Brook Lopez is intriguing but frequently injured; Kevin Garnett mustered only 20.5 depressing minutes per game last season; Marcus Thornton's $8.6 million salary couldn't be unloaded if you wrapped it in bacon; and, lest we forget, the Nets have traded their 2014, 2016, and 2018 first rounders along with pick-swapping rights in 2015 and 2017 and second rounders in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017. After all of their spending, the Nets have left themselves at the mercy of a handful of their own free agents.
Pierce will get the most attention of the lot, but Livingston could be the trickiest to bring back. Given that the Nets only signed Livingston to a one-year deal for the minimum salary, they do not have his Bird rights. That leaves them without much flexibility in terms of issuing a competitive offer, as the best Brooklyn can do is to tender Livingston their full taxpayer mid-level exception, worth about $3.3 million in the first season of a new deal. That may not be enough to entice Livingston back after his career year, leaving a sizable hole in the Nets' guard rotation and perimeter defense.
The Livingston issue, though, gets at the heart of Brooklyn's cap problems. If he pulls in the full $3.3 million exception, the Nets will have nothing more than the minimum to offer Kirilenko and Anderson. Their respective player options could provide the means for the Nets to keep all three, though how much incentive would a player like Kirilenko have to take that skimpy salary from a good-not-great team dependent on aging veterans?
Minnesota Timberwolves: At the mercy of Love
Now that Flip Saunders has officially signed off on Flip Saunders as Minnesota's next head coach, all attention turns to Kevin Love. His actions and comments do not exactly reflect that of a player relishing the Timberwolves experience, though the team does have the option of retaining him this season if they so choose. The outcome of this entire ordeal is of particular interest -- especially after the Wolves' trade return for Kevin Garnett in 2007 didn't quite play out as hoped -- but the process itself should be similarly fascinating.
Already we've seen the preliminary stages of the Love lottery, with teams around the league making their obligatory phone calls to gauge Minnesota's willingness to part ways with their 25-year-old superstar. The rumors churn, the trade machine whirs. From here the chatter should only intensify, with the progress of the offseason making more clear which teams might be serious players for Love's services. The day-to-day of it all can grow wearying at a point, though in the big picture this should provide yet another interesting case study on the maneuverings of a less-than-thrilled star of an underperforming team.
Indiana Pacers: To keep Lance or to not keep Lance...
How much is too much to pay for Lance Stephenson? Indiana's talented and frustrating guard will hit unrestricted free agency this summer, a rarity born of Stephenson's second-round selection in the 2010 draft and the length of his initial contract with the Pacers. Even after his latest antics Stephenson will have his suitors; that teams don't often have a chance to poach away a player this good and this young (Stephenson is just 23) should inflate his free agent value. Indiana, then, will have to gauge Stephenson's worth against its own organizational desire to keep beneath the luxury tax line, all while Stephenson himself has the final say in his own future. You can read more on the Pacers' quandary with Stephenson here.
Beyond that, Indiana's unraveling over the last six months has introduced entirely new doubts into this franchise's framework. Roy Hibbert, once established as a building block, may now be movable. The same could be true of George Hill or even David West, should the right deal come along. Paul George is safe but otherwise there are no guarantees; Indiana's troubling turn necessitates discussion as to the future of that five-man core, of which so little is certain.
All of which disguises Indiana's other problem: The Pacers' bench play has been altogether miserable for a few years running. Larry Bird and Kevin Pritchard won't have a lot to work with in terms of importing reserve talent, and Evan Turner -- who was acquired for Danny Granger at the trade deadline -- will undoubtedly leave in free agency. Luis Scola could be released as well if the Pacers feel pinched in their finances, making a weak bench even weaker in the process.
In all, that balance against the budget makes for one of the more fascinating subplots of the summer. If all goes well, the Pacers could be right back in the thick of Eastern Conference contention while the Heat lose depth. If things go poorly, Indiana could fall back into the glut of merely good.
Philadelphia 76ers: Building up
This will be a formative offseason for the Sixers, who -- despite their best efforts to do even worse -- finished the 2013-14 season with the second-lowest win total. That team was deliberately constructed to feature marginal NBA talent; Philadelphia GM Sam Hinkie had cap room and trade chips to spare, but instead committed his team to the process of a more deliberate rebuild. The results thus far have been largely positive considering the circumstances, with Michael Carter-Williams panning out as the Rookie of the Year while first-year head coach Brett Brown did about as well as could be reasonably expected.
