The offseason is officially upon us, and with that in mind we have a quick preview up at the Box and One, citing one key question for each team as they progress through June and July. Every group is yearning to improve their roster; every front office contemplating dozens of courses of action and players to target. Yet each group has a different path to figuring out those tasks, and one question that looms greater than the rest.
Today, we attempt to answer those questions and illuminate the initial or most important steps each team must take on their path forward. We start here with a look at the Eastern Conference.
Atlanta Hawks - What happens to the franchise if Paul Millsap leaves?
The transition from a shooting, balanced offense towards a pick-and-roll attack took place this season with mixed results. Part of the commitment of having Dwight Howard at center means the Hawks are going to build with that as their anchor, and a mobile, athletic frontcourt mate is a necessity. Millsap is the best player available for this spot, though the potential replacements all need to be able to shoot the ball and give Howard more room inside. A key caveat to remember for all panicking Hawks fans: just because Millsap opts out doesn't mean he's planning on leaving. He could be opting out to get more money and a better contract from the Hawks, while testing the waters elsewhere.
Current free agent Ersan Ilyasova would be a sensible replacement, albeit a downgrade. Other names include Pat Patterson and Nikola Mirotic, but this year's crop of free agents isn't super huge on stretch-fours. Outside the box targets from trades -- swing forwards that would have to make the leap to a full-time four -- are much more prevalent. Rudy Gay, Danilo Gallinari, James Johnson, P.J. Tucker, Dante Cunningham... there's names all over the place. Bottom line is none are as good at both ends as Millsap, whose loss would leave them with zero holdovers from the starting group on the 60-win team just two season ago.
Boston Celtics - Keep the pick or trade for a superstar?
The massive question that everyone in the league sees coming, and everyone else is waiting on. Boston is officially on the clock, wrestling with their ultimate dilemma. Further complicating matters is the desire to go after free agent-to-be Gordon Hayward, whose pursuit can only be fulfilled after the draft. And I've waffled back and forth between what the Celtics should do for months.
Two years and a player option from Jimmy Butler, plus his Bird Rights, is an attractive offer. With any deal the Celtics entertain for the number one pick the real agitator is the outgoing players/ salaries used to make the trade work. If the Celtics can hang onto one of Crowder/ Bradley and one of Marcus Smart/ Jaylen Brown, it becomes a really tough decision based on just how well Brad Stevens can attract a top scorer like Hayward. I'm sure I'll change my answer tomorrow and hope the Celts keep the pick. I don't know. Either way they're in pretty good shape, but it'll be the most talked-about offseason saga until the Lakers are on the clock.
Brooklyn Nets - Will somebody for the love of God take Brook Lopez out of Brooklyn?
One year, $22.6 million. That's all that is left on the once-albatross, impossible-to-move Brook Lopez contract. Brooklyn is in all-out rebuild mode, not a secret to the other 29 teams across the league. Still, nobody seems willing to give up picks or is able to absorb that contract, especially if the Nets in return have to swallow longer term deals. At this point, General Manager Sean Marks might be best served by keeping Lopez as the team's go-to veteran and leader for one more year, hoping for internal improvements and giving Brooklyn a shot at luring a free agent in 2018.
On a level of supporting Lopez, it is a tad disappointing that nobody is willing to take him on. He's made incredible improvements in his game since the Nets were last a postseason-relevant team; his rim protection is no longer at a league-worst level and he's a capable three point shooter. Still, the cap space has to fit the talent, and expecting to get something flexible and valuable in return for his $22.6 million would be a tad unreasonable.
Charlotte Hornets - Will General Manager Rich Cho be able to orchestrate a seismic trade to improve the talent on this roster?
How does a capped-out team in a small market with no free agents improve? They have to be willing to deconstruct. The Hornets can add a decent piece through the draft and stockpile their depth, but at the end of the day this roster lacks the offensive firepower to be successful in the long-term. Cho has prioritized re-signing the team's "B+" young talent, extending Cody Zeller and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist over the last two seasons. And while All-Star Kemba Walker is on one of the most team-friendly deals in the league, there is still some overpaid, under-performing fat on the roster that is in need of trimming.
Walker should be off the table for trades, and Nic Batum is likely too difficult to trade off the poor season and large contract he just had. Everyone else is fair game for inclusion in any deal that moves the team's needle forward and improves their offense. Should Cho fail to find a deal worthy of an overhaul, the Hornets will look for cheap rim protection, shooting and a backup point guard -- whichever they don't find in the draft.
Chicago Bulls - Can Forman and Paxson construct a fitting roster around Jimmy Butler while Dwyane Wade is still in Chicago?
