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There is no one way for an NBA team to win the offseason.
Successful drafts can be gargantuan victories. Blockbuster trades can incite big-time Ws. Free agency offers a chance for certain squads to improve by appreciable margins. Some teams win the summer by virtue of not doing anything drastic at all—by prioritizing continuity or, in some cases, avoiding overreactions to how the regular season or playoffs ended.
This look at which franchises are sitting prettiest aims to identify those best positioned and most willing to significantly bolster their immediate outlook. This naturally puts the really good teams at a disadvantage, since we’re not awarding brownie points to, say, the Brooklyn Nets for potentially extending every member of their Big Three.
Every phase of the offseason is under consideration. Favorable draft equity matters. So, too, does cap space to use in free agency and trades. The assets necessary to skulk around the star-trade market will be taken into account, too.
Equally critical: optionality. Teams that aren’t locked into one form of progression or overall direction are our catnip. They not only have the means to get much better before next season, but they’re built to roll with the punches and motivated to seize hold of different opportunities, including those that could arise on a whim.
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Paul Sancya/Associated Press
Offseason wins don’t come much larger than bagging the top pick in a draft that’s considered to have a transformative No. 1.
Though The Athletic’s Sam Vecenie—who, it should be noted, is as plugged in about this stuff as anyone—heard from various sources the Detroit Pistons are “thought to be fans of Jalen Green,” this decision feels like a no-brainer. Cade Cunningham, who Vecenie mocked to Motor City despite the intel, checks every imaginable box for a franchise in need of a tent-pole cornerstone.
“One of the league’s weaker offenses suddenly has a special creator, shooter and passer to run through,” Bleacher Report’s Jonathan Wasserman wrote while also mocking Cunningham to Detroit. “He’ll take pressure off Killian Hayes and start at the 2-guard slot, giving the Pistons two playmakers. But between Cunningham’s 6’8″ size, advanced one-on-one game and tough shot-making, he’s on track to emerge as Detroit’s No. 1 option, putting Jerami Grant into a more comfortable No. 2 role.”
The Pistons will add Cunningham to a core than is glitzier on paper than advertised. Grant’s efficiency waned as 2020-21 wore on, but he still showcased the capacity to do more with the ball in hands. Both Saddiq Bey (first) and Isaiah Stewart (second) made All-Rookie teams while flashing deeper offensive armories. Bey has ball skills worth further exploration, and Stewart flashed range beyond the arc.
Right hip issues limited Hayes—last year’s No. 7 pick—to 18 appearances, and he wasn’t the most efficient player. But he has a nice cadence to his game on the move and looked more confident in his jumper by the end of the year. Saben Lee, another rookie, puts pressure on the rim and should be able to knock down more catch-and-shoot looks.
Detroit will take this core plus Cunningham into free agency with some cap space—likely a hair over $12 million. That isn’t much above the mid-level exception, and the Pistons aren’t about to make an upper-echelon leap, but they have the bandwidth to get much better. Really, though, they could sit idle and land here anyway. Cunningham means that much to their future.
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Jeff Chiu/Associated Press
Lottery night could be viewed as a disappointment for the Golden State Warriors. Their own pick held serve at No. 14 rather than jumping into the top four, and while they kept the Minnesota Timberwolves selection, it’ll convey at No. 7 rather than the ever-ideal No. 4 spot.
Bottle up any tears that fall and save them for another occasion. The Warriors kept the Timberwolves pick. That matters a ton on its own.
Had Minnesota vaulted into the top three, a 2022 unprotected selection wouldn’t hold as much value. “Unprotected” sounds cool and all, but the Wolves would’ve added a top-three prospect to a core that showed signs of busting out near season’s end and never really had their five best players—D’Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley, Anthony Edwards, Jaden McDaniels, Karl-Anthony Towns—available at the same time.
Golden State is instead marching into the offseason with two lottery picks—high-end assets it can dangle in trades or try using to fill the gargantuan shot-creation voids beside Stephen Curry. Oh, and it’s also going to welcome back some guy named Klay Thompson. Maybe you’ve heard of him.
Keeping the first-rounders won’t be a popular non-move. Steph is a top-five player now. Youngsters typically take time to marinate. Stalking the blockbuster-trade market could yield more of an immediate return. The marquee-name auction block has yet to materialize, but between two lotto picks this year, James Wiseman and future firsts with which to work (sans 2024), the Warriors have the ammo to enter splashy discussions.
Failing to turn those picks into win-now players is not the end of the world. To be clear: That should be Golden State’s priority. But it’s at the mercy of what and who is available. If the Warriors cannot mine gold on the trade market, the benchmark for improvement is low enough that they can clear it via the arrival of rookies.
Last year’s offense scored 13.4 points fewer per 100 possessions with Curry off the floor—the single-largest on-off plunge among all players to log at least 200 minutes. Most teams, and especially the best squads, tend to have at least two dudes who can generate offense without help, and a smattering of others who can handle a little wet work off the dribble. Golden State had Curry and…Andrew Wiggins, its only other player to average three or more pull-up jumpers per game.
Trade the picks, keep the picks—it doesn’t matter. The Warriors have ample room to fail, but even without cap space, they also have the tools to get a lot better.
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Wendell Cruz/Associated Press
No team in the NBA enters the offseason with more cap-space potential than the New York Knicks. They can get to more than $53.5 million in wiggle room if they renounce the rights to all their own free agents.
Relevant: The Knicks aren’t going to do that. Reggie Bullock (Early Bird), Alec Burks (non-Bird), Nerlens Noel (non-Bird), Derrick Rose (full Bird) and even Taj Gibson (Early Bird) were all impactful enough this season to be viewed as more than expendable. New York should look at keeping restricted free agent Frank Ntilikina, too.
