Admittedly, it’s a bit half-hearted to start an offseason preview by noting the fact that the NBA’s transaction flurry won’t truly begin until October. But, with the league on the verge of fully approving the calendar to complete the pandemic-halted 2019–20 season on-site in Orlando, the semi-concrete timeline and knowledge that eight teams are officially eliminated legitimately gives us more to project with than ever before. Just roll with it.
To preface this, it’s worth addressing the uncertainty as far as the NBA’s salary cap situation is concerned, which, of course, is a key component in all this. Based on the NBA’s pre-pandemic trajectory, teams had been planning for increases to the cap and tax line. Given the circumstances, a significant decrease in basketball related income is a foregone conclusion, although the successful resumption of the season and playoffs will help. Using the standard salary-cap formula, the cap and tax line take a massive dive, a scenario that would throw a vast majority of teams into the luxury tax, creating a level of financial catastrophe nobody prepared for. That would limit teams’ ability to pay free agents this summer, and essentially throw the 2020 free agent class under the bus.
The NBA and NBPA will have to collectively bargain a solution here. One sensible option should be keeping both the salary cap and tax line numbers constant for the 2020–21 season. If the league were to over-adjust those numbers now to account for the drop in BRI, only to see them spike accordingly once fans return and finances normalize, the massive leap would generate a disproportionate amount of cap space for teams and create similar conditions to the ones that enabled Kevin Durant to sign with Golden State. There needs to be a solution that prevents this year’s free agent class from being totally shorted and keeps teams from losing all roster maneuverability. While it’s not worth getting too deep into it, let’s operate under the soft assumption the numbers stay flat, or close to it, for the sake of this exercise. (For context, this season’s salary cap is $109 million with the tax threshold at $132 million, while pre-pandemic projections placed next season’s numbers at around $139 and $155 million, respectively).
It’s also worth noting that players’ contract guarantee and option dates and expiration dates on teams’ traded-player exceptions will likely be pushed back to October in a straightforward manner, relative to how the final calendar shakes out. In other words, it’s going to be a while before we see any of this play out in real time. For now, here’s something to chew on for the eight teams that are definitively eliminated from contention.
Golden State Warriors (15-50)
Key returners: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Andrew Wiggins, Kevon Looney
Key free agents: None
2020 draft picks: Own first, Dallas second, Utah second
Needs: Center, backup point guard, perimeter depth
The outlook: Golden State has positioned itself for maximum flexibility as far as roster shuffling is concerned, with two open roster spots off the top (Chasson Randle and Dragan Bender) and several other paths to shuffle things around. Ky Bowman, Juan Toscano-Anderson and Mychal Mulder are non-guaranteed for next season and Marquese Chriss and Damion Lee have partial guarantees. So that’s seven open roster spots before you get to Eric Paschall, Jordan Poole and Alen Smailagic, all of whom are under guaranteed contract for their sophomore seasons. The Warriors have the maximum 14% odds of winning the draft lottery, plus two second-rounders.
Obviously, with its stars set to return healthy, Golden State will win more than 15 games next season, and with the expectation being a return to contention in some capacity, expect the front office to work creatively to improve the roster and streamline it with an eye toward the 2021 playoffs. The Warriors are projected to be above the tax threshold as-is, and that’s before you figure in the financial commitment attached to their first-round pick, which can land no lower than fifth. But, crucially, the Andrew Wiggins trade got Golden State off the hook for repeater tax penalties (levied on teams who pay the luxury tax three times out of any four seasons).
The Warriors have a $17.2 million trade exception (created in the Andre Iguodala trade), this year’s first-rounder and Minnesota’s top-three protected 2021 first, as well as Wiggins’s max salary, leaving several pathways to improving the roster beyond the available tax-payer mid-level exception. They can use the trade exception (which was originally set to expire in July) to acquire players without sending out salary. Logically, if there’s a way to turn Wiggins’s deal (which runs through 2023) into one or two rotation players (preferably owed shorter-term money) or another star, you have to think the Warriors explore that.
