Six Eliminated Playoff Teams Facing Crossroads
- Elimination from the NBA playoffs can be viewed two different ways: Is the glass half-full or half-empty? Here's a look at which playoff teams will be buying and selling this summer.
For executives of the 15 playoff teams who won't hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy this June, the off–season is riddled with question marks. There are the young guns who see their pre-Finals exit as a step in the right direction, and then there the organizations whose playoff departures signal a near-existential crisis. So as we slowly close in on the NBA Finals, here are the eliminated playoff teams with the most intriguing off–seasons this summer.
Los Angeles Clippers
Speaking of existential crises, the Clippers appear to have been in one the entirety of the Chris Paul era. Whether it was a banged-up Blake Griffin, a potentially-fleeing DeAndre Jordan, or the Donald-Sterling saga—there has always been something up with these Clips.
Los Angeles’ playoff history since acquiring Paul has been well documented, but the team’s litany of disappointments over the past six years is truly striking. Injuries to Griffin and Paul sank the Clippers in their last two playoff exits, and 2015 postseason saw the epic Game 6 collapse against Houston. Los Angeles blew a 2-0 lead in the first round against the Grizzlies in 2013, and its lone shining moment came via Paul’s Game 7 heroics in an opening-round defeat of San Antonio three years ago. After six seasons together, the Clips have just three series victories and zero conference finals appearances to their name.
So heading into the most crucial off–season in franchise history—one in which both Paul and Griffin can both become free agents—the Clippers have some difficult choices to make. The only problem: these decisions may prove to be out of their control.
Re-signing Paul seems to be a simple process. Los Angeles can offer Paul $200 million over five years, more than any other team in the league. And after negotiating the CBA as the president of the Players’ Union to gain himself a fifth year and extra $40 million, it would be perplexing for Paul to turn down the Clippers’ extra cash.
Griffin’s case is a little more complex. He’s set up to earn a 5-year $175 million deal with the Clips if they chose to re-sign him, but is Los Angeles really ready to commit that money to a guy who’s missed 68 regular season games and two playoff series over the past two years? The Clippers might have to be, if only to avoid replicating the mediocrity of Paul’s teams in New Orleans. But even if Griffin inks the extension, he may not be in the city of angels for long. He could be a prime candidate for a contender prior to the trade deadline, allowing Los Angeles to bolster its bench and add multiple cheaper assets.
Indiana’s future lays solely on the shoulders of Paul George. The Pacers’ resident superstar is due for an extension this summer, and Indiana should be praying he makes an All-NBA roster. If George lands on an All-NBA squad, Indiana can offer him a mega extension worth that magical $200 million figure. That would be one year and $70 million more than any other team could offer the All-Star.
However, there are significant doubts as to whether George will be one of the six All-NBA forwards. LeBron, Giannis, KD and Kawhi are all locks, and Draymond Green may also snag a spot if voters choose to list him as a forward and not a center. From there, George seems to be battling Jimmy Butler and Gordon Hayward (who could also be eligible for the mega-extension) for the third-team spots.
If George fails to make an All-NBA roster, retaining him long-term becomes increasingly difficult. Indiana could—and probably will—offer George a 5-year deal closer to $180 million, but the financial gap between them and a potential suitor in the summer of 2018 would be minimized.
George has not been shy in voicing his frustrations with the organization either, and unless Indiana is able to vastly reshape its roster, it could lose the four-time All-Star for nothing a summer from now. This is something the Pacers’ front office must consider sooner rather than later, and if George refuses to sign an extension, a summer of trade talks will rapidly approach.
The Lakers seem like the most natural fit, able to flip a bevy of young pieces for the California native. But Los Angeles could very well just wait a year for his free agency if they feel confident in waiting a year to sign George. Boston could also be in play to add the forward, but Danny Ainge drives a hard bargain, and might be willing to force Indiana’s hand and wait until the trade deadline to make a deal.
The Pacers would be thrilled to see George appear on an All-NBA roster and sign a huge contract with them in July, but that option is far from guaranteed. Assuming George eschews a potential extension, Indiana should prepare to tear things down. Ship George for young players and picks, race to the bottom of the Eastern Conference, and pray for the ping-pong balls to fall its way. It’s not a fun strategy, but it’s certainly the most prudent.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Russell Westbrook’s transcendent triple-double campaign wasn’t enough to avoid a five-game defeat at the hands of Houston in round one, and it became increasingly obvious that the presumptive MVP simply didn’t have enough help to contend in the West. The Thunder hemorrhaged points at an ungodly rate without Russ on the floor, getting outscored by 58 points in just 46 total minutes against the Rockets. Lou Williams and Eric Gordon torched OKC's backup guards, and the likes of Norris Cole and Semaj Christon looked more fit for the D-League than the playoffs.
Oklahoma City doesn’t have significant cap flexibility—unless they can find a way to unload Enes Kanter’s $17 million albatross—but there will be plenty of opportunities to expand their offensive punch when Westbrook sits. Darren Collison or Brandon Jennings could add some stability, and while it’s a long shot, bringing Patty Mills across the Red River would be a match made in heaven.
