As the eyes of many NBA fans shift towards the postseason, some front office executives are thinking about how they can improve the fates of their franchises that are not currently vying for postseason play. The pre-draft process is filled with tons of scouting, evaluation periods, internal discussion and workouts for some of the hopeful rookies that want a spot in the NBA.
Taking the drafting needs and picks into consideration, financial considerations can paint the biggest picture to what decisions will be made beyond the draft. Trading some players, utilizing cap space for taking on others, and preparing for free agency all are highly informed by the team's salary situations – after all, the NBA is a business.
Here are three teams that missed the postseason from the Southeast Division and what it might take for them to ascend in a division where the Wizards are faltering and the Heat are subject to change. All three teams are looking for new head coaches and have the chance to start looking very different beginning next season, so I'll exclude the head coaching search from each team's dialogue:
2017-18 Record: 24-48
2018 Draft Picks: 4th*, 19th (from MIN), 30th (from HOU), 33rd
Restricted Free Agents: G Malcolm Delaney, G Damion Lee
Unrestricted Free Agents: none
Other Players of Note: C Dewayne Dedmon ($6.3m player option), C Mike Muscala ($5m player option), PG Isaiah Taylor (non-guaranteed contract), F Tyler Cavanaugh (non-guaranteed contract)
Committed Salary: $69,173,679
Cap Space: $31.8 million
The Hawks are bottoming out right now, with General Manager Travis Schlenk trying to salvage what was there when he took over and turn it into pieces worth building around. Two of the brighter young pieces in Atlanta - Dewayne Dedmon and Mike Muscala - could opt out if they sense that the Hawks are going to take a franchise-changing center. With four picks in the top-33 of the draft and cap space to leverage for future assets, we're at the beginning of seeing a complete metamorphosis of this roster.
Order of Operations
1. Clear Space for someone else with the Dwight Howard trade exception
As a rebuilding team, Atlanta needs to use every single resource at their disposal to add future draft picks and young players. With cap space at their disposal, the Hawks cannot let the $4.34 million trade exception from Howard go to waste. It expires on June 20th, a few days before the draft, but the Hawks should be able to swing a trade where they absorb some unwanted salary and get a second-round pick for their troubles. Nene from Houston comes to mind.
Another more-likely scenario is that they take on a multi-year contract for cash considerations, taking back a young player worth giving a trial to. That could be a Damian Jones from Golden State, a Malachi Richardson from Toronto, or a CJ Williams from the Clippers. There's no 100 percent guarantee the Hawks can swing a deal like this, but the exception would be a nifty trick.
2. Ayton, Doncic, or Bamba, please
There's a pretty clear top-three in this draft in my opinion: DeAndre Ayton, Mohammed Bamba and Luka Doncic. All three could play right away in their rotation and would be superstars over the long-term in Atlanta. Atlanta could need to get popped into the top-three of the lottery if they crave Ayton or Doncic, but a guy like Bamba could slide down to them if they're in the top six.
Atlanta doesn't need to swing for the fences on a center, so if they don't love the guys that are left on the board when they're up, they could move down or take a guy like Michael Porter. I've never fancied myself a huge fan of Jaren Jackson, but he's also a trendy pick for big men if the Hawks choose to go there.
With four picks in the top 33 and three first-rounders, Atlanta can add a plethora of young talent. There are gems waiting to be poached no matter where they're drafted, and thanks to the versatility of guys like John Collins and Taurean Prince, they have no real needs or positions that limit who they can take. These Hawks are a blank canvas.
3. Use cap space via trade, not via free agency
With that many draft picks and only a few roster spots, the Hawks will have a large amount of cap space with likely only one or two places to keep players. Instead of trying to pay $17 million a year for a free agent and trying to win games now, they could trade for an overpaid player, absorb his contract and take a first-round pick for their troubles. Since the Hawks aren't trying to compete for a championship immediately, that might be the best course of action... and there are plenty of candidates with which to shop.
Many organizations are in need of cap space and want to make a splash this summer, and the Hawks have a fairly slim market in their command at the moment. The San Antonio Spurs with Pau Gasol, the New York Knicks with Joakim Noah, or even the Los Angeles Lakers and Luol Deng. None of these players are attractive in their own right, but if the Hawks want to add more draft picks and more chances at getting foundational youngsters, this might be their best path to doing so.
4. Fill out the rest of the roster with intriguing young pieces
Atlanta can easily spin their poor overall talent and roster to agents looking for young guys on "prove-it" contracts. Atlanta can take retreads or Euro guys that never got a shot in the league, play them to maximize their value, and then either reap the rewards with a long-term deal down the line or flip them for more picks or value down the line. There are a lot of players like this on the market, and once we get a better feel for what positional needs the roster has after the draft, the easier it will be to forecast which types of targets the Hawks have on their radar.
