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 Pacific Division and what it might take for them to ascent closer to the postseason.
Los Angeles Lakers
2017-18 Record: 35-47
2018 Draft Picks: 25th (from CLE), 47th (from DEN)
Restricted Free Agents: F/C Julius Randle
Unrestricted Free Agents: C Brook Lopez, SG Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, PG Isaiah Thomas, F/C Channing Frye
Other Players of Note: C Thomas Bryant (team option), C Iviza Zubac (non-guaranteed contract), PG Tyler Ennis (non-guaranteed contract)
Committed Salary: $39,143,365
Cap Space: $61.9 million
No team can top the Lakers when it comes to cap space this summer, and there is a variety of ways they could utilize the space to their advantage. Of course, with the allure of the Lakers dynasty hanging over the organization and Magic Johnson in the President's chair, many expect the team to pursue some big names on the free agent market, including LeBron James and Paul George.
Magic has also hinted that the Lakers could wait until next summer to make their big splash, instead preaching patience with his young core and filling out next year with one-year contracts that help preserve the team's cap space for 2019. Time will tell if Magic and company can look but not touch the top prizes, as well as exactly what their plan is for fielding a team worthy of championship contention.
Order of Operations
1. Feel out LeBron, Paul George and other stars
There's no downside to seeing how the news cycles over the next few weeks and whether either of these guys make themselves available this summer. Just landing a meeting is a great start for the Lakers, especially if they plan on pursuing the same names again next summer. If they get one of them on a maximum contract they're in great shape, and if not they sacrifice very little (we'll get to that later)
There are some other names the Lakers should court though. DeAndre Jordan could switch locker rooms in Staples and join the team in Los Angeles with the brighter future. DeMarcus Cousins, if squeezed out in New Orleans, could find L.A. as a natural home, either on a long-term deal or as a one-year "prove-it" deal after the Achilles tear. Those are the four big names that Los Angeles should try to get meetings with.
But they better not drag their feet or wait too long to get them in the room, because...
2. Don't let Julius Randle slip away unless they find an All-Star replacement
I'm not sure many people appreciate just how good Randle was on both ends for the Lakers this past year. He's shown flashes of high-level play that could make him a borderline All-Star someday thanks to his athleticism, versatile playmaking and strong rebounding. He's proven he can adjust to playing the 5 more frequently and was a great switchable option within the Lakers defense.
As a restricted free agent, Randle will court other offers, but the Lakers still have the ability to match. A huge downside for the organization, and the only this summer can have some sort of immediate negative impact, would be if Randle signed an offer sheet elsewhere and the team didn't match because they believed they were frontrunners for someone like Cousins or Jordan, and then struck out.
3. Do Caldwell-Pope and Isaiah Thomas get one-year "prove-it" deals?
Obviously the Lakers will have to fill out their roster with some veterans somewhere along the way. Caldwell-Pope, whom the Lakers do not have Bird rights for but would acquire Early Bird rights to by re-signing him through next year, makes sense to return, even if they make a splash by signing one big-time name. He's a solid third or fourth option on offense and his ability to score off handoffs make him a unique fit within the Luke Walton offense.
Isaiah is a much more complicated case, as the former 30 point per game scorer is still struggling to recover from a horrid hip injury. Thomas is a unique case: an outspoken veteran that believes he's played the chip off his shoulder and only provides utility on one end of the floor. I'm not sure how much Thomas adds to the young core from a developmental standpoint, or how he really fits next to Lonzo Ball in the backcourt. Still, nobody else seems to want him, and a one-year flier might come with little risk to the team that holds his Bird rights.
4. What's Brook Lopez' asking price?
The Lakers should see Lopez as a decent starting option for them, and the ideal candidate to split minutes with Julius Randle over the next couple of seasons at the 5. But Lopez, who is likely looking to cash in on one last payday, might require a little too much long-term salary for the Lakers to retain Randle, him and keep their space open for two max deals in 2019.
A line in the sand around $10 million a year should be drawn from the organization, and they should stick to it. This isn't a robust market when it comes to centers, so most of the leverage belongs with the Lakers here. Still it will be fascinating to see if another team comes in first and snags Lopez away.
