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On The Brink: Four NBA Teams in Danger of Rebuilding

The Cavaliers? Thunder? These four NBA teams could be on the brink of rebuilding if things go south in 2017-18.

The 2017 offseason proved to be one of the most chaotic in league history, with a slate of stars jettisoning their former teams for greener pastures. Kyrie Irving forced his way to Boston, Paul George was traded to Oklahoma City and Chris Paul maneuvered his way to Houston, leaving each player’s former team in a precarious position, either needing to rebuild or reload on the fly.

There could be similar big-name movement next offseason. There’s no telling where the Thunder’s pair of superstars will land a year from now, and the same could be said for the duo’s in Cleveland and New Orleans. So which teams are in the most danger of a rebuild if things go south in 2017-18? Here are four candidates.

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Cleveland Cavaliers

The Cavs are now in the precarious position of straddling two organizational timelines at once. On one hand, Cleveland is still the favorite to win the East—with Boston now nipping at its heels—and any team with LeBron James is a legitimate threat to win the NBA Finals in June. But as LeBron’s 2018 free agency looms over the organization, Cleveland must be prepared for a future without The King.

With that dichotomy in mind, recently-hired general manager Koby Altman aimed for the best of both worlds in the haul he acquired for Kyrie Irving. The Cavs’ acquisition of Isaiah Thomas gives them a puncher’s chance in the Finals if Isaiah Thomas is healthy, but more importantly, acquiring the Nets’ 2018 first rounder provides a building block if LeBron bolts following the 2017–18 season.

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If LeBron sticks around for another short-term contract, Altman & Co. will be able to rest easy for at least another year. But if James opts for sunny Los Angeles nearly 10 months from now, more critical decisions will arrive.

The first of those decisions will center around what to do with Thomas. His paltry $6.75 million per year contract will expire in the offseason, and the 5'9" point guard will be seeking a max contract assuming he stays healthy. There’s no guarantee Thomas will be even close to the same guy after rehabbing his injured hip, however, even Thomas at 80% of his 2016-17 value is still worth a hefty deal on the open market.

Cleveland could theoretically opt to re-sign Thomas to a mega-deal this offseason. Although if LeBron leaves, would Dan Gilbert be willing to shell out luxury-tax dollars for Thomas, Kevin Love and the rest of Cleveland’s high priced vets? Probably not. The Cavs may be better served letting Thomas walk and holding a fire sale on its veterans if James were to leave the Buckeye state. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but Cleveland’s most bankable asset next summer may not be James or Thomas, but a college freshman.

New Orleans Pelicans

New Orleans is betting big on its Boogie-Anthony Davis tandem this season, placing its playoff hopes on a pair of ball-dominant big men who have logged a total of 17 games together over the second half of last season. Both players are offensive forces of the highest caliber, with the ability to dominate in the low post while stretching their games to the perimeter. Each is capable of erupting for 40+ points in a given evening, and if chemistry issues subside, a new playoff contender may arise from Smoothie King Arena.

The problems start for New Orleans immediately after passing Davis and Cousins’s names on the roster. The Pellies are bereft of wings to an alarming degree, trotting out the likes of E'Twaun Moore, Jordan Crawford and Ian Clark for scoring punch. Jrue Holiday may see significant time at shooting guard. Throw in Rajon Rondo at point guard, and it will be New Orleans’ bigs who have to space the floor for its guards, not the other way around.

There’s a high chance the Pelicans struggle in a stacked West next year, and find themselves on the outside looking in near the trade deadline. And if that’s the case, the most prudent move may be to flip Boogie for additional assets, either picks or young talent. Danny Ainge may not be done wheeling and dealing in Boston, and who knows which Western Conference team may need an extra boost come February. Trading Cousins a year after acquiring him isn’t ideal. It may be necessary, however.

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A two-time, first-team All-NBA honoree, Davis is a foundational piece like few others in the league. With three years left on his contract following 2017-18, he won’t be going anywhere soon. But New Orleans knows the clock is ticking. Surround Davis with the appropriate pieces for contention in the West, or be prepared to lose the franchise’s best player since Chris Paul.


Oklahoma City Thunder

Oklahoma City’s acquisition of Paul George signaled that the Thunder wouldn’t be content surrounding Russell Westbrook with inferior talent as the rest of the West stockpiled a flurry of All-Stars. While Curry has KD and Harden has CP3 as his right-hand man, Westbrook now has another upper-echelon talent alongside him as well. The days of Westbrook facing double and triple teams late in games should be over, especially with George’s ability to can a contested triple.

Expectations are high in Oklahoma City, and rightfully so. Add a bona-fide star to Westbrook and the Thunder’s slew of imposing, lanky defenders, and there’s a recipe to possible counter to Golden State’s dominance. Anything less than a conference finals appearance will be seen as a disappointment.

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However, if the Thunder fall short of Finals contention, they’ll likely be hit with a double whammy two months later. Unless Westbrook signs an extension with OKC prior to opening night on October 16, he’ll become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year. And with George’s contract also expiring at the end of the season, it projects to be a nerve-wracking summer in Oklahoma two years after Kevin Durant left for Golden State.

George’s L.A. ambitions have been known for some time now. They can be at least partly to blame for the $500,000 hole currently burning in Magic Johnson’s wallet. So unless Oklahoma City sprints to the Finals or gives the Warriors a serious run for their money, it's hard envisioning George signing on to play out the rest of his 20’s with the Thunder. Losing George wouldn’t be destructive to OKC’s long-term plans. The organization has been bracing for his exit ever since acquiring the four-time All-Star in early July. Losing Westbrook, however, would be catastrophic.

Russ has made note of his loyalty to Oklahoma City since Durant fled, and could earn up to $235 million by signing a supermax contract with the Thunder. But seeing another banner raised in Golden State could spur Westbrook to form a superteam of his own. Maybe the Lakers will come calling his way, or maybe the Rockets could clear enough space for a reunion with James Harden. It’s impossible to predict the potential outcome 10 months in advance, but there’s no guarantee Westbrook is in it for the long haul. If OKC disappoints and the foundation around Russ sputters, he may search for a new home, one that can satisfy his championship ambitions.  

Memphis Grizzlies

The departures of Zach Randolph, Tony Allen and Vince Carter in free agency have signaled the beginning of a new era in Memphis. The days of Grit-N-Grind are now a thing of the past, and with it head coach David Fizdale will attempt to usher in a new system predicated on spacing the floor alongside Conley-Gasol pick-and-rolls.

The Grizz sport one of the most lethal two-man games in the league. Mike Conley is a slippery point guard who excels at mid-range jumpers off the bounce, and you’d be hard pressed to find a better roll man in the league than Marc Gasol. Throw in the big Spaniard's newfound range—​Gasol shot 39% from three last year—and another vital element of the pair’s pick-and-roll game emerges.

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Despite this, Memphis is still a prime candidate to slide out of the playoffs for the first time since 2010. As nearly the entire West added assets in the offseason, Memphis failed to solidify its core, now relying on a patchwork of inconsistent veterans and unproven talents to fill the void left by Z-Bo, Allen and current free agent JaMychal Green. If Memphis’s role players can’t score at an effective rate, Memphis will find itself in an offensive slog, unable to keep up with the conference’s high-octane attacks.

Gasol and Conley both project to be Memphis lifers, with each player’s contract in place until at least 2020. But as the pair slides into the second half of their careers, surrounding them with subpar talent each year will result in diminishing returns. It’s a longshot, but if Memphis is hit with a Godfather offer a-la-Boston in 2013, it may opt to ship one or both of the team’s franchise cornerstones.