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State of the Lakers: Where To Go From Here?

The Lakers are suffering through their worst season in franchise history. Where should they go from here?

Jesse Blancarte

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Many fans and NBA analysts predicted this would be another down year for the Los Angeles Lakers. The team hired a new head coach in Byron Scott, Kobe Bryant was returning from a torn Achilles tendon, Steve Nash was recovering from debilitating leg and back injuries, Pau Gasol left to play with the Chicago Bulls and the rest of the roster lacked overall talent.

Unfortunately, this season has gone even worse than many of those fans and analysts predicted. Nash re-aggravated his back injury while carrying some bags, which would sideline him for the entire season. Heralded rookie Julius Randle broke his leg in the Lakers’ season opener against the Houston Rockets and has been rehabbing all season. Bryant played heavy minutes early in the season and eventually tore his rotator cuff in January, which ended his season prematurely. Because of the shallow roster and bad luck with injuries, this has turned out to be the worst season in the franchise’s proud history.

The Lakers currently have the fourth-worst record in the league, and as a result have an 82.8 percent chance of retaining their top-five protected 2015 first-round pick. If the Lakers end up falling outside of the top-five, their pick will be transferred to the Philadelphia 76ers, who acquired the rights to the pick in a deal with the Phoenix Suns at this year’s trade deadline.

So who will Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak and executive vice president of basketball operations Jim Buss target with their potential top-five pick?

Many analysts believe that the first pick in the draft will either by Jahlil Okafor of Duke or Karl-Anthony Towns of Kentucky. Either player would provide the Lakers with a talented big man to put next to Julius Randle in the front-court next season. However, if Okafor or Towns is not available when it is the Lakers turn to pick, they can look to draft a guard to put next to rising rookie Jordan Clarkson, such as D’Angelo Russell from Ohio State or Emmanuel Mudiay, who played for the Guangdong Southern Tigers of the Chinese Basketball Association. Any of these four players would be a great addition for Los Angeles and would be a significant step in rebuilding the team.

The Lakers will have another first-round pick in the upcoming draft, which they acquired from the Houston Rockets in the deal that landed Jeremy Lin in Los Angeles. This pick will likely end up being one of the last picks in the first-round, but with some luck, the Lakers could end up with another solid player to help rebuild the roster around (especially when you consider that Clarkson was selected 46th overall in last year’s draft by the Washington Wizards and then acquired by the Lakers for cash considerations).

Taking care of the draft is the first order of business for the Lakers this upcoming offseason. The next matter to address is free agency.

The Lakers can potentially have as little as $35 million in guaranteed salary next season. However, the Lakers do have a team option on Jordan Hill for next season at $9 million, which they are reportedly leaning toward exercising. With Hill, the Lakers will have roughly $44 million in salary, which will leave them with around $23 million in cap space, assuming the cap is set around $67.4 million next season.

Ed Davis also has a player option to exercise the second year of his deal, which would pay him $1.1 million next season. However, Davis will likely not exercise that option and instead test free agency, where he is likely to land a significantly better deal than his current one with Los Angeles. Jordan Clarkson, Tarik Black and Jabari Brown each have non-guaranteed salary for next season at $845,059, while Robert Sacre has non-guaranteed salary set at $981,348. Considering their age, potential and affordable salary, it is likely that the Lakers bring Black and Sacre back, while it is a foregone certainty that Clarkson will be back.* With at least Clarkson, Black and Sacre back (though Sacre may be squeezed out based on what the Lakers do in the draft and in free agency), the Lakers will then have closer to $20.3 million in cap space.

*For a breakdown of each individual player and whether the Lakers should bring them back, check out this piece by our Jabari Davis.

