With the playoffs underway, offseason preparation has begun in earnest around the NBA, with the draft and free agency looming. Here’s a look at what’s to come for the 14 teams that missed the playoffs.
Houston Rockets (17–55)
Key returners: John Wall, Christian Wood, Eric Gordon, Kevin Porter Jr., Jae’Sean Tate
Key free agents: None
2021 draft picks: Own first (if 1–4) OR Miami first via swap; Portland first; Milwaukee first
The post–James Harden Rockets became what one might have expected: a fast-sinking experimental testing ground for young talent that finished with the league’s worst record. There were multiple silver linings for the franchise, which we can start with—Christian Wood immediately delivering on what looks like a bargain contract, Jae’Sean Tate emerging as a legit rotation player and the acquisition of 20-year-old Kevin Porter Jr. as a valid reclamation project—but there was mostly a ton of losing. This was the organization’s worst season since 1982–83, when the Rockets went 14–68.
It’s clear Houston’s roster requires major rehabilitation moving forward. That places immediate emphasis on successful drafting, which is presently the most anxiety-inducing piece of the Rockets’ offseason. If their pick falls outside the top four selections on lottery night, it conveys to the Thunder as part of the fallout from the ill-fated Russell Westbrook–Chris Paul trade. The NBA’s flattened lottery odds give Houston a 52.1% chance of picking in the top four. While those are the best possible odds, it’s still effectively a coin flip. If the Rockets lose their pick, they’ll still end up with three firsts: the Heat's (as a conditional swap), Trail Blazers' and Bucks'. But a bad break on lottery night would be a significant setback for the franchise, and cast a pall on the summer at large.
The other thing to keep an eye on here is whether the Rockets can find a way to trade John Wall and/or Eric Gordon, both of whom are coming off season-ending injuries and have dampened trade value on their current contracts. Wall’s massive annual salary, in particular, remains an albatross. When healthy, Wall wasn’t bad this season, but the possibility of the Rockets' eventually agreeing to a buyout with Wall feels like the most realistic way out of a strange marriage. It shouldn’t be a question of whether Houston wants to lean into the tank, but whether they’re actually able to find suitable moves to facilitate that.
Taking on shorter-term salary and investing in younger players where possible (Wood’s deal from last summer was a good piece of work) feels like the best pathway in free agency. The three first-round picks will give them some flexibility, and simply walking away with a top-four prospect from a top-heavy draft would be the most realistic way to move forward. Houston can operate with cap space if it chooses, and the front office’s history of creative transactions makes it a team to keep an eye on with the optionality in mind.
Detroit Pistons (20–52)
Key returners: Jerami Grant, Killian Hayes, Isaiah Stewart, Saddiq Bey
Key free agents: Hamidou Diallo (restricted)
2021 draft picks: Own first; Charlotte second; Toronto second; Lakers second
The first year of Detroit’s long-arching rebuild under Troy Weaver was predictably a mixed bag, with a strong emphasis on handing minutes to young players, and not much winning. So, much of the Pistons’ offseason hinges on fate: They’re among the teams with the best possible odds at a top draft pick, but that outcome is not promised. Detroit is still on the hook for a large chunk of Blake Griffin’s contract but can create cap space if it chooses. The Pistons will have a little bit of flexibility in free agency, but figure to be patient and careful with spending given how far away they are from being competitive.
Last year’s draft has already paid dividends, with successful rookie years from Isaiah Stewart and Saddiq Bey, who look like strong finds for the Pistons moving forward and should be penciled in for a big uptick in minutes next season. The big variable is the development of No. 7 pick Killian Hayes, who missed a large chunk of his rookie year with a hip injury and didn’t fully impress in his 26 games. The NBA was always going to be a big adjustment for him, as his game revolves around pace and deception, and Hayes deserves a mulligan given the context of this season. Detroit is certain to be patient with him, as it became well known around the NBA in the lead-up to last year’s draft just how much Weaver and his front office coveted the young guard. Next year should be more telling as to whether Hayes is a legitimate centerpiece for this rebuild.
