NBA Bursted Bubble Pt. 1
The NBA is BACK! Except not for everyone. When the NBA season restarted on July 30th, the 22 teams still in playoff contention were invited to Orlando to compete in 8 final regular season games. But what about the remaining 8 teams that joined the rest of us as spectators? Well, as the saying goes, there’s always next year. As the NBA continues and those 22 lucky teams battle it out for bubble supremacy, we will take a look at every NBA team that met an early fate.
30. Golden State Warriors
15th in the West
Season Recap: The fall from grace hit hard for the Golden State Warriors over this past year. A season removed from their historic five year run, the Warriors had an uphill battle from the jump without both Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant, the former due to an ACL tear in the finals and the latter as a result of last year’s free agency. The situation went from bad to worse rather quickly as Steph Curry broke his hand early in the season and only played in five games. As a result, the illustrious Golden State Warriors looked more like the Santa Cruz Warriors, their G-League team, with a motley crew of rookies and developmental players led by the only remaining notable name from the Warriors of the past, Draymond Green. Their shocking acquisition of D'angelo Russell last offseason paid off immediately as he became a key component of the Curry-less Warriors, averaging just over 23 ppg and leading the team in assists throughout much of the season. He then led the Warriors to their post-Durant solution at small forward with a trade that shipped Russell to Minnesota in exchange for Andrew Wiggins and a couple of 2021 draft picks.
While it remains to be seen what version of Wiggins will show up alongside the revamped starting lineup, this move was crucial in setting Golden State up for the present as well as the near future. The Warriors never really found their stride this season, but looking ahead it appears as if the 2019-2020 season will be just a brief interlude into what has already become one of the greatest dynasties in NBA history.
Biggest Off-season Question: What will the Warriors do with their draft pick? Going into the second draft of the “anti-tanking” draft reform, The Warriors entered the lottery tied with the Timberwolves and the Cavaliers for the highest odds of receiving the first overall pick at 14%, before ultimately receiving the second pick behind the Timberwolves. However, the Warriors aren’t your typical lottery team. With the return of Steph and Klay, the Warriors could choose a more “win now” approach and target a more experienced veteran by trading that pick depending on how they feel about the prospects in this draft. If they keep the pick, they could choose to bolster their front court with the NCAA Player of the Year, Obi Toppin or Memphis big man James Wiseman, or head in another direction and add depth with players like Georgia star Anthony Edwards or Lamelo Ball. It remains to be seen what the Warriors will elect to do with a lottery pick that signifies an embarrassment of riches, but when you’re already set with Klay and Steph, there isn’t really a wrong answer to this decision.
Reason For Optimism: They’re still the Golden State Warriors. This season quickly became a lost one for the Warriors, but solid performances from young players such as Eric Pashall and Marquese Chriss provided a moderate level of interest for fans as they await the much anticipated return of the Splash Brothers. Combine this with established veterans (Draymond Green, Kevon Looney, Andrew Wiggins) and the second overall draft pick, and on paper it looks as if Golden State will be right back into finals contention next year in a star studded Western Conference. Even in seasons that are uncharacteristically bad for the Warriors of recent memory, they still find a way to come out on top.
29. Cleveland Cavaliers
15th in the East
Season Recap: Another season is in the books and the Lebron-less Cleveland Cavaliers continue their search for a way out from the bottom of the league. Since Lebron entered the league in 2003, the Cavs have a .621 winning percentage with 9 playoffs appearances and 1 ring to show for 11 seasons with Lebron. In the six seasons without Lebron however, they have a .294 winning percentage with zero playoff appearances. Last time they went through a stint at the bottom, Lebron was able to come back and save the day, leading them to four straight finals. This time, the organization will need to seek out the answers to their problems elsewhere. This season provided some promising strides for the organization, such as the development of second year guard Collin Sexton and the contributions provided by the rookie Darius Garland.