Now that we know how much money the Lakers can potentially have to use in free agency this upcoming offseason, the next question is, who should they pursue? The Lakers as a franchise have always swung for the fences, unafraid of pursuing prime time free agents and making splashy deals for star players. Here is a list of some, but not all of the best players who will be free agents this upcoming offseason:

Marc Gasol (unrestricted)
LaMarcus Aldridge (unrestricted)
Paul Millsap (unrestricted)
DeAndre Jordan (unrestricted)
Greg Monroe (unrestricted)
Rajon Rondo (unrestricted)
Robin Lopez (unrestricted)
Wesley Matthews (unrestricted)
Omer Asik (unrestricted)
LeBron James (player option)
Kevin Love (player option)
Al Jefferson (player option)
Goran Dragic (player option)
Monta Ellis (player option)
Dwyane Wade (player option)
Jeff Green (player option)
Roy Hibbert (player option)
Brook Lopez (player option)
Kawhi Leonard (restricted)
Draymond Green (restricted)
Jimmy Butler (restricted)
Khris Middleton (restricted)
Brandon Knight (restricted)
Reggie Jackson (restricted)
Iman Shumpert (restricted)
Patrick Beverley (restricted)
Tristan Thompson (restricted)
K.J. McDaniels (restricted)
Enes Kanter (restricted)

The most attractive names on this list include players like LaMarcus Aldridge and Marc Gasol, both of whom are unrestricted free agents. The problem with guys like this is that they are most likely going to re-sign with their current teams. Then, there are players like Kevin Love, who could conceivably join a new team in free agency based on his current circumstances. But these players will have the option to opt into the last year of their current contract, which may be beneficial for them with the cap set to raise significantly in 2016 because of the NBA’s new TV deal. And gambling on restricted free agents is always risky, especially ones who are likely to be retained by their current teams at any price. Signing a restricted free agent to an offer sheet ties up that money for several days while the player’s original team considers whether to match the offer or not, which creates the possibility of missing out on other free agents.

So what strategy should the Lakers take? Like most things in life, it depends. If the Lakers are trying to maximize their final year with Bryant, then they should probably go after veterans that can help them immediately, irrespective of age. But does it make sense to commit serious, and perhaps long-term money to players just to cater to a star player in his final season? Kobe has certainly earned such consideration, but that course of action could hamper the Lakers’ ability to compete at a high level for years after Kobe is gone.

With this in mind, the Lakers should probably go after players that represent good value, rather than simply pursuing stars and big names. Specifically, the Lakers could go after someone like Wesley Matthews, who is currently recovering from a ruptured Achilles tendon. Yes, going after a shooting guard with a surgically repaired Achilles is risky, but Matthews is still just 28 years old, has only been in the NBA since 2009 and is one of the hardest workers in the league. He has established himself as one of the best three-point shooters in the league and the Portland Trail Blazers’ recent play without Matthews has shown us just how valuable of a contributor he is. The market may be lukewarm for him this upcoming offseason because of the injury, and the Lakers could potentially land him on a team-friendly deal to take over as the starting shooting guard moving forward (similar to how the Golden State Warriors locked Stephen Curry into a long-term, team-friendly deal because of his recurring ankle issues).

Or how about someone like Omer Asik? Rather than offering someone like DeAndre Jordan a max (or near-max) contract, why not try to lock up a gritty rim protector like Asik on a multi-year deal averaging around $7-8 million a season? Asik isn’t an exciting, above the rim player like Jordan, but he is still 28 years old, isn’t heavily reliant on his athleticism, has a proven track record of anchoring defenses, and plays within his role.

Of course, Matthews and Asik may not be the answers for the Lakers in free agency, but they are examples of realistic free agents that the Lakers arguably should target: players who could still have a lot of miles left and could be had for a reasonable price. But if the Lakers want to go after younger players, which isn’t a bad idea, they could go after someone like Khris Middleton of the Milwaukee Bucks.

Middleton has made a name for himself this season with impressive improvements on both sides of the ball. He doesn’t put up huge box score numbers, but he ranks well in some notable advanced metrics. For example, he is ranked eighth in the league in ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus metric (6.39). That, and he is only 23 years old. But again, the problem with young, valuable players like Middleton is that his current team, and the rest of the league, knows how good he is and is willing to pay big bucks for him. The Lakers could try to snag him away on a deal similar to the one the Dallas Mavericks gave Chandler Parsons, but the Bucks still may decide to match the deal and retain him regardless.