The Pistons took fliers on Hamidou Diallo and Dennis Smith Jr. via in-season trades, and face decisions on both as restricted free agency loons. Diallo shot the ball well after arriving from Oklahoma City and started to show flashes last season. He makes sense for Detroit to retain, noting that Weaver was part of the Thunder front office that originally drafted him, and that the Pistons have a clear need for wings moving forward. Smith was a touted draft pick in 2017 but has struggled to gain his footing in the NBA. Detroit got positive minutes out of Frank Jackson toward the end of the season, and his improved shooting and defensive acumen might be worth keeping around.
Overall, this doesn’t figure to be a seismic offseason for the Pistons, with most of Detroit’s hopes hinging on the draft. Having Hayes on the roster shouldn’t preclude them from drafting any of the guards early. But in a perfect world, walking away from the summer with Cade Cunningham or Evan Mobley in the fold would be a major win.
Orlando Magic (21–51)
Key returners: Jonathan Isaac, Markelle Fultz, Wendell Carter, Chuma Okeke
Key free agents: Otto Porter Jr.
2021 draft picks: Own first; Chicago first (if outside top four); own second
The Magic began their big teardown at the trade deadline, when they moved on from Nikola Vučević, Aaron Gordon and Evan Fournier, and set the stage for broad roster restructuring that will continue into this summer. Orlando is likely looking at two top 10 picks: its own, which has maximum odds for No. 1, and Chicago’s, which the Magic acquired in the Vučević trade and will receive as long as it falls outside the top four selections (giving the Bulls a 20.3% chance of keeping their pick).
Orlando is heavy on guards, with Markelle Fultz, Gary Harris, Cole Anthony and R.J. Hampton all on the roster next season, but the Magic aren’t far along enough to be overly concerned with positional fit high in the draft, either. Jonathan Isaac returns from injury next season, and Wendell Carter and Chuma Okeke will get long looks. Orlando still has to figure out what to do with Mo Bamba, who’s dealt with injuries and been of minimal use early in his career.
Terrence Ross looks like a trade candidate, as a proven vet with two years left on an affordable contract that will make him attractive to competing teams. Harris is on an expiring deal, but is still just 26 and figures to be worth a short-term look for Orlando to see if he can stay healthy and return to his old form. The Magic also have bird rights on Otto Porter, who’s proven serviceable and could be worth keeping around, potentially to trade again down the road.
The Magic’s cupboard certainly isn’t bare—they’ll enter the fall with plenty of talented young players—but the organization needs to nail the internal assessment process and identify which of those pieces will form the team’s next long-term core. Fultz, Isaac, Okeke and Bamba are all 22, Carter is 21, Anthony is 20 and Hampton is still 19. Add in two probable lottery picks to that mix, and there likely aren’t enough minutes to go around next season. The smart money is on Orlando having an active summer.
Cleveland Cavaliers (22–50)
Key returners: Collin Sexton, Kevin Love, Larry Nance, Darius Garland, Isaac Okoro
Key free agents: Jarrett Allen (restricted)
2021 draft picks: Own first
The Cavs have felt somewhat rudderless in the post–LeBron James years, and move into another rebuilding summer, armed with some cap space and with the front office under some pressure. They have an 11.5% chance of winning the lottery, which would be a major boost. There’s been speculation around the league that GM Koby Altman is on the hot seat, with Cleveland’s roster still lacking a clear focal point. Collin Sexton is extension-eligible this summer and comes off a career year, but the Cavaliers have to determine whether he’s worth minting as a true centerpiece, and Sexton will likely seek max or near-max money. Cleveland can kick the can down the road one more year and let him test restricted free agency, if they choose.
Sexton’s continued improvement and Darius Garland making it through the season mostly healthy were clear positives this season. Whether the two guards fit together long-term is still a bigger question that Cleveland has to address eventually. The prospect of landing a top-five pick in the lottery might mean the opportunity to select a high-quality guard, which could expedite matters. Isaac Okoro led all rookies in minutes and showed promise, but remains an iffy jump shooter and has a long way to go offensively to be more than a role player. The Cavs must also decide what to do with Jarrett Allen, who should fetch some interest in restricted free agency and is still only 23. Allen was a major midseason acquisition for Cleveland, and it stands to reason the Cavs will match offers for the big man, rather than let him walk for nothing.