What to expect: The Warriors are aggressive and well aware of their circumstances, and with a range of pathways to upgrading the roster, this should be an active summer. Given Curry, Thompson and Green are all in their early 30s, investing major money in the future only makes sense if it’s also adding short-term value and helping prop open the current title window, so their 2020 first-round pick (which can fall no lower than No. 5) stands as their most obvious trade chip. After the Warriors spent the past season experimenting with the roster, there’s scant depth and experience coming off the bench. At a glance, they’ll need to find a veteran backup for Steph Curry, a wing or two who can space the floor and defend, and potentially a starting center, depending on how comfortable they are with Kevon Looney. At minimum, there should be a back-end roster overhaul. If Golden State can pull off something bigger, look out.
Cleveland Cavaliers (19-46)
Key returners: Kevin Love, Collin Sexton, Darius Garland, Larry Nance Jr., Kevin Porter Jr.
Key free agents: Andre Drummond (player option), Tristan Thompson
2020 draft picks: Own first
Needs: Long-term frontcourt solutions, short-term stability
The outlook: Cleveland has only eight players under guaranteed contract for 2020–21, which becomes nine if you assume Andre Drummond picks up the $28 million option he won’t find anywhere else on the market. This was a bit of a rudderless ship last season during John Beilein’s tumultuous run as head coach, with a mixture of emerging first-round talent and established veterans left over from the LeBron-era teams. There’s a sense around the league that this Cavs front office, led by Koby Altman, has started to feel some pressure after the past few drafts and Beilein’s swift demise. They’ll hope for definite signs of progress under J.B. Bickerstaff, but this is a franchise still very much searching for its identity.
The future here hinges on the trio of Collin Sexton, Darius Garland and Kevin Porter Jr., talented guards who unfortunately don’t fit all that well together on paper. All three are natural scorers; none add much value defensively. Eventually, the impetus may fall on Cleveland to trade one of them. For now, the Cavs have to figure out how to optimize development opportunities. Factor in the presence of this year’s first-round draft pick (which, optimally, would not be another guard) and there’s room for progress. But at some point the fit concerns seem likely to affect the direction of the roster.
Kevin Love would be a more attractive trade asset were he not 31 years old and owed north of $91 million through 2023. Given his public frustration last season, the Cavs would surely be happy to move on. But given the ostensibly limited market for him on those terms, they might be looking at expiring contracts and marginal draft picks in return. Rolling out a Love/Drummond frontcourt to start the season might at least be a worthwhile experiment, in lieu of better options.
What to expect: One more year of Drummond appears likely, so the Cavs figure to be over the cap with access to the mid-level exception, which is expected to be in the neighborhood of $9 million depending on what happens to the cap numbers. While Cleveland won’t be able to compete with playoff teams for top talent in that fixed price range, that money should afford it some creativity, whether it’s making a long-term offer to a less-proven young player who fits with its group, identifying buy-low opportunities, or adding a veteran or two to help stabilize the locker room and act as a mentor. The most notable addition figures to come through the draft, where the Cavs are one of three teams with top odds (14%) for the No. 1 pick and are an obvious fit for a big like James Wiseman or Onyeka Okongwu, depending on where the pick falls.
Minnesota Timberwolves (19-45)
Key returners: Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell, Jarrett Culver, Josh Okogie
Key free agents: Malik Beasley (restricted), Juan Hernangomez (restricted)
2020 draft picks: Own first, Brooklyn first (lottery protected), own second
Needs: Long-term power forward, backup point guard, perimeter shooting
The outlook: Minnesota did most of its heavy lifting at the trade deadline, bringing in D’Angelo Russell and Malik Beasley in separate trades that re-situated the roster for the foreseeable future. The Wolves have only eight players on guaranteed deals for next season, assuming James Johnson picks up his lucrative player option, and not including Beasley and Hernangomez. Although they’re one of the few teams projected to have cap space in a vacuum, they figure to spend to keep Beasley and Juan Hernangomez, which would likely have them operating over the cap this offseason with access to the mid-level exception.
