New Year's resolutions for NBA teams: Part I, Eastern Conference squads
With the New Year approaching, SI.com is happy to offer resolutions for NBA teams. Below, proposed resolutions for the 15 Eastern Conference teams. For Western Conference resolutions, click here. (All stats through Dec. 30.)
Atlanta Hawks: Find a way to keep Paul Millsap.
Atlanta’s major pieces – Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver, Paul Millsap and Al Horford – are all perennially overlooked and deserving of at least passing mention in the All-Star discussion. But Millsap, who leads Atlanta in rebounding and is second in scoring, plays a key role in everything the Hawks do and he happens to be the only one of its core four players set to be a free agent next summer. Exiled GM Danny Ferry made an excellent decision in signing Millsap in 2013 to a two-year, $19 million contract rather than backing up the Brinks truck for Josh Smith (since dumped by the Pistons), but now the Hawks must keep their versatile power forward in the fold. This season, Millsap, 29, has posted a strong +7.6 net rating in a team-high 1,042 minutes. Hawks ownership has so far achieved an excellent win/loss return on its restrained spending this season and it shouldn’t cut corners when it comes to retaining Millsap. The 2014 All-Star has earned a raise and a longer-term deal.
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Boston Celtics: Continue the sell-off.
Kudos to president Danny Ainge for getting to work early on the most important move of 2015: trading Rajon Rondo. Shipping out the four-time All-Star point guard to Dallas will stand as the defining move of the Celtics’ upcoming year barring a 2015 lottery win or an unexpected splash in free agency. That’s true even though the return package – Brandan Wright, Jae Crowder, Jameer Nelson and multiple picks – was not franchise-altering. The writing had been on the wall for years and letting Rondo walk next summer, after years of trade rumors, would have been an obvious mistake.
With the Rondo heavy lifting done, Ainge is free to enter full liquidation mode at the February trade deadline. His approach should be similar to the 2014 Sixers, who dumped Spencer Hawes and Evan Turner for whatever they could get. Jeff Green, Brandon Bass, Marcus Thornton and the three newly-arrived Mavericks players should all garner some level of interest, as five of those six guys are in the final year of their contracts. Even though the Celtics aren’t that far out of the playoff picture, Ainge needs to complete the garage sale portion of its rebuilding cycle so that his franchise is best positioned for what comes next.
Brooklyn Nets: Rent “The Interview."
Somewhere deep beneath all the anatomy and fart jokes, “The Interview” buried a pretty good life lesson. Without spoiling too much, the (fictional) North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un is encouraged to embrace his love of Katy Perry’s music, even though his notorious father frowned upon the uplifting pop singer. The Supreme Leader looks relieved and ecstatic to discover that rocking out to “Firework” is a totally acceptable thing to do; finally, a sliver of personal happiness amidst the threats of violence, endless lies about the state of his nation, and the long shadow cast by his father.
The Nets are arguably the league’s most depressing franchise and they really need to be freed from their own negative mental baggage; they need to come to terms with their failings and construct an organizational framework that encourages and demands consistently inspired basketball. After their championship window slammed shut almost before it ever totally opened due to injuries and age-related decline, 2015 looks like the right time for a thorough house-cleaning. The Nets are reportedly shopping many of their key pieces, including Deron Williams, and this summer should bring the retirement of Kevin Garnett. But the pervasive bla-bla-bla feeling runs so deep that no one – not Brook Lopez, not Joe Johnson – should be viewed as a must-retain piece. Blowing this up to start anew after sacrificing so many picks in recent trades isn’t very appetizing, but there really isn’t a better alternative given Brooklyn’s massive payroll and its distance from the top four teams in the East. Phoenix’s turnaround under GM Ryan McDonough is a good blueprint; the Suns went from looking gloomy following the departure of Steve Nash to reinvigorated in record time, all without relying on a bank-busting free-agent or a top lottery pick leading the way. It seems unlikely that oft-criticized GM Billy King is the right guy to get Brooklyn back to enjoying the music.
Charlotte Hornets: Give tanking another shot.
The loss of franchise center Al Jefferson for four weeks is a killer for the Hornets, as their remaining frontcourt pieces have no ability to replicate his team-leading 18 points and 8.2 rebounds per night. Expected to take a step forward this season, Charlotte has instead slid backwards and is tied with the Lakers for the league’s fifth-worst record. The Lance Stephenson addition has been a bust, Charlotte’s offense ranks No. 27, its defense has regressed from “excellent” last season to “middle-of-the-pack” this season, and any real hope at winning a playoff series already looks long gone. It’s jarring to say this, but the Hornets really ought to start racing for the bottom by featuring their younger players.
