2020 NBA off-season priorities
(TAYLOR ELDRIDGE)

2020 NBA off-season priorities: Eastern Conference

Last off-season, we saw star after star change address: Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Jimmy Butler, Kevin Durant, Mike Conley, Chris Paul, D’Angelo Russell, Kyrie Irving, and Kemba Walker all moving to new teams. The season prior, it was LeBron James, Kawhi (again), DeMar DeRozan, Dennis Schroder, and, as the season started, Butler (again).

Thanks to the compressed nature of this off-season, and the lack of genuine star power in this free agency class, it’s unlikely that we’ll see the mass movement of recent off-seasons. With that in mind, NBA front offices will likely have different focuses on years prior.

Today we’re taking a trip through the Eastern Conference – the West will come next week – examining what each team should be prioritizing coming into a truncated 2020/21 season.

Atlanta Hawks

Steady veterans

Atlanta general manager Travis Schlenk’s teardown/rebuild in Atlanta is on the right track. Headlined by the electric Trae Young, the Hawks are stocked with young, tantalizing players, any of who could emerge as stars alongside Young and John Collins.

However, like most young teams, the Hawks are plagued by young team problems. Their defensive rating of 114.8 was third last in the league, as was their turnover average. They were even worse as a rebounding unit, coming in 29th. Even the Hawks much talked about offense came in at a paltry 107.2 rating, only good for 26th in the NBA.

The Hawks are a team with a bright future – their top five scorers last season were all under the age of 23 – but even the most talented kids need guidance. That’s what Schlenk should focus on this off-season.

To his credit, he did bring inexperienced point guard Jeff Teague and a young veteran roll man in Clint Capela last season – those two will help. This time around, look for the Hawks general manager to add a veteran wing to supplement DeAndre Hunter, Cam Reddish, and Kevin Huerter and a stretch four to step in when Collins gets his annual injury.

Boston Celtics

A starting center (sorry, Daniel Theis)

With all due respect to Theis, did the German overachieve last season? An outstanding back up to Al Horford, Theis was seen as the weak link in the Celtic armor. He’s not the player that Kemba, Jayson Tatum, or Jaylen Brown are. He’s not even at the current diminished level of Gordon Hayward. The Celtics need a rim protector to match up with the Adebayo/Antetokounmpo/Davis/Williamson types.

How do they go about that, though? Their cap situation is tight, and moves around the edges might get them another Theis level talent at best. Look out for what happens with Gordon Hayward. He’s sitting on a $34 million player option. If he opts in, the C’s are likely stuck (not exactly a disaster for a team that has made three of the past four conference finals). If he opts out, don’t discount a possible sign and trade. Hayward might well value a longer-term contract given his catastrophic injuries, and GM Danny Ainge could look to pry someone like Steven Adams, Nikola Vucevic, or Hassan Whiteside away from their current teams.

(As an aside, imagine the powerful narrative of this double sign and trade: Hayward and picks for Rudy Gobert. Some people in Salt Lake City would self combust)

Brooklyn Nets

Acquire a third star

There are so many questions surrounding the Nets: what will this version of Kevin Durant look like? Will Kyrie ever stay healthy? Will Kyrie ever be anything more than a pain in the arse? What sort of coach is Steve Nash? Does Deandre Jordan continue to start? Are Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris Levert redundant? Will they resign Joe Harris?

Those last two questions are perhaps the most pertinent to GM Sean Marks and his team. Inking the sharpshooting Harris to a long term deal is vital – he’s the exact type of player (elite shooter, rugged defender, underrated off the bounce game, no ego) that should thrive playing off of the Nets superstars.

Dinwiddie and Levert are – or at least should be – trade bait to lure another big cheese to Brooklyn. The pessimist will insist that Dinwiddie is indispensable as both a backup to the injury-prone Irving and as a locker room lawyer who has the trust of his stars. Those points are valid, but Dinwiddie should not be the stumbling block between the Nets and another star.