A Blake-Griffin-blockbuster could send shockwaves throughout the Western Conference, but it’s more of a pipe dream than anything. Oklahoma City is much more likely to take the simpler route and re-sign Taj Gibson while banking on the continued development of Steven Adams. And while it won’t make a splash, added continuity will greatly help a roster that faced rapid change following Kevin Durant’s departure last summer. The Thunder are still light years behind the Warriors, but backcourt help and a retained front line will help solidify the Thunder’s foundation around Westbrook.
Toronto faces the challenge of not one, but two, high-priced free agents threatening to leave this summer. Kyle Lowry is another player eligible to earn $200 million over five years, while Serge Ibaka could also fetch a king's ransom on the open market. And with DeMar DeRozan on the books for more than $27 million per year through 2021, that’s a lot to commit to a three-man core that got swept by Cleveland in the second round.
Let’s start with Lowry. He’ll turn 32 next year, and having to pay an undersized point guard $40 million five years from now is a queasy proposition. Lowry’s also had his fair share of playoff troubles, struggling to find his shot and disappearing in games far too often for a player of his caliber.
But Toronto would be wise to swallow the pill and re-sign its floor general. Lowry is the engine behind Toronto’s attack, a maestro at slipping through defenses and getting to the rim. He’s got a smooth mid–range game and a solid three-point shot, and Toronto’s offense deteriorates without him on the floor. Plus, if Lowry were to leave, the Raptors couldn’t even go into full-on-tank mode. DeRozan would most likely drag them to 30-35 wins per year, netting lottery picks outside the top seven.
Ibaka is far less vital. His game has become clunky since his rim-running days early in OKC, clogging the offense as he freezes the ball on the perimeter. He did hit 39% from long range this season, but a steady decline in blocked shots and rebounding over the past three years has depressed his value.
Someone will pay Ibaka in the off–season, but it shouldn’t be Toronto. The Raptors can probably replace 80% of his value for a significantly lower cost. They’d be well served to use a patchwork of young players alongside Valanciunas on the front line and chase a floor-spacing wing in free agency. It may not be enough to get past Cleveland, but it would be a step in the right direction.
Memphis has been the league’s premiere good-not-great team since their current core appeared in the playoffs for the first time in 2011. The Grizzlies have made the postseason seven straight years, winning four series and advancing to one conference finals. Grit-n-grind has frustrated teams with championship aspirations for years—just ask the 2015 Warriors. But nobody has ever mistook the Grizzlies for true contenders.
That may strike some as a disappointment given our current championship-or-bust climate, but the Grizz are to be commended, not condemned. They have always been greater than the sum of their parts, a core built upon the values of toughness and togetherness. The league may have passed Memphis by stylistically, but the Grizzlies are there every year in April and May, ready to make a series hell for their opponent.
This summer marks an opportunity for change. Coach David Fizdale tried to teach an old dog new tricks and drag Memphis into the modern NBA this season, but there simply wasn’t the personnel to make wholesale changes. With Chandler Parsons unable to contribute, Memphis relied heavily on Mike Conley pick-n-pops alongside Marc Gasol, slowing the game to a glacial pace at 94.8 possessions per game.
Parsons's best days are certainly behind him. After compiling just over six points per game in 34 contests, there’s no indication that he can be a reliable scorer. Memphis has three aging contracts coming off the books this summer in Zach Randolph, Vince Carter and Tony Allen, and that could provide cap relief even if one or two of them re-sign on cheaper deals. JaMychal Green could find himself out of Memphis’s price range in the restricted market, but his departure could allot even more money to finding capable outside threats. Chasing a guy like J.J. Redick or Bojan Bogdanovic could really help space the floor.
Memphis doesn’t have much cap flexibility in the near future (its three biggest contracts are on the books through 2019). With no Finals in sight, the Grizzlies’ best path forward is constant competition, appearing in the playoffs and possibly stealing a series or two each year.
No team outside of Madison Square Garden saw more drama than the Bulls this year. Whether it was bitter Instagram posts, Rajon Rondo’s benching, or Jimmy Butler trade rumors, Chicago’s season was basically a six-month soap opera. And don’t let the Bulls’ 2-0 lead in the first round fool you. This is a poorly constructed roster, unlikely to compete with any of the East’s top teams in the coming years.
This was the reason for the slew of Butler trade rumors earlier this year. Chicago’s front office threw $50 million at an aging Dwyane Wade before the season began, pairing him with Butler and the newly-acquired Rondo. The result was a roster with little spacing and few defined roles, aggravated by a head coach who seemed out of his depth coaching in the NBA. Things won’t get much better next year, and although Butler is under contract until the 2018-19 season, Chicago should look to the future and deal him before the season starts.
If Chicago takes this route and sends Butler to Boston or elsewhere, there’d be little reason to re-up Rondo. And if Wade declines his upcoming player option, even better. Chicago could race to the bottom of the league standings and embrace a speedy tank job. It won’t be pretty, but young assets, lottery selections and the lure of playing in a big market could create an enticing situation for future free agents. The Bulls’ front office mangled their roster last off–season, and reversing course now is the best way to right the ship.