Whatever strategy the Lakers take in free agency this upcoming offseason, it should be rooted in concern for their long-term outlook. Giving a player like Rajon Rondo a near-max contract to make Kobe happy makes sense if the team is one veteran point guard away from making a legitimate run for a championship. But that’s not where this team is or is likely to be next season. And with Clarkson’s rapid development, it may be more beneficial for the Lakers to develop him, rather than spending a huge amount of money on a veteran point guard.

The free agent market is a fluid place where a lot of unexpected things can happen. If the market doesn’t shape up in a favorable way for the Lakers, they should probably hold on to a sizable portion of their cap space and carry it over to 2016, rather than overpaying an older player just to make a splashy acquisition. However, if someone as talented and young as Love becomes available, then yes, the Lakers should go after him (despite the questions about his game that have bubbled to the surface this season).

Beyond personnel moves, the Lakers, and specifically head coach Byron Scott, need to strongly consider revamping their offensive system.

Before the season started, Scott said the Lakers would limit their three-point attempts because they aren’t conducive to winning championships. However, a look into past championship teams shows that three-pointers are in fact a major component of past championship teams. In addition, the best offenses in the league this season come from teams that shoot extremely well from three-point range, including the Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Clippers and Atlanta Hawks. Also, the modern NBA has collectively moved toward motion-based offenses that include constant off-ball movement, spreading the court with three-point shooters, heavy doses of pick and roll, and limiting inefficient shots like mid-range jumpers. Yet, Scott and the Lakers seem to be going in the opposite direction, and the results speaks for themselves.

According to NBA.com, the Lakers attempt the second-most mid-range field goals per game in the league (29.3). Mid-range jumpers are statistically inefficient shots and really should only be taken in volume from exceptional mid-range shooters like Chris Paul. In addition, the Lakers attempt less than two three-point attempts from the corners, which is one of the most efficient shots there is. Consider that the only team that takes a higher number of mid-range jumpers per game than the Lakers, and almost no shots from the corners, is the woeful New York Knicks.

And as previously mentioned, the Lakers don’t move the ball particularly well either. The Lakers average the third-least amount of passes per game (273.2), are 20th in assists per game (20.9) and 27th in points earned off of assists per 48 minutes (46.6). Earlier this week, Zach Lowe of Grantland pointed out a great illustration of the sort of isolation plays the Lakers run, which feature little to no passing and almost zero off-ball movement. Lowe pointed out that Scott will oftentimes run a play out of the huddle to get Jordan Hill an isolation jump-shot from around 18 feet out. That is not kind of play that is featured in efficient offenses and is a shot that defenses try to force opposing teams to take.

There is potential to turn the offense around, however. Scott doesn’t need to adopt every popular offensive trend. During the preseason, Scott was running elements of the Triangle offense, which looked promising. However, that system was quickly abandoned at the beginning of the season. Rather than running the Triangle, Bryant started putting up a huge number of shots and the Lakers offense became stagnant and iso-reliant. The Triangle may not be as effective in the modern NBA as it used to, but Steve Kerr has proven with the Warriors this season that a team can successfully utilize elements of it with great results.

The defense also needs to be revamped, but that has a lot more to do with personnel than anything else. Adding players like Asik, Middleton or Matthews would go a long way toward addressing the defensive side of the ball. This year’s squad simply did not have the players to create a top-10, or even league average defense. Guys like Carlos Boozer and Jeremy Lin just aren’t great defensive players and there is only so much scheming a team can do to get around these sort of limitations. Scott preaches defense, and it’s up to the Lakers to acquire players that are willing to buy in and dedicate themselves to that side of the ball.

The Lakers currently have two young players who are clearly part of their future plans. Jordan Clarkson and Julius Randle both have the potential to be starters for the Lakers next season and both are on cost-controlled rookie contracts. Assuming the Lakers land a solid rookie with their first-round pick, they will have at least three players to constitute their young core, and can start plugging in pieces from there. But the Lakers need to avoid taking shortcuts in their re-building process. They should pass on pursuing past-their-prime stars and focus on younger impact players who can grow together on manageable contracts.

The Lakers are down, but shouldn’t be counted out. It may take a few seasons to really turn things around, but the opportunity to start building a sustainable, contending team will be present this upcoming offseason. A combination of smart acquisitions and internal growth are essential elements of that process, which is something that falls on the front office, coaches and players.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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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

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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