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Charlotte Hornets 2019-20 NBA Season Preview

The Charlotte Hornets are now a team in re-build mode, the question is will this be a quick re-build or a long protracted rebuild that costs leadership their jobs? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Charlotte Hornets in this 2019-20 NBA Season preview.

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A new era has finally dawned for the Charlotte Hornets. Facing another half-decade of sustained mediocrity, Michael Jordan and Mitch Kupchak elected against re-signing the beloved Kemba Walker, giving the Hornets a much-needed reset but ridding the roster of the only player who ever really propelled them to success.

The rebuild, for the long-term better and short-term worse, is here. But the track it follows will largely depend on the development of several young players, any of whom it’s easy to envision ultimately coming into their own elsewhere. Especially if you are placing wagers at betfred or one of the Best Sportsbooks in the US.

Will this season mark the infancy of Charlotte’s next playoff team, or merely serve as year one of a lengthy, laborious process that ultimately takes multiple forms? Either way, the Hornets won’t be winning many games in 2019-20, a blueprint toward future contention this franchise unfurled a bit later than it should have.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

The 2019-20 season looks bleak for the Hornets. They passed on extending Kemba Walker, and swapped him for Terry Rozier. There are lots of overpaid players on the roster like Nic Batum and Marvin Williams, and some unproven younger ones like Malik Monk. The few bright spots on the Hornets roster appear to be Miles Bridges and rookie P.J. Washington – and maybe Rozier depending on how you define a bright spot. The Hornets flirted with the playoffs for a few years – even qualifying in 2016. That won’t be the case this season.

5th Place – Southeast Division

– Drew Maresca

To say the Hornets had a poor offseason would be kind of an understatement. Not only did they lose franchise cornerstone Kemba Walker, they didn’t really do anything to pick a firm direction they want to go in. With Walker gone, a rebuild seems to be the best option moving forward, but they kept all of their high-priced veterans around. Of course, it could be that there isn’t a market for any of them. After all, a team needs to be willing to trade for those players/contracts. The signing of Terry Rozier is a bit of a head-scratcher, as they gave him quite a bit of money for a player that isn’t of Walker’s caliber but is expected to replace him. The one thing they may have going for them though is some of their youth. Miles Bridges, Malik Monk, Dwayne Bacon and P.J. Washington are a start. Not a very confidence-inspiring start, but a start nonetheless. Expect the losses to pile up for the Hornets this season.

5th Place – Southeast Division

– David Yapkowitz

For the first season since 2011, the city of Charlotte will not have Kemba Walker suit up on opening night. It’s never easy losing a star player, but this one especially hurts. There’s a question of who will be the one to step up. What the question should be is who will be the *ones* to step up. You can’t replace somebody like that with one player. Terry Rozier can have a career season, and he’s bound too, yet it’ll still take a collective effort and strong performances all around to keep this group afloat. Miles Bridges will have to grow up fast. The same could be said of Dwayne Bacon, Malik Monk and even rookie forward P.J. Washington. The mental toughness of the Hornets will be tested this season and the near future. How James Borrego handles this type of adversity will be paramount to the team’s direction.

5th Place – Southeast Division

– Spencer Davies

It’s hard to understand what Charlotte’s goal was going into this offseason and what the long-term vision is at this point. First, if the Hornets were not going to offer Kemba Walker a max contract, then they should have traded him before he hit free agency. Charlotte hasn’t been anywhere close to contention in recent seasons and should have foreseen Walker moving on if the team was not going to offer a max contract. Second, in response to Walker opting to move on, the Hornets engaged in a sign-and-trade with the Boston Celtics, sending Walker and a 2020 second-rounder to in exchange for Terry Rozier on a new three-year, $56,700,000 contract. That is a lot of money for Rozier who is talented, but is unlikely to live up to this contract. Third, they let Jeremy Lamb go to the Indiana Pacers for what turned out to be a very reasonable contract (three-year, $31.5 million). Lastly, I’m just not a big fan of what the Hornets did in the draft. A few years down the road, it may turn out that P.J. Washington (12th), Cody Martin (36th) and Jalen McDaniels (52nd) were all good selections for Charlotte, but I am not counting on that. Its just difficult to see what the strategy is here for the Hornets and it’s hard to get past how big of a mistake it was to not trade Walker when he was still under contract for young talent and future assets.

5th Place – Southeast Division

– Jesse Blancarte

The Charlotte Hornets are a team poised for a re-build, although one could argue that if anyone on the roster steps up to an All-Star level things could get interesting in Charlotte. In fact, the Hornets are returning a lot of the same core that won 39 games last year. It’s clear there is no one on the roster of former Hornets star Kemba Walker’s stature, but if a combination of guys step up or have the expected internal growth, they could be better than most seem to be thinking. That said, the Hornets still look like a team more likely to lose 50 games than win 50, which will put them in the lottery and likely sellers of any meaningful veterans they have on the roster come the trade deadline in February.  James Borrego is a quality coach – it is just unfortunate that he’ll have to skipper another roster thats not likely to be playing for much at the end of the season.

5th Place – Southeast Division

– Steve Kyler

FROM THE CAP GUY

When Kemba Walker chose the Boston Celtics, the Hornets opted to facilitate a double sign-and-trade transaction landing Terry Rozier on a three-year $56.7 million contract. That move locked in a hard cap for Charlotte, limiting the team to $138.9 million in total salary. That shouldn’t be an issue, the team will likely enter the season with a payroll at roughly $125 million.

If needed, the Hornets still have $8.1 million of their Mid-Level Exception remaining (partially used on Cody Martin) and their full $3.6 million Bi-Annual Exception. But don’t expect the franchise to exceed the $132.6 million luxury tax threshold, let alone reach the hard cap.

Before November, Charlotte needs to decide on the team options for Malik Monk and Miles Bridges.

– Eric Pincus

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Nicolas Batum

As much as anything else, Batum’s status as Charlotte’s best offensive player is an indicator of just how lacking this roster is for talent compared to the rest of the NBA. He was always overstretched as the Hornets’ secondary scorer and playmaker under Steve Clifford, and indeed seemed more comfortable last season after first-year coach James Borrego shifted him down to small forward, allowing the veteran to play a more ancillary offensive role as he entered his thirties.