Three developmental players—Jarred Vanderbilt, Naz Reid and Jaylen Nowell—can be retained inexpensively. Two-way players Jordan McLaughin and Kelan Martin received minutes at the end of the season and could also be retained. Jacob Evans and Omari Spellman came over in the Russell trade but could be odd men out in a roster crunch. Regardless, there’s back-end roster flexibility, and you can also assume the Wolves roster both first-round picks next season (they’ll get Brooklyn’s pick unless the Nets completely stumble in Orlando and miss the playoffs). Their own pick can land no lower than seventh, with the maximum 14% odds to win the lottery.
While Minnesota has committed to a youth movement, this doesn’t seem like a full-on tank situation, with Karl-Anthony Towns providing an impetus to compete for a playoff spot as soon as possible. The Wolves performed much better offensively after the trade deadline, but still have to address their issues on the other end in order to leap forward as a group. They have a glut of young wings in Beasley, Okogie and Culver, each with a distinctly different skill set. The biggest long-term question is what type of player fits best next to Towns up front. An outside-the-box solution, like pairing him with a defensive-minded center rather than a floor-spacing forward, might be worth a shot.
What to expect: The Wolves didn’t trade for Beasley just to let him walk. It makes sense that they’d try and get in front of competing offers in restricted free agency, with the question being what type of deal Beasley prefers given the current salary cap instability. As far as price range goes, per reports, he previously declined a three-year, $30 million extension from Denver prior to the trade. Regardless, assume he’s part of their long-term plans. Hernangomez started games after coming over at the deadline figures to attract some suitors as a versatile contributor who could conceivably be worth someone’s mid-level exception. Barring a wild offer sheet, Minnesota should be able to keep him if it wants. Adding an experienced voice or two to the locker room might help, and given the need for a backup point guard, that’s something that should be addressable using the mid-level exception. But next season will be about giving the current group time to jell, and any more major trades would be something of a surprise.
Atlanta Hawks (20-47)
Key returners: Trae Young, Clint Capela, John Collins, Cam Reddish, Kevin Huerter, De’Andre Hunter
Key free agents: Jeff Teague
2020 draft picks: Own first, more favorable of Miami/Houston seconds
Needs: Wing depth, backup point guard
The outlook: Next season figures to be a key checkpoint for the Hawks, who have all their young players under contract and will now take a hard look at how everything fits after acquiring Clint Capela, who finally gives them a legitimate starting center. Building a winner around gifted playmaker Trae Young will require adequate defensive cover at every other position, and the hope is that experienced rim protection, between Capela and pricy backup Dewayne Dedmon, will be well worth the investment. All of Atlanta’s young players are under contract next season, and there should be an expectation that this group moves closer to fringe playoff contention at bare minimum.
As things stand, Atlanta should have more cap space than any other team, with about $57 million committed to eight guaranteed contracts, plus its first-round pick (slated at No. 4 going into the lottery) and three restricted free agents in De’Andre Bembry, Skal Labissiere and Damian Jones. None of those three are surefire keepers. There’s obvious opportunity to try and upgrade the rotation with veteran players on short-term deals, who can help the team inch closer to being truly competitive without hampering the team’s ability to offer eventual long-term extensions to the various players currently on rookie contracts. At the same time, the Hawks need to reserve minutes on the wing for Cam Reddish, Kevin Huerter and De’Andre Hunter, plus whoever they draft in the first round. (Given the context of their current roster, they almost surely won’t draft a point guard or a center.)