5. Reinforce the key young players
However the Hawks finagle their useful cap space or contort their roster this summer, they'll have a few really intriguing young pieces: a top-five pick from the draft, John Collins, Taurean Prince and Dennis Schroder, all of whom are under 24 and signed for less than a combined $35 million per year. The front office needs to reinvest in this group by surrounding them with a coach that can leverage their strengths and develop them together, role players that make sense within that structure and veterans that won't pout or distract from the vision. All of this can be summed up in one key word: culture. The organizational culture needs to be a strength of the Hawks if they are to make it out of this rebuild with a rock-solid core. They lack the top-tiered stars that others embarking on rebuilds might have, and if they're to shorten their stay at the bottom a focus on culture must prevail.
2017-18 Record: 36-46
2018 Draft Picks: 11th*, 55th (from CLE)
Restricted Free Agents: G/F Treveon Graham
Unrestricted Free Agents: PG Michael Carter-Williams, PG Julyan Stone
Other Players of Note: none
Committed Salary: $117,922,202
Room before luxury tax: $6 million
New GM Mitch Kupchak certainly has his work cut out for him...
The Hornets GM inherits a team without a coach, no playoff projections and one of the largest payrolls in the league for next season. They also have the 11th pick in the draft as a means for upside, and last year's first-rounder, Malik Monk, that many still believe will be an impact scorer in this league. As the Hornets butt their heads up against the luxury tax, they're faced with a difficult reality: how can they tear down their costs, and what players do they move on from?
Order of Operations
1. Decide internally on Kemba Walker
It's pretty much clear cut that of all the veterans and eight-figure players on their roster, none commands the value in the trade market like Kemba Walker. As was discussed throughout the regular season under the old regime, is now the time to trade Walker and use the All-Star to entice another suitor to take on a poor contract like Nic Batum? Or should they pursue other trades, keep Walker and build around him after giving him a huge pay raise in 2019?
That is question number one for Kupchak to answer with this roster. Paying Kemba next summer (he is extension-eligible this summer but would likely decline any offer) doesn't provide much of a release from the bloated salary they're dealing with now, and also illuminates little path to being competitive while Kemba is in his prime. However, dealing him now doesn't make anything clearer, and perhaps the Hornets wouldn't be poor enough to bottom-out and get themselves a top pick, sentencing themselves to NBA purgatory like the Sacramento Kings after they dealt Chris Webber.
Both paths are questionably rocky and have clear downsides, but either way the Hornets should probably set their sights on a decision within the next month or two and stick to it. Why should it be so important for them to decide before the draft?
2. Their heir apparent could be there at 11
Looking at the players that could be there just outside the top-ten, a couple of playmaking point guards come to mind. Collin Sexton of Alabama and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander from Kentucky are likely available, and even Trae Young could plummet based on his defense. Having a shot at grabbing one of these guys would certainly make it more palatable to deal Cardiac Kemba now, unload another big salary and then start over with a backcourt of two young guards, pitting the eleventh pick with Malik Monk.
Of course the Hornets don't need to pick a point guard there, even if one of the higher-end guys is available. Their roster has starters at every position for next season, so they have the luxury of taking the best player available. But fear not, Hornets fans... you can still make a big splash this year and part from Kemba.
3. Luxury tax concerns
The Hornets could find themselves in the luxury tax next year for the first time in franchise history. With only $6 million in space and the 11th pick projected to cost them $3.3 million, and with three other roster spots needing to be filled it's impossible for them to do so and duck the tax. The only way they circumvent luxury tax concerns would be to shed salary via trade.
Kupchak's organizational imperative from a talent standpoint revolves around Kemba and the draft pick, and talent rules the day for a small market organization. But they are capped out and have to make some difficult decisions with costs this summer, either living with what they have and swallowing their tax bill or shedding money and taking a low return as a result.
4. Shop the veterans
Every single player should be shopped around by the new front office to find the best deal for the organization. In particular, veterans like Marvin Williams and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who have defined strengths and could bring legitimate value elsewhere, would be two targets for others around the league. Perhaps the most sensible name though is that of Jeremy Lamb, who far outperformed expectations this past season and is on an expiring contract. Cashing out on Lamb now, and handing the reigns of the 2-guard spot to Monk, would allow Charlotte to shed salary and get a good haul at the same time. Deals like that are the ones the Hornets need... even if they don't make them more competitive immediately.
5. Add youth and shooting to round out the bench
If there's one thing Charlotte's roster needs, it's a little dose of shooting and some young players with considerable upside. Those types of guys can be found for the minimum this year, and serve many purposes. First off, the Hornets need to evaluate youngsters to move forward with. Second, they need low-cost players (the non-veteran minimum contract should hover around $850k for the entire season), and young shooters on a "prove-it" non-guaranteed deal help avoid tax penalties. Third, if they plan to try and win games next year in Kemba's free agent season, or even if he leaves and Dwight Howard is anchoring the offense, they'll need three-point shooting.
Look for Charlotte to add a ton of guys to their Summer League roster and dive deeply into the undrafted free agent market. It's an area where Mitch Kupchak has proven he can make a splash in the past and would be an amazing way for him to start off his tenure.