Look, the debate could go on for days about whether the Bulls should move on from Jimmy Butler and cash in on him now. I'm very opposed to the idea from a Chicago perspective, as finding a guy of Butler's caliber on both ends of the court is difficult to do. Should Butler stay, the Bulls have limited resources and several tweaks needed to get a roster that fits not just the Fred Hoiberg image, but to incorporate both Butler and veteran Dwyane Wade.
Mirotic, Rondo and Carter-Williams all could be out the door, meaning the Bulls have upwards of $30 million to spend on two starting positions and depth. An overhaul is possible this summer if they choose wisely on the free agent market and get the right fit in the draft. A more athletic four-man that helps space the floor and a point guard comfortable with playing off the ball might bring out the best in a Wade-Butler tandem as well as a system Hoiberg is more comfortable with. Who knows, perhaps a core of those two with the right supporting cast could push for a top-four seed in the East next season. What we do know is that this is likely the last chance Forman and Paxson have to make a winner before their clock runs out.
Cleveland Cavaliers - How do the Cavs improve enough to topple Golden State?
Tough questions rarely have simple answers. Most of the changes have to occur within, both because it'll be hard to acquire more talent due to their cap situation and because the group constructed last year is capable of beating Golden State. The key for Cleveland, barring a miraculous trade opportunity, is to value continuity of the roster as much as possible. Then target some key veterans to come in and flank their group, while using the minuscule Mid-Level Exception to get that one piece that gives them extra versatility against the Warriors.
Additionally, their playing style could be a bit better on the court. Defensively, the schemes never clicked through the regular season and Cleveland's porous play on that end of the court eventually bled over into the postseason. We also saw the dangers of a ball screen-oriented offense going against a team that switches and negates the ball screen. I'd expect Coach Lue and his staff to investigate more ball movement-heavy offenses that can allow the Cavs to create easier opportunities when they do go to their bread-and-butter pick-and-roll action.
Detroit Pistons - What do the Pistons do with the 12th pick?
The Pistons may be in the toughest position in this draft. The talent-level seems to drop off fairly steeply after the top ten or eleven, and without a position of major need the Pistons don't have a clear course of action. Entertaining possibilities to trade down requires Stan Van Gundy to have a keen sense of how the rest of the market is unfolding and who would value a player the Pistons do not.
Their best option is to explore those trades and look to pick up more depth or assets via later first-round draft picks. This is a great draft to have multiple picks in the twenties as opposed to one in the teens. Beyond that, if Detroit has to keep the pick, a shooter on the wings would be a great snag for them. Donovan Mitchell, Luke Kennard and Terrance Ferguson come to mind as long-term prospects to flank KCP in the backcourt.
Indiana Pacers - Is now the time to trade Paul George?
Every trade question is marked with the "it depends on what you can get in return" caveat, but that notwithstanding the Pacers truly lacked an identity this season. Their first in the post-Vogel era featured a group of offensive-minded players led by an offensive-minded coach fluctuate with their effort and focus. The bench was one-dimensional and a wreck throughout, the team lacking promising youth other than Myles Turner, and now their chief decision-maker has stepped down. George was at the center of the team's controversy throughout the year as well.
The point being, this team has too many warts to fix overnight. It would be quite the accomplishment to see the organization bounce back next season to become a top-five team in the East, so if they can snag some elite draft picks and a restocking of the cupboard this summer, it might not be the worst idea. Teams like the Lakers, Celtics and Hawks could all be making plays for PG-13 (throw Cleveland in there for the rumors too), but it likely will take a blockbuster offer to make the restructured front office want to roll the dice.
Miami Heat - Will Riley make a splash in free agency?
The Heat cleared cap space for this summer, and the recent news on Chris Bosh's contracts likely coming off the books mean Miami has between $35 and $40 million to spend. The news of late links the Heat to trying to sign Gordon Hayward this summer, the league's marquee wing on the free agent market. The Heat already have their starting center and point guard for the future, and need a wing or swing-forward in the middle to make the jump back into the postseason.
Who Riley targets is in direct correlation with how large of a splash Miami makes. They have a versatile and desirable young team, a good market and one of the most stable front offices in the league. There are a lot of attractive features to Miami's infrastructure, though a lot needs to go just right for them to get a big name this summer. More likely than not Riley will get two high-end starters for the price of one superstar, another viable and lucrative option.
Milwaukee Bucks - What happens if Greg Monroe opts out?
The Bucks are in an interesting predicament while they wait for Jabari Parker's knee to heal (Parker isn't expected back until around the All-Star Break next year). They don't have any real cap space to spend, and the space they do have would be best-served in retaining Tony Snell, a versatile 3-and-D wing that is a stopgap and long-term compliment to Parker. But the Bucks could lose Greg Monroe if the big man off the bench opts out and looks for a larger role elsewhere.
