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. After looking at the Eastern Conference yesterday, today climbs back with a look at the loaded Western Conference.
Dallas Mavericks - Will the Mavericks make any noise this summer?
The big acquisition of Nerlens Noel at the trade deadline sewed up the offseason priorities for the Mavs. They'll spend big to keep the restricted free agent Noel, whose Bird rights they now hold. They'll add a piece in the draft with a lot of long-term upside and potential, with the flexibility to add it at any position not occupied by Noel. It's a clear-cut game plan that makes the Mavs fairly predictable.
Still, several players have unguaranteed deals that the Mavericks can get out of if they see a need to pursue upgrades this July. Devin Harris has $1.33 of his $4.4 million deal guaranteed, making him a possible option to be cut if the Mavs find a point guard in the draft. Owner Mark Cuban cannot anticipate to have much more than a few million to write a check with this July, so beyond one piece for depth purposes, be expecting a quiet summer in Dallas.
Denver Nuggets - With a direction finally provided, which current pieces will stay in Denver?
The Nuggets are an interesting case study this summer. They have enough cap space to do some damage, a key free agent they should look to replace, a ton of talented young players, one key position of need and a few guys who they may want to move. There are about a million different ways the Nugs could reshape the roster around Nikola Jokic.
I'm always a proponent for a small market team like Denver of acquiring major pieces via trade instead of taking a gamble in free agency. Denver's top priority will be Danilo Gallinari, wanting to re-sign him and utilize his Bird rights. Kenneth Faried and Wilson Chandler are trade candidates if the right team comes calling, and the need for a point guard will likely not be solved in this year's draft. I think Connelly will have to make at least one trade this summer, and regardless of Gallinari, I can see both Faried and Chandler starting next season on new teams.
Golden State Warriors - How much does it cost to bring everyone back?
Time will tell, but no matter the cost they need to do it. Culture is an amazing thing in basketball; it's what allows people to make selfless decisions and move in unison on and off the court. Steve Kerr, Joe Lacob and Bob Myers have built a culture that encourages and rewards those who sacrifice for the good of the team. I'd expect that to be pervasive all the way to their free agency decisions.
Curry, Iguodala and several important role players are due new contracts this year, but the main guys aren't likely to go anywhere -- that includes vets Shaun Livingston and David West. As for the Ian Clark and JaVale McGee's, the young players who have to cash in on their success elsewhere... let's see if the Warriors can recapture their magic and go bargain-hunting for the exact right fits at the end of their rotations.
Houston Rockets - Does General Manager Daryl Morey really have a "trick up his sleeve"?
In a recent piece done by Zach Lowe on ESPN, he mentioned from an interview with Morey that if the Rockets choose to be more aggressive this offseason, the Rockets GM has some "tricks up their sleeve". Many readers took this literally, as in they already have a plan in place. I took this to mean that if the necessity for aggression comes to light, there are avenues available for Houston to explore an aggressive approach.
But exactly what that may be is a large question. Houston's entire core returns, with only Nene as a contributor hitting the open market. Any trick Morey reveals will have to involve a trade, and frankly, Houston is in good position to make a splash for a star on the trade market. They have desirable young pieces (Clint Capela, mainly), veterans on expiring deals (Trevor Ariza and Lou Williams) that could help expedite a rebuild somewhere and all their future draft picks in their arsenal. Would Paul George be a candidate to come to Houston? Would D'Antoni be able to reunite with Carmelo as a small-ball four? Houston doesn't need to be aggressive, but if they determine that's the best path don't be surprised to see some shockwaves sent throughout the league.
Los Angeles Clippers - Is this the end of Lob City?
Cap circumstances may prevent the Clippers from assembling their typical three-headed monster with veteran role players and strong bench pieces. Somehow, the pieces off the bench never meshed and the Clippers were constantly unable to find an answer at small forward, instead employing one-way players or over-the-hill veterans with little in the tank. Now Chris Paul is looking for one final max contract, and Blake Griffin has the ability to opt out as well. Keeping both, along with free agent J.J. Redick and looking for upgrades elsewhere, will be either mighty expensive or altogether implausible.
At their best, the Lob City Clippers were a dynamic offensive threat that allowed them to be a top-three team in a loaded Western Conference. At their worst, they were an injury-riddled talented group that perennially underachieved in the postseason and plateaued far too early. It would be sad to see the group disband and head different directions, and even more interesting to watch how Doc Rivers would build a group in the post-Lob City era.
