Five Key Offseason Questions

Five Key Offseason Questions: Toronto Raptors

The Raptors remain in the midst of their best multiyear stretch in franchise history. After never winning more than 47 games in a season during the first 18 years of their existence, the Raps have topped that total in each of the last four years, recording 50+ wins for the second time in 2016/17. After winning only one playoff series in the first 20 years of the team’s existence, Toronto notched three postseason series victories in the last two seasons.

Still, the Raptors’ 2016/17 season ended on a sour note. After acquiring Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker at the trade deadline in an effort to seriously threaten the Cavaliers in the East, Toronto was thoroughly outmatched in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, failing to win a single game against Cleveland. The resounding defeat created uncertainty about what the future looks like for the Raptors, particularly since key players like Ibaka, Tucker, and Kyle Lowry are unrestricted free agents this summer.

Here are five important questions facing the Raptors as they enter the offseason…

1. Can the Raptors afford to re-sign multiple key free agents?Kyle Lowry vertical

Before considering whether or not it makes on-court sense to re-sign several of their key free agents, the Raptors will need to determine exactly how far into tax territory ownership is willing to go to keep this roster intact. With about $77MM already in guaranteed salaries on the books for 2017/18, the club would likely need to commit another $60MM+ to re-sign Lowry ($30MM), Ibaka ($20MM), and Tucker ($10MM). And that’s assuming Patrick Patterson, another valuable rotation piece, doesn’t return, since team president Masai Ujiri has said it’s not realistic to bring back all four players.

Those salary figures are estimates, but I think they’re in the general ballpark, and they’d put the Raptors way over the projected $121MM tax line. Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, the company that owns the Raptors, has no shortage of money available, but it’s not like this is a championship roster that needs to be kept intact at any cost. Ownership will almost certainly draw the line somewhere — depending on where that line is drawn, it may not be realistic for the Raptors to re-sign certain free agents unless they move other contracts in trades.

2. Can the Raptors afford not to re-sign multiple key free agents?

After watching the Cavaliers’ decimation of the Raptors in this year’s playoffs, it’s easy to say Toronto should blow up its roster, focus on adding young talent, and work toward contending a few years from now, when LeBron James‘ peak is over. But that’s much easier said than done.

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Five Key Offseason Questions: Los Angeles Clippers

“What if” is a question we often ask in sports. What if the Blazers had drafted Michael Jordan? What if Amar’e Stoudemire and Boris Diaw had been available for Game 5 of the 2007 Western Conference Finals? What if the Wolves hadn’t passed on Stephen Curry (twice!)? What if the Lakers had officially acquired Chris Paul? One can easily wander down one of the many “what if” roads throughout NBA history.

The Paul-era Clippers represent another “what if” avenue. What if the club hadn’t been plagued with such bad injury luck? Would this team have a title? Would it be blasphemous to talk about breaking up the Clippers’ core when Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan remain very much in their primes? Perhaps we’re watching Griffin in awe, debating where he ranks among the all-time great big men in league history. Yet, as with all of the NBA’s “what if” quandaries, they simply are not reality.

The 2016/17 season provided another gruesome chapter in the Lob City era. Another injury to Griffin crushed any hope the club had of stealing a title from the Warriors or Cavs. The organization faces an inflection point this summer and it must determine whether or not its collection of talent can compete at the highest level.

Here are five questions facing the Clippers as they enter the offseason…

1. Can the Clippers re-sign Chris Paul?Chris Paul vertical

The Clippers have a massive advantage over rival teams when it comes to re-signing Paul. The CBA will allow the franchise to give Paul a five-year, max deal, something that wasn’t always available for players in his age bracket. In the previous CBA, players could not sign max contracts that ran past their 36th birthday. That threshold has been extended to 38, which gives the Los Angeles the ability give the 32-year-old a five-year, deal worth a projected $205MM+. The most any other team can offer is four years and an estimated $152MM.

While Paul may take meetings with other clubs, it’s unlikely he plays for any team besides the Clippers. Reports of a verbal agreement in place have been swirling since mid-season and a source told Mitch Lawrence of Forbes prior to the postseason that the deal is “all done, with a wink and a nod.”