After his exploits in the bubble, Levert’s value has never been higher – he’s the key piece. Will he be enough to facilitate an Oladipo trade? Zach Lavine, perhaps?

An interesting line of thinking is the Nets swinging a deal for one of the top two picks in the upcoming draft, then on-trading that with assets to the Wizards for Bradley Beal.

Charlotte Hornets

Clearing the books

“I apologize to the people here,” Hornets forward Nicolas Batum said in an interview with the Charlotte Observer, “because they put so much faith in me. And it didn’t go well… It didn’t work out.” In 22 games last season, the Frenchman averaged 3.6 points, 4.5 rebounds, and three assists.

Yeah. It didn’t work out.

Batum is Charlotte’s highest-paid player at over $27 million for the upcoming season. Along with the still somehow only 28-year-old Cody Zeller, the Hornets have over $40 million tied up with – at best – role players. Miles Bridges has already assumed Batum’s spot in the rotation, and with the third pick in the draft, the Hornets could pick James Wiseman or Onyeka Okongwu as their long term pivot. Finding homes for those unwanted veterans is imperative to let the youngsters develop.

Given that they have young talent at every spot bar center, and there is the genuine possibility of getting either Wiseman or Okongwu later in the top 10, could a trade down be in order? Might the Hornets look to trade their pick with Batum to Cleveland for the fifth pick and Andre Drummond or Tristan Thompson? Maybe even Kevin Love, if they really want to make a splash.

Chicago Bulls

Let this roster breath a little

Despite the less than ideal results over the past few seasons, we’re still unsure what the Bulls young core can do. Between subpar coaching and a slew of injuries, the group of Lavine, Lauri Marrkanen, Wendell Carter, Otto Porter, and Coby White haven’t had the chance to gel.

With a respected coach in Billy Donovan on board, now is the time to sit back and let things play out for a season before making any more significant moves. Sure, there will be a temptation to move the injury-prone Porter, who is due $28.5 million, assuming he picks up his option, but the former number three pick is a talented player who can mold to many situations. The Bulls’ most giant roster hole is at point guard (Coby White can handle the rock, but he’s no point guard). With the fourth pick in the draft, newly minted chief decision-maker Arturas Karnisovas should be able to get his man. LaMelo Ball will likely be off the board, though Killian Hayes is nobody’s consolation prize – the kid is very, very good.

There is a real chance that this Bulls core is what it is: teasing though ultimately middling. But we haven’t had the opportunity to see the team develop with stability and professional support. This season is a chance for Chicago to sit back and assess it’s work.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Find talent. Any talent.

This roster is littered with names that people recognize: Love, Drummond, Thompson. However, you have to ask if any of these players are all that good in 2020? Not one could be considered a two-way player. All are highly paid, and all – even the 27-year-old Drummond – are probably past their physical peak.

It’s vital that the team turn those assets into something – anything.

Despite the fact he hasn’t played defense since this…

…Love is still a wanted commodity amongst contenders. Thompson would surely help out a team like Boston or New Orleans, while Drummond is still young enough to convince a general manager somewhere that they can be the one to unlock his prodigious potential finally.

The kids that the Cavs have drafted over the past few seasons don’t look like stars in the making. Turning their remaining name players into a young talent or draft assets has to be done. The sooner, the better.

Detroit Pistons

1x Blake Griffin: free to good home

The Pistons finally started to tear it down last season, trading Drummond and buying out Reggie Jackson and Markeiff Morris. The next logical step is moving on from a pair of snake-bit former number one picks in Derrick Rose and Blake Griffin.

Rose appears (touches all of the wood) to have found consistent health of late and, as such, should be the easier to move. He would be ideal in Milwaukee, where the Bucks vaunted defense would cover for him whilst he fills the late clock creator’s role.