5. Luol Deng, his contract and some creativity
The Lakers have one bad contract on their books: the two-years, $36.8m remaining of Luol Deng's massive contract. It's not an untradeable contract, but it's certainly a difficult one to give away. Should the Lakers pair Cleveland's pick with it and take back some lesser money or an expiring? Atlanta would be the team that comes to mind most as a trade partner, but is that really worth giving up a first-rounder or two just to shed Deng?
The other course of action discussed had been waiving Deng via the stretch provision, which would make him a free agent and leave about $7.36 million on the books for the next five years from Deng. Just ask the Pistons with Josh Smith and the Brooklyn Nets with Deron Williams how that large of a stretch number has worked out for them. But there may be an option: Deng is extension eligible this summer, which means the Lakers could extend him, then waive him via stretch provision and cut down on that cost. How would that work? Just read this brilliant thinkpiece from Eric Pincus.
2017-18 Record: 21-61
2018 Draft Picks: 1st*, 16th (from MIL), 31st, 59th (from TOR)
Restricted Free Agents: PG Elfrid Payton
Unrestricted Free Agents: C Alex Len
Other Players of Note: C Alan Williams (non-guaranteed contract), PG Tyler Ulis (non-guaranteed contract), G Davon Reed (non-guaranteed contract), G Shaquille Harrison (non-guaranteed contract)
Committed Salary: $79,210,263
Cap Space: $21.8 million
The Suns finished with the worst record in the NBA, and thus have the highest probability of landing the top overall pick. If they land the first selection, there is going to be a ton of hope for this franchise moving forward. Luckily the Suns won't pick below fourth, meaning there's only a handful of players they need on their big board that can make a superstar-type impact.
Expect the Suns to get rid of Williams and Harrison, who are on non-guaranteed contracts, which would free up and additional $6.9 million in cap space, bringing the Suns just shy of $29 million to play with this summer.
Order of Operations
1. Find the right coach
The Suns have been abysmal defensively these last few years despite featuring one of the game's brightest young scorers in Devin Booker. Booker, and the rest of the young Suns, need a coach that is going to come in and be able to teach them high-level defense. The roster is currently plush with switchable players like Dragan Bender, Marquese Chriss and T.J. Warren - it wouldn't be shocking to see them try to play a style similar to that of Golden State. The Suns may not want to give a first-time coach a shot just because they need to nail their defensive development, but regardless the focus of their hire should be with that end of the court in mind.
2. Draft their next pillar: big man or point guard?
Phoenix is guaranteed a top-four pick, and thus will be able to snag at least one high-level big man if they choose. DeAndre Ayton, the Arizona Wildcat big man, is the top choice for many and would be a natural fit in Phoenix for many reasons. If he's not available, the Suns have to determine if they want to grab that franchise anchor in the paint or if one of the guards like Luke Doncic or Trae Young (can you imagine the shooting backcourt of Young and Booker) is a player they snag.
It feels almost like a foregone conclusion that the Suns will take a big man, but Doncic could be the right fit and the optimal selection for the Suns if they don't get the center they like. They also have the 16th overall pick from Milwaukee, and that will allow them to find a little more balance elsewhere. The nature of their organization means they don't have to take a play-now type of prospect and can take someone a little more raw with long-term upside. This is where some of the better fits at point guard might dwell for Phoenix.
3. Figure out Elfrid Payton and Alex Len's future
Two former lottery picks that have somewhat underwhelmed in their NBA careers will be the two free agents the Suns must deal with this summer. Payton in particular is an interesting one: he played well offensively for the Suns and has the raw statistical output to command a fairly large contract. But do the Suns want to commit long-term to a poor defensive backcourt pairing? And if they don't, where do they go to upgrade at the point guard spot?
Len is a player the Suns are fairly likely to part from, underwhelming these past two seasons despite the tutelage of Tyson Chandler. If the Suns don't draft a center they must figure out what to do to fill the gap in the middle and if Len is, once again, a stop-gap answer.
4. Probe the market for their veterans
Tyson Chandler and Jared Dudley are two of the more impactful veterans around the league. Dudley is a versatile forward that can defend and his open threes, while also being one of the best locker room guys and leaders in the league. Chandler can help teams defensively as well as aid to the development of young big men.
Chandler is due $13.6m next year, while Dudley will make $9.5 mill. Those are fairly large deals for role players on the trade market, but their expiring nature means at some point the Suns will be able to find the right package and home for them. It might not be this summer, but GM Ryan McDonough should at least spend some time on the phone fielding calls and establishing a baseline for what their market could be.