The elephant in the room: Kevin Love has two hefty years left on his contract, with more than $60 million remaining and hampering his appeal on the trade market. It feels like Love—who’s continued to publicly express unhappiness with his situation—is inching closer to buyout territory, with a cleaner exit from Cleveland and a chance to join a contender perhaps more appealing than playing out two more years as he enters his mid-30s. Moving on might make sense for both parties at this point, as dealing Love at his current price tag is a tricky proposition. Larry Nance Jr. and Cedi Osman could also have some appeal as trade chips on reasonable contracts, if the Cavs opt to shuffle the deck. The club can also opt to retain backup bigs Isaiah Hartenstein and Dean Wade who aren’t owed much and played well in the second half of the season.
But the biggest question is likely what happens with Altman, who’s had some missteps during his time at the helm. The John Beilein hire was one of them. Altman wound up unable to spin Andre Drummond into future value before his buyout and gave away Kevin Porter Jr., who had off-court troubles in Cleveland but played well for the Rockets toward the end of the season and has exhibited considerable potential as a reclamation project. It was hard to reasonably expect much from the Cavs this season, but there needs to be some sign of progress sooner than later in Year 3 of this rebuild. Patience will eventually run thin.
Oklahoma City Thunder (22–50)
Key returners: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Luguentz Dort, Aleksej Pokusevski, Darius Bazley, Théo Maledon
Key free agents: None
2021 draft picks: Own first; Houston first (if outside top four) OR Miami first; own second; Minnesota second; Denver second
The NBA’s strangest, most fascinating rebuild continues in Oklahoma City, as the Thunder enter the draft lottery hoping to come away with two top 10 picks. They’ll get the Rockets’ first-rounder if Houston falls outside the first four selections, and will otherwise get Miami’s first-rounder. The Thunder are aggressively playing the draft (to frame it in a competitive way), and have an 11.5% chance of winning the lottery with their own selection. They could walk away with two top-five picks in theory. And while they’re developing young players at every position, all bets are off as to what this roster will look like in three or four years.
Oklahoma City won’t be a major player in free agency, but with a wealth of cap space, they figure to again operate as a dumping ground for other teams’ unwanted contracts, taking back more draft picks to facilitate transactions. In the interest of handing minutes to younger players, the Thunder mothballed Al Horford last season, who has two years left on his contract and turns 35 next week. Horford could be a buyout candidate if Oklahoma City is unable to find a suitable trade, but expect Sam Presti to exhaust options to try and get something back for him first.
Expect the Thunder’s roster churn to continue, but their more promising young pieces, headlined by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, figure to return. Which direction they go with their draft picks will ultimately factor into the long-term fate of Luguentz Dort, Darius Bazley and others, but most of OKC’s players are on cheap contracts, and there’s no rush to make a final call on any of them. Aleksej Pokusevski had flashes of brilliance to go with predictable head-scratching moments as a rookie, and warrants the most patience of anyone on the roster, at least for now. Théo Maledon also exceeded expectations and looks like a potential steal after a surprising fall into the second round. The Thunder also found value in Kenrich Williams (acquired from New Orleans in the big Steven Adams trade) and Svi Mykhailiuk (who came from Detroit and will be a restricted free agent).
There’s little secret as to what the Thunder are doing, but the actual timeline for when they return to competitive relevance remains wholly unclear. Presti’s chain of decisions will one day be an interesting case study in management. Landing one of the draft’s top prizes is to be expected, at this point. Don’t expect anything too splashy otherwise.
Minnesota Timberwolves (23–49)
Key returners: Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards, D’Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley
Key free agents: Jarred Vanderbilt (restricted)
2021 draft picks: Own first (if top three)
There’s no way around the fact that Timberwolves brass will be sweating their way through lottery night, with their pick slated to convey to the Warriors unless it lands in the top three. That gives Minnesota a 27.6% chance of keeping its selection, which is less than ideal, particularly due to the quality talent atop this year’s draft. If the Wolves keep the pick, Golden State will get their 2022 first-rounder unprotected, but there should be a sense of urgency to compete sooner than later, and missing out on a quality player in the now would be a difficult break. If Minnesota loses the pick, it’ll have no selections at all this year, with its second-rounder already headed to the Warriors from the D’Angelo Russell trade in February '20.
One way or another, the Timberwolves need to make some progress next season, with legitimate talent on the roster but little to show for it—the franchise has made the playoffs just once since the Kevin Garnett era, and with a new ownership group on the horizon, the future here is a bit uncertain. Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards give Minnesota a legit foundation. There’s clutter elsewhere on the roster, particularly at guard, where D’Angelo Russell, Ricky Rubio and Malik Beasley are all on the roster heading into the summer. With the promising Edwards ticketed for a lead backcourt role moving forward, something will have to give at some point.