Batum bumped his true shooting percentage comfortably above league average for the first time in six years, sacrificing mid-range jumpers for threes and making a career-best 39.4 percent of his catch-and-shoot triples, per NBA.com. Both his usage percentage and amount of touches dipped considerably, while his share of assisted baskets ticked all the way up to 67.2 percent – far higher than in any of his previous four seasons with the Hornets.

As a jack of all trades and master of none, this is the role for which Batum has long been best suited. The problem is the value of dependent offensive players, especially one with natural court sense like Batum, correlates to the quality of their teammates, and no team in the league is in more dire need of a talent influx offensively than Charlotte.

Top Defensive Player: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist

Kidd-Gilchrist was another benefactor of Borrego embracing a more modern style of lineup construction last season. Finally playing the right position, power forward, he re-established himself as an ultra-versatile difference-maker defensively.

Kidd-Gilchrist led the Hornets in both defensive rating and net defensive rating, per NBA.com, evidenced by his ability to switch across four and sometimes five positions. He was Charlotte’s only player other than Cody Zeller with a defensive real plus-minus above 1.0, and held offensive players to a lower field goal percentage than expected from everywhere on the floor, too.

Dreams of the former No. 2 overall pick becoming a positive player on the other side of the ball are long gone, and a relative deficiency in short-area quickness has kept him from fulfilling expectations as a stopper of historic order. But Kidd-Gilchrist has natural defensive instincts and always competes, while his effectiveness holding up at power forward – occasionally even small-ball center, too – unlocks crucial flexibility for the Hornets they would otherwise lack.

Top Playmaker: Terry Rozier

Michael Jordan and Mitch Kupchak have placed a lot of faith in Kemba Walker’s replacement – too much, in fact, by almost any measure. It’s unclear who Charlotte was bidding against when it offered Rozier a three-year, $58 million deal in free agency, ultimately acquiring him from the Boston Celtics via sign-and-trade. But unless he shows far more capacity as a floor general with the Hornets than he ever did with the Boston Celtics, Rozier is poised to disappoint – and hamstring his new team’s arduous rebuilding efforts.

It’s unclear how Borrego will tweak an offense that last season used more ball screens than any team in the league but the LA Clippers, per NBA.com, but he’ll have to with Rozier in Walker’s place. Charlotte’s new franchise point guard is more accurately described as a ball-handler than playmaker. He lacks high-level passing vision, and doesn’t threaten the defense enough by attacking the rim or with his pull-up jumper to create the space needed to consistently compensate for that weakness.

The Hornets need a point guard who can make his teammates better if he can’t drive them to success by himself, and neither description fits Rozier based on his career to date. But he’s also the only guard on this roster with the physical tools and eroding potential to play either role should he suddenly take a major step forward.

“Offensively, I’ve got to get him more comfortable right now in our system,” Borrego said of Rozier, per Rick Bonnell of The Charlotte Observer. “He’s got a lot to prove — the first time he’s out there as a starting point guard.”

The viability of Charlotte’s offense won’t hinge on Rozier nearly as much as it did Walker, but unless he shows court sense and an ability to manipulate the defense that he’s yet to thus far in his career, the responsibilities he’ll be asked to shoulder will almost certainly prove too heavy regardless.

Top Clutch Player: Malik Monk

Monk has virtually no track record of crunch-time success in the NBA. He took 15 shots in those situations last season, making five of them, and was on the court for less than a third of Charlotte’s 158 minutes in the clutch, per NBA.com. Needless to say, thats not exactly the resumé of a player normally tasked with serving as his team’s alpha dog when it matters most.

But Monk could fit that bill this season anyway for the Hornets, who are otherwise bereft of the shot-making talent necessary to score under the pressure cooker of crunch time. Rozier, even considering the overblown hype of “Scary Terry” in the 2018 playoffs, isn’t a reliable enough off-dribble shooter. Batum just isn’t that type of player. Miles Bridges definitely isn’t ready to be Charlotte’s top offensive option when the game is on the line, and likely never will be.

That leaves Monk, whose blend of explosive athleticism, wiggle with the ball and flammable scoring skills has long prompted Lou Williams comparisons. The problem? Monk’s ability to drain difficult pull-up jumpers is mostly theoretical at this point, and he doesn’t navigate ball screens with enough knack and subtlety to crease the paint when defenses dare him to shoot. Just like the Hornets, he’s still very much still a work in progress – which is all the more reason why they should force-feed Monk touches in the clutch to help figure out how he fits in the organization’s big-picture plans.

The Unheralded Player: Cody Zeller

Death, taxes and Charlotte faring better when Zeller is on the floor. Ever since his rookie year in 2013-14, the Hornets have put up a positive net rating with Zeller in the lineup. Last season, the six-year veteran was the only player on his team to notch an on-court rating better than 1.0, per NBA.com.

Zeller’s influence comes in the margins. He racked up screen assists at a rate higher than any other player in the league, evidence of his speed running into picks and comfort flipping the angle and direction of screens at a moment’s notice. He’s adept in the dribble hand-off game, too, and creates several easy scoring opportunities per game for his teammates simply by sprinting the floor in transition and diving hard to the rim, sucking in defenders. Zeller’s short arms limit him as a rim-protector, but he’s almost always in the right position, using his instincts and quickness to routinely cover for teammates.

Unfortunately, a penchant for injury has prevented Zeller from staking his claim as one of basketball’s best role-playing bigs. He’s played a total 82 games over the past two seasons due to knee and hand injuries, and has appeared in more than 62 games just twice in his six-year career.

Best New Addition: P.J. Washington

Washington isn’t sexy.

He has good physical tools for a power forward, with impressive quickness and overall coordination, and possesses more than enough length and strength to play small-ball five. He shot 42.3 percent on over two three-point attempts per game at Kentucky last season, the most significant of across-the-board improvements made compared to his freshman campaign.

The rough outline of a productive NBA player is here. But unless Washington gleans a much better understanding of how to play when he’s not involved in the primary action on both sides of the ball, it seems likely his decided dearth of natural instincts will keep him from reaching his potential as a switch-proof big man with nascent three-point range who can put the ball on the floor in space.