To this point, however, the Sixers' roster work has largely been deconstructive. Hinkie chose to move Jrue Holiday for a pair of first round picks last summer, one of which (Nerlens Noel) has yet to play in the NBA due to injury while the other (No. 10 pick) will be used in next week's draft. Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes were moved as to redeem value before their free agency. With those moves made and draft picks in hand, Hinkie and his staff must go to work in bundling assets to make the best acquisitions possible.
As it stands, Philadelphia has a ridiculous seven draft picks this year: No. 3, No. 10, No. 32, No. 39, No. 47, No. 52 and No. 54. Not all will be kept, and in the event that the Sixers make multiple second-round selections they may opt for the draft-and-stash route with a few international prospects. Should some of those picks be packaged via trade, Thaddeus Young -- the sole useful veteran remaining on the roster -- could be the vessel. Young, a fabulous and flexible defender, has been dangled in trade talks for months. Perhaps draft night will finally bring together a deal to the Sixers' liking.
Miami Heat: The Decision 2.0
After a rough run in the NBA Finals, Miami could be in a position to capitalize on some much-needed financial flexibility. Shane Battier is filing his retirement papers and Ray Allen could follow, making it all the more important for the Heat to reload on role players. Some will be signed (like Chris Andersen and Rashard Lewis) for the veteran's minimum. Others might be squeezed into the mini mid-level exception, should all three stars opt in and keep the Heat over the cap. Yet LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have the opportunity to create an even wider window. By opting out of their current deals and re-signing new ones, Miami would have access to acquire more talented supporting parts.
More on that here.
Charlotte Hornets: Dark horse suitor
Fresh off of a playoff appearance and retro rebrand, the Hornets are climbing toward respectability. Steve Clifford's wizardry somehow turned this mismatched group into the sixth best defensive team in the league last season while Al Jefferson buoyed its offense -- a combination that has given Charlotte an organizational momentum for perhaps the first time in franchise history.
That breakthrough is well timed. Charlotte is finally out from under the weight of Ben Gordon's massive contract, freeing up a hefty amount of cap room. Even if the Hornets don't hold much appeal to the league's superstars, that space could be used to add desperately needed shooting, ball handling and frontcourt depth. There's also an interesting timing window in play, with the 2014-15 season being both Kemba Walker and Bismack Biyombo's last season under their rookie-scale deals. The former is undoubtedly due for a raise in 2015 and the latter will likely draw interest as a restricted free agent, both of which could complicate the Hornets' cap outlook moving forward.
That positions the Hornets as likely spenders again this summer. Some of their funds may be tabbed for Josh McRoberts, provided he declines his $2.7 million player option for next season. McRoberts worked out to be a terrific bargain for the then-Bobcats, and a team structured around Jefferson's post work could again make use of the 27-year-old forward's passing and perimeter shooting. Beyond that, Charlotte has two first rounders (No. 9 and No. 24) courtesy of the Pistons and Blazers and the ability to trade their own future picks now that their outstanding debt to Chicago (via the regrettable Tyrus Thomas deal) has been paid. Charlotte is a legitimately interesting team again, and with the return to purple and teal may have a little extra motivation to make moves.
Los Angeles Lakers: Where to go from here?
The NBA's most glamorous franchise stationed in one of its premier markets is largely devoid of cap commitments or direction. By now, you know the names: Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Robert Sacre, (probably) Kendall Marshall and (maybe) Nick Young are the only players on the books for the Lakers next season. They have the No. 7 pick in the draft. They have a vested interest in becoming competitive as quickly as possible as to appease Kobe Bryant and capitalize on his declining game. They have no head coach and thus no systemic or schematic guidelines.
Where things go from there is one of the offseason's great mysteries. The Lakers are a franchise that aims big, but it remains to be seen if there are all that many big-time players worth targeting. Could L.A. cobble together enough assets to land Love? Would Mitch Kupchak make a play for Carmelo Anthony? Might one of Miami's big three be interested if the Heat unexpectedly dissolve? I have no idea what to expect at this point save to ready myself for the fireworks.