Monroe would be due $17.8 million next year from the Bucks if he were to stay, though the team wouldn't be able to replace him with any comparable salary this summer due to that Snell extension. So if Monroe opts out, the Bucks would be smart to throw as much cash as necessary to retain the 26-year-old center. While Monroe's production in future years might be less than it was during this season as a contract year, it beats the alternative of losing Monroe and not having an interior scoring presence while they try to weather the majority of a season without Parker.
New York Knicks - With the front office and coaching staff seemingly preparing for full-time Triangle action next year, can the Knicks lure a top free agent?
Pushing aside the disaster of this season and the train wreck of Phil Jackson-led rebuild, it seems Jackson won't relent in his desire to do things his way. That means more Triangle, folks, and the Knicks staff around him have indicated as much. Jackson has more cap space to play with on the free agent market and the desire to lure a point guard to the Big Apple as a free agent.
Few elite-level point guards will have the desire to play in a Triangle system. George Hill makes the most sense and would help the Knicks a great deal, though Kyle Lowry is likely the crown jewel of their targets. When other offers are equal, it's hard to see a sought-after free agent choosing this system and the dysfunction of the organization.
Orlando Magic - How committed are the Magic to Aaron Gordon?
Time flies, and as shocking as it may seem, Aaron Gordon will be extension-eligible this fall and hit restricted free agency next July. The various head coaches and front office personnel have tinkered with his role and position over his first three seasons, but Gordon showed a spark after the All-Star break this year. The move back to power forward helped him produce 16.4 points on 50 percent shooting from the field in that final stretch of the season.
The new regime in Orlando under Jeff Weltman will have many questions to answer -- who is the point guard of the future, what style do they envision this team playing, what will they do with their limited budget this summer, etc. As far as things go with Gordon, he can likely be sewn up on the cheap this fall. As the team's best hope at a future prospect, they have no downside to extending him. The question is, how much building this summer is done with him as the centerpiece of the blueprint in mind?
Philadelphia 76ers - Will any marquee free agents consider Philadelphia this summer?
It seems clear that the Sixers have a good chance to add another impact rookie with their third overall selection. One more youngster would give them as formidable of a young core as any team in this league: Embiid, Ben Simmons, Dario Saric and others like Okafor, Timothe Luwawu and Rob Covington. The Sixers have some roster flexibility and total salaries for next season's commitments are just above $50 million (meaning they're not even half-way to the salary cap).
With cap tools like that, the Sixers could offer a generously heavy, front-loaded contract to try and snag a free agent difference-maker. It could be a point guard like Philly native Kyle Lowry, or a shooter to space the floor like J.J. Redick. The question is if any free agents want to take a year or two of growing pains with a young core now before the Sixers potentially vault their way to the top of the East. Of course, which names they target and who considers Philly will be driven by who they pick with the third overall pick.
Toronto Raptors - How does GM Masai Ujiri prioritize free agency?
Carefully is the best answer to give. As Ujiri alluded to in his postseason presser, bringing everyone back might be too expensive: Lowry, Ibaka, Patterson, Tucker... that's a lot of money those four have earned. A smart Ujiri will only bring back one of Ibaka and Patterson, then find a sticking point financially for Lowry. Ujiri has about $30 million free in cap space, so getting Lowry and one other is possible, as is scrapping Lowry, getting a cheaper starting PG and keeping the other three. Keeping all four seems impossible though.
Lowry is 31 years old and would be asking to be the highest paid player in the NBA, making upwards of $200 million until he's 36. When other teams like Philadelphia or the Knicks could be around to throw boatloads of cash at him, the Raptors might not want to hit hard right away with the five-year max... let Lowry test the waters and then come back with an equivalent offer over that fifth year.
Washington Wizards - How does the second unit improve?
This season showed how incredibly strong this Wizards' starting group can be. Otto Porter is a free agent, but a restricted one that the Wizards know they need to retain. So with a boatload of cash being thrown at him and an overpaid backup center in Ian Mahinmi taking up cap space, how the hell do the Wizards plan on improving their bench?
Bojan Bogdanovic, Trey Burke and Brandon Jennings are all hitting the market as well, with Jennings the only unrestricted free agent of the group. Bogdanvoic worked out decently for the Wizards, but Ernie Grunfeld knows he needs a playmaker off the bench and if push comes to shove might need to get a backup point guard first. Further complicating matters is the first-round pick the Wizards don't have in 2017, the same one they used to acquire Bogdanovic. Letting him go for nothing hardens the blow of trading away that pick. Grunfeld needs to utilize all veteran's minimums and cap tricks up his sleeve once the Porter dust settles, but this is a team that might be hard-pressed to find improvements.
Head Boys Basketball Coach, Boys' Latin School (MD).