Washington’s selection here, like most, says more bad things about the Hornets than it does good things about him. Charlotte punted on free agency other than Rozier, whose contract is one of the summer’s most head-scratching, and has no plans to change that approach going forward as it transitions to life without Walker.

“Free-agent signings, for us, are not something we need to concentrate on going forward. We’re not going to get the ‘Big Fish,’” Kupchak said, per The Observer. “We have to create a culture where those kinds of players would want to come here. And, quite frankly, we’re not there yet.”

– Jack Winter

WHO WE LIKE

1. Charlotte Finally Embracing The Future

Even during this organization’s most successful seasons under Clifford, there was a clear cap on just how high the Hornets could rise in the Eastern Conference. A team with Walker as its best player, as dynamic as he is on the floor and inspiring he is off it, was just never going anywhere meaningful. In that vein, moving on from the homegrown star made sense for the Hornets.

What didn’t, and is fully deserving of the widespread criticism it sparked, was Kupchak insisting Charlotte would do “everything” possible to re-sign Walker in free agency, only to extend him a a five-year, $160 million final offer that fell well below the max. Kupchak’s recent concession that the Hornets’ plans were complicated by Walker making Third Team All-NBA, thus qualifying for the super-max, doesn’t make the optics any better.

Regardless, staying the course was never the best plan for Charlotte, as difficult as the circumstances surrounding Walker’s departure were. There’s no telling where this team ultimately goes from here, and it will almost surely be a bottom-dweller in the standings this season. But the mere prospect of real contention going forward – way forward, to be clear – is a more hopeful position than the Hornets have been in since 2016.

2. Dwayne Bacon

Playing in Charlotte could cost Bacon a lot of money this summer. There aren’t many 6-foot-7 wings with workable athleticism, a plus wingspan, thick shoulders and fledgling three-point range who could remain relatively anonymous in league circles, especially just one season ahead of restricted free agency. But that reality applies to Bacon as 2019-20 approaches, and unless his development continues at the accelerated rate it did last season, could save the Hornets some cash next summer.

Bacon’s impact as a rookie in 2017-18 was almost impossible to distinguish. He’s not quite good enough defensively to be considered a true stopper, and isn’t disruptive enough on that end that his presence alone makes a positive difference. But coupled with an adjusted shot chart that prioritized the rim and the arc – where he shot 69.4 percent and 43.7 percent, respectively, last season – Bacon’s utility as a solid, versatile, scheme-sound defender takes on a whole new level of value.

One caveat: Bacon’s newfound prowess from deep came on just two tries per game, and he shot only 25.2 percent in the G-League last season, albeit on a much more aggressive diet of attempts than he’ll ever need in the NBA. He definitely isn’t the marksman his three-point shooting percentage from last season indicates, basically. But if Bacon proves himself a player who must be guarded beyond the arc in 2019-20, a substantial payday likely awaits, one that could cement him as a viable rotation player for years to come.

3. Devonte’ Graham

Every team needs a reserve guard who can competently run the offense, make the defense pay when given air space from beyond the arc and compete defensively. Graham, a second-round pick in last year’s draft, has the makings of not just fulfilling that archetype, but potentially overgrowing it.

No numbers from Graham’s rookie season suggest either possibility is imminent. He shot 34.3 percent overall and 28.1 percent from deep, and posted the worst on-court rating of any player on the roster othan than Bismack Biyombo. Equally discouraging? An average leaper with a still-developing floater game, Graham shot 37.5 percent on drives, per NBA.com – fifth-lowest in the league.

Ignore specific takeaways from those damning statistics for now. Graham has just enough size to be used in two point-guard lineups and plays with a natural sense of pace, effectively changing speeds to get where he wants to go. Most optimism about Graham, though, stems from his fearless nature at Las Vegas Summer League, where he took nearly nine threes per game – with many coming off the bounce – and hit them at a 38.5 percent clip.

Graham won’t ever be a star, and very likely nothing more than a spot starter. But the league could always use more tough, smart guards who will take and make tough shots to sop up minutes behind stars, a role it’s easy to imagine him eventually playing at a worthwhile level.

4. Miles Bridges

The Bridges hype, even to the understated extent it exists, seems a bit overblown. He has average length for his position, and he lacks the hip fluidity needed to consistently keep up with dynamic ball handlers or even elite off-ball shooters after switches. He won’t ever be anything approaching a primary option offensively, but his shot-put stroke doesn’t suggest he’ll ever be a knockdown three-point shooter, either.

Even if Bridges reaches a more modest appraisal of his ceiling, it seems pretty clear he’ll fall short of being an All-Star. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. But his jaw-dropping vertical oomph, rare aerial body control and passing-glance positional versatility has led some to believe he has legitimate star potential, and there was little to indicate as much during his rookie season save for so many highlight-reel finishes.

Still, the Hornets’ clearest path back to respectability involves Bridges establishing himself as a pillar of their rebuild – even if that means he’s ultimately more impact role player than secondary star.

– Jack Winter

STRENGTHS

Charlotte is finally playing the long game. The roster obviously isn’t where it needs to be in terms of overall talent, but the Hornets will at least employ a style this season that should position them well for rapid growth when the necessary pieces are in place.

That’s reflected in several aspects of Borrego’s overall philosophy: a preference for playing two ball handlers, his pointed decision to slide several players down a position and an offensive scheme that prioritizes space and quick-hitting ball movement. Though the Hornets aren’t the Moneyball Houston Rockets, the early takeaways of Borrego’s style indicate they’ll rely on modern offensive tenets now and going forward.

A more tangible immediate strength is Charlotte’s defensive flexibility. Kidd-Gilchrist, Marvin Williams, Batum, Bacon and Bridges can all guard three or more positions, and Borrego took semi-frequent advantage in 2018-19 by yanking all traditional bigs off the floor. Defense will be the source of the Hornets’ success this season far more often than offense; their enviable lineup and stylistic versatility should be the biggest reason why.