That’s a tough sell for coach Steve Clifford after such a successful 2013-14 season, but it won’t necessarily require wholesale changes. Recent lottery picks Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Cody Zeller are already starting; 2014 lottery pick Noah Vonleh should also be given an extended shot during Jefferson’s absence, even though he’s still a teenager and was recently assigned to the D-League. With Kemba Walker already re-signed for the next four seasons, Charlotte has nothing to lose and ping pong ball to gain with this approach, as long as the front office can get Jefferson (who can opt out this summer) to buy into its longer-term vision. Really, Charlotte has beaten one team that is currently above .500 this season. Why cling to a dream when you can increase your shot at Duke’s Jahlil Okafor?
Chicago Bulls: Put titles over finances.
Is anyone riding higher into 2015 than the Bulls? They might not have the league’s best record, but so many crucial, big-picture matters are going their way. A short list includes: the relatively good health of Derrick Rose, the remarkable breakout of Jimmy Butler, the smooth swap of Carlos Boozer for Pau Gasol, the successful transition from Europe for Nikola Mirotic, the season-ending injury for Cavaliers center Anderson Varejao, and the slight decline of LeBron James. Virtually everything that Chicago needed to happen to win the East for the first time in the post-Michael Jordan era is playing out perfectly.
That sense of optimism seems even greater when contrasted with the lows endured by the Bulls during Rose’s extended absences last year. A Rose/Butler/Joakim Noah/Taj Gibson core has serious championship-contending potential over the next three-to-five years on paper. Butler, of course, is the big X-factor; retaining the odds-on favorite for the 2014 Most Improved Player award could require Chicago shelling out max money this summer. Given Chicago’s scouting and development of Butler and his status as one of the best two-way perimeter players in the league, the Bulls have every reason to feel fully invested in keeping their two guard, even if it gets really expensive. The anticipated expansion of the salary cap should eventually help Chicago balance its books, but for 2015 the mantra should be simple: keep Butler in town to chase Larry O’Brien… and figure out the rest later.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Acquire a real center.
This is as basic as it gets, and basic is exactly what the Cavaliers need after a lackluster start, the loss of Anderson Varejao, and rumors about the future of first-year coach David Blatt. This basic addition – a capable rim-protector with real length -- would go a long way to quieting a lot of the bubbling criticism. Blatt’s defense would look better, Kevin Love would be allowed to play the four, Tristan Thompson wouldn’t be overwhelmed with the full brunt of the post-Varejao interior duties, and LeBron James could get on with leading an offense that has been very potent at times.
Clearly, centers don’t often appear from thin air. That’s fine. The focus should remain on Cleveland’s front office to fix this glaring weakness, rather than Blatt or his players, because there isn’t another serious title contender with such a big hole inside. All options – particularly trades that might have seemed too risky or costly earlier this season or during the summer – must be on GM David Griffin’s table.
Detroit Pistons: Cater to Andre Drummond.
The Pistons have dealt with a laundry list of problems this season: Brandon Jennings can’t hit the broad side of a barn, Josh Smith was so damaging that he was paid $20-plus million dollars to go away, Greg Monroe seemingly can’t wait for free agency, and Jodie Meeks – the offseason’s biggest acquisition – started the season on the shelf. The biggest problem, though, has been Andre Drummond’s stagnation. Instead of making a leap towards true stardom in Year Three, Detroit’s franchise center has flat-lined statistically thanks to wildly inconsistent performances (he followed up a monster 26/20 showing against the Bucks in November with two points on 1-for-8 shooting two days later) and he has struggled to match the gaudy efficiency numbers he posted during his first two seasons.
Drummond has gained momentum this month (averaging 15.6 points and 14 rebounds in December) and he’s really taken off since Smith’s departure (17.7 points, 15 rebounds and 65.7 percent shooting in three straight wins). If the 21-year-old, 2012 lottery pick continues to produce like that, paying off Smith will be worth every penny. Pistons president Stan Van Gundy has very few certainties on his roster – especially with Monroe’s future up in the air – and he’s made it clear in recent comments that bringing Drummond along offensively is both a top priority and a gradual process. Now that he’s excised Smith, Van Gundy can turn his attention to finding the type of players – a pass-first point guard, a true stretch power forward, shooters, shooters and more shooters -- who can help Drummond thrive. Making real progress in this area will be the franchise’s most important endeavor throughout 2015, especially because rookie contract extension negotiations for Drummond can begin next summer.
Indiana Pacers: Stick to the script with Paul George.
Indiana’s advice is, simultaneously, the easiest to follow and the most agonizing: sitting on one’s hands isn’t always simple when the losses are accumulating faster than the wins. The Pacers’ lost season has unfolded almost exactly as planned without All-Star forward Paul George: they’ve fallen from the 2014 No. 1 seed to a spot in the lottery, their top-10 defense has prevented them from dropping all the way to the bottom of the conference, and the entire campaign has felt like a pretty pointless ordeal. Everyone is ready for the Pacers to hit the fast forward button and skip ahead to whenever George is cleared to return to the court following his gruesome offseason leg injury.