Griffin is undoubtedly a tougher sell. Assuming he opts into his 2022 player option, he’s owed a staggering $75 million over the next two campaigns. For an injury liability with – it’s so weird to say this – limited athleticism, who needs the ball in his hands, and isn’t a strong defender…..it’s unclear who would take him on. It’s such a shame that we’re talking this way about a man that once upon a time could do this:

Indiana Pacers

Discover their new identity

Under Nate McMillan’s stewardship, the Pacers were a tough out. A disciplined, defensive-minded squad, they played mistake-free basketball. That gave them a high floor, but it also limited their ceiling. The only player on this team truly capable of creating something from nothing was Victor Oladipo. His play post quad tendon injury has many wondering if he’ll ever be that player again.

Despite the relative lack of true top-end talent, Pacers GM Kevin Pritchard decided to step out of his comfort zone and replaced McMillan with Toronto assistant coach Nate Bjorkgren. It remains to be seen what type of coach the new Nate is, though it’s fair to assume he’ll want to release the reigns on offense more than McMillan was ever comfortable doing.

In creating a team to suit his new coach, Pritchard has to decide what to do with Oladipo and his two centers.

Dipo might – might – be able to get close to the All NBA caliber player he used to be. Do the Pacers take that chance or trade him whilst his value is still relatively high. Unless the player himself forces the issue, look for the Pacers to give it one more season to see if the potentially dynamic backcourt of Oladipo and Malcolm Brogdon can thrive.

Their other pivot point is, well, in the pivot. Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis are both natural centers who have been able to find a way to coexist through Miles shooting/shot-blocking combination and Sabonis’ savvy facilitating and vicious rebounding. It’s not an ideal co-existence, though.

The prevailing theory is that Turner will be moved – Sabonis is, after all, the better player. But what if Bjorkgren wants to run a spread pick and roll or a 5-out system? Turner seems tailor-made for that, not to mention his rim protection forms the base of solid team defense.

If Sabonis were then to be the man traded, where would he end up? Would Minnesota or Golden State consider giving up their prized picks for Sabonis and a future first?

Miami Heat

One more veteran scorer

Despite their run to the finals, the Heat didn’t feel like contenders, did they. There seemed to be a little bit of fairy dust sprinkled over their eastern conference run until injuries struck in the finals. It’s those injuries that will dictate what Pat Riley does this offseason.

Even though he’ll be 35 years old next season, resigning Goran Dragic is non-negotiable. He was the Heat’s leading scorer in the playoffs before his foot injury. Jimmy Butler is a warrior, but he’s 31 himself and has Thibs miles on the odometer. Bam is a stud but isn’t a scorer. Tyler Herro and Kendrick Nunn are on the right track, but are either ready to be prime time every night?

Look for the Heat to acquire one more guy that can carry an offense for a period. They were close to trading for Danilo Gallinari last deadline – he might have been enough to push Miami over the top. They’ll go hard after him once again.

Ideally, the Heat would find a way to bring Bradley Beal aboard, though that seems fanciful. Perhaps DeRozan or Lavine are more realistic targets. A sneaky outside chance: Blake Griffin. The Heat would back themselves in to get Griffin in peak shape, and they showed through their management of Dragic last season that they can nurse an injury-prone veteran through the regular season.

Milwaukee Bucks

A late clock shot creator

Let’s not bury the lede here. As mentioned above, Derrick Rose fits hand in glove with what Milwaukee requires. Sure, the former MVP doesn’t play defense – and the man he’ll replace in Eric Bledsoe is a perennial All-Defensive candidate – but with Giannis, the Lopii, Khris Middleton, and George Hill backing you up, that won’t matter.

For all of Giannis’ incredible talents, creating something out of nothing with the clock winding down and the defense’s focus upon you isn’t yet in his repertoire. Khris Middleton is a legitimate All-Star with a killer jump shot, but his relatively inferior athleticism can limit him against the best defenders in similar situations.