– Jack Winter

WEAKNESSES

Most teams have multiple players they have reason to feel confident in as lead ball handlers. Charlotte, depending on how you feel about Rozier, may not have any. More debilitating might be its shortage of players who can create unscripted offense for themselves and their teammates.

Bottom line: The Hornets have the worst collection of offensive talent in the league, and it’s not particularly close. Even if young players eventually scrape their realistic ceilings, they’ll still need to add multiple prospects with high-level offensive upside to be playoff-caliber on that side of the ball in the future.

– Jack Winter

THE BURNING QUESTION

Is there a surefire long-term building block on this roster?

In an illuminating interview with The Observer that finally ended their silence in the wake of Walker’s departure, Kupchack and Borrego full-throatedly endorsed a youth movement. Stalwart veterans like Batum and Williams will have their playing time cut to make room for younger players; even Kidd-Gilchrist, just 25, will likely fall prey to that stark shift in organizational priorities.

An unabashed rebuild has been long-awaited in Charlotte. The issue is that it’s unclear which of these incumbents will be able to show enough to have seen it through to the finish.

Even believers in Rozier know he won’t top out as anything more than a league-average starter. Monk’s high-outcome destiny as a microwave scorer is tantalizing, but accompanied by inherent questions of roster fit and cap resources. Bridges projects as an elite role player at best, and so does Washington.

The Hornets have ample time to find the star power they need to ultimately contend. Kupchak will be picking near the top of the lottery for the foreseeable future, and the seemingly imminent firesale of veterans midseason – in February 2020 or 2021 – will further stock Charlotte’s stable of draft assets. But holdovers from the Walker era aren’t good enough by themselves to foster a healthy environment of growth, and top-five picks won’t serve as that immediate panacea, either.

As the Hornets lose game after game, many by double digits, how are Rozier, Monk, Bridges and Washington supposed to make an inarguable case as cogs of this franchise’s long-term prospects? The more damning question for Charlotte’s future is whether or not they’d even be able to under more stable and rewarding circumstances.

– Jack Winter

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NBA Daily: The Return – 6 Situations – Pacific Division

David Yapkowitz continues Basketball Insiders’ “6 Situations” series by examining the most timely and pressing issues in the Pacific Division.

David Yapkowitz

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In less than a month, the NBA is set to resume the 2019-20 season in Orlando, Florida. And, in just a few short days, teams are set to report for an abbreviated training camp. With that in mind, we started a new series here at Basketball Insiders.

With basketball seemingly at our doorstep, we’re taking a look at some of the more pressing issues each team are set to face as they either make the trek down to Florida or wait at home for an abbreviated offseason. We’ve already covered the Atlantic, Central, Northwest and Southwest divisions and, today, we’ll go over the Pacific.

The Golden State Warriors are the lone team that isn’t set to take the trip to Orlando. That said, they have plenty on their plate, as do the Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, Sacramento Kings and Phoenix Suns. Let’s get into it.

Golden State’s Draft Decisions and Andrew Wiggins Future

If the season does in fact resume without any COVID-19 interruptions, the 2019-20 playoffs are going to feel different without the Warriors. The team that has represented the Western Conference in the past five NBA Finals was dealt a major blow with injuries to both Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. They spent much of the season trotting out young players and funky lineups, winding up in a good position to take home the No. 1 overall pick for their trouble.

Of course, what to do with that potential pick is the issue they must address. Both Curry and Thompson are expected to return to the court next season and the two of them, paired with a motivated Draymond Green, should find themselves in the midst of postseason contention. So, do the Warriors draft a player who they’ll potentially have to wait on to develop, or do they trade the pick, perhaps a veteran that could contribute right away?

The incoming rookie class is looking relatively top-heavy draft, with the potential to nab a possible star with a pick in the top five. Make the right pick, and Golden State could set themselves up for seasons to come. And, considering the franchise’s success with the draft (Curry, Thompson and Green were all drafted by the team), it’s easy to envision them making the right pick. That said, would they sacrifice that long-term success for a more immediate impact?

Meanwhile, Andrew Wiggins is another matter the Warriors may have to address. In somewhat of a shocking move, the Warriors traded away D’Angelo Russell after only half a season and got Wiggins in return. Wiggins is a talented player, albeit one that hasn’t exactly lived up to expectations as a former top pick and has seen continued criticisms of consistency.

That said, Wiggins is perhaps one of the keys that could accelerate the Warriors’ path back to contention. He’s a talented scorer and should prove a better fit with the team than Russell had and, with Curry and Thompson set to shoulder the offense, they won’t need him to do too much to return to prominence. But, his contract could become cumbersome — how long are the Warriors going to pay Wiggins’ salary for production that may prove no better than Harrison Barnes’ during his time with the team?

Kelly Oubre’s Future in Phoenix

When the Suns make the trip to Florida this month, they’ll be without one of their key players in Kelly Oubre Jr. Oubre, who went down with a torn right meniscus just before the NBA’s pause in March, will spend his time at home, recovering from said injury.

The 2020-21 season is going to be a big one for him, however.

Set for the final year of his contract and based on his play, Oubre would appear to be in line for a nice payday. Prior to the injury, Oubre was in the midst of a career year: 18.7 points per game, 45.2 percent shooting from the field and 35.2 percent shooting from the three-point line. It would seem to be a no-brainer to keep Oubre, who is only 24, as part of this young core.

The only thing that may complicate that a bit is the emergence of Mikal Bridges. In his second year in the NBA, Bridges impressed as he moved into the starting lineup and is poised to take advantage of Oubre’s absence from Orlando. And, next summer, just as Oubre is set to hit the market, Bridges will be eligible for an extension.

With Bridges in line for a rise, would Phoenix also pay Oubre to play much of the same role? The team re-signed him last summer to just a two-year deal, rather than something more long term and, next summer, they could risk losing him if they offer significantly less than some other teams are willing to pay.

Sacramento’s Push Forward

The Kings have been synonymous with futility for nearly a decade — lottery finish after lottery finish and they have almost nothing to show for it. They’ve been hampered by poor decision roster management. Their decision to draft Marvin Bagley III over say Luka Doncic is still up in the air, although many would tell you that it was a horrible choice.