The only free agent of note here is Jarred Vanderbilt, who enters restricted free agency as an interesting target for teams with cap space—the big man is still just 21 years old, comes with pedigree, and had some nice moments this season, while maintaining a mostly clean bill of health. Minnesota likely won’t want to lose him for nothing, but the emergence of Jaden McDaniels as an intriguing project at power forward might complicate matters. It might help to have more of a true rim-protecting presence alongside the perimeter-oriented Towns for the long haul, but the perfect fit is going to be hard to find. It can also bring back 21-year-old backup center Naz Reid for cheap, if it chooses to guarantee his deal.
The Timberwolves should have opportunities to change up their rotation, but they enter the offseason over the salary cap and only the midlevel exception to spend. They improved offensively under Chris Finch but remained at the bottom of the barrel on the defensive end, a common pitfall for young teams, but an element that will have to be addressed for them to make a leap toward being a viable play-in team next season. The logjam of players in need of minutes makes Minnesota a prime candidate for a trade or two, but the diminished value of peripheral players like Jarrett Culver (nearing bust status) and Josh Okogie (a quality defender who’s made little progress as a scorer), plus Beasley’s off-court troubles muddies the picture as far as what might really be feasible.
Toronto Raptors (27–45)
Key returners: Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam
Key free agents: Kyle Lowry, Gary Trent Jr. (restricted)
2021 draft picks: Own first; Golden State second; Memphis second
The Raptors certainly weren’t expecting to miss the playoffs but should be in good position to bounce back. The prospect of a return to Toronto after spending this season in Tampa should help. But there are some key decisions ahead, starting with Kyle Lowry’s free agency. The Raptors opted to keep the 35-year-old franchise talisman at the trade deadline, but he’ll be among the top free agents on the market this summer as he angles for what will likely be his last big contract. Toronto has Fred VanVleet on a long-term deal and the promising Malachi Flynn waiting in the wings, so this isn’t a clear-cut decision, but considering Lowry’s organizational equity and role in the franchise’s revival, there should be at least some level of interest in a return. The Raptors can also work with him on a sign-and-trade to facilitate a departure, if that’s what he wants.
President of basketball operations Masai Ujiri’s future with the organization is the other major item, as he enters offseason meetings with ownership without having agreed to a new contract. Ujiri remains one of the most well-regarded executives in the league, and his recent public comments point to his interest in returning, but it’s clear that he’ll demand further commitment from Raptors ownership in order to stick around. If Ujiri were to depart, general manager Bobby Webster would take the helm, making for a comfortable transition. But there may be no bigger story leaguewide this summer from a front office perspective. Ujiri’s potential availability would certainly tempt other franchises.
The Raptors were in playoff position around midseason, and should be able to make it back without a ton of adjustments. They need another big; they’ll presumably pay up to keep restricted free agent Gary Trent Jr. in the fold, and they’ll have cap space to play with. Trent was a strong acquisition at the trade deadline and should be viewed as the long-term two-guard, and his emergence will make a potential Lowry departure easier to stomach.
This season’s trying off-court circumstances and organizational displacement in Florida should earn Toronto a bit of a pass. They’ll also draft in the lottery for the first time since 2016, and have a chance to add a valuable young piece to its core. Moving into the top four would be a nice consolation prize after the season they just went through. And assuming Ujiri re-ups, you can never really count the Raptors out on the trade market, either. It’s not an overwhelmingly strong free-agent class, so that might be Toronto’s best pathway to improving the roster.
New Orleans Pelicans (31–41)
Key returners: Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram
Key free agents: Lonzo Ball (restricted), Josh Hart (restricted)
2021 draft picks: Own first; (Lakers first but probably not), worse of own/Chicago second; Cleveland second; Dallas second; Washington second
The Pelicans ultimately fell short of the play-in round, hamstrung by inconsistency and injuries for much of the season. The silver lining is that Zion Williamson has emerged as a full-blown superstar before his 21st birthday, and strung together a relatively healthy season before his finger injury in early May. The narrative surrounding New Orleans’s competitive timeline is fraught to an extent: There’s certainly some pressure for the team to take a step forward, but Williamson is still so young, and he’s such a unique player that it’s going to take some trial and error to figure out what works best around him. It’s certainly not time to go all in yet, but Williamson is clearly ready to carry a playoff team as a top dog. In the interest of getting him there, this is an important summer.