Los Angeles Lakers - What can the Lakers do to maneuver around the large contracts handed out last summer to Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov?
The bounce of the ping pong balls was always going to be out of their control, so while Magic Johnson is heavily prepared on scouting through the draft, he needs to do some touch work on the roster they currently have. Mainly, the poor contracts of Deng and Mozgov will start to rear their ugly heads next summer when the Lakers look to extend and retain their young nucleus.
Mozgov has little value on the trade market; there are plenty of other centers available via trade of free agency that are better with higher upside. Deng's recent surgical procedure takes away a lot of the appeal of any team looking to acquire a gritty stretch-four on the cheap. A betting man would put money on both opening the season in purple and gold, with Magic still having enough space this summer to make a shot at one stud acquisition.
Memphis Grizzlies - How do the Grizzlies navigate their cap woes?
Mike Conley and Marc Gasol are signed, so all hope will not be lost regardless of how the offseason goes. Still, the poor contract of Chandler Parsons and the several below-average role players constrict the Grizzlies' movements. Tony Allen is a free agent. Zach Randolph is a free agent, as is his long-term replacement JaMychal Green. Green is restricted, so the Grizz can match any offer for him. That said, his performance this season may have parlayed him above a sensible level for them to match.
Yet JaMychal is Memphis' only good young player, standing out on a team that has made poor draft decisions for years and lacks a 2017 first-round pick. If Green is their most important priority, then a changing of the guard may be in place as Memphis may be unable to afford cult heroes Zach Randolph and Tony Allen anymore. Either way, the depth on this roster is not something to get excited about, and unless the Grizz can find a way to wiggle some more room into their cap, the trajectory may be pointing downward next season.
Minnesota Timberwolves - Can the Wolves extend both LaVine and Wiggins?
Cap finagling done by Tom Thibodeau and company could allow the Wolves to lock up their current youngsters and find a helping hand on the free agent market. First they'd need to be granted a long-term injury exclusion for Nikola Pekovic to get his contract off the books, giving the Wolves nearly $30 million this summer to use. That number is a facade in reality, as the brunt work of Minnesota's cap figures for future years will be eaten up by extensions to their talented three youngsters LaVine, Wiggins and Towns. LaVine and Wiggins are eligible to sign those extensions this summer, though the cap hits won't take place until July 2018.
Extending both LaVine (coming of an ACL tear) and Wiggins (who has yet to evolve into a transcendent player they hoped), with the certainty that the team will lock up Towns a year later, would leave Minnesota with very little long-term maneuverability. But locking them up now before LaVine can command a huge salary on the market or Wiggins take a big step forward this year could be the cheapest course of action to keep everyone in Minnesota. Of course, that all depends on the advice their agents give them and if Thibodeau wants to keep both for the long-term. It's more of a question for the fall regarding the extensions actually being signed, but how aggressive the Wolves are this summer in trying to lure a bigger-contract player to Minneapolis could tip their hand for how they'll proceed with these two.
New Orleans Pelicans - How do the Pelicans get both better backcourt production and bench players?
GM Dell Demps came across an opportunity nobody could pass up and ran with it, acquiring DeMarcus Cousins at the trade deadline while giving up a 2017 first-rounder. Now is when Demps' recent string of trading away draft picks comes back to haunt the small-market Pelicans. There really isn't a young base of players on their roster to churn and develop. Jrue Holiday is a free agent, so finding depth and/ or flanking backcourt help to Holiday won't be possible if they keep him.
Demps has no first-rounder, $89 million already handed out in guarantees and the task of paying north of $18 million a year to keep Holiday (whom they must keep for the Bird rights that allow them to get a starting-caliber point guard). With a cap projected to be at around $102 million, Demps has to get creative since they have zero draft picks and expect to make a push for the 2018 Playoffs.
Oklahoma City Thunder - At what price do the Thunder walk away from Andre Roberson?
Roberson presents one of the most fascinating offseason dilemmas for any team. He's been so bad on offense, and replacing him with a plus-shooter on the wing could alleviate the pressures this Thunder roster is under to rebuild its entire frontcourt around Westbrook. But Roberson is so good on defense that the Thunder might not get the same offensive production from Russ if it weren't for his teammate drawing the top assignment on a nightly basis.
It all comes down to money for the Thunder, who are already committed to $110 million in salary for next season. Players like Roberson are next to impossible to replace with one or two signings, but the value of playing a different brand of basketball is difficult to quantify. As teams drive up the bidding for Roberson's defensive services, the Thunder will have to think long and hard about when they let him go for nothing.