The trade deadline season might offer the Pacers a chance to unload some salary, but they don’t really have many movable parts– other than perhaps David West – that will generate much in the way of interest. A wholesale, midseason course correction would be difficult to engineer and many of the important “Who stays? Who goes?” roster questions will be far easier to answer once George is back. Without that fast forward button to push, the Pacers are best off remaining patient and taking the most conservative tact possible with George’s recovery timeline. Save tomorrow’s problems for tomorrow.
Miami Heat: Take the high road with LeBron James.
The Heat’s Christmas Day victory over LeBron James and the Cavaliers could easily wind up being their highlight of the 2014-15 season. Miami looks to have its hands full making the playoffs and its prospects for advancing appear quite dim. All sorts of money has already been committed for next season and yet enough roster holes remain that it seems difficult to envision a 2015-16 outlook that is significantly rosier than this year’s product.
Getting to work on what comes next in 2015, 2016 and beyond requires moving all the way past what happened in 2014. While James and Dwyane Wade shared some laughs on Christmas, the national TV cameras caught Heat president Pat Riley sitting stone-faced during a tribute video for James and during his introduction. No one is asking the ultra-competitive Riley to be buddy-buddy with James after failing to keep him in Miami, but the total cold shoulder approach isn’t doing anyone any good. James told reporters that he would be open to communicating with Riley if the desire was reciprocated; hopefully the necessary olive branches are extended and these two can move forward. Riley shouldn’t hold James’ decision against him to the point that it comes between their ability to enjoy their shared achievements over four memorable seasons. Everyone knows that No. 6 will be retired by Miami one day, so why make the path to the rafters any more complicated than it needs to be?
Milwaukee Bucks: Develop Giannis Antetokounmpo.
A season-ending knee injury for Jabari Parker amounts to a slamming of the brakes on Milwaukee’s long-term planning. Basically, everything is on hold until the 2014 No. 2 overall pick is back on the court and capable of proceeding with his ascent towards stardom. Milwaukee faces a major contract decision this summer with Brandon Knight, but its top priority currently is guiding the continued development of the tantalizing Giannis Antetokounmpo. Still just 20, Antetokounmpo is already in the Vine Hall of Fame, capable of covering crazy distances with his huge strides and finishing plays above the rim or in traffic in all sorts of entertaining ways. He’s averaging 12 points a game this season, nearly double his rookie tally, and he’s getting to the free-throw line more often.
While Antetokounmpo is clearly making strides, there is still a whole world of offense awaiting him. Although he is a fleet-footed, face-the-basket wing with a passable handle, Antetokounmpo also happens to possess the shot chart of a raw center. Nearly three-quarters of Antetokounmpo’s shot attempts come in the paint and he shoots well below league average from mid-range and from beyond the arc. The transition points will always be there for Antetokounmpo, and Bucks coach Jason Kidd has extracted additional scoring from his second-year Greek forward by putting him in the post, but he simply must become a threat to score from more places on the floor.
New York Knicks: Don’t follow the Lakers' blueprint.
This is the honeymoon season. Knicks president Phil Jackson must realize that he will only get one before the tone around his franchise shifts considerably and before the critics come after him for his relative inaction. Aside from re-signing Carmelo Anthony and hiring rookie coach Derek Fisher, who has so far failed to establish an identity for his team, Jackson hasn’t done much to hang his hat on. The Tyson Chandler trade looked rough when it happened and even rougher in hindsight, and the Knicks’ coffers are pretty empty when it comes to long-term, up-and-coming pieces.
Jackson must learn from the mistakes of Jeanie and Jim Buss and avoid adopting a “swing only for the fences” approach to this summer’s free agency period. The top A-listers aren’t particularly likely to sign in New York, given the uncertainty around New York’s transition, and the Knicks would be better served making incremental improvements around Anthony this summer rather than hoarding all of their cap space for 2016. Anthony is still capable of being a lead piece for a playoff team – something that can’t really be said about Kobe Bryant – because he is younger and plays in the weaker East. Time is of the essence for the Knicks, and that should lead Jackson to strategically target well-fitting second- and third-tier players who mesh with his vision of basketball while also complementing Anthony’s skillset and timetable.
Orlando Magic: Match any offer to Tobias Harris.
While tear-down rebuilding projects can make for some tough sledding, they do generally offer teams the chance to retain their developing talents. After all, there’s money available to pay anyone that breaks out and rookie contracts help lock in younger guys with their incumbent teams. A few years removed from the Dwight Howard trade, Orlando is now at the point where it is sifting through its prospects to determine which guys were keepers. The Magic smartly locked up center Nikola Vucevic to an early extension last fall but chose to wait and see on fourth-year forward Tobias Harris.
