Tony Dejak/Associated Press
Who They Are: Teams probably headed back to the lottery unless they hit on a multitude of personnel fronts. They are, at best, one Zion Williamson away from being one player away.
Ruling out any Eastern Conference team from next year’s postseason race is bad form. The bottom of the field remains wild—a revolving door of candidates. But we have to make some cuts for exclusivity’s sake.
Chicago is a good bet to revisit the lottery in 2020. A frontcourt of Wendell Carter Jr., Lauri Markkanen and Otto Porter Jr. is promising, but injuries prevented them from seeing the floor together after the latter’s arrival, and the point guard situation is worse than suspect.
Though the Bulls have a clear path to more than $15 million in space, they’re not mentioned among this summer’s top destinations, and floor generals who fall within their price range are uninspiring. They’ll need to open up more room to look at a star (Kemba Walker) or make compelling bids for difference-making restricted free agents (Malcolm Brogdon, D’Angelo Russell).
Winning the Zion Williamson sweepstakes would simultaneously change everything and nothing. The Bulls would be hard-pressed to play him, Carter and Markkanen at the same time, but his arrival would beef up their best trade offer by virtue of rendering one or both of the other two expendable.
The Cavaliers are a wild card when it comes to direction. They have the profile of a gradual rebuild, but Collin Sexton’s offensive progression—he shot 41.5 percent from deep on 5.7 attempts per game and noticeably advanced his playmaking from Feb. 1 on—and a healthy Kevin Love might tempt a team that has routinely shown disdain for process.
Failing the addition of Lord Zion, it makes more sense to assume the Cavaliers will stay the course. Perhaps they won’t look at moving Love until the 2020 trade deadline, but a nucleus built around him, Sexton, Cedi Osman and a non-Zion draft pick wouldn’t sniff the playoff spectrum.
Improving beyond that core is out of the question. Cleveland doesn’t have highly coveted assets aside from expiring contracts or a path to cap space. It may take some maneuvering just for the Cavaliers to avoid the luxury tax.
Overhauling the front office and firing head coach J.B. Bickerstaff is nothing if not proof the Grizzlies are ready, at long last, to start from scratch. Then again, it won’t take much for them to overturn this logic.
If they keep this year’s first-round pick, the Grizzlies would pair another top-eight prospect with Jaren Jackson Jr., Kyle Anderson, Dillon Brooks (non-guaranteed), Bruno Caboclo (non-guaranteed), Mike Conley and a veteran supporting cast that could include Avery Bradley ($2 million partial guarantee), CJ Miles (picked up player option) and Jonas Valanciunas (player option). The next regime could talk itself into making a playoff push with that group.
Conley has already thrown a wrench in that potential, albeit unlikely, plan. As he told The Athletic’s Peter Edmiston:
“I honestly think my ultimate goal of winning a championship, I don’t know if it’s going to happen in my next two years here. That has nothing to do with the talent we do have, because I think we have a hell of a squad if everybody’s healthy. We can make some noise. But that puts me in the same situation I’ve been in for the past 10 years, just making noise. Do I want to continue to be making noise? I’m 31, I’m kind of past trying to make noise every year.”
Not-so-hot prediction: The Grizzlies will trade Conley over the offseason—pay attention, Detroit and Utah!—and punt on feigned postseason contention for at least a year.
New Orleans Pelicans
Newly installed executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin is a great hire by the Pelicans. He will give the franchise direction in the aftermath of the inevitable Anthony Davis trade.
That Davis’ departure is inevitable, though, says it all. New Orleans isn’t rejoining the ranks of the Western Conference’s playoff hopefuls without working miracles.
Think: The Pelicans win the lottery, and Davis, smitten by the opportunity to play with Williamson instead of an AARP-card-carrying LeBron James, has a change of heart he conveys via a custom T-shirt that reads, “Just kidding, folks!”
Sheesh, was this difficult.
On the one hand, the Suns have a nice stable of youngsters with Deandre Ayton, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, restricted free agent Kelly Oubre Jr. and TJ Warren (still just 25). They’ll be joined by yet another top prospect, and Phoenix has a couple of swing projects in Richaun Holmes (unrestricted), Josh Jackson, De’Anthony Melton and Elie Okobo.
On the other hand, the West is brutal, and the Suns finished the regular season tied for the league’s second-worst record. No non-superstar is bridging that gap, and Phoenix won’t have access to that kind of money without renouncing Oubre and dumping other salary. Ayton needs to become a top-25 player as a sophomore to fill the co-star void from within.
Working the trade market is a viable option. This year’s pick plus any combination of future selections and anyone other than Ayton and Booker makes for an interesting package. And yet, is this Suns team playoff-bound with, say, Conley, Bradley Beal or Jrue Holiday added to the roster?
Maybe. But probably not.