Even though he’s not the nuclear athlete he was before his legs fell off, Rose is still a cold-blooded killer in the clutch. He’s the heir to Jamal Crawford, who was the master at creating (if not always making) a good shot at the end of the clock.

Rose averaged 18.1 points last season – his best output since before his injuries – and we are only days away from the second anniversary of this:

In that game, Rose attacks and finishes on elite rim protectors in Gobert and Derrick Favors and consistently beats the defensively stingy Ricky Rubio.

Rose is the obvious upgrade for Milwaukee.

New York Knicks

Asset acquisition

For too many years to count, the Knicks have chased their white whale – contention – from the inadequate confines of a rubber dinghy. Their standard MO has been to trade any young talent and draft picks for at best above average veterans that inevitably lead the team to 35 wins and the 10th seed.

Conventional wisdom would see New York hold on to its picks and develop some talent internally, though when you’re picking the likes of Kevin Knox, RJ Barrett, and Frank Ntilikina, then perhaps passing on those draft assets might be a better plan. Of course, when the Knicks do get some draft luck, with Kristaps Porzingis falling into their laps, they trade him for cents on the dollar. Ugh.

With (another) new regime in charge of basketball operations, it will be absorbing to see what direction the Knicks take. Do they look to bring in an Oladipo type or a Gordon Hayward? Can’t you see them swinging for the fences and landing Rudy Gobert, thereby blocking the path of their best prospect in Mitchell Robinson? That’s so Knicks!!!

The correct path would be to acquire bad contracts or distressed assets, pick up young talent, or draft capital along the way. There are competing teams with tight cap spaces that would welcome the chance to clear room at the cost of a draft pick. Would the Knicks look at getting a late first-rounder to take on Enes Kanter from Boston? Taurean Prince from their noisy neighbors in Brooklyn? Would Montrezl Harrell or Eric Gordon be on the table?

The Knicks need – and have needed for the better part of 20 years – a complete rebuild. It remains to be seen if their owner, who shall not be named, will let his new front office…

Orlando Magic

Stick or twist?

The Magic are the NBA’s ‘meh’ team. They have some pretty good players but no genuine star. Some intriguing young prospects, but no transcendent talents. As such, they’re always there or thereabouts without ever really threatening the top teams.

The Magic have three excellent players in their late 20’s: Vucevic, Evan Fournier, and Terrance Ross. They’re all good NBA players, but with apologies to Vooch, none are going to take a team to a top-four seed.

The magic has an exciting mix of youngsters, led by Aaron Gordon and Jonathon Isaac (get well soon, Big Fella), supplemented by Markelle Fultz and Mo Bamba.

The Magic brass has made it very clear that they’re happy making the playoffs season in and season out without really contending. Should they be, though? Is it time to trade their still young enough veterans while they’re at their peak and invest in youth?

There will undoubtedly be a team out there for the sharpshooting pair of Fournier and Ross. Vucevic isn’t a rim-protecting center by any means, but he can be an offense unto himself on time. He’s an upgrade on Theis in Boston. Perhaps Houston looks to find a star big man to replace their current cen……oh, wait.

The Magic have a solid rotation of young bigs and a point guard that, though he will never reach his expected peak, still has a lot of room to grow as a two-way force. Drafting someone like Aaron Nesmith or Saddiq Bey would bring in a talented young wing. Getting in some young talent like a Romeo Langford or extra draft picks will hurt in the short term but will benefit Orlando over time.

Philadelphia 76ers

Don’t try and be too clever

A headstrong young GM, a successful and forceful new coach, and a revolutionary genius is overseeing basketball operations…..

If the Sixers new three-headed monster can get themselves on the same page, they’ll hopefully realize that the oft-asked question about building around Embiid or Simmons isn’t a question at all. They can find a way to accentuate both of their All-Stars.