What the team and fans can, and should, take to comfort however is that they are one of the teams being selected for the Orlando restart. When the NBA season was put on temporary hiatus, they were only a mere 3.5 games out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the West. They have a potential franchise cornerstone in De’Aaron Fox. They must do everything in their power to ensure that he stays a King. They ran DeMarcus Cousins out of town, they cannot afford to do that with Fox.

Whatever happens in Orlando, they need to continue their push forward, to maintain an upward trajectory. If they lose Fox, they may never recover as a franchise. They need to ensure that the franchise has nowhere to go but up, or they may risk losing the team to somewhere else entirely.

Lakers Championship Window and Anthony Davis Free Agency

When the Lakers signed LeBron James two years ago, there was little question that they were looking to get back on track as a championship contender. After a few years of lottery-bound teams and high draft picks, they managed to package those assets and bring in Anthony Davis to pair alongside James last offseason.

And, while James has shown no signs of slowing down, at 35 years old and with two more years left on his current contract, there are questions as to how open the Lakers’ potential championship window is. Had this season been scrapped altogether, that would’ve been another year lost for the Lakers and James.

What complicates matters further is the fact that Davis is set to hit free agency this offseason. When he arrived in Los Angeles, he was adamant about his decision not to sign a contract extension and allow himself to become a free agent. From a purely financial standpoint, it makes sense for him to do so — he can re-sign with the Lakers and earn even more money in the long term. But, if the Lakers fail to take home the title, could Davis turn into a potential flight risk?

Logic would say no, as the teams that stand to court Davis can’t offer nearly as much as the Lakers. But, if Davis doesn’t believe the roster can support him and his championship aspirations in the long term, anything is possible.

It may be unlikely, extremely so, even. But stranger things have happened, and it’s certainly worth keeping an eye on.

Clippers Championship Window

Who would’ve thought we’d ever say this, but the most pressing issue facing the Clippers is the exact same one as their across the hallway rivals, how big is their potential championship window? Injuries have been a bit of a concern for the Clippers this season, with both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George missing time for various reasons. Both have dealt with major injuries in the past and the “load management” the two may require going forward should be at least mildly concerning.

They also face the same scenario as the Lakers in that, were the season to be scrapped, 2020 would be another year down the drain, a year of health (something that is never a given in the NBA) wasted. And, aside from the injury possibility, both Leonard and George can enter free agency next offseason.

Both players have options on their contract, so the Clippers would probably like to take advantage of this restart and push for a title as quickly as possible. If they fail to win either this season or next, then the possibility of Leonard and George reevaluating their options could become a likely scenario.

If for some reason, the NBA is forced to scrap their plans for the season resumption, each of these teams will be affected. Perhaps none more than the Clippers and Lakers who, due to roster makeup, have to push for a title run as soon as possible.

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NBA Daily: The Return – 6 Situations – Atlantic Division

Drew Maresca continues Basketball Insiders’ “6 Situations” series by examining the most timely and pressing issues in the Atlantic Division.

Drew Maresca

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The NBA’s return grows nearer, but new doubts bubble up each day thanks numerous players testing positive for COVID-19 tests and surging virus numbers in numerous states — including Florida, where games will be hosted. Regardless as to whether or not we all agree with its return, we are fewer than 30 days away from NBA basketball. With that in mind, we at Basketball Insiders are going through each division and identifying “6 Situations” we feel are worth keeping an eye on. We’ve wrapped up work on the Northwest, Southwest and Central. Today, we get to the Atlantic Division.

The Atlantic Division is unique in that it’s the only division with four teams currently seeded in the NBA Playoffs (and one of three divisions with four teams returning for the final eight games). Still, many of the Atlantic Division’s major plotlines are rooted in the future and not the remaining eight games or the playoffs. There’s a lot of questions surrounding roster composition, coaching staffs and draft picks. So without further adieu, let’s explore the most compelling situations the Atlantic Division has to offer.

Knicks face another pressure-filled draft

The Knicks really, really need to make the right pick in the 2020 NBA Draft. They don’t necessarily need to win the draft lottery, but they must add another cornerstone player. They missed out on the opportunity to land a guaranteed star last year when they fell to the third overall pick in 2019 despite owning the worst record in the entire league — and that draft featured really only two sure things. They had almost as bad luck in 2018, when they won only 29 games (in 2017-18) and finished with only the ninth-worst record in a relatively star-studded draft. And so on and so forth.

But it’s not as if the Knicks are starting from scratch. There’s Mitchell Robinson, the 36th pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, who has exceeded any and all expectations set for him. There’s also RJ Barrett, who looks the part of at least a legitimate NBA starter – and maybe even, dare I say, a star. But that’s about all they can count on. Frank Ntilikina, Kevin Knox and Dennis Smith Jr. are promising, but possess red flags that hurt their standings with New York and their trade value around the league.

Much of the Knicks’ 2020 draft will be luck. They have the sixth-worst record in the league, so they possess only a 9% chance of winning the lottery and a 27.6% chance of landing a top-three pick. As much as “best player available” is an overused cliché (to the extent that it actually describes a bad strategy almost as often as it’s good), the Knicks should adhere to it. After all, they have so many needs and there’s really only one guy they’d prefer over everyone else (LaMelo Ball). Assuming they aren’t lucky enough to draft him, there’s still Killian Hayes, Deni Avdija, Isaac Okoro and Obi Toppin — of whom plug into the Knicks lineup nicely. Even James Wiseman or Anthony Edwards would be nice additions, although their fit is redundant with Robinson and Barrett already in two, respectively.

Long story short, there are lots of options for the Knicks. New York must: A) not slide down in the lottery, which is out of their hands; and B) avoid making a bad selection. Ultimately, a number of teams will consider trading away lottery picks, and the Knicks have a number of other first-round picks they can pair with their 2020 pick to move up. There are lots of options they can consider. They just can’t mess this one up.