Magic management should like what a maturing Harris has shown this season, as he’s posted a career-high 18 points per game and seven rebounds, increased his shooting numbers and Player Efficiency Rating, and leading Orlando in minutes. The 2011 lottery pick has stepped forward in late-game situations, knocking down multiple game-winners, and he’s displayed dependable three-point range for the first time in his career. Together, that’s a résumé that should attract real attention once he becomes a restricted free agent in this summer. Losing Harris, after trading for him and investing two seasons in him, would be a major step back for a team that is already beating expectations this season and could be ready to make some real noise in a year or two. Overpaying Harris, all things considered, will almost certainly be preferable to reversing this long-awaited positive momentum.
Philadelphia 76ers: Play boogeyman this summer.
Under unorthodox GM Sam Hinkie, the Sixers have proven they can lose in volume, accumulate draft picks and frustrate opposing franchises with their shameless tactics. This summer offers another opportunity for the Sixers to add to their stable of young prospects in the draft, but they should also consider utilizing their major cap space to make some noise in free agency. Hinkie is armed with significant cap room – all of his veteran players are currently on expiring contracts – and he’s got the beginning of a core (Michael Carter-Williams, Nerlens Noel, Joel Embiid and K.J. McDaniels, if he is re-signed) to build around.
Philadelphia essentially sat out free agency last summer but there should be enough available talent in 2015 – particularly when it comes to restricted free agents – that more inaction would qualify as a mistake. Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler are two marquee 2011 first-round picks who are worth making max offers to in restricted free agency; Tobias Harris, Brandon Knight, Cory Joseph, and Draymond Green are also worth considering. If that seems like a wide net, remember the Sixers have purposefully put themselves in position to need help virtually everywhere. With the coming of a significantly larger cap down the road, Philadelphia can feel free to be overly generous in crafting offers this summer, knowing that it will enjoy even more flexibility once the league’s new television deal gets in. Even if the incumbent teams wind up matching on the big names – as San Antonio and Chicago absolutely should with Leonard and Butler – Philadelphia can and should use its cap space as a weapon.
Toronto Raptors: Take a mulligan on the new logo.
This is a fascinating breakout moment in the history of an expansion franchise: Toronto is poised to host the 2016 All-Star Game, the Raptors are playing their best basketball ever, Drake is hovering around the periphery generating buzz in various ways, and Canadian fans are rallying around the team’s “We The North” slogan with shocking devotion.
The stakes are high enough here that the front office shouldn’t hesitate in admitting that they totally botched the release of the team’s new logo earlier this month. That’s a bitter pill to swallow for executives, but the organization that crafted the iconic purple dinosaur jerseys can do better than the “claw marks on a basketball” logo that they fumbled out to a skeptical reaction. Many fans seemed wounded that the new mark was so close to the Brooklyn Nets’ logo – a nonsensical vision given GM Masai Ujiri’s careful cultivation of that rivalry during last year’s playoffs – and it’s definitely worth going back to the drawing board for a more original design that better reflects the Raptors’ unique character. New jerseys are reportedly on the way, too, which only ups the urgency factor. It’s better – in both the short and long term – for the decision-makers to get the logo right rather than stubbornly stick to what they’ve put forward.
Washington Wizards: Improve a lagging offense.
These are really good times for basketball in the nation’s capital. The Wizards are near the top of the East’s standings, they boast an elite defense, they are on track to place John Wall in the All-Star Game’s starting lineup, and Bradley Beal is back on the court after missing time earlier this season. The list even goes on from there: the starting pieces fit pretty well together, the bench is fairly deep and productive, experienced veterans dot the roster, and Rasual Butler emerged from absolutely nowhere to become a difference-maker.
Pumping up the overall offensive efficiency – No. 15 in the league so far this season after ranking No. 18 last season -- is what will take the Wizards from being a tough out to a top conference favorite. The obvious bugaboo remains Washington’s insatiable love for the mid-range shot. So far this season, the Wizards have launched 944 mid-range shots (third-most in the league) and hit just 39.4 percent of them. Simultaneously, the Wizards are below-average in corner three attempts (even though Wall is a drive-and-kick master) and second-to-last in above-the-break three attempts. Washington’s jump shot distribution numbers are similar to New York’s, Minnesota’s and Charlotte’s – and that’s anemic company that you just don’t want to be in. Wall is a major part of the problem, as 35.1 percent of his attempts come on long twos even though he’s connecting on only 35.9 percent of those shots. Like last year, Beal could trim some fat here too. Washington has crafted a winning formula around Wall; the formula doesn’t need to be scrapped, it just needs some systematic tightening if a deep postseason run is to be achieved.