- Which NBA playoff teams are trending up? Which are trending down? Here is what all eight remaining playoff teams are facing as the offseason draws closer.
Surely, there are twists and turns left to come as we near the midway point of these playoffs. But in the end, as always, only one team walks away with the trophy, while the other contenders are forced to re-examine themselves moving into the offseason. Sometimes, teams have the luxury of maintaining a winning core. More often than not, they face the prospect of major turnover. The NBA’s offseason has become a game of its own in some respects as a result, with all its contingencies and possibilities.
With the longer view in mind, here’s a look at what all eight remaining playoff teams are facing as the offseason draws closer.
The Nuggets have drafted well and operated responsibly over the past several years under Tim Connelly, and have built something organic that looks set to last a while. It’s safe to say they’re reaping the rewards, with Nikola Jokic blossoming into a MVP-caliber player, signed through 2023. They’re locked in with their core going into 2019-20, with Jamal Murray still another year from potential extension money kicking in, Gary Harris and Will Barton signed long-term, Mason Plumlee set to return, and Malik Beasley, Torrey Craig and Monte Morris playing on bargain contracts. 2018 first-rounder Michael Porter Jr. is expected to return from injury and make his debut next season. With the exception (for now) of Porter, who’s long been known as a ball-stopper, these are pieces that all clearly fit together, and are all under age 30.
Denver’s primary offseason decision will be whether to pick up Paul Millsap’s $30 million team option, and with the way things are going, they’d be well justified in keeping him around. Declining it will take Denver under the salary cap and grant some flexibility, but with the position depth and continuity they have in place, keeping him around another year at cost makes a lot of sense. The other element here is Connelly, who has been linked to the Wizards’ lead front office role. Still, it’s tricky to see him walking away from such a well-positioned organization, particularly after such a competitive first postseason run with this group. At some point, this group is going to get expensive, particularly with the way Murray has developed, but with Jokic in place, expect the Nuggets to hang comfortably around the 50-win mark for the next few seasons. Depending on how the rest of the conference tracks, there’s potential for more.
It’s clear by now that so long as the Bucks have Giannis Antetokounmpo in place, they’re going to be among the better teams in the league. The scary part is that he continues to improve, with the pending addition of a consistent jump shot perhaps standing as the final key. He’ll hit unrestricted free agency in 2021, and Milwaukee continues to do everything in its power to keep him happy. His workmanlike approach and impressive mentality at age 24, not to mention his diverse skill set, grants the Bucks some freedom to get creative with the players they put around him.
On that note, Khris Middleton will likely opt out of his $13 million option and hit free agency this summer, due for a large raise whether or not he remains in Milwaukee. He’s proven an ideal complement to Giannis, one the Bucks would be justified in paying. The fates of several other rotation players are still dangling, as well, with Malcolm Brogdon hitting restricted free agency and Nikola Mirotic and Brook Lopez set to hit the market. Lopez’s return seems feasible with how well he’s fit in, while Mirotic could end up a tad pricy dependent on how things shake out. It’s a critical summer for the Bucks, who have already locked up Eric Bledsoe and appear committed to spending and keeping Antetokounmpo within reach of a Finals berth.
The Rockets’ cards are sitting firmly on the table, with max commitments to James Harden (through 2023) and Chris Paul (2022) tying up the cap sheet, and Clint Capela also in place through 2023. Houston brings every key player back next season, including Eric Gordon and P.J. Tucker, and as long as Harden is playing MVP-caliber basketball, there’s a chance to win the conference. As he approaches his 30th birthday, he’s shown no signs of slowing down, but statistically, it’s not getting much better than this. Paul, on the other hand, has further to go to justify the big money, and while he remains a dynamic playmaker at age 34, it’s fair to expect some type of decline, perhaps sooner than later.
From here, Houston will have to keep finding creative ways to improve the team around their primary guys. With cheap pickups like Iman Shumpert and Kenneth Faried hitting free agency, operating within those margins and replacing those spots is mostly par for the course. The Rockets will operate aggressively for as long as they can justify doing so, and have done so intelligently. How long that timeframe lasts is directly tied to Harden. Barring a huge surprise, they’ll run it all back next season with this group. What they’re doing right now is working: it’s a matter of sustaining it and keeping their stars healthy and productive into their 30s. For at least the next couple seasons, it’s an equation that should remain effective and keep them near the top of the West.
It was hard to watch Boston fall to the brink of elimination with a loss to Milwaukee on Monday night without seeing yellow flags, at minimum. It’s been a long, strange season for the Celtics, their pieces have not always meshed, and they’re looking at a second-round exit for all their troubles. Danny Ainge has said publicly that the Celtics expect Kyrie Irving back; Irving has been his usual, evasive self on the matter. It’s a distinct possibility he departs, although they do have a lot of cooks in the kitchen as is, and can and should be foisting additional responsibility onto Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum going forward if only to see how they respond. Despite their growing pains, having those two players under team control for the foreseeable future is a major boon, but they will need to work together and mesh their skill sets for it to pay real dividends.
If Irving does walk, Boston won’t be totally screwed: they can also re-sign Terry Rozier, who will be a restricted free agent, and they have multiple first-round picks in this year’s draft available as trade capital or as a means of adding roster depth. This is not to understate the fact that losing Irving would be a setback, but while it would likely delay any legitimate chance at contention, the Celtics still have plenty to build with. Al Horford has a $30 million opt-out, but coming back at that number would certainly make sense for him. Every other important piece is under contract, and Gordon Hayward will be further removed from injury, although he’s still not quite himself. The Celtics are well past the honeymoon phase with this group, and even with their relative youth, there’s work to be done.