While the draft is only partially in their control, the Knicks must also select the right coach

The Knicks have had five head coaches since Phil Jackson hired Derek Fisher in 2014, and they’ve had three team presidents. New team president Leon Rose appears to be fully invested in this coaching search though, lining up a number of interviews with some candidates, some of whom could also be auditioning for assistant roles. There are presently at least eight candidates, but there are clear front runners — and then ones who should remove themselves from consideration fairly quickly. The Knicks should almost certainly avoid chasing gimmicky candidates in hopes of them attracting additional talent — Jason Kidd is a good example. Luring Giannis Antetokounmpo sounds great, but the Knicks have been burned chasing star free agents before — and it’s definitely not a reason to hire a head coach. Another candidate the Knicks should probably avoid is Mike Woodson. Woodson is a brilliant defensive strategist, but he’s already led the Knicks. Granted, he led them farther than any other head coach since Jeff Van Gundy; but the Knicks need a coach to come in and motivate and teach their young roster — and while Woodson is seen as being player-friendly, he’s not thought of as a developer of talent.

Kenny Atkinson should get a long look. He was an assistant coach with the Knicks from 2008-2012, and he’s familiar with the pressure that goes along with being a head coach in New York (Brooklyn). More importantly, Atkinson is thought to be excellent at player development, which bodes well for his candidacy. Tom Thibodeau is another candidate thought under serious consideration. His relationship with Rose, his former agent, should make for a warmer interview.  The young Knicks are probably not entirely ready for Thibodeau’s intensity, but he would improve team defense, (probably) mold Frank Ntilikina into a DPOY candidate and bring unparalleled professionalism to the locker room.

There are other candidates who deserve a fair look, too – including interim coach Mike Miller, Mike Brown, Ime Udoka, Jamahl Mosley and Becky Hammon. There are almost too many candidates, but that’s a good problem to have. Now, all the Knicks have to do is pick correctly.

Can Jacque Vaughn solidify his future in Brooklyn?

The Nets were riding incredibly high this time last year (although we all were, relatively speaking). Now, not so much.

The Nets will return to action as the 7th seed in the Eastern Conference. There was essentially no chance of them leapfrogging Philadelphia, but they’re only a half-game up on Orlando. As much as we in the media built up the idea that Kevin Durant might return, that was always a very long shot. Even Kyrie Irving was unlikely to return given that he underwent shoulder surgery in early March. But still, Brooklyn’s young core could benefit from the opportunity to jell under coach Jacque Vaughn.

But much of what Brooklyn (and Vaughn) hoped to accomplish was predicated on the notion that the team was able to learn its recently appointed interim coach (and vice versa). Instead, they learned about Spencer Dinwiddie’s positive COVID-19 test, which will likely result in him missing the NBA’s return. Their (relatively) newly-appointed starting center DeAndre Jordan also announced that he was diagnosed with COVID-19 and that he’ll sit out the remaining games. They also received the unwelcome news that Wilson Chandler was opting out of the remainder of the season. Oh, and rookie Nic Claxton will also miss the rest of the year due to shoulder surgery. So can Coach Vaughn still make a case to return as the Nets head coach next season?

Ultimately, the Nets were never going to advance without Durant and Irving. Will it be even harder for Vaughn to prove his worth now? Maybe. Without Irving and Durant, the Nets were never going to advance beyond the first round, regardless of if they draw the Toronto Raptors or the Milwaukee Bucks. But the Nets front office, led by general manager Sean Marks, has been particularly adept at reading between the lines. They traded for D’Angelo Russell when his value was at its lowest, drafted Jarrett Allen and Caris LeVert and picked coach Kenny Atkinson. While it’s unclear if Vaughn is the best man for the job, he’ll certainly get an opportunity to make his case for it.

Will the 76ers’ “Process” come to fruition?

After taking the eventual 2019 NBA Champions to the last second of regulation in a game seven, the Philadelphia 76ers were identified as one of a select few teams to compete for the Eastern Conference crown. After a strong start that was solidified with an exclamation point in a Christmas Day win over the Milwaukee Bucks, they lost their way — going 16-16 after the holiday.

Their struggles resulted in (or from) injuries to their two best players — Ben Simons and Joel Embiid, who missed 11 and 21 games, respectively. It got so bad that rumors surfaced about the 76ers potentially moving one or the other as soon as this offseason.

But the play stoppage may result in some positives for Philadelphia. Both Simmons and Embiid had time to heal from their ailments. And while they are in the unfortunate position of being tied with the Indiana Pacers for the fifth seed, with Indiana holding the tiebreaker. Fortunately, Philadelphia has a pretty easy schedule with games against San Antonio, Washington, Orlando, Portland and Phoenix. They also play Indiana on Aug. 1. So the 76ers control their own destiny, at least as far as securing the fifth seed.

Unfortunately, their consolation prize would be a first-round matchup against Miami. While that’s a tall task for any team outside of the greater-LA area, Philadelphia needs to demonstrate progress. Organizationally, they’ve invested a lot of time in this rebuild. They’d like to see progress. In fact, the fate of this iteration of the 76ers might depend on at least advancing beyond the first round. If they don’t, Embiid and/or Simmons, coach Brett Brown and general manager Elton Brand could all be elsewhere as of next season.

Does a deep run mandate that the Raptors bring back their core, again?

The Raptors have been the biggest thorn in the side of this writer – pretty much all season. I saw a golden opportunity for them to rebuild on the fly. Masai Ujiri knew better. He brought back most of the 2018-19 lineup and, sure enough, Toronto is entering the final eight games as the second seed in the Eastern Conference.

That alone is far from a major victory, especially for the defending champions. Expectations traditionally remain high after winning. Even with Kawhi Leonard leaving town, the Raptors were clearly confident they could make a run. Further, there is the financial side of the business that probably factored in – remember, playoff games bring in significantly more revenue than the regular season. While that is in question now with games being hosted exclusively in Disney World, no one could have predicted the arrival of a pandemic when decisions were being made in the summer of 2019. And next year’s finances will present complications, too. Will the Raptors agree to continue spending without the guarantee of revenue? You can bet that the Knicks and Lakers will. Beyond them, nothing is certain in terms of spending.