Potential pitfalls also abound in a market full of non-stars. Assuming Kawhi Leonard (player option) and Chris Paul (option) re-sign with their respective teams, the best available names are some combination of Mike Conley, Kyle Lowry, Lonzo Ball (restricted), John Collins (restricted) and DeMar DeRozan.
Some of the top billings are quality fits. Not one of them will transform the Knicks into an insta-contender. Reading too much into this year’s success and handing out over-the-top multiseason deals just to do something would hold the franchise back.
Including the Knicks here, though, is a vote of confidence in their front office. Questions remain, but they have by and large acted like a normal organization over the past year-plus. The Knicks need another offseason of that normality to be viewed in permanently new terms, but they’ve earned some benefit of the doubt.
If a star acquisition isn’t accessible to them, they feel more likely to again sign shorter-term deals and preserve their spending power for 2022 free agency. That’s a good spot to be in when you still have so many youngsters itching with upside.
RJ Barrett followed up a lackluster rookie campaign with a future-All-Star-type sophomore crusade. Immanuel Quickley boasted absurd range and a disarming in-between game. Mitchell Robinson lowered his foul rate before suffering a fractured right foot that ended his season. Obi Toppin looked like an NBA player by the closing kick. New York has two first-round picks, Nos. 19 and 21, at its disposal.
To that end: Should the blockbuster-trade market be frothier than expected, the Knicks for once have the goodies to get involved for whatever name becomes available. Is it Bradley Beal? Zach LaVine? Someone else? Who knows? But between oodles of cap space, some interesting young players, all their own and some extra future firsts, New York can capably execute a number of different visions.
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Carlos Osorio/Associated Press
This San Antonio Spurs nod could easily go belly up. They have three key veterans entering free agency—DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay, Patty Mills—and so long as 72-year-old Gregg Popovich stays at the helm, they could remain motivated to tread water inside the middle.
At the same time, they have so much flexibility this summer it’s hard to imagine them short-circuiting their present and future. Maybe they hand out shorter-term deals at inflated price points. That’s fine. Shorter contracts are not detrimental to long-term flexibility, and good players are not always above signing them. They can also turn into tasty trade chips around the deadline.
San Antonio’s cameo is founded around that flexibility. After factoring in the Knicks’ likely interest in retaining some of their own free agents, the Spurs have an almost effortless path to league-high cap space—more than $48 million.
That much coin goes only so far in a free-agent market without a gettable top-25 player. But the Spurs are not the Pistons. In some ways, that works against them; they’re not in line to draft Cade Cunningham. It also means they aren’t as far away from unlocking an operable postseason nuisance.
Dejounte Murray, Keldon Johnson, Derrick White, Devin Vassell, Jakob Poeltl, Luka Saminac, Lonnie Walker IV and the No. 12 pick don’t give the Spurs a singular alpha building block. Murray comes closest right now, and he’s not cracking the All-Star discourse.
Viewed in totality, however, San Antonio’s core is good enough to make a sizable jump without needing a proven-superstar addition. Imagine a scenario in which the Spurs bring back DeRozan and poach John Collins (restricted) with a max or sign-and-trade. It’s unlikely, verging on a pipe dream, but that’s the kind of malleability San Antonio enjoys.
In the event they decide to break character and go on the blockbuster-trade hunt, the Spurs’ nucleus arms them with the assets to party-crash the highest-profile discussions. They no doubt have enough to enter the mix for a potential Ben Simmons deal. Their collection of reasonably priced, young players and future draft equity should at least pique the Washington Wizards’ attention if Bradley Beal becomes available.
Hell, the Spurs might even have the juice to go nuclear on draft night, partner No. 12 with some combination of their kids and slingshot up a lottery ladder that, when looking at the teams near the top, isn’t primed for such movement in the first six spots. Point being: From big swings to medium swings, San Antonio has a handful of avenues down which it can travel.
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Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press
Precarious situations abound for the Toronto Raptors. Kyle Lowry and team president Masai Ujiri are both free agents. Gary Trent Jr. (restricted) could command a hefty price tag, as well.
Given how they finished the year—i.e. not obsessed with winning games—it isn’t clear in which direction they’re’e headed. Are they rebuilding? Was this a one-year tank and precursor to an emphatic retooling? Will they toe the line somewhere between?
The Raptors’ spending power on the open market only adds to the confusion. Depending on how Lowry’s future shakes out and what they do with their assortment of non-guaranteed deals, they could be working with no cap space, some cap space or boatloads of cap space. This isn’t quite an enviable position in which to be.
Or rather: It wasn’t the most enviable position in which to be. Then the Raptors leapt into the top four of a draft considered to have four prospects with varying amounts of star upside. That changes the calculus.
Gaining the rights to select Jalen Green, Evan Mobley or Jalen Suggs doesn’t concretely inform Toronto’s offseason arc. It does increase the range of palatable outcomes.
If Lowry wants to come back, the Raptors should instantly be considered dark-horse candidates to work the blockbuster-trade market. The top-four pick is an incredible, nearly unmatchable, starting point in any potential discussions.
Toronto could also just re-sign Lowry and Trent, futz and fiddle on the margins and then add a top-four pick to a nucleus that was better than its record last season. Lowry, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet outscored opponents by 9.2 points per 100 possessions when they shared the floor together.
Losing Lowry to a more ready-made contender could even open up a unique window of opportunity. Some of his most likely destinations are bound to be short on cap space and aggressive in sign-and-trade scenarios. If Lowry does leave, the Raptors could have the chance to capitalize on his exit more than they did at the deadline—a return they can then use to reshape their roster and direction beside that No. 4 pick, Anunoby, Siakam and VanVleet.
Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference, Stathead or Cleaning the Glass. Salary information via Basketball Insiders and Spotrac.