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NBA Offseason Needs for Lottery Teams

Breaking down what’s to come for the 14 teams that missed the playoffs.

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 (2151)

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 (2250)

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.