Portland Trail Blazers
Entering the playoffs, there were whispers that the Blazers were nearing a crossroads with the current roster construction and coaching staff. The death of longtime owner Paul Allen in October and potential sale of the team continues to cast some added uncertainty. But the results Portland has gotten thus far have been overwhelmingly positive, beginning with a convincing series against the Thunder and continuing into a competitive matchup with the Nuggets. The Blazers have gotten expensive, but as long as they intend to keep C.J. McCollum as Damian Lillard’s primary running mate, their look should remain much the same. They’re good enough to make the Western Conference Finals as is, and there’s room for more depending on which way things break for the Warriors and Rockets going forward.
Still, there are some things to juggle over the summer, as key role players Enes Kanter, Al-Farouq Aminu, Seth Curry and Rodney Hood will all be unrestricted free agents. Portland has money tied up in three centers: injured Jusuf Nurkic, Meyers Leonard on an expiring deal, and promising 21-year-old Zach Collins, who is soon to warrant a significant extension. Whether the Blazers try to move things around or slide some of their younger guys into real minutes is yet to be seen, but the hope would be to bring some guys back and make it work financially. The other question is whether ownership will want to dip into the luxury tax. Regardless, having Lillard and McCollum under contract and having gotten more tangible results in these playoffs should go a long way.
Sweating out July
Toronto’s ongoing courtship of Kawhi Leonard has certainly been bolstered by the success of both team and player in these playoffs. Leonard has arguably been the best player in the postseason (with apologies to Nikola Jokic), and the way the Raptors have put talent around him and won games certainly has to hold more appeal than it did six months ago. Leonard, a native of Southern California, has been widely connected to the Clippers as a possible landing spot, but winning tends to trump all, even when the weather is a negative. If he re-signs, there should to be a winning team in place for the foreseeable future. And at the end of the day, Toronto can offer him the most money.
With Marc Gasol likely to opt in at north of $25 million and only Danny Green set to be an unrestricted free agent, the Raptors will have the capacity to roll out a similarly competitive group next year, with Pascal Siakam looking like an emerging star and Kyle Lowry under contract for one more season. There’s no better way to sell Leonard on staying than winning, and if the Raptors can reach the Conference Finals or even beyond, there’s even more substance there. On the other hand, if Leonard departs, there’s a case to be made for hitting reset and looking to rebuild. His decision still hangs over everything else Toronto has in mind.
After going all in on Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris, the next step for the Sixers is executing the requisite cap gymnastics to keep both players. They’ll have to spend big, with each player capable of commanding max or near-max money on the open market. They’re also likely to have to hand Ben Simmons a max extension that would kick in beginning in 2020, meaning the majority of their money will be tied up in their four stars (including Joel Embiid, who’s already signed through 2023). This was part of the plan when Philly made their moves this season, and it’s aggressive, and if it works, they’ll have to pick up the pieces and find ways to adequately fill out the roster. It could mean they lose a key piece in J.J. Redick.
Still, it’s possible one or both of Butler and Harris chooses to head elsewhere, placing some additional emphasis on the Sixers extending their playoff run and better selling the situation to their current group. Noting Butler’s exits (via trade) with the Bulls and Timberwolves, he would appear the more likely of the two to walk in search of the most appealing fit. There will be teams with maximum cap space, some in major markets, who come calling. Harris is a more ideal fit next to Simmons and Embiid long-term, but not the same caliber of shot creator or late-game option that Philly so badly needs to maximize its potential. Keeping their core together would position the Sixers to win big for the next several years, at minimum, but they need the dominos to fall correctly. If they don’t, they’ll have to step back and rethink their supporting cast a bit.
Bracing for Change
Golden State Warriors
At this point it’s little secret, but the prevailing thought around the league has been that Kevin Durant will opt out and head elsewhere this summer, placing the Warriors at a key juncture as they look to extend their dominance through the back half of Stephen Curry’s prime years. Re-signing Klay Thompson, who will command top dollar, is first on their list this summer. DeMarcus Cousins, currently out injured, is expected to test the market. Beyond that, Golden State will have to get creative. But as long as Curry, Thompson and Draymond Green are in the fold, they’ll remain a destination for veterans looking to make deep playoff runs, and should have little issue filling out their rotation with quality, discount options. But no Durant is no Durant, and it’s the future the Warriors are weighing.
With that in mind, unless Golden State is able to finesse its way into a new, younger star (which will be more feasible in 2020, when Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston’s contracts expire, and Draymond Green hits free agency), the roster’s long-term competitiveness is going to hinge on how long Curry (and, if he returns, Thompson) can prolong peak performance. At 31 and 29, respectively, both have quality years left, and should remain elite three-point threats beyond that, but if and when Durant walks, the Warriors are going to have to try some things. They’re not just going to walk back into their 2015 formula and expect the same results. A healthy Curry can keep Golden State at or near the top of the league, but we’re getting closer to big attrition years for this group, and this summer is the first pivotal juncture. This is a proactive organization that should be expected to have a trick or two up its sleeve, but the Warriors will eventually look different, potentially sooner than you expect.