2017-18 Record: 25-57
2018 Draft Picks: 5th*, 35th, 41st (from CHA)
Restricted Free Agents: F Aaron Gordon
Unrestricted Free Agents: F Mario Hezonja, G Arron Afflalo, F/C Mo Speights
Other Players of Note: PG Shelvin Mack (non-guaranteed contract), F Khem Birch (non-guaranteed contract), G Rodney Purvis (non-guaranteed contract)
Committed Salary: $85,937,139
Cap Space: $14.7 million
No team has lost more games in the last six seasons than the Orlando Magic, who have been exercising futility since Dwight Howard's departure. A new front office wraps up their first year, and we still have very little clue as to what their plans are. They've got no starting-caliber point guard on the roster, their best player and athlete is a restricted free agent that's boldly seeking a max contract, and last year's rookie Jonathan Isaac hasn't shown too much beyond potential flashes here and there.
With only $14.7 million between them and the cap and Aaron Gordon seeking a max contract, the Magic are in a bit of a difficult place. Once they hire a coach and the lottery gets decided, we could have a much better idea of their plans moving forward.
Order of Operations
1. Draft the best player available
No team has a more glaring hole than the Magic do at point guard. They dealt Elfrid Payton to Phoenix at the trade deadline, essentially punting on wanting to pay him, and now have only D.J. Augustin on their roster. Orlando really does need a short and long-term solution to their issue at the position, and the draft seems to be the best place to find both.
But the draft doesn't just spit out players based on need. In fact, what the Magic need most is a higher caliber of player. If a point guard they like - and one that doesn't fit the organizational identity moving forward - isn't on the board for their pick, they should take just the top guy on their draft board.
2. Cut Shelvin Mack
The math is pretty simple here: Shelvin Mack is due to make $6 million next year as a backup point guard. If the Magic waive him by June 29th, that effectively drops to zero. Consequently, Orlando would have around $21 million in cap room to enter free agency with (likely around $16 after their draft pick) and a little more maneuverability to pay guys via trade or free agency.
For a team so bare at point guard, cutting one of their backups regardless of who they draft might seem like a strange move. This is 100 percent cap driven though, and the Magic need that space to fulfill their plans elsewhere.
3. Pay Aaron Gordon: agree to the max early, sign it later
The Magic are a little backed into a corner. Gordon might be the top RFA on the market, meaning he's the guy that other teams with a multitude of cap space will try to poach first. Gordon might seem a tad ridiculous for seeking a max deal, but he's going to get paid that amount - even in a cap crunch. Instead of letting Gordon shop elsewhere for terms of the deal, Orlando should pony up and offer him the large contract... if not the max, then close to it for five-years. Once Gordon agrees to take himself off the market, Orlando has time to use their cap space and not rush to sign other players before they're forced to sign and match an offer sheet.
Once we've established the Magic have around $16 million, it might seem that Aaron Gordon signing a max contract would cause that amount to disappear. But Orlando can agree to terms on the contract and not have him sign it right away. Why? The Magic own his Bird rights, meaning they can re-sign him even if they're over the cap. Instead of signing him July 10th and deleting their cap space, they should agree to terms with him, then use some of their cap space elsewhere to improve the roster. The result will be Orlando going over the salary cap by a fair margin, but a worthwhile endeavor if they are to add to their roster.
4. If not drafted, trade for or sign a PG
Part of the reason that timing with Gordon is so important is if the Magic don't end up drafting a guard like Luka Doncic or Trae Young. There are other point guards available via free agency or trade, and they may require the majority of that $16 million in cap space if they're going to be signed. Theoretically the Magic could end up with a good young PG, Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac and a top-five pick to build around. That's not a horrible haul.
Imagine the point guards that Orlando could chase this break. Would Terry Rozier be worth a top-ten protected pick? Rozier wouldn't add to costs for next season, and Orlando has north of $50 million in cap space to re-sign him next summer. Young free agents like Marcus Smart, Fred VanVleet and Seth Curry could also be available for poaching. The key to signing them is offering above the $8.8 full mid-level exception.
5. Hoard draft picks and young guys
If that plan comes to fruition and the Magic retain Gordon and add a starting PG elsewhere, it's likely that Orlando would stand at around $116 million in player salaries with two roster spots available and two non-guaranteed deals in Khem Birch and Rodney Purvis. With the luxury tax line set at $124 million, a line they'd want to avoid, the front office could entertain low-cost options to round out the roster or trade one of their expiring contracts (Terrence Ross) to keep salaries low.
The Magic could retain Mario Hezonja with his Bird rights, although that would vault them dangerously close to the luxury tax line. Or, the more likely option, would be to split the mid-level exception to sign other retreads from around the league. Plenty of guys are available that fit the bill to round out the roster, including Josh Huestis, Kevon Looney, Nik Stauskas and Ian Clark.
If the Magic can turn Terrence Ross or even Nikola Vucevic (if they draft a big man) into some assortment of picks while keeping their costs low, the organization would benefit in the long-term. Both are good basketball players and aren't old by any means, but it doesn't seem that either are in the team's blueprint for building a long-term winner.
Head Boys Basketball Coach, Boys' Latin School (MD).