New Orleans has big decisions to make on Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart, who are both restricted free agents coming off strong individual seasons and will be attractive to rival teams. The current core around Williamson and Ingram is promising but has yet to truly turn a corner in terms of cohesion. The Pelicans need to add shooting and shore up their backcourt, but it’s easier said than done. Taking on two hefty long-term contracts will inhibit future flexibility to an extent, but it also may be hard to watch either player walk for nothing. Ball has made strides individually, but it’s still unclear whether he’s the optimal long-term fit for this group, and New Orleans might benefit from a more vocal, experienced presence at point guard.
The Pelicans might also explore moving Eric Bledsoe to clear a path for their younger guards to play increased minutes. Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Kira Lewis have shown promising flashes but will need pathways to playing time to make good. Jaxson Hayes showed improvement this season as well but remains in a platoon with veteran Steven Adams, who signed an extension last summer. The Pelicans could use a stretch big, but both those guys could be back. Naji Marshall was a solid find this season and adds some wing depth.
Some lottery luck could drastically change the shape of New Orleans’s core moving forward, and a leap into the top four would be huge for the future—pairing Williamson with Cade Cunningham or Evan Mobley would be a dream. An enviable collection of future draft picks from the Lakers and Bucks, plus their own, gives the Pelicans some ammunition to make a bigger trade and accelerate their playoff push if they want. The Pelicans do have options here. But the decisions on Ball and Hart will force their hand a little as far as personnel and timeline are concerned, and will likely define their offseason.
Sacramento Kings (31–41)
Key returners: De’Aaron Fox, Tyrese Haliburton, Harrison Barnes, Marvin Bagley
Key free agents: Richaun Holmes
2021 draft picks: Own first, own second
The NBA’s longest postseason drought continues, but there were some positive developments for the Kings this season: De’Aaron Fox continues to emerge as a franchise-caliber player, Tyrese Haliburton was one of the best picks in the 2020 draft, and the new front office led by GM Monte McNair is off to a decent start. The Kings have already opted to retain coach Luke Walton, which adds some stability going into next season, but McNair has a lot of work ahead to fix his roster, which has a bit more direction with Haliburton’s emergence next to Fox but is in need of quality depth. If the Kings are going to push for the playoffs, it will take some real reinforcements, in addition to whomever they draft in the lottery.
The first order of business should be the free agency of center Richaun Holmes, who emerged as a standout this season as Marvin Bagley battled injuries and enters unrestricted free agency as one of the better bigs on the market. Retaining him should be a complicated process as he seeks a big payday on the open market, and the Kings can’t really outbid a huge offer without freeing up cap space first (they don’t have full Bird rights and can’t offer a huge extension outright). Sacramento would be smart not to let Holmes walk for nothing, but it will require some gymnastics either way.
Sacramento will also have to make a decision with Bagley, who recently turned 22 and is extension-eligible but has struggled to live up to his billing as the No. 2 pick in the 2018 draft. Bagley has perpetually missed time with various injuries and hasn’t made much progress on the defensive side of the ball, and his stunted development and notable deficiencies will make it difficult to offer him much long-term money. The Kings would be likely wise to wait and see, and Bagley may also prefer to bet on himself, work toward a breakout year, and handle his contract next summer.
Harrison Barnes and Buddy Hield could be trade candidates if the Kings need to get creative with the roster (if Holmes walks in free agency, replacing him will become a challenge). Barnes in particular should be appealing for competitive teams, and is eligible to sign an extension this summer. Hield’s value is somewhat diminished on his current contract, as he’s plateaued as more of a one-note perimeter scorer, but he remains a potent shooter and could have some situational appeal in a change of scenery.