While these players need to continue to improve, specifically on the defensive end, they look to be solid pieces in the rebuilding going on in Cleveland. Garland ended up leading the team in assists and Sexton led the team in scoring at 20.9 ppg, including a career high of 41 points right before the league stoppage. The team also sought to ramp up rebuilding efforts via the trade market through the acquisition of Andre Drummond from Detroit in exchange for John Henson and a 2023 second round pick. This trade provides a prolific front court that pairs Drummond with Kevin Love, who signed a 4 year, $120 million deal to remain with Cleveland in 2018. While the Cavs never truly hit their stride as a team this season, winning just 19 games, the talent on this roster provides some sort of optimism for fans who want to return to Believeland, but more on that later.
Shifting away from the players, the Cavaliers also elected to make moves in the head coaching department for the third time in three years. This season was the first and last as the Cavs head coach for John Beilein. The former Michigan coach was hired last offseason as the successor to Larry Drew, but after a turbulent opening stretch of the season (including this), he stepped down in February to take a front office position with the team. He was replaced by longtime NBA assistant, JB Bickerstaff, who received a contract extension through the 2023-2024 season even though he was only able to coach 11 games before the league shut down. This season looked like the very early stages of an organization in rebuilding mode.
Biggest Offseason Question: Can the Cavs acquire star talent? While some may argue that the biggest question facing the Cavs is Andre Drummond’s player option decision, I argue that this decision falls under the larger question of acquiring talent. Drummond has already signaled that he plans to exercise that option and remain with the Cavs to reap the $28.8 million reward, so what does this mean for the rest of the roster? The Cavaliers have a lot of cap space tied into their starting front court, with Kevin Love signing a large extension in 2018 to add to Drummond’s salary. Drummond re-upping with the Cavs would leave them with significantly less financial wiggle room for a free agent class that isn’t star studded, but still has quite a few potential gems.
On top of this, will the Cavaliers be able to persuade big name players to spend some time in Cleveland? The organization has not been known for attracting big name players (besides a well-known Akron native) and their current roster isn’t the most inspiring for a player with a win now mentality. An interesting caveat to this discussion, however, are recent reports that have the Cavs making a run at Ben Simmons this offseason. Simmons just inked a 5 year, $170 million deal in 2019, so he isn’t a free agent, however there is belief within the Cavs organization that they have the right pieces to acquire Simmons through a trade.
While the Simmons-Embiid tandem hasn’t worked out quite like many had hoped, Philly would still be expecting a pretty sizable return for the rising star.
This could include an assortment of draft picks as well as some young talent. The Cavs could also include Tristan Thompson in a sign-and-trade in order to free up cap space to allow for Simmons’ contract, but even then it may take Drummond opting out to make the cap work out.
Reason For Optimism: Starting Lineup. The Cavaliers do not have a perfect roster by any means, their starting small forward is Cedi Osman, their defense is last in opposing field goal percentage and they do not generate turnovers, and they’re near the bottom of the league in points per game. However, aside from Osman, their starting lineup has potential if surrounded by the right pieces. Drummond should be a solid addition on both ends. On offense he averaged just over 17 ppg in the eight games he logged with the Cavs and on defense, he has made a living in the NBA by being a prolific rebounder and shot blocker. He has led the NBA in total rebounds four straight seasons (2015-2019) and he has a solid history of finishing in the top 10 for total blocks in a season.
Aside from Drummond, Kevin Love has tailed off a bit from the prime of his career, but still boasts respectable point and rebound totals. The issue here is his inability to finish a regular season. Only one time in his 12 year career has Love played more than 80 games, and that was his rookie season. For him to make his contract worth it for the Cavs, he needs to consistently be on the floor to provide stability for a team searching for an identity. A lineup consisting of Sexton, Garland, Drummond and Love should be good enough to yield improvement in the coming seasons, but they need to address their wing deficiency in this offseason, especially with how small and defensively challenged the Garland-Sexton backcourt is. I don’t believe they’ll be in the playoff conversation during the 20-21 season, but in a very top heavy Eastern Conference they have the opportunity to claw themselves out of the bottom of the league if they play these next few off seasons right.