Team president Doc Rivers‘ top priority this offseason will be bringing back the chronically underrated point guard. It appears that task is already in hand, which will allow the front office to determine the next steps this offseason.

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Five Key Offseason Questions: Utah Jazz

On the surface, the Utah Jazz seem poised to be a serious contender for years to come. They bounced back from an injury-riddled, 40-42 campaign in 2015/16 and finished 20 games over .500 this season. That 51-31 record was good enough for the No. 5 seed in the Western Conference.

They made some noise in the playoffs, defeating the more-heralded Los Angeles Clippers in a hotly-contested series that took the full seven games to decide. The Jazz stunned the Clippers at the Staples Center after losing Game 6 in Salt Lake City. There was no shame in getting swept by the much more talented Warriors in the conference semifinals.

Utah’s top players are either in or approaching their prime years. The problem is that as many as five key contributors could enter the free agent market this summer, including its franchise player. Within a couple of months, the Jazz could continue to build upon the momentum of a successful season or be faced with a major rebuild.

Here’s a look at the biggest questions confronting the club this offseason:

1. Will Gordon Hayward remain the face of the franchise or be lured away by another playoff team?
Gordon Hayward vertical

There’s little doubt that Hayward will sacrifice the $16.7MM salary he was scheduled to earn next season and opt out of the final year of his contract. What Hayward decides to do will have enormous implications on the franchise’s future.

Hayward’s value is at its peak after he set new career marks in PPG (21.9) and RPG (4.7) this year. It’s possible that Hayward could opt in and then sign a massive extension, which could eat up to 35% of the team’s cap if he is named to an All-NBA team, which will be unveiled Thursday.

The more likely scenario is that Hayward shops his services and tests the market, though by possessing his Bird rights the Jazz can pay him more than any potential suitor. The Jazz will have to max out Hayward, or come close to doing so, to have any hope of keeping him around. The Celtics certainly come to mind among contending teams that might view Hayward as the missing piece to a championship. Plenty of others will make a pitch for him should he decide to enter the market.

The Jazz would have little choice but to pay whatever is required to keep Hayward because without him, they immediately have the look of a lottery team.
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Five Key Offseason Questions: Oklahoma City Thunder

Russell Westbrook received an opportunity to be the clear leader of a team for the first time in his career this past season and he delivered one of the greatest statistical seasons in recent memory. He averaged a triple-double, something that hasn’t been done since Oscar Robinson accomplished the feat in 1962, and he’s likely to take home the MVP award as a result.

The Thunder remained a major story this season because of the milestone, but they were clearly not legitimate title contenders; Kevin Durant‘s departure removed them from that elite class. Westbrook was able to put up numbers post-Durant, but he was unable to elevate the team beyond the first round of the NBA playoffs. His season ended at the hands of the Rockets in a series that highlighted team play over individualism.

Here are five questions facing the Thunder as they enter the offseason…

1. How will the front office upgrade the roster around Westbrook?NBA: Playoffs-Oklahoma City Thunder at Houston Rockets

A lack of flexibility plagues GM Sam Presti, and the roster is filled with over-priced ancillary parts.

Extensions for Steven Adams and Victor Oladipo kick in this summer and for the next four years, the team will pay on average $46MM per season for two players who are unlikely to ever make an All-Star team. Enes Kanter, who saw a total of 45 minutes of playing time this postseason, will take home nearly $18MM during the 2017/18 campaign and Kyle Singler, who owned a paltry 5.9 player efficiency rating this season, will eat up nearly $4.7MM.

In all, the Thunder have roughly $110MM in guaranteed salaries on the books for the 2017/18 season against an estimated $101MM salary cap. The team owns the No. 21 overall pick in the upcoming draft and it will have the mid-level and bi-annual exceptions, as well as a trade exception worth approximately $4.9MM, available for use. Those tools don’t inspire much hope for an improved roster and with the team’s lack of flexibility, making substantial changes will require Presti to perform some wizardry.

2. Which of their own free agents will the Thunder retain?

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Five Key Offseason Questions: Chicago Bulls

Whether “Three Alphas” were too many or too few, this season didn’t turn out the way the Bulls hoped when they signed Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo to team with Jimmy Butler. After spending much of the year teetering on the edge of disaster, Chicago put together a late-season surge to claim the East’s final playoff spot.