Chicago Bulls (31–41)
Key returners: Zach LaVine, Nikola Vucevic, Patrick Williams, Coby White
Key free agents: Lauri Markkanen (restricted)
2021 draft picks: Own first (if top four); better of own second and Pelicans second
Following an aggressive move to land Nikola Vučević from Orlando at the trade deadline, the Bulls’ playoff push still fell short. Still, that trade was as much about the next couple of seasons as it was this one, and Chicago can now build comfortably around two All-Star-caliber players in Vučević and the much-improved Zach LaVine. Beyond those two players and promising forward Patrick Williams, it feels like major changes are coming. It’s fair to expect turnover across the board, particularly given the fringy nature of much of the roster.
The only big decision on the table for the Bulls is what to do with Lauri Markkanen, who enters restricted free agency with his value having greatly diminished after a disappointing season that ended with him coming off the bench. Another team with a plan for his skills will surely come calling, but it’s hard to see the Bulls matching as things stand, unless the price tag is extremely manageable. Markkanen’s next stop is critically important for his future, and at this point, you’d think greener pastures would be appealing for both parties.
The Bulls only get to keep their draft pick if it falls inside the top four, after conditionally sending it to the Magic in the Vučević trade. That gives Chicago a 20.3% chance at retaining it. The Bulls also have the better of New Orleans' second and their own second-rounder. Internally, the development of Williams and 2019 first-rounder Coby White will be imperative to the future. Recently acquired Troy Brown should also get a longer look.
There is also an array of veterans here, including Thaddeus Young and Tomas Satoransky (both of whom have partial guarantees) and free agents Daniel Theis and Garrett Temple, all of whom are useful players the Bulls will have to make decisions on. Adding Vučević was a clear statement that Chicago will push to get competitive. The hard work continues in Year 2 for Artūras Karnišovas and his front office.
Charlotte Hornets (33–39)
Key returners: LaMelo Ball, Gordon Hayward, Terry Rozier, Miles Bridges, P.J. Washington
Key free agents: Devonte’ Graham (restricted), Malik Monk (restricted), Cody Zeller
2021 draft picks: Own first; Brooklyn second; Clippers second
The Hornets took a key step forward this season, with the selection of LaMelo Ball and acquisition of Gordon Hayward elevating them to the cusp of the playoffs and brightening the outlook moving forward. Charlotte needs Ball to evolve into a franchise-caliber player, and putting the right players around him should be an organizational focus. Miles Bridges (who’s extension-eligible) and P.J. Washington are good fits and look like useful supporting pieces who fit that timeline. Head coach James Borrego is entering the final year of his contract.
There’s a glaring need at center with Cody Zeller and Bismack Biyombo hitting free agency, giving the Hornets an opportunity to upgrade using a wealth of cap space. They’ll also have the option of addressing that need via the draft. Finding a more dynamic play-finisher and defensive anchor to suit the roster might go a long way, and will be a top priority given the frustrating level of production they’ve gotten from the position over the past few seasons. Charlotte drafted Vernon Carey and Nick Richards last year, but both profile better as backups in the long run, and could use more time in the G League.
Devonte’ Graham and Malik Monk are restricted free agents, and neither will be a clear-cut decision for Charlotte, given the presence of Ball and Rozier. Graham is a true point guard and a better long-term fit than Monk, but might cost more than the Hornets would prefer to spend on a backup. Monk has begun showing flashes after an underwhelming start to his career, but remains a one-dimensional scorer, if an occasionally potent one. There’s upside with him, but playmaking and defending will never be a huge element of his skill set. The fate of both players depends on the type of offer sheets they see in free agency, but Charlotte does have the money to keep them around.
San Antonio Spurs (33–39)
Key returners: Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Keldon Johnson, Lonnie Walker
Key free agents: DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay, Patty Mills
2021 draft picks: Own first; own second
This summer feels like an inflection point for the Spurs, with several key veterans hitting free agency and San Antonio’s array of young players in line for increased minutes next season. Gregg Popovich is set to coach Team USA at the Summer Olympics, but speculation persists as to when he’ll opt to retire from the NBA. DeMar DeRozan had a strong three-year run with the Spurs but will test the market, and might be more interested in joining a playoff team on his next contract. San Antonio has a ton of cap space. What they’ll do with it—and how hard they’ll lean into a youth movement—is less clear.
The Spurs have built effectively through the draft, with Dejounte Murray, Derrick White and Keldon Johnson all panning out as late first-round finds and forming the core of the team moving forward. Devin Vassell and Lonnie Walker should take steps forward. The Spurs will add another lottery pick to the mix. These players need minutes, although it may not correlate to more wins in the short term, and it’s not San Antonio’s style to tank. Whether it makes sense to spend to keep any or all of DeRozan, Gay or Mills (who’s been with the organization for a decade) is a fair question. All three players should be in demand on the market, and have plenty left in the tank.