28. Minnesota Timberwolves
14th in the West
Season Recap: Let’s take a moment to return to November 27, 2019 for a moment. I know it feels like a lifetime ago for a variety of reasons, but that is especially so for the Timberwolves. On November 27, things were looking up for Minnesota. They held a 10-8 record, and while that isn’t anything astounding, it had them on a good track to fight for the 8th spot in the west. Andrew Wiggins seemed to be figuring out this whole NBA thing and emerging as a consistent contributor for the Wolves, leading the team in scoring in 10 out of the 18 games played to that point. Things were pretty good in Minnesota… and then they weren’t. After November 27, the Wolves went 9-37 leading up to the season shut down, which included losing streaks of 11 and 12 games.
Minnesota responded by undergoing a complete overhaul of their roster that left Karl Anthony-Towns and Josh Okogie as the only remaining players from the year prior. They started by trading Jeff Teague to the Hawks in January. Then they sent Robert Covington to Houston as part of a 4 team, 12 player trade that resulted in them receiving two first round picks, Malik Beasley, and Juan Hernangomez. That move also shipped off Jordan Bell, Keitha Bates-Diop, and Noah Vonleh. They capped their busy transaction period by officially throwing in the towel on the Andrew Wiggins era on February 6, when they traded him along with a 2021 first and second round pick in return for D'Angelo Russell, Jacob Evans, and Omari Spellman.
After a hectic month that was capped by the trade deadline, the Minnesota Timberwolves were a completely different squad. As a result, the Wolves currently have one of the youngest and least experienced teams in the league, proof of a full rebuild. D'Angelo Russell and KAT haven’t made it a secret that they’ve had the desire to play with each other since they went 1 and 2 respectively in the 2015 draft, and now they have the opportunity to do so on a Wolves team full of potential.
Biggest Offseason Question: How will Minnesota draft? This draft will prove to be a crucial one for the Wolves. They have the first overall pick for only the second time in franchise history (the first was back in 2015 when they selected KAT). They have three picks inside the top 33, including two first round picks (acquired the Nets first round pick as a result of the 4 team trade) and with minimal cap space they need to make wise decisions on draft night (something that has plagued them in the past).
ESPN’s latest mock draft has the Wolves selecting Lamelo Ball with the first pick, Jalen Smith out of Maryland with the Nets’ pick at 17. Looking at the first pick, Lamelo would be paired with D'Angelo Russell in the Minnesota backcourt, which would certainly add to the star power that the Wolves already have, but it wouldn’t do any favors for their already atrocious defense. With the 17th pick, the selection of Jalen Smith would be addressing a need at forward that the Wolves should look to fill this offseason. Smith isn’t likely to be a cornerstone player of a team, but he shot a respectable 37% from three last season and with a 7’2 wingspan and great timing, he’s an excellent shot blocker, which pairs nicely with the offensive addition of Lamelo.
The Timberwolves could potentially trade out of these spots, but unless they receive an offer they cannot refuse, I don’t envision them moving from the one spot. Another potential idea would be trading their later first round pick in the hopes of acquiring a veteran that could help lead this young squad. This would allow them to fill a hole with an established vet since they won’t have much of a free agency, while also allowing them to still acquire a top level talent at the beginning of the draft. While it remains to be seen how the Wolves handle their draft capital, it does feel like they need to nail this draft in order to set themselves up for the next several years.
Reason for Optimism: KAT and D-Lo: together at last. While there is still much to figure out with the rest of this roster, the Timberwolves have found their young cornerstones to build around for the years to come. The real life best friends since high school have finally found their way on their same team after years of public admiration for one another. The two became acquainted in high school when they faced off against one another (Russell getting the better of Towns in that one) and have since shared a close friendship with one another. Now after almost five seasons into their NBA journeys, the two are finally able to attempt to translate that chemistry onto the court.