Now the Bulls have to decide if they want to go through it all again. There’s no guarantee that Wade, Rondo or Butler will still be in Chicago next season, but there’s also a decent chance that they might all come back. If they do return, the Bulls need to spend the summer finding the right pieces to put around them, something that never happened this season. The other option is a complete rebuilding project, which some in the front office reportedly favor, but which Bulls fans may not be ready to accept.

Here are five key questions as Chicago embarks on an unpredictable offseason:

1. Is Butler a franchise player?JimmyButlervertical

It’s not often you hear an All-Star-level professional athlete get upset about a preposition, but Butler reportedly become angry when VP of basketball operations John Paxson said, “We are building with Jimmy right now.” Butler planned to make it clear in a post-season meeting with management that he is the type of player to build around, not just with.

Regardless of the wording, Butler is the key to Chicago’s future. He is under contract for the next two seasons at nearly $18.7MM and $19.9MM before entering an option year in 2019/20. So the Bulls can try to piece together a title contender, or they can trade him and start rebuilding. The Celtics, who may own the top pick in this year’s draft, were very interested last summer, as were the Timberwolves, who are run by Butler’s former Chicago coach, Tom Thibodeau.

The Bulls have a lot of dominoes that could fall in a lot of different directions this offseason, but the decision that will affect all others is whether to blow up the current team and take the best deal for Butler or keep him as the centerpiece to build around (or with).

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Five Key Offseason Questions: Memphis Grizzlies

The Grizzlies entered the 2016/17 season with high expectations, having hired David Fizdale to replace former head coach Dave Joerger and having locked up Chandler Parsons to a lucrative new four-year contract. However, 2016/17 looked a lot like 2015/16 for the Grizzlies, who increased their win total from 42 to 43 and managed to take the Spurs to six games in the first round instead of four.

In Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, Memphis has two cornerstone pieces, both of whom were at their best this past season, establishing new career-highs in scoring. But the Grizzlies have been unable to find the right complementary players necessary to take the next step — or at least have been unable to keep those players healthy.

Here are five questions facing the Grizzlies as they enter the offseason…

1. Can the Grizzlies count on Chandler Parsons to be a legit contributor?Chandler Parsons vertical

A year ago, the Mavericks decided not to bring back Parsons on a max deal, opting instead for Harrison Barnes. That decision raised some eyebrows at the time, but Dallas knew better than anyone that Parsons’ injury history was a red flag, as the Grizzlies saw first-hand during his first season in Memphis.

Parsons appeared in just 34 games for the Grizzlies in 2016/17, and even when he was able to get on the court, he struggled badly, shooting just 33.8% from the field and 26.9% on three-pointers. Both marks were career worsts by far.

Parsons was a career 38.0% three-point shooter before arriving in Memphis, and if he can regain his old form, he’d be an ideal threat on the wing to help take the scoring load off Conley and Gasol. But if Parsons continues to battle injuries, his contract – which is guaranteed for $72MM+ over the next three years – will be an albatross on Memphis’ cap, limiting the team’s flexibility to add other pieces.

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Five Key Offseason Questions: Atlanta Hawks

It was an up-and-down season for the Hawks, who kicked off the post-Al Horford era last fall by winning nine of their first 11 games, then losing 10 of their next 11. The team went through several more swings throughout the season, including dropping seven straight games in March while battling for playoff position, and ultimately fell to the Wizards in the first round of the playoffs.

There were some positive signs worth taking away from the 2016/17 campaign, including the development of Dennis Schroder, who improved many of his per-minute averages and his field goal percentage while taking on a significantly larger role. However, Kent Bazemore failed to make similar strides after inking a lucrative four-year deal, and notable free agent addition Dwight Howard grew frustrated with his role down the stretch.

Here are five questions facing the Hawks as they enter the offseason…

1. Which direction are the Hawks headed?paul millsap vertical

Back in January, Atlanta sent Kyle Korver to the Cavaliers for a future first-round pick and appeared ready to continue to trade players in contract years, including Paul Millsap. However, just days after moving Korver, the Hawks pulled Millsap off the trade market, telling him he wouldn’t be going anywhere.