Phoenix Suns - Who do the Suns target in the draft?
The domino effect for their roster will begin after draft night. Pushing aside where their selection is and which players they like most, we'll certainly see the ripple effects moving the second after they make a pick. Grab a point guard and it's likely the end of the Eric Bledsoe era in Phoenix. Select a big man (aka a major reach) and Alex Len or Tyson Chandler looks expendable. Draft a wing, and I'd assume Jared Dudley would be a player heavily rumored in trade talks.
The Suns will draft fourth overall in June, so getting one of Ball or Fultz can be ruled out for the Phoenix faithful. I believe Jonathan Isaac would be the missing piece for this franchise in numerous ways, but certainly acknowledge their defensive voids that Josh Jackson fills and his open-court athleticism are difficult to pass up. Once GM Ryan McDonough makes his selection, his tasks audible to balancing the roster and finding a place to unload Brandon Knight.
Portland Trail Blazers - How will President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey manage Portland's cap-saddled, tax-looming roster situation this summer?
No free agents (minus Festus Ezeli, who doesn't help relieve their cap situation too heavily) means Olshey has got to work the phones. I still believe the best bet is we see him try to get under the cap before the beginning of next season, hoping to avoid a repeater tax once they look at re-signing Jusuf Nurkic to an extension. They'll have to dangle some of their three first-round picks on the table to sweeten the pot for a team looking to take on some salary.
Once July hits, expect Olshey to be working hard as a third-party facilitator in some sort of salary dump to make a trade work. None of these pieces are seen as "dead weight", which should leave someone willing to take on a player or two. The biggest paradox: while first-round picks are the best way to sweeten the pot in a trade, they also have few other avenues to improve their bench if they unload their role players in a cap relief move. Incredibly fascinating and crucial summer ahead for Portland.
Sacramento Kings - The slate is blank in Sacramento. Does Vivek have the patience to see a rebuild through?
The Kings could open free agency with as much as $65 million in cap space if they make their moves right. Despite the cash to throw around, this is a team that has some intriguing young talent that needs playing time and a commitment towards development. Ranadive is a brash owner with unrealistic expectations; it wouldn't be surprising to see him want to throw boatloads of cash at any available free agent at the detriment of the rest of his roster. With two top-ten picks, his staff should be preaching patience as they develop this promising young core.
Let's be clear: Sacramento does need to pursue players via free agency -- just the right ones. There are opportunities available to get younger and add some quality players if they target the right ones. Having cap space allows them to lure players towards their team with extra cash, and if they lure away some on three or four year deals that have upside, this would be considered a successful summer for the Kings.
San Antonio Spurs - What can the Spurs do this summer to better position themselves to topple Golden State?
The answer of "more speed and athleticism" may seem too simple, but it's probably true. More pervasive than the questions of their point guard situation, now fluidly in the air due to Parker's injury and Mills' free agent status, are the worries that the Spurs won't be able to get past Golden State without having a few more versatile pieces. Parker and Mills greatly factor into this, and the Parker injury might mean keeping Mills despite the hefty price tag he commands.
More pressing for athleticism is the Spurs' frontcourt, featuring the likes of Gasol, Aldridge and David Lee. All three have a strong chance to return next season along with center Dewayne Dedmon, so there isn't a ton of room for a new roster spot here. I would expect the Spurs to look long and hard at bringing in a defensive-stopper and athlete in the draft this year, especially if they are unable to match any hefty offers that get handed out to Jonathon Simmons.
Utah Jazz - Can the front office keep the band together?
Re-signing both Gordon Hayward and George Hill is a long shot when both should command such high salaries. Still, Hayward has incentive to take a short term 1+1 deal so he can possibly ink a designated max next summer. Hill on the other hand will have plenty of high-valued suitors; he's a target that Utah will have to convince to take a bit of a pay cut and value that fifth year that only the Jazz can offer.
The Jazz also have Joe Ingles as a restricted free agent, a big piece to what they've done in Utah. The luxury of time might not be on their side to wait out any sweepstakes Hill and Hayward undergo if Ingles signs an early offer sheet and forces the Jazz to lessen their spending budget in the front-half of July. Of course, Hayward is the important piece here: losses of Ingles and Hill will hurt but not break the team's upward trajectory. Losing Gordon in free agency takes away Utah's only shot creator and go-to scorer.
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Head Boys Basketball Coach, Boys' Latin School (MD).