5. Evaluate the rest of the youngsters
Guys like Marquese Chriss, Dragan Bender, Josh Jackson and TJ Warren are all still pretty young in their NBA careers. Jackson may prove to be the best of the group, but none seem to be high-level starters to pair with Booker for the long-term. Whichever new head coach that comes in will work closely with McDonough to determine the best fits for these players and whether they are part of the long-term plan. If they are not, one of them (likely Chriss or Bender) could be paired with one of the veterans on the way out to make a splash elsewhere on the trade market.
Those decisions likely won't be made this summer though, as the Suns still have patience to see their newly-constructed young core mature a little longer. As such, Phoenix will be quiet in free agency this summer and look to utilize some of their cap space via trade markets to add even more long-term assets. If anything the Suns would get involved with a restricted free agent on a cap-saddled team, like Marcus Smart, Jusuf Nurkic or Fred VanVleet.
2017-18 Record: 27-55
2018 Draft Picks: 7th*, 36th
Restricted Free Agents: SF Bruno Caboclo
Unrestricted Free Agents: SG Vince Carter
Other Players of Note: SG Iman Shumpert ($11m player option), C Kosta Koufos ($8.7m player option), G/F Garrett Temple ($8m player option)
Committed Salary: $80,485,192
Cap Space: $20.5 million
Sacramento is one of the saddest franchises in professional sports, with no apparent superstar players on their roster and a 2019 first-round pick being shipped to Philadelphia (or more likely to Boston). The Kings have no reason to tank next year since they don't own their 2019 pick, but that doesn't mean the organization shouldn't focus on bringing in as many veterans as they can next year. Instead, the Kings need to accept where they are and embrace the rebuild around youngsters like De'Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield and Skal Labissiere.
Order of Operations
1. Don't Strikeout in the draft
In the aforementioned scenario the Kings find themselves in, it would make sense for an organization to want to swing for the fences right away: get the player that has the most upside because next year is awash anyway. But the Kings have a wretched history of drafting – just look at their 2016 draft records with Georgios Papagiannis and Malachi Richardson – and cannot let their only certain draft pick over the next two years go to waste.
The draft is a crapshoot, but there are some prospects that have high-upside without a lot of associated risk. Sacramento is a bit of a blank canvas still when it comes to drafting, but the Kings need to make sure they're not taking an unnecessary risk just because they have time.
2. Keep space open for 2019
As it stands now, the Kings could have north of $74 million in cap space during July 2019 - with only one restricted free agent, Willie Cauley-Stein. The Kings may not have a draft pick, but that sheer amount of cap space could allow them to make several splashes on the free agent market. If they bring with them a litany of young players primed and ready for playing a role and good minutes, the blueprint may be in place to move on.
But as the Kings have some immediate cap space, and that is a premium around the league, Perry needs to be careful not to take the bait and cut into his 2019 cap space too much.
3. Offer Sheet somebody
The only type of player the Kings should chase is a restricted free agent, ala Brooklyn these last few summers. There's no downside to trying to either drive up the price of a player or pry him away to become part of your young core if you're Perry. Guys like Marcus Smart with Boston, Jabari Parker with Milwaukee and Julius Randle with the Lakers make sense here. All three would instantly come in and have massive impacts on the Kings roster, could grow into marquee roles as go-to players with the Kings and essentially be the team starting early on 2019 free agency since they're long-term plays.
4. Patience is a virtue
The complaints many have with owner Vivek Ranadive, and part of the reason the Kings are in the situation they're in today, is because Vivek hasn't been able to exercise patience with a rebuild. Sacramento's cap space should mean their phones ring frequently, and they could be the team that gets called about players like Hassan Whiteside or others that get "Blake Griffin'd" and shopped right after signing a big contract.
Unless it's a clear home run to everyone within the front office, Vivek needs to reel back the reigns and let Perry rebuild this with the time necessary to right the ship. For the love of God and a supportive fanbase, don't screw this up.
5. Move on from Shumpert
The Kings won't find any trade value for the $11m on Shumpert's deal next year once he opts in. He's a high-probability buyout candidate as such, with the Kings using the roster spot elsewhere to target one of the younger players on the free agent market, like a restricted free agent or a young UFA like Jerami Grant or Nerlens Noel.
Leave a Reply.
Head Boys Basketball Coach, Boys' Latin School (MD).