The NBA off-season begins at the moment of a team's elimination. Golden State and Cleveland shifted gears only days ago—maybe even less in the Warriors' case given rampant championship hangovers. For other franchises, however, the off-season process is already weeks or months underway. Coaches have been fired and hired. Trades have been completed.
We're less than a week away from the NBA draft and inside two weeks from the start of free agency. This is the craziest stretch of the NBA calendar, and it's time to examine which teams are facing the most consequential decisions this summer.
Years from now, we'll look back at the summer of 2015 as the Cavs' moment of definition. The roster that led them to the NBA Finals is largely set if Cleveland chooses; starters Tristan Thompson and Iman Shumpert are both restricted free agents and thus subject to the Cavs' right to match any formal offer sheet, while J.R. Smith (who is likely to decline his player option) seems both eager to return and wise to the good thing he has going with LeBron James. More uncertain is Kevin Love's perception of what this team has become and his potential place within it.
The very fact that Thompson has become the kind of player who could demand a max contract stands in opposition to Love's own interests. The two can play together and did so effectively last season. Yet they would also share 96 total frontcourt minutes with the returning Timofey Mozgov and Anderson Varejao, not to mention a superstar best suited for minutes at power forward. If Love wants to be an integral star with the minutes and touches to show for it, Cleveland may not be the place for him.
It's also reasonable to entertain some doubt as to whether the Cavs could play the style of defense that won them three playoff series with Love logging major minutes. Love is a terrific player—one underused both by design and tentative chemistry. Title-level commitment on defense simply eludes him. His departure would make Cleveland a lesser, more inflexible team. It might also entrench the Cavs as the kind of defense-first outfit we saw push the Warriors in the Finals before petering out.
Somewhere in the balance between Love's offensive value and defensive failings is a pivotal point in the future of this franchise. Everything changed for Cleveland with James' return last summer. But for all the influence that James—who will technically enter free agency this summer to ink a new deal and maintain a level of control—now wields within the Cavs' organization, the power in deciding the team's immediate fate will largely rest with Love.
Over the last two seasons, Philadelphia's roster has been impressively transient. Some 48 players have logged playing time for the Sixers in that span. Just five will enter the 2015-16 season with a guaranteed contract. The whole of that guaranteed salary brings Philadelphia to just around $27 million in hard commitments—if only because of the $12 million owed to JaVale McGee as the cost of acquiring a first-round draft pick at the trade deadline.
If the Sixers want to spend in free agency, they will have all the power to do so. If they, instead, want to continue to leverage their cap space to facilitate trades and absorb salary, they can do that as well. No matter the course, the Sixers are asset-rich, flexible under the cap, and proven to be creative. They'd be worth watching even without the intrigue of their rebuild's upcoming third season.
How the Sixers have gone about that rebuild has irked plenty, but the overall timeline from roster teardown to reconstruction isn't so different from most transitional teams. The distinction is in just how blatantly Philadelphia has prioritized its future over its present—a course that led to trading away most every veteran on its roster to try its hand with younger talent and future draft picks. That movement has given the Sixers Nerlens Noel, Joel Embiid, the rights to Dario Saric, a host of interesting prospects on good-value contracts, the No. 3 pick in the 2015 draft along with five second-round picks, three future firsts, and nine future seconds.
Some of those assets will pan out, others will return little to nothing. What matters, for now, is the potential to create something—the logistical freedom to cobble together all kinds of deals and adjust the roster's shape to the opportunities available. Let's see what Sixers GM Sam Hinkie comes up with.
This Western Conference playoff team will likely return just five players under contract. One (Dirk Nowitzki) is 37 years old and starting to show it. Another (Chandler Parsons) is just removed from a major, mysterious knee surgery. A third (Devin Harris) is a decent rotation guard, while two more (Dwight Powell and Raymond Felton) ideally would not be candidates for regular playing time. Even if we set aside the competing ways in which the Mavs are pulled to maintain their present while building toward their future, that limited foundation demands an eventful off-season.
Dallas, over the course of the next month or so, will need to account for most of its center rotation, identify and secure a starting point guard, and build out wing depth while accounting for the reality that Nowitzki shouldn't carry this offense on an every-night basis the way he once did. Monta Ellis, who will likely decline his player option and become a free agent, balanced Dirk's involvement with high usage. His possible departure leaves a creative void that could prove difficult to fill while also satisfying the team's other needs.
Even if some combination of an additional point guard and an adjustment to Parsons' offensive role were to offset Ellis' absence, Dallas is still faced with a tricky decision in the free agency of Tyson Chandler. The 32-year-old center helped save the Mavericks from complete defensive collapse for stretches of the 2014-15 season. Returning him to that safety net role, however, would require a significant multi-year commitment to an injury-prone player facing decline. Whether that's worth the investment for a team unlikely to be a high-level contender this season is a thorny, complicated question—one that cannot be extricated from the fact that Nowitzki's twilight seasons are numbered.