Despite a desperately disappointing 2019-20 campaign, the Sixers still outscored their opposition by 1.8 points per 100 possessions when Simmons and Embiid shared the floor. That number skyrocketed to 4.4 points when they were on the floor without Al Horford – their offensive rating in that alignment equates to a number that would be second in the league over a full season. The key is putting shooting around the pair and letting them get to work. For all the legitimate concerns about his jump shot, Simmons is elite at finding three-point shooters. His rare combination of size, strength, speed, and vision is perhaps only matched by LeBron. Simmons and Embiid are ungenerous defenders who make those around them better.

So who to target? Unlike last season, where the Brand/Brown brains trust went all-in on defense, the Sixers should focus on shooters who can provide at least a little juice off the bounce and play solid team defense. If they’re prepared to take on the money, Eric Gordon would be a worthy risk, as would his Houston teammate Austin Rivers. Fournier would be an ideal fit. There are always rumors about a JJ Redick reunion. An under the radar option could be Svi Mykhailiuk from Detroit.

To facilitate some of those moves, getting off the Horford contract – and ideally the Tobias Harris contract – would be necessary. Both are far easier said than done.

Toronto Raptors

Keep Vanvleet

The Raptors are often spoken of as a veteran team, a group of aging warriors refusing to acknowledge the light’s fading. But look closer. Toronto had six players averaging double-digit scoring last season. Kyle Lowry was the eldest at 34; Serge Ibaka turned 30 through the season. The others? Norman Powell (26), Pascal Siakam, Fred Vanvleet (both 25), and OG Anunoby (22). Throw in rotation pieces like Terence Davis and Rondae-Hollis Jefferson, and this team’s core is surprisingly young.

Ibaka and the 35-year-old Marc Gasol are free agents that Toronto expects to re-sign. The key to their continued contention, however, is resigning Vanvleet.

Toronto was not expected to contend after losing Kawhi Leonard to free agency last offseason. A large part of the reason they did was the ascendancy of Siakam into Kawhi’s shoes. However, an underrated element was Vanvleet’s emergence from the bench spark plug to a legitimate backcourt leader. As much as Leonard and Gasol were seen as the leaders of the championship-winning Raps, Lowry was their heart and soul. As he ages out, Siakam will be the star, but the undrafted Vanvleet will assume Lowry’s place as the team’s heartbeat.

Every team that needs a point guard is going to throw the kitchen sink at Vanvleet. Toronto needs to wrap this piece of business up early. Would a four-year contract for around $90 million do the trick?

Washington Wizards

Bite the (ahem) bullet and trade Bradley Beal

In case you haven’t heard the news, John Wall is back! And he’s shooting three’s, now! All is well in the nation’s capital. Isn’t it?

It’s expected that the Wizards will try to re-sign breakout star Davis Bertans, pair him with the former All-Star backcourt pairing of Wall and Beal, and try to win every game 145-140. Yet anyone with a scrap of realism in them doesn’t realistically expect Wall to come back after two years away from the game as the lightning-fast, two-way wrecking ball of his prime. If, as expected, he’s lost a step, is it realistic to expect him to become a solid outside marksman suddenly? He’s a career 32.4% shooter from behind the tape and has made less than a trey per game through his career. While there is a direct precedent for Wall to follow, it’s a highly unlikely scenario.

Let’s presume that Wall does come back to something nearing his old self. What does that mean for Beal? He’s thrived as the main man in Washington with Wall injured. Pairing the two of them will only take the ball out of the hands of the other and, even at their peak as a two-some, they couldn’t lead the Wizards beyond the second round of the playoffs.

The priority in DC should be to move Beal while he is at his very highest peak. Any contender that can create the cap room should want him. Brooklyn has been mentioned ad nauseum, and don’t underestimate Pat Riley’s ruthlessness in making something happen. Would Morey find a way to pull another rabbit from the hat in Philadelphia?

John Wall’s injury spelled the end of the Wizards run. Beal’s rise from All-Star to genuine superstar was pleasantly surprising. The Wiz need to capitalize on that, cash in, and get rebuilding.

Next week we’ll look at the Western Conference.