But regardless if you believe in the direction taken by the Raptors for 2019-20 or not, they’ve out-performed expectations. If they fail to advance past even the Eastern Conference semifinals, there’s a strong case to be made for a quick rebuild. But if they advance the to the Conference Finals or beyond, can Ujiri convince ownership to get on board with dismantling a team that would have played in at least two straight conference finals and secured its first NBA Championship? In total, the team is only on the hook for about $85 million next year, but Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol will all enter unrestricted free agency. The Raptors will have to open up their wallets to retain even two out of those three, which would be a necessity if they hope to compete again next season — and that could make their 2020-21 salary untenable.

Another interesting aspect – will Ujiri even return? Rumors circulated – as they always do when New York is involved – that the Knicks were preparing Ujiri a monster offer.  But they’ve since moved forward with new team president, Leon Rose. However, there are other high-profile teams that could use his help. Our very own Matt John wrote about a few in his The Hot Seat – Eastern Conference this past March. Philadelphia would be a great fit given how much talent they’re sitting on and their (likely) desire to improve if they don’t at least qualify for the conference finals. The Chicago Bulls are another team that could entice Ujiri to jump ship. Regardless, Toronto faces tough decisions following the 2020 NBA Playoffs.

Boston’s present looks great. But what’s next?

Like Toronto, the Boston Celtics are looking down the barrel at some interesting salary cap implications. Boston’s roster looks well-structured considering its relative youth and versatility. But the challenge lies in its future — can Boston add to its core to the extent that it builds a serious contender?

As mentioned above, freeing up the cap space needed to sign another star will be made more complicated by the restrictions that a smaller cap will introduce. Gordon Hayward has a $34 million player option for 2020-21. Prior to the monumental financial challenges presented by COVID-19, this writer expected him to opt-out and sign a long-term deal. But the salary cap will take a significant hit, and the days of teams handing out $30 million per year are probably over for now, at least for players who aren’t major difference makers. So, expect to see Hayward on Boston’s roster next season, as well as on their payroll. Ultimately, the Celtics will have approximately $100 million in guaranteed salary next season, which includes Enes Kanter’s player option and Tatum’s $9.89 cap hit, but not counting any other team options like Daniel Theis ($5 million), Robert Williams ($2 million) or Semi Ojeleye ($1.75 million).

Looking past next season, Tatum will almost certainly sign a long-term extension (this offseason, but his 2020-21 cap hit will be unaffected)  that cannibalizes much of Boston’s future cap space. There’s also the new CBA, which will be hurt by COVID-19, and the NBA and Daryl Morey’s dust-up with China, which originated last summer, to factor in.

So that leads us to an interesting question: Are the Celtics good enough to win a championship as is? If they decide the answer is no,  they’ll be severely restricted in what moved they can make. Long-term implications are difficult to anticipate; but in the short-term, Ainge and the Celtics should look to add veterans willing to sign lucrative, short-term deals, looking to chase championships. Players like Danilo Gallinari – although many in the know believe Gallinari will sign with Miami – or Derrick Favors would be good additions to the already talented Celtics. They’d add much-needed talent and (hopefully) accept slightly smaller roles for the opportunity to contend. And getting Tatum, Kemba Walker and Jaylen Brown to help with recruiting would go a long way.

Like all divisions, the Atlantic Division’s teams possess their share of issues to sort out. No Atlantic Division team is poised to win now, but many are on the right track. If these six situations are handled correctly, all five teams will be in better places in the near future.

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NBA Daily: The Return – 6 Situations – Central Division

Matt John continues Basketball Insiders’ “6 Situations” series by taking a look at issues that teams in the Central Division will have to confront in the near future.

Matt John

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Welcome back to another installment of Basketball Insiders’ “6 Situations.” We’ve dug into the Northwest Division and the Southwest Division, and today we’re going to dig into the Central Division.

Bringing up situations for the Central Division feels a little more suitable, seeing how three of the eight teams that were left out of the 22-team bubble are from that group of five. 60 percent of the division’s season is already over and looking towards what next year’s plans are. However, that doesn’t mean those in this division whose seasons will continue next month don’t have pressing issues that need to and will be addressed soon enough.

Let’s take a look.

Milwaukee Bucks – Can they convince Giannis Antetokounmpo to stick around?

That’s right, Bucks fans. You’ve probably heard it about a thousand times by now, and you’ll probably hear it a million times more between now and next summer. Giannis’ next deal will be on everyone’s mind for the next year. The Bucks can dominate the regular season all they want. If that dominance doesn’t translate into any substantial postseason success, then that could be all the motive for Giannis to jump ship.

Giannis has pledged his loyalty to Milwaukee on numerous occasions, and the Bucks have built a team that fits around him like a glove. Yet, there still seems to be this stigma that’s making everyone uneasy when talking about his long-term status with the team. Oddly enough, this unease hasn’t stemmed from anything Giannis has done, but from what some of his compatriots have done over the past decade.

LeBron James set the standard for superstar players choosing to leave their original upper-tier teams for greener pastures, and since then, we’ve seen the same happen over and over again with players who followed in his footsteps. Kevin Durant did it. Kawhi Leonard did it. LeBron’s done it twice more since “The Decision.” No matter what Giannis says or how the Bucks fare, no one knows how this will play out until the Greek Freak signs his name on the dotted line.

Of course, if the Bucks win the championship this year or next — which as we all know is definitely in the cards — then all of these concerns most likely will be put to bed easily, but we’ll have to see it first. It won’t be long now before we see if the Bucks can do enough to keep the best player the franchise has had since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Indiana Pacers – How will they approach the Victor Oladipo contract situation?

This is a potential issue that needs to be brought up more than it has been. Oladipo has been the symbol of the Pacers’ new era of basketball — bedazzling the masses, grinding out the games, and above all else, exceeding everyone’s wildest expectations. Unfortunately, the uncertainty of whether he can be the same player he was before his knee balked may put him at odds with the Pacers when they discuss his next extension.

The ‘Dipo we got from 2017-18 would definitely be worth every penny of a max extension, but the Pacers had that guy for only one season. No one knows if that version of Victor Oladipo will resurface. The playoff bubble will be a golden opportunity for him to show that he can still be that guy, and even if he’s not, he’s got another season to do the same. Come to think of it, there may not have been an individual player who benefited more from this time off than Oladipo did now that he had even more time to rest and rehab his knee.