If San Antonio chooses, it can adopt the popular strategy of using cap space to absorb other teams’ unwanted contracts for future draft picks. The Spurs will need to address their bench regardless, particularly if their veterans depart. With White and Murray’s extensions already done and little else on the books long-term, it’s a route worth considering, as opposed to signing stopgap players in free agency. The Spurs can also look to extend Walker early, although he may choose to let next season play out to try to increase his market value.
Indiana Pacers (34–38)
Key returners: Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon, Caris LeVert, Myles Turner, T.J. Warren
Key free agents: T.J. McConnell, Doug McDermott
2021 draft picks: Own first; Milwaukee second; Utah second
The Pacers have all their core players under contract next season and will be operating over the cap, so the biggest question, barring a trade, is what becomes of embattled head coach Nate Bjorkgren. Various reports have pointed to a potential exit for Bjorkgren after just one season, following a tumultuous campaign that ended in a blowout loss to Washington in the play-in round. To be fair, the Pacers dealt with injuries all season, with T.J. Warren, Malcolm Brogdon, Caris LeVert and Myles Turner all missing varying chunks of time. But there’s a lot of smoke surrounding Bjorkgren’s management style and the discontent within the team, and something will have to change, whether it’s the coach, the staff or both.
Brogdon and Domantas Sabonis both enjoyed career years, and LeVert was a terrific return in the Victor Oladipo trade and appears to be fully healthy after having cancer surgery on his kidney. That gives Indiana a trio of talented players that should enable a playoff return next season. That should be the expectation. It feels like Turner is perpetually linked in trade rumors, and the emergence of Sabonis might make him more readily expendable. Warren missed nearly the entire season with a foot injury but was outstanding in the 2020 bubble and should give the Pacers a boost, as well. On paper, it makes sense to run it back with their five starters and hope for a more normal season off the floor.
Indiana enters next season with a hefty payroll, which makes the proposition of keeping key bench pieces T.J. McConnell and Doug McDermott much trickier, unless the Pacers want to pay the luxury tax. Both players had career years and will draw interest on the open market. The Pacers can use the draft to further address their bench, and have Justin and Aaron Holiday, Jeremy Lamb and Goga Bitadze under contract. Oshae Brissett looked like a valuable find toward the end of the season. But losing McConnell, who was one of the league’s best reserves, and McDermott, who’s reinvented himself a bit, would be tough blows. Regardless, Indiana will be in much better position to compete if they enter next fall fully healthy, and with the coaching questions addressed.
Golden State Warriors (39–33)
Key returners: Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, James Wiseman, Andrew Wiggins
Key free agents: Kelly Oubre, Kevon Looney (player option)
2021 draft picks: Own first; Minnesota first (if outside top three)
After falling just short of a playoff spot following two disappointing play-in losses, the Warriors will surely feel pressure to step on the gas and expedite their competitive relevance. Stephen Curry turned in a remarkable individual season. If Klay Thompson can return to full strength after another injury, that’s a massive development. Draymond Green isn’t going anywhere, either. Given that Golden State has the league’s highest payroll, creativity will be essential as the offseason plays out.
The Warriors are likely looking at two lottery picks, pending the fate of the Wolves’ selection, which has a 27.6% chance of landing in the top three (and remaining with Minnesota). That gives them significant capital to play around with in trades, although there’s also a dearth of easily movable contracts. Andrew Wiggins is surely expendable, and helped his value a bit leaguewide with a decent season. There’s so much money tied up in Curry, Green, Thompson and Wiggins that Golden State’s options beyond cosmetic changes aren’t obvious.
There’s also something to be said for using both draft picks and trying to develop younger players alongside the old core, although it’s not a direct route back to the top. The Warriors knew they would have to be patient with James Wiseman last season, and there was some thought that they could develop young guys while still being playoff-relevant. You wonder how much that calculus has changed, with Curry returning to MVP-level form and entering his mid-30s. If Golden State is going to contend again, it kind of has to start this summer. Where their picks fall and what time of asset cache they go into the draft with will determine where that process begins.