Of those guys, John Collins’s situation is the most pressing, after a statistical breakout year at age 22 that may put him in the max-salary ballpark. He’s extension-eligible now and will be a restricted free agent in 2021, putting the onus on Atlanta to make a value judgment this offseason. If the Hawks don’t view him as a clear part of the long-term plan, he should have plenty of value on the trade market right now as a young double-double producer that another team can retain long-term. They have the financial flexibility to extend him now if they want to. But it also might make sense to see how he fits with Capela, then let him test the market a year from now with the capacity to match any offer.
What to expect: Whether or not to extend Collins is Atlanta’s primary offseason hurdle. As far as free agents are concerned, the Hawks have the money to outbid opposing teams for top talent. But given this is a relatively thin free agent class, the gains there might be marginal. Rolling some cap space over into the season would preserve their ability to absorb other teams’ unwanted contracts and pick up draft picks. In order to make deals like that, signing a few veterans to tradable short-term contracts—adding experience to the rotation while staying flexible—makes the most sense. Whether the Hawks would leap into the bidding for a top available player like Danilo Gallinari remains to be seen, but adding a proven contributor could jumpstart their path to the playoffs. If they can do that without adding too much long-term salary, it makes sense.
Detroit Pistons (20-46)
Key returners: Blake Griffin, Luke Kennard, Sekou Doumbouya, Derrick Rose
Key free agents: Christian Wood, Tony Snell (player option)
2020 draft picks: Own first
Needs: Starting center, long-term point guard, talent in general
The outlook: This is one of the more barren rosters you’ll find anywhere, unfortunately, and the obvious imperative here is for the Pistons to start building successfully through the draft. Slotted with the fifth-best odds, they have a 10.5% chance of picking first and a 42.1% chance of landing in the top four. With Arn Tellem currently running basketball operations, Detroit is expected to hire a proper general manager going into the offseason. Other than that and their pick, it’s hard to see the Pistons pulling off anything too splashy. They’ll have significant cap space to work with, albeit they may have to overpay for any meaningful upgrades given how far they appear to be from competing for a playoff spot.
There are a few storylines to watch here, particularly to what extent Blake Griffin can successfully return from arthroscopic knee surgery at age 31. Detroit owes Griffin max money through 2022, and while he’s unlikely to ever return full value on that deal, a full recovery will certainly helps to prop up the team. Luke Kennard took a step forward last season, is up for an extension and will otherwise become a restricted free agent in 2021. Christian Wood also showed signs of breaking out last season and hits the open market before turning 25 in September. It’s worth monitoring whether or not the Pistons will commit financially to Kennard and Wood long-term.
Since their pick lands near the top of the draft, the Pistons can go best player available, with upside plays like Anthony Edwards and LaMelo Ball both attractive long-term fits. Although it’s not the best draft, Detroit is one of the teams with a bit more at stake, and if it can go into next season with one of those guys on the roster, it’s a win regardless of what else happens. Right now, the Pistons need a player they can stake their future on. Sekou Doumbouya showed some flashes as a rookie, but has more to prove.
What to expect: With cap space available, Detroit should be able to offer playing time and competitive money to buy low on younger free agents in hopes of developing them into viable long-term rotation players. The Pistons can also keep some of their cap space and sign players to movable short-term deals to create trade pathways to adding draft picks in exchange for other teams’ unwanted contracts. Detroit isn’t luring major free agents and will need a creative summer to help jumpstart the roster. The Pistons reportedly tried to trade Kennard at the deadline, and could still try to move him before he hits restricted free agency rather than offer a long-term extension. He’s coming off a solid season, has yet to turn 24, and will have value on the market as a strong shooter who can play on and off the ball. This continues to be a long-haul situation, but the Pistons have to mine whatever value they can and use their short-term flexibility to create long-term competitive advantage.