They briefly played together last season, as the Wolves were able to get 12 games in with the new duo before the March shut down, but with a full offseason under their belt and time to cultivate a roster that compliments the two franchise players’ strengths, the NBA world will finally get a chance to see what these two best friends can do in Minnesota.
27. Atlanta Hawks
14 in the East
Season Recap: The Atlanta Hawks came into the 2019-2020 season with optimism for the future. After a 29-53 finish the season before, the expectations were not to set the world on fire, but to continue to grow into a contending team down the line. This approach makes sense when you look at the makeup and cap space of their roster. Aside from the ultimate Vet Vince Carter (we’ll miss you, Vince) and the newly acquired and reunited Jeff Teague, the Hawks finished this season with only one player that has over 5 years of experience in the league (Dawayne Dedmon- 6). That means the bulk of Atlanta’s key contributors are young and on their first contract in the league, including Trae Young, John Collins, Deandre Hunter, Kevin Huerter, and the list goes on.
This season was never meant to be the big Hawks turnaround that they believe they can achieve down in Atlanta, but it is clear that something special is brewing. Trae Young built off his tremendous closing stretch of the 2018-2019 season and finished this year averaging nearly 30 points per game in just his second season. He did this while increasing his true shooting percentage and bumping up his assists to 9.3 a game. His performance on the defensive end will need to improve for him to be considered one of the league’s best, but as far as franchise cornerstones go, the Hawks look like they’ve found theirs for the next decade or so.
Beyond that though, John Collins built upon his impressive second season in the league by averaging a double-double on the season after serving a 25-game suspension and rookies Deandre Hunter and Cam Reddish proved to be worth the high draft picks as they fit in smoothly throughout the season. The team also added some nice pieces near the trade deadline, acquiring Clint Capela from the Rockets to provide much needed help down low, and Jeff Teague from Minnesota, who returns to Atlanta after spending time with the team from 2009-2016. While this season may have seemed like another disappointment, the Hawks look like they have the building blocks to be a threat in the Eastern Conference, eventually.
Biggest Offseason Question: Will John Collins get his extension? The Atlanta Hawks come into this offseason with money to spend, around $43 million to be more specific, but it remains to be seen what they’ll spend it on. The 2020 free agent market is setting up to be a weaker one than in recent years, with top target Anthony Davis likely to remain in Los Angeles.
Beyond that there’s a handful of talent with player options (Demar Derozan, Gordon Hayward, Andre Drummond) and players that will be hard to pry away from their current teams, such as Brandon Ingram. It also doesn’t appear to be in Atlanta’s best interest to target these big name guys, according to Hawks GM Travis Schlenk, “What we’d like to do, ideally, is add guys to our core that we feel like are still growing, maybe not 20-year-olds, 21-year-olds like we have, but maybe guys in their mid-20s who still have room to improve and are maybe coming off their first contract,” So unless the Hawks drastically overpay for some players that fit this profile, they should have the opportunity to add some depth without breaking the bank.
This leaves us with John Collins. The third year player out of Wake Forest has made it clear that even though he’s not a restricted free agent until next season, he wants to have a deal worked out “sooner rather than later” and believes he has earned a sizable contract. Collins has certainly earned a massive pay day, becoming one of the league’s best big men in his young career, but it remains to be seen how the Hawks decide to prioritize their wealth this offseason. With Collins already making his feelings clear, the last thing the young Hawks can afford is a disgruntled and outspoken big man if a deal isn’t worked out this offseason.
Reason for Optimism: Young Core + Cap Space. Regardless of what is done this free agency, the Hawks look like a promising and exciting team of tomorrow. Added depth is necessary, but they have a great starting point with so many young and exciting pieces, plus the 6th pick of this year’s draft. It appears as if they will approach free agency rather cautiously and grab some people that slip through the cracks, which will enable them to address in house needs, like Collins’ and Trae Young’s future contract extensions, while hopefully adding some helpful pieces to their bench.
The mix of draft capital, their young core and potentially the most cap space in the NBA allows for the Hawks to control their own destiny, now it remains to be seen if they can make the most out of this opportunity.