Oladipo definitely showed some encouraging signs before the season halted, but what if he doesn’t get back to that level? Do the Pacers give him a max extension on good faith and/or sentiment? Teams have done that, and some came to regret it. It’s worth mentioning that it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if Oladipo gets back to full health, but is not quite able to get back to where he was. He was an above-average player before his surprise ascension in Indiana. There’s nothing wrong with having a guy like that locked up long-term…at a modest price.

Knowing his story, no one in the world should be rooting against Oladipo rediscovering his old form. We do have to ponder what his and the Pacers’ options are if he doesn’t.

Indiana Pacers – Will they end the Domantas Sabonis/Myles Turner pairing once and for all?

All signs certainly point to yes. The two of them have gotten better as a pairing — together they have a plus-2.1 net rating which is a step up from the past — but that may have to do with Sabonis continuing to stake his claim as one of the league’s best young bigs while Turner has stayed the same, give or take. They still aren’t a great duo, and they probably never will be.

So the next move would be to trade one of them, with the odd man out indisputably being Turner. Sabonis has morphed into an All-Star this year while Turner’s progress continues to stagnate. At the same time, it’s a nice privilege to have two young bigs who, even if they don’t play well together, can alter the course of the game with their individual skill sets.

In all honesty, they don’t have to trade either of them if they don’t feel a pressing need to. They have both locked up on reasonable contracts. Neither has expressed any issues playing with one another. They would have to figure who would be better for which matchup, but that’s not the hardest task. Until someone wants out, Indiana can ride this out with the duo intact.

Odds are, Turner probably will get traded in the near future, but it’s not like the Pacers will be beyond desperate to get rid of him.

Chicago Bulls – Is Jim Boylen the next man to go?

Again, the obvious answer should be yes. This season alone, Boylen’s created quite a track record for baffling decisions that have led to a disconnect in the locker room, bizarre choices at the end of games, and of course, another season ending with a sub-.500 record. The only difference between this season and last is that there was quite a bit of optimism coming into this season.

A coach who’s done what Boylen has would usually get the first ticket out of Chicago once the season has concluded. Even with his job security remaining a hot topic for a good chunk of the season, he is still employed as the head coach of the Chicago Bulls, puzzling pretty much everyone in the NBA outside of Bulls’ ownership.

Chicago has already made some shake-ups in their front office by replacing Gar Forman and John Paxson with Arturas Karnisovas and Marc Eversley. To some degree, this is tough for the Bulls seeing how they extended Boylen after last season, but this is about team progress more than anything. If the Bulls think Boylen is the man for the job despite all the evidence pointing to the contrary, well then that’s their choice.

It just seems like, at this point, they’re being obstinate for the sake of being obstinate.

Cleveland Cavaliers – What direction exactly are they going in?

The Cavaliers were bad this year in general, but strangely enough, there were some signs of encouraging play both early on and at the end. They actually started the season okay — going 4-5 in their first nine games — before the whole John Beilein saga commenced (#SlugLife). Then, following Beilein’s resignation, the team actually started picking it up a bit before their season prematurely ended. Even if they wound up with the worst record in the Eastern Conference — 19-46 — they won half of their last 12 games.

Their outlook for the future is kind of difficult to see. They have a promising arsenal of young talent — Collin Sexton, Darius Garland, Kevin Porter Jr. — and they also have a fair amount of veterans on the team in Kevin Love, Andre Drummond and Tristan Thompson that makes their roster pretty confusing. Love’s been on the trade market since pretty much the start of last season, yet is still on the team. Then, when the team’s already way out of playoff contention, they go out and get Andre Drummond because… well, why not get Andre Drummond? Especially at the price Cleveland paid?

Now, they are in discussions to extend Drummond and Tristan Thompson’s free agency is coming up. They also have a potentially high lottery pick coming their way. The results J.B. Bickerstaff got as the coach were promising, albeit too short to draw conclusions. So, what exactly is the plan going on in “The Land?” Their roster is full of guys who are on different timelines right now. Are they going to commit to the youth movement, or are they going to cash in to acquire a star or two? Because there are definitely going to be some available this summer.

Even though the Cavaliers have been pretty bad since LeBron’s second departure, since they’ve kept a good chunk of their veterans, they haven’t embraced a rebuild. Perhaps they’re preparing to make a big splash, or maybe they are delaying the inevitable. No matter what, they could be an interesting player in what’s going to be a pretty boring offseason.

Detroit Pistons – What do they do with Blake Griffin?

You know, Detroit definitely has one of, if not the bleakest outlook in the league right now. They only have three players on the roster that have the potential to be more than they are right now: Christian Wood, who they lucked into; Luke Kennard, who they tried to trade(?!); and Sekou Doumbouya, who is largely raw and not much else. Other than that, they have mostly roster filler and veterans whose services would be better used elsewhere in Derrick Rose, Tony Snell and Langston Galloway. They paid the price for waiting too long to trade Andre Drummond, and now, they might be stuck with Blake Griffin for the duration of his max contract.

Getting a nice shiny lottery pick will probably help things a bit, but whether prime Blake is coming back or not, he really does not have a place on this roster anymore (not that he really had one before?), and that might be the exact problem in Motown. With all the surgeries accumulating, it’s tough to foresee if we’re going to get the same Blake that we’re used to seeing. Granted, prime athletic Blake will never be back, but the one that accommodated his game because of said lost athletic ability may not be there, either.

If, by some miracle, Blake shows enough to draw interest, Detroit should take the first offer it gets because this team is definitely headed for a rebuild and has absolutely no use for the former MVP candidate. The chances of that happening are not good in the slightest. Blake’s injuries continue to pile up, and that contract is pretty expensive to take on. It would have been easier to take on before Coronavirus got in the way, but that’s like saying a turtle will race better than a snail.

It’s a shame that a great player like Blake Griffin may have to spend the remainder of his prime — if his prime is still here — on a team that has no use for him, but that’s life in the NBA.

Unlike our previous installments, these situations are going to be looked into much sooner than later. Much like our previous installments, none of them have straightforward solutions.

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