We've seen Dallas do quality work in filling out a roster on the fly during off-seasons in the past, but the team's current makeup may be its most challenging yet. It's at times like these that the Mavs' disregard of—and lack of success in—the draft comes back to haunt them; what a difference it would make to have just one potential role player under contract at rookie scale.
Portland Trail Blazers
The unrestricted free agency of LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, and Robin Lopez forces Portland into relative passivity with its season at stake. Those three account for a majority of the Blazers' vaunted starting lineup and are due a bump in pay. Aldridge is by far the most damaging potential loss; Terry Stotts' offense revolves around the threat that Aldridge poses from mid-range and the production that stabilizes a team of streaky contributors. Losing Aldridge would bring the end of the Blazers as we know them.
That Portland showed the indicators of a contender when healthy last season makes the hard sell of Aldridge worthwhile. In order to fully maintain last season's core, however, the Blazers would need to re-sign Lopez for much more than the $6.2 million he was paid last season and calibrate a deal that would compensate Matthews while still protecting against the fallout of a torn Achilles' tendon. To do so while still improving the roster in a meaningful way would require hard negotiating and good fortune.
Two other players of note in Portland's off-season plans: Arron Afflalo, who seems likely to turn down his $7.9 million player option, and Chris Kaman, whose salary for the 2015-16 season is largely non-guaranteed. The former seems likely to shop around, though there remains a possibility of his return if the market turns dry. Kaman, for his part, could make for an interesting trade chip between now and June 30. It's at that point that his contract guarantees for it's full $5 million. If waived prior, he would be owed just $1 million. That might be of interest for a team looking to either clear cap space or reduce its potential luxury tax bill—either of which might motivate a team to give Portland something of interest in return.
Two of the NBA's most storied franchises are in competitive shambles with big decisions ahead. The Lakers currently own the No. 2 pick in this summer's draft and the Knicks the No. 4. Fair or not, the players selected (or acquired via trade) with those picks will need to be able to carry the weight of incredible expectations. None among this incoming rookie class can be expected to salvage the Lakers or Knicks immediately, though their every play will come with the scrutiny of a team in need of salvation.
Entangled in that predicament are Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony, two high-volume scorers aged out of an extended rebuild. Both of their respective teams have at least some motivation to accommodate those stars in their decisions—to acquire players who complement their games while shying away from the redundant. The tension between those interests and the need for long-term construction has divisive potential, both within the teams and without. The rising salary cap should give big-market clubs like the Lakers and Knicks a chance to refresh their rosters relatively quick. To do so, however, will require careful cap management over this and the next few summers.
That kind of patience may be trying when the Lakers and Knicks will likely convey their 2016 first-round picks as a result of previous transactions. There is no motivation for either to lose games this coming season, save for the possibility that the Lakers lose so much as to land in the top three of next year's draft and ensure their pick's protection. More likely, both teams will need to make smart, level-headed investments that move toward moderate gains. Landing a star—like the oft-rumored Love—would be a coup. But Lakers and Knicks fans should steel themselves for the possibility of a less satisfying summer and season, in which both teams look to take their first steps toward a progressive success.
At the time of Goran Dragic's trade to the Heat, it was warned in this space and others that the unprotected future first-round pick that Miami included in the deal could come back to haunt them. Now we see why. Dwyane Wade seems to step further away from the Heat by the week. Luol Deng, who was quietly solid for Miami last season, may well decline his player option and move elsewhere. With Dragic, too, in a position to dictate his own future, the set core of the Heat is now limited to a post-injury Chris Bosh, the unpredictable Hassan Whiteside, and the role player collective of Chris Andersen, Josh McRoberts, and Mario Chalmers.
Miami completed the deal for Dragic from a place of confidence in their ability to re-sign him. Even with the franchise's impressive reputation and the built-in allure of the city, what qualities of that partial roster would justify that confidence?
Financial flexibility is nice, but the Heat invested a pair of first-round picks in the move to acquire Dragic on the verge of his free agency. They agreed to pay Chris Bosh $118 million over five years last summer. These decisions came in the hope of creating something playoff-worthy in the immediate aftermath of LeBron's departure—a short-term reboot anchored around a balanced starting lineup. Much of that lineup is now at risk to leave without the Heat seeing any compensation if things break the wrong way.
The depth of the point guard position around the league naturally limits the market for Dragic in a way that could help the Heat. It's possible that Wade, too, ends up returning after he fails to find the financial security he's chasing elsewhere. If all goes well and the Heat select a quality player with the No. 10 pick in the draft, this looks to be a playoff team next season. If not, the risks Miami took to get to this point would be all the more costly. This kind of precariousness is what makes the NBA off-season the spectacle that is is; there's money, there's machination, and most importantly—there are real stakes.