Korver, a free-agent-to-be in his mid-30s, wasn’t a core piece for the Hawks, but he was still the sort of player who could have helped the team in a playoff series. As such, it was odd that Atlanta would deal him for a future piece and then decide to take a win-now approach anyway.

Coming off a two-year stretch in which its regular-season win total has dipped from 60 to 48 to 43, the franchise will have to be more decisive in determining which direction it wants to go this summer. Is this still a win-now roster, or is it time to take a step back and retool? Front office changes may help in that regard, as there were reports that GM Wes Wilcox and president Mike Budenholzer didn’t see eye-to-eye on the Hawks’ direction. They’ve both been re-assigned and won’t have as much say in personnel decisions, which raises a new question…

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Five Key Offseason Questions: Portland Trail Blazers

After a successful 2015/16 campaign that included a first-round playoff victory over the Clippers, the Trail Blazers kept their roster intact by retaining restricted free agents like Allen Crabbe, Meyers Leonard, and Maurice Harkless. However, those players didn’t take major steps forward in 2016/17, and the team’s outside free agent additions – Evan Turner and Festus Ezeli – failed to have the desired impact.

A mid-season trade for a first-round pick and Jusuf Nurkic, who averaged a double-double in his 20 games for Portland, was a slick move by president Neil Olshey and the front office, and helped the team earn a postseason spot. However, the Blazers were quickly dispatched by the top-seeded Warriors and will now head into the offseason with more guaranteed 2017/18 money on their books than any other NBA club.

Here are five questions facing the Blazers as they enter the offseason…

1. What moves can the Blazers to make to reduce their payroll?DamianLillard vertical

As detailed below, the Blazers currently have more than $133MM in guaranteed salaries on their books for 2017/18, which is a staggering amount, considering the tax threshold projects to be about $121MM. Standing pat with a roster that is set to go deep into tax territory after earning a No. 8 seed probably isn’t a viable option for Olshey, so trades will have to be considered.

The most obvious trade candidates on the Blazers’ roster are guys like Crabbe and Turner, whose 2017/18 salaries total more than $36MM combined. But coming off mediocre seasons, those players aren’t exactly hot commodities right now, and their long-term contracts would be viewed as a burden by most teams. Players in the $7-10MM range like Harkless, Leonard, and Al-Farouq Aminu would likely be more movable, but won’t exactly inspire bidding wars either.

Complicating matters is the fact that the Blazers won’t be able to take on much salary in return in any hypothetical deal, assuming their goal is to cut costs. That would rule out many over-the-cap teams as trade partners, and after last summer’s league-wide spending spree, there aren’t nearly as many teams this summer projected to remain under the cap as their were in 2016.

Of course, the two most expensive players on the Blazers’ roster are also two of the players with the most trade value. That leads us to our second question…

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Five Key Offseason Questions: Indiana Pacers

Coming off a 45-win season a year ago, the Pacers replaced head coach Frank Vogel with Nate McMillan and overhauled their roster, adding Jeff Teague, Al Jefferson, and Thaddeus Young last summer. The moves made Indiana a popular sleeper pick in the Eastern Conference at the start of the season, but the club struggled to perform consistently and finished with a 42-40 record. That mark landed the Pacers seventh in the East, which resulted in a first-round sweep at the hands of the defending champions from Cleveland.

Suddenly, the future in Indiana doesn’t look so bright, and the Pacers’ offseason kicked off with news that Larry Bird has decided to step down as the team’s president. The Pacers now find themselves at a crossroads. Here are five questions facing the club as it embarks on a crucial offseason…

1. What does the post-Bird era in Indiana look like?Paul George vertical

With the exception of the 2012/13 season, which he took off for health reasons, Bird has been the Pacers’ president of basketball operations since 2003. The team still has plenty of highly qualified executives in its front office, led by new top decision-maker Kevin Pritchard, but with Bird no longer making the basketball decisions in Indiana, the team’s roster moves may look a little different going forward.

For instance, reports around the trade deadline – and before that – suggested that Bird was strongly in favor of retaining Paul George and would do everything he could to lock up the star forward to a long-term deal with the Pacers. That report at the trade deadline indicated it was Pacers ownership that encouraged the front office to explore all its options with George.

With Bird no longer in the mix, will the team’s stance on George change?

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