Entering the 2017-18 NBA season, there are nine teams who can reasonably beat their chests with both fists while verbally guaranteeing a spot in the playoffs. Out west, there are only four: Golden State, Houston, Oklahoma City and San Antonio. In the east, there are five: Cleveland, Boston, Toronto, Washington and Milwaukee.
An unfortunate string of injuries could render all of the above as nonsense, but otherwise it’s tough to surmise a series of events that would lead to any of those nine clubs landing in the lottery.
On the flip side, there are several squads that don’t seem to have any visible path toward the playoffs in 2017-18. Which teams fit that criteria, and what should they be most focused on this season?
Charlotte, Miami, Philadelphia, and Detroit are widely expected to compete for the remaining playoff spots. While unlikely, I think there’s a universe where the Pacers, Magic, or Knicks could somehow sneak into the race. Myles Turner and Victor Oladipo could break out in tandem, Frank Vogel could coach up a top-10 defense, or Carmelo Anthony and New York could kiss and make up. But for these three teams, it’s just not in the cards.
Buy out Dwyane Wade’s contract.
There are no shortage of destinations where Wade would be an ideal fit as a scoring punch off the bench. If a buyout can’t be reached, Chicago should be working the phones to find a trade for the future first ballot Hall-of-Famer. There’s no reason to hold onto an aging former star while in the midst of what promises to be a lengthy rebuilding project.
Trade Robin Lopez.
Despite the league’s overflow of talent at the center position, Lopez likely has much more trade value than Wade. In fact, count me among those who favor Robin’s contributions to brother Brook’s, as Robin has become one of the better defensive bigs in the NBA. Robin probably isn’t all that interested in sticking around anyways, and dealing him now would allow youngsters Lauri Markkanen, Cristiano Felicio, and Bobby Portis to soak up all the center minutes this season.
Prioritize the development of Taurean Prince, DeAndre Bembry and John Collins.
The duo of sophomore forwards and the 19th pick in the 2017 NBA Draft are Atlanta’s highest-upside young players. The last thing the Hawks should be worried about is wins, which means the first focus should almost certainly be developing their youth.
Test the market for Dennis Schröder.
Note: I’m not advocating for a trade unless the Hawks can find a fair return. Celebrating his 24th birthday in three days, Schröder is already a solid starting point guard, and his salary ($15.5M per year through 2020-21) is rather reasonable. The problem is that it might take Atlanta four years (or more) to rebuild. If Dennis progresses between now and then, the Hawks would probably have no problem paying him again. But they’d be spending big money on a small point guard who wouldn’t be far from 30. Schröder will help the Hawks win some extra games (and potentially exceed expectations) during the dreary days to come, but at what cost?
Give Rondae Hollis-Jefferson minutes at center.
Sure, the Nets just nabbed Tyler Zeller, plus they traded for Timofey Mozgov and drafted Jarrett Allen – but RHJ needs an opportunity to thrive as a center. Brooklyn would be wise to see how he progresses as the lead rim-protector on defense and the rim-diver in the pick-and-roll on offense. If the Nets still had Brook Lopez, it’d make sense for Hollis-Jefferson to continue suiting up at one of the forward spots full-time. But they don’t, and the best way to set Rondae up for success in this league likely involves putting four capable shooters alongside him in a super-small-ball lineup.
Let D’Angelo be D’Angelo.
Luke Walton was doing a lot better job of this than Byron Scott. Nevertheless, D’Angelo Russell must be afforded a long leash in Brooklyn in order for him to reach his full potential. Russell might be the only Net with All-Star level upside. Sophomore Caris LeVert and rookie Jarrett Allen may have something to say about that down the road. However, right now all eyes will be on Russell, and coach Kenny Atkinson should encourage him to play freely and without fear.
The Clippers, Jazz, Grizzlies, Trail Blazers, Nuggets, Pelicans, Mavericks, and Timberwolves can’t be counted out in the marathon race for the final four playoff spots out west. Chris Paul and Gordon Hayward leaving hurts, but the conference’s fourth and fifth-seeded teams from last year won’t fall off the map. Portland may not have improved much defensively, but the offense should still be potent. Denver added Paul Millsap, New Orleans retained Jrue Holiday, Dallas drafted Dennis Smith, and Minnesota stole Jimmy Butler from Chicago. As it is in the east, it is in the west: only three teams remain.
Test the market for Eric Bledsoe.
Bledsoe will hit 30 just a few months into the 2019-20 season, this after entering free agency in the summer of 2019. Based on last year’s impressive performance and dose of clean health, Bledsoe’s trade stock may never get higher than it is now.
Commit to playing more small-ball.
Josh Jackson and T.J. Warren can’t just be splitting time at small forward, and Jared Dudley should strictly operate at the 4. Even if veterans such as Dudley and Tyson Chandler see their playing time dip as the year goes on, there are still a lot of young players on the roster who need minutes. Assigning someone like Marquese Chriss to the G-League wouldn’t be a bad idea. Ditto for Dragan Bender if Alex Len ends up re-signing.
Los Angeles Lakers
This may have gone out the window when LaVar Ball forecasted a playoff berth in the summer. However, even with the additions of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Brook Lopez, this young club should be pleasantly surprised if they win 30 games, not upset when they miss out on the postseason. Lonzo makes the Lakers a must-watch squad from day one, but this is not Magic Johnson joining Kareem Abdul-Jabar and company. Improving day in and day out is still far more important than winning for L.A.
Keep playing a deep rotation.
Los Angeles added a great deal of intriguing young talent this offseason, and they already had plenty of it to begin with. That’s why apart from Ball, KCP, and maybe Julius Randle, no one should see 30+ minutes per game. Ball should be thrown right into the lion’s den as the starting point guard and guy who makes the team go, but the 20-year-old Brandon Ingram might still be a little too brittle for heavy minutes at the forward position. KCP becomes an unrestricted free agent next summer, while Randle will be restricted, so both should get a lot of burn. Brook Lopez isn’t getting any younger, and if the plan is to make him more than a one-year rental, it would behoove Luke Walton to rest the veteran regularly. Based on last year’s deep rotations, I’d expect Walton to continue spreading the minutes around as evenly as possible (to those who have earned it).
Consider assigning Harry Giles to the G-League.
The Kings are flush with big men, and Giles may be among the odd men out early on. Sending Giles to the G-League seems to be the plan at the moment, but you never do know with Sacramento.
Bring De’Aaron Fox off the bench.
A defensive duo of Fox and George Hill is tantalizing to consider, and they should share the floor some here and there. But if the Kings hope to compete for a playoff spot, coach Dave Joerger should be sure that either Hill or Fox remains on the court at all times. The only way to do that outside of overplaying both is by staggering their minutes. Rest assured, this will be Fox’s show in a few years, if not before that. However, he can learn a lot more while playing with grizzled vets off the bench. It’s safe to say he’ll learn more about basketball from running with units of Garrett Temple, Vince Carter, Zach Randolph, and Kosta Koufos than Buddy Hield, Justin Jackson, Skal Labissiere, and Willie Cauley-Stein. Meanwhile, Buddy, Skal, and Willie are more likely to benefit from the additional spacing and steadiness of a hopefully healthy George Hill than the fast, fiery fury of Fox on offense. De’Aaron’s immediate defensive impact projects to be much more meaningful against backup ball-handlers. He can also learn valuable lessons from watching Hill, one of the top defenders in the NBA, cover the very best guards to start the game.