New York Knicks (21-45)
Key returners: R.J. Barrett, Mitchell Robinson, Julius Randle
Key free agents: Moe Harkless, Bobby Portis (team option)
2020 draft picks: Own first, Clippers first, Charlotte second
Needs: Long-term point guard, low-maintenance role players
The outlook: The Knicks have cap space again, and can easily create more by opting not to pick up Bobby Portis’s $15.7 million option. Taj Gibson ($9.4 million) and Elfrid Payton ($8 million) also have cheap partial guarantees for next season and can be waived for minimal money if the Knicks choose to move on. There likely won’t be any high-end stars for New York to try and lure this offseason, nor would it be in position to do that anyway, but the Knicks do have their first-round pick and a 9% chance of winning the lottery. With new front office leadership taking over, including noted salary cap guru Brock Aller, the Knicks should at least be better positioned to optimize their circumstances, rather than continue to simply pine for a star free agent to rescue them from obscurity.
R.J. Barrett was, predictably, a mixed bag as a rookie, but deserves some time to diversify his game, and needs another shot-creator to alleviate the pressure to dominate the ball. Mitchell Robinson still has a lot to learn, but was very productive last season and looks like he’ll be in for a significant extension in the next couple years. Julius Randle is Julius Randle, and if they can trade him for anything of substance, it probably makes sense. But in the next year or two, New York will have to make decisions on Kevin Knox, Frank Ntilikina and Dennis Smith, none of whom feel closer to panning out as pros than they did a year ago. Allonzo Trier and Damyean Dotson are restricted free agents, but neither will make or break the path of the franchise.
On some level, the Knicks discourse tends to be a little unfair, given that there’s a general perception that the team needs to do splashy things all the time, but in reality, they’re doing the right thing by being patient. The Knicks could pony up to try and sign a proven guard like Fred Van Vleet, but at the same time, he’s far more valuable on a team in position to contend. It’s hard to successfully rebuild with only one foot in. At this point, after kicking the can down the road to sustain cap flexibility, New York is probably best off sticking to that plan, drafting well, trying to get more out of the players it has, and working as hard as possible to reframe the franchise as a destination for free agents down the line, or to collect enough stuff to potentially trade for one later. There’s not an overnight fix in sight. Nailing both first-round picks in October has to be the first priority.
What to expect: As far as the draft is concerned, the Knicks are another obvious landing spot for LaMelo Ball, who despite his warts has the type of passing chops worth gambling on. Though it’s risky to an extent, New York badly needs someone to handle the ball who also actually enjoys passing. If it stays at No. 6, prospects like Killian Hayes and Tyrese Haliburton should come into play. The Clippers pick (smartly acquired for Marcus Morris) will fall in the late 20s, where there should be potential role players on the board. Beyond that, the Knicks are likely better off maintaining their long-term flexibility and sticking to proven players on short-term deals. That type of plan, of course, might have gone over better last year had New York not convinced the public it was in with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.
Chicago Bulls (22-43)
Key returners: Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr., Coby White
Key free agents: Otto Porter Jr. (player option), Kris Dunn (restricted)
2020 draft picks: Own first, Memphis second
Needs: Playmaking guard, perimeter defenders
The outlook: Arturas Karnisovas inherits a Bulls roster with actual workable parts, but in need of some rehabilitation. If Chicago is indeed ready to move on from Jim Boylen before next season, it’ll signal that it's not content to tread water, as well as an emphasis on getting more out of its young players. Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter need more minutes together, and staying healthy is obviously part of that equation. Both deserve a longer look up front. Zach LaVine can really score, but he’s not the player who’s going to make everyone else better, and neither is Coby White, who has upside in a scoring spark-type role.
Factoring in cap holds, Chicago will likely operate over the cap assuming Otto Porter opts in for the final year of his contract. The mid-level exception will then be available to the Bulls, in addition to their own first-round pick, as the primary means of improving the roster. It’s unclear what will become of Kris Dunn and Denzel Valentine, both of whom are restricted free agents. Veterans Thaddeus Young and Tomas Satoransky both signed deals last summer that have partial guarantees for 2021–22, making them feasible trade targets for other teams in search of reliable contributors.
As far as the draft goes, Chicago will most likely pick at No. 7, which looks like a potential sweet spot for a team that can grab the best player available. The Bulls don’t have any drastic positional holes, which gives them optimal decision-making flexibility wherever they pick. In Denver, Karnisovas was part of a smart front office group willing to take calculated risks, and it’s reasonable to expect some level of emphasis on drafting the same type of unselfish, high-IQ players the Nuggets favor.
What to expect: The new front office will need some time to assess what’s already in place, and beyond the possibility of a coaching change or moving a veteran or two, it’s most likely the Bulls go into next season with a similar look, as a test-drive of sorts. Using the mid-level exception to address a need or two makes sense (in some way, shape or form, they need a pass-first guard who can put pressure on the rim), but Chicago probably ought to give its young players a bit more time together as a healthy unit before doing anything drastic. Markkanen was at the center of rumors at one point, but seems content to stay put for now, and his trade value is certainly not what it would have been a year ago. At the very least, there’s reason to be optimistic given the regime change.
Charlotte Hornets (23-42)
Key returners: Devonte’ Graham, Miles Bridges, P.J. Washington, Terry Rozier
Key free agents: Nicolas Batum (player option)
2020 draft picks: Own first, Cleveland second, Boston second
Needs: Long-term center, shot-creating scorer
The outlook: Even with Nic Batum likely to opt in for the final year of his hefty contract, Charlotte will have cap space again, with Bismack Biyombo finally coming off the books. The Hornets saw legit improvement from Devonte' Graham last season and should be optimistic about P.J. Washington, but need an infusion of talent across the board and are lacking for future star power. That’s obviously not an area that can easily be addressed for a small-market team in one summer, and even if Charlotte were to beat the odds and win the draft lottery, this may not be the year it happens. But the Hornets are in position to spend and fill out their rotation around the margins, and if they get anything out of Batum (for however long he can stay healthy), they at least have a scrappy group of overachieving players and minimal money tied up beyond next season.
Cody Zeller has been serviceable at center for much of his career, but he almost certainly isn’t the long-term solution, and Charlotte might be able to find a big who fits its needs through the draft. One constant during Michael Jordan’s run as owner has been that Hornets tend to favor established college talent, and James Wiseman (though it’s hard to label him that) Obi Toppin and Onyeka Okongwu could be available to them depending on where their pick falls. They can also punt on the position another year and sign a cheap, defensive-minded alternative to pair with Zeller. Alternatively, having Graham and Terry Rozier on the roster shouldn’t preclude Charlotte from taking a guard if that player is a clear long-term upgrade. For what it’s worth, Malik Monk started to play better before his indefinite suspension for violating the NBA’s anti-drug policy.
At the very least, the Hornets are young and have avoided saddling themselves with bad contracts the past couple seasons, with Graham, Washington and Bridges starting full-time and second-rounder Cody Martin getting time off the bench. Having a young team and having legit young talent, of course, isn’t always the same thing. Washington and Bridges are both natural power forwards who don’t fit perfectly together. But Charlotte’s group at least looks viable from a role-player standpoint right now. What it needs most is a scorer who can carry the offense and tie those parts together, with Graham a capable game-manager who’s somewhat limited athletically. Terry Rozier was relatively solid last season, but will be miscast if expected to efficiently shoulder the scoring load.
What to expect: Charlotte is in a good spot to add another young player or two using cap space, but there aren’t a ton of instant-impact players in their mid-20s hanging around right now. Making a competitive offer on a project like Harry Giles or Derrick Jones Jr. who fits with their young players would be an intriguing proposition. There aren’t a ton of desirable restricted free agents who are actually viewed as gettable, with Brandon Ingram and Malik Beasley likely to stay in New Orleans and Minnesota. But taking a flier or two on players with upside left, while preserving some cap space for future moves, could